#RPGaDAY2019 ~ One (day 17)

Part of the allure of role playing games is the limitless potential. The regular shackles and boundaries of reality are cast off and we are free to imagine and do the impossible. We are set free. But freedom comes with a price. At some point we realize that without limitations or boundaries anywhere none of it really matters.

As Harry Nilsson told us in The Point, “A point in every direction is the same as no point at all.”

Looking at this prompt for today I was inspired to think of the limitations that we place into the fiction, the procedures, & the mechanics. Far from being restrictive, these limitations can give meaning to what we are doing. They bring order to chaos.

You only have one shot at this. Do or die.

There is only one Stormbringer, not 100 identical magic swords.

There can only be one party caller.

Of the choices before you can you can only choose one. Choose wisely.

There can only be one champion. Many will enter but only one shall emerge victorious. Are you the one?

This mystery has many possible solutions, but only one is correct.

Game X has one set of rules and procedures. If you’re not following them, you’re playing it wrong.

There is only one Last of the Brunnen-G.

It doesn’t really matter if the limitations are exactly one or a handful. Just the fact that they are finite and precious is enough. The fact that the restrictions balance out the otherwise limitless possibilities makes everything stand out in stark contrast and matter more. The things that are finite matter because they are, and the things that are without boundaries stand out in contrast.

Sometimes rolling a one is good, sometimes it’s bad. Depends on the game.

“Just one more thing…” ~ Columbo

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Dream (day 16)

“For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming…” ~ H.P. Lovecraft

I like dreaming. The stranger the better. Sometimes my dreams are quite vivid and quite bizarre. When I am lucky I can recall them in great detail. Just recently I’ve been able to recall my dreams again after a long period of being unable to. This makes me happy. I had missed them so.

I suppose I’ve always been a dreamer. Ever since I can remember I was always imagining something. What it was varied, but one thing remained constant. I was there. I never really imagined anything without placing myself in it. But then again, that’s not really true. Very often I imagined being somebody else. That person was there. But somehow, I was them.

Looking at this phenomenon from a different angle, once again I can say that ever since I was young, any time I read a book that I found compelling, fiction or nonfiction, I always wished that I could be part of the action. Sometimes I wished I could be there as myself, but very often I wished I could be somebody else. What would be like to be them? What was it like to be in that place and in that situation? What if I could be somebody with the power to act and try to shape events rather than a helpless observer?

Speaking of books, every book has to end. After I would put the book away or switch off the movie and think about what might happen next. It was a shame that it had to end and there was nothing I could do about it.

Possibly the most compelling part of RPGs for me is the ability to act on those dreams. Role playing games grant us not just the right to dream, but the ability to walk the dreamlands with the authority and rights of full citizens. We are free to become whomever we want, wherever we want, and participate in situations that we otherwise would not have the opportunity to experience. We are set free from the mundane & the substantial mists of dreams become hard reality. We enter that new world and everything changes…

 “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” ~ Arthur O’Shaunessy

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Door (day 15)

I am the door, none shall enter the dungeon but through me.

Doors are underrated. It doesn’t matter if the door is literal or figurative, they represent powerful elements in the role playing game experience.

The characters being stuck unable to get through a door is practically a cliché. Few things can be as frustrating to players and their characters then being unable to get through a door. It doesn’t matter if that door is an actual door, or if it is a metaphor for something else they are trying to do. It can be equally as frustrating for the game master if they have convinced themselves that the characters must get through that door in order for play to proceed, or for play to proceed correctly. Doors can certainly be barriers, but unlike a wall, the locked door can represent frustration and a choice made for us. It might as well be a wall, except we know that it is a door and it mocks us. We must except our inability to open that door and turn another way.

Doors can also represent temptation. Once again that closed door is almost like a wall but not quite. It represents that tantalizing possibility and mystery. What’s on the other side? Should we open the door? Is it worth the risk? If we don’t like what is on the other side can we shut it again? Risk, reward, and the unknown all hold hands as we stare at that closed door, just beckoning us to try the handle. Many times in the RPG experience we stand before those real or metaphorical doors with a choice to make.

Sometimes once we open it we can close the door or turn back and go through it the other way before the consequences become too great. Other times it’s much more like “The Price Is Right”. We can only choose door one, two, or three. Once we have made our choice, there is no going back. Such literal or figurative doors can represent the consequences and relative permanence of the choices we make as we engage with the fiction.

Doors in whatever form they take are wonderful decision points. Not only do they present us with a choice to make, but they can present us with barriers to those choices and the impermanence or permanence of the consequences of those choices.

Perhaps the most powerful door of all is the one left unopened. Maybe we chose not to open it, or maybe we were unable to do so. In either case the mystery of what is behind it remains. We leave the door behind and go a different way. Perhaps we never think of it again, and perhaps… every so often we wonder to ourselves “what if?”

#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.