Hygge and Hiraeth

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

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

“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

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.

The Map is Not the Territory

“Adventures in this campaign are best viewed as episodes of an action-adventure SF TV series. Don’t expect a grand story arc, too much continuity between episodes, or even a star map! You arrive in a new star system – solve the puzzle or defeat the enemy – and move on, most likely never to return.”

I found that while I was sorting out some files over Christmas; it’s from the player handout for my last Traveller campaign in 2003, so I have obviously been groping my way towards a mapless setting for some time.

Anyway, this one is for kelvingreen, who wanted to know more about the mapless map. I struggled with this concept until I stopped asking myself how I could run games without a map, and started asking myself what the map was for… Note that here I’m talking about the overland, wilderness or star map used for strategic movement, not whatever you use to regulate combat.

WHY IS THERE A MAP?

  • It’s eye candy; it breaks up the text.
  • It gives a concise overview of the setting, and maybe some plot hooks.
  • If the game is a sandbox, it helps players choose their destination by showing them locations, distances and obstacles.
  • Finally, most RPGs are set in fantasy worlds, and fantasy novels are often travelogues with maps in the endpapers; I suspect that gamers instinctively expect a map because of that.

WHY PLAY WITHOUT A MAP?

  • Time constraints. Maybe you don’t have time to draw it, maybe players don’t have time to use it (e.g. a convention game).
  • Space constraints. Maybe carrying the map and setting information around with you is a problem (e.g. you’re on holiday).
  • Plot constraints. Every piece of information on the map rules out options later in the campaign; eventually, there are stories you can’t tell. (That happens anyway in the end, due to ‘series continuity’, but having a map accelerates the process.)
  • Cartographer’s remorse (which I just made up, it’s like buyer’s remorse but it’s about the maps one draws). I’m never happy with my maps for long, and feel continuously compelled to redraw them, wasting time and effort. This is probably just me.

HOW DO YOU PLAY WITHOUT A MAP?

  • The players don’t choose where they go. They obey orders from a patron, or you start the game in media res, after the journey.
  • Each adventure has a defined plotline. The best way to write these is from the villain’s perspective; he has a plan, the characters derail it, and he reacts to bring it back on track. Repeat as necessary.
  • Travel happens in downtime between scenarios; you can skip over it completely, or borrow an idea from Beasts & Barbarians and have the players make skill rolls – once they accumulate enough successes, they arrive at the destination. (The latter allows for random encounters, roll or draw for one after each skill roll.)
  • Travel happens at the speed of plot. The characters arrive either in the nick of time, or just too late, whichever suits the story.
  • You separate what the characters do (spend hours poring over the map) from what the players do (dive straight into the action).

This approach is not for everyone, and maybe I won’t use it forever, but it suits my group’s current situation.

#FourRPGs

Trending recently in the Twittersphere: What four RPGs are your favourites or have most influenced you? Go on then. These are mine; the pictures are for the editions I first played.

Dungeons & Dragons

dnd73

What has become a lifelong hobby bordering on obsession began with a game of this little beauty one evening in a pub in Oxford in September 1976 where I met up with friends from the Tolkien Society.

I’m still playing original White Box D&D with a slowly diminishing group of fellow enthusiasts from the 1970s; and sometimes I daydream about running a campaign again myself. Not many games have that kind of staying power.

Traveller

CT77

I’ve been playing Classic Traveller on and off since Games Day in 1977 when I bought my first box of Little Black Books. That is nearly 40 years now, so it’s little wonder that CT is so deeply ingrained in my gaming that if you scratch any of my SF campaigns you can see it shining through underneath.

Traveller quickly became my favourite because it was science fiction rather than fantasy, and it was much better organised. Character generation and combat look dated now, but the game works as well and is as much fun as ever; if I hadn’t outgrown those two sections, I’d still be playing it as my main RPG.

All Things Zombie

ATZ

Although I’d played Two Hour Wargames rules before, it was 2009 before All Things Zombie introduced me to a new genre – survival horror – and showed me how solo campaigns worked at their best. Very simple rules with complex, realistic emergent behaviour; the game punishes poor tactics ruthlessly, and like most THW games works equally well head to head, co-operatively, or solo.

There are many lessons to learn from this game, but the key one is this: In the zombie apocalypse, it’s not the zombies you have to worry about…

Savage Worlds

SWEE

That brings us to Savage Worlds, my current go-to RPG. Plonk down six quid or so for the core rulebook and you can run pretty much all my favourites right out of the book; Conan, Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Stargate, Star Wars, Traveller, homebrews, mashups… if it had rules for solo play I wouldn’t need anything else.

Designed from the ground up for game masters with next to no free time who just want to get on with playing, it’s fast and easy throughout. This is the only RPG I have which I can use to stage a fight involving 30-50 figures with multiple vehicles on each side, and finish it comfortably in an hour or so.

Honourable Mentions

If I could have five, I would add 2300AD, which showed me how to build viable NPCs with just a skill level and a couple of tags, and still has the most credible near-future SF setting of any RPG I know. If I could have six, I’d add Stars Without Number, which showed me how sandbox gaming could be done in a sensible amount of time.