My Experience With The Dark Souls Tabletop RPG

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I was lucky enough to recently get a chance to play a translation of one of my white whale RPGs: the official adaptation of the Dark Souls video games. Released in Japan only, and thus, in Japanese only. I, however, lucked out, and happened across a post on a Discord server of a GM who had translated the game, and was looking for players. The one thing he needed were a few pages of the bestiary, but he was in luck: I actually own a print copy of the game from my vacation in Japan, and was able to scan the pages he needed. With that, we were able to play the game.

There were a few reasons I expected Dark Souls to play sorta weird. For one, this was a game made by and for a completely different role-playing culture than that in the States. I’ve heard a variety of rumors and claims about how the tabletop gaming culture differs in Japan, but as someone who never thoroughly researched those claims, or played in a Japanese group myself, I’d feel weird echoing them here. Secondly, this was a translation, and with only enough Japanese to get a table for one and find a bathroom, there’s no way I could confirm the accuracy of it.

Anyways, the system proper: the Dark Souls TRPG, as one might expect, has an extremely heavy emphasis on combat. Lucky for it, then, that it has one of the most interesting and engaging tabletop combat systems I’ve played in a while.

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Much like the source material, Dark Souls is all about the conservation of Stamina. In the tabletop game, however, Stamina comes in the form of five dice, rolled at the top of every round. Almost anything you do in the game costs some quantity of these dice, with varying stipulations on how much dice, as well as the side of the dice that are showing. These Stamina Dice are used for both attacking and resisting damage, so the careful usage of them is key.

For example, for the Knight I was playing, one swing of my sword required spending Stamina dice whose total was or exceeded 5, which could be fulfilled by a single die if I rolled high enough. I could chain attacks by adding an additional 5 + the number of previous attacks to the total Stamina spent, allowing me to spend 17 Stamina in an all-out attack, equivalent to getting a good stun lock on a Dark Souls enemy.

Damage is, interestingly, not randomized. Every attack deals a known amount of damage, and every enemy has a Damage Threshold. An attack that deals less damage than an enemy’s DT does nothing, an attack that does deals one pip of damage, and an attack that exceeds the DT by ten deals an extra pip of damage (dealing an extra two if it exceeds by twenty, and so on). You can block damage by spending dice equal to your shield’s Guard Cost, reducing damage by a certain amount, or you can evade an attack by spending dice equal to your Weight Load, a system I find immensely clever.

There are other ways to avoid damage, namely to do with initiative. Initiative is rerolled after every character’s turn, with the character who last took a turn removed from the list, until the list has no more characters on it, at which point everyone rerolls and you start from the top. The character with the highest initiative goes first, but if any two characters roll the same initiative roll, they are “batted”, removing both of them inactive for that turn. This means that, if a boss is potentially about to act, you can use some initiative-modifying abilities to move around initiative numbers to bat them, instead allowing one of your allies to strike.

There are also special skills that characters can obtain with their own costs. Two abilities stood out in my game. My ally got Backstab, allowing him to spend three matching dice to deal an instant 100 damage to an enemy (an astronomical amount), and I used Parry, which let me guard for two matching dice (no matter their value compared to my shield’s Guard Cost), and block an additional 5 pips of damage, making me a walking damage sponge.

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The way the game interpreted physical space was unexpected, opting to take a fairly abstracted approach. All characters are by default assumed to be “in range” of anything, with the range of attacks differing between hitting an individual or everything. This is wrinkled a little by the existence of “Safe Zones”, a set of spaces in each encounter that a character can enter for the cost of two dice. Safe Zones are completely removed from combat, incapable to attack from or be attacked in, but are consumed after use. The beauty of ranged characters is that only they can continue to attack from within a Safe Zone.

The layout of the prepublished adventure we ran was fairly standard, essentially a hallway of randomly placed rooms with a few branching paths, some boss rooms, and a bonfire. Our job was to traipse around a cavern looking for some Ashes (I dunno, man, Dark Souls stuff), and take down a couple of bosses in order to escape an eerie cave that we were trapped in. The actual adventure design was pretty bare-bones, it’s clear the complexity is meant to come from combat.

Actually, speaking of Bonfires, there’s one other mechanic of note to mention about Dark Souls: the Malice Chart. Besides having a hilariously paradoxical name (like the “Murder Table” or perhaps the “Malevolence Spreadsheet”), this is a mechanic designed to balance the infinite restorative and resurrective properties of the bonfire, which would normally allow players to hurl themselves at problems for eternity. Instead, every time characters die or rest at the bonfire, the GM rolls on the Malice Chart, and doing so risks one of a variety of world-level effects to occur, ranging from health, initiative, and damage buffs for every enemy, to increased weight and stamina costs for players. The Malice Chart provides a sort of soft timer for quest completion in the game: players are incentivized to complete a dungeon as fast as they can, lest it become unwinnable.

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I’m extremely happy I got to play the Dark Souls TRPG. Its combat system is extremely tactical while remaining fairly rules-light, and it captures some of the feeling of crossing blades in the video games very well. If this game ever makes its way to the States, or if you find yourself in a position to play a translated copy of it, I highly recommend it, because it’s honestly a game unlike any other tabletop RPG I’ve played.

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What the Fucket Detective is Bucket Detective

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Bucket Detective might be the weirdest game I play all year. A game by Jesse Barksdale, the creator of the deeply unsettling and weirdly funny the static speaks my nameBucket Detective is a short walking simulator-type game which gingerly tiptoes the line between dark comedy and just flat-out disgust.

Bucket Detective stars David Davids, a character who Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek correctly refers to as “an irredeemable piece of shit“. David’s motivations are simple, idiotic, and amoral: his wife isn’t giving him the weird, kinky sex he wants, so he decides to write a book, inexplicably called “Bucket Detective”, in order to attract women. Unfortunately, David is a garbage writer and an idiot, so the going is slow in writing his magnum opus. After a meeting with an unscrupulous friend, David is given a shortcut: go to a building that very quickly turns out to belong to a cult, and help them resurrect a dark god in exchange for finishing your terrible book.

Calling David an antihero is just flat-out incorrect. There is no redemptive arc, no empathizing with his dark motives. The only things that make you possibly see from David’s perspective are the fact that you control him, and the weird, innate human need to empathize with things too dumb for their own good, like the twang of guilt you feel when a bird flies into a window.

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This, in my opinion, is the most interesting thing about Bucket Detective. As Barksdale himself remarks, a lot of video games use the empathetic quality of the medium as a sort of wish-fulfillment, a way to assume the role, however temporarily, of a character that lives a life in some way better or more interesting than our own. Even villainous characters, or amoral characters, typically feed into a dark, inadmissible fantasy to just sort of go apeshit every once in a while (see Grand Theft Auto V‘s Trevor), or the character of the stylish, ultra-cool villain (see Hitman‘s Agent 47, or even someone like Shadow the Hedgehog).

Bucket Detective grabs the player, however unwilling, and forces them behind the eyes of an amoral, irredeemable dumbass whose single goal is to, and these are the game’s words, not mine, “make penis spit with pretty girls”. There is no fantasy to be fulfilled here, no moral grey area to explore, David just sucks.

But, interestingly, he isn’t annoying. When people watch movies, read books, or play games with characters that they dislike, frequently they express annoyance with the character. A common example of this is Shinji Ikari, the moping, inactive lump of a protagonist of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even video games’ resident Unlikeable Dick, Duke Nukem, whose pompous arrogance is more and more of a put-off the further he gets from the era in which he almost deserved it.

David, bizarrely, elicits no such venomous reaction from the player, or at least from me, which perhaps says more about me than it does the game. I think this speaks to excellent writing from Barksdale, and a superb, and arguably necessary, understanding of how to portray this sort of character. David is a trash human, but he’s a sort of miserable hyperbole of some fairly commonplace human feelings: he’s unhappy with his ho-hum life, he wants a romantic partner that he feels is out of his league, and to an extent, he’s willing to put other people behind him in exchange for following his dreams.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who has any of the above senses is a piece of shit, nor am I suggesting David’s redeemable in his actions. David sucks, and you probably don’t. However, David’s reasoning in his actions remains constantly comprehensible. You’re never yelling at the screen that he should do something else, because you know every decision he makes, makes perfect sense to him. You’re never yelling at him to stop being an idiot, nor do you ever really want to slap him across the face. David’s the kind of train wreck you just look at from afar, shake your head, and go “what a fucking mess”.

It’s like, you know when you see a Youtube video of someone trying to rob like a convenience store or a vape shop or something, but they just hopelessly mess it up? David’s kind of like that: he sucks, you know he sucks, but for some reason you can’t get upset with him. I think it’s because he’s an honest character. He is greed, selfishness, and hedonism incarnate, but he’s greedy, selfish, and hedonistic in a way that, were you to sort of de-escalate the game from it’s melodramatic narrative, you’ve maybe felt before, at least in brief flashes and in much lower stakes.

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Remember this guy, who tried to rob a vape shop but accidentally flung his handgun over the counter? David kinda reminds me of this guy.

David is also, purely from the perspective of narrative function, a competent protagonist. He moves the plot forward, doesn’t waste time bungling the few tasks set out before him, is never wracked with indecision or guilt, and doesn’t waste time or word count giving himself undeserved praise. I think this represents a key game design insight from Barksdale: he already made his character completely insufferable within the narrative, which meant that anything that made him frustrating on a meta-narrative or mechanical level would have probably gotten the player to quit the game completely.

I think Bucket Detective represents an infrequently-explored frontier in games, specifically in game writing: how to make the audience like, or at least willing to tolerate, a character who’s an absolute garbage fire. Bucket Detective does so with a sort of vague, fundamental feeling of familiarity combined with the empathy we subconsciously give to the incompetent, but I doubt that’s the only method.

I’d go deeper, but frankly, Bucket Detective takes an hour to complete and costs four dollars on Steam. Go play it. If you find yourself unable to tolerate David, congrats, it’s probably because you’re a better person than me. But if not, think about how it feels to become David for an hour, whether you can feel any sense of empathy for him. If you’re a writer or designer, and really wanna push yourself to the limit, I think an interesting exercise would be to make a character like David, a character that is terrible in every sense of the world, but still manages to grab the player at least a little bit, even if they’re ashamed to admit it.

 

 

PbtA Playbook Design

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I’ve recently been working a lot of refining Bleak Rains, my Powered by the Apocalypse game of desperate weirdos trying to survive in a dogmatic, paranoid island city during a magical monsoon season. More specifically, that refinement has come towards the player playbooks, which I would thoroughly argue are the core of any PbtA game. After all, the playbooks define the sort of interactions that the player can have with the world, and often serve as a player’s most effective vehicle for expanding on the fiction.

When I first concepted out Bleak Rains, I had 9 playbooks. They were as follows:

  • Anchorlugger: Like a Lovecraftian Scarlet Letter, the Anchorlugger has to atone for past sin by carrying around a massive, probably cursed anchor
  • Raintouched: Touched in a unique way by the properties of the rain, a Raintouched can harness powerful magical abilities during monsoon season.
  • Lighthouse: Selected by the Overseers that lead the city, Lighthouses patrol the streets to hunt down monsters that have washed ashore from the sea
  • Captain: Leader of a faithful crew, the Captain has authority over one of the many sailing vessels that risk the unfathomable waters surrounding the city
  • Gillman: Born of a horrible crime, a Gillman is a powerful, but monstrous half-breed that traces their lineage back to the monsters of the depths
  • Graveswimmer: Last defense against the resurrective properties of the storm, Graveswimmers are responsible for the disposal of regular and animate bodies
  • Shaman of the Storm: A raving madman in rags, a Shaman of the Storm harnesses the raw power of the storms and channels them into magical effects
  • Darkdiver: A looter by any other name, a Darkdiver can descend into the depths to loot sunken hulks and flooded parts of the city
  • Low Overseer: Wielding a small fraction of the power of the city, the Low Overseer is a low-level bureaucrat and law enforcement officer of the city’s government

In my opinion, these playbooks offered a solid foundation from which to begin. They offer a broad, but interesting picture of the world they inhabit (it’s a totalitarian city, but one fraught with crime and heresy, which has both a symbiotic and antagonistic relationship with the magical rain and seas that envelop it). Many “classic” RPG archetypes can be found here, albeit in abstracted and unusual forms, giving players something of a base to latch on to in a unique setting.

However, few first passes of any game are any good, and I knew I had to do at least something of a revising sweep to knock out obvious problems before starting playtests. For this, I read as much advice on the subject as I could, as well as digging into the GM advice for all of the PbtA games I own, and also this fantastic player’s guide for Dungeon World. Now, I hope to be able to distill some of what I learned to help make your PbtA game’s playbooks stronger.

Keep your moves as short as possible

The first drafts of almost all of my moves were long. Damn near every move had a list of options to choose from, little pieces of commentary about the repercussions of your actions, the whole shebang. It wasn’t uncommon for one of them to take 4-5 lines in my Google Doc.

This, predictably, caused some issues. The first is the simplest to predict: when it came time to try and stick everything onto my prototype character sheet, I found that I rapidly ran out of room for moves, and the moves sections were usually walls of text. An immediate no-no.

But, also, as in most forms of writing, the most elegant way to get across an idea also the shortest. Look at this move, written by Eon Fontes-May, the author of the Dungeon World Guide:

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It’s so elegant in its simplicity. The distinction between the yes, yes but, and no options are clear, and all of them lead to something interesting. There’s even a morsel of pirate-y worldbuilding in there too, it’s great. To contrast, here’s a move I recently cut.

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Look how long this is. The worst part is that, for any given player, you don’t need 50% of this text, because you’re only going to be invoking one of those bulleted pieces of effect text. There’s a ton of fluff writing that doesn’t really do any worldbuilding, it’s just vaguely and badly poetic. I trimmed this concept down a lot, to its current state:

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I’m actually still not in love with this, but it’s a step up. The list is pared down substantially, and is actually a list you can choose between, rather than a set of pidgeonholes to be forced into. The fluff text is gone, and I think the consequences are much clearer and more related to what’s happening in the fiction. It’s still long, but as a core move for a playbook, I’m willing to give a bit of depth.

Playbooks need to be widely applicable, or they need to be cut

Let’s talk about the Graveswimmer. The Graveswimmer was an idea I liked so much that it was one of the main points I covered when I first talked about this game. The idea behind the Graveswimmer was that the magical rains would resurrect the dead in this city, and Graveswimmers were the order responsible for, one, properly disposing of bodies, and two, slaying the living dead. It was cool, there were a bunch of rules about crafting your own burial ritual, it was neat and packed with flavor.

The problem was that the playbook was too specific. If you weren’t dealing with a dead body, in whatever state of animation, the Graveswimmer was sort of, if you’ll pardon the pun, dead in the water. The entire playbook identity was wrapped up in this one idea, and while that idea was dense, it meant that if that idea wasn’t applicable to the situation, the idea was pointless.

A similar issue arose with the Darkdiver, the submarine thief. As it turns out, when an entire playbook is based around going underwater, there’s surprisingly little for that player to do when they’re above water, which is, considering only two other playbooks directly interact with the sea in some way, probably where most of the game is going to take place.

Having a core playbook idea that’s dense is good, it makes it easy to come up with advanced moves, and it makes it more interesting for a player to explore the space provided by the character concept. But a character idea needs to be broad too, or else your player is going to be bored. Think of the playbook like the set of tools you’re giving the player with which to build their experience. If you hand someone a belt full of hammers, as the saying goes, they’re gonna be looking for nails.

As a result, I ended up cutting the Graveswimmer and transitioning the Darkdiver into a more open-ended thief class, while maintaining a diver motif, allowing the character to remain useful in a wider variety of situations.

Moves are actions, not reactions

Something I discovered in my writing was that a lot of my moves were reactive in nature: that is, instead of triggering whenever the player did something, they triggered whenever something happened to the player. This is not a pattern you see a lot in PbtA games, and there’s a good reason: it’s fairly uninteresting.

In a broad sense, players want to do, they do not want to be done to. Having a broad swath of one’s actions be reactive means that, when it is a player’s turn to act, their options are limited, and a lot of their neat tricks are locked away, only to be used when the fiction happens to turn in such a way that the specific conditional is triggered.

In all role-playing games, but especially in Powered by the Apocalypse games, players want to feel like they can shape the world, like they have agency. Having moves as reactions limits that substantially, and can contribute to a sense of being pushed and pulled by the fiction instead of being the driving force of it.

The Anchorlugger was subject to this problem in the first draft. As a social pariah, a lot of the playbook’s moves had to do with how people would respond to his presence, but it left the player with a limited set of options beyond “stand there and have people get upset at you”. A redesign merged the Anchorlugger and the Lighthouse, creating a playbook that was focused on a more active idea of atonement by involuntary monster slaying, which is rad.

Always fail forward

The key to PbtA design, the morsel of design thinking that should be in every move you make, should be that failure should still move the plot forward. This is a core concept of move design in general, but I think it’s so important it’s worth reiterating here. A player absolutely botching a roll should always put the fiction in a new, interesting place. For a simple example I’m proud of, check out this move for the Captain:

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Failing on this move results in a complete change of setting and situation, which gives both the GM and the player room to make new choices and move the fiction forward. I’m actually not totally in love with this move, because one potential result, just taking -2 Weird, is mechanically useful but narratively boring. I’ll have to work on changing the options on 7-9 to ensure that every option available to the player provides an interesting story beat.

Don’t neglect the stuff

Moves are certainly the shining star of PbtA design, but don’t overlook the inventory of your characters. Your player characters’ gear is a perfect opportunity to slip a little bit of setting into the game in an inconspicuous way, and to set players up with some unanswered questions and unfulfilled opportunities at the start of the game.

Consider these three items, collected from assorted playbooks in Bleak Rains.

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Each of these objects is useful, but each also raises an interesting question along with it about the world or the character. Whose blood is it staining that scimitar, and why can’t you scrub it off? Is that a real eye, and if so, whose? What about the city of Indra causes the compass to stop working? For the addition of just a few words into each item description, you plop some fresh player characters into the world with questions to ponder.

In Summary

Playbooks represent the primary vehicle through which your players can interact with the world, and as a result, good design within the playbooks will affect every moment of a player’s interaction with the game.

On top of reading my (frankly probably useless) advice, see what other designers in the PbtA space are doing. Crib what you like, design responses to what you don’t, and don’t hesitate to bring your craziest, most interesting ideas to paper.

#RPGaDAY 2018: Days 20-26

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We’re nearing the end folks, only a scant 12 questions left before RPGaDay ends and we’ve fully ascended into Fall (the second best season, behind winter, this is canon). So, let’s get right on down to it, no preamble!

August 20th: Which game mechanics inspire your play the most?

This question’s pretty open-ended, so my answer here is going to be anything that reinforces character arcs more than just mechanical progression.

In general, the progression of plot is something I’m not compelled by as much as the progression of characters and their relationships, and as a result, anything which mechanically supports the growth and change of characters over time really resonates with me. This could be Burning Wheel‘s Beliefs and Instincts, Apocalypse World‘s Bonds, or even more abstract measures of character change, like Dungeon Crawl Classics’s Corruption.

August 21st: Which dice mechanic appeals to you?

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My quick reaction to this question is to mention the exquisite Genesys dice system used in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars system, but I’ve talked about that system a couple of times, so I’m not going to rehash what I’ve already written.

So, instead, I wanna talk about a relatively new addition to my collection: The Shab Al-Hiri Roach.

A classic RPG written by prolific RPG designed Jason Morningstar, The Shab Al-Hiri Roach is a GM-less microgame about a bunch of professors at a hoity toity private college in the 1920s trying to vie for the greatest influence in academia, while also dealing with the fact that an ancient Sumerian roach god and its oily offspring are rampant in the college, enslaving the minds of people in private.

The dice system has a two main wrinkles that I really like. The first is the way the game categorizes all dice rolls into Academia and Everything Else. For Academia roles, having to do with either the subject matter taught at the school, the workings of the school, or conflicts of status within the school, characters get dice proportional to their status at the school: laypeople and students get d4s, all the way to Deans and other people of esteem getting d12s. However, for Everything Else, that scale is inverted, such that laypeople get d12s, and those that have been so entrenched in academia that they’ve lost sight of the outside world, get d4s. This is a simple, elegant, and fantastic way to model the power structure of academia.

The second thing I like is what the game calls the “Roachy” dice. When you’re currently enslaved by the Shab Al-Hiri Roach, you get an immediate d12 added to your dice rolls, a massive boost to anything you do. If you follow the commands of the Roach (issued, in Sumerian, by a deck of cards you draw from every turn), you get another d12. This means that, if you submit to the power of the Roach, you’ll be handsomely rewarded, but with a simple catch: if you’re possessed by the Roach at the end of the game, you can’t win, and the Roach can only be expelled via a type of card randomly drawn from the deck. So, you might be tempted to consume the Roach to further your goals, but are you willing to, forgive the pun, roll the dice and forfeit your victory?

August 22nd: Which non-dice system appeals to you?

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I personally am a big fan of Ben Robbins’s microscope, a game about create large eras of history. microscope isn’t played with dice, or really even random resolution. Instead, each player takes turns inserting periods of history and events into an increasing timeline, the only constraints being a collection of Yes/No topics decided upon at the start of the game, and the singular rule to not contradict any other events on the timeline.

microscope is a fantastic game of its own right, just because of its potential to let even a relatively non-participatory group of players generate a massive world of their own design and fill it with the most interesting details. The game’s real genius is that it provides just enough framework from the get-go that players always have something to go off of, and as the game continues, and the picture of this world gets more and more clear, it becomes easier and easier to add to.

microscope is also fractal in design, meaning that players can either add massive sweeping events and eras to the timeline, or drill deep down into the events of individuals and try and determine how their lives shape the entirety of history, both done with an equal amount of detail and similar mechanics. The best part about microscope, in my opinion, is that after you’re done, you not only have a tangible artifact of your play (the notecards that generated the setting can easily be reassembled), but you can then set your “regular” game inside of your game of microscope, and get instant setting buy-in from everyone at the table. How cool is that?

August 23rd: Which game do you hope to play again?

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Both of my Shadowrun 3E campaign attempts have died and gone to scheduling hell, which I find extremely disappointing. While complaints about the system being pretty clunky in some regards (insert commentary about Matrix and Astral Plane time distortion, grenade rules, and massive dice pool resolution here), but I definitely love this game. The mood is so deliciously nineties while still having just enough clarity of modern design to shave away some of the hard edges (it was released in the mid-2000s, which let’s be real, is just the late late 90s).

There are a lot of reasons I love Shadowrun. The setting is incredible, the dice pool system can create some really unexpected and cool results (what was meant to be an eensy weensy warning fireball might end up instantly incinerating a guy), and it has just the right amount of tactical combat and gear porn to make it one of my “deep combat” games of choice, without bogging the game down too bad if you plan around some of the system’s pitfalls.

While a lot of the editions of Shadowrun have their ups and downs, Third Edition lives in my heart as the game that toes the line between modern convenience and that classic 90s retro charm.

August 24th: Which RPG do you think deserves greater recognition?

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There are a lot of superhero RPGs out there, and a lot of them are good, but one that constantly gets overlooked despite being great is Wild Talents.

I’m gonna frontload the negatives here: Wild Talents is a system that’s pretty intense on the GM, requiring them to do a decent amount of prep and approval. It can also take a bit to wrap your head around, especially if you’re already pre-wired to handle more D&D-esqe dice systems. Now onto the good stuff.

Wild Talents has a fantastically flexible character creation system which lets you build basically any superpower you want with little to no houseruling. The One-Roll Engine that the game is built on makes combat super easy to resolve (in, dare I say it, one roll). The game mechanics feed into this great narrative of triumph and failure as characters become empowered and disenfranchised. The Hard and Wiggle dice allow players a decent amount of control over their own success, ensuring that characters can behave as expected in critical circumstances.

I actually wanna zoom in on that last one, because it’s very cool. The way the ORE works is that you roll a bunch of d10s, and your result is based on any matches you accumulate. The side of the die showing is called the Height, and determines the quality of the action, and the number of dice in the set is the Width, and determines the speed. So, a set of three 8s has a Height of 8 and a Width of 3.

Wiggle Dice can be changed to show any side, ensuring that, as long as you’re rolling at least one other die, you always have a set. You can always accomplish a task, and usually pretty well. Multiple Wiggle Dice in a roll mean you have precise control over how well you do. However, in character creation terms, Wiggle Dice are expensive. In come Hard Dice.

A Hard Die shows a 10. Always. Get multiple Hard Dice, and you can guarantee a set with a Height of 10, all the time. These dice are much cheaper, but have a really interesting problem: they’re always maximally effective. If you’re throwing that fireball, that fireball’s always big enough to burn down a city block. If you’re punching a guy, you’re always gonna punch a hole through them. This kind of, literally, uncontrollable power is so interesting, and is the primary reason I think Wild Talents is one of the best superhero games on the market.

August 25th: Name a game that had an impact on you in the last year?

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Dungeon World, but not necessarily because of the game itself. About a year ago also just so happens to be the precise time I started my current job, which I felt super out of place at when I first began. It was a very impostor-syndrome-style creeping terror that consumed me for a little bit, just this striking feeling of “holy shit, why the fuck am here?”

One of the best things I did early on was put out a feeler into a work Slack channel to see if anyone was interested in starting a lunchtime RPG group. Lo and behold, a few people were, and with some deliberations, we decided on playing Dungeon World.

While the makeup of that group has changed over the last year, as people have left and joined the group thanks to the incomprehensible, esoteric workings of Corporate America, the most Lovecraftian of horrors, the friends I’ve made in that group have not only just been great friends, but they’ve reminded me that, yes, I can in fact be a respectable member of adult society.

August 26th: What’s your gaming ambition for the next year?

Actually publish a damn thing.

I’ve been designing games for probably close to ten years now as a hobbyist, but all that’s amounted to is a bunch of half-finished projects. Granted, a lot of those years were spent as a teen or tween, and those games were, to use the technical term, bad, but I still feel like I should try to get one of my projects done and up for download by the general public. This means taking it through the entire process: design, playtesting, layout, editing, the whole nine yards.

I don’t really expect to make my millions in that sweet sweet indie RPG money, but having something published is something that I just haven’t done yet, so I need to just finish something up and release it to the world. Ideally, I’ll be releasing a bunch of stuff, but for the moment, we’ll set the goal at a reasonable, tangible number of one.

 

#RPGaDay 2018: Days 13-19

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Oh man I totally dropped the ball on this one. The last couple weeks or so have been buckwild for me, but I should be back on track now. Without belaboring the point too badly, here are my Week Three responses for #RPGaDay 2018!

August 13th: Describe how your play has evolved

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I like combat a lot less than I used to.

When I first started delving into the hobby, which, granted, was at age 13 or so, I was all about the fightin’. RPGs were just a way to emulate a seemingly endless combat between some badass hero dudes and, like, I dunno, fifty orcs or whatever. Adventures were excuses to collect cool swords and kill things. When I started designing games, I was designing super-complicated combat systems and basically ignoring anything else.

But, as time went on, a little switch started to flip over in my head. Suddenly, combat was no longer as interesting to me, and I started to realize that, as a GM, my sessions were including less and less of it, to the point where some of my plot arcs literally never involved a single initiative roll. In designing games, I started to abstract away bits of combat, or otherwise use combat as a vehicle for other parts of the game, as a sort of delivery method for the things I actually care about.

I’m not 100% sure why my opinion of combat has shifted. I think it’s just that I have become dissatisfied with the way combat works in so many games. I hate how things just grind to a halt, the abstraction of hit points and damage leaves things feeling so mathematical, and it feels like all of the roleplay and interesting character just dies. Some games do a much better job than others (I like PbtA’s approach to combat a lot), but in the meanwhile, my opinion’s probably going to stay this way until I can find a better solution, or craft one myself.

August 14th Describe a failure that became amazing

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Art by Jeol Pigou: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/oVldm

For the uninitiated, a Purple Worm is a fuck-off-big D&D staple monster, notable for being a giant goddamn mouth with a big snake body that basically does nothing other than wreck shit.

So, one day, our D&D party, tired, beaten-down, and low on resources, encounters a Purple Worm. Now, our party hasn’t really internalized the idea of “we shouldn’t just fight everything we see” yet, except for me, mostly because my character is useless in combat and crumples like a wet paper bag when presented with a strong breeze. So, we draw swords on this thing, and our party paladin, almost instantly, dies. I, seeing an opportunity to loot his corpse, er, I mean, protect his body for later resurrection, teleport away with him, and the rest of the party gets promptly swallowed. It is at this point, where we’re approaching a near-complete TPK, that our Wizard does something preposterously stupid.

He casts Rope Trick.

If you don’t know, Rope Trick is cast on a rope, at which point the role extends towards the ceiling and creates a little pocked dimension at the top, at which point you can climb the rope and hide, in safety, in the hole. In this case, said hole was constructed in the upper stomach lining of the worm, which at this point, basically was the victor of the fight. Rope Trick lasts an hour.

Over the course of that hour, my partymates basically took turns sticking an arm out of the pocket dimension and stabbing the Worm in the stomach from the safety, if not comfort, of a safe little hole in spacetime. After 1 hour and approximately 1000 papercuts, the Worm fell, and I returned, my face stained with tears and my pockets full of gold, to discover that not only did we not all die miserably in the face of a much stronger foe, but everyone (well, almost everyone) was pretty much A-OK.

We stopped rushing into combats after that.

August 15th: Describe a tricky RPG experience that you enjoyed

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If we’re describing tricky here as “difficulty taken to get to the table”, I think the clear winner here is the effort I went through to get my hands on the Dark Souls Table-Talk Game, the Japan-only RPG based on the Souls series.

Here are the steps I went through:

  1. Fly to Japan
  2. Randomly bumble my way through Akihabara, ignoring the copious amounts of maid cafes, anime, and pornography (and combinations thereof), until I found Yellow Submarine, which I presume to be Japan’s main brick-and-mortar tabletop hobby shop
  3. Randomly find a copy of Dark Souls on a shelf (thank god the name is on the spine in English)
  4. Fly back to the States
  5. Use Discord to find a bilingual GM as well as some other players down to play this jank-ass game.
  6. Deal with the fact that the three people in the group are basically equidistant across the Earth’s surface, making time zones a nightmare.
  7. Finally play the game basically in the middle of the night on a Friday

Honestly, it was all worth it, though. There’s a lot of interesting things this game does, to the point where I’ll probably write about it soon. But, boy, there are certainly easier ways to play a game.

August 16th: Describe your plans for your next game

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Somewhat disappointingly, my regular gaming group is entering a sort of hiatus while a few of our members go through some for-realsies life stuff, which obviously is great on a personal level, but is a real kick in the balls for my gaming habits. So, I think I’m going to probably try to spin up two parallel Roll20 groups for whom I can run some ideas I’ve had in the back of my head.

The first group will probably be a pretty standard group, although what exactly I’m going to run for them I have not decided yet. Current frontrunners include a 2E pirate sandbox, a Stars Without Number post-apocalyptic space hexcrawl, and a game heavily inspired by the movie Daybreakers.

The second group will be a much more structurally interesting undertaking. I’m not even sure if this will be a single group, because the plan I want to try out is to run ten one-shots in ten different systems. While these one-shots will be encapsulated stories, they will all be part of a greater sequence with consequences that span from one story to the next. I’ve recently been reading a decent amount of Michael Moorcock, and his idea of the Eternal Champion, a warrior who appears in multiple incarnation across worlds, has heavily inspired me here.

August 17th: Describe the best compliment you’ve had while gaming

The best complement I’ve ever recieved was actually nonverbal.

For my primary group, I’m the one who introduced almost all of them to RPGs. Two of them played through an extremely short-lived 3.5 game I ran in high-school, but other than that, almost all of them had played essentially 0 role-playing games. My introduction of them to the hobby was honestly mostly selfish: I needed a group, we needed a thing to do, it was a good fit.

The group ending up really enjoying the hobby was a delightful treat, albeit not totally unexpected. However, the thing that really delighted me was one player, one of my best friends and my at-that-time roommate, falling absolutely head-over-heels in love with the hobby. Next thing I knew, he was asking me about a bunch of other systems, talking about RPG videos he had watched on the internet, discussing the finer points of adventure design and, finally, offering to GM his own game for the group.

I realize that this is mostly the doing of the hobby as a whole, and that I was merely the catalyst, but watching someone get so excited about the hobby after playing in my dumb-ass campaign was a really nice moment, because while it’s alright to have someone say that you did a good job or pat you on the back or whatever, having someone enjoy your game so much that they take the leap into running their own makes me a special kind of happy.

August 18th: What art inspires your game?

Ching Yeh, known on Twitter as @Cbotme, makes art that makes me feel some kinda way. I’ll let it speak for itself.

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Seriously, go check out their Twitter and ArtStation page, the work they have there is absolutely goddamn incredible.

August 19th: What music enhances your game?

I flip-flop on my usage of music in my games. Normally I’m not a super-big fan, just because at best I think the players tune it out, and at worst it serves as a noticeable distraction that breaks immersion. However, there are two instances where I think music would be a good fit: horror, and cyberpunk.

Mood are super important for both of those genres, and I think both have extremely distinct styles that make it very easy for a well-selected playlist to push you deep into the mood of the games.

Horror music tends to be more atmospheric in nature, and thus I’m having kind of a hard time thinking of actual artists (please, share with me if you have some good ones), but I have accrued a decent collection of cyberpunk artists for my old Shadowrun campaign.  I think Cyberpunkers are a sort of obvious choice, as is Vangelis and M|O|O|N, best known for their work on the Hotline Miami soundtrack. On that note, Sun Araw and Jasper Byrne have also made some great pieces that fit great with cyberpunk, and obviously there is the King of Synth, Kavinsky. All of these can be mixed together to perfectly evoke the mood of a cold, rainy, steel cyberpunk dystopia.

 

#RPGaDAY 2018: Days 6-12

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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….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.

#RPGaDAY 2018: Days 1-5

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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?

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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”?

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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?

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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?

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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.