Oh it’s the most wonderful time of the year again, it’s August, which means it’s time for #RPGaDAY, that wondrous time where, every day for a month we self-reflect on why we love the tabletop RPG hobby as much as we do via 31 questions. And, once again, I’m electing to answer these questions five(ish) at a time, so as to not assault your social media feeds.
Well, there’s really little to no introduction required beyond that, let’s be off!
August 1st: What do you love about RPGs?
The ability to bring a world and its inhabitants to life.
There are plenty of forms of media that allow you to explore vast worlds, from the grand scope of the Star Wars movies to the laboriously crafted (and laborious to read) works of J.R.R Tolkien. However, tabletop RPGs allow you not only play in a fantastic fictional world, but it allows you to grow and explore it to a breadth and depth that is impossible in any other media.
In all other forms of storytelling, the amount of setting that can be explored by the audience is inherently limited, perhaps by the word count, perhaps by the length of the reel of film, or perhaps by the number of levels the level designer opted to include. This is where RPGs are wholly unique. All other forms of media are consumptive in nature, the audience consumes them until there is nothing left. RPGs are inherently generative, a critical component of playing them, for both the GM and the players, is to create characters, settings, worlds, and stories.
Role-playing games are the only form of storytelling media where the space for storytelling is functionally infinite, and where the players are free to explore every facet of their world and characters that they want, and in that way they allow us as players and game masters to flesh out these fictional worlds unlike any other medium.
August 2nd: What do you look for in an RPG?
What I look for in an RPG is a combination of three things, two of which are essentially mandatory, and one of which is optional but extremely wanted.
1. The game should provide a mechanical framework for something interesting, narratively.
This is sort of a vague requirement, but essentially what I mean here is that the rules of the game need to affect the storytelling in an interesting, preferably novel way. The dice mechanics of Genesys allow for stories with a lot of twists and turns, and fail forward, as well as succeed downward, character action. The Lifepath system of Burning Wheel, as well as the Beliefs and Instincts, allow for the creation of deep characters with arcs. Hell, even Shadowrun‘s escalating and deescalating dice results allow for things to go rapidly out of control sometimes.
2. The game should evoke it’s setting/theme/tone through all of its mechanics
This is sort of a hard thing to quantify, and actually usually takes some play to see, but I want every mechanic, every number, every die chosen and used by an RPG has been done so to maximize the way that the game’s central ideas come forth. A horror game set in the d20 system doesn’t do this. A PbtA game about unconquerable heroes doesn’t do this. A truly good design makes sure that every single choice made in that design flows through its mechanics, and if it can’t, it gets those mechanics out of the way.
3. (Optional) The game should provide new setting/character/plot ideas I couldn’t have thought of myself.
This rule is optional because I still get a variety of setting-neutral RPGs, but something that’s a big plus for me is when a game offers some narrative inspiration that I couldn’t get elsewhere. Too many books fill their pages with narrative elements that are either A) in too laborious detail for me to stretch my creative legs, or B) full of the tropey, rote overused stuff I could easily have created without the book’s help (“I am Grimjor Ironbeard the Dwarf, and I love gems and money!”). A good book should give me something new to mull over in my brain.
August 3rd: What gives a game “staying power”?
This question could be interpreted two ways: what gives a game the power to stay on my shelf, and what gives a game the power to stay on the table. The first point is basically addressed in August 2nd’s question, so I’ll focus on what keeps a game on my table, which is to say, what keeps me playing a game.
The answer, ultimately, is nothing. Some people are more than content with playing one game, which is almost always Dungeons and Dragons, for their entire life, and more power to them, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you forced me into that situation, I’d probably just quit the hobby.
The games I bring to the table are always subservient to the ideas I have about the worlds I wanna explore. I, almost always, come up with a campaign idea first, and then select a system that’s appropriate. Oh, I want to run a Victorian mystery? I can hack GUMSHOE together for that. Hyper-lethal fantasy worlds inspired by Moorcock? Time to get an arm workout in and hurl Dungeon Crawl Classics onto the table.
There is no one game that is the best fit for every single idea I have, because I don’t want to play the same thing over and over again. I want to explore hundreds of worlds, meet thousands of characters, and ultimately do such a variety of things that no game stays on my table for long.
August 4th: Who is your most memorable NPC?
The Angry Line Cook.
In my group’s running Star Wars campaign, at one point, my party had to meet a contact inside of a large bar/cantina (as you do in Star Wars). The situation was shady, and no one was quite sure what to expect when inside. While most of the party sucked it up and went inside via the front door, one particular party member, an individual who was at the time about as sneaky and as charismatic as a freight train, opted to sneak in through the kitchen door, one which would normally be used to collect shipments of food and booze, and to take out the trash.
When the PC, predicatbly, utterly botched his attempt to sneak, he drew the attention of a single Twi’lek line cook who, like every line cook I’ve ever encountered in my life, was just sort of vaguely annoyed at nothing in particular. The conversation that arose was, in my opinion, hilarious, as the PC was trying desperately to try and suave his way through the situation, despite, you know, being a heavily armed mercenary in a kitchen, and the line cook just wanted him to get the hell out, not because he hated the PC or was pro-Imperial or whatever, but because it was against health code and he had goddamn food to plate, man.
I loved this guy because he got to exist despite having no greater importance in the setting, plot, or arc of any character. He was just a dude, trying to get through his shift, who accidentally for one or two brief moments became embroiled in a conspiracy to topple the entire Galactic Empire. And then, he just went back to his crappy job. Something about that moment seemed extremely real to me, and I loved every moment of it.
August 5th: Who is your favorite recurring NPC?
The Finder, hands down.
In my running campaign of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Tabletop Role-playing Game, the party, a group of revolutionary freedom fighters, has frequently been in situations in which they just need some information. In these times, they turn to a well-spoken, well-connected character named The Finder.
The Finder and his agents (who, thanks to a bit of cleverness on my players’ part, are known as “Keepers”) are collectors of information. He survives the Galactic Civil War not just because his information-brokering services are extremely useful to all sides, but because he knows information that could cripple any faction, from the structural weaknesses of Imperial Star Destroyers to the locations of secret rebel bases. He elects not to tip the scales one way or another, however, recognizing that he stands to make maximal profit by elongating the War, and that offering equal help to both sides is the most potent way to maintain that status quo.
The Finder is calm, collected, and perpetually in control. He always has exactly what people desperately need, and knows exactly the cards in his adversaries’ hands. The Finder is a character I love playing because, against a party that frequently shoots or talks their way out of problems, the Finder comes from such a position of power that even when his and the party’s interests align they still come out feeling bad about the whole thing.
Crucially, the Finder isn’t untouchable due to GM cheating, either. He’s never appeared via hologram, nor behind a force field, and the party’s usually interacted with him armed. He represents the kind of potential player action that I love: he is a domino, and the players know by the world that they exist in that, should they tip him over, the consequences could be substantial, and I love that.