Simplicity? Motive ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 21

It’s no secret that in general I prefer a simpler or lighter system for my RPG’s more often than not. This topic has been talked to death, and yesterday my friends and I were laughing about a phenomenon that has puzzled us. “Game X” frequently gets called fast and furious, but when we look at it, this RPG seems terribly complex and slow. Even watching actual plays of other people playing it it seems… complex and slow. Recently one of us had a revelation that a large number of the people calling “game X” simple and fast normally were playing “game Y” which can be quite a tangle of rules and procedures. No wonder they thought “game X” was fast and furious! The vast majority probably had very little to no exposure to Games A, B, C, D… etc. But this blog post isn’t about that…

The fact that I tend to prefer simplicity in my RPG‘s isn’t terribly interesting. But my motive is. What brings us to the table is fascinating to me. Ask any of us what our motives for playing RPG’s are and you soon realize that there are no right or wrong answers. Instead you find that there are a multitude of reasons or motives why people engage in this hobby. Our intentions for the RPG experience can vary considerably, and this speaks too many motivations being involved. The most important thing for any individual is quite literally to “know thyself”, And for me it’s important to know not just what I like, but why I like it.

I certainly enjoy the uncertainty involved in RPG sessions, and like anyone else I thrill to the tumbling dice, anxiously awaiting our fate. I certainly own enough dice. (But who has enough dice… Really?) Of course the other part of uncertainty is not knowing exactly what is going to happen in the unfolding fiction. However, I don’t just enjoy watching this “emerging story” from on high in the role of a creator/spectator, I really like watching it from ground level. From the perspective of my character or the characters I control as a GM. Quite literally making decisions and acting according to the motives of the character in question. If the situation is real, and the character is a real person, then it follows that the character has motives for why they do what they do. When I can see things through their eyes, and I understand who they are, then I can experience Something remarkable and very often the line between their motives and my motives gets blurred.

In my specific case, I find it harder to fulfill my intentions if the rule set is more complex. This doesn’t mean that a large complex rule set is bad or prevents this for everybody. In fact I can tell you that the more I play some of the more complicated ones the easier it becomes for me. However, I believe it tends to take me a little longer than other people.

The real point is, my primary motive of wanting to experience the motives and perspective of the character, and my secondary motives of wanting to observe the unfolding fiction and delighting in the uncertainty of the dice at dramatic or important moments, is not satisfied as much when I am operating a larger set of rules and procedures. Your mileage may vary and probably does.

But the hobby is so much bigger than just me. It’s fascinating observing people and wondering why they do what they do. What is their motive for playing this game? What are the motivations of the various characters and nonplayer characters involved in the scenario? Who are they? What do they want? Do we as players care? If we don’t, why? What are we here for instead?

When we understand our own motives it becomes easier for us to have RPG sessions that satisfy our intentions. When we understand the motivations of the other players it becomes easier to decide if we were compatible, decide what games we should play together, and come to a consensus about the expectations for play. When we understand the motives of the characters on both sides of the metaphorical screen, it becomes so much easier to play them. Things begin to make sense. Play can become seemingly effortless. It’s….fun.

That’s pretty motivating.

Lineage ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 20

This is kind of a fun topic for me although it is somewhat bittersweet. I really enjoy analyzing RPGs & seeing what makes them tick. It doesn’t take long to figure out the games have influenced each other and that you can begin to detect lineages and cross pollination. The only bitter part of this topic for me is the fact that I spent a good amount of time out of the hobby so I didn’t get to experience some of these influential games first hand. At least not when they first came out. Other games were available or at least published when I was first playing, but I didn’t have access to them.

All regrets aside, it’s still fun to see where ideas have come from and how very often what seems new and innovative is instead standing on the shoulders of giants. That’s not to say that newer games aren’t innovative and haven’t put all the ideas together and do an interesting ways. And of course there are always RPGs out there that have really managed to do something novel.

I’ve taken some very interesting trips doing detective work trying to piece together what happened over time. Among the most notable have been the current state of PBTA games, including the current accepted “Internet wisdom” or “best practices” for this family of games. What I find quite interesting is how different they are from the original apocalypse world, and even very often from the later and oft cited monsterhearts. The differences between those two games are quite interesting as well. However, this blog post isn’t about that.

Although there are several innovative games out there such as the pool by James West, the one that really impressed me the most with how much inspired other games is Ghostbusters by West end games. I had heard that this game influenced a tremendous amount of other games and came up with various novel ideas but it wasn’t until I read it a year or so ago that I realized just how influential it was. There are so many innovative concepts, procedures, and mechanics in that game that have influenced countless others that it is quite remarkable. It’s something you have to read for yourself.

Next time you pick up a new game and read it, and play it, try to see the lineage behind it. It may be quite surprising.

Theme ~ #RPGaDAY day 19

At some point I started hearing about this idea that role playing games should be about something. “What is your game about, and how does it do that?“ when I was younger I really didn’t think the game was about anything. Or did I? I don’t believe I thought about it in these terms but certainly I found the games were more satisfying when they had some kind of coherent theme.

Most games claim to be about something. Very often they let you know in the description or in the first few pages. Usually they talk about genre or idiom or something like that. Maybe they don’t use those words, but they give you an idea what the game is supposed to be like and what kind of things will be happening in it. Some games go even deeper and talk about what the theme is supposed to be or talk about choosing a theme for your group.

From here it gets interesting. Some games certainly have mechanics and procedures which reinforce a particular theme. Maybe they simply reinforce the genre or idiom, but these help inform theme to a certain degree. Other games have mechanics & procedures which don’t seem to help, and sometimes games have mechanics and procedures which seem to fight the supposed theme at every turn.

One of the things I discovered, or at least crystallized in my thoughts, when I was making an OSR tutorial for Lee your humble game master, was the fact that in some games such as those very often the theme or genre is what you bring to the table as players. But I would go even further. In the past my friends and I have talked about genre and it’s been my experience that there is the genre that you go for and then there’s a genre that shows up for dinner. I believe this goes double for theme.

Thinking about this topic I have to say it’s been my experience that most RPG sessions or campaigns have a theme of some kind. Sometimes we purposely drive towards it , but sometimes something shows up that is unexpected. I believe there are a lot of forces at play. The game, the intended genre, the interaction of the players, and what we bring to the table. That is, how we react to the events and genre of the RPG itself, and how we bring a certain part of our self to the table most of the time.

My friends and I good-naturedly laugh at ourselves, and sometimes each other, not only about the idea that sometimes we tend to bring the same characters over and over again, but also that unless we make a conscious effort to do otherwise, we all tend to drift into our own preferred themes or styles. Even if we are well-behaved I believe that we all still tend to bring facets of our self to the table more often than not. This tends to push a certain theme or at least a set of themes. I find this quite interesting.

Very often the theme of a game session or campaign isn’t really entirely apparent until we look back on it. Sometimes we notice it during play, and sometimes we notice it during reflection afterwards. The very best experiences for me have been when we notice it mid campaign. And then we can intentionally explore the theme that seems to be emerging.

Maybe we need a theme song.

Write ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 18

I like to write. I just don’t do it enough. This blog is proof of that. Every year I tell myself that I will continue to write entries after RPGaDAY is over, and every year it seems like I put it off and get busy with other things. But at least RPGaDAY and this hobby have inspired me to write in the first place.

The RPG hobby is full of writing. I believe that many people who never would have written novels or stories have been able to exercise their creativity by writing role playing games instead. The quality and style of the prose varies, but there are some real gems out there. Every once in a while I think to myself I would like to design and write a game or two, but I should probably start a consistent blog or something first.

A good deal of writing can and has be done about various games, the experiences we have playing them, the theories behind what is happening, and so forth. There’s always room for more. Sometimes it helps us crystallize our thoughts when we write them down. It certainly allows us to think critically and honestly when we commit to writing down our opinions and observations on paper (or the cloud).

That said, creation of games and commentary on them is only part of the writing that we do in the hobby. There is a lot of fun in the creation and writing of scenarios. These run the gamut from simple outlines of a starting situation to creation of entire worlds or underground labyrinths. It doesn’t matter if you’re like me and like them to just be a jumping off point with no actual planned sequence of events, or if you prefer something more linear and scripted, we all have the opportunity to exercise our creativity in writing during game preparation.

Maybe I’ll keep writing this blog. Who can say?

Found ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 17

I recall hearing about the “feel, felt, found” method of handling objections years ago. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with sales and I am not a salesman. it went something like this: “ I know how you feel… I felt the same way… But you know what I found?”. As manipulative as that sounds to me, (being a jaded individual), there is some truth to that. Many times I have held an opinion only to discover that things were not what I thought they were once a did some investigation and experienced them for myself. I “found out“ how things actually were.

I have certainly found that many of my opinions in the RPG Hobby have changed over the past several years due to my experiences. I have found out many things that surprised me. The salient point to me is that you don’t find things out unless you actually participate in them. opinions without evidence from experience fall flat. Overall this willingness to find things out for myself has enriched my experience in the hobby. I have discovered that I like many things that I did not think I would. For the most part, I have found out what sort of experiences I like, and I have discovered how to make them much more likely.

Through the magic of the Internet and perseverance I have found my people. I’m certain that I will find some more. I continue to find new games that I want to play. More dice. More RPG bloggers, vloggers, and podcasts. More ideas for scenarios. Did I mention dice?

I continue to have the pleasure of playing to find out. Playing to find out what happens. Finding out who the characters are. Finding out what their relationships are like. Finding out what the settings and scenarios are like. Finding out how My characters react to their experiences. Discovering that others like the rewarding experience of seeing the world through the eyes of the character. I have found out the value of having a session 0 an open communication. I have discovered new techniques and many new ideas. I continue to discover more as long as I keep my eyes open and remain open minded.

Seek and ye shall find.

Villain ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 16

RPGs are often full of villains. If they aren’t outright evil, they are adversarial to the goals of our characters. they come in all shapes and forms, and sometimes it’s difficult to identify them. Other times nothing is as obvious.

Villains add a lot of flavor and drama to our game sessions and often can be quite memorable. it’s not unusual for them to become favorites. In our The Sky is no Limit campaign of Leagues of Adventure Leftenant Armbruster Credenza is as a welcome sight to the players as he is a very unwelcome sight to the characters. He has become a rich detailed character that we love to hate.

Now we can easily fall into the trap of not wanting to let the favorite villains come to an end. For the most part I tend to be in the camp that advocates not protecting your darlings and letting the dice fall where they may. In general I don’t like forcing outcomes.

However, there are certain genres where the heroes or the villains rarely ever die, it just seems that way. Broken Compass Buy two little mice does a very good job of emulating a 90s action movie. The text gives you clear examples of times where it is appropriate for a character to die, only to return in the next episode. This usually includes a Munchausen worthy account of how they barely escaped death after being washed away by the current, falling off of that cliff, Being pulled underwater by that saltwater crocodile, or being trapped in that building when it exploded.

Now for the most part that text deals with the death of player characters, but what is good for the goose is good for the gander. In a three part one shot of that game we were introduced to a set of rivals that quickly became quite interesting. These villains are actually part of the procedure and mechanics of the game. It is remarkably genre appropriate. During play two of them seemed to get what they deserved, but we know they are coming back. And they’re probably going to be very angry. We are looking forward to that the next time we play that game.

I certainly hope that the good lefttenant continues to make appearances in our LOA game. He’s pretty fantastic for that genre as well.

Supplement ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 15

I’m not always the biggest fan of supplements when it comes to RPGs. Very often I become jaded and see them as simply ways to make more money and wonder if they didn’t include that information in the core book because they wanted to sell you more later on once you got hooked. We had three books in 1981 and we liked it! Get off my lawn with your splat books you meddling kids!

Every once in a while something comes along that is so impressive it really makes me reconsider my somewhat curmudgeonly position. The most notable among these is the vast number of supplements for Leagues of Adventure and All For One: Regime Diabolique by Triple Ace Games. Both of these games have excellent standalone core books. In them Paul “Wiggy” Wade Williams built on the already fantastic set of Ubiquity rules from Hollow Earth Expedition by Jeff Combos of Exile Games Studio. (HEX has wonderful supplement books as well).

Far from being extra material that was not included in the core books by design, Paul seems to have a preternatural ability to come up with new ideas. Paris Gothique and Satan’s Playground add some wonderful extra dimensions to all for one, while the three Richelieu’s Guides present A phenomenal number of creative rules adaptations to deal with many different scenarios.

LOA Has a similar set of small essays which present new rules adaptations and ideas. But the real magic for me resides in the Leagues of Gothic Horror and Leagues of Cthulhu expansions. Besides the two core books, there are an impressive number of supplements for them available which deal with such varied things as the Ministry of Unusual Affairs, the guide to Mummies, Mordavia the land of Horror, and the Cthulhu Codicil.

As if this wasn’t enough, LOA has the quarterly Letters from the Leagues and the soon to be released Dramatis Personae supplement. It would be sad not to have other options, but I could literally play this game for the rest of my life and never use all of the material that Paul has been able to turn out. The really terrible thing for me is it it’s all fantastic so I have no choice but to buy it.

There are worse fates.

Momentum ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 14

I don’t know how true this really is, but I have heard that a stationary freight train can be held in place with a relatively small block of wood placed on the tracks. It certainly isn’t going to push down a brick wall. However, once a freight train gets up to speed it is a nearly unstoppable force. It would certainly have enough momentum to smash through a brick wall, probably a brick house, maybe even a few of them. I’d actually like to try this, but I don’t think I’m gonna get the opportunity. It’s a pity really.

An RPG session or campaign that has gained momentum is a truly wonderful thing. I really don’t want to have to work hard at an RPG session pushing it along. It’s no fun either to sit around in a session where things just aren’t going anywhere and everything feels forced and uncertain. Fortunately, as we become experienced gamers we learn how to achieve critical mass faster.

I have found that being on the same page with the genre and knowing what we are going for really helps a great deal. Bringing characters that are appropriate to what we are going for is essential. A sense of “buy-in” and engagement by everyone involved helps remove barriers to the game picking up speed.

The first session or a one shot can be a little bit tough so very often it helps to start things off with a bang. Giving the train a good solid push helps to get it rolling, and once the rest of the group jumps on board & starts shoveling coal we can start the acceleration process.

A lot of digital and actual ink has been spilled writing about how to create and maintain momentum so I’m not going to talk about that too much here. I will say that it has been my experience that it is everybody’s responsibility to contribute to that momentum and make sure that it is picking up speed and not getting derailed. It can be somewhat difficult at first but once we know who the characters are and their personalities have kind of emerged it can be much easier to achieve that state where play seems to become effortless.

Momentum is a word that implies direction, and very often people can confuse that with just going along with what the game master wants you to do or following a prepared story or something of that nature. I like to think of it more like achieving critical mass. In the beginning parts of an RPG session or campaign play takes a bit of effort to sustain. Sometimes a lot of effort. We need to keep consciously and intentionally interjecting Energy into the game. We don’t really have any relationships set so we need to try to establish some. We’re not really sure what is important to our characters, at least not in a specific manner. The characters & the environment haven’t interacted enough yet. Hopefully all of us are contributing those kicks and it’s not just the game master or a few people. Sometimes we pull in some different directions until the game takes shape.

We keep pouring fuel into the game, and it starts to get easier as things begin to crystallize and relationships get established. Goals and directions become more apparent. It doesn’t matter if we’re going anywhere at all, even a conversation in game could be the action. The game has started to take on its own personality. At some point it reaches that critical mass and it seems to really have a life of its own. In reality we’re still giving it pushes and direction but it seems effortless and natural. Hesitation and uncertainty are removed and we remove any barriers to the momentum that has built up.

We have created life, and it’s 900,000 pounds of steel, out of control.

Improvise ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 13

Plan? What plan? I’m making this up as I go along!

For me, improvisation is one of the things that makes role-playing games so fun. It is precisely because we and the other players improvise, (and of course that the fickle hand of fate speaks to us through the dice or other means), That we don’t know what is going to happen during a session. We literally play to find out. We may have the intention to play to create intentionally, and that still relies upon improvisation to a large degree.

My friends and I talk about this subject quite a bit. Anthony frequently talks about “preparing to improvise“. That is to say, by preparing facts about the game world, the game master can set themselves up to be able to improvise in the moment because they have a firm foundation upon which to stand. They are able to improvise in other ways rather than making something up out of thin air. It certainly gives the game master of the opportunity to role-play characters even though it’s not quite the same as being a player. When you know who the nonplayer characters are, it can be very easy to improvise their actions in a manner that makes sense. It’s a lot tougher when you have to make them up on the spot. Likewise when scenarios and situations already exist and are in motion the game master has put themselves in a position to improvise what happens next based upon the actions of the players and upon how all these moving parts are interacting.

Just today Eloy talked about the rut that we can sometimes fall into when we find ourselves improvising the same old similar things over and over. As a game master we have our own favorite tropes and sensibilities and if we are not careful it’s easy to find ourselves improvising in familiar patterns. Likewise, if we tend to play the same characters, we can become just as predictable. He mentioned that he particularly likes to use an oracle of some sort. Random tables, dice, something which prompt him to improvise in a different manner by giving him information and constraints. It’s very easy to see how something like fantasy flight games Star Wars gives all of the players prompts for creativity, but quite often some of these prompts exist in other systems. I agree that it can be a lot of fun to use outside help. He also mentioned the benefits of watching each other improvise and picking up ideas from each other.

Depending upon your preferences and sensibilities there are games which allow a lot more free-form improvisation. Reality can be less stable, so there exists the need to take notes if you want to know what’s going on and not contradict each other! This sort of play can be quite entertaining as well. In a way, it’s not terribly different than the game master who improvises everything on the spot with no preparation. It just involves collaboration from a lot more people. One certainly has to be careful to not fall into the same old predictable ideas in both cases.

All caveats aside, it’s terribly rewarding to be in a group of people where we never really know what the others are going to say or do next. very often we don’t know either because we are responding to the constantly evolving situation and dynamics of the game in the moment. All of us are improvising, all the time. We have guides such as the established game world reality, the genre, who the characters are, the results of the dice, culture of play for that group, what just happened, and so forth. It’s been my experience that rather than hinder us those constraints and those guidelines allow us to improvise more effectively and with less effort.

Structure can set us free.

Think ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 12

When I’m not playing RPGs, (which is most of the time), sometimes I think about them. I think about the games I am currently involved in, and the ones I am running. I think about the sessions and the interactions and the events of those sessions. I think about the characters and about the setting. I think about what might happen next or what I would like to see happen. I think about how the sessions went and if we can make any improvements. I also think about games I would like to be involved in or would like to run. I think about what I might prepare for the next time or the time after that. What kind of character would I like to play in a particular genre? How would I like to run that?

When I read new games and when I play new games I think about how they are different from each other and about the procedures and mechanics involved in them. I think about how they feel and why they feel the way they do. I think about their design and about the premise, genre, or idiom that the game involves.

When I watch myself and others play & when I reflect on the game sessions afterwards I think about our different intentions and different methods of playing. I think about how the specific games help or hinder that. I think about why we play. I think about what happens when things go right and what happens when things go wrong. I think about how different intentions or desires require different games and mechanics and actions. I think about all the different ingredients that make up the RPG experience.

Sometimes I think about designing or modifying games. What would I do differently and why? What would my intention be? How can I use an interesting mechanic? How can I produce a particular feel? How can I emulate a particular genre?

There is nothing new under the sun. As the book The Elusive Shift shows, before me, before the people and groups that one normally associates with RPG theory, and in some cases even before games that were properly RPG’s at all, people have been thinking about and talking about these very things. Even so, I have found there is real value in coming to conclusions for yourself. Not just a matter of theory, one must be involved in experimentation. You have to apply what you have thought about and play the games. And then you can think about that experience.