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.

Listen ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 11

An Anecdoche is a conversation where everyone is talking, but no one is listening. If you’re like me you have been unfortunate enough to have experienced at least one of these, if not several in your lifetime. In contrast, a tabletop role-playing game is much different. In fact, I believe a hallmark of a good RPG session is that the players listen to one another intently.

An RPG session is a collaborative experience. It’s pretty hard to collaborate when you’re not paying attention to one another isn’t it? It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking so much about what you were going to say or do on “your turn”, what your plans are, what you think might be cool, or what ability might be the best suited for accomplishing your immediate goal, that you forget to listen to the other participants at the table. To a certain extent this is unavoidable. Intention precedes action. I recall talking to my friend Sameoldji some time ago and he mentioned that he wanted to play with no prior intention at all, completely spontaneous, no preplanning of what he was going to do. I retarded that there was always a interval of time between intention and action. Once you think of what you’re going to do or say you have already planned it even if that is only for a fraction of a second. He gave me the “mind blown” look and laughed. It was a fun conversation.

Despite this normal preoccupation with our own great ideas, because we are good role players we listen to one another and this is part of where the magic happens. This goes far beyond “where are we again?” that the kids in my library game often have trouble with, and making plans out of character. Depending upon our responsibility, we describe our intentions, what we are doing, what the nonplayer characters are doing, what the scenario is. What things look like. Sounds, smells, and other sensory input. Everyone else listens. Depending upon the procedures of the game, we describe and interpret the results of the rolls of the dice. The dice speak, and we listen to what they tell us. We pay attention, and we can see and hear the emotions of the other characters and nonplayer characters. We can picture the environment, sometimes in minute detail.

When we listen closely we know what is happening and what it is like to be there. What it is like to be that character, and then, we respond. Then the next person responds to the new state, and so on and so forth. The game world and the play state are vibrant, dynamic and alive. Our intentions and plans and impressions change moment by moment as we watch and listen to what is happening. Too many cooks may spoil the pot, but they create life itself in an RPG. They just need to listen to one another.

Trust & Conscience ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 10

Sameoldji often refers to the “Holy Trinity of RPGs”. Play the right game. Talk with the players. Don’t be a Jerk. Most problems we run into with RPGs can be solved or avoided by adhering to those three guiding principles. To this list I add “Play with the right people“. Ji and Anthony don’t necessarily agree with this addition, but this is my blog and they don’t get a vote. 😉

In his excellent video Conscience in Gaming, Anthony talks about things relating to today’s topic in greater detail and from a certain perspective. It’s definitely worth checking out. While I wanted to use Trust as the topic, I found that I couldn’t talk about it without mentioning the alternate topic of conscience.

At its heart, the RPG experience is something that one engages in with friends. Even if you don’t know each other at first, I have found that I become friends with the people that I play with, or we don’t continue gaming. To be sure I am friends with some people where we realized that we were not good matches because of our clashing intentions for the game experience, but we are still friends. Convention play and other play with strangers is on the fringes of the hobby and is by no means the mainstream.

Friends trust each other not to be jerks. They trust each other not to do things that the other one would find offensive or hurtful. They trust each other to act with respect and if they need to talk about things that went wrong or how anybody’s lines were crossed they talk like adults. Friends don’t want to hurt each other and don’t want to cause each other angst or to not enjoy the RPG experience. They act with conscience. Friends (and all decent adults) don’t want to be jerks to the people that they game with.

We get to talk to our friends in a session zero before the game and in between games to talk about our expectations to make sure that we are all enjoying ourselves and not causing the other people at the table not to have fun. If we realize that we’re not playing the right game then we choose a different game. If we realize that we are not a good fit then we don’t play together or only play certain games together that we all enjoy. We behave with conscience.

I have found that I can trust the people that I play RPG’s with. If I can’t trust them then I don’t play with them. If we clash then I don’t game with them. Modern technology has enabled me to cast a wide net and find “my people“. Play with the right people. Play the right game. Talk with the players. Don’t be a jerk. When you all act with conscience you can all trust each other and everything is cool.

Then you can get on to the serious business of Pulp heroics on Venus or investigating supernatural horrors or whatever else floats your boat!

Medium ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 9

Medium: 1) the intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to the senses or a force acts or an effect is produced. 2) an agency or means of doing something. 3) the substance in which an organism lives or is cultured or the element that is the natural habitat of an organism. 4) surrounding objects, conditions, or influences; environment.

The RPG experience can be said to involve several mediums that help bring it about and that give it a place to exist. In the not so distant past, the various “live meeting on the internet” platforms have given in a medium to play with people from around the world while in the comfort of their own homes. This has had a dramatically positive impact on my gaming life, however, it has changed the medium of the environment of play.

And what of that medium? The environment that we set up for our sessions can have a profound effect upon the games. What I have found particularly interesting is even though my game group is from around the world, the ritual of setting up the session, seeing the individuals in their familiar spots in their homes, and even the background noises of dogs & coqui, all help to signal my mind that it is time to engage in the game state.

The rules, procedures, system, mechanics, genre expectations, in/out of character stance, and our culture of play all contribute to the overall medium by which the emergent fiction, individual experience, and events of play take place. Without these, we would simply be engaging in some sort of improvisational story creation. Instead, all of those methods and intervening force carriers combine to produce a tangible method by which the game is played. Like incantations and components of some esoteric spell or ritual, this mixture enables us to produce the closest thing to real magic that we will ever see.

That’s pretty darned cool.