Thanks ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 31

There was a time in my life when I was not on speaking terms with gratitude. Fortunately that was a long time ago now and things are much different. I could spend this post thanking RPG creators, fellow gamers, the organizers & fellow participants in RPGaDAY, and you nice people for watching and reading my thoughts.

But this blog post isn’t about that.

When somebody saves your bacon, it’s only natural to thank them, right? Well, usually it is… but not always.

In our Saturday RPG group we have played several games. One of the things that has been entertaining is that Craig and I very often bring characters to end up being at odds with one another. Not seriously, but definitely a war of egos. The bantering between Max and Bob in Star Wars and between Chace Bannon and Sammy Larson in Broken Compass has been a lot of fun.

In both cases these are people that end up saving each other on a regular basis, but I don’t think the words “thank you“ have ever been uttered. Far from being sad, this has been hilarious.

One of my favorite moments in broken compass was when Sammy saves Chace from being shot by his somewhat upset ex-girlfriend. By this time in the adventure, had saved Sammys bacon twice. After his heroic deed Sammy looks at Chace and says something like “ just to be clear we’re even now.” Without skipping a beat, Mr Bannon replies “ I saved you twice, you still owe me one.” I love these guys. You can guarantee that Max and Bob will never show gratitude either.

Sometimes being an RPG character means never having to say “thank you.” And for some characters and genres, that is exactly as it should be.

Mention ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 30

Thanks, don’t mention it.

Mention is an interesting word as it can be used in terms of calling attention to somebody or something in a casual and incidental manner, or it can be a more formal citation or commendation. Ideally I would be able to mention a variety of people that have participated in RPGaDAY this year. However, things here have been busy and I haven’t had the chance or the energy to follow very many people. I’m going to reserve that for later. After all, we have 11 months to catch up. I have been listening to Anthony’s podcast (Casting Shadows/Runeslinger) and I have really enjoyed listening to Seb (Nolinquisitor). Both of those have been very entertaining & insightful.

I could mention all those I have had the chance to play with this last year. Anthony, Del, Todd, Jason, Robert, Eloy, Jose, Andre, Craig, Jim, Robin, Ron, Pedro, Logan, & Francois have all been a joy to play with. I’m glad to call most of them friends as well as fellow gamers. – (If I forgot anybody else, you are one of the cool kids too.) There are of course the kids at the library, they have been pretty fun as well.

I suppose I could mention the games I had the opportunity to play this year. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, All For One: Regime Diabolique, Leagues of Adventure, Leagues of Cthulhu, Sky Riders of Venus, Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, Broken Compass, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, The adults have been taken over – kids to the rescue PBtA, Blue Planet, Ribbon Drive, Circle of Hands, Dark age of Man, & Mythras. I think that’s it. Fourteen games & Eleven systems. Not bad.

The games I have been reading, interested in playing, talking about, and bought are way too many to mention. and I bought some dice. I will say that Alien by free league is generating a lot of excitement in my group and is next up. I have been waiting to play that for a long time because I have promised not to read certain sections or run the game until after we play it, and I really would like to run this game. Broken compass was a heck of a lot of fun and I backed the Kickstarter because I was so enamored with it. Ubiquity still manages to be one of my favorite systems, not surprising considering that four of the games I mentioned were run with that system. I backed a few other Kickstarters, including the extraordinarily successful Avatar one. I bought that one because both of my daughters really enjoyed that show and I have to confess I found it entertaining as well. Hopefully I can get them to play it with me.

I’m sure there are many other things that I forgot to mention. I hope they forgive me.

System ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 29

A regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole; an organized or established procedure; a harmonious arrangement or pattern.

There are more definitions of “system”, but these three are the most relevant to the discussion of today’s singular prompt. It’s no secret that I have become a real RPG system enthusiast. While a premise or a pitch may grab my attention first, mention of a new or beloved system isn’t far behind. Sometimes information about some of the mechanics of a game that is new to me is enough to convince me that I must give that RPG a try.

RPG mechanics are fascinating to me and always have been. It’s amazing how differences in the math have profound changes upon how a game feels. Matching mechanics to desired feel, tone, & genre is as much science as it is art. It’s amazing how many dice mechanics there are, not to mention other methods of randomization. So much of the feel of any given RPG depends upon the mechanics used.

However, an RPG system isn’t just dice (or other) mechanics. As my friends and I often discuss, the procedures of an RPG are just as much of the system as the mechanics they interact with. The procedures let us know HOW to play the game. This can be as simple as letting you know when to roll and when to just compare the skill rating with a task, and as complex as a detailed sequence of steps, contingencies, and protocols. It’s clear that the procedures of an RPG also have a dramatic effect on the play experience.

When an RPG has a system that is truly harmonious arrangement or pattern that fits perfectly with the intended genre & tone, it is a thing of beauty. Very often we must play these games as written to discover the experience that they produce. We may surprised at the genre the system produces versus the genre we expected. It’s a real joy to play with that spirit of discovery. Even if a game has a system that is less than harmonious, it’s interesting to examine it to see what went awry.

It’s also fascinating to observe the effect of our culture of play upon the system and experience of an RPG. As Ron Edwards has mentioned, there are the rules written in the game, and then there are the “real rules” of your table. This doesn’t have to mean wholesale changes and house rules. Game groups are full of organized and established procedures, and often qualify as a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole. Very often there is a bigger system than the one contained in a specific game, there is “our system” established by each group.

Perhaps these are the best systems of all. A regularly interacting group of friends forming a unified whole with organized and established procedures which create a harmonious arrangement and pattern.

Theory ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 26

“Well, that’s like, just your theory man…“

The word theory has taken on undeservedly bad connotations among some sections of the public. Likewise, that word has taken on undeservedly bad connotations amongst some portion of the RPG community. Very often I find that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that word and what it means. Kenneth Miller of Brown University has been quoted as saying a theory “doesn’t mean a hunch or a guess. A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.” A good theory won’t just explain observations, it will make predictions about what will happen when you do “X”.

Now it’s true that RPG Theories are not subject to the same amount of rigor that scientific theories are, but they certainly come under a lot of scrutiny and “peer review” for lack of a better word. The lively discussions make if possible for these theories to be tested. Especially when they are called upon to explain observations. The factors that go into the RPG experience are legion, and that’s one of the things that makes it so fantastic. However, it makes it fairly difficult to run good experiments. Too many variables makes it impossible to run the same scenario over again. There is an assuredly apocryphal story of a basketball player who made a basket from the middle of the court. When his coach asked him if he could do that again, he said “No, but I can do something similar”. When we experiment with the RPG phenomenon we find ourselves in a similar position.

Despite the problems and despite the disagreements, I find RPG theories to be fascinating. I guess I have been afflicted with an intense desire to know what’s really going on. Call me a truth seeker. I find it very engaging discovering what the dynamics are and how they all work together, why things happen the way they do, what forces are at work, how different intentions produce different actions which produce different results, how games get designed to produce a certain result, why different people want different things, and so on and so forth. The conversations I’ve had with my friends about these things have been very enjoyable. Especially when we can observe things about our own (often shared) experiences and give our varying perspectives on them.

But just like science, we don’t have to stop at just being theoreticians and experimental seekers of knowledge. We can become engineers. We can take what we have learned and apply it to our own RPG sessions. Understanding what is going on, how the various factors interact with each other, and what effect different elements have upon the RPG experience allows us to create the experience that we want. No longer do we have to wonder why some sessions were good and some sessions weren’t so good. We don’t have to be stuck in unsatisfying circumstances. We can learn how to change things for the better and that is pretty cool. You might even call it scientific.

“Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!”

Fresh ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 25

I started in the RPG hobby a long time ago. 1981 to be exact. Sure, I took a bunch of years off, so I didn’t experience everything that other people that stayed in for the long-haul did, but I have experienced an awful lot. Reading that Moldvay Basic book for the first time was magical. Everything was new and surprising. The books that followed continued to provide hours of reading. The first games, awkward as they were, were a new experience. Novel scenarios and ideas continued to be surprising and engaging as I continued to play.

And then, I got old and jaded. I had kind of seen it all, and so had the people that I was playing with. You can only have your first time once. If we’re not careful, the RPG hobby can become old and stale.

Don’t despair! I have come out on the other side and find the hobby to be vibrant and exciting once more. I found the part of my problem was that I stuck to playing one sort of game. It’s kind of silly when you think about just how many RPGs there are and how different they can be. By playing new games with new people, and reading far more games than I have had a chance to play, I have revitalized my passion for the RPG experience. It is indeed fresh. So many genres, so many systems, so many procedures for play. Every time I think I have seen the landscape, I turn the corner and discover new sights. Sometimes beautiful and wonderful to behold, sometimes obtuse and puzzling, sometimes monstrous, but always fresh.

My current group and I switch off RPGs quite frequently. It’s funny, because for the most part we like long form play, but we also have a real love of trying different games. Even though sometimes some of us are lamenting putting a beloved game or campaign aside, once we get going with the new one the excitement is contagious and that new RPG is fresh and vibrant and tons of fun. Just like 1981, but better because we have experience.

I guess you do get to have your first time more than once.

Share ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 24

Outside of solo Role Playing Games, RPGs are a shared activity. Even then, you can find solo RPG enthusiasts like Abraham of the Talking About Games YouTube Channel who share their passion for that facet of the hobby with us. For a hobby that is seemingly filled with introverts, we certainly interact with each other a lot.

When we are passionate about a new role playing game, we can’t help but share it with others. Besides, who are we going to play it with if we don’t expose other people to it? As we read and explore and play the game we share our insights, reactions, thoughts and experiences. Enthusiasm can become contagious, and I have found that a group of people sharing their excitement about various games can make everyone’s life richer. My bank account may be depleted due to my friends sharing games with me, but what else was I going to spend it on? Except bass guitar gear.

It’s always fun to share the enthusiasm for the RPG hobby with others who have not yet experienced it. There is always something thrilling about watching somebody else catch the bug, if even just for a session. It is a hobby that people have many misconceptions about and it is always nice to see them experience it for themselves.

Some of us choose to share our thoughts and experiences and enthusiasm with a larger group of people through videos or blog posts or podcasts or what have you. Not only has that been engaging for me to consume as a recipient, But this mutual desire to share the hobby experience with others has allowed me to form friendships with people I otherwise never would have met. In many cases it allows me to share the game experience with them as well.

That experience of an RPG session or campaign is perhaps the most important thing that we can share. We become a small group of people sharing an experience that no one else will have. At least not in the same way that we did. These shared experiences can be exciting, full of laughter, dramatic, disturbing, moving, thrilling, inspiring, and thought provoking. I’m sure you can come up with many more descriptors. While experiences such as these are worth having alone, they mean so much more when shared with others. There is always someone you can look to and say “remember when?”

Like survivors of a life changing event, we can look into each others eyes with recognition.

Memory ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 23

“The story is what the players did.” ~ I don’t go on RPG forums very much anymore, but some years ago, whenever the topic of “story” would come up, Michael Mornard (One of Gary Gygax‘s original players and the creator of the gelatinous cube) would chime in with the previous quote. These days Michael and I interact as friends on Facebook and I am much more likely to see him say “Most people are booger eating morons.” Both quotes make me smile.

The days of arguing about “the one true way” are behind me, and I have since realized the futility of bickering about bias and preference. However it can be useful to identify different types of intentions and design in both players and RPGs. Some styles of play emphasize “story before”, that is, a planned sequence of events is prepared beforehand and there is a definite path for the players to take. Other styles of play emphasize “story now“, where the decisions of everyone at the table are guided by the intentional creation of a story in the moment. Another style of play emphasizes “story after“, where there is no sequence of events planned, and decisions are guided by something other than what would be good for the story.

No matter what style of play a particular game supports or a particular group prefers to engage in, one thing is true. When the game session is over, the books and the dice have been put away, and the players go on with the rest of their lives, we have the memories of what happened. The jaded among us may believe that “semper memoria praeterita bona”, but I believe that it is a good thing that some moments stand out more than others. They are after all why we play.

RPGs have provided me with many memories no less vivid than those from “real life”. Sometimes these memories are from interactions at the player level, sometimes they are of those improbable rolls of the dice, sometimes they are from what happened at the character level or in the fiction itself, and often they are curious mixture of in and out of game elements. I even have clear memories of reading an RPG book for the first time or a particular discussion.

The memories I have from RPG sessions are full of laughter, full of tension, and full of surprise, elation, or dismay at the rolls of the dice. They contain a mixture of wonderful, terrible, dramatic, hilarious, moving, triumphant, awesome, poignant, and disturbing moments. They are full of forging and reinforcing the bonds of friendship. They contain many moments of discovery and revelation at the level of the fiction, at the level of learning a new game, and sometimes even at the level of learning about others and myself.

When I started thinking about memories to share here I realized that there were simply too many to list. Every time I thought about one to mention I realized I would feel bad about not mentioning 10 others just as relevant. Perhaps I’ll mention some in the video. Maybe I’ll talk about them another time here. In any event, these memories are mine and they actually happened. I didn’t read them a story or watch them on TV. I was an active participant in those events. I didn’t just watch them on the news. I was there.

When I look back upon these memories I could tell you stories, stories about what we did…

Substitute ~ #RPGaDAY2021 day 22

A little over a year ago my youngest daughter (who just turned 26 on August 9th) came to live with me. She is an excellent cook. It was wonderful having her at the house during the period of time where my girlfriend was slowly dying of lung cancer. She cooked a lot of wonderful food for us. However, she has had some less than stellar moments. A few months ago I grabbed some brownie mix for myself, a friend, and my new girlfriend. Because we didn’t have any in the house, I also bought some plain vegetable oil. My daughter Kira offered to make the brownies so of course I accepted. As the brownies were cooling I noticed that the vegetable oil had not been opened. When I asked her about this she said she simply used olive oil. The brownies were still… good, but there was definitely a noticeable aftertaste of what was definitely not light olive oil. This was a substitution which did not work very well.

Any RPG experience is a mixture of several different elements. Substituting something for anyone of them tends to have an effect on the final product. Sometimes this effect is subtle, and sometimes it is quite profound. Sometimes the substitutions are not exactly planned, such as when a player drops out and another one joins. However, very often the substitutions are quite intentional. This is a particular interest to me because I am able to experience the difference that this change makes in how play feels.

Having a fairly strong OSR background and having cut my teeth playing the older versions of TSR D&D, I am no stranger to substituting one set of mechanics for another one, or substituting one set of procedures for another. This “design by substitution” is a large part of the OSR phenomenon and can produce some very different games. Lamentations of the flame princess and astonishing swordsmen and sorcerers of hyperborea are just two examples of games where creative substitution of mechanics and procedures have created games which are in my estimation better than the original. There are literally hundreds more. In my own gaming I have tinkered with substituting all sorts of mechanics and was always quite interested in how that changed how play felt. One could go on and on about the various magic systems and other alternative rules that have been churned out by the OSR movement, but this post isn’t about that.

My own group has had quite a bit of fun substituting one game for another as we have tried a bunch of different RPGs. It is always very interesting to see what these different games feel like compared to one another. Substitution of one game for another can have a remarkable effect on how our RPG session feels. That said, what I find just as interesting is what happens when you substitute one game for another using the same characters, and in the same campaign. Very often you find yourself making decisions in a different way as you are informed by the system how game world reality operates.

In our group we are very often substitute one game master for another. rotating who has that responsibility has led to some very interesting campaigns. While I was initially taken aback by the idea I have found it to be very satisfying. I’ve also found substitution of characters to be a nice addition to play. Using troupe style play with a stable of characters, or actually rotating characters as we did in circle of hands, substituting the character you last played with another one opens up quite a few possibilities for a richer experience and for varied perspectives.

Every substitution brings something new and interesting to the table. you start to be able to identify the effect of each change, And very often you are taken by surprise by a consequence that you would not have anticipated.

By the way, the version of that song on live at Leeds is awesome. But this blog post wasn’t about that…

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.