#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Guide (day 14)

“Always let your conscience be your guide”. Thus spake Jiminy cricket.

Pretty good advice, but sometimes we need a little more help.

Life can be confusing. Very often in one area or another we find ourselves wishing that we had some guidance and direction available to us. Why should the RPG hobby be any different?

Sometimes we can get by on our own power. In 1981 when I picked up the Moldvay Basic set for what would become known as B/X D&D, I read the manual. It wasn’t very difficult. I was able to figure it out by myself. Not that I was able to figure out every little nuance of how to run and play a game, but I figured out how it worked. Fast forward to today, very often I can pick up an RPG text and figure it out. Keep in mind I have to read the text. The entire text. Very often I have to re-read it. After all, it is a manual. The books that we have can give us a great deal of guidance if we take the time to read them.

Assuming we’ve done that, sometimes we can still be left scratching our heads. There might be some procedure that we’re just not quite sure about. Some part of the book that is perhaps written in a confusing manner. Maybe the information isn’t organized the way we might, so things are difficult to locate. Perhaps we’re not sure why we’re supposed to do something in a certain manner or in a different way than we are used to. Or maybe we’re just not sure how to run or play in a certain type of game. Maybe we are running into difficulty in some area and we’re looking for a technique to solve our problem.

Fortunately for us we don’t have to go it alone. Especially in the modern era of the Internet, There is a wealth of information available for us. Yes, of course not all of it is going to be right. We have to seek guidance with some discernment. Have the people we are looking to actually read the game? Have they actually played the game? Have they actually done what they are advising us to do? Can they tell us what the experience was like? Can they give examples of how they made mistakes and corrected them? ~ In short, have they been there and have they found their way to the other side?

After all, isn’t that what a guide is? Somebody who has been that way before and can show us how to navigate it?

The remarkable thing about this Hobby is that I have found that many of those that I have sought guidance from have been willing to share not only their experience, but time at the table together. We have become friends.

Last but not least, don’t forget, once you have been led through the area that was giving you trouble, YOU have been there and found your way to the other side. You can pay it forward and guide the next person seeking for an answer. You have experience.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Mystery (day 13)

Role playing games are full of mystery. But this blog post isn’t about that.

I didn’t watch it very often but every time I found it on television I enjoyed it. In fact, once the idea to use this as a topic came to me, I looked it up on YouTube and listened to one of the episodes on my way back from an event this evening. I laughed quite a bit. Probably too much.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is a ridiculous show where the viewer finds themselves watching a B movie of some sort from the vantage point of being in a movie theater behind the silhouettes of a man and two Bizarre looking puppets. As the movie goes on they engage in incessant banter, commenting on the movie. As most of these movies are just plain awful, you can imagine the kind of comments they make.

What the heck is this have to do with role playing games? How does this reflect the positive intention of RPGaDAY? Has Ivan gone mad? I’m glad you asked.

Very often we end up having several different experiences simultaneously while at the table. We can be engaged with the fiction. We might be seeing things from the perspective of the character, maybe even having an experience as the character. We might be engaged in strategic concerns, or we might be very engaged in trying to create compelling and dramatic moments. We might be having an emotional reaction to what is going on in the fiction, or things may be very tense or charged for the characters.

At the same time, we are having an experience as players, as friends sitting around the table watching this all take place. And sometimes, quite out of character, we comment to each other about it. Now of course this can go overboard and it is a sad cliché about gamers who can ruin the experience by engaging in ceaseless chatter and commentary, never taking the game seriously. ~ However, it has been my experience that a group of mature individuals can remain quite immersed while engaging in occasional commentary . We can laugh at what is happening in the fiction or at the unfortunate rolls of the dice. We can express disbelief at the events of the fiction. We can congratulate each other for doing something particularly awesome, or even say “I can’t believe you just did that … what were you thinking?”. Sometimes this commentary or levity is a way to break the tension when things get particularly tense or dire in the game.

It has been my experience that this is a powerful method of bonding as a group. In particular, I have found this to be very useful in play by post or play by email games where we use a separate out of character thread or chat to comment about the game, keeping our in character and out of character conversation separate. Very often the commentary we make isn’t that much different than mystery science theater. But as long as it is all in fun, and as long as it is done judiciously & in moderation it can be a very enjoyable part of the RPG experience. It can be… Fun.

Role playing games might not all be about fun but we can have a little fun, right?

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Friendship (day 12)

Human beings are social creatures. Friendship is as necessary to us as food and water. Without it, we cease to thrive. ~ sometimes we find friends in the most unlikely of places. Then again, in some circumstances it just makes sense that we would find people that we connect with.

Don’t quote me on this, but I seem to remember anthropologists saying that we evolved to live in groups of about 150 people. Everybody knows everybody. They are our tribe. I’ve also heard from another source that said the average person knows about 500 people by first name. I guess that means every time I learn the name of somebody new, another high school teacher or coworker from the past gets deleted from the memory. ~ All kidding aside, my personal experience lines up with these figures. We live in huge societies, so human beings seem to make their own tribe based on the people they interact with. That’s just what tends to work for us.

The real problem arises when we realize that not all of those in the tribe that we have assembled are really “our tribe”. Many of our relationships with people are relationships of convenience or circumstance. We don’t pick many of the people that we have to interact with. Sometimes we can become friends with these people, but often we find that we don’t connect on a great many levels. They might be nice people, but they are not the ones we would have sought out.

Another complicating factor is that while many of us make friends naturally, a great deal of us have difficulty doing so. Some people have more friends than they can count, while others of us prefer a small but more strongly connected group. None of this is really news. But I think it’s important to lay the groundwork in this discussion.

In my own life my experience has been that friendships come , and friendships go, and that many friendships were based on circumstance. Others have endured the test of time. We can be apart for long periods and begin a conversation as if the lapse in time had not happened. In one area of my life in particular I have made some very profound friendships where we connected around shared experiences. But even those friendships, while genuine and important, don’t meet all of my needs. In some ways they are absolutely members of my tribe, but in other ways not all of them are.

Role-playing games are powerful in many ways. The people at the table can share common experiences that while fictional, can leave memories as if they were real. Very often we end up talking about those experiences and what the characters did, what the players did, and what our individual experiences were like. We start to talk about the hobby as a whole. We start to talk about our own lives and our own experiences. We find that we connect on more than just gaming. We begin to sense kindred spirits.

Make no mistake, not all gamers will be part of our individual tribe. This is a large and diverse hobby, and there are all kinds of people in it. There are people that want various different experiences, that have various different qualities, and that are interested by various different things. Each of us has to engage in a vetting process, and that’s just for who we will game with. In my experience such a litmus test is necessary.

However, when we do discover those that we connect with, and we begin to have those shared experiences at the table with these kindred spirits, we begin to develop friendships that are every bit as profound as those from other areas of our lives. It’s true, Internet gaming opens up the world to a great degree and it is easier to find those like minded souls. But, part of the downside is that we can’t just go grab a cup of coffee after the game and talk. We can’t go grab lunch together or go see a concert. This is a shame. There are definitely people that I have met online and games with that I would rather spend time with than some of my local acquaintances. Life is hard.

As a person that is more apt to have a smaller group of close friends and who has difficulty finding true peers, I have been fortunate to develop some satisfying friendships with those in the RPG community. It is a shame that we are hundreds or thousands of miles apart, But even though we are separated by distance, we have discussed many topics on a deeper level that those who work side-by-side ever will. I have found true kindred spirits, and I treasure them.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Examine (day 11)

How far will you go to get what you want? The RPG Sorcerer by Ron Edwards is built to help you to examine and explore this theme. It’s high up on my wish list of games to play, & after having read it a few times it certainly seems to be able to push in that direction. This premise is something that is highly compelling, especially because the farther you are willing to go to get what you want, the more likely you are to be uncomfortable with your willingness to do so.

Cool stuff, but exploring a premise or a theme is only one of the ways that we engage in examination in RPGs.

We look about all the time. What’s in the room? I examine the corpse. I open the desk and see what is inside. I go the library & make an investigation roll to see what information I can dig up on the cult. I question the shopkeeper. Does it look like he’s telling the truth? I attempt to hack into the mainframe in order to find out any information on the super virus. Some of us really enjoy this nitty-gritty detailed examination of the environment and the elements in it.

Often the entire setting is open for exploration. What’s behind that Next hill? What is the colony on Ganymede like? What is the hierarchy of this corporation really up to? Is that abandoned derelict ship really abandoned? What’s in that cavern? Let us venture were no civilized man has gone before!

For some of us the examination of what it’s like to be this character in this setting in this situation is of primary interest. Stepping out of ourselves and into their shoes we can explore the experience of being that person and we can explore the genre through that character. This can be extraordinarily compelling and satisfying.

Role playing games aren’t therapy, but as a side effect we can often find ourselves in the position of examining our reactions to the experience and to the events of the fiction. Bleed out can occur, where you begin to feel the emotions of the character. You can also have your own reactions to the events of the fiction. Sometimes you find a line where you realize something made you uncomfortable or had an unexpected impact. In a very real way, RPGs can help us examine who we truly are.

For me this is a very exciting topic. Part of the joy of the human experience is the ability to examine and explore. To find out what is really going on. The thrill of discovery. The quest for truth. Pushing the envelope. The courage to question established doctrine or beliefs. The scientific method in action. Walking just a little farther. The exploration of the unknown. The examination of riddles and enigmas.

Why not engage in a hobby when we get to do that all the time as a a matter of course?

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Focus (day 10)

Role playing games need a focus. Maybe foci. I laugh when I hear myself say that because I have had discussions with friends who are more like choreographers in their approach to RPGs. In these discussions I am usually the one arguing for more freedom and less contrivance. They very well may be chuckling at me now.

Even so, I have had the experience of games which really lacked a cohesive focal point. Ones that felt like we were simply meandering in a quagmire of uncertainty. This is never fun and can be quite frustrating.

I have also had the experience of games which had a very strong focus around something. Maybe it was a theme, maybe it was an interest or vendetta. Other times it seemed to be more about the relationship between the characters and exploring who they were. Sometimes the focus was a very strong premise that had a lot of buy-in from everyone at the table. No matter what it was, or if there were two or more foci, these sessions or campaigns felt much more engaging and immersive than those without.

So where does this focus come from? Does it need to be spelled out beforehand? Does the game itself need to support that? Can it just emerge over time through the events of play? I don’t think that there is one definitive answer. However, it is my belief that all of the people at the table need to talk openly about it. Having an open line of communication and talking about the game experience with each other is one of those critical ways to support the focus of a game. This video by my pal Eloy is an excellent look at the importance of open communication in the spirit of constructive criticism. It probably should be required viewing by gamers.

Assuming that this communication exists, we still need to figure out where this focus actually comes from. Or do we? I have had the experience of a focal point or theme arising naturally, I had the experience of one being discussed beforehand, And I have had some experience of games which try to create this focus via procedures and mechanics. All of them have their advantages and drawbacks, it is a matter of bias and preference which method appeals the most to you. But I don’t think that you can argue with the idea that a focused play experience is a rewarding one.

What is this game going to be about? What is our experience going to be like? What are we going to be doing? How will we do it? ~ contrasted with talking after the game and realizing all of a sudden that this game has taken on a life of its own and no one could’ve seen the focal point coming before it showed up. Are these mutually incompatible? I don’t think so. But your mileage may vary.

In the same manner as the quality of the activities of play themselves, I have found that characters are most satisfying and engaging when they have a clear focus. Sometimes this gets developed during character creation, and sometimes it just emerges over the course of play. Just like the game itself, occasionally the focus of a character can change. Sometimes that shift can be just as surprising to the player as it is to the other players around the table.

I think it’s important to remember that the focus doesn’t need to be artificial. Not all characters have to have the same goals or need to be on the same page. That really depends upon the game and what you have agreed to do in the first place. The focus very well could be conflict and dissonance between the characters!

It could be different for you, but for me my favorite games are the ones that I can look back on them and can tell you what they were about. Sometimes it was obvious, and sometimes it was surprising, but it was always worth the time.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Critical (day 9)

Doing a Google search on critical thinking I found something rather amusing in the suggested questions in my mobile device. One of the drop down menus said “what are the seven critical thinking skills?” ~ The list provided was observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem-solving, and decision-making.

I don’t know about you, but I counted nine. So much for critical thinking. Or maybe that was just a test to see if I could apply those skills to notice the discrepancy.

For a long time I have enjoyed taking Games apart. I like to see what makes them tick. I like to see how they work, what the mechanics actually do. I like to do this from a mathematical standpoint, but also in terms of how they interface with the fiction. What does it feel like when the mechanics are invoked? Is it easy to narrate from? What do they actually tell is happening in the game world? How much of a disconnect is there from an immersive experience when they are used? Does practice alleviate this?

I have also really come to enjoy looking at a new game and seeing what it is all about. But for me part of the enjoyment is not taking everything at face value. I like to apply some critical analysis to what I am seeing. What is the premise? What is the game supposed to do? What is it supposed to be about? Does it actually do that?

Part of this analysis is to actually play the game and then talk about the experience with the other players. What actually happened? How did it feel? Do we know why that happened? Were we playing the game correctly? Did the game feel natural or did it push us out of our comfort zone? Is there something we need to do differently? Does the game have problems? Is it confusing in actual play? ~ On the surface this sounds like it would be overthinking things but in practice it can be very rewarding and lead to a much richer experience.

I really enjoy the fact that this hobby provides many ways to engage with it and can be very enjoyable even when you are not actually playing the game. One of those ways that is very satisfying and engaging for me is to apply some critical thinking to the games themselves and to the experiences they help create.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Obscure (day 8)

I have a sense of humor that a lot of people don’t get. Not only is it a little bit quirky, but I often make rather obscure references to things that not a lot of other people know about. Even when I’m not joking around many of the things a reference can baffle other people.

I don’t know if you can relate to that, but very often when people like me start playing role-playing games we discover other people that get those obscure references. We start to realize that we are not alone in our interests and are areas of knowledge. We find a place where it is OK to be a nerd, in fact it’s cool.

I’ll be honest, these days I like a more serious game and prefer to keep things as in character or focused on the fiction as possible. I’m not a fan of constant joking around and constant references to geek pop culture. That said, with some discretion and flair a well-timed reference can be a thing of beauty. Subtlety is important, and the best obscure references are those that may or may not get caught. When they are, it is pure magic. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples that happened just recently.

In our Mythos Mythras PBEM game we are on our second set of characters, this time in 2020. The scene begins with our intrepid investigators held in a classroom with an entire building on lockdown after a grisly murder. Anthony’s post sets the stage, and near the tail end of the long and detailed e-mail is this gem of NPC dialogue overheard by our characters.

“I will speak to the ones in 322 next. Look lively now, officer. You need to bring them to me one at a time, without discussing anything with them, and without letting them interact with anyone on the way to and the way from the interview room. Understood? Officer Gates will coordinate this with you. He will give you the signal to bring the first suspect and he will take them to the post-interview waiting area. Now: repeat what I just told you.”

I’m not sure that was the most obscure reference possible, but I grinned as soon as I saw Anthony’s post, because of course it was a veiled reference to the “don’t let him leave the room” scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Subtle, in the background, but hysterical nevertheless. A well executed tip of the hat to classic gamer humor.

Little things like that in game or even in out of game conversations go a long way towards building camaraderie and adding another layer of fun to the experience. Just as long as you don’t go overboard. Like spice, a little goes a long way

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Familiar (day 7)

This had me stumped for a little bit. What was I going to talk about? Find familiar? Sometimes you get a raven, if you’re really unlucky you might get a frog. That didn’t seem very exciting or positive.

If anything during the past few years I have ventured far outside of my comfort zone and left the familiar behind. I have found that this has greatly expanded my appreciation of the RPG Hobby and has offered me many new and rewarding experiences.

Like my friend Eloy says, Even if you end up going back & returning to the familiar you have a better understanding of why you like it and you can import some things you have learned elsewhere into your old way of playing. However, sometimes I have found that when I return to the familiar that it no longer feels like home. Travel has changed me. That reminds me that I need to play Broken Rooms. It is still on my shelf of hope.

All of that said, I have found that when you hold on to something that is familiar that it helps you explore other facets of the hobby. It’s not just that humans find a great deal of comfort in the familiar, but also that if you are very experienced with one part of the game experience you don’t need to think about it all that much. You can concentrate your attention and efforts on the new parts of the experience.

So maybe you play that familiar system or in that familiar setting. Maybe you play with that same game group, or play that same character or type of character. Perhaps you play a familiar trope or you play a familiar role. I don’t just mean role in the party, but Maybe you remain a player if that is your usual seat, or are you remain a game master if that is more of your thing. Then you are free to concentrate on the new ideas that you are exploring. ~ just consider that it’s worth rotating what parts you keep familiar and what parts you change and explore.

In my own experience one of the things that benefits greatly from familiarity is the setting itself. But not in the way you might think. In the past I generally did not play in this world, in reality. However, I have come around to the idea that “this world with a twist” is a very powerful setting to play in. My experience has backed this up, even lately. When all of the players have this level of familiarity with the world it seems more real and they tend to act with much more confidence and freedom. Even if we are playing in a different era it’s not that hard to imagine what it was like and to find references for it. ~ Add a twist, whatever that might be, and all the sudden this familiar world becomes strange and exciting, perhaps even unsettling. Likewise, because it’s the only thing that’s different it sticks out like a sore thumb. It also hits very close to home because the feeling that something is wrong or different is experienced in a much more visceral manner by all of the players at the table.

Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is to take the familiar and screw with it.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Ancient (day 6)

The word ancient carries a heavy weight. It puts us in our place. We are not ancient, we are brief flashes in cosmic time. When we encounter the truly ancient we are reminded of how small and insignificant we are. But the ancient also beckons us, promising to reveal its mysteries to those who dare to seek them out.

One of the biggest drawbacks to living in the modern age is that there simply aren’t that many mysteries left to solve. There aren’t very many ancient ruins to explore for the first time. There is virtually no hope of finding an ancient civilization surviving in the deepest jungle. Although we have more to learn, the vast majority of history has been revealed to us as much as it can.

In RPGs this unfortunate limitation is removed. We are free to encounter that derelict that has been floating in space for God knows how long. We can discover that hideous idol of awesome, vast, and incalculable age. We can seek out the mysteries of lost civilizations that walked the earth before man climbed down from the trees, or even before the fish that were his ancestors crawled out of the sea. We can explore ancient ruins long hidden from prying eyes. We can discover cults thought long dead to be existing in some remote corner of the world, practicing the same profane rituals that they have for thousands of years.

There is something about all of these ancient things which can fill us with wonder and dread. In the dimension of time, they are so much larger than us. And we can only touch and see a small portion of the much larger whole. This is part of the magic of RPGs. They can allow us to freedom to discover and explore and experience the ancient first hand. We don’t need to read about it in a book, we can be there ~ if we dare.

The YouTube video

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Space (Day 5)

I don’t know, but today’s blog post may be very similar to The YouTube video. Then again maybe not.

What I do know is that space is very important. This is a hobby that is built upon imagination. It’s not a passive spectator sport. At least in my experience a large amount of the phenomenon occurs within our own heads. But unlike daydreaming its not private. We share some of the products of our imagination with each other. The fiction that emerges before our very eyes is a mixture of our own imaginings and the elements inserted by the other players at the table.

That said, if we were all able to project what we imagine things to look like so that the other players can see them, we would find that we are all imagining something slightly different. This isn’t necessarily a problem as long as we all agree upon certain key or salient points. After all, it is possible that we may be having an experience stepping into the shoes of our own individual character, or of the nonplayer characters we may be running, and so of course we would see things differently.

However, this can only happen if we leave each other space. Space to fill in the gaps with our imagination. Spaces in our descriptions and narrations. By presenting just enough detail in the right places, and letting each other color in between the lines with our own imaginations.

Likewise, it’s important to leave each other space as the game goes on. It’s natural at first to feel as if we must fill in all of the available space as a game master. This is something we learn to let go of over time. But just like the spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves in music, leaving pauses when we speak to allow others to talk, to act, to jump in and play! This is just as crucial to the RPG experience.

By allowing each other space we set the stage for amazing things to happen. After all, isn’t that what we are here for?