Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

RPGaDay 2017

Posted: 26 August 2017 in Reflections

Another year, another RPGaDay. I find these fun, and usually thought-provoking.

1. What Published RPG do you wish you were playing right now? Any would be fine. It’s more about who you play with.

2. What is an RPG you would like to see published? Surprise me. I’m happy with the ones I have, not that this stops me buying new ones.

3. How do you find out about new RPGs? RPGNow, Kickstarter, or tips from friends.

4. Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016? Savage Worlds.

5. Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game? AD&D 1st edition Players’ Handbook – the iconic lizardman-slaying temple-looting party levering gems out of an idol.

6. You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do. 15-20 typical sessions there, so I’d finish one of the currently active long campaigns – either Heart of the Fury or Eyes of the Stone Thief. Given present circumstances, long story arcs are hard for me to pull off in normal play.

7. What was your most impactful RPG session? Probably the one where my son negotiated a peace treaty with the Lich King, bringing to an end many months of fighting between them, and preventing an invasion of the PCs’ country by a skeleton army. He was exclusively a hack and slash player before then (unless you count hiring half-orcs he encountered to use as meat shields).

8. What is a good RPG to play for sessions of two hours or less? One with simple rules, especially combat rules. OD&D, BareBones Fantasy, something like that.

9. What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions? This is more about the adventures than the game itself, so any will do, although again simpler is better – ten sessions may not be enough to learn the rules otherwise. Picaresque one-off adventures will work with most games, if you’re going for a longer story you need to be sure you can finish it in time.

10. Where do you go for RPG reviews? Google. That usually refers me to a variety of blogs and ENWorld.

11. Which dead game would you like to see reborn? SpaceQuest by Tyr Wargames. Maybe I’ll Savage it someday, if I can find another copy.

12. Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art? AD&D 2nd edition. There are some lovely pieces in there, some of which directly inspired adventures for our group.

13. Describe a game experience that changed how you play. There was one Traveller session in the ’70s when the group forgot to refuel their ship before leaving port; that stranded them in deep space and led to a lot of finger pointing between players. I realised that character knowledge and player knowledge are different things, and it’s not appropriate to penalise players for things their characters would know. (The characters can still make use of player knowledge; in my campaigns, metagaming is not a sin, but a demonstration of player skill.)

14. Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play? Something skill-based rather than class-and-level based, as above a certain point it becomes difficult to challenge high-level characters. That doesn’t seem to happen so much with skill-based systems. So let’s say Savage Worlds for this one, although I’ve also played open-ended campaigns with Traveller and 2300AD.

15. Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most? Savage Worlds – I “Savage” settings on a regular basis.

16. What RPG do you enjoy using as is? Again, Savage Worlds. I very rarely change the actual rules, usually not even adding any setting-specific edges. That may seem to contradict the previous answer, but which answer is correct depends on the campaign.

17. What RPG have you owned the longest but not played? Probably Dark Heresy; I ran a short campaign in the W40K setting, but that was using Savage Worlds.

18. What RPG have you played the most in your life? In terms of sheer number of hours played, probably still OD&D; I estimate over 3,000 hours on that. Don’t let anyone tell you I’ve wasted my life.

19. What RPG features the best writing? The Dying Earth RPG, because it uses the writing style of the setting’s creator to convey the rules and setting.

20. What is the best source for out of print RPGs? For the ones I’m interested in, RPGNow.

21. What RPG does the most with the least words? Of the ones I know, BareBones Fantasy.

22. Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run? Classic Traveller and Savage Worlds, because I have the most experience as a GM in those; any RPG becomes easy to run if you stick with it long enough.

23. Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout? Layout isn’t something I pay much conscious attention to, but I’d say Hellas: Worlds of Sun and Stone. Totally impractical in actual play, mind you, which is often the case with fancy layouts. Usually there isn’t enough contrast for my aging eyes.

24. Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more. Umm, it’s pay what you want, right? So how would they charge more? Also, I’m not aware of any publishers who are totally PWYW, the ones I know only sell part of their catalogue that way.

25. What is the best way to thank your GM? Say “Thank you, that was a great session, when is the next one?”

26. Which RPG provides the most useful resources? Anything by Sine Nomine Publishing – depending on your preferred genre, something from Stars Without Number, Red Tide, or whatever.

27. What are your essential tools for good gaming? Friends, character sheets, dice, rules, in that order. Anything else, you can improvise. I normally work from the quickstart rules for whatever game we’re playing and some rough notes for the adventure, by the way, not the full rulebooks.

28. What film/series is the biggest source of quotes in your group? Aliens, I think. There’s also a lot of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

29. What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed? Spears of the Dawn.

30. What is an RPG/genre-mashup you would most like to see? I’ve seen so many of these now that I’m turning back to the old classics, probably all the way back to fantasy dungeon crawling this year.

31. What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018? The annual OD&D session with my old university group, or what’s left of it. It’s all about who you play with.


RPGaDay 2016

Posted: 23 August 2017 in Reflections

I was filling in RPGaDay for 2017 when I noticed I had somehow missed this one out completely, so here it is…

1. Real dice, dice app, diceless, how do you prefer to roll? Real dice; they just feel better to me. I use dice apps when playing solo or by VTT, though, and will probably switch to dice apps for Fantasy Flight Games products with all their irritating fiddly weird dice (WFRP, I’m lookin’ at you).

2. Best gaming session since August 2015? Kiss of the Serpent Priestess.

3. Character moment you are proudest of? Solving a puzzle no-one else could, and thereby enlisting the help of a vital NPC.

4. Most impressive thing another’s character did? Alihulk Jr. finally defeating his lifelong enemy with heroic fisticuffs.

5. What story does your group tell about your character? “He’s a dwarven weightlifter who hates undead, and spends most of his time drinking or criticising shoddy human workmanship.”

6. Most amazing thing a game group did for their community? Not something I pay attention to, sorry.

7. What aspect of RPGs has had the biggest effect on you? The realisation that skills and companions matter, but possessions really don’t.

8. Hardcover, softcover, digital? What is your preference? Digital. Takes up less room, easier to search, easier to update (often by free download), easier to carry around. That said, in actual play I always have some kind of hardcopy quick reference sheet to hand. If I can’t have digital, I will go for hardcover if available, softcover if not.

9. Beyond the game, what’s involved in the ideal session? Drinks suitable for the attendees, nibbles (optional), enough table space to lay everything out, low noise level apart from the players.

10. Largest in-game surprise you have experienced? When the peace treaty we had been sent to broker between feuding dwarf clans allowed them to complete a small atomic bomb, killing my character. Others ran earlier and were saved.

11. Which gamer most affected the way you play? It’s a tie between two of my friends; one who is still playing OD&D and one who seeks out the most complex games and plotlines available. Both of them make their chosen games sing at the table. The former teaches memorable plots and NPCs, the latter deeply immersive settings and long story arcs.

12. What game is your group most likely to play next? Why? For the Hearts of Stone and Collateral Damage groups, D&D 5th edition, because they want to try it. For the Pawns of Destiny, the group’s primary GM always has 2-3 campaigns ready and lets us pick one; next up is a 1920s homebrew using the Edge of the Empire rules. That’s in about two years’ time at the current rate of progress, mind; he aims for campaigns 100 sessions long, and playing every few weeks, that takes about five years.

13. What makes a successful campaign? The same as for any other project; shared and agreed expectations.

14. Your dream team of people you used to game with? Luckily for me, I still play with them.

15. Your best source of inspiration for RPGs? Real world history. Our ancestors did some crazy things, and there are points in time where a handful of people really made a difference.

16. Historical person you’d like in your group? What game? Gary Gygax, and thus obviously D&D. I would love to see his take on one of our games.

17. What fictional character would best fit in your group? Flashman from the George Macdonald Fraser novels.

18. What innovation could RPG groups most benefit from? I got nuthin’, sorry.

19. Best way to learn a new game? Play it, simple as that.

20. Most challenging but rewarding system you have learned? OD&D. Let’s just say that rules writing and layout have moved on quite a way since 1974.

21. Funniest misinterpretation of a rule in your group? The hobbit sword from OD&D – “sword +1, detect meals and what kind”. We all knew it was a typo, but it was much more fun played as written.

22. Supposedly random game events that keep recurring? The 2 AM wyvern, which attacked our party’s camp in RuneQuest so often that the GM eventually stopped rolling for it and just had it attack us every night. Of course we were ready for it by then.

23. Share one of your best ‘worst luck’ stories? While looking to rent a tracker dog to hunt down a goblin, the tracker’s wife (Charisma 3) tried to seduce my character. The tracker returned at a awkward moment with his dog. It was at this point I remembered another party member had recently been polymorphed into a goblin, and thus my character had the scent of goblin about him. Exit stage left, pursued by a snarling dog, an axe-waving tracker, and the tracker’s wife with a frying pan. Like most of these stories, you had to be there to understand how funny that was in context.

24. What is the game you are most likely to give to others? Savage Worlds, because that is the one they are most likely to play with me, and that way we don’t have to share a rulebook, which speeds things up.

25. What makes for a good character? The way you play it. The attributes, skills and whatnot are less important.

26. What hobbies go well with RPGs? Wargaming, videogaming, and reading/watching history, fantasy and SF.

27. Most unusual circumstance or location in which you’ve gamed? In a disused wine cellar with bad lighting, because the organiser felt it would give the right ambience.

28. Thing you’d be most surprised a friend hadn’t seen or read? Star Wars episodes IV – VI.

29. You can game anywhere on Earth, where would you choose? Somewhere meeting the specifications in (30) and in a suitable location for the group to meet.

30. Describe the ideal game room if budget were unlimited. It doesn’t need much; the fancier it gets, the more it distracts you from the game you’re playing. A table big enough for the group, with enough chairs; storage for game rules, dungeon tiles or battle maps, and miniatures; dice. Good lighting. Quiet, and far enough away or soundproof enough that the raucous shouting doesn’t disturb others. Bonus points if you don’t have to clear the table for dinner because there is another table somewhere else in the house.

31. Best advice you were ever given for your game of choice? Best advice ever? From THW games, “Just play the game.” Best for my current favourite (Savage Worlds)? It’s a tie between “Number of wounds cannot exceed nmber of raises” and “Trim the fat”.

Hygge and Hiraeth

Posted: 7 January 2017 in Reflections

What lessons, then, from 2016?

Lesson 1: Hygge

Hygge is Danish from Norwegian and is used to mean a feeling of cosy intimacy and contentment.

What I want from roleplaying these days is hygge; fun with friends around a table, and anything that doesn’t support that is a distraction to be discarded, displacement activity which occurs because I’m not playing the game I want to play. Ideally the table is a physical one, but a virtual online table is a reasonable substitute, though not quite as good.

I keep returning to this point, not as if driving in a circle, but as if descending a spiral staircase, with a deeper understanding of it each time.

Lesson 2: Hiraeth

Hiraeth is a Welsh word, referring to a sense of grief and longing for a lost home to which you can never return, possibly because it never really existed.

I confess to a wistful longing for some games and settings which I don’t expect to revisit. For example, rarely has a purchase brought me such joy as did the PDFs of RuneQuest and Original Dungeons & Dragons which reappeared this year, but I can’t see myself running either of them again.

Lesson 3: Enough with the Negative Waves

I am always pessimistic about being able to find a new group when a campaign ends, but this is not justified as something always turns up, witness the Savage 13th Age campaign currently in flight.

Lesson 4: Bring Your “A” Game

The WFRP3 group I play in were looking for their next game over the summer, and pounced on Edge of the Empire with surprising enthusiasm. That scuppers my plan to ease them into a Savage Worlds space opera from Beasts & Barbarians; had I grasped the depth of their shared love for Star Wars, I would have started by offering that. So know your audience, and bring your intended campaign to the table from the outset, even if it isn’t ready to run and you have to wing it for the first few sessions.

“Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

Sgt. Pepper

Posted: 4 September 2016 in Reflections

It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.
– The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

As best I can calculate, today is the 40th anniversary of my first tabletop RPG session, in which I played a 1st level wizard in a game of White Box D&D in a pub in Oxford with fellow members of the Tolkien Society. Good times, then and now, and to quote the Grateful Dead as well, “what a long, strange trip it’s been”.

If you want a professional’s view of the last four decades of RPGs, take a listen to this, and read DM David’s reflections on “the end of lonely fun“.

Mike Mearls’ description in the podcast of “not playing the game you wanted to play” resonated with me, and combined with the usual end-of-summer-holiday weltschmerz has me considering all manner of crazy schemes, a kind of gaming mid-life crisis I suppose. Mearls’ argument is that there are gaps between RPG sessions when you want to play but can’t, and while gamers used to fill those gaps by (say) reading splatbooks or designing new vehicles, since the advent of videogames people use that downtime to play something else on their PC or phone. Thus their gaming time and dollars are going into other games, not the supplemental materials for their main tabletop RPG they used to buy in the 1980s and 1990s.

The challenge Mearls mentions is how to keep D&D relevant and interesting in that environment, and it looks like the answer is what Gary Ray calls “D&D Stable IP Edition” and the videogame industry calls “maintenance mode”; nobody’s working on the core game engine any more, and new content packs (for 5E, campaign books) are released just often enough to keep things ticking over.

The challenge I see is how to keep campaign setup time for a homebrew or published campaign comparable to the time it takes to download a new game from Steam, and I address that challenge with Savage Worlds.

Meanwhile, this line of thought makes me realise I’m still addressing gaps between sessions the old way, reading about and preparing for the next game – making a hobby of not playing the game I want to play. Solo gaming, generating setting material and so on are displacement activities, things I do because I can’t play what I want as much as I’d like. Food for thought there.

As to the weltschmerz-induced crazy schemes, experience teaches that the urge will pass in time.

The Attitude of the Knife

Posted: 31 August 2016 in Reflections
“Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.’” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

I recently had an opportunity to set up a new face to face group, composed partly of old Shadows of Keron players and partly of Nick’s Stars Without Number group; so of course I jumped at it, and is my wont I sought player preferences. After several rounds of debate and voting, they settled on “a high fantasy campaign but we don’t mind what the rules are”. My old players didn’t express a preference, trusting me to produce something they will enjoy; Nick’s players wanted a change of pace from space opera, but rejected the picaresque Conan vibe of Beasts & Barbarians.

High fantasy implies a story arc, a struggle between good and evil, and a group of PCs on the Hero’s Journey who are essentially good guys; most of the players are Chaotic Neutral, though, so I’m not sure how well that will sit with them. The campaign will be characterised by infrequent sessions with an unpredictable player mix, and might close after a few sessions with the story arc incomplete. This is why I generally prefer the picaresque approach, emulating a series of connected short stories rather than a roman-fleuve.

When I started gaming, you played OD&D (because that’s all there was) and you wrote your own setting or used your favourite fantasy novels as the background (because those were the available options). Now, though? Even limiting myself to high fantasy, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of RPGs, many of which have multiple published settings. I might pick the wrong one, leaving the best forever undiscovered; but if I don’t make a decision, we will never play at all, and suboptimal gaming is better than no gaming. I could play half a dozen guest games and pick the best one; but ain’t nobody got time for dat, so let’s crack on.

Rules first. Personally, I think D&D is the best choice for high fantasy, and I do like the look of 5th Edition. However, with over 100 pages in the free basic rules, and nearly 1,000 in the three core books, which would cost over £75, I have to ask myself: Is 5th Edition enough of an improvement over what I play now to make the cost and effort of changing to it worthwhile? Realistically, no, however shiny it looks, so I might as well stay with my go-to RPG, Savage Worlds, which is roughly 1/10 the page count and cost in both free basic and full fat versions. This does have the advantages of being light, portable, and very tolerant of characters with different experience levels in the same party, and I expect some players will attend sessions more often than others. 5E goes on the Bucket List, of which more towards the end of the year.

Setting next. This was a surprisingly difficult choice, but in the end I went for 13th Age. The SF experience that culminated in Collateral Damage has shown me that the less setting information the GM and players have to familiarise themselves with, the better; the icon relationships and uniques in 13th Age will allow me to tailor an emergent setting and story arc to the players’ desires, as telegraphed by their choices in that regard, without requiring any of us to assimilate a ton of setting information first. 13th Age also has the sort of gonzo fantasy elements that will appeal both to the older players (who are somewhat jaded by now) and the younger ones (who were raised on anime and more or less expect things like a cloud city with a clockwork ecology).

Other options considered and rejected, at least for this flight: 50 Fathoms (doesn’t enthuse me enough), Jalizar (not enough of what the group wants to see in the game; I could fit in elves and dwarves, but I draw the line at the earnestly-requested flying castles), Ptolus (too big and too much clockpunk), Spears of the Dawn (too many zombies for one player, diverges too far from Tolkienian tropes for others). Maybe later.

Is there a better option that I haven’t considered? Quite possibly, but how long would it take me to find it? Time’s winged chariot is getting noisy back there, and we’re all better served by picking something and running with it.

Lessons Learned

I care about what the rules and setting are a good deal more than any of the likely players, so next time, I should just pick whatever I think will give the best game and get on with it, rather than putting it to a vote. Dithering has cost us a couple of sessions already.

Full Circle

Posted: 11 May 2016 in Reflections

About a year ago now, Charles Blakely made this comment on the post about Witness Protection RPGs: “Which games that you have GM’d before would you like to dig into deeper? That is, which ones could you go back and do more with due to whatever factors – more time, more resources, more inspiration, etc.”?

I’ve been musing on that comment ever since, so this post is a belated reply to it. As you’ll see, Charles, it takes me full circle; I’ve run a lot of games over the last 40 years, but most of them are not things I’d want to go back to, and of the few that I did consider, only one really seems viable.

The Runners-Up

Classic Traveller. I’m not sure this counts as digging deeper, because it would be so heavily modded; I’d replace Book 1 with Savage Worlds Deluxe, I’d only use the iconic ships from Book 2 (probably with the deck plans from Moon Toad Publishing), and I’d apply stucco from Stars Without Number to Book 3. I still think that given enough time and thought, I could make the Dark Nebula boardgame a nice little setting, with worlds dual-statted for CT and SWN; but there wouldn’t be much actual Traveller left by the time I’d finished.

2300AD and Empire of the Petal Throne: Nice backgrounds in both cases; again I’d Savage them, because I prefer the SW rules; but EPT’s setting is both unique and complex, and I’ve run 2300AD for the better part of 20 years already – I’ve told all the stories I want to tell in that setting. I could recycle the old adventures for a new generation, but my experience is that doesn’t work too well – once I’ve run a particular adventure, it’s normally best to move on to something fresh.

We Have A Winner: Original Dungeons & Dragons

I could run a kick-ass game of OD&D now. I’d build it with these:

  • The house rules from Delta’s D&D Hotspot.
  • The map from SPI’s Demons boardgame as the wilderness map (and the premise of that game, sorcerors using demons to hunt for treasure while being pursued by secular powers, as the main plotline). I’d blow it up to 25 miles per hex to make it country-sized, and put the megadungeon in the mountain just south of Murad, which would be the PCs’ base town.
  • The sandbox creation rules in Sine Nomine Publishing’s Labyrinth Lord sourcebooks, Red Tide and An Echo, Resounding. If and when the PCs ventured off-map, I’d also use some elements of Spears of the Dawn to create the other regions around the borders of the main map.
  • Maps from Black Hand Source; Ancient Cities 2 for Murad, Ancient Cities Special Edition for the megadungeon.
  • Bits of Zak S’ Vornheim city kit.
  • A variant of the Peril rules from Moria for Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG; this would make it possible to run a megadungeon without stocking it first, which I find very boring.
  • At least some of the Icons from 13th Age; all 13 might be a bit much.
  • A more nuanced understanding of history and politics than I had in the 1970s.

I could probably set this up so that it could be played using OD&D, 5th Edition, or Savage Worlds; and maybe someday I will. You’ll notice it’s closely related to where the Irongrave campaign ended up, just before Beasts & Barbarians killed it and took its stuff.

What’s Stopping You?

Not a lot, actually – a little time, a little effort, a few players; but I already have the Pawns of Destiny and the Collateral Damage in flight, so let’s park it a while longer.

Digitally Remastered

Posted: 2 April 2016 in Reflections

The site is under (re)construction today – I found an old backup of those posts removed in the overenthusiastic Great Blog Purge of 2015, which I subsequently regretted; I’m recovering what I can.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.