Thursday, February 27, 2014

Tabletop Gaming 101

Here, in this work-in-progress blog post, is a kinda-sorta comprehensive list of everything you may need to know about tabletop gaming. If you clicked a term used in one of my entries, scroll down and find the definition for that term. I'll link to this post frequently when discussing various tabletop ideas and terms, so newcomers to the hobby can check it out and understand what I'm talking about.

First, the big-picture definitions:

What is a role-playing game? 
Like any good thing that people love and geek out about, there are many variable definitions of the term "roleplaying game." Here is a general-purpose definition that I use when I think of the term:

-A role-playing game (RPG) is a game where players portray characters interacting in a fictional world created by another player. This other player, known as a Gamemaster (GM), usually has a set of rules, details, and ideas about the gameworld, as well as an interactive storyline, commonly known as an adventure, that the players embark upon.

Unless I specify otherwise in a blog entry, I'm always referring to tabletop RPGs. Games like Dungeons & Dragons, played at a table, face-to-face with other people, using books, papers, and polyhedral gaming dice. I am not (unless, again, specifying that I am) referring to console RPGs, such as Final Fantasy, which are a genre of videogame that often attempts to emulate specific traits of their tabletop parents.

What is a boardgame?

A little easier to define within the context of tabletop gaming, boardgaming is any multiplayer, non-electronic game that has rules and a goal of somekind. Note that when talking about tabletop gaming, a game with no board is often still considered a boardgame (for example, Dominion is a card game, and does not have a board, but is still commonly referred to as a boardgame). Since RPGs do not have an implicit goal, RPGs are not considered boardgames.

Now, in as alphabetical an order as I can manage, are the definition of various RPG terms...but first, the Obvious But Still Should Probably be Said Disclaimer:

I am not, nor do I claim to be, an authority figure on any of these definitions. All of the following definitions freely and unapologetically carry my own bias. Though many of these definitions are pretty clear-cut, there are several that are open to interpretation and debate. I will try to point out my more controversial definitions below with the "(controversial)" tag.

Ameritrash-Slang term used to describe boardgames made in America. (controversial) Though it carries an obvious negative connotation, the term is sometimes used without judgement, e.g. "We don't play too many Ameritrash games around here because everyone's really into Puerto Rico right now."

Analysis Paralysis-Common boardgaming phenomenon where a player takes an inordinate amount of time studying all the various options avaiable to him or her. (controversial) A common complaint of some eurogames is that their gameplay fosters this particular problem.

Asymmetrical team game-A boardgame where the players are divided into two intentionally uneven teams. I use this term to describe boardgames where everyone is against one player, such as Descent or Mansions of Madness.

Crunchy, crunch- Gamer slang used as an adjective describing rules-heavy, "simulationist" style RPGs, e.g. "I like D&D because it's got plenty of crunch," or "I don't like D&D; it's just too crunchy for me!" Also can be used to refer to parts of an RPG book, as opposed to a descriptor of the entire book, e.g. "I love the fluff in Rifts, but hate the crunch."

d20, d8, d6, etc...-These are specific types of polyhedral gaming dice used in most RPGs. The number is the number of sides on the dice (i.e. d20 refers to a 20-sided die). A number in front of the "d" is the amount of dice in a paricular roll (i.e. 2d10 refers to the rolling of two ten-sided dice, with the numbers added together).

d20 System-Very popular roleplaying game system, first used by the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. 

Deckbuilding, deckbuilder-Boardgame mechanic where a player assembles a deck of cards throughout the course of play. The assembled cards form a deck that the player draws upon to perform various actions. Can be used to describe the mechanic directly, or to broadly address all games using this mechanic, e.g. "Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is my favorite deck-builder."

Dungeoncrawl-Common type of adventure where players are tasked with exploring or clearing out a dungeon full of monsters, traps, and treasures.

Eurogame-Boardgame made in Europe, or carrying many traits of boardgames commonly made in Europe. Traits commonly associated with eurogames include:
   1. Victory by gaining the most points by game's end (as opposed to other games that have more specific goals such as defeating another player)
   2.  Abstracted gameplay components (i.e. the use of wooden blocks or pawns to represent things, rather than plastic miniatures or figures)
   3.  "Peaceful" themes, such as running a farm (Agricola), or developing a city (St. Petersburg)
   4.  Non-traditional turn structure (not "you go, then I go," but rather a game where everyone goes at a certain time, or people take turns going in one phase of play only, etc.)

Failing Forward-Common advice given in RPGs to novice GMs. It means "Do not let the game come to a grinding halt just because the players failed at something; rather, try and work that failure into part of the continuing narrative." Since a major recurring theme in my writing is how tabletop gaming influences my life and vice-versa, I thought this would make an appropriate name for my blog.

Fate, Fate Core- A roleplaying game system, favored by me, known for its flexibility and emphasis on dramatic, cinematic action and narrative focus.

Fluff, fluffy- The opposite of "crunch," referring to details within an RPG concerning story, history of the world, and character details, e.g. "This book has so much fluff in it it's almost more of a novel than an RPG!" Can also be used to describe parts of an RPG book, as opposed to the book as a whole, e.g. "I love the fluff in Rifts, but can't stand the crunch."

Grognard-Term of endearment used to describe fans of older RPGs (early 90s and earlier) or modern, "old-school-style" games that emulate those older RPGs.

Grok-Gamer slang often used for "to understand something," e.g. "I didn't like that game, I just couldn't grok the strategy of it."

In media res-Latin for "in the middle of things," a GMing technique borrowed from film and literature where players begin an adventure in a stressful, intense and/or chaotic situation.

Living card game(LCG)-Style of cardgame/boardgame where expansion cards are sold by set, rather than in randomized packs, like a collectible card game (CCG).

Multiplayer solitaire-Common complaint attributed to eurogames where the gameplay perpetrates limited or no direct interaction between players.

Player character (PC)- The individial character portrayed by a player in an RPG. This as opposed to a Non-player character (NPC), a character portrayed by the gamemaster.

Player-agency-RPG design technique where the players have a certain degree of creative control over the world. This is in contrast to more traditional RPG design, where the gamemaster typically has total creative control of the game world outside of the players' characters.

Player-facing-RPG design technique where all rules are manifestations of player character interaction with the world. For example, in most RPGs, a GM would roll dice to determine if a monster successfully bites a player character. In a player-facing RPG, however, the player would roll dice to determine if he or she can successfully avoid being bitten. Numenera is a modern example of a player-facing RPG.

Pregen- Short for "pre-generated character," a character prepared by the gamemaster (or provided by the game) to be used for play immediately, as opposed to characters created from scratch by the players.

Railroading- GM technique where the gamemaster has a specific idea of how an adventure should progress, and actively discourages players from trying anything outside his plan. This technique is often discouraged, and considered a bad habit common to rookie GMs.

RPG-in-a-box-Term used to describe a boardgame with several elements similar to RPGs, such as characters leveling up, the use of polyhedral dice, etc.

Story game- (controversial). Often used interchangably with the term RPG, a story game is an RPG that tends to place a heavier aspect on the creative, collaborative storytelling elements of an RPG, as opposed to the more mechanical/technical aspects. Politically, this term is often used to divide games into "our games" versus "their games" debates, e.g. "I like playing REAL role-playing games, not those story games!"

Worker-placement- Boardgame mechanic where each player has a certain number of pieces representing actions or "workers," which are placed on various areas of the gameboard throughout play. This term can be used specifically about the mechanic, or generally to group all games using this mechanic in a sub-genre, e.g. "Puerto Rico is my favorite worker-placement game right now."

*World Games, Apocalypse Games, Powered by the Apocalypse games, Apocalypse Engine- A series of games, originating with the 2010 release of Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, that uses a rules-lite, highly-collaborative system. (controversial) Its sharp focus on narrative, shaped by player action, has earned it and its myriad of spin-offs a reputation as the flagship of story gaming.


The Art of Effortless Effort

In my years of running adventures, I've discovered that the best adventures are the ones where I, as GM, have just the right amount of grasp on the story as it unfolds. Not so much that I'm railroading the PCs (to those unfamiliar with the terminology: "railroading" means you don't let the PCs guide the story; you more or less make them play the adventure the way you want them to play it), but not so loose that I have no idea what's going on. It's a very Zen-like thing; to have a definite direction, but also allow yourself to be swayed by the winds of your players' whims. Put another way, I've also thought of adventure design like building a house of cards. Yeah, you might build something beautiful and elaborate, but you better be ready for that thing to come tumbling to the ground on a moment's notice!

In a lot of new-school RPGs, the idea of "turning the questions back on the players" has become all the rage. Used to be, back in my day, when a player wanted to know what an elf looked like, there was a specific page in the book that would answer that question. Nowadays, the GM is recommended to say: "I don't know. What do you think an elf looks like?" That's a great little storytelling judo move, but I've discovered one very important caveat: if your player has no idea what an elf looks like and is looking to you for guidance, you better have something for them! If they don't know what an elf looks like, and you don't know what an elf looks like, the game can go south very quickly from there. This whole "turn the question back on the players thing" is fantastic if your players are creative, or if they're playing a game expecting to do that kind of thing. But if they aren't, then you're in trouble.

But I definitely understand the guiding principle behind it. There's nothing more infuriating to me than when I hear stories about players with legitimately great ideas for a character or a background or something and the GM simply vetoes it because it doesn't jive with the game they're playing, or the prep the GM made. To me, that's not good role-playing. It's not enough to be creative. You have to be flexible, too.

So, here are a couple of tips and techniques I've picked up over the years to help hit that sweet-spot between too prepared and not prepared enough. If you, dear reader, have any adendums or other tips and tricks you'd like to share, please let me know. I'm always interested in opportunities to hone my craft.

1. Write up your adventure, plot-point by plot-point. For almost every adventure I write, I have a little list, like a laundry list, of plot points for the PCs to pick up before the adventure ends. They don't need to hit them in order, but when the PCs don't know what to do or where to go, I look at that list and I guide them to the next item on it.

2. Always use what the players give you. If a player writes up a six-page backstory on their character, work that stuff into the adventure! The more of that player's backstory you put into the game, the less work you have to do yourself. If you're trying to figure out why the players are going to explore this dank, dark dungeon and one of them wrote about how his sister mysteriously disappeared when he was young, put that sister in the dungeon! Or, at the very least, let the player believe his sister is in the dungeon...

3. Be mindful of every player at the table. Another new-school piece of advice handed out these days is to make sure every player at the table has a chance to be the star of the show. I agree with this, on roughly the same caveat: it's a great idea except when it's not. I have had players in my game who essentially want to do little else than hang back and watch everything unfold. Maybe they're shy. Maybe they're new to RPGs and learn by watching. These people often don't want the spotlight; they may even be uncomfortable in it. So I say "look out for each player." If someone keeps trying to say something and someone else keeps cutting him off, direct some action towards that player so he has a chance to do whatever it is he or she is trying to do. Likewise, if someone is staying quiet but watching everything with a big smile on his or her face, ask that player how they're doing, if there's anything they would like their character to do, then back off.

4. Leave a few blanks on the page. This is some new-school advice I can get completely behind. You should have a good idea of everything that's going on throughout an adventure, but maybe leave one or two spots blank, so you can fill them in with exactly what the group needs at the right time. This is an espeically handy trick for switching up the pacing in an adventure; if there's too much fighting going on, then maybe one of those blanks is a role-playing scene, or a puzzle or something. Likewise, if the players are getting bored, maybe one of those rooms has a few dozen orcs in it, ripe for the slaughter!

5. Put the "role-playing" in role-playing games. What makes RPGs different from every other game out there is the chance for the player to not just act like someone else, but to actually be someone else. Give players that opportunity, whenever you see it. I haven't met a player yet who doesn't enjoy hamming it up in-character every once and awhile. Either let them interact with NPCs, or just set up a scene between two players and tell them to role-play it out. When it's done (or when it starts to drag), then give each player a fate point or some experience points or whatever and move on.






Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Sofa for the Eyes

I've been reading an old, out-of-print RPG in pdf form for the past few days. It kinda sucks. Not the game, mind you...the game is fine...but reading out-of-print pdfs is a pain in the ass. It sucks for two reasons; one, the quality is usually pretty poor, as it's typically just some guy with a thirst for digitizing a book and the scanner he bought from OfficeMax; and two, because the RPG itself isn't optimized for pdf reading. Not a whole lot can be done about the first one, but I wanted to write a little today about the second one.

I think it's important that RPGs today recognize the increasing prominence of the digital format, and thus design their books for such. It's a lot of fun to read an RPG book in hardcopy form, to see the myriad of colors, the page-spanning pictures, the spacious two-column presentation of text; but that stuff doesn't carry over too well on a digital reading program/device/app. More often than not, I'd rather just have the RPG presented in a no-frills format, like a novel, with bookmarks. It would make referencing at the table a hell of a lot easier.

However, I also recognize the importance of art and presentation in a role-playing game. For a lot of games and gamers, the book is the primary source of creative inspiration. RPGs take place almost exclusively in the mind of the gamers, so having a little imagery to help lube those cerebral gears is very helpful. I'm not ashamed to say that I've disregarded whole games based on their poor presentation (one look at the cover of Icons and I'm ready to play just about anything else), and have cut games with great presentation a lot more slack than they've probably deserved (just about anything from Palladium games, and, of course, D&D).

So how would my ideal RPG look in this digital age? What would an RPG that's both aesthetically-effective and logistically-pragmatic in 2014 look like? Here's a little wishlist:

1. Single column presentation. With page count being a non-issue in digital format, I would love to see a pdf RPG just go to a single luxurious column for text. Fate Core (which I will talk about a lot here, because that pdf is one of the best I've ever seen) does this, making reading that book a veritable sofa for the eyes.

2. Single page artwork. An epic scene of battle splayed across the open-facing pages at the beginning of a combat chapter looks awesome in a big, hardcover RPG. In a pdf, though, one page has a smattering of text and half a picture, and the next page is just half of a picture. It's ridiculous and a waste of time and space. A good pdf RPG has full pictures on a single page, or smaller pictures presented in or around the text. Enough for flavor, but not so much that I'm wading through it to get to the meat.

3. Clear, creative fonts. A good pdf RPG doesn't use the traditional Times New Roman or Georgia fonts; it has something different enough to not be those fonts, but just as clear, if not moreso. Again, Fate Core is a fine example here. I'm not sure what font they're using, but it's crisp and clean and, again, like a sofa for my eyeballs. Mike McDonnell's excellent Fate variant, Strands of Fate, uses a different font that's just as nice. Apocalypse World is another fine example of smart font use. That kind of stuff matters in a pdf, especially with the ability to zoom in and out of text.

4. Hyperlinks and Bookmarks. If Chaosium weren't the makers of one of the best RPGs ever created (Call of Cthulhu) I would smack them upside the head for this one! There is no excuse...none...for a document as heavily referenced as a role-playing game to not have hyperlinks in the text and not have bookmarks accessible in a single button press. It should not be the case that a person with a good computer and the pdf cannot find something as fast as someone with the hardcopy of the book. Digital should win, everytime, and if it doesn't, then the pdf is not being optimized like it could, and should, be. For examples of this done right, again, look to Fate Core. Monte Cook's excellent RPG Numenera also has some smart cross-reference work in it, as well.

I can think of a couple more, but those are the big ones so I'm going to leave it at that for now. So if you're an aspiring game designer and you're looking to get me to run your game, hit up this list and let me know. I will gladly get a game like this to the table! 




Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Alright. Had a bit of a meltdown yesterday. I'm okay now, though. I have good friends, both across the internet and in the meatspace, and I have a paradoxically-great relationship with my wife. So things are better. My situation has not improved, really, but my spirits have. So that's good.

Now, onto the interesting stuff...

I played a lot of videogames this past weekend. I was tired, mentally and physically, of constantly going out to do tabletop stuff, and I had a rare opportunity to truly just sit and be alone for awhile, so I took it. And I had a great time. Videogames have so many various advantages over tabletop games.

So why am I a tabletop geek, then? Why is this not Failing Forward: A Blog about Videogames, with Occasional Asides About My Failing Marriage? Afterall, videogames are way more popular. They have pretty graphics and sounds. You can be social with them, online, through services like Xbox Live and Steam, and massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. And you can play them alone, or whenever you have time, rather than carving out a big block of an afternoon or evening, like with tabletop gaming.

Those are all true. But, above all, I will say that the heart wants what it wants. Though I love videogames and have what can only be described as an embarrassingly vast collection of them, my true passion will always be  for the tabletop.

Why? Let me count the ways:

1. Tabletop Gaming is a Human Experience. That sounds weird, but I mean it. I've said before, when this topic sometimes comes up, that there is just something real, something human, about sitting at a table with another group of people and playing something together. It's the difference between listening to pre-recorded music on your iPod versus going to a live concert. Sure, the iPod is great, but there is something intangible and emotional about physically being there, in the moment. Gaming is the same way. If you, dear reader, have never played a roleplaying game or "designer" boardgame before (a game so peculiar and unique that it's often known by the designer who made it, such as Klaus Teuber's Settlers of Catan, or Matt Leacock's Pandemic), then you should do it. At least once. With whomever you can find. It's special. Trust me; I've written how many entries on this now?

2. Tabletop Gaming is Scalable. When playing a videogame, the game itself is often the largest factor into how much fun you're having. If a videogame sucks, there's no amount of drunken revelry that will make it not suck. That's not the case with tabletop games. Every tabletop game you bring home from the hobby shop has the potential to be the greatest game you've ever played.  All you need are the right group of homeys. Granted, sometimes getting those homeys together can be an ordeal, but more often than not, the juice is worth the squeeze.

3. Tabletop Gaming is Creative. In a videogame, you can only work with what the videogame gives you. There are many games out there that give the illusion of freedom, but they're not really "free." If you decide, while playing Skyrim, that your character's parents were murdered by orcs, you can't find that tribe of orcs and slaughter them all. Oh, you can slaughter orcs, and you can pretend that one of them was the one that butchered your parents, but you'll get no acknowledgment from the game about that. That story only exists in your head. This isn't the case with tabletop role-playing games. In, say, Dungeons & Dragons, you can tell your DM that there's an orc tribe out there who killed your parents, and that becomes a thing. You may in fact end up facing down those orcs! Hell; a creative DM and accomodating players might make the whole game about finding those orcs! In my mind, this is the single most powerful advantage of tabletop games over videogames; that simple, brilliant ability to be creative, and have that creativity be reflected in the game itself.

4. Tabletop Gaming is Modifyable. I don't actually know if "modifyable" is a word, but bear with me, here. Role-playing games...and, to a lesser extent, boardgames...can be anything you want them to be. Contrast that with videogames, where if you have a horror game like Resident Evil but are really in the mood for slapstick comedy, you're stuck. But if you have a horror role-playing game like World of Darkness, you suddenly do have the flexibility to make that game a comedy, if you wanted. Of course, there are better role-playing games out there for that kinda thing, but the fact that you can do it at all opens up a huge realm of thematic possibilities that simply can't be matched in digital gaming. That abilitiy to mold and modify your gaming experience can extend out to the mechanics, too. If you have a storytelling game, but want to play a tactical RPG, that can be done, with a little work. Not so with videogames; if you have a first-person shooter but want a strategy game, you're just out of luck.

5. Tabletop Games are Economical. That sounds a little weird, but it's real. There are no free videogames. And don't get me started on "free to play" videogames; most of them are so manipulative by design that they in fact cost more than a pay-to-play game. Don't believe me? Look up the top-grossing game apps on iOS or Android sometime. The top 20 will be free to play, every single time. There's only one way a free-to-play game can be a top-grossing game: when it's not actually free to play! Meanwhile, some of the best role-playing games on the market are either pay what you want, completely free, or have a free reference document (which isn't the same as a free game, but it's close enough that you could use it, in a pinch). Boardgames are of course a different story, but even they can be more economical if you have consistent access to a group of players. I've gotten far more mileage out of my $40 copy of Pandemic than most $60 videogames I've ever purchased.

So there it is. This should go without saying, but since it's the internet, I'll say it anyway to cover my ass: your mileage may vary. These are my thoughts alone. I'm sure someone out there who's played both genuinely feels videogames are better for any number of reasons...no matter how wrong or foolish those reasons are. ;)

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ugly Truth

I have been homeless for the past week. Last Saturday, I moved out of the home I shared with my wife. We are officially separated.

This is a confusing and sad time for me. I've spent the past week trying to avoid talking about it here, my last bastion of sanity, but I'm finding it just too difficult to talk around. I need to address it head-on. Then, maybe I can get back to blogging about tabletop gaming stuff.

I hung out with my wife all day yesterday. We got caught up on True Detective, and we ate at a great new Italian restaurant. We had fun. We laughed together. My wife has been, and always will be, my best friend. But we just can't live together anymore. That breaks my heart, but it's the ugly truth I must wrap my brain around. We may not be separated forever...there is very much a chance that things could turn around...but there is also a very real chance that this is it. That, although we will always be in each other's lives, it may not be the way we originally intended.

I've tried to take solace in my hobbies in this odd time, but it's been difficult for me. RPGs provide a creative outlet like none other, but the tradeoff is they demand your attention. And lately, my attention has been pretty badly compromised. I spent all last weekend playing videogames; something I haven't done in years. Normally I just play an hour or two of Assassin's Creed IV once or twice a week. But Saturday, I purchased Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and went to town on that for about six hours straight, before switching over to the Xbox and playing some Left 4 Dead 2 with a friend online. I was originally going to write this post about my thoughts concerning the differences between videogames and tabletop games, but I didn't know how I was going to do that without talking about why I was playing videogames so much in the first place. Normally even that wouldn't bother me (if I didn't write a blog post because I was afraid of being too meandering, there wouldn't be a SINGLE entry in this thing), but today, I just can't do it.

I had a good mojo going there for awhile, but now this has happened, and I can just barely string together enough thoughts to write even a half-assed blog entry about my dream job of GMing for pay. And now I've even failed at that, instead just writing about how sad life is for me right now... 

(the following was added at 3:46 P.M. on the same day):

...oh, and this is post number 50. I wanted the 50th post to be something special. This isn't what I had in mind.

I'm still in a pretty glum mood so I'm just going to try writing a little more. See if I can exorcise these feelings.

I'm going to look at a new place tonight. Assuming there aren't any dead bodies being stored in the basement or something, I'm probably going to take it. The commute is going to be murder, but with how little I'm willing to pay, it's about the best I can hope for.

The hardest part about all of this right now is the transition. Like the old saying goes "It's not the fall that kills you, it's hitting the ground." I'm in freefall right now, and the ground is rushing up to meet me, and I am really dreading that impact. And there's nothing I can do to change the speed, or protect myself, or anything. I just have to wait in freefall until it all happens. I can't relax. I can't make myself feel any better. I can't do anything. I just sit here, hurt and worried and confused.

Last week felt alright, all things considered. I was crashing on a friend's couch. It wasn't exactly an ideal arrangement for either of us, but it was something. It was stable. Then, last night, he told me he wanted me to move out next week. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. In fact, I appreciate his honesty and straight-forwardness. Better this way than me staying for weeks on end thinking everything is okay, then he explodes on me for some random reason because he's been bottling up his feelings and then we're not friends anymore. But, still, it sucks. It's like when the action hero is sliding off the cliff, and he grabs the branch, and for a second thinks he's safe, and then the branch snaps, and he's falling again. I am falling again.

So, when life really sucks like this, I try and do a little Oprah move and think of five things I'm grateful for. Here are five things, in no particular order:

1. My relationship with my wife, though strained, is still alive and (for the most part) healthy. If everything else falls apart and I can't find a place by Sunday, I can always come crawling back to what was once my home and pass out on the couch there. That's not a long term option, but I at least won't be sleeping on the streets, or a hotel room I can't afford.

2. My job is an uncaring institution towering over my personal life...and I'm grateful for that. Nobody knows here about what's going on in my life. No one's asked. No one cares. And that's not a bad thing. It's a little normalcy in an otherwise un-normal time. My marriage may be crumbling and I may not know where I'll be living in a week from today, but I do know where I'll be working.

3. I've had a number of great friends wishing me sympathy and offering support. It's very humbling. With my marriage dying on the vine, I should feel alone, but I don't. In fact, loneliness hasn't landed anywhere on the docket. Just a lot of sadness and frustration and confusion. But no loneliness.

4. Though I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, wealthy, I do have a considerable amount of resources at my disposal. As a veteran, I have free healthcare. I have one of the most ridiculously-full collections of RPGs one could ever imagine, and a formidable boardgame collection to keep my mind occupied. I have the latest iPhone, a Google Nexus tablet, a laptop that runs videogames better than an Xbox. An Xbox. A Playstation 3. A Nintendo 3DS. And I live in one of the biggest cities in the country, with access to dozens (if not hundreds) of affordable places to go and affable people to socialize with. So although I may be homeless, I am far from impovershed.

5. I have a bright future ahead of me, and there's a good chance that I'll look back on this moment and think "thank God THAT'S over!" I am less than a year away from my Masters Degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. I am on a career track with the federal government that guarantees at least two more raises in the next two years...assuming I stay in the federal government. I could go private sector, where I could make even more as a technical writer. Either way, the natural momentum of life will have me going nowhere but up for the next several years.

There. Sure enough, I feel better, albeit just a little.

(added at 5:40 P.M.).

Nope. I broke down in the bathroom about 15 minutes ago. Then, I called my wife and, in a barely coherent babble of sobbing, I presented a feeble case for us just moving back in together and "working it out."

Not exactly my proudest moment. And here I am, writing it, in some desperate, pathetic attempt to give it some....I don't even know. Whatever.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Will GM for Food

Lately, I have taken a brief break from RPGs to embrace the boardgaming side of my geek nature. Tonight I'm playing a full game of Arabian Nights; all week I've been playing Robinson Crusoe with just about anyone willing to try it (we won the first scenario without the dog on Wednesday! That's a pretty big deal, for those of you in the know. I'll explain it some other time).

Next weekend, however, I return to my table-top game of choice: the almighty role-playing game. I am jumping back in on the deep end, running a double-header. On Saturday, I'll be doing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for a friend's birthday. Sunday, a friend has cashed in a favor I owe him, and so by request I'll be running Iron Kingdoms. 

There are two kinds of interesting things going on here. First is the idea of me running an RPG for a reason beyond just wanting to play. The friends involved in both cases have been there for me in a tough time, and so I am highly motivated to make their requested gaming experiences happen, and happen well. In my wildest, most-awesome fantasies, I am a freelance gamemaster who makes a living hosting games for groups of people. I don't really subscribe to the concept of "dream jobs"; my belief is, if you're doing it for money, it's gotta suck, at least a little bit, in some kind of way. But professional, GM-for-hire? Yeah, that would be it for me. These two upcoming games are kind of like that. I'm not getting paid, but they are games that I'm running out of obligation rather than preference. Don't get me wrong; I am deeply looking forward to both games on their own merits. But the reason I'm watching old DS9 episodes and taking notes is not for fun. I'm on a mission.

That's the other little revelation here: I'm taking notes. I hate taking notes. I figure, if it's important, my memory's good enough to remember it. Besides, I never look at my notes when I do take them, anyway. But here I am, scribbling away again like I used to in Mrs. Maki's 6th grade science class. Hell, I'm even doing it the old fashioned way, with a pencil and a steno notebook, like a reporter or something. And you know what? It's really, really helpful. See, the thing I didn't think about when I thought about taking notes is, it's not always about memory. It's about comprehension. Even if I never look at those notes, the physical act of making myself write down the key ideas in every paragraph I read is helping me remember stuff and connect dots better than I've ever done before.

This is especially the case with Iron Kingdoms. Iron Kingdoms is a steampunk RPG with a vast, sophisticated world history, full of barbarians, rising and falling empires, and various religions sprouting up and warring with each other. The history of this world has been meticulously crafted. Normally, I'd either skim this section and get to the rules, or skip it all together, but this time, for my friend, in the name of putting on a good show, I am DEEP reading every page of this book, starting with the history. And I'm taking notes. The illumination I'm getting from doing so is, well...illuminating. Adventure ideas are practically falling off the pages, like subscription cards from a doomed magazine. Little historical details I can use to spice up narratives are filling my brain. I am determined to put on a hell of a show when I run this thing. And I'm quite certain that I'll succeed.

So, yeah, notes are cool. I'm sure any of you out there of an academic or journalistic background are like "duh!", but it's a new thing to me, okay? Now I want to reread all of my other RPGs with a pencil in hand and see what else falls off the pages...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

All Fate

I haven't written much lately. Honestly, it's because life has been a little shitty. I actually do plan on writing a blog on it, but not quite yet. Instead, I'm going to dodge the issue and talk about Fate.

For those of you not in the know, Fate is a role-playing game that has been around for many years. It recently made a big splash on the RPG scene with the release of Fate Core, the game's latest iteration. Not only did Core streamline, re-organize, and otherwise sex up the system, it also released genre-neutral, or "generic" as we call it. That means anything you can dream of...the wild west, vampire romances, space operas...can be done with Fate Core. Not only that, the Fate Core .pdf file was released as "Pay What You Want," meaning you could download the file for free if you wanted, read it, and pay a few bucks later, if so inclined.

In my blog entry "One Game to Rule Them All," I listed several criteria for which "my perfect RPG" would have. Fate Core has all of them, except one: my concern about the game's learning curve. Since then, I've discovered several iterations for Fate that could provide on-ramps to the system proper. For my RPG newbies, I've got Fate Accelerated, which strips and distills Fate Core to a lean, mean, 50-page storytelling game machine. For my veterans, I've got Strands of Fate, a more tactical implementation that feels much more like a traditional RPG than it's parent system. In addition to that, I have brilliant licensed games like The Dresden Files, and genre-specific implementations like Nova Praxis, Legends of Anglerre, or Bulldogs. All of these books are excellent, in print, and very easy to find and discuss.

So that's it, then. Fate is my one RPG to rule them all.

Does that mean I'll stop playing other RPGs? Of course not. But it does mean that my neutral, my true-north in RPGs, is Fate. Does this mean I think Fate is the perfect RPG for everyone? Not at all. But for my playstyle, the kind of things I like to do with an RPG, Fate is the closest possible thing.

So, if you sit down to an Eddie Gibbs-fueled role-playing game, be ready for Fate! Also, zombies.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Story in a Box

And now, the rare boardgaming post...

Last night, I got together with my friends and played my two newest boardgames, Robinson Crusoe and Tales of Arabian Nights. In short, both games were excellent.

Here's a little summary on Robinson Crusoe. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you already know about the game:

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is a cooperative boardgame for 1-4 players (yes, that's right; only one player is necessary, as the game can be played solitaire with only a few minor adjustments, detailed in the rulebook). In it, each player is a castaway on a deserted island. Working together, the players must build shelter, hunt animals, craft tools, and brave dangerous adventures in the wilderness. The game comes with six different scenarios of various difficulty (with more available free on the internet, including a blank template for creating your own), and the exact win conditions are different for each scenario. If one castaway dies, the whole group loses the game. If the group doesn't meet it's scenario-specific win condition by the end of a certain number of rounds, the entire group loses the game. 

I don't feel Crusoe got its fair share of time in the spotlight. Due to some critical mistakes in interpreting the rules (typical, first-time newb fumbling on everyone's part, especially mine since I was the only dude who read the rules), the game ended prematurely, in horrible, screaming death for our intrepid castaways. It should be noted that Crusoe has a pretty good reputation across the community as being one of the hardest co-op games out there, and I can definitely see that after one play. The game will punish you merciliessly for your mistakes, and any kind of resonable chance of success requires a lot of teamwork and a rapid understanding of the game's many intricacies. For example, our group spent a lot of time casually exploring the island and making tools, ignoring critical tasks like building shelter and weapons. That last one proved especially rough, as a disasterous attempt to hunt a cougar, followed by a tiger attack, nearly single-handedly cost us the game.

Arabian Nights got a far fairer shake. Following is the perfunctory explanation graph, followed by my thoughts:

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a storytelling boardgame for 2-6 players. In it, players travel the ancient world of the Arabian Nights stories as characters from those stories, like Ali Baba, Aladdin, or Scherazade. You begin the game with a quest card that gives you an overarching story and an objective to accomplish. Each turn, after your character moves, you encounter something...a genie, a beggar, or some bandits, for example...and you have a number of options as to how to deal with that particular encounter, such as trying to trick the genie, or beat up the bandits. You make your choice, and the player to your left turns to the appropriate paragraph in the massive Book of Tales included with the game and reads aloud your character's fate. It's slightly more complicated than that (for example, you have skills that can alter the events of your story; a die is rolled to determine certain variable facets of the story, like if the beggar is wise or mean; and you can acquire literally hundreds of different statuses, from becoming a prince to having a sex change, that affect how you interact with a story), but that is the general gist of it. Each story can generate story points and destiny points, as does completing your quest. The first player to get 20 points spread across story points and destiny points can return to Baghdad and win the game.

Prior to the game's purchase, I did a lot of research and discovered a lot of people....even people who were admittedly not that into the gameplay...really fanatical about it. After this first playthrough, I can see why. The game is breezy and light, but with enough heft to make you feel like you did something epic. There's very little strategy to speak of, but the decisions you make are meaningful and often have far-reaching impact on your journey throughout the world. This is one of the few family-friendly, anyone-can-love-this boardgames in my collection, and judging by my friends' reactions to it, probably will see a lot of time at the table.

But I, personally, am drawn to Crusoe. The game is challenging and engaging in ways I've never seen a co-op game be before. Don't get me wrong; co-op games like Pandemic or Ghost Stories are extremely challenging...but their gameplay is pretty straight-forward, it's just a matter of properly reacting to the shifting conditions on the board (yeah yeah; easier said than done, but you get my point). Crusoe is a complex co-op game. You can lose a game of Crusoe just by not understanding the rules, even before the board has a go at you. Imagine a game of Pandemic where your plane could crash while traveling across the world, or your scientist could suddenly suffer from one of the viruses you're trying to cure. That's not quite the same as what's going on in Crusoe, but you get my drift. Despite the short and brutal game we played, I find myself really, really looking forward to the next time I can bring this to the table.

Overall, though, it's pretty clear what my trend is for boardgames, I think; story-driven experiences. I just cannot get into an abstract game of pushing cubes and wood/plastic bits across a table. Now, I love a game of Puerto Rico or even Settlers of Catan as much as the next dude (maybe moreso), but if I'm calling the shots, we're playing games with a story cooked into them. The more detailed, the better. Whether it's exploring a haunted house in Mansions of Madness, fighting off Wu Feng and his hoards of evil spirits in Ghost Stories, or, now, flying across the world on a magic carpet in Tales of Arabian Nights. It feels good when you manage to lock in some poignant detail about yourself, especially when you're a dude like me who's always looking at the next Thing to occupy your time. So here's one detail I definitely know about myself now: I love playing a good story.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ima Let You Finish...

I have a lot of ugly, raw, nasty things to say right now. So if you, dear reader, have built up any respect for me, you may want to skip this one. You've been warned...

I stayed up late tonight because of a contest. I submitted something I wrote to a writing contest on a role-playing game website. I was convinced I was going to win. I was proud of my work. I wrote it, proofed it, had friends look at it, proofed it again, shared it with the internet. I read the other entries, and though many of them were legitimately good, I, as objectively as possible, truly believed mine was the best. At the very least, I thought I'd score second or third place. That would have been disappointing, but I could live with it.

Anyways, the winners were announced at midnight. I didn't even place. And I am furious. So, let me channel my inner Kanye West for just a moment:

My shit was way better than all them other entries. There is NO way I should have lost this thing. This is some BULLSHIT. That fucking contest was RIGGED. I thought this website was different, but it's the same, Good Ol' Boys Club that every other little niche website is. "Oh, you've been here for years and are good buddies with the admin? Well YOU WIN! Screw this other guy who just showed up, even though his entry is CLEARLY better than yours. He's got to EARN the right to win this popular vote contest." Fuck that site, and fuck everyone on it. 

There was little doubt in my mind...virtually none...that I was not going to at least place in this thing. How could I be so wrong? Actually, check that; how can the rest of the world be so wrong?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. It was a stupid little contest, on some obscure little corner of the internet. Why care so much? Well, that's where I hope I get to earn a little forgiveness for my outrage. You see, I am this mad because I care. Many of you don't realize the significance of that. Me caring about something is a big deal. I'm normally a pretty whatever, go-with-the-flow, apathetic dude. Caring about something is, typically, critically lacking in my life.

For me to care enough about something to spout off some ignorant, hateful stuff means I care. And, in case you haven't noticed, I care alot about role-playing games. Look at this blog, for Christ's sake. Do you know how many times I've tried to keep a journal in my life? A LOT, that's how many times. I usually say "fuck it" after two or three good attempts. This little rant here, however? Entry FORTY-SEVEN.

Anyways, as ugly as all of this looks, caring is a good thing. I think I heard a psychologist or something once say anger is a more productive emotion than sadness or pity. So, in this moment, I choose to be angry. Angry because I care. Angry because I am dedicated to this litte hobby of mine, and I will never, ever rest until I am unquestionably the best there is at it.

Eventually, when I calm down, I'll have to apologize. I do honestly respect all the participants in this contest, including and especially the winners. That's why I'm ranting here, in my blog, instead of on their website (tempting as that is).

But for now, that contest, and every entry in it that wasn't mine, is BULLSHIT.

The RPG Cypher

"Imagine a movie where YOU'RE the star!"
"The GM is like the director, and you're the actor, except YOU get to determine where the story goes!"
"This RPG is like a TV show, where each of you is one of the main characters, and the GM is like a narrator that directs the story...."

So many role-playing games use these as an analogy of what they do that I've lost count. Whole books have been written linking film and RPG together. I get it. It's an easy comparison to make.  I also think it's grossly inaccurate.

Well, let me back up a little...it's not grossly inaccurate. But the comparison conveniently ignores several parts of what makes a role-playing game something special. For one, movies aren't performed live. That's a big deal. The energy, the feedback from the other people at the table channels directly into the story. That doesn't happen in a movie, or a TV show. Movies and TV shows also have scripts. They aren't improvised, and they don't (often) change according to the whims of those involved. To ignore the script of a movie or TV show is to ignore the backbone upon which the entire production is based. But many RPG designers would have you believe that the script is something akin to a straight jacket; that a role-playing game is what storytelling is when it's unfettered by plot structure. To this, I say, bullshit.

Roleplaying games, when you look under the surface, are very different than movies and TV shows. An RPG is a living, breathing thing, that evolves and changes with the group. It grows, and it develops, and it spirals in and out of control. A good RPG is a chaotic spin of fantasy, whimsy, drama, and tragedy. It's where the hopes and dreams of the gamers get mingled with their darkest fears and spun into something incredible. Plots are are essential in other, more traditional storytelling mediums. In a role-playing game, plots are optional details.

So I think there's a better analogy out there to describe role-playing games. One of the other loves of my life is hip-hop. In rap, you have this thing called a cypher. A cypher is when a group of rappers form a circle, almost like a football-style huddle, and freestyle. One guy may lay down the beat, while everyone else, one at a time, raps in a circle. They make up their lyrics on the spot, and when one guy starts "fading" (i.e. runs out of cool rhymes), the next guy jumps in. Hip-hop's heritage is in jazz, which is also well-known for its bits of freestyling and improvisational music.

THIS, more than anything else, is a role-playing game. Each player is an artist, a musician, a rapper. The GM, in coordination with the RPG itself, lays down the beat. Then the players enter the cypher, playing off of each other, matching the rhythm with the GM. The lyrics, the rhymes, come from everywhere...the players' fears of death and doom, their fantasies of wealth and power, the truth of life, wherever they live. THAT is a roleplaying game. It may not be as easy to sell to a skeptical newcomer, but it is, in my mind, a far more accruate representation of what a roleplaying game really is.

In his book Decoded, rapper Jay Z talks about the first time he experienced hip hop. He saw a bunch of kids gathered in a circle, dropping beats and laying down rhymes, and he said that he had never seen something like that before, but he knew, instinctively, that he wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to be in that cypher forever. That is exactly the way I felt when, at five years old, I walked into my neighbor's house and saw all three of the neighbor's kids playing Dungeons & Dragons together. I had no idea what was going on...but I loved it, and I knew, at that moment, that this is what I will be doing, forever.



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Thing with Zombies

Hang out with me long enough, and you'll discover that I always carry with me a pro-zombie agenda. Zombie apocalypses are my go-to genre. When it comes to role-playing games, the genre I always tend to crawl to these days is the zombie apocalypse. Many roleplaying games...the majority of them, I would say...have roots deeply set in high fantasy, mainly coming from D&D's titanic influence, which in turn got its inspiration from fantasy literature earlier in the century. Me, though? I'm a zombie dude.

Why is that? There are a number of reasons....

1. Zombies are a universal foe. Zombies are the new Nazis. You can be anyone, from anywhere, having any background, and be a natural nemesis of the walking dead. No moral grey areas, no questions of whether you should kill zombie children, no hope of diplomatic solutions. It's us (me and the players) versus them.

2. Moral shades of grey. This seems contradictory to what I just said, but hear me out here. Having a foe that is unquestionably evil and unquestionably must be destroyed clears the board of external drama...which leaves it wide open for internal drama. Do we use medicine to treat the infirm, or save it for those capable of protecting us? Do we kill the person who just showed up with bite marks on his arm, or do we let him in and hope for the best? When the moment comes, will you be ready to put a bullet in your loved one's brain, or will you hesitate just long enough to share your loved one's fate? That's some great drama, right there. Combine that drama within the context of a zombie apocalypse, and now you have plenty of action and tension that naturally coexists with a character's inner turmoil.

3. Wide tonal range. It's hard to take superheroes seriously. You're running around in spandex and capes, for God's sake. It's not impossible, mind you, but difficult. It's likewise hard to take high fantasy seriously. You've got these long-eared, impossibly attractive elves, and unicorns, and magic spells and all that stuff. C'mon! Again, it's not impossible, but definitely an uphill battle. It is, however, very easy to take shambling, flesh-eating corpses seriously. But, by their very nature, it's also doable to not take them seriously. Look at film. We have Night of the Living Dead and Zombieland. Look at video games. We have Left 4 Dead and Plants vs. Zombies. Zombies can play both sides of the field to great effect, better than any other stock villian or fantasy archetype out there.

4. Variable characteristics. We have the classic, slow walking, damage-absorbing zombies. Then we have the savage, fast-moving, running zombies. Then we have mutant zombies with supernatural abilties, intelligent zombies who can make plans and command a horde, zombie animals...you name it, zombies can do it. And, with a little fudging, you can bring in the rest of the undead army with you who can cover any other bases. Vampires, afterall, are essentially powerful, sexy zombies.

5. Our world becomes a sandbox. Of all the points listed here, this is perhaps my biggest. A zombie apocalypse turns our normal, everyday world into something bizarre and dangerous that needs to be explored. For example, my wife was showing me the floorplans to her new office building the other day. As she gave me a little virtual tour of the place, I kept looking at the whole map and thinking, "Where would the supplies be? Where would survivors go in this building to be safe? What kind of undead ambushes could there be in these halls?" In a zombie apocalypse, you don't need to draw up elaborate, labrinthine dungeons and somehow justify their existence. Likewise, you don't need to fill that dungeon with random monsters and come up with some reason why they're all just hanging out underground. Instead, you can take a shopping mall, stuff it with zombies, and ask your players "What do you do?" It's that simple. A trip to the grocery store suddenly becomes your own, perilous journey to Mordor.

So if you ever find yourself at my gaming table and wonder what RPG I'm going to pull out...a very safe bet is that it's going to involve zombies.

Or Cthulhu. But that's another post...


Friday, February 7, 2014

Silent Sundays

Three days ago, I had posted my Rotted Capes meetup for three different groups. I thought, with a good enough pitch, and spread across three large audiences, I would definitely get a group together for the game.

Flash forward to today. I only have one RSVP. Not wanting to go into the weekend unsure if there would be a game on Sunday or not, I cancelled the event.

There are a lot of little issues that could be brought up here...for example, I had three different gamers say they would do it, but can't due to prior obligations. Had I posted on a different weekend, then, I would have potentially had my four. Also, the main group that I thought would be into it...the horror RPG group...have another, long-standing game that runs on Sundays, so everyone who's a part of that was out of the running. Then there are the normal mitigating factors...my home is not public transporation-friendly, so that's a barrier for carless gamers (of which there are many in D.C., one of the most public-transportation friendly cities in the country); I'm running something that doesn't have "Dungeons" or "Dragons" in the title, so hyping the game is, as always, an uphill battle (as I've written of in previous entries); and I posted the event on Tuesday, with less than a week's notice, so busier gamers had less of a chance of having the weekend open.

But, honestly, I'm grumpy right now and feeling sorry for myself. After a year of hosting these things, I still can't get over the self-conscious fear that the problem is me. Rationally, I know that's bullshit; I'm pretty good at what I do, and even if I wasn't, the fact that I'm willing to do it at all usually means I can at least get a group together. But there's always that ugly little gremlin of doubt, sitting on my shoulder and saying "Nobody likes you!" That, combined with other, non-gaming-related shitty things going on just add up to a bummer of a Friday. And Fridays, by nature, are very hard to screw up.

There is a little light at the end of the tunnel, though. Tonight, I'm meeting up some friends on the boardgaming side of the geek spectrum and playing one of my current favorite games: Mansions of Madness. Fittingly, MoM has been described as an "RPG in a box", and I do concur with that assessment. In Mansions of Madness, players assume the roles of investigators exploring a mansion. At the heart of the mansion is a mystery that needs to be unravelled. One player is the Keeper, who summons monsters and messes with the investigators as they work together to solve the mystery and survive. It's a blast. So even if I don't get in an RPG on Sunday, at least I have this quasi-RPG to look forward to tonight!

Staying positive, I'm about to enter a new arena for role-playing games: play by forum, or PbF, gaming. I'm not entirely clear how it works, but it seems like the idea is that the adventure is run on a message board. There's an in-character (IC) thread for the game itself, and an out-of-character (OOC) thread for meta stuff like making characters, explaining rules, sidebar conversations and the like. The forum I'm using, over at rpggeek.com, has it's own built in dice buttons so players can roll dice right in their response threads. It definitely sounds like it's slower and maybe a little more work for me as a GM, but being able to run the game at odd moments like during breaks at work or before bed in the evening does have a certain appeal to it. Plus, the written medium plays more directly into my skillset, so (in theory, at least), I should be a better GM in this format.

So it's not all doom and gloom. I might as well just take advantage of this free Sunday, catch up on some sleep, and begin prep for the next Call of Cthulhu game the following Sunday.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

RPGs for All?

(disclaimer: the following blog post is NOT an admission of guilt, nor an accusation against any individual).

When I got back into RPGs in late 2012, the industry had changed, a lot. Back when I left around 2005, online RPG sites like DriveThruRPG.com were a novelty. Today, in a world of smartphones, tablets, and affordable laptops, suddenly the idea of the RPG .pdf file was a viable option for the table. I discovered to my giddy delight that I could purchase a complete RPG online, read it on my work computer, and print it out (or copy the file onto my iPhone or tablet) to play at the table! I was drunk with power. I rapdily spent what little extra money I had on RPG .pdf's and went nuts. When my bank account (and my wife) caught up with me, I wasn't even close to ready to stop downloading and hoarding the years and years of role-playing greatness I had been previously missing out on.

So, I went to less savory methods of acquiring those RPGs. In a few short weeks, I had literally more RPGs than I knew what to do with. The spare bedroom in my house was rapidly-filling with binders full of printed-out RPGs, only a fraction of which I had paid any money for. I think, at one point, I might have even thrown all the ill-gotten RPGs on the floor and swam through them, like Scrooge McDuck. I can't remember, I was so drunk on my own entitlement.

Then I hit rock-bottom: indie RPGs. Not massive companies that may not miss a dollar here or there (not that there are too many of those in our industry, anyway), but actual gamers just like me who worked hard to put something new out there. And I just snatched it up, like it was nothing. The "intervention" came from Jason Morningstar. At the back of his modern RPG classic Fiasco, this is written:

Hello, and thanks for buying our game! Your purchase
ensures that we can continue to make great games, and
we really appreciate it. We hope you enjoy Fiasco!

If you’ve aquired this PDF file through a file-sharing
network or from a friend, we’d like to encourage you
to check out Bully Pulpit Games’ Website. There are
extras available to make your game that much more
rockin’, as well as links to places where you can
purchase the game in several formats.

Please consider throwing some money our way if you
haven’t, or maybe donate to the Electronic Frontier
Foundation or write up a juicy play report for us to
read by way of thanks. We know that file sharing is a
bit of a grey area, but we’ve worked very hard to bring
this game to you. We’re two real people, so if you like
what we’re doing, please let us know.

Thanks for your support, and again, thanks for playing
Fiasco!

This was a punch to my entitlement-swollen gut. The guys at Bully Pulpit were fully aware of what I had done (at least, it felt like it). They didn't care, as long as I had fun and maybe showed a little appreciation. Had they given me threats and condescending arguments, I would have looked the other way. But they were cool. They said what I would have most-likely said to someone who pirated an RPG I made.

Shortly after that, I threw away all of my pirated RPGs and deleted all pdf's from my computer that I didn't pay for. Nowadays, the thought of reading a pdf I didn't pay for fills me with so much guilt I couldn't even open the file, let alone read it or play it. Even when my finances are bad off (as they frequently are), I cannot bring myself to bootleg an RPG. I just can't do it.

I don't expect everyone to share my morality. But here are three things I would implore any would-be bootleggers out there to consider before they click "download" on that site that's about to hook them up:

1. Price is a natural filter to content. There are, in my non-economic background opinion, few industries as fair to the consumer as role-playing games. You can chuck $5 at Evil Hat games for their pay-what-you-want version of Fate Core, and have years of tabletop adventure. If a game is too expensive, you don't buy it; instead, you play cheaper alternatives. That expensive game either gets its act together and becomes more affordable, or it risks going under. This isn't the videogame industry, where you have to pay top-dollar for something new or play something old. Likewise, there are no "freemium" tabletop RPGs. There are dozens...hundreds, really...of very high-quality, cutting-edge tabletop RPGs that are completely and totally free. Why steal one that isn't when you could just play one that is?

2. If the game is really worth reading/playing, why aren't you paying for it? RPGs aren't all that expensive for what you get. Even a "top-shelf" RPG, like the Warhammer 40k games or the all-mighty D&D, give you years of gameplay for well-under $100, a rate almost unrivaled across other "interactive entertainment" industries. So if you're not willing to pay money for it, then maybe it's not worth investing time in, either. "I'm not sure if I want to buy it, so I'd like to read through it to make up my mind," is not a valid reason, because a) there are demos/quickstart kits designed expressly for that purpose, not to mention an entire internet full of discussions and reviews to help you make up your mind, and b) If a game has piqued your curiosity enough to consider reading it, then it should be worth your money, even if you never end up playing the game. I mean, that's what reading a book and watching a movie is like, right? And "because I'm poor" is also not an excuse. First of all, see option 1, above, and secondly, we're talking role-playing games, here, not food or medicine. There is no welfare for RPGs (not until I become President, anyway)!

3. The RPG industry is a small place. I had a chance to run a convention game with some people in a pretty considerable place in the biz. I pulled out, because I didn't legitmately own the game I signed to run, and I didn't want to be seen as that guy who couldn't be bothered to even spend one cent on the hobby he loved. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere and/or have no intent of ever going to one of the big cons, the hobby is pretty small, and there's a very real chance that stuff like this could come back to bite you in the ass.

So, now that I've put those arguments out there AGAINST bootlegging an RPG, I'll end this blog post with what I believe are a few edge-cases where I can condone bootlegging an RPG. NOT encouraged, mind you, but not condemmed, either. As I said in the disclaimer above, I am merely making an argument, and not admitting to doing this myself or anyone I know doing this:

1. The RPG is out of print. If you seriously would give money to someone for an RPG and you simply can't because the game is no longer commercially available, then one could argue that downloading the RPG is a victimless crime. Still, though, I would encourage hitting up used bookstores before piracy. Also, out of physical print but still commercially available online via sites like DriveThru is NOT "out of print."

2. You have the hardcopy. This is definitely the most controversial edge-case. Some would not call it an edge-case at all; if both are for sale and you want to use both, you're expected to buy both. But I believe it's unfair to the customer that they have to choose one format over the other. Buying a pdf over a hardcopy is not the same as buying an Xbox version of a videogame over a Playstation version. In the case of videogames, different people need to be paid, and the game is coded to run specifically for each platform. In the case of RPGs, the only difference is reading it in a book or reading it on your computer/tablet screen. It's the same exact game, made by the same exact people. The only difference is in who distributes it, and I don't think it's too much to ask, as a consumer, to have the designers work that out with those distributors, rather than simply burning the customer with the full cost as if another option just doesn't exist. Many game companies, like Pelgrane Press (makers of the brilliant 13th Age) have caught on to this, and offer the pdf free with all hardcopies purchased through their website.

 3. An official, commercially-available version of the pdf does not exist. There are some RPGs out there that, for whatever reason, do not have a pdf version. As far as I'm concerned, these companies are saying "We are not going to engage in the pdf market." As with number 1, above, downloading these could then be considered a victimless crime, since the publisher is not interested in making money through digital sales, anyway. I understand that there are legal/distribution issues to consider, as is the case with Fantasy Flight Games and their Star Wars RPGs...but why should the fans have to suffer because a bunch of lawyers who could not care less about them can't figure out a way to make it work? Now, if that should ever change and an official pdf becomes available, I think one should pay for that version. Besides; why stick with a crappy scan of someone's book when you could just pony up a few dollars for a nice, clean, digital version?

4. Your copy came from a friend who purchased the official .pdf file. The friend has to be someone you know in real life (preferably a regular member of your gaming group), not the nebulous, ephemeral people on the internet, and that friend has to officially and legally own the pdf (as in, the owner can produce a receipt and/or the file has a watermark with the owner's name on it. It has to be a purchase of the pdf, too, not a combo-case with #2, above). As far as I'm concerend, that's not bootlegging; that's borrowing. Just like if that friend gave you his or her hardcopy of the game. Sure, you never have to return it, and sure, there are now two when there once was only one, but that's just the same as if you photocopied your friend's borrowed hardcopy.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Process

I wasn't planning on blogging today. Instead, I was going to start prep for my next gaming session. But then, I thought, "Why not both?" So this entry is going to be a brainstorm for the coming session. Apologies in advance, because as a brainstorm, this is probably going to be a mess. It might not even make much sense.

Also, if you have any ideas or ways you could contribute to the brainstorm, please let me know!

Firstly, the game I have settled on is Rotted Capes. Basically, Rotted Capes is a zombie apocalypse game, with superheroes. All the heavy hitters....your Supermen, your Batmen, your Wonder Women...all died or turned into zombies fighting the undead. Players roleplay as the surviving B-Listers...the Robins, Nightwings, or Batgirls...helping society survive.

The adventure is going to be a one-shot, because I'm already running a Call of Cthulhu campaign every other weekend. These off-weekends are supposed to be my "screw around" sessions where I can stretch my legs with a different system, in a different genre. Though, with character creation, I could see Rotted Capes maybe being a two-parter, by necessity.

Anyways, this being my first foray into Rotted Capes, I'd like to do two things: one, put the system through the paces and see how it works; and two, play out some classic superhero tropes, altered for the zombie apocalypse setting.

The first thing that immediately comes to mind is the common trope of "the origin story." Every superhero these days seems to get the deluxe, graphic novel/feature film treatment to explain the entire story of how and why so-and-so became a superhero. So I'm going to make this adventure an origin story. How so? Well, I'm thinking about extensive use of flashbacks. Throughout the adventure, I'll do one flashback per player at the table. Each flashback will feature one of the players. I will work with that player to create a brief flashback scene that takes place before the apocalypse (hereafter called "Z-Day"). To keep the scene focused but loose enough to be creative, I'm going to have the player featured in the flashback scene choose one objective for the scene:


  1. The first time the character gained his/her powers;
  2. The first time the character realized he/she must become a superhero;
  3. A scene establishing the hero's personality;
  4. A meaningful interaction with another superhero or villain.
Of course, each flashback is going to have to somehow tie into the plot of the current adventure. So that will be something to look out for during the story.

(I should probably keep player count low for this game...4 players, max...because of the extra time flashback sequences will add to the session. Plus it might get boring if everyone else has to sit around while one person bathes in the spotlight. I can alleviate that some by letting other players roleplay as bystanders or NPCs or something during the flashback scene, but still, I can't incorporate everybody...)

So with the flashback scenes taking center stage, I'll need a simple but effective story happening in the present to contrast to the stories being told in the past. The first idea that comes to mind is a "seek and destroy" mission: a super-zombie in the area is making life difficult and perilous for the survivors whom the heroes protect. The heroes have decided they cannot let this super-zombie lay siege to their safehouse enclave any longer, and have set out into the city to find and destroy him.

The problem with this plot is I'll have to sell the logic to the PCs. In other words, if the players think leaving the enclave is stupid and don't go, I don't have an adventure! That should be easy enough to fix, though; flashbacks! If the adventure does start with player apprehension, I'll use one or two of the players' flashbacks sequences to establish real, compelling reasons to go on this zombie hunt. Maybe the zombie-to-be was a former lover. Maybe the zombie captured or killed a lover of one of the heroes. Something like that.

So, let's see what we've got:

  1. Our heroes leave the enclave to find the super-zombie who is terrifying the survivors.
  2. Weave in the first flashback here.
  3. An encounter of some-kind, giving a clue as to the super-zombie's lair (Super-zombies still retain most of their human intelligence, and thus usually have schemes, plans, and secret lairs to do said scheming and planning).
  4. The second flashback, relating to what just happened.
  5. The heroes have another encounter, perhaps while trying to enter the lair, or maybe a side mission they undertake while en route to the lair (a building full of innocent people being besieged by a horde of zombies or something).
  6. A third flashback, relating to the previous scene, again.
  7. Heroes find the lair, battle the super-zombie, and are victorious (or die gruesome, tragic deaths; this IS a one-shot, afterall!)
  8. Final flashback, doubling as an epilogue.
That seems like a pretty meaty story, right there. Tomorrow, I'll start thinking about the super-zombie and nailing down some specifics on the encounters the heroes have on the way to the lair. Once again, if you, fair reader, have any ideas about how I should proceed, I am ALL ears.

Oh, and if you live in the D.C. area and you have RSVPed on Meetup.com for a Rotted Capes game, DON'T READ MY BLOG THIS WEEK!


Monday, February 3, 2014

Setting the Mood

Yesterday, I ran my first Call of Cthulhu session. Five gamers were in attendence: J2, S, B, L, and M. They played a Professor, a Lawyer, a Student, a Soldier, and a Medic, respectively. We played "God of Mitnal", an adventure from the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, an incredible, 500-page ebook available for FREE at www.yog-sothoth.com. This adventure is a prelude adventure to the larger Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign I'm going to run, starting Sunday, Feb. 16th.

The adventure went very well. It was short and purely supplemental to the actual campaign, so I'm not going to bother with an adventure summary. The venerable Call of Cthulhu system (known generically as Basic Role-playing, or BRP), proved once again to be intuitive, straight-forward, and elegant in its simplicity.

I only had one problem: we were being too silly. That's not a bad thing, and I didn't bother to bring it up this session, but I am concerned about how I'm going to keep the game serious once the campaign progresses. It wasn't the players' fault entirely; the adventure has a very pulpy, even Scobby-Doo-esque vibe to it which was kind of conducive to silliness. And I was cracking wise, too. But the real Masks of Nyarlathotep is going to be a long, intense, and epic adventure. I expect moments of levity, but I do NOT want to approach this game with the same wise-ass, joke-cracking demeanor I and my group have taken to these games in the past. The game is bi-weekly, so I'm not worried about burn-out. I want to ratchet up the intensity and fear to levels I've never done in an RPG before.

How do I do that? I seriously have never done anything like this before, in trying to establish and maintain an atmosphere beyond the casual BSing characteristic of most RPG sessions. I've done a lot of different things in 20+ years of roleplaying, but having an authentic horror experience is something I've never done. It's actually quite scary, the thought of it. (the irony of that is not lost on me, by the way).

So since I've never done it before, I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about how to do it right. Over the next two weeks, I'll be researching and developing techniques for running a serious RPG session. The following are some ideas of techniques I'm thinking of trying out. I would really like to hear from anyone with experience running horror games to let me know their thoughts.

1. The "Cards on the Table" Approach. When everyone arrives at the table, I plan on simply telling them, honestly, "Hey, everyone. We're about to embark on an intense, epic mystery of Lovecraftian horror. To establish the genre and to have as authentic a Lovecraftian experience as possible, I'm going to ask all of you to keep side conversations, jokes, and other such asides to an absolute minimum. If the game is getting too intense for you, please feel free to step outside and take a short break. We will have scheduled breaks on the hour to relieve the tension a little and give you a chance to relax a bit." What do you all think of that? Will that work?

2. The "Undivided Attention" Technique. In addition to "The Cards on the Table" approach, I intend on asking all players at the table to leave all technology behind. No cell phones, laptops, or tablets at the table. Technology is distracting, even when you don't want it to be.

3. The "Multimedia" Approach. Though a bit hypocritical to the Undivided Attention technique, I was thinking of including as much mood music, pictures of real locations, and authentic 1920's details as I can think of and presenting them throughout the adventure. This allows the players to have multiple avenues to engage the story beyond my narrative. The trade-off, I'm afraid, is that if this isn't done right, it'll actually be more distracting than helpful. Plus it creates another task for my prep, much like this next idea...

4. The Reading Technique. With this idea, I'm going to pre-write as many descriptions as possible for various scenes, characters, and dialogue. That way, I'm not stuttering and stammering, giving confusing or colorless descriptions, or otherwise comprimising the story with my own shortcomings as a storyteller. I'm confident enough that my reading voice (coupled with some carefully written passages) can overcome the "boredom factor" of having stuff read to you, but I am concerned about the trade-off in spontaneity. If/when investigators do stuff I'm not fully prepared for, I'm afraid the dip in quality will not only be distracting but also a bit of a metagame tell ("he's not reading a prepared description, so this must not be where we're supposed to go!")

So there's my first batch of ideas. I'll write more entries as I think of more ideas. And once again, please let me know your thoughts, either as comments here or in a private message/email to me, or however you want to do it. Thanks again!