I count myself lucky in a lot of ways. Two of those ways is that I have a tabletop RPG group that meets in person on a regular basis, and another is that said group has been open-minded to me running one-shots of systems other than our main fare, and sometimes of my own creation. Because of this, I’ve been able to run a number of different systems, which both has been a chance to learn about and play games that I really like, and to gain experience that makes my games better.
However, like a lot of people in this hobby, I have accrued a fairly shameful pile of game systems that I haven’t actually brought to the table yet. So, I think the new year is a great chance to commit myself to playing some of the systems that haven’t made it to my table yet, and actually sling some dice. It’s like a New Year’s Resolution, except with vaguely defined goals, and no consequences for not doing it. So it’s exactly like a New Year’s Resolution.
You might have gathered by now that I’m quite a big fan of character creation, specifically systems that allow you to generate really interesting, narratively and mechanically unique characters. Enter Burning Wheel, probably one of the most contentious games on the internet, but one that I like quite a lot.
Burning Wheel is a master class in character mechanics. For starters, there’s the game’s fantastic Lifepath system, in which you build characters by selecting these sort of life units, called “Lifepaths”, which as a sequence describe what you have been doing your entire life. Each Lifepath offers certain skills you can (and some you must) put points in, the sort of places you might have come from, where you can go to from there, and other attributes of your character. For example, a character whose Lifepaths are Noble Born -> Squire -> Knight would have very different knowledge, skills, and experience than a character whose Lifepath runs something like Born into Poverty -> Farmer -> Hunter.
On top of that, Burning Wheel characters are defined by their Beliefs, or the convictions that they hold close to their heart, their Instincts, which are a sort of “if-then” logic that lets you program your character’s behavior automatically, and Traits, which are the defining, obvious, demonstrable characteristics of the character (any character can be handsome, but it’s only with the Trait “Handsome” that you’ll walk into a room and people go “Fuck.“) When you play to these things, and specifically when they get your character into interesting situations, is how you get XP in this system.
Burning Wheel is not the easiest game in the world to get in to, and understanding how and when to assemble some of the more complicated subsystems into the rules is kind of a challenge, but I think the way this game handles characters, and builds them into well rounded, interesting, unique individuals makes it well worth some plays in 2018.
Blades In The Dark
Looking at this list of RPGs now, something I’m realizing is that all of them have one particular thing that they do really well. Burning Wheel handles characters really well, and this game, John Harper’s Blades In The Dark, is a master class in handling time.
The first way Blades In The Dark, a game about rogues and scoundrels making a name for themselves in a dark, steampunk pseudo-London, handles time is through the brilliant use of flashbacks as a codified game mechanic. Flashbacks are so important the game actually explicitly skips past any preparatory measures for a job, jumping right into the action. Whenever the players encounter an obstacle on the job, they may spend some resources to trigger a flashback, allowing them to describe a scene that happened during that skipped preparatory phase that solves this present day problem. They may attempt to inject an easy, but minimally helpful flashback (“I walked through the museum and memorized the layout”) or go for a difficult, but massively useful one instead (“I spend the last three months digging an underground tunnel right into the vault”).
The other brilliant mechanism Blades has to manipulate time is, well, Clocks. As described in the rules, Clocks are just little circles the GM draws, with some number of ticks around the rim. Depending on the exact circumstances of the Clock, some actions will cause the Clock to tick forward, some to tick back, and when the Clock is completely ticked, something happens. This is an extremely versatile tool, capable of representing everything from “The poor of the city are stirred into revolt” to “An explosive is about to go off” to “The guards are mustering to handle your intrusion”.
Frankly, handling the passage of time isn’t exactly the strong suit of RPGs. The weird “a turn is six seconds and everyone takes turns but really it’s all happening at the same time” thing is really hard to imagine, and handling the passage of time in non-combat scenarios is equally cumbersome. By attuning event countdowns to the drama, instead of the passage of time, such that the outcomes of actions taken push Clocks forward, ensues that tensions remain high and the ticking of the Clock remains dramatic, without the introduction of pedantic bookkeeping. I absolutely cannot wait to see the panic on my players’ faces as the Clocks tick down in my first Blades game.
So if Burning Wheel handles characters and Blades In The Dark handles time, what does Rogue Trader, second in Fantasy Flight’s line of five Warhammer 40,000 tabletop RPGs, bring to the table? Scale.
Rogue Trader isn’t interested in the actions of the little guy, or the small, interpersonal goals that litter the galaxy by the trillions. Rogue Trader wants to tell stories that are big, and it fits the setting. Warhammer is generally disinterested in small events, instead opting for stories of massive wars where planets are destroyed and death tolls start out in the six or seven figures. So, when Rogue Trader welcomes its new players to the world, it gives them a spaceship that would make a Star Destroyer blush, and a Warrant of Trade, a document granting the party legal extraterritoriality, and the rights to negotiate with new aliens, to consort with the enemy, and to buy and sell commodities up to planets themselves.
Rogue Trader stories traded around the internet have inspired me to pick up this game, if only because the sense of scale brings with it a subset of player problems, and problem solving, simply not possible in other games. Stuck in a battle in deep space with an enemy ship? Get in touch with the first mate, wire them enough money to buy a small island, and watch the captain’s brains splatter across the inside of their windshield. Are your negotiations with an alien? Remind them that you can always call up your old buddy the Imperial Inquisition and tell them to turn this whole planet into a boiling hell. While some RPG campaigns are lucky to get a spaceship or a castle to call home, your team can buy a planet, or hell, a star system, and terraform it how they choose.
Plenty of RPGs let you play heroes, but Rogue Trader lets you play, to paraphrase the words of redditor ryanznock, billionaire bank CEOs in space, and there’s no sum of money nor rule of law that can fully contain your influence.
Dungeon Crawl Classics
I’m in a Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign right now, and actually ran a funnel for my regular group relatively recently (they mostly all died). My infatuation with this system has grown into affection as I’ve grown comfortable in it, and I hope to be able to run some more of this game in the new year (assuming I didn’t grind my players’ hope into dust too badly last time).
The specialty of Dungeon Crawl Classics is definitely in its pure, concentrated weird. An extremely minimal rulesset, combined with the OSR mentality of “rulings over rules”, mean that most of the problems the game presents are to be solved with clever thinking and player ingenuity, rather than just rolling a skill check. Since stat blocks can be written out in a couple of lines, GMs are free to whip up whatever insane enemies they want, and since fights can be won with clever thinking and MacGuyver-esqe schemes as much as they can by rolling the “hit shit” dice and making numbers go down, you’re free to present your players with enemies of any scale, from rats to gods, knowing that any challenge is one of logical thinking, rather than numbers.
Furthermore, the rules of Dungeon Crawl Classics are such that they naturally attempt to inject some weirdness into the game over time, especially with the magic rules. Roll particularly bad on a spellcasting roll, and your wizard might end up with some new features, from a delightful patch of purple skin to some extra eyes to who knows what else. Every spell you learn has its own special flavor specific to the way you cast it, from changing the weather to causing thousands of rats to pour out of your sleeves. There’s no “I just cast a fireball” in Dungeon Crawl Classics, and every spell turns your game for the weirder.
This one’s sort of a cheat. I have been running Genesys for a while now, since the core system is just the main rules of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line, divorced from the setting and turned into a generic system (Get it? Generic system? Gene-sys?). But I love this system, especially after some fuddling with the other big boy generic systems like Cypher, FATE, and GURPS. Nothing handles meaningful dice results quite like Genesys.
For those not in the know, Genesys uses some initially wonky custom dice, which are easy to write off as a cash-grab by Fantasy Flight, but are honestly really cool. These dice roll up symbols instead of numbers, with those systems belonging to three pairs:
- Successes and Failures cancel each other out. You need at least one uncancelled Success to succeed at a roll
- Advantage and Disadvantage cancel each other out, and whatever remains uncancelled generally determine whether or not things get better or worse for the actor as a result of their roll
- Triumph and Despair do not cancel each other out, and represent extremely lucky (or unlucky) consequences of their actions. These essentially are crits.
By using these wonky dice, Genesys‘s dice rolls not only describe success or failure, but lay the groundwork for the progress of the story after the roll. Players can succeed, but create bigger problems for themselves (“You blow up the enemy, but doing so blows a hole in the ship’s hull, creating a force attempting to suck you all out into deep space”), just as players can fail in a fortunate manner (“Your laser blast misses the enemy, but it does blast off the shackles of the prisoner they’re keeping behind them”). Every dice roll is customized for the situation, and it prevents the boredom that comes with both constant success and constant failure.
Obviously I want to run as many games next year as humanly possible, it’s just my nature. However, these five games have been burning a hole on my shelf, and I absolutely want to bust them out and throw some dice playing them. Be it Burning Wheel‘s unique characters, Blades In the Dark‘s sense of time, Rogue Trader‘s vast scale, Dungeon Crawl Classics‘s propensity for the weird, or the great dice rolls of Genesys, these games will hopefully fuel the flame for interesting, fun sessions not just next year, but for years to come.