RPGaDay2021 #4: Weapon

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Weapon.” The first thing that popped into my head when I saw this word is “Oof, how about the other words?”; the second thing was “to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

There are so many tabletop RPGs that have the characters carry around weaponry. When you think about that, isn’t that quite strange? Think about your daily life—how many people do you see actively carrying weaponry around? Unless you’re in the U.S.A., I would imagine hardly anybody beyond police officers. Around here, even then I don’t often see much beyond pepper spray. The closest I would come myself is a little swiss army knife I keep in a pocket in my backpack, which I would see as a tool that could potentially be used as a weapon, rather than the other way around. Yet, in our tabletop RPGs, quite often, our characters walk around in full battle gear constantly.

A setup like that predisposes players to think of violence as a reasonable solution to problems, which is something I don’t like. As I wrote yesterday, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a tactical combat game if that’s what you’re going for. Conan The Barbarian is still one of my guilty pleasures, both the novels and the movies (but not the 1997 show that was edited into a movie . . .), and sometimes it’s fun to play out a power fantasy like that. I’ve been meaning to look into it, but I suspect much of the enjoyment in that comes from the representation of a post-capitalist world: a world where you are beholden to no one but yourself where you can self-actualize and provide for yourself on your own terms. Incidentally, post-capitalist does not necessitate post-market economics, so there’d be no incongruency in buying and selling items and so on. Anyway, that’s an idea I’ve been meaning to work out properly, but I fear a project like that would turn into a whole PhD thesis!

Coming back around to the point of this post, I’m charmed by RPGs that don’t frontline physical violence, like Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, or Ryuutama. Physical violence may happen in the games, but it wouldn’t be the natural and unavoidable end-point of a situation. It’s similar to why I thoroughly enjoy Burning Wheel, as the main terms used there is “conflict” rather than “combat”. While physical altercations are more to be expected in Burning Wheel than the other examples, the game isn’t orientated towards it. Rather, it’s a game about passion, drive, and goals, and what people will do in pursuit of those goals. It acknowledges that words are also weapons whether they are wielded in a political arena or in a personal relationship. Much like that swiss army knife I carry, though, those words can be used either as a tool or a weapon.

What makes Burning Wheel so poignant to me is how all its various mechanics click together. Verbal conflict via its Duel of Wits system has little to no risk of direct physical harm (assuming the Dual of Wits is not your character’s defense during their murder trial, or somesuch thing). The Fight! mechanic, however, carries a high risk. While character death is relatively difficult to achieve (but not outlandish), severe injury is quite close by whenever swords are drawn. Any hit from any weapon can result in a severe wound that will drastically and dramatically change a character. So, as a result, Fight! mechanics are high-stakes affairs that players are encouraged to treat similarly to violence in real life. What makes this click so nicely is how it ties in with the Let It Ride principle in Burning Wheel: once the dice are rolled and a test is made, that’s it. No re-rolls. The matter has been decided. No testing again for the same thing. Of course, you don’t have to test for the same thing. If your character couldn’t win a debate in the pub, you could always resort to throwing fists. However, you’d be upping the stakes (and getting yourself thrown out of the pub).

Of course, you could do this narratively in most games but what Burning Wheel does well, in my opinion, is that it mechanically encourages these considerations. Character advancement in Burning Wheel comes from Artha, which are points awarded for acting on your Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs) (roughly said: statements made about what your character wants, does, and is). The host’s job is to challenge those BITs and confront the players with the question: “how far will you go for what you believe in?”. It’s always a question of what weapon your character will take up to fight for their beliefs, but it’s not a question of what physical violence they will enact on others. Rather, the question is what values weigh against each other, and how to navigate these safely.

I’m planning to host a game of Burning Wheel soon, and I hope I can show these amzing parts of the game to the players well enough. Burning Wheel is a tricky beast, but once it really clicks, it can be amazing.

RPGaDay2021 #3: Tactic

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Tactic”. Although it would have been very interesting to write about either “Risk” and “Support” in regards to tabletop RPGs, I’ll stick to the spirit of the rules and take “Tactic” as my prompt for the day; after all, it’s about stimulating us all to write about things we wouldn’t normally write about, and if I start choosing the topic, I’ll end up with some bias in my topic selections.

As much as I can harp on Dungeons & Dragons for being a tabletop combat boardgame about murderhobos, I do enjoy that game for what it is when I feel like playing exactly that. The most fun I’ve ever had with that is in Pathfinder while I was DMing the Kingmaker adventure path. Incidentally, that is now available as a PC game, which I’ve enjoyed playing through. Another adventure path, Wrath of the Righteous, is also coming out as a PC game soon.

D&D changed radically from its 3.5 edition to the 4th edition, and not everybody was happy about the direction Wizards of the Coast was taking (4th edition was even more boardgame-like than 3.5 was), so Paizo decided to work onwards from 3.5 and retool that system into Pathfinder. Currently, Pathfinder is in its 2nd edition. The group I had back then (this would have been about a decade ago or so) met up religiously on Friday evenings, and we had been doing that for years. Our previous DM had burnt out on DMing, so I had taken over. I’d run some campaigns for them, the most notorious of which was a World of Darkness campaign, but as I was going into my MA degree, I had much less time to devote to DMing, so I turned to adventure paths. That worked nicely for the group as well, as they wanted to play something more like a powerfantasy as well.

The way our previous DM ran D&D 3.5e was always very forgiving: many enemies were intentionally not too bright, and there was never a real risk of losing your character as there’d always be some kind of way out. What I was proposing for my group was a much different style of gameplay. If they wanted Pathfinder, that combat-orientated boardgame of murderhobos, then I’d give them combat-orientated gameplay. We all agreed that I would be pulling out all the stops. I wouldn’t be out to kill them and of course not every enemy would be a tactical genius, but enemies would be using their skills as best they could and I wouldn’t be pulling any hits. Wolfs would hunt like packs, and while a lowly bandit might break and run, the bandit captain would certainly remind the melee fighters to surround the spellcasters and the rangers fighters to attack the hand-to-hand fighters from a distance. Once the bandit captain would be out of comission, sure, things would devolve. In short: I made sure to give them a real challenge.

Some of their first characters died quickly and easily, but the tone around the table was usually exhilarated. Everything was risky, and they had to work together as a battle unit to survive the world that was out to kill them. My players started to get creative, too: rather than the usual “throw fireballs until it dies” approach, suddenly there were buffs and debuffs, entangling spells, attempts to flank, and debates on who to take out first and who to leave behind. The battles became Conan-esque struggles between good and evil, and every victory bolstered the players while every defeat had them planning out revenge.

All this provided wonderful contrast to the city that they were building in the campaign. As dangerous as the outside was, the city was their slowly increasing sphere of control and safety. They worked to bring the allies they’d make outside into the city, and a sense of camaradery grew within the fiction, as the players and NPCs worked towards safety.

For that type of game, the Pathfinder/D&D-style games, I love the tactical combat of it and enjoy leaning heavily into the strengths of the system. It almost makes me want to pick up Pathfinder 2e to see what’s going on with that.

RPGaDay2021 #2: Map

Today’s RPGaDay default prompt is “Map” ( there is a ‘roll 1d8/2’ mechanic to get one of four options).

I enjoy the look of maps that look a little dated and hand-drawn, like the famous map of Middle Earth:

They remind me of the medieval T-O maps, which looked like the one below:

Most maps today are used for navigation, so we expect them to be accurate and precise. We’ll navigate to Google Maps in order to know exactly where to travel past, how far that is, and how long it will take for us to get there. We expect it to represent exactly the path we traverse in small. T-O maps, on the other hand, were not maps to navigate by but rather maps to indicate what the world looked like. The east was positioned at the top, because in medieval Christendom, Jerusalem was at the top of the world, and Jerusalem was to the east of Christendom, i.e. Western Europe. Maps, as you can see, can be a political message in and of themselves. (Incidentally, this may be one of the sources of the mistaken belief that “people” used to think the earth was flat—it’s been common knowledge that the earth was a sphere since antiquity).

This is also true for the map most of us will be familiar with, which is one using the Mercator projection. While this is a map used for navigation, this map also distorts the reality of our geography, because we’re trying to fit the surface of a sphere onto a flat rectangle. As a result of the Mercator projection, the surface areas of regions farther away from the equator are distorted to be larger than they are, which creates quite a shocking effect if you look at the difference between actual size and Mercator projection size:

For clarity: the smaller sizes are the more accurate surface areas of the regions, as they really are on the surface of our globe.

There too, you can see a political message, as in most languages “big” is taken as a synonym for “important” (think, for example, of the expressions “you’re going to make it big!”, “big things are in store for you!”, “big things are about to happen!” and so on). In the case of our geography, you can see how this exaggerates the relative size of Westernized countries as compared to equatorial ones.

Now, what does all this have to do with RPGs? To me, this shows that maps and representations are important to the story you’re trying to tell. The very shape of the map itself will transmit a strong message to players. Have a very detailed map with measurements and a five-foot grid marked in inches on it, and you’re clearly communicating that this will be a miniatures-focused battle map for an encounter, for instance. If you have a map that shows every tiny little detail, then it suggests that each of these things might matter, or might be relevant.

Personally, I love that style of map that the Middle Earth image above shows. It gives some details by letting you know where forests and mountains are, but it keeps things vague as well; where, for instance, does Rohan stop and Mordor begin? We can assume that mountain range, but you can’t exactly be sure. Is the distance between the north and south of the map equal to the east and the west? It doesn’t really matter – just know that the rough shape looks like that. In fact, if you look at where the details and specificity of the map is, combined with the rough shape of the map, you can see what its singular message really is: there is a path from the Shire to Mordor. Without saying that, the map communicates exactly that. Everything around the places relevant to the story are vaguely handwaved to or omitted altogether.

That, to me, is also the best type of map to use for RPGs. The details are not particularly important. It’s similar to J. Michael Straczynski’s comment when asked about the inconsistencies of the travelling capabilities of the starships in Babylon 5: they travel at the speed of plot (the actual quote is quite hard to find, but it’s repeated frequently and has not been debunked as apocryphal). What RPGs bring to the table (sorry-not-sorry for that pun) is an imaginative space to explore interactions in. So, much like a T-O map, I prefer to tell players what the places are that they’re interacting with rather than precisely where they are. A place 13.4km to the north is not as interesting as a place that’s through a dark and twisty wood. A week’s travel away is dull; a week’s slough through a desolate wasteland is a risk. An exact map of a port tells you what it looks like but letting the players know that it’s “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” tells you exactly what to expect.

Any map that you present to players in whatever form isn’t a picture, it’s a collected set of ideas.

RPGaDay2021 #1: Scenario

As in last year, this year August is the month of RPGaDay, where everybody is encouraged to write about positive experiences with RPGs every day for the month. This year as well, I’ll be trying this challenge! In 2021, the first word pompt is “Scenario”.

For me, a scenario is a short set of individual play sessions that come together into one smaller story arc. RPGs can consist of grand campaigns, which are large story structures take take many individual sessions to complete. Often, these are built up out of smaller adventuressizeable stories that have multiple parts and take some work to go through. Below that structure, I would personally place scenarios (let’s not go into overcorrected plurals like scenaria or scenarii), which I see as individual short stories that can combine together to become an adventure. Below this, I would put an actual individual session of play, though narratively those often aren’t enclosed by strict beginnings and ends more than the real-life timeframes of play.

Nowadays, scenarios are my favorite size of RPG play. I used to love the grand sweeping RPG stories as a player. I think fondly of the months I spent with friends, meeting weekly to play through the grand campaigns thought up by the DM. These days, however, I have an odd love/hate relationship with such longer sessions. I do enjoy playing RPGs but I also feel restricted at times by the obligation it imposes on my life. Much more than the days of my youth, I sometimes just don’t feel like socialization on that schedule, and I’d like to just bow out for no other reason than wanting to binge-watch a thing, just read a book, or play a videogame. Scenarios are, for me, the perfect solution to this issue. I can commit to three or so sessions of gameplay, after which I know I can bow out without having to renege on a promise.

Lately, I’ve been feeling stimulated by a friend of mine who’s currently running a Torchbearer scenario to run something myself as well. I haven’t really run anything myself in years, but it might be time to take one of the bunch of ideas I have in a notebook and work that out into a scenario for play. I mean, if it suits the player side of my experience, surely it should also work for the hosting side, right?

Improv Rules in RPGs

In a recent post, I made an argument for playing flawed or regular characters in RPGs, and when thinking back on it, I realized that I missed part of the process in that post. Specifically, I realized that, without consciously doing so, I’ve been using a “yes, and” rule from improvisational theatre (which, incidentally, I’ve never actually done myself, because I dislike performing). I listen to quite a few podcasts, and so many of the ones I listen to feature comedians who either explicitly discuss the “yes, and” rule or embody it during the prodcast. I surmise that purely by osmosis, some of that must have trickled through to my RPG experiences.

The essence of the “yes, and” rule in improv comedy is to go with the flow. Don’t contradict what the other person in the scene is doing, but rather go along and build on it. Hence, “yes” to affirm what is going on, as well as adding on to what was said by going “and”. Of course, there’s nothing to say you can’t use that to put an interesting twist on what’s happening, but that’s a whole different story.

I certainly don’t do this as much as I should do, though. A while back, I played in a playtest of a module that a friend of mine released, which was a lot of fun. However, between sessions, a friend of a friend was added to the roster of players, jumping in midway in the game. I don’t know her that well yet and after the session, I realized I didn’t support her the way I would have liked myself to have done. She were trying to portray a caring character who would de-escalate situations. Our two characters were in a situation where her character was doing exactly that, and I had my character committed to escalating things. Rather than have her character take the spotlight, which I think I should have done there, I threw my own character in the mix which essentially blocked her intention. A “no, but” rather than a “yes, and”, I’d say.

At other times, I do run with what I’m given by the other players. I realized that I use their statements as a randomizer, as it were, for my character development at times. I prefer to go into an RPG game without a character in mind–I’ll see where the character ends up through play. At times, I realize I’ll do this in a “yes, and” sense. If one of the other players assumes my character is a scaredy-cat then, sure, they’re a scaredy-cat. If they’ll ask me whether the character is a woman, then sure, she’s now female. Obviously, this only works when characteristics haven’t been set yet. Essentially, though, I’m trying not to play the same thing repeatedly, and using other people’s thoughts and ideas about my character is a great way to not following standard thought patterns.

As I mentioned, it’s not something that I’ve been doing very consciously, so perhaps it would be good to experiment with that a little more to see if I can avoid a situation like the one I described a little above. So far, I’ve always found that encouraging others to be awesome results in more awesome all around.

#RPGaDay2020 14: Banner

When I was growing up, it was still considered a little weird to play RPG games. We’re now at the stage where playing videogames as an adult isn’t particularly weird (though it’s not fully mainstream either). Fortunately, the Netherlands never reached the Satanic Panic-levels of the US either. Basically, it’s a bit of an odd hobby, that people aren’t necessarily too familiar with unless they were already introduced to it.

I don’t think I’ve ever introduced anybody to gaming. Usually, I get into my groups as friends of friends bring along others, and so on. Most of them have played something or are familiar with it at least. I’ve played with the younger brother of another player before who wanted to give it a try, but then again he also already roughly knew what was going on.

Nevertheless, I think it’s good to hang out the nerd banner every once in a while. I’m not particularly running around the office with gaming shirts (I chair committees at a local uni, so gaming shirts are not really on-brand there), but if the conversation comes up with colleagues, I won’t shy away from it either. It is odd, though, having to consciously pick who to talk about it to. Most people in education, or at least the set of faculties I operate in, aren’t quite up with pop culture.Sometimes, I suspect that people in IT sectors might have an easier time with this sort of thing.

Either way, while I won’t hang out the RPG tabletop-gaming banner at work, I do my best to represent it as a normal hobby whenever I can.

#RPGaDay2020 13: Rest

Downtime moments in RPGs have been a thing I struggle with to depict properly. I wrote before about how I enjoy sessions where you deal with the things that matter directly to the plot. In my opinion, character development should happen during gameplay in response to interesting conflicts. However, sometimes those conflicts are between characters while they’re unwinding together. These scenes can be interesting, as well as good motivators for future action in the game. On the other hand, at times they are also massive wastes of time.

I find it hard to strike the balance there. I’ve had scenes where the players are just sitting around chatting in-character about random stuff. For my personal tastes, this leans too much into the simulation side of things. Sure, your characters would do that, but I’d much rather have a player tell me “Okay, my character and hers spent the night chatting away and bonding over childhood stories”. That lets me know the crucial points of what’s happening, while skipping over two people doing comedy improv for fifteen minutes.

To figure out where that perfect balance is between skipping over fluff and allowing for interesting character conflict is a tricky one that I’m still working on, and one that also depends on each group and each individual player. Some people just want more chatter while others want more storyline.

#RPGaDay2020 12: Message

I am convinced that every RPG and every individual RPG adventure has a central message. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that every author or GM explicitly creates a message in everything they do, but I would argue that whether or not we intend it, we imbue everything we do with meaning. That’s why I would argue to work consciously towards a message, and to be conscious of what unintended message ends up in your work.

An example of this is in the published early drafts of (edit: see his comment below) an adventure of a friend, entitled The Secret of Cedar Peak. I know this person to be accepting, progressive, peaceful, and considerate. Yet, unintentionally, due to the cultural structures all around us all, his module inherited some of the troublesome colonialist themes inherent to D&D:

Capybarbarian’s tweet from when he learned about the troublesome nature of D&D, and realized that his own adventure unintentionally inherited that same problematic theme.

This is what people mean when they say things like “The Patriarchy”—it’s not some secret group of men sitting around a table in a dark room, lit ethereally from above, as they plan out a system of oppression. It’s a massive construct of cultural products (movies, TV shows, novels, games) that all keep carrying the same message at the core. These messages aren’t the style where JD clearly voices the theme of this week’s Scrubs episode, but they are the messages that are hidden in plain sight. The type of messages of 90’s sitcoms, where the overweight, highly unsociable and outright unlikeable male character has a amazingly conventionally beautiful wife whom he treats terribly, yet she loves him terribly, accepts his faults, does all the work around the house while taking care of the kids. It’s so common to each product, that we don’t even see that the real message underlying these shows is “men don’t have to treat women well, and they all deserve a woman to serve their needs”.

The insidious nature of these messages, as my old uni prof would say about religion in the Middle Ages, is that they are so ubiquitous as to be invisible to the eye. He’d explain to us that for us largely secular group of students, the religiosity of medieval writing was Christianity slapped in our faces (insert “turn the other cheek” joke here), but a medieval reader wouldn’t even notice it. He then did something that stayed with me for all these years: he pointed out all the advertising in our room. I had never seen it before. Suddenly, I could see all the logos on shirts, backpacks, laptops, phones, the room’s projector, a poster on the wall. Everywhere there was a logo, a company name, or a slogan. And suddenly, there was capitalism all around me, with a message everywhere I looked trying to tell me to “buy, buy, buy”. There was a consistent set of messages all around me all the time that I had never seen before, because they were everywhere for as long as I could remember.

After two years of cultural analysis, you end up feeling like Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live. Although while he was still the hero of an action movie, powerful and totally in the right, we remain human—vulnerable to making the same mistakes over and over. Years after coming to understand feminism as a white man, I still realized that I was interrupting women more than men during meetings. Behaviors like these are ongoing struggles. They’re simple but not easy to consistently get right. I still remember fondly delving into postmodern theory. You’d read somebody’s analysis, and it’s so convincing and well thought out. It really seems like the author has solved the problem they were working on. And then you’d read a postmodern analysis, where a philosopher and cultural analyst succinctly and expertly illustrates how the first author completely undermines their own point not in words but in how and what they wrote.

That’s why the burden is on us, constantly and consistently, to be aware of the messages we put out there. It’s also on us all to accept that we’re learning and growing human beings. Messages can sneak into our work that we don’t intend to have in there at all. So, it’s up to us to take action when we see this in ourselves, and to accept it when it happens to others. It’s why I appreciate Capybarbarian for bringing out that message himself, and within the span of just a few weeks he worked on it and changed this: resolve the issue (edit: see his comment below for my inaccurate description of events).

Fortunately, Capybarbarian worked quickly to resolve some of these issues! Just under a couple of weeks’ work for somebody doing this on the side is really speedy.

I admire the work he’s put into it, and the guts it takes not only to just put himself out there to publish something but also to correct it when he sees something wrong with it change course when needed (edit: see his comment below for corrections on my earlier inaccurate depiction). It’s why I recommend having a look at his module The Secret of Cedar Peak.

#RPGaDay2020 11: Stack

I used to own a literal stack of RPG books. I’m not kidding, once when I moved apartments, I stacked them together and covered them in a blanket to create a makeshift chair until I got furniture. However, the more books I had, the fewer games I seemed to play. It was interesting having all these books, and referencing different ideas and genres to bring things into other games. However, most ended up being unused and just taking up space on my bookshelves.

So, somewhere last year, I did a purge. I looked at each of my RPG books and decided which one I actually wanted to play. I ended up with just a handful of RPGs that I kept, and the rest a friend of mine took over from me. It feels a bit Mari Kondo, but I have to say it does feel a lot better to have only those RPGs that I really click with.

#RPGaDay2020 10: Want

I enjoy games that come with some baseline direction, whether that’s through the game itself (like, for instance, My Life With Master), or through buy-in during a Session 0 discussion with the group.

Back when I was DMing Pathfinder, the group I was running it for was very much for the murder-hobo style of play. What they wanted was to get XP to get to higher levels, so they could complete their build (which some of the people there had worked out from level 1 to 20 before even the first session), and they wanted gold to buy new equipment for their characters. Essentially, they just wanted to play Diablo 3 around a table. That was their basic want that drove both their characters and them as players.

For me, however, that led to less enjoyment of the game itself. The result of that is highly callous characters. The characters’ main motivations at that point are greed and a lust for power, which skews the characters’ actions towards a lack of concern for the world and the characters in it. As always, if that’s the game that everybody chooses to play together, then fine; however, that wasn’t necessarily the game I wanted to be playing.

For me, a central want is crucial for an interesting character. And for an interesting group, there should be a shared want. I’ve run a game for a group whose characters all wanted separate things, which meant that all their characters invariably ran off on their own to do their personal things. The game, however, was centered around preventing doom for the city they lived in by preventing a cult from completing their work. The result, however? The characters ended up in conflict with each other (the players were having a great time having their characters squabbling amongst each other, though!) and in the end they neglected the actual plot advancing. I’d set it up as an actual timer of certain key events, and well, the timer ran out!

Experiences like these taught me how important it is to have that Session 0 talk with a group. Everybody needs to be on board to play the same game, by which I mean theme, genre, goals, and plotline. My Life With Master, for instance, is great when it comes to that. You play a Minion who will be breaking free of the Master at the end of one (possibly two) sessions—great clarity. Together with the players, you make the Master, so that everybody understands what their threat is. The mechanic for the final resolution is also clear, because it’s directly determined by a set of statistics on the player’s character sheet. Does a player want their Minion to become the new Master at the end? Okay, lean into that! Do you want your player to have a good live? Sure, work towards it!

Understanding everybody’s wants—both players’ and characters’—gives you a much greater chance at enjoyment in your games.