#RPGaDAY 2017: Days 16-20

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Another five days have gone by, so another five answers are due for RPGBrigade’s RPGaDAY 2017, a wonderful opportunity for those of us in the tabletop RPG hobby to discuss the things about this particular subgenre of gaming that we love so much. We’re in the thick of things now, so let’s get to it, although feel free to check out last week’s set of answers too.

August 16th: Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

As it turns out, I don’t run a lot of games “as is”. Part of that is that I’m a game designer, and as a result I like to tweak and fiddle and bolt on my own parts to games that I run. I also tend to like a particular style of play, a theater of the mind over a sort of granular timekeeping. As a result, I’ve thrown out a lot of the more tactical elements of games I play, like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars.

As a result, games I like as is tend to be games that are very small, games where the design is so focused that I don’t want to meddle with the few moving parts. So, I’ll turn to the first of two microgames built by Grant Howitt that will be mentioned in this post (the second being Doctor Magnethands, below): Honey Heist.

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That picture above is the entirety of the rules of Honey Heist (which are available here), and a good portion of it is just random generators for GM aid. Honey Heist is a pretty dumb game where characters only have two stats: BEAR and CRIMINAL. You play a team of bears trying to overcome the fact that you are bears to perform an elaborate, Ocean’s Eleven style theft of a massive stockpile of honey.

The thing about Honey Heist is that it’s so simple, but all of the moving pieces contribute to this wacky, nonsense game of bears trying to do sneaky, high-precision thief stuff, despite being, you know, big lumbering bears. It’s instantly learnable, the rules are both funny and intuitive, and there’s no need to monkey around with the rules. In fact, I usually only play with a single houserule: whenever your bear’s hat is knocked off, everyone in the scene is instantly aware that you are a bear. I mostly include that houserule because it has fantastic implications about what everyone thinks when you are wearing a hat.

Small games tend to have few moving parts, but those parts can be so tightly focused as to do a lot of the heavy lifting in making a game come alive. Thus, when playing a small game like Honey Heist, I don’t know that I’d change much at all.

August 17th: Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played?

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I think I’ve owned Hero System for about…probably seven years now? I’ve leafed through it, but honestly I’ve never actually given it a full read-through.

The reason why this book has been collecting dust on my shelf is multi-layered. First, and perhaps most damning, is the fact that I kind of don’t like the superhero genre that much. Don’t get me wrong, I go see the year’s big Marvel movie in theaters every year, and certainly enjoy the genre as a whole, but it never really grabbed on to me in sort of the viral way that fantasy or sci-fi does, where it just inspires me to build and create and tell stories.

My favorite superhero movies are all pretty solid evidence of this. Were you to put a gun to my head and force me to list my favorite superhero movies/series, well for one thing, you’re a crazy person, but this would probably be my list.

  • Captain America: Winter Soldier
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Spider-Man Homecoming
  • Big Hero 6
  • One Punch Man

There’s a trend in that list, and it’s that everything I named isn’t necessarily just a superhero movie, but rather a take on the superhero genre, or the superhero movie blended with another type of movie. Winter Soldier is as much a spy thriller as a superhero movie, and the same could be said of Guardians and space opera. Spider-Man Homecoming could be described pretty accurately as “if John Hughes directed a superhero movie” and Big Hero 6 is “what if Pixar did a superhero movie (again)”. One Punch Man is a satire on the entire shonen and superhero genre, flipped onto its head. If I extended this list, probably everything I’d list would continue to be twists on superheroes: Watchmen, Mystery Men, The League of Extraordinary GentlemenUnbreakableKick-AssHellboy. All distinctly weird.

Not that Hero System can’t handle that. I feel comfortable saying that Hero is flexible enough to handle any of these without having read it due to A) the reputation the game has within the RPG community, and B) the fact that it’s the size of a fucking calculus textbook.

Therein lies the second reason I have yet to crack into Hero: it’s a goddamn enormous, and it sets out to provide a degree of granularity which makes any sort of superhero or superhero story possible, but it does so by being as crunchy as gravel. So, maybe I’ll run Hero someday, but until that day, I think I’ll stick with my usual superhero game of choice, Wild Talents.

August 18th: Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

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My Fantasy Flight Star Wars group is the longest-running tabletop group I’ve ever had, now just past the year and a half mark, and thus, Fantasy Flight Star Wars is the game I have played the most. I know, I’m a young whippersnapper.

I think this answer also echoes the way I play games of any sort in general. I’m antsy, I like to jump around quite a bit. I have some friends who go deep into the video games they love, playing them an ungodly sum, be it Mount and BladeLeague of LegendsEternal, or DOTA 2. While these friends have a four-digit amount of hours in these games, my most played game is probably Team Fortress 2, and summing all my hours across platforms together gets you probably in the ballpark of 300 hours, and that took 12 years to do.

Rather, I like to play a large variety of games, frequently switching my interests from wildly disparate games. Just this summer alone, I bounced from the fast-paced gameplay of Overwatch to the slower exploration of Prey to the tightly-paced narrative of The Last of Us to the confounding nonsense of Deadly Premonition, all while sprinkling in a bit of Rocket League along the way. I just don’t stick to one game for very long.

This goes for tabletop RPGs as well. Since starting this Star Wars group, I’ve frequently overridden my own plans for Star Wars games to run other things, from playtests of my own games to Colonial Gothic to Cypher System. My brain is just constantly generating ideas, and unfortunately I lack the willpower to resist them forever, so while I’ve played a lot of games, I probably haven’t played them very long.

August 19th: Which RPG features the best writing?

Doctor Magnethands, bar none.

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Doctor Magnethands is “a stupid game for drunk people” that’s available for free on the internet, because you can’t put a price on idiocy. In it, players play a rag tag party of possibly heroes but probably nonsense who are out to save the world from Doctor Magnethands, a mad scientist with horseshoe magnets for hands who speaks with, and this is a direct quote, “a sort of bad Dutch accent”.

While only two pages long, Doctor Magnethands is written in this amazingly personality-filled tone that feels like the writer is telling you these rules as you sit across from each other at a house party, probably while someone’s crappy trap mixtape is playing. Take this excerpt, for example, which describes how you use torn up bits of paper that people wrote on to describe your character:

“Draw four each. One of them is your identity, unless you didn’t draw an identity, in which case you should make one up. (In one game a woman played Downton Abbey for the whole thing; we had to set entire scenes inside her. I think she managed to have an affair with a priest at one point) These four pieces of paper build your character. Look at the stupid shit written on them. How are you going to use these? Is that name an alter-ego, an enemy, or an ally? Do you want another drink? Yeah. Yeah you do. Get me one as well.”

Doctor Magnethands is one of the few games I wouldn’t mind just forcing the players to read, because it is so goddamn funny to read that just doing so is a treat unto itself. Personally, my favorite bit is the last line, in the Special Thanks section, in which is written a single word: “Wine”.

August 20th: What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

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If you don’t live in an area where used bookstore Half Price Books has taken root, and you love tabletop RPGs, I feel bad for you. A chain of stores specializing in secondhand merchandise, from books and comics to movies, CDs, and even vinyl, Half Price Books is a fantastic place to find obscure, out-of-print, and just sort of odd books.

Since the stock of Half Price Books is majority used, it means that whenever groups give up playing certain games, upgrade editions, or (gasp) end up giving up the hobby, Half Price Books is usually pretty lucrative as a place to find old tabletop games. If you’re particularly observant, you can also use it as a metric to measure what games are popular around you. Whenever I visit locations in Austin, for example, I can usually find a lot more GURPS material (understandable, Steve Jackson Games is based in Austin) and TSR-era Dungeons and Dragons. Dallas, meanwhile, tends to have a lot of modern-era Dungeons and Dragons, as well as a lot of Warhammer rulebooks.

As the name implies, Half Price Books usually sells used books for massive discounts, making it a fantastic place to find older tabletop materials. My entire collection of 2E and 3.5 rulebooks, as well as most of my Shadowrun books, some of my Star Wars and Pathfinder books, and a variety of smaller systems, some of which I’d never heard of, were all finds from Half Price Books, for pretty reasonable prices!

I’m lucky to live in Texas, as it is the main hub state for Half Price Books, but if anyone is in an area that has a location, and you love books of really any sort, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s especially good if you just wander in and look around with an open mind, trying to find something cool you’d never heard of. You can also shop their online store, which compiles all of their locations’ inventories together and offers them at reasonable prices.

#RPGaDAY 2017: Days 11-15

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Another five days have passed, another five prompts to answer! Let’s do it, nerds! For the fourth year in a row, RPGBrigade brings us a month’s worth of prompts to discuss and, in the process, think about and celebrate this great hobby! So, let’s get to it. If you wanna check out the last batch of answers, they’re right here.

August 11th: Which ‘dead game’ would you like to see return?

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Started as a weird 4chan project to make a Neon Genesis Evangelion tabletop RPG, the original creators have abandoned this game after the release of the third edition, which is a damn shame. Evangelion is a fantastic franchise, and I think one that is positively perfect for tabletop play. There’s a heavy emphasis on inter-party conflict, as well as on character growth and development. There’s exciting action, but action that varies from encounter to encounter. Maybe you’ll be diving into a volcano one week, and the next you’ll be performing a synchronized dance with your allies, or trying to bust your way out of a giant dimension sphere. It’s great!

Alas, Adeptus Evangelion is currently on ice, and they finally broke free from the Dark Heresy rules and started to build their own system, and I really want to see what a well-designed system built from the ground up to run Eva looks like.

August 12th: Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?

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How about an RPG I literally just bought because the interior art inspired me?

Farflung is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that aims to explore science fiction at the fringes, where anything is possible. It’s the end of time, and characters can be, well, it seems like anything. From space-faring gods to emperors to simple explorers, it certainly seems like if you want sci-fi, and the kind where all of the science is explained away with “it’s the future, fuck it”, Farflung seems like your jam.

And, man, the art works for that.

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The very vibrant art is filled with character, with emotion and character, and with style. It emphasizes a very specific kind of sci-fi, the kind where you go on the grandest of adventures and meet kings and gods and decide the fate of planets and discover ancient secrets. It reminds me of Space Dandy and Hitchhiker’s Guide and a bunch of other sci-fi I love.

August 13th: Describe a game experience that changed how you play

Reading Dungeon World.

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I think that, even if you don’t intend to play any Powered by the Apocalypse games, owning one of the ones that’s really full of good GM insight, namely either the eponymous Apocalypse World or Dungeon World is absolutely mandatory. (Before I start any fights, I feel similarly about OSR games).

Dungeon World has a lot of astonishingly good GMing advice, and general good game design concepts, bound together. And, sure, a lot of it is just retreading the road paved by Apocalypse World, but Dungeon World was my first experience with the subgenre, and it was eye-opening.

Fronts. The idea of leaving the questions of your plot open-ended and discovering through play. Establishing Bonds between members of the party. Letting the fiction lead you forward. Dungeon World is an excellent guide on how to GM any game with any semblance of story, any concept of world.

August 14th: Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

My answer is going to be a bit skewed, since I’ve never actually been able to run a sandbox game, even though I direly wish I could. So, here’s a bit of a weird pick.

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Yes, dread Pathfinder! The great tangled mass of the 3.X D&D rules, an unholy abomination of sourcebooks upon sourcebooks. How, pray tell, could I pick this game?

Well, Pathfinder‘s glut of rules content also, in my eyes, makes it a prime candidate for sandbox play! Your players can construct any manner of character that they want, given that the game has, like, 40 classes, each of which can be specified using any number of archetypes.

This goes both ways, too. As a GM, it’s easy to construct enemies from scratch using this robust class system to create distinct, thematic enemies. Sprinkle in enemies from the game’s seven or eight Bestiaries, pull from the massive amount of modules and adventures written for 3.X, and add in optional rules from the numerous sourcebooks available and, viola, you have a library of components you can use to assemble each and every asset of a fantasy world.

August 15th: Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

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Monsters and Other Childish Things is, in fact, the only game I’ve ever properly worked to adapt, not counting whole rules schemas (like Powered by the Apocalypse). Normally, my designers’ mindset has me just whipping up new rules sets for game ideas not easily handled by existing games.

However, as I wrote an entire blog post aboutMonsters is a fantastic game for use to run a game of my favorite anime, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and so I immediately began adaptation once I had the idea.

#RPGaDAY 2017: Days 6-10

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We’re continuing my runthrough of the #RPGaDAY challenge, hoping to get some interesting discussion going about the prompts set forth in this fourth annual challenge, to celebrate this awesome hobby! I posted my last batch of answers on the 5th, so let’s get to it today, August 10th.

August 6th: You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do!

Well, I have seven days of gaming to fill. I already game two days a week, so we’ll fill in Sunday with the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG game I’m running, and Wednesday with the Shadowrun game I’m running for a different group. Since, as I mentioned last week, that Star Wars group also has a Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition game running concurrently, let’s schedule that for Monday.

Now I have four more days of gaming to fill in! I think Tuesday I’m going to run a one-shot, specifically the Westworld one-shot idea I had, where players won’t know who’s a person and who’s a Host until someone decides to get into their guts and find out.

Now, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are free, and while the temptation to run three more one-shots is strong, I’m instead going to run a…three-shot, I guess. A three-day game, or more accurately, a trilogy of games. Specifically, I want to run a system that I would hypothetically have finished designing at this point, a game called Camp Glacier Peak. It’s a horror game, designed to evoke the “group of teens versus murderous evil” vibe of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Each day would feature a different group of teens at a different time versus the same ancient evil, with one session’s lone survivor potentially becoming next session’s veteran savior of the teens, or crazy old crackpot who turned out to be right. I think it’d be dope.

August 7th: What was your most impactful RPG session?

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I was, god, probably like 13? The system was Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.

I had this great campaign hook set up for my friends. They’d discover this hermit in the woods was methodically hunting down members of a royal family they’d be contracted by. With some investigation, they’d discover that the hermit is in fact a lost son of the family, and the family had been cast down from nobility after a majority of its members turned into vampires. With this, lost brothers would reunite and try to reestablish themselves in the capital city, bringing the party along as their lead executors. This would lead to a variety of amazing adventures spanning the globe, leading to the resurrection and destruction of an ancient god.

When my party was breaking in to the hermit’s cabin, he spotted them, and asked what they were doing. The party ranger shot an arrow at him, critted, and instantly murdered him.

Remember, your players have as much say in your story as you, and you should never expect them to follow the story you expect. Instead, write your games open-ended, and figure out where things go through play. Or else your vampire hunter prince might take an arrow to the eye.

August 8th: What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?

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hollowpoint is like if Fiasco was written by Quentin Tarantino. A quick story game, hollowpoint is about, by its own description, “bad people killing bad people for bad reasons”. It’s a game designed to quickly emulate massive amounts of violence as your characters become whirling dervishes of death, performing their dark deeds for a nefarious purpose before they probably get cut down in a hail of gunfire or something.

hollowpoint is goddamn ridiculous, reminding me in equal parts of the Crazy 88 fight in Kill Bill: Volume One, the environmental kills in Sleeping Dogs, and, weirdly, this extremely bullshit scene for the criminally underrated Nicholas Cage hit Drive Angry in which Cage’s character smokes a cigar, pulls from a bottle of Jack Daniels, has sex with a bar waitress, and murders a bunch of dudes at the same time. It’s very good.

August 9th: What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?
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I don’t necessarily think Mutant: Year Zero plays best at 10 sessions, but I can easily imagine having a good campaign in ten sessions’ time in this game. Mutant: Year Zero is a story about a group of mutants trying to keep their ramshackle town alive after a nuclear apocalypse, exploring the wasteland and trying to find some sort of mythical utopia called the Ark.

Character advancement doesn’t really strike me as one of Mutant‘s focuses, making it easier to do a small campaign without feeling like your character never reached their full potential. The presence of a built in end goal (finding the Ark) easily allows me to envision a 10 session campaign running sort of like a season of a Mutant: Year Zero TV series.

Session one, introduce the world, the town, and the characters. Sessions two through eight, deal with episodic problems that your colony faces (public insurrection, mutants, other colonies, nuclear weather, whatever), and slowly sprinkle in hints to the location of the Ark. Sessions nine and ten, your characters go out and find the Ark, exploring it. Maybe it is great, but maybe it leads to a greater mystery. Complete the campaign having accomplished your goal, but maybe leaving it open ended for a sequel. Who knows?

August 10th: Where do you go for RPG reviews?

Uhhh, I don’t usually read straight-up reviews, instead opting to watch Actual Plays to see how the game runs, and try and get a feel for how the game works at the table. Sort of the same way I’ve eschewed reading most game reviews in favor of watching people like TotalBiscuit and Giant Bomb just play the game.

When I do watch reviews (because I usually watch them, not read them), I’ll go to one of two people: Questing Beast or Runeslinger. Questing Beast is definitely neck-deep in the OSR scene, a scene I’m not super familiar with, but I trust his opinions and the stuff he finds is really cool (he got me in to Dungeon Crawl Classics), while Runeslinger has a bit more of a varied palette, but his extensive history with the hobby means I trust his opinions to be rooted in precedent and in experience.

Sorting My Library (and, An Accidental Review of Ninefox Gambit)

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I own, just, a fuckton of books. It’s been a bad habit of mine since a young age, one which has basically only become worse as my childhood allowance became the tips from my college bartending gig, which has since become the big boy paychecks of my corporate programming job. I simply own too many books, even after multiple boxloads have been taken to Half Price Books (which, for the unaware, is a godsend of a store for bibliophiles in the American South).

So, with this in mind recently, and thoughts of moving in the near future in my head as well, I decided to do something about it, and in the process, really spend some time thinking about the way that books exist in my life.

With this goal in mind, I have decided to enact what I’ve decided tentatively to call The Purge. The goals of The Purge are simple: read more books, trim down my collection of books, and to build an increased pool of inspiration from which to pull while making games.

So, the terms of The Purge are these three rules:

1. To purchase a new book, I must first read 5 books

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F’in’ A, time for more “person reading” stock photos

The first rule of The Purge, and the key foundation upon which this whole system works, is that I must immediately limit the amount of books coming into my home, such that they do not outpace the amount of books that I’m reading and, hypothetically, selling and getting out.

Five is a semi-arbitrary number. Reading five books should, I think, take me about a month, and if I had to guess, I’ll probably get rid of two in five (more about that later), meaning that my collection will shrink over time with this rule in place.

The other nice thing about this rule is that it directly pairs my book purchasing rate with my book reading rate. I get to keep buying a ton of books, so long as I’m also reading a ton of books, and that makes sense.

2. If I can’t finish a book in one go, it is immediately sold

I have quite a few books on my shelf that I started and just stopped at some point, for some reason, perhaps because I lost motivation, perhaps because some new shiny distracted me, or what have you. No more. That represents lost productivity and time, because you know if and when I go back, I’ll have forgotten everything and have to restart from square one. For the purposes of working through my backlog, and in the interest of keeping my desire for new books satiated through rule 1, this cannot happen.

So, harsh as it may sound, if I’ve started a book and just, for one reason or another, cannot finish it without starting another book in the meanwhile, that book gets added to the sell pile. It should be noted that I can take pauses from reading a single book, but the second I pick up another book instead, that first book is done. This rule is designed to be flexible enough for life: sometimes I might just not want to read, or I’ll have something else I’d rather do, and that’s not the book’s fault. However, if I do get in a reading mood, and I end up reading something else, well, that is the book’s fault, and away it goes.

3. After finishing a book, I must genuinely consider whether or I want to keep it

I am neither of the opinion that holding on to a read book is useless, nor of the opinion that I should hold on to every book I read. Rather, I consider a shelf full of books a sort of trophy case. When looking at a book on the shelf, merely reading the spine is frequently enough to evoke memories of the story, of the characters, of the cool ideas contained therein.

I work in a naturally creative field, one which encourages pulling from as many sources as possible to create novel ideas. Books are profoundly useful towards this goal, as each can encapsulate so many ideas, making them ripe for the creative plunder. Having a bookshelf full of books serves as a fantastic reminder of all of these ideas, allowing me to quickly recall the ideas worth using or reworking in each book.

So, once I finish a book, I have to consider what purpose it has on my shelf. Is it full of ideas I find inspiring? If so, keep it. Is it just, generally, a useful resource (such as a book of mathematics, programming, or algorithms)? Then, yeah, that stays too.

There’s a metric that has maybe been meaningfully absent in this measure of whether a book stays or not, and that’s if the book is good.

This is to cover two cases that would be detrimental to my cultivation of a good, useful bookshelf. The first is the case of a book that is definitely good, but doesn’t really do anything for me. This is the way I feel about The Chronicles of Narnia series: it’s good, seminal even, but the world it portrays and the characters and the ideas all sort of just bounce off of me. I’m not likely to be pulling from Narnia anytime soon, but if I decided to keep good books, it would sit on my shelf pointlessly, instead of potentially making its way to someone who’d genuinely appreciate it on a greater level than I do.

The second case is equally detrimental, and it’s the case of a book that I didn’t quite enjoy, but contains interesting ideas that I might want to pull from. I have a much more recent example of this, the book I just finished, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit.

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Ninefox Gambit is about as ambitious as sci-fi gets. The world is set up as unmistakably alien, as the fundamental forces of mathematics and physics are not constant, but instead, can be manipulated through what are called “calendars”: strict regimens upon which this entire society is based. For certain sci-fi technologies to work, certain calendrical effects must be enforced, meaning people must follow certain rules, perform certain rituals, even celebrate on certain days and, controversially, torture sacrifices in certain ways.

It’s an astonishingly interesting idea, one which plays with the idea of reality itself being formed as a matter of consensus, not just the perception of it. It’s a sci-fi portrayal of the concept that the fundamental structures of society can affect the people who live in it, and of the friction that occurs when people of differing lifestyles interact. For the hexarchate in Ninefox Gambit, when a heresy breaks out in the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a key border outpost of the empire, a declaration of war is not merely an act of xenophobia, it is a necessity, as the defensive systems on board the station will literally not work unless cultural norms are reestablished.

While this world is, ultimately, fascinating, Lee absolutely makes no attempt to try and give readers a frame of reference, a commonality with which to understand these things. Instead, Lee just charges forth, hoping that you’ll be able to use context clues to piece together very loose language into a cohesive understanding of the world, and sometimes, it’s simply very easy to completely lose grasp of what’s happening. I had to reread pivotal scenes of the book, scenes I could tell were supposed to be extremely meaningful moments, simply because I didn’t understand what was happening.

Despite all of this, Ninefox Gambit will have a place on my bookshelf for the forseeable future. The gusto with which it abandons the familiar in favor of creating a truly alien world, the way it uses this far-flung sci-fi to discuss very real, human ideas, and the sheer imaginativeness of the characters, technologies, and societies of the book are the equivalent of a creative barrel of gasoline, fuel that I can burn to power new ideas for years to come.

This sense, that creative fire, is what I hope to cultivate in my bookshelves through this Purge. By the time I’m “done” with this (which, of course, is a fool’s errand, but I will march forward as best I can), I hope to have shelves of books that no longer taunt me with how few of my books I’ve actually read, but rather that spark inspiration within me on days where I have none. I want to have shelves of books burgeoning with memories and ideas and creativity, to serve as a monument to the creative field as a whole.

Those books that I relinquish, meanwhile, will make their way to a used bookstore, where maybe they will wait, until a bibliophile of different tastes than mine shall discover them and read them and be inspired by them, for while everyone is, in my opinion, an engine capable of great creativity, to continue the metaphor, each engine just runs on different fuel.

 

 

#RPGaDAY 2017: Days 1-5

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#RPGaDAY is a fun social media challenge that’s been running for four years now, inviting members of the online tabletop RPG community to answer a prompt a day every day of August, thus getting people to just write about why they love the hobby, inciting conversations, making friends, and just to get everyone thinking about the hobby.

I’m kinda cheating, because instead of flooding my Twitter feed and everyone’s RSS feeds every day (and also writing every day), it works far better for my schedule to respond in clumps of five, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do, starting today, August 5th, with the first five prompts!

August 1st: What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?

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Actually, a lot, but to pick just one, for the moment, I’m going to pick Gumshoe, because it’s the one most unlike anything else I’m playing or designing right now. Gumshoe is a mystery game designed under a key observation: finding clues is very rarely the interesting part of mystery games, and it’s almost never interesting to not find a clue. Instead, Gumshoe guarantees investigators to be able to find clues, so long as you know what skills you need to be looking with. Find a body? Use your medical knowledge and immediately find out cause of death. Find some mysterious plant particles? The group’s botanist can immediately rattle off what it is.

While this sounds like a gimme, the crucial observation Robin Laws made was that the interesting part of a Sherlock Holmes story isn’t him rummaging over a crime scene going “I dunno, something’s gotta be here”; it’s him, playing with all the clues in his head, piecing them together logically to solve the mystery. My keeping the pace of the game going by guaranteeing clues, Gumshoe lets players keep going and get to the interesting part: solving the case.

I have 2 Gumshoe games I want to run, each very different, and I can’t wait to get this game to table. Plus, the SRD is free, so anyone interested can take a look!

August 2nd: What is an RPG you’d like to see published?

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The super sentai genre has always had a very solid place in my heart since watching Power Rangers religiously as a child, then discovering Kamen Rider later into my adolescence. The basic genre structure, a group of cool teens gain the power to transform into suited superheroes to fight villains in a monster-of-the-week format, helped to inform a good deal of my storytelling and aesthetic tastes in the superhero genre that not even the best Marvel movies could ever shake.

The problem is that it’s hard to adapt super sentai to a tabletop RPG. The structure is, generally speaking, pretty repetitive: teens have teen problem, monster shows up, teens beat monster, (optional monster grows section for Power Rangers), teens solve teen problem. Despite plenty of fistfights and explosions, the main characters are never really at risk, and there’s a ton of filler fights with garbage enemies that would be super boring.

But at the same time, the genre is so open outside of the codified tropes that super sentai can apply to anything. Power Rangers have been cops, ninjas, samurai, and wizards, and Kamen Riders have been vampires, time travelers, ghost hunters, and my personal favorite, two people sharing a single body.

There’d definitely be some work to do to get the feel just right, and to keep the game interesting, but there are dozens of genres and stories that would be so interesting to experience through the lens of super sentai that I’d love to see this made.

August 3rd: How do you find out about new RPGs?

I’d say I find out about new RPGs two ways. The first is when I just happen across them, which usually happens while I browse either Twitter or /r/rpg. Someone will mention a game in a thread I’ve never heard of, and I’ll go look it up, think it looks cool, and either add it to a wish list or buy it outright. I’ll also discover stuff because it gets put on Bundle of Holding, an excellent PWYW bundle service for RPGs. It’s also just a fantastic way to build up a usable PDF library of games you find interesting.

The other way I find out about RPGs is when I seek them out, usually because I have a campaign or game idea, but don’t know any systems that would run it well. In this case, I’ll post Reddit threads, scour RPGGeek, and also see recommendations for running franchises or ideas similar to my idea, until I come across a new game that fits what I’m looking for. My two most recent RPG purchases came this way: In Dark Alleys, a horror game modelling a character’s spiral into corruption as they discover the unknowable evils lurking in the shadows, and GURPS, because I couldn’t find anything that did what I wanted well, and I went “Fuck it, GURPS it is.”

August 4th: Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016?

It’s close, but because I don’t feel like counting days, I’m gonna call it a tie. My main gaming group alternates between two campaigns on a weekly basis, one I run, and one run by another GM.

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The game I run is Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG. It’s an amalgamation of all three games in the line, and a campaign I started as I was learning the rules. It’s a bit of a mess rules-wise, as some really neat subsystems ended up falling to the wayside (the Obligation/Duty/Morality system, notably, but also some of the cooler things like the item rarity rules) and some other modifications I made more knowingly (a combination of the group’s newness to RPGs and my hate of tactical combat led to an abstraction of the combat rules), but boy we’re having fun with this. I’ve written all about why I like this game, but this is maybe one of my favorite campaigns I’ve ever run.

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The game which I’ve been playing in is good ol’ Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, specifically the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure path. I’m, I dunno, a bit more lukewarm about this? I like the group, and I like the DM a lot (his ability to really play the individual characters I’m pretty jealous of, and is a goal I’m working towards), but I think Princes of the Apocalypse might just be really boring? The plot is kinda boring and very tropey, but I think I’m having the most friction with 5E’s character creation? I just feel very funneled into specific archetypes, and my attempts to worm my way out of those just make me feel like I’m being punished by becoming “suboptimal”. Oh well, I like the group and love the DM, so I’ll press on with a new character.

August 5th: Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?

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I was between this and third edition Shadowrun, but I had to pick World Wide Wrestling. The complete ridiculousness of every wrestler in frame, the action, the impact you feel from that folding chari, plus the silhouette of the woman in the crowd. “Look, Greg, Johnny Atomic is choking out the Human Flame! And Iron Maiden just hit Boy Stardust in the face with an electric chair! The ref looks pissed! This is awesome!” Considering the focus World Wide Wrestling puts on wrestling as a performance, rather than an actual battle, this works perfect.

Bonus round! What game cover worst captures the spirit of the game?

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Oh my god, look how serious everyone is! There are skulls and spikes and brain-cables everywhere, and you look like some sort of British admiral/space king? What a serious game!

That’s funny, because every story I’ve ever heard about Rogue Trader makes it sound like Dipshits In Space, as the extremely grimdark setting eventually goes up its own ass in every campaign until the whole group is just wielding absolute authority in the dumbest possible ways. Allow me to treat you to a selection from this /r/gametales story told by /u/Draz825:

“After visiting an Imperial pleasure world, he [the captain] ordered corridors converted into canals throughout the ship, in order to better use his speedboat for water skiing. This actually came in handy when a rival ship attempted to board us and suddenly found themselves drowning.”

Centralized vs. Decentralized Complexity

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Magic: The Gathering is very bizarre in its massive influence upon game design as a field. As one of the most successful and long-running tabletop games since, I dunno, chess, Magic has been played by tens of thousands of people across the ages, harboring a unique appeal due to its complexity. Magic is a tactician’s wet dream, with an uncountable amount of strategies to adopt and invent. You can win a game of magic by just summoning comically strong creatures, by using relatively simple effects as the centerpieces of combos, by taking advantage of methods to cheat out strong cards without paying the costs, or by just playing an unreasonably large deck.

And yet, new players are still pretty regularly coming into Magic, drawn by the game’s popularity and the promise of exciting gameplay. This is in spite of the fact that the game’s official rules are 200 goddamn pages, and features chestnuts like this:

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Magic players knew what this would be a picture of without even having to look

The secret is that Magic is not difficult to learn initially. The core gameplay loop of Magic is fairly simple, all things considered. Untap your stuff, draw a card, tap some lands, play some stuff, make guys fight, tap some more lands, play some more stuff, end turn. With some very minor hiccups (usually surrounding how blocking works), learning the fundamentals of Magic is, all things considered, pretty easy, if you already have a bit of experience learning board games.

The difficult parts of Magic‘s rules come from outside of the core rules. It’s the individual card keywords, limited to a few cards from a few select sets, that introduce the bizarre and perhaps unintuitive rules. Sure, maybe Ninjutsu requires a more nuanced understanding of how combat works, but it’s on 10 cards from 1 set. Maybe the decision on when to take the +1/+1 counters versus Servo tokens for a creature with Fabricate is a complex tactical decision, but if that’s overwhelming, just don’t play the 14 cards that use the keyword.

This leads to my point: Magic has decentralized complexity in its design. The core fundamentals of Magic, the bits that are present in every single game of it and are essential to playing the game, are pretty easy to pick up. You can understand the entire turn structure, the color wheel, combat rules, all of the card types, and a bit of basic strategy in, I would guess, an average of about 1 to 2 hours. The lion’s share of complexity lies in a bunch of components that, while part of the game, are not essential parts of the game, in particular cards and keywords. By the simple fact that Magic decks are built by the player before the game begins, a player gets to pick and choose what complexity they deal with.

A new player, or perhaps just one who doesn’t like dealing with complex decks, might go for an intuitive strategy: summon the big smashy creature and make them smash things. Throw a bunch of fireballs at your opponent’s face. Just gain so much life that whittling you down to zero becomes a chore. Experienced players, or those who want to interact with the game at a more technical level, can run decks which operate on that more technical level, complex decks like Eggs or, my personal favorite, Oops, All Spells.

Of course, a single player can only control half of the cards they see in a game of Magic. Their opponent, after all, might have built a complex deck while the player opted for a simple one, or vice versa, but I actually think this is the part of Magic‘s decentralized complexity most applicable to all games. Because a single game of Magic can only feature a limited number of cards (decided by players’ choices in deck construction and limitations of the format being played), and only a subset of those cards will be in play at any one time (well, unless you’re playing a very stupid game of Magic), even though the player could run into mechanics or strategies they are unfamiliar with, they are only encountering a small subset of the mechanical possibility space at a time. By playing game after game like this, discovering the game one deck at a time, what would be an extremely complex game to learn piece by piece is easily absorbed in bite-sized chunks.

Compare this to one of my favorite board games, Archipelago.

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While I love this game to death, I positively dread having to teach it to a table of new players every time. Archipelago is a banner holder for centralized complexity. The most complex parts of the game, the parts from which the strategy and interesting mechanical interaction arise most of the time, are the fundamental actions taken over the course of the game. Buying and selling on the foreign and domestic markets, moving your characters, harvesting resources, bartering with your fellow players, and dealing with worker insurrection are all essential to the game; every player will perform all of those actions every game of Archipelago. For a player to understand the game at a base level, they have to understand all of these actions, that that leads to a pretty big wall that players have to surmount in order to start meaningfully playing.

So, the downsides of centralized complexity, and by inverse the upsides of decentralized complexity, are fairly apparent: decentralized complexity makes it easier for new players to start your game, and ultimately lets you build extremely complex games knowing that your players can digest that complexity in pieces, rather than as a whole. It can add a sense of discovery to a player’s process of learning the game, as they discover new concepts and rules, and it also lets you build an extremely modular experience, much like Magic. However, centralized complexity must have upsides, too, or else you’d think designers would stop designing games in such a mode?

Well, for one thing, centralized complexity gives the designer a bit more control over gameplay as a whole, and lets them focus the experience. The original Coup, a tight bluffing experience with only 5 types of cards, is an extremely refined experience, with interactions designed to create a tense, paranoid play experience, from the relationship between the Contessa and the Assassin to the discord sowed by the Ambassador or Inquisitor to the bullying brought about by the Captain. Coup: Rebellion, the sequel which allows players to swap identity cards in and out from a pool of 25, can vary wildly. Sometimes it recaptures that tense paranoia of the original, sometimes it devolves into brow-beating militarism if the card pool is too aggressive, sometimes it’s too easy to gang up on people and beat them down without fear of repercussion. Some combinations of cards in Rebellion surpass that of the original game in terms of interesting, but others dip far below it by being boring, or by simply not offering anything unique.

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Archipelago was a game designed with an extremely tight experience in mind, the experience of putting players into the logistically crushing and emotionally dulling role of a colonial authority. By centralizing its complexity, the game ensures that this experience happens every game. Since the design guarantees that all of these complex components are going to be in the game, every game, each is tailor made to heighten this experience by playing off of one another. The worker rebellions cause stress on the local and foreign markets, which in turn can force players to work their workers even harder to recoup the lost materials, which can just make the next worker rebellion even worse. This feedback loop couldn’t exist if any one of these components was modular or optional.

Furthermore, centralized complexity ensures that once your player has learned the game, they’ve learned it, tip to tail, and their mental capacity in regards to the game can be dedicated solely to strategy. With a game like Magic, you are, at bare minimum, learning new rules interactions every time a new set comes out. You constantly have to readjust your understanding of the rules, which means you’ll have to constantly readjust your strategies. On top of that, if you don’t play for a while and come back, that need to learn is just compounded as you “catch up” with the game. Meanwhile, once you learn Archipelago or Coup, you learn those games, and every play experience after that can be solely dedicated to play and to strategizing, instead of learning. If I don’t play Archipelago for a while and I come back later, I don’t have to “catch up”. Once I shake the rust off, I can get right back into the game.

Obviously, neither centralized nor decentralized complexity is the “right” answer, and a designer should carefully consider which mindset to adapt in building a game. When well done, a game with decentralized complexity can last forever, constantly adding in new elements to make the game fresh without overwhelming new players, like Magic. Centralized complexity when well done, however, can live on forever by allowing players to strategize with the same game components ad infinitum, allowing masters to use a small, common pool of mechanics in novel ways forever, like ArchipelagoCoup, or even chess.

The Devil You Don’t: Hidden Antagonists As A Game Design Concept

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I feel like few people have hated me quite like my freshman year roommate in college, who we’ll call Fred. You see, Fred’s bedroom was situated directly in between my bedroom and that of our third roommate, an old friend of mine who we’ll call Nate. The walls in UTD’s dorms were paper thin, and while normally this meant you’d hear your roommates doing the horizontal mambo or just blaring trap music real loud, in Fred’s case, that meant that he heard me, at 2 AM, screaming obscenities and rapidly oscillating between glee, terror, and fury, every night for about a month. And he heard the same thing coming from Nate’s room as well.

The reason for this was the fact that Nate and I, as well as a fair portion of our other friends, had gotten very into a gametype for Garry’s Mod simply called Murder. The rules of Murder are fairly simple: every player is thrown into an enclosed space, their names replaced with NATO callsigns. One person is secretly selected as the Murderer. They are given a knife which instant-kills everyone it hits, and the task to, as the name indicates, murder everyone in the game. The rest of the players are bystanders, and except for a gun randomly given to one of them, they are completely unarmed. Their goal is to find and kill the Murderer. Of course, all weapons can be hidden, so the Murderer’s identity is unknown unless you see them, y’know, murder someone.

Murder is a pure distillation of a game design concept I’ve commonly heard called “hidden antagonist”. The concept is fairly simple: a small number of players is designated the “antagonist”, and are set up against every other player, with their lack of numbers made up for by the fact that team labels are not public information, leaving all players left guessing as to who is “innocent” and who is an “antagonist”. Hidden antagonist games are unfortunately uncommon in video games (although the concept has had great success in Garry’s Mod gametypes, between Murder and the extremely popular Trouble In Terrorist Town). The concept has, however, been a common mechanical concept in tabletop games for decades.

It’s understandable that hidden antagonism is popular in board games, because its strength as a mechanic aligns well with the strength of board games as a whole: it is something that feeds off of the creativity and individuality of your players, rather than limiting them. When I play hidden antagonist games with my friends who ended up in political science and government, the games are often rife with alliance-forging and silver tongued-deals, with fearmongering and blatant lying at the helm as players attempt to win via Lord of the Flies-style groupthink manipulation. Other friends of mine will simply keep to themselves, allowing paranoia and tension to rip apart the innocents without needing to lift a finger. Others yet will adapt a scorched-earth mentality, operating under the assumption that the antagonists’ identities are meaningless if simply everyone is dead.

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Wipe that smirk off your face you smarmy shit

Hidden antagonism is the rare game mechanic which feeds heavily off of social cues, meaning that its particular manifestation is as varied as, well, social situations themselves. Maybe Dave just killed Greg in cold blood because Dave is the murderer, or maybe because Greg was a murderer, or maybe just because Greg yells really loud in the Skype call when he gets murdered and Dave thinks it’s really funny. Not to mention the fact that this game mode relies heavily on lying, and simply trying to figure out when your friends are lying is a tried-and-true mechanism for good game design on its own merit (see B.S, Coup, Sheriff of Nottingham).

Of course, hidden antagonism has its downsides, as well. Because the hidden antagonist/s typically start off the game weak and over time gain power through the collection of resources, sowing of discord, and panic of the innocents, such games are really susceptible to lucky shots in the dark at the very start. I remember a game of Spyfall, a game in which one player, the Spy, has figure out a common location known to all other players, while all other players are trying to suss out the Spy by asking each other questions about the setting. Ideally, the “innocent” players will ask one another vague questions in order to try and verify one another’s identities, while the Spy spends their time trying to piece together what little information is given in each answer. However, I, as the Spy, was selected as the target of the very first question: “So, what do you do here?” With no information available and a 1 in 32 chance of guessing the location successfully, I just had to shrug and say “Espionage?”

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The other big problem comes from a major assumption I’ve been making: that you’re playing a hidden antagonist game with friends. If you’re playing with a bunch of randos, a number of potential problems arise, from a lack of good communication to an unawareness of each other’s personalities and social quirks to just a weakening of the unspoken social contract to not be dicks, which is usually much stronger in an established group of friends.

Hidden antagonism is still, nevertheless, a powerful mechanic to make a game’s multiplayer more interesting, because it forces players to not just analyze the state of the game, but also the players themselves. In a game with a hidden antagonist, a player simply analyzing the game state is missing critical clues that can help them win: a player’s mood or level of stress, the group opinions of certain individuals, as well as the situation as a whole, the gullibility and manipulability of players. While certainly paying attention to opponents as players can be helpful in just about every multiplayer game, in hidden antagonist games it’s a part of an optimal strategy, causing all players to naturally gravitate towards doing it.

This focus on the players as much as the game has some key benefits. An obvious one is that it creates a personal connection with the game, since playing the game is deeply connected with playing with the fellow players. While a regular multiplayer game of Call of Duty is largely a mechanical struggle, one in which players simply use mechanics against other, faceless antagonists behaving similarly, a game of Secret Hitler or Murder is deeply interpersonal: not only do you have to really analyze and get familiar with your opponents, you also become extremely aware of the way you are interacting with the game, finely tailoring your moves in order to create the appearance of innocence.

Furthermore, the social nature of hidden antagonist games can help extend replayability, simply because the game can take on different tones and directions depending on who exactly is playing. Secret Hitler, a hidden antagonist game in which the table attempts to successfully run an abstraction of pre-WWII German government while a subset of the table is secretly fascists, and one person is, well, secretly Hitler, can be played for hours if you have a rotating group of people at the table. The game shifts as the players change, morphing from a bloody game of vengeance and paranoia, to a deeply calculated game of probability, to the aforementioned George R.R Martin-esqe game of alliances and betrayals, all within the same mechanics. I should know: at PAX South 2016, I spent an entire day at a single table playing Secret Hitler, and watched this happen before my eyes.

This is not to say that hidden antagonism is the only way to create such a social game, but it is merely a way. Truly clever game designers should look at those fundamental building blocks of social interaction, at lying and desperately wanting to be believed, at friendships and betrayals, at paranoia towards the other and trust towards the familiar, and use these to fuel multiplayer game design. Ultimately, I think we’ll find, while players definitely love to play our games, they like to play with their friends a lot more.