Monday, June 30, 2014

Runaway

Yesterday was an awful, awful day. Almost as bad as Saturday. From the moment I awoke to the moment I turned off the lights and went to sleep, I stayed in bed. That sounds worse than it is...see, the room I live in only has space for the bed. There's literally no where else for me to sit. So I sat in bed, did my homework, and played World of Warcraft for about 16 straight hours. I did leave the room, once, to go get some Coke and a haircut.

I've written before about how WoW is my panacea for the blues. Like most aspirins, though, the pain only goes away while I'm under its influence. Now, I sit here at work, staring at my screen, trying to look busy. But underneath the surface, I am overcome with pain and heartbreak. The kind that's so painful all you can do is focus on it, talk about it, obsess over it. I wish I could get over it. Work would actually be a nice distraction for me. But I can't. This little blog entry will in fact be the third massive literary dump I've taken on this subject today alone. I am failing to do anything but be upset. If I had any kind of integrity, I'd walk into my supervisor's office, tell her I need to leave for personal reasons, and go. Truth is, I'm a little scared of going home. All that's waiting there for me is more WoW. And then, after the computer goes off and I lay in the dark, what then?

I don't want to talk about what's troubling me. Not here. I know, that seems to defeat the point of writing here, but I don't. It actually hurts too much. Just know that it's about the same old shit that it's been about since February. Rationally, I get it. It's only been going on since February. I don't know how long it takes to pick up the pieces of a broken marriage and either glue them back together or put them in the trash, but I'm sure it's longer than four months.

What's hard, though, is life in separation. My relationship with my estranged wife is a little like living in a warzone. There are long stretches where nothing bad happens, and it could almost be peaceful. Then the bullets start flying, people get hurt, and the future becomes scary and uncertain. Then time passes, and everything goes back to normal...for a little while, anyway. Maybe just long enough to put your guard down. Rinse and repeat.

Much like the last time I had a mini-breakdown on my blog, I'm not really sure why I'm doing this, or what I'm hoping to achieve. I know some people will read this, and they will be concerned, and I will be grateful for that concern. But if that's all I wanted, a nice, cryptic status update with some quoted lyrics from a Linkin Park song would probably cover it. So I guess I'm looking to clear my own head of all this garbage by writing it down. It hasn't worked yet. But it's all I've got. It's all I know how to do.




Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Games at Work, Session II

Last week, I began running lunchtime boardgames in the conference room at work. Three people showed up and we had a good time playing Coup. 

This week, I ran it again. Five people showed up. I gave 48 hours notice this week instead of the morning of. At least one of the two new players said it was that advance notice that allowed him to show, so I guess some planning ahead does work! With six players, I switched up the game and got in two rounds of Avalon. I was the only person who had ever played it before, once. 

Overall, Avalon may be one of the most perfect party games I've ever played. It's heavy enough to be interesting, but light enough to be taught in minutes. For those of you unaware, Avalon is a "hidden traitor" game a la Battlestar Galactica or The Resistance (in fact, Avalon is made by the same people as The Resistance, and can actually be combined with that game). There are two groups: good guys who are servants of King Arthur, and traitors who are servants of Mordred. The bad guys know who the other bad guys are. The good guys do not know who the bad guys or the other good guys are. Each turn, a player elects a number of other players to go on a quest, and everyone votes to either approve or reject the elected group. If the vote passes, the players assigned the quest then vote secretly on passing or failing the quest. The quest vote must be unanimous, so if there is even one "fail" vote that turns up, the entire quest fails. Three failed quests, and the bad guys win. Three successful quests, and the good guys win. 

There is one other important wrinkle, though: Merlin and the Assassin. One of the good guys is Merlin. When the game begins, he gets to know who the bad guys are. The Assassin is one of the bad guys. If the good guys win, then the Assassin player gets to try and guess who Merlin is. If he correctly picks Merlin, the bad guys steal victory away from the good guys. So Merlin can be a great boon to the good guys in terms of choosing groups for successful quests, but if Merlin is too helpful, the Assassin may find out which player Merlin is, making victory impossible for the good guys. 

So the first game was a little clunky, but to my knowledge, we played it correctly. The two preceding paragraphs are literally almost all of the rules to the game, so it's even simpler than Coup. The good guys (my team) won. The second game was more intense, as the players became more comfortable with the rules and were engaging in more political behavior. The bad guys (again, my team) won by assassination. I was the Assassin, but thankfully I listened to my fellow Traitor instead of following my own instinct, which proved to be wrong. My co-conspirator had deduced who Merlin was, and we won.

I accidentially revealed I was a traitor in the second game. When I was re-explaining the victory conditions, I accidentially phrased "good guys" as "you guys." That unfortunately was all it took for two players to immediately jump on me, leaving me to awkwardly backpedal. Again, we won anyway, but had I not made that mistake, we might have won by questing rather than assassination. 

That actually leads to one of my two minor problems with Avalon: the high possibility of shenanigans. One accidential phrase, one accidential card flip, or one loud movement during the setup can potentially ruin the entire game. It's not that big of a deal because games are short and the possibility of shenanigans is equal on both sides, but nevertheless I can see a game getting very frustrating if things are intense and uncertain, and then one guy sneezes over his card and reveals he's Merlin.

My other minor problem with the game is the blend of deductive logic and politics. For whatever reason, this blend is a real strain on my brain. Keeping track of who voted what, properly inferring who is who from that vote, all the while making your own case for your innocence (or deception) can be very complex. Despite the short duration of the game and the ease of the rules, I find it as mentally exhausting as much longer, more complicated games. One can argue that that is part of what makes Avalon so awesome. I can agree to that, but I can't see myself playing this game more than once or twice in an evening of games. It'd just wear me out! I find Coup's blend of statistics/card counting and politics much easier to digest over extended plays.

Anyways, it was another exclamation point on an otherwise mundane work week. I plan on doing it again next week, and, if the player count exceeds eight, I'll finally be able break out Panic on Wall Street (ironically, this is the game I started this whole thing for, but attendence hasn't been high enough to crack it out, and I don't want to play it with anything less than its optimal player count).






Thursday, June 26, 2014

Firefly RPG, Episode Four: "Breakout" Part II: Analysis

On Monday, I posted my synopsis of the fourth episode of my Firefly RPG season. Here in part 2 of that report, I'll talk about some general thoughts and observations about the session.

There are generally three levels of enthusiasm I have when I'm about to run an RPG. At the bottom level is "well, I said I was going to do it, so let's do it," where I don't really want to, but I'll suck it up basically on the good faith that I'll still have a good time. At the middle level is my default level of enthusiasm, where I am stoked to play the game and I'm going to do it no matter what, and I'm pretty confident it's going to be a good time. The third, highest level, is Maximum Hype. I am stoked to run those games. I can almost guarantee everyone who shows is going to have a blast. Last Sunday's episode was Level Three on the enthusiasm meter. And it delivered, if I do say so myself.

Of course, I cannot take all the credit. Stephen did an excellent job running the flashback adventure. He hadn't run a game in a long time, and he had very little experience running the more narrative-style story games like those of the Cortex Plus system. I had total faith in him, though. I was ready to back him up and jump in if he seemed to flounder, but that was never necessary. He handled it like a champ.

And, obviously, a big hunk of credit goes to my players for being awesome, too. When Stephen and I designed the kids the others would play, we both knew to go in with as broad a template as possible, so the players could add the details and backgrounds about them as they played. This of course was going to be the biggest gamble...most of my players are pretty experienced at what they do, and prefer to make their characters from scratch. They'll use pre-mades, but you can practically see the distance between the character and the player playing that character, even if the player gets to choose a few surface details. I was nervous about that, because for this flashback to work, the players were all going to need to buy into the experience. I didn't want it to be a situation where Q's player was the only one having fun and the other players were essentially just out-sourced NPCs.

By the end of the adventure, though, I think those kids were every bit the Big Damn Heroes that the regular crew was. Sure enough, the players readily injected personality into those kids, and had a great time using their powers. Q's player, Mary, even wrote a fan fiction piece about the kids!  So that went off extremely well.

On my end, all I had to do was keep tying the loose threads from the past into the present, and that practically wrote the adventure by itself. Following that line of thought, it just seemed to make the most sense to have Doctor Montgomery turn traitor on the crew. Only thing, though, was I had come up with that twist on the spot. So I had to ask Stephen: "Hey, Stephen, how would you like to kill off the character you've been running for the past few months and turn one of this session's primary antagonists into your new character?" But Stephen, again, was really cool about it, and agreed. I can't speak for Stephen, but I hope that his transition to Ira leads to more great roleplaying and interesting twists for the crew.

However, this leads into another concern I have coming out of the adventure: the continuing tight-rope walk between the source material and my own aspirations. As the season moves on, I find myself thinking of increasingly bold ideas by the standards of the TV show. I'm beginning to drift away from Firefly as source material and more as reference material to my own "space western" game. The pilot episode had references to recurring cast members and direct ties to stuff from the show. This episode had five kids with psychic powers. And we're not just talking freaky visions and mind-reading here like River on the show...we're talking about Whiskey, who could start fires with his mind. So we've begun a departure from the show here. The question now is, how far do we go off the TV screen? Should I start to steer it back, or should I just go with it? And what impact will that have on the remaining episodes of the campaign?

Well, the next episode is several weeks out. So we'll see where the whole thing goes next month!




Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Community Unplugged

Yesterday's Firefly play report marked the 100th Entry of the Failing Forward Blog. I'm not a toot-my-own-horn-type, but man...100 blog entries. There are only a few things I've done 100 times in this world. Of those things, most of them aren't worth mentioning. But 100 blog entries? Damn, self. I'll write more on that later, but I'd just like to recognize that, before I've done another 100 entries and forgotten about it!

I have decided to hold back on the analysis portion of Sunday's Firefly game. I'll get back to it tomorrow or Thursday, maybe, but I'm not particualrly inspired to write about it right now.

Speaking of that Firefly game...in the days since we got together, my group have been circulating emails to each other on how happy they are with the group and the game and how grateful they are for being a part of it. One player in my group remarked that she's lived in this area for three years and hadn't made any friends until now. Not only do we all really have a great time playing RPGs together, we genuinely respect, appreciate, and just plain like each other as people. I am very grateful to have them in my life. Behold the power of tabletop gaming! It's not just the game.  It's not just the rules. It's the people. It's the connections. It's the friendships.

Contrast this to a recent column I read on MMORPG.com. There, the writer laments the breakdown of communication in MMORPGs. He talks sadly about how built-in social elements in MMO's of the past are gone, "modernized" out of existence, and with it, a chance to meet new people and make new friends. He openly wonders how the MMO industry can get that sense of community back, and make MMO's a genre once again where players can meet new people and form bonds and friendships and so on.

The one thing I hate worse than watching a troll ruining a perfectly good comments section is being a troll myself. So I have come here, to my home on the internet, to express my thoughts on the topic:

There never has been, and never will be, an online gaming community stronger, more intimate, and friendlier than one formed at a tabletop, face-to-face with other people, playing a tabletop game.

Yes, yes, yes...I know all about the weddings that have happened in World of Warcraft. I've heard all about the friendships and bonding that can happen in MMO's. I'm not saying that stuff can't happen. I'm saying it happens more consistently, more often, and overall better in tabletop gaming than in videogaming.

I know most people wouldn't actually argue that point, but I just feel like it's a point worth keeping in mind, as videogames become more and more the main facet of a gamer's life. I feel like it's important to point out to the greater, non-tabletop gaming community that yes, there is a way to game and make meaningful relationships. Those weddings and what-not? Sorry to say, but they are exceptions that prove the rule. The reason they've become internet legends is because they are so uncommon.

In an MMO, I'll play for a few weeks. I'll join a guild, maybe engage in some fun chats with guildies. If I'm playing a game that scales well, like Guild Wars 2, I may even actually play with them. But then, one day, I'm done playing the game. I cancel my subscription or uninstall the game. And those "friends" I made in that guild are gone. They might as well have been figments of my imagination. Does it have to be this way? Of course not. But it is, for me and for many other videogamers.

Many of us turn to videogames to get a break from reality, not to create a new one. Tabletop gaming allows both, simultaneously. When I started a Dungeon World group over a year ago, I had about ten people who were a regular part of it. Two sessions in, I abandoned the game. I still regularly talk and interact with people who were in that group, and we'd only met twice prior! Later on that year, I started a second group, using Fate Core (and later switching to my own AW hack, World Gone Mad). That group fell through after about three sessions. Sure enough, I'm still good friends with several of the members of that group, too. And now I have this group. We've been playing together for not even a year, and many of them are better friends than I'd ever had in my formative years in high school, or college, or the Army. When I think about the powerful bonds I've formed with people in face-to-face tabletop gaming, and I compare it to the "communities" that MMOs/videogames have? I almost feel sorry for them.

So, as always, I end this strong opinion post with a multi-part disclaimer that anyone with a brain would take as a given. However, since there are people out there who, in their righteous fury, fail to see the forest for the trees (I, too, have been guilty of this in the past; no high-horsin' it here), I offer this:

1. I LOVE VIDEOGAMES. My post is essentially about the great friends I've made since I became actively involved in tabletop gaming as an adult. Though I do sincerely believe videogames cannot match this social experience, please do not extrapolate from that that I hate videogames. Even despite a 100-entry blog mostly about tabletop gaming, I am an avid videogamer, and I am not suggesting some kind of hippie movement away from consoles.

2. Your mileage may vary. I'm sure there are at least a few videogamers out there that can tell me all about the amazing bonds they've forged with fellow guildmates and what-not. Good for you. Go write your own blog about it!

3. What about people who live in remote areas and can't get a real group together? That's a different topic that I may tackle some other day. For now, know that I'm not talking about you, and I sympathize with your plight.

3. I am no one. I claim no official authority here, neither on tabletop nor videogaming. I am not a paid journalist. I only have a few regular readers. If what I've written deeply offends/upsets you, you may want to take a close look at your life decisions, because Random Nerd on the Internet should not be able to affect you like this.






Monday, June 23, 2014

Firefly RPG, Episode Four: "Breakout" (aka "the Adventure Turducken") Part One: Synopsis

Following is a synopsis of yesterday's Firefly RPG session.

When we last left our heroes, the good Doctor was captured by the Alliance while the rest of the Serenity's new crew had escaped the mining facility. Over the past several weeks, our heroes crossed the 'Verse looking for their captured Doctor. They finally found him, deep in the Core...being held prisoner in the Academy, the very facility Q had been abducted and brain-washed in several years before.

Thus began "Breakout," the fourth episode in my season of the Firefly RPG. As I've mentioned before, every episode features one of the cast members, and I use a new mechanic/mini-game along with the story. Yesterday's episode focused on Q, the young boy who was abducted by the Alliance and turned into a killing machine. Yesterday's special mechanic was something especially wild...I ran two adventures concurrently. The "present" and primary adventure revolved around the crew breaking into the Academy and rescuing their Doctor. The second adventure was a flashback adventure about the fateful night Q escaped from the Academy. So in one adventure, the PCs were moving into the facility, and in the other, Q and her friends were moving out of the facility.

To pull this stunt off, I enlisted Stephen, the player who controls the Doctor. With his character captured, he wouldn't have much to do, so I offered him the opportunity to GM the flashback adventure. To my relief, he agreed, and worked with me throughout the prep process to make this episode shine. If you're reading this, Stephen, thank you again, good sir! I could not have pulled this one off without you!

We involved the entire group by creating Q's friends, and then assinging those friends to each player when the adventure began. Q's friends were as follows:

-Yankee, a cryokinetic;
-Echo, a telekinetic;
-Whiskey, a pyrokinetic;
-Zulu, a techno-empath (could influence electronics with her mind; could also access the Cortex without a computer)

As you can see, we stuck with the one-letter naming convention Q's player made for herself when making her own character. We extended it slightly by using the phonetic alphabet. We also expanded Q's powers to make her a full-blown telepath, since this was before she blacked out and lost memories of who she was and what her training was like.

Early on, the kids had to do battle with India, a prefect in the Academy who repeatedly tried to stop Q and her friends from escaping. An empath, India tried to incapacitate and confuse Q's friends by manipulating their emotions. In the present timeline, Jack bumped into an older India (going by his given name, Ira). Ira had gone on to become a faculty member of the Academy. He brought Jack into his office, and after working him over with his powers of empathy, discovered that Q has returned to rescue their friend. He immediately sought out Q, found him, and the two of them began an epic battle through the halls of the Academy.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew tried to sneak in as a culinary company delivering cupcakes for the kids. Surprisingly, this was working until a senior administrative official rounded up Kitt and Cricket (Cricket is the new pilot; Sally's player had dropped out of the game) and brought them into the security office for questioning. Enzo was supposed to be captured as well, but he ran off. As the other two were being questioned, a hilarious scene broke out where the guards were really about to put the screws to Kit and Cricket when they got distracted by watching Enzo, in his faux-baker's uniform, sprinting across the courtyard and getting dog-piled by four guards. This distraction allowed Kit to Cricket to escape, but their efforts were for naught as they were recaptured by the guards.

The crew had been captured, and things were looking grim. While Q and Ira/India fought, they gripped each other and blended minds and emotions together. In that moment, Ira learned of everything Q had been through; his struggles with the horrors the Alliance committed on him, his attempts to live a free life since, and, most importantly, the friends he had made. Ira realized he was missing out on all of that, and was living his life as little more than a tool for the Alliance. He turned on his former masters and became the newest member of the crew. Quickly going to work, Ira used his empathic powers to incite a riot amongst the guards. Everyone escaped and proceeded to the headmaster's office, where they finally found their Doctor, along with Colonel Kensington, the villian revealed in episode two, "The Kill Switch."

The crew was ready to rescue their Doctor...only to discover that the Doctor didn't need to be rescued. Colonel Kensington had managed to convince the good Doctor that his efforts were in vain, and that the only way to really help these children was to stay with the Alliance. And so he agreed. The crew was betrayed. Whiskey...now William...entered the room. The Doctor whistled a tune that triggered Whiskey's Kensington Protocol. He began to attack the crew. In the ensuing battle, Kit killed the Doctor, shooting him down as they attempted to battle Whiskey, hold off the guards, and escape the Academy.

Through the help of some Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure -style time manipulation, the crew discovered Whiskey's kill switch and deactivated him. When Colonel Kensington discovered this, he pulled a pistol and shot Q's friend to death. Q, overcome with emotions, flew into a rage and nearly murdered Colonel Kensington. Doing so might have cost her her freedom as the guards descended upon the room, but Jack, along with a little empathic boost from Ira, convinced Q they needed to go. Peaches swooped onto the Academy with the Serenity, the crew jumped on, and they flew off to safety.

In part two of this play report, I will go into the more technical/logistical process of running this adventure. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Failing Better

Today, in half an hour, I'm hosting my first "boardgames at lunch" event at my work. My office, like most in the federal government, is a large, sprawling organization of about 60. Most of us go about our days with our heads down, doing our work diligently, and then clocking out and going home. Some of us go whole weeks without barely speaking a word to each other.

Me, I just got Avalon, Coup, and Panic on Wall Street in the mail, and I really wanted to play them. Not wanting to go to the Landing tonight I decided, as I sometimes do, to bring the party to me rather than going to the party. And so I booked the office's conference room and sent out a company-wide email inviting everyone to come join me.

I'm a little nervous. There are a few people in the office I don't care much for. What if they show? Worse yet, what if no one shows? What if my e-invite gets ignored and trashed, like most invites I myself get throughout the week? Even worse still, what if people show, and it sucks?

I got a little panicked about it. Then I remembered something I read the other day from comedian Jeff Garlin (not an exact quote):

"The trick to stand-up isn’t so much about learning how to be funny. It’s about learning how to fail. The most you can hope for is to eventually fail better." 

He may be just talking about stand-up comedy. But he could just as well be talking about tabletop gaming. Not necessarily in the playing of the games themselves, but in doing this thing that I do, where I start new groups and organize new events and teach new games. It's not about walking out of there and thinking "That was SUCCESSFUL!" The best I can hope for is to have a good time and meet some new friends. That's not exactly "failing better," but when I stop framing these things in terms of success or failure, I do feel a bit better about it.

So, with that, here goes nothing!



an hour later....


Only three people showed up, though the office head and his second in command both came by to express their support for my initiative. I was also featured in the director's "Shout Out of the Week." So that was cool. Next week I'll put the email out a couple of days in advance instead of the morning of. It is possible (though unlikely) that some people already had plans and simply couldn't come because of that.

With only four total players, I busted out Coup. I really wanted to play Avalon, but with only four players, that wasn't going to happen. That left Panic on Wall Street or Coup. Panic sounds like it's best with at least five or six (or, better, 7-10), so Coup it was. I think it was the right choice. We played several games, though only one of them was played correctly. We had a great time together, and all three of the participants want to do this again next week, which I fully intend on doing.

Coup, for those of you who don't know, is a card game of hidden roles. One of my co-workers described it as "Bullshit, with a sci-fi theme." That is a crude, though not inaccurate description. You have two character cards. Each character has a special action. On your turn, you perform an action. The kicker, though, is no one sees your cards, so you could pretend to have a card you don't have and take an action you can't normally take. If you're called out on it, you lose that card. If you're called out on it and you do actually have the right character, you reveal that character, and the person who called you out loses one of their cards. Lose both cards and you're out of the game. Last person standing wins. There's a little bit more to it than that, but that's the general idea in a paragraph.

This was the first time I played Coup. Though there are only a few rules, those few rules are important, and missing even one can create an unacceptable amount of shenanigans. Here are the things we tripped up on during the first few games. I offer these so other new players can avoid the mistakes we made. If any of you Coup players out there know of any other newb traps (or, heaven forbid, I'm wrong in one of my rules interpretations) please let me know!

  • Influence and Coins are two DIFFERENT things. Influence is, basically, your cards. You NEVER get more Influence. 
  • When someone calls you out and you reveal the correct card, that card goes back into the deck and you draw another. Put another way, if you have two Influence, you have two unrevealed cards. 
  • When you lose Influence and you have to reveal a card, you no longer get to use the abilities of that card. You still keep the card in front of you to remind everyone that a) you're down a card and b) all players can see what's not in the deck any longer.
  • If you attempt an action you couldn't possibly do and no one calls you out on it, it's always legal. For example, if you assassinate someone but all three assassin cards are out of the game, if your victim doesn't call you out on it, then it's still a valid, legal assassination. 


All in all, I had a great time, and so did everyone else. I'll call that a pretty good failure!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Calm Before the Storm

It is less than a month until the fifth edition of Dungeon's & Dragons launches. Technically, it's a bit longer than that before the corebooks drop, but July is when the Starter Set will be released, and along with it, the Basic D&D pdf that will supposedly allow you to create characters and run campaigns for them from level 1 all the way to level 20, or whatever the hell the cap is going to be.

My feelings about this have varied day-by-day. Mostly, I've been excited. It's D&D! The Disneyland of tabletop role-playing games! The 800 lb. gorilla! The hobby's flagship! But on some days...such as today, as I write this...I find myself weary, skeptical, quite possibly even pessimistic.

Disclaimer: I have NOT followed the beta/development of 5th edition.  The following opinions are based on pure hearsay from around the internet and the occasional article from the offical website. I may update this blog with new thoughts as information becomes more concrete.

There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is the now-decaying corpse of the game's previous edition. The fourth edition of the game was released in 2007. That's a short seven years between that edition and this one. Now, third edition also only lasted seven years (from 2000-2007), but that game is still going strong today. Sure, it's no longer supported by Wizards of the Coast (D&D's publisher, also the makers of Magic: The Gathering), but the legacy of the third edition lives on through it's evolutionary off-shoot, Pathfinder. That game shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. So, in a way, third edition D&D is still out there. Yet 4th is dead and gone. As of now, I don't know of anyone who's going to "grognard" onto the 4th edition the way people have to the previous editions.

There are enough reasons for that to fill several blog entries, but where I'm going is this: the 4th edition was a radical departure from 3rd. But with 5th edition, it seems like Wizards of the Coast have decided to fall back to its 3.0/3.5 roots, and basically disavow 4th edition. I do not think this is a good idea. You cannot go home again, as the saying goes. Wizards reinvented D&D with its 4th edition. Though they can go ahead and call it a failure if they want, 5th edition should continue to re-invent and re-define the game. Instead, it's like they're calling a massive, industry-wide "do-over." A reboot. And the last thing this world needs is another half-assed reboot of something.

What would I have done? What would a re-invention/re-definement of D&D look like if I were the lead designer? I would have looked at today's trends, the writing on the wall, and jumped ahead of it to lead it. What do I mean? I would have taken my cues from story gaming. Specifically, if we're talking business, I would have tried to buy out Dungeon World, 13th Age, or maybe even Fate Core, or Warhammer FRP, and made one of them the new 5th edition of D&D. Failing that, I would have built a brand-new, proprietary system that focuses on collaborative storytelling and fast, exciting gameplay.

Hear me out here, alright? I think the time of the tactical wargamming RPG is over, or at the very least marginalized. How many people these days would rather bust out miniatures and grid maps when they could just play something on their tablet or game console? Or, if they really want the tactile humanness of real-stuff, a board game, or split the diffence with a collectible miniatures game? Yes, I know games like Warhammer and Warmachine and all that still have avid followings. Avid, but niche. And they cover those bases really well. Why make an RPG that exists anywhere around that space?

The future of RPGs, I believe, are narrative-based, character-driven games. That is a gaming experience that so many other competing forms of entertainment...including other table-top games...cannot match. If you want tactical battles, play a wargame. If you want something less tactical but still tactile, play an adventure boardgame. But if you want to tell a story while you play a game, play a role-playing game. That's what redefining D&D looks like to me.

Just imagine for a moment what Dungeon World would look like if it were owned by Wizards of the Coast. The millions of dollars it would have for development, marketing, Q&A, publishing, editing. The entire staff of professionals working around the clock on the game, refining the rules, coming up with new ideas, writing entire new books covering vast new subjects. Imagine revisiting every old D&D setting, every classic adventure, every iconic monster, magic item, and character class in a forward-thinking, smart system like what Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel have created with Dungeon World (who in turn refined from Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World. Respect where it's due, right?)

I'm certain there are many out there who scoff at this notion. It would ruin the scrappy indie-ness that makes Dungeon World special, they may say. Greedy business execs would dumb it down and rip out its soul, others may say. Wizards of the Coast would never make such a rules-light game because it wouldn't be profitable, they may all say. All of that may be true. But just imagine if it weren't. 

Now to be fair, I've heard that fifth edition is going to be far more flexible in the way it runs, and will indeed allow for a more narrative, story-game style. That may be true. I hope it is. It's also entirely possible that the game comes out, it's as crunchy as it's ever been, and it's awesome. My recent experience with Shadowrun has shown me that yes, even a game stuffed with rules can be fun, when done correctly. Whatever happens, I hope it makes the fifth edition great.

As I've said before, I consider myself an ambassador of the hobby, and my goal is to bring as many new players into the world of tabletop role-playing games as possible. That will be a whole hell of a lot easier if the next edition of the world's biggest, most well-known RPG doesn't suck.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

An Intermediate Guide to Playing Tabletop Roleplaying Games, Part II: The Gamemaster

And now, following part one, is part two of my list of "advanced" tips for roleplaying. These tips apply to the Gamemaster. These are specific tricks beyond the typical "Welcome to Gamemastering" chapters you find in most RPGs. You'll notice that these tips are more specific and "trick-like" than the player stuff. That's because I primarily GM in RPGs, so I've developed a few more tricks on that end of the fence over the years. Anyways, here they are!

1. In a game where damage is rolled separately, have the players roll for damage simultaneously with their hit roll. This is especially pertinent to d20/D&D-style dungeon crawl games. You'd be surprised how much quicker this can make combat, rather than having a second roll for when you hit.

2. Do all the rolling yourself. It's a mighty challenge, but if you're up to it, just take the dice away from the players and do the rolling yourself, then narrate the results. I've had a lot of pushback on this over the years, but usually all it takes is one good combat encounter where I'm narrating each and every sword-swing before the players are completely cool with it. This is an especially good idea with RPGs built around a single roll, like Call of Cthulhu (this also allows investigators to conveniently "succeed" at rolls to find those essential clues!)

3. Roll the dice a bunch of times by yourself and write down the results. Again, this works best with one-roll engines like Call of Cthulhu or True 20. Basically, you roll the die a few dozen times, write down the numbers, and then when you need to roll against a player's perception to notice an ambush or something, mark the first number on the list off and use that as the roll. As with tip 1, above, you'd be surprised how many seconds this saves you over the course of the session...seconds which can be better spent on describing the game and letting the story flow.

4. Use text messages for in-game messages. This is great because it hides important game information as a simple, run-of-the-mill text message. It avoids "love letter" syndrome where the players know that something is going on. Oh, Jim is fine, he's just texting his wife, he didn't just get a text from the GM saying that the infection from the zombie bite is spreading...

5. Use one-on-one conferences. This is related to 4, above. If you want to spotlight a particular character ahead of time, take that player aside and talk to him or her about it. This is different than a simple message because you can actually talk to the player, give and take feedback, and set up something spectacular for later. This leads into...

6. Do something special in every adventure. If you've read or played 13th Age, you know that characters in that game are made with "one unique thing," one special, non-mechanical trait that is exclusive to that character. Do the same thing with your adventures. Include one crazy little detail or sequence and swear to never do that again in another adventure (or, at least, not in the same campaign). Maybe one of the players is hit with a spell that mutes his character, and he has to communicate vital information in real-life with charades. Maybe you have a fight scene underwater. Maybe you play an important scene in real-time. Whatever you do, it helps to not only break up the monotony of doing the same thing over and over, but it adds individuality to an adventure and makes the session that much more memorable.

7. Ask your players how you can be a better GM. This one I take quite seriously. Do not let your players get away with "I didn't see anything wrong at all. I had a great time!" That may be true, that the players had a great time. But you did do something wrong. Maybe it was minor. Maybe it was absolutely trivial. That's fine. But there had to have been something that didn't play out as fun as it sounded on paper, or some detail that didn't work, or something. It could even be a logistical detail, like the room was too hot or you didn't take enough breaks. Never settle for "good game." Always be trying to be better. That doesn't mean you can't be proud of yourself, or that you shouldn't enjoy the work you've done...it just means you should always have a couple of ideas for how to improve your game on hand for the next time you come to the table.

I actually have more tips I could give, but I'm going to stop there for now. As with part one, I intend to revisit this blog entry frequently and update it with new tips, both that I think of on my own, and anything anyone shares with me in the community. Thanks for reading!


Monday, June 16, 2014

An Intermediate Guide to Playing Tabletop Roleplaying Games, Part I: The Player

So, getting away from more mundane topics, I'm going to write a little about how to role-play, both as a player and as a GM. Today's blog will focus on the player side; I'll talk about GMing tomorrow. What I'm trying to come up with here are the obscure, interesting little bits of advice that you might not see in the "What is a roleplaying game?" intro to most corebooks. Stuff such as:

1. Have a secret or two about your character. I practically titter with excitement whenever a player drops a bomb on the group about their character. In a zombie apocalypse RPG I ran last year, one player...her first time role-playing!...announced that her character was pregnant. She didn't tell me at first...in fact, she told one of the other players in private. In my current Firefly season, the doctor in the group announced during the pilot episode that he was actually a psychologist, not a medic. In a one-shot of Numenera I ran, one player had a secret backstory he shared only with me where his character was actually a robot and he didn't know. I love that shit! And don't worry about whether it "breaks" my plans or flies in the face of logic or any of that stuff. That's my job. Your job is to have fun!

2. World-build. Whether you're solving a mystery in Call of Cthulhu or exploring a dungeon in D&D, you will inevitably need to connect with an NPC of some kind. Have one ready! Think about a blacksmith your warrior trusts for all his weapon needs. Think about the town drunk who falls ass-backwards into every secret in the town. It doesn't have to be something on the spot; it can be an idea that pops into your head during character creation, and it just sits there in your brain, for weeks, until you finally notice the GM stammering to make up a name for someone, and you say "Oh, is that Jimmy? My character went to high school with him!" Again, that makes me really happy when that shit happens. You can do the same for locations, too. Maybe you have a name for the gym your character boxes at. Or the bar your character goes to for a drink. Or an exact address for your home. The GM doesn't have to use it, but having it on hand can be very helpful.

3. Pay attention to everything at the table. When the action zooms in on just one character, and that character isn't you, don't think of that as an opportunity to check your phone or make yourself something to eat. Listen to what's going on. Think of any ways you can add something to that scene. Don't steal the spotlight, or try and take over the scene; but if you can think of an interesting description the GM can use, or a cool name for an NPC the other player is talking to, that is awesome. Even better, take the opportunity to probe the other player's character about whatever just happened. "How does your character feel about that?" is a deceptively powerful question...even moreso when the GM isn't the one asking it.

4. Be present. Similar to point 3, above...a good player doesn't necessarily make a unique, involved character. A good player doesn't necessarily need to talk in character, come up with a complex backstory, or be optimized for combat. Being a good player can simply mean paying attention to everything that's going on. Take notes. Ask questions. Answer questions, when asked, completely. Don't settle for "yes" or "no."

5. Be the devil in the details. Name your favorite weapons. Invent catchphrases for your character. Give environmental actions, like when your GM describes a scene in a cold, arctic setting, just quickly quip "My character shudders and pulls his jacket closer to his skin." You don't want to distract the GM or other players; but in time, you'll develop a sense of where you can inject a few extra details that help your character...and the game...come to life.

6. Connect with everyone and everything. When the GM hands you an opportunity like "Ok, you guys are going to be on the boat for a week before it gets to the next continent. What do you do?" Try not to respond with "My character practices swordfighting." What does that say about your character? That he likes swords? That he likes fighting? What's a GM supposed to do with that? What're the other players supposed to do with that? Say, instead "My character spars with that other character," or "My character flirts with every female on the boat," or "My character tries to steal everything that isn't nailed down." Characters who don't interact with the world around them and its inhabitants are boring, and difficult for the group to work with. That's why I really hate the brooding, "dark loner" character trope; sure, he's well represented in fiction, sure, but RPGs aren't fiction. They're RPGs!

As I said above, tomorrow I'll be looking at these kinds of tips for GMs. If you have any good tips for the player side of things, let me know! Remember, though, I'm looking less at 101 stuff, and more at 202 stuff; the more obscure fundamentals that may not even occur to a beginning player to know.















Friday, June 13, 2014

The Girl with the Geeky Glasses

And now, the rare, not-necessarily gaming post...if you were here for the last one, rest assured this one is less depressing. Maybe.

I, like the 16-year-old boy I am on the inside, have a crush on a girl. This girl, who shall remain nameless, attends the same board gaming meetup on Fridays at the Landing, She is smart. She is funny. She is adorable. Though I am still legally married, my wife and I have been separated since February. She has since gone on to meet other men. Up until I met this girl about a month or two ago, the thought of dating again had never even crossed my mind.

Therein lies part of the problem...I am attracted to this woman, but I don't know if I'm attracted to her enough to get over myself. When the subject comes up between my wife and I (we still talk to each other all the time, and in fact are very good friends), I have said vehemently that I have no interest in meeting anyone new. And, up until I met this girl, I meant it. I am done with women. I am done with relationships. The thought of going back out there...of going through all that "getting to know you shit"...having to relearn all of those lessons with another person...no. Not for me. Not right now, anyway. Maybe not ever.

I know this sounds like a setup for the world's most geeky romantic comedy, but it's not. I mean it. I am an introvert. That's not a label I wear with pride; it's just who I am, and I accept it. I do spend a lot of time alone. I do prefer it this way. The thought of spending the rest of my life unattached sounds good to me (though I'll admit, a little bit lonely). 

The truth is, I just don't want to do the whole dating thing right now. Maybe some day, but I'm not ready right now. So what do I do in the meantime? Ignore her? Play it cool? Stop going to the Landing? This whole thing is so stupid...I don't even know if she's single. I don't even know if she would be interested. Everything is so fucking confusing.

(Man, I do sound like a teenager, which is just making me more frustrated.)

Here's another thing...I've never had a romantic relationship with a woman who was into the same things I am into. I can barely even conceive of what that looks like. Don't get me wrong...my wife and I have some great nerd memories. The first movie we saw together was X-Men. We have often played Perfect Dark for hours on end. She absolutely adores Dixit, and will play it just about any chance she gets. But she's not into RPGs, and she has certainly tried. And, Dixit not withstanding, she doesn't like any board games any heavier than the classic mainstream stuff like Monopoly or Clue. Whenever this particular subject came up between us, I always said that's how I preferred it. I liked how she made me a more well-rounded person. I liked how she made me take my nose out of an RPG, turn off the computer, and just do something different every so often. She made me feel like a complete human being. I'm not saying that couples who share the same hobbies don't do that...I just felt like having different interests made for a more interesting, diverse relationship between us. 

Seeing as how we're separated now, maybe I was wrong. Maybe everything I know about relationships and love and all that shit is wrong. Maybe that's all the more reason to remain alone.

Anyways, I thought I'd write all these foolish, tangled-up emotions down in a desperate attempt to straighten them out. I don't know if it worked. In fact I'm just feeling more depressed about it than I was before I started. If my wife were reading this, she would tell me that's a good thing. Feeling something isn't bad. Sometimes, feelings just need to be felt. 




Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Interior Design

I've stated before that I have no interest in being a game designer. I love playing them, not making them!

Today, however, I'm thinking about making my own role-playing game. Not necessarily to sell, or even for anyone to play; I just want to create a roleplaying game for the sake of creating something, because that's what I do.

So I'm inspired to create, but I don't actually have any ideas on what to create. So I'm going to start with a list. If I woke up tomorrow and found out a clone of me (or fork, to use Eclipse Phase's terminology) had made a roleplaying game, it would have the following:

1. A narrative influenced by the mechanics of the system, and vice versa. A cursory understanding of my favorite RPGs...Firefly, Fate Core, Dungeon World...shows that I very much love RPGs where the dice influence the story, and the story influence the dice.

2. An interesting, involved world. Some of my other faves...Shadowrun, Earthdawn, Eclipse Phase...show I love detailed, interesting gameworlds, as fun to read about and discover as they are to play in.

3. Strong use of technique and voice. World of Darkness is exceedingly good at this...parts of the game and the story are expressed through characters, dialogue, and a number of interesting storytelling techniques, such as the story in the intro of The God Machine Chronicle, told entirely through emails between two characters. The boring, dry, "this is the world" chapter is an anachronism in today's hobby, and I want to write something edgy and modern.

4. Rules-speak is present-tense, player facing, and in the second person. This style is great because it's exciting and easy to read. For example, instead of writing "When a player wants to fire their gun in burst mode, you pick up the dice and roll....", you write "When you want to light up a room with a burst from your submachine gun, do THIS...." Apocalypse World and its children are excellent examples of this. Fate Core does it well, too. I am currently in the process of writing an abridged rulebook (or unabridged cheat sheet, depending on how you look at it) version of the Shadowrun Fifth Edition corebook in this style, and just the simple act of writing it is helping me learn the rules better.

5. Directly influenced by stories that I'm passionate about. This one is a little harder, perhaps the hardest of all for me. I have favorite stories across multiple genres and platforms, and integrating some, if not all of them, is going to be difficult. Here is a partial list:

-The Sopranos
-Six Feet Under
-Breaking Bad
-The Dark Knight
-Watchmen
-The Departed
-Game of Thrones
-Diablo III
-World of Warcraft
-BioShock (all three games)
-World War Z (the book, NOT the movie)
-Left 4 Dead

It seems like I'm going to have to pare that list down to create something cohesive that'll jive with points 1-4, but how? Where do I start? I'm not sure. I'll write more on this later, as ideas develop...







Monday, June 9, 2014

Play Report: Shadowrun

Yesterday afternoon, I played my first game of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition, with five of my friends. They all used the templates out of the book, and chose as follows:

-Orc Sprawl Ganger
-Troll Bounty Hunter
-Elf Street Shaman
-Human Weapon Specialist
-Elf Face

We ran "Chasin' the Wind," the first shadowrun for the current season of Shadowrun Missions. I haven't played Shadowrun since second edition. The Face had experience with fourth edition. No one else had experience of any kind with the game. A few of them had never even heard of Shadowrun, prior to yesterday's game.

Following are my thoughts on the game, the adventure, and the characters. I'm not going to give a detailed synopsis of the story since the adventure is published:

The Game

Shadowrun is one of the most unique and crazy settings ever published in the history of RPGs. Not only that, it's managed to retain that crown for nearly 20 years, since the first edition of the game came out. Seeing Shadowrun in all its glory, updated with the trajectory of today's technology and today's gameplay sensibilities, was a ton of fun! The system definitely lacks the organic flow of modern story games like Fate Core or Dungeon World, but the flavorful crunch outshines generic systems like GURPS and carries itself much better than the last edition of D&D did. For gamers looking for an RPG with as much "G" as "RP," Shadowrun is a definite strong option.

That being said, yesterday was a "learning" game, and it was just as ugly as learning games can be. Combats stopped practically mid-dice roll as we looked up seemingly simple rules, like how much damage the Bounty Hunter's fist does (it's Strength (S), by the way), and how to resist damage from magic spells (apparently you don't; you get the basic defense roll but if you fail it, you take the full damage of whatever spell you're hit with). Environmental modifiers, wound penalties, and various bonuses were routinely forgotten or overlooked.

Oftentimes, a learning game can be quite unfun as you put the work in to learn the system. But this wasn't the case with Shadowrun. Even with frequent flips through the book, we all had a great time. Part of this was just the great group I was fortunate enough to have. I wrote about this last week; having a good group is critical during a learning game because that's where the majority of your fun factor is going to come from, not the game. The game will be busy frustrating you with its rules obscurities. Despite those obscurities, though, the wonder and madness of Shadowrun's setting held through. It was still awesome to see the Weapons Specialist pop someone's head off with a well placed explosive round while the Street Shaman engaged in a magic duel with another mage and the Face...well, the Face hid behind a snowbank...but it was so cool to watch unfold. Seldom do I have this much fun in a learning game!

The Adventure 

"Chasin' the Wind" is a fantastic learning adventure. It's simple to follow, easy to adapt to the players' group composition, and seems to be structured to allow players and GM alike to just fiddle with the rules for a bit. There's a little of everything...driving, combat, a little magic, a little hacking, negotiating, investigating...and, as I just said, any one of those parts can be easily modified or removed to handle the particular makeup of a group of shadowrunners. Yesterday's game had no deckers, for example, so I ended up hand-waving the hacking bits, and the adventure was no worse off for it.

That strength is also its weakness, however. There are a lot of unnecessary rolls, mechanical dead-ends, and zero-stakes situations that can have the potential to be boring, even frustrating, if not handled well. For example, one part in the adventure has the shadowrunners searching for a false tree in a park where a Matrix relay is hidden. There are rules laid out to find the tree; how it's an extended test requiring X hits, where each roll takes Y minutes. However, nothing happens if the players fail their rolls, or take an inordinate amount of time to find the tree. Worst case scenario is the Johnson gets pissed that the job took longer than expected. GMing 101: you don't roll if failure doesn't do anything interesting! Again, though, the point is to learn the system in a safe environment, so this is forgivable, from me at least. An experienced Shadowrun GM with experienced Shadowrun players, however, are going to want to seriously retool this adventure to have a little more spice (or simply call it what it is and blow through it in an hour, to get to the next mission).

The Characters

I read online that the templates in the Shadowrun corebook aren't built too well. After this one session, I can see where they are coming from. I understand the theory...the templates are built to be well-rounded, multi-faceted characters, interesting to think about and play as...but the practice is that the template characters seemed to be a little too broad.

Take the Ganger, for example. With decent social skills and a range of contacts, the Ganger has social assets as well as considerable physical strength. However, with undercooked weapons skills and just fair armor, the Ganger ended up being the only character who got knocked out the whole session. For another example, the Street Shaman only has 3 Magic. I've never seen a mage have less than 6 Magic. Granted, my experience is very limited, but it just seemed to me a lot of points went nowhere useful in the creation of these characters.

My recommendation to new players diving into Shadowrun is this: take a good, long look at your chosen archetypes and customize them as much as you can! I do think archetypes are a good idea for fast/new player play because chargen is a very complex process, but I do not recommend just grabbing an archetype off the shelf and running the shadows. I actually just spent the first hour of the session just talking about the world and explaining the rules and the various bits of their characters, which I think really helped and stopped the template deficiencies from becoming really frustrating. I have a feeling these concerns will be addressed with the forthcoming Beginner's Box that Shadowrun's publisher, Catalyst Game Studios, will be releasing, but until then, be careful with those quick-play options!



In closing, it was another great time, with great friends, playing a great game. Despite the perils and pitfalls of the dreaded learning game, this session definitely gets chalked in the "win" column in my book.





Friday, June 6, 2014

A Time of Eclipse

RPGs, for better or for worse, are seldom emotional. Why that is and how to change it are lofty subjects, and not actually where I'm going with this blog entry today. Today, I actually wanted to talk about a game that has hit me on an emotional level. That game is Eclipse Phase.

Released in 2010, Eclipse Phase is a sci-fi role-playing game that takes place in the distant future. Humankind has learned how to digitize their own brains, uploading them into quantum computers, downloading them into new bodies, making copies of themselves, and even engaging in "psychosurgery," hacking their own brains to remove mental defects, personality adjustments, and the like. The replication technology from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a reality, too, making economies based on money seem primitive. Instead, your reputation, based on what you do for humanity as a whole, dictates what kind of stuff you can replicate and own.

But for all the advancements in technology, humans are still fundamentally assholes, and as a result of infighting and war, we have lost the Earth. Humanity (now called transhumanity to account for the changing definitions of what a "human" actually is) is scattered across the solar system in different habitats. Some are full-fledged city-states with a government (and a dissident faction trying to bring it down). Other habitats are social experiments in progress, such as a habitat that's all just one person with a population of copies of him/herself, or a habitat that exists entirely online, with the inhabitants downloading into a communally-owned body whenever they need something in the real world. In this role-playing game, you play members of an organization called Firewall. Your mission, basically, is to protect the fragile, scattered remnants of our race from any other existential threats that could threaten our continued existence.

What strikes me about Eclipse Phase is the world itself. I have never been so fascinated by such a setting. Imagine a world where you can swap your body out for another one. All the problems you have, whether it's cancer, diabetes, arthritis, obesity...you simply pull your consciousness out of that body, and plop it into a new one with none of those issues. Just think of how many problems this could solve. Sexism, rascism, homophobia...how can those even exist in a world where anyone can change their gender or skin color? As long as we are capable of hate, I'm sure we can find a way, but still, just being able to raise that question...

Hell; you don't even need to have a body in the world of Eclipse Phase. You can exist entirely in a digital world as a disembodied consciousness (called an infomorph), maybe never even missing the "real world" and all its problems. Ever been so busy you wish there were two of you? That can literally happen in this world; make a copy of yourself to go run your errands, then have him come back after he's done and merge with you. You'll have all the experience of doing those errands without actually doing them. Though you did do them. Crazy!

And replication technology...no need to ever worry about money. Everything you need to survive, available with literally the press of a button. How amazing is that? Screw playing a game in this world; I want to LIVE in it!

Eclipse Phase is not the only transhumanist sci-fi RPG out there. There's also Nova Praxis, and the recently-released Mindjammer, and GURPS has a whole line of transhuman sourcebooks. But Eclipse Phase was my first exposure to the sub-genre. I wasn't much of a sci-fi fan until I discovered this game. Up until now, I had never been impressed with modern, "space opera" sci-fi. It just seemed like fantasy with laser guns. But real science fiction, the stuff of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke...that kind of science fiction was all about exploring a new world, one where our everyday problems are petty and ridiculous by comparison. A world where we are not black or white or gay or straight, but human. A world that forcefully makes us question what being human even is. 

Emotions of wonder and amazement enter me when I think of all that stuff. And those same emotions flow through me when I read Eclipse Phase. I can't speak for those other games as I haven't read them, but the brilliant minds at Posthuman Studios, who wrote Eclipse Phase, feel those emotions, too, and want to tell those kinds of stories with their game. You can see it with every word written about the setting. And you can see it even beyond the page, in the very way they do business. Eclipse Phase was released under what's called a Creative Commons license. You can download the pdf of it and all of its sourcebooks, for free, no questions asked. Not only that, you can redistribute the books freely and copy or edit the source material for your own use (though there are some strings on that one). Posthuman Studios even seeds torrents for their own books. In other words, exactly what you would expect of a game about a post-scarcity economy. Posthuman isn't just creating a sci-fi world. They're doing their small part to make it reality. 

Eclipse Phase is a beautiful, spellbinding, captivating game. Reading it took me on a journey. I don't know if I'll ever get this game to the table, but that's not even the point. The point is, this game made me dream.

(here's a link to the game itself, directly from the blog of Rob Boyle, one of Eclipse Phase's designers, if you're interested in looking at it):

http://robboyle.wordpress.com/eclipse-phase-pdfs/






Thursday, June 5, 2014

Getting to the Apollo

Love is work. The more you love something, the harder you work at it. This is true in the traditional sense of love...with family, spouses, friends...but it's the case with your hobbies, too. The fisherman who gets up at 4am on a Saturday because that's when the fish are bitin'. The marathon runner who cross-trains and lifts weights and does sprint intervals to build the muscles needed for the long haul. The writer who produces hundreds of pages of bullshit just to get to that one page of actually decent writing. The greater the love, the harder the work.

Most RPG fans know this. The hours spent reading these books and learning these rules counts to many as work. But there's other work to be done, too, work that I often hate to do but is very necessary. See, there's theory, and there's practice. Theory is reading the RPG and getting the rules down. We're all familiar with theory. Theory is the part of RPG work that we accept and understand.

But then there's practice. Practice is getting to the table and playing...or trying to play...the game. Practice is much harder than theory. For one thing, everyone at the table needs to be willing to do it. Theory can be done alone, but you can't practice an RPG by yourself, at least not one that you intend to play with others. For another, practice requires discipline. You have to be willing to show up and do the work, or else the point of practice is lost. You can't just say "screw it" when things are difficult, write off the game, and play something else. You have to accept that in practice, a game can suck.

Getting good at an RPG like D&D...to the point where you're not looking up everything, where everyone knows what they're doing, to that point where the rules just fade away and you're there, interacting with this fantasy world as these fantastic heroes...that's a lofty goal. In all my years of role-playing, I've only reached it a couple of times. And to get there, it takes practice.

For years, the hobby has been trying to meet gamers halfway. Simpler games. Organized "beginner sets" that teach you how to play. Rules-lite RPGs that can be learned and played in an afternoon. GM-less RPGs that take the most demanding role right out of the game. That's all well and good, but like any other hobby, there is a point where you and your group simply have to get to the table and practice. No, it's not easy. Yes, sometimes it's boring and sucky. That's where having a good group becomes extremely important. For those times when the game isn't going well, you need to derive fun and well-being from your bond with the group. Yes, that's always the case to a degree, but typically the game can carry at least some of the load. In practice, though, there will be times where the game will carry none of the load.

This Sunday, I intend to play Shadowrun, Fifth Edition. This is a big game, more complex than most that I've brought to the table this past year. Worse still, I'm using a published adventure. This scenario has not gone well in the past (see my various posts about D&D), and it might not go well this Sunday. But, dammit, I'm going to do it! And I have faith that, even if the game falls apart and we spend half the time looking up rules and confused over what the hell is going on, that we're going to have a good time.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Golden Rule

Here's one of my favorite RPG memories: I was running a Vampire: The Masquerade game where one of the players had to rob a bank. The bank was actually held by a rival vampire lord, and the point was not to steal money but to in fact assassinate an important ghoul who ran the bank. So my player spends much of the session planning the heist, and I'm totally into his plan. Finally, he executes the plan,  kicks in the door to the bank's inner office and sprays the room with bullets. I yell out "The bank manager catches a bullet in the throat and keels over, dead!"

"Really?" the player said, astonished. "You're not going to roll any dice or anything?"

Without stopping my narrative, I picked up a handful of d10's, tossed them across the room, and kept talking.

I was just so into the moment, so carried away by the action, that I didn't want to let the rules get in the way of that. So I didn't.

It's funny how easy it is to forget that, that golden rule of RPGs. You know the one; it's written in literally every RPG I've ever read, either in the introduction or the "how to GM" chapter: "If the rules ever get in the way of the fun, ignore them and keep playing!" Granted, that's easy to overlook in a 300-page book of combat manuevers, but it's there, and it's every bit as legitimate as the grappling rules.

When I returned to the hobby in January 2013, it was with Dungeon World. I felt liberated and mind-blown by the simple idea of "make that shit up on your own!" I went on to study various "story-first" RPGs, and generally declared myself a story gaming GM. I still love those games...I plan on playing one this weekend, actually...but as I get my groove back and play more RPGs, I find myself remembering that afternoon playing Vampire.

Those principles and agendas and playing to find out, you can do that in D&D, too. You can do it in GURPS. You don't need an RPG to tell you to use your imagination and have fun to do so. Sadly, I had forgotten that, somewhere between trying to learn how to use Microsoft Excel for character creation and figuring out the rules for sneezing during allergy season.

When I think about those two styles of games...traditional, text-book style RPGs and smaller, scrappier, indie story games, I realize that there is really no difference at all...none...between them. Reading a 100-page pocket-sized rules lite RPG and the first 100 pages of a 400-page behemoth RPG can in fact result in the same gaming experience. It's just a question of your commitment, and where you want to spend your time: reading a game, or playing it. Obviously, most people would choose to play, if they could...but sometimes, they can't. Sometimes, you've got an afternoon to yourself and your group is off doing something else. Those 100-page story games aren't much use to you then. But that's a great time to brush up on your history of the Iron Kingdoms...