Well, since the #RPGaDay2018 … people? have decided to sort their questions into week blocks, I figure that’s a pretty natural way to tackle them as well. So, instead of five questions a post like last year, we’ll just do a week … you know, a week. Pretty reasonable, in my opinion.
Now, last week’s post can be found here, and this week’s post can be found … it’s this one. You’re reading it.
August 6th: How can players make a world seem real?
Participate in the world as an inhabitant, not as a player of a game.
My players have a tic that I hate, where occasionally they refer to elements of the game’s world or setting by their mechanical function. This is commonly done with the use of terminology lifted from video games, terms like “Quest”, “Objective”, “Side Quest”, things like that. I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose; it’s a quick vernacular that our entire table understands, since all of us play video games, but it instantly pulls me out of a game.
This can also extend to the way characters view NPCs. Occasionally, my players will tend to simplify their interactions with NPCs to either “Guys we need to kill”, “Guys we need to buy stuff from”, or “Guys we need to talk to in order to advance the quest”. This sort of behavior, while practical, ignores my favorite types of NPC interactions, the kinds that really make the world feel alive to me: talking, just to talk.
Real people chit-chat and make small talk. It’s something we all probably do a dozen times a day without thinking about it. There’s no goal to be accomplished, there’s no quest to be advanced, it’s just that you’re somewhere, they’re there too, and you both have five minutes to kill. Most importantly, this sort of conversation can be about anything, and is thus a fantastic vehicle for fleshing out parts of the world not inherently relevant to a quest, and to flesh out the PCs, as tiny, otherwise-irrelevant details come up in casual conversation. Yes, I spent some time in Waterdeep as an apprentice in my twenties. No, I’ve never sailed on a ship. Yes, I am quite a big fan of this painter. Little tiny details like that make characters, and worlds, come alive.
Long story short: participate in the setting as you participate in real life, with an eye for the tiny, irrelevant details.
August 7th: How can a GM make the stakes important?
Actually, that picture’s sort of a bait and switch. I do think that the occasional reminder that PCs are, in fact, mortal (well, depending on the system) is a good way to keep PCs on their toes, but I actually don’t think it’s the best way.
I actually think the best way to make the stakes important is to let the players set them. If you just go to the PCs and go “This is the King of Coolsville, and it would be very bad if he died. You must protect him”, they’re going to do it, but they’re not going to care. They’re only going to do it out of a vague, video-game-trained sense of obligation to “The Objective”.
However, if you notice that your PCs have taken kindly to, I dunno, the local Cabbage Wizard or Junk Dealer or whatever, phrase the threats they have to take on in terms of how they’re going to hurt them. The marauding armies of orcs are going to topple the king and raze the land and all, and that sucks, but Greg the Cabbage Wizard will probably die in the rampage, and his two daughters have been asking him at night if they’ll be OK and he doesn’t know what to tell them. That will get the PCs moving.
Similarly, consider that a very real consequence for PCs’ actions can, and should, be impacts on their relationships with characters they care about. If the party Warlock particularly enjoys the company of a local bartender, have that relationship start to get rocky as the Warlock drifts further and further towards dark power. The young boy who goes out adventuring might come back home a Level 15 Fighter or whatever, but he might find that the town has grown without him.
This tip also works for inanimate things the players care about (their goals, their homes, particular objects they covet, etc.), but I’ve found historically that, in general, characters are just what people gravitate towards the most.
August 8th: How can we get more people playing?
I have my personal gripes with the recent rise of tabletop RPG streamers and YouTubers (there are more games than Dungeons and Dragons god dammit!), but I’d be an idiot to deny that the hobby has had a meteoric rise in popularity since Critical Role really started to pick up steam. 2018 was the best year for Dungeons and Dragons ever, and more people than ever are starting to get into the hobby, as the misconception that RPGs are a weirdo hobby for anti-social turbonerds is starting to vanish (finally).
I think the key way to get even more players into tabletop role-playing games is to increase the variety of games, and players, played on these streams. Dungeons and Dragons, for all of the myriad of opportunities it offers, is ultimately just one game, and some people just aren’t interested in being wizards or paladins or fighting dragons or whatever. Just like how every movie isn’t a superhero movie and every book isn’t a YA novel, we should publicly show that the field of role-playing games isn’t limited to our most popular form.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that we need to show that role-playing games are for everyone. This is a … disappointingly contentious topic, but RPGs need to shed the misconception that this is a hobby for straight white dudes (the irony of being a straight white dude saying this is not lost on me, but I have a soapbox goddammit, might as well use it). The more voices of people of color, LGBTQIA+ persons, and generally non-WASPy backgrounds we can get into gaming, and have their voices heard in the hobby, the greater the variety of personalities and backgrounds there will be for new inductees in the hobby to find a voice that matches theirs, and distinct backgrounds will just cause the variety of stories that are able to be told in RPG to expand exponentially.
Now, I’m going to use this blog read by like four people, one of whom is my mom (Hi Mom!) to try and signal boost some of my favorite RPG streamers on the internet today.
- Friends at the Table, GMed by personal hero Austin Walker of Waypoint, is a fantastic RPG podcast about “critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interaction between good friends”. In my opinion, this show has the best RPG storytelling on the internet today.
- Theogony of Kairos, run by the sublime B. Dave Walters, is a fantastic 5E game with twist: all of the characters are regular chumps instantly raised to Level 20, commonly considered the point at which D&D becomes “god tier”. This game tackles some very interesting ideas from the get go, highly recommend.
- Adam Koebel is possibly my favorite figure in the RPG space right now, partially because of his open discussions of design in the field (he’s half of the designers behind Dungeon World), and the variety of games he runs, both in his current position as a Game Master for Roll20, and the many campaigns he’s run for the Rollplay series (including my favorite, Mirrorshades)
August 9th: How has a game surprised you?
It was my first ever session of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and by extension, my first session of an OSR-style game. Joining a long-running group, I joined their rogue’s gallery party with four level zeroes. Given a list of stat blocks to choose from, I opted for a simple selection process: my crew consisted of the strongest, fastest, smartest, and luckiest four of the lot of level 0s handed to me.
Our mission was simple, at least as far as Dungeon Crawl Classics goes. We had to ride a giant space squid up to a floating castle in the clouds, and from those clouds retrieve some goop rumored to bestow eternal life.
OK you know what it wasn’t simple at all.
So, we ride on our, uh, giant squid gondola to the sky, and triumphantly, my mighty warrior and brilliant lizardman scholar hop off onto the clouds and … both immediately tank a luck check and, standing on unstable chunks of cloud, plummet from the sky to their deaths, the last thing to go through their mind presumably being their ankles. Half of my crew instantly died the literal first steps they took into the dungeon.
I was hooked instantly. I watched as my fellow adventurers reached into their bags and tossed some loose chaff they had onto the cloud, using it to identify safe spots, and safely exit the gondola. I knew that I had to shift my entire manner of thinking, and start to approach the whole game cleverly, like a puzzle. The idea of needing to think of clever solutions to fantastic problems had me hooked, and now I count DCC as one of my favorite games.
August 10th: How has gaming changed you?
Huh, this one’s sort of a curveball. I guess if I had to name a few changes I’ve seen in myself since seriously playing role-playing games, I could probably name a few.
- My improv skills have improved dramatically. This is a fairly obvious result of the amount I GM, and the amount I have to constantly pull random quests and characters out of thin air for my party. Not only have I become a better GM in this regard, but I feel like my storytelling, improvisation, and quick thinking have all gotten a little better as a result.
- I let other people have their moments of glory. This one’s sort of a conscious work in progress, but just like when I’m a player in an RPG, I like to sit back and let others do the thing they’re good at, and have their moments where they can swoop in and save the day. I don’t need to be the best at everything, that’s why we’re a team.
- I’m more creative. Don’t get me wrong, I was always an imaginative kid, but I feel like playing RPGs has both increased the variety of ideas I have for games, settings, characters, etc. as well as widened the lens through which I collect inspiration. I used to basically exclusively consume “nerdy” media, basically turning myself into a sort of geeky pop culture orobourous, but now I look everywhere from cooking shows to city planning books to world history for ideas, and I think RPGs were the push that got me there.
August 11th: Wildest character name?
….sigh. It’s time to talk about Druggo the Clown.
To set the stage, it’s my oft-spoken about Fantasy Flight Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign. My band of freedom fighter PCs have a tough mission on their hands: they need to assassinate two Twi’lek senators on Ryloth, as they are wildly corrupt and are allowing the planet to fall into the hands of a young Galactic Empire. The vector of assassination is this: the PCs have discovered the senators have a very, very minor, serious drug addiction. The game-plan is to find one of the suppliers, up the intensity of the next batch being delivered to the senators, and let them OD in their rooms. Not the most pleasant thought in the world, but less of a bloodbath than a (almost certainly bungled) straight-up gunshot.
Thus, my PCs crawled into the Twi’lek underworld, and discovered the main drug supplier on Ryloth. I was short on names (this entire method of assassination began as a side note in a margin in my notes, I hedged my bets and wrote a bunch of assassination methods instead of going deep on any one), so when it was time for their informant to name the dealer, I stammered.
“Uh … drug ….. drug …. Druggo … the … the clown”.
I meant this as a joke, but, it was too late. Any other name I could come up with would be drowned out by the laughter, and Druggo the Clown was born, and subsequently died about twenty seconds later.
August 12th: Wildest character concept?
I’m going to call this a three-way tie between three character concepts I made for my most recent game of Doctor Magnethands. If you’re unfamiliar, Doctor Magnethands is a two-page one-shot RPG made by one of my favorite designers, Grant Howitt, which basically revolves around pulling bad ideas out of a hat to make a superhero story.
I think it was extremely telling that when I sat down at the table, I handed my slips of paper to the GM and said “these are the eight worst ideas I’ve ever had in a row”.
Of the four PCs, three ended up playing characters of my creation. Allow me to introduce you to the new Avengers, featuring:
- Mecha-Ruth Bader Ginsberg
- All of the Baldwin siblings (yes, all, like, seven of them) in a big coat
- The Night Manager of the Last Blockbuster
Also fantastic and in the group, but not of my creation, was the fabulously simple “Stink Man”.
Honorable mention goes to my favorite submission, which ended up not getting used: The Torsoless Horseman.