The Simple Pleasures

Last night we did character creation for the Shadowrun game I’m starting (Anniversary Edition, of course) and I was thrilled when one of the new players at the table said to me, “you are absurdly organized” as we prepared to play. I had several hand-outs I had prepared to try and simplify character creation, a worksheet to help streamline working through the process, and a cheat sheet of NPCs that I already know are going to be in my version of Seattle along with ideas and assistance for creating contacts of their own.

They were also thrilled when I offered to make them each a spiffy custom character sheet that will keep all their game information front and center for them so they don’t have to constantly reference a million things during play.

It’s a lot of work. It’s not really necessary. And as I read what I wrote up there, it sounds a little too self-congratulatory for my tastes. But here’s the thing. I don’t do all these things just to make game run smoother or to make life easier for my players. Those are by-products of the process. I do this because it’s fun for me. I love making documents and handouts and play-aids. I created a fancy-looking reference card for D&D Attack Wing that I gave to the local store I play at so that it could help speed up game play. I make packets for my players in ACKS with relevant character info so that they can enjoy character creation (and I do the same for Amber DRPG).

But I’m kind of a paper nerd? I like making stuff. Tangible stuff that gets used at the table. I like the challenge of organizing a character sheet so that it gets everything a player needs on the front of one page and looks nice. I like making NPC references, and calendars, and menus for the restaurants the players shop at. It’s all just fun for me and it really keeps my enthusiasm level up as a GM. When I know that I can hit send on my laptop and have stuff pop up on players smartphones and tablets during play as their PCs encounter these things, it’s just a little shot of joy for me. Doesn’t matter to me if the players enjoy it, are indifferent, or if they are just humoring me (well, it does – I want them to be having fun at the table). You get the idea though, this level of engagement is what works for me and I’ve found ways to make it work in time frames that don’t ruin the rest of my life.

It’s a small thing but it keeps me happy as the GM and helps me to stave off burnout. As long as I can create for a game and think about it away from the table, I’ll stay even more engaged at the table. Doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. And when players do appreciate it and say so, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

Thanks for reading.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 31

August 30th.

Favorite Non-RPG Thing to Come out of RPGing

This is the last post for this month of RPGaDay. It’s funny, but this is perhaps the most challenging post of all. Because for me, RPGing has always been an end in itself. I don’t really think about what effect RPGs have had on my life, what meaning it all might have, or what influence RPG has had on the world around me… because I really only care about them in context of what they are.

Does that sound awful? Sure, there has been a powerful geek rising in the last decade or so. And there are a million new amazing board games, a million new video games, and all of that. But for me the best RPG-related stuff is, in fact, the RPGs.

Maybe I’m just a little obstinate or I don’t really understand the question, but as I’ve thought about and celebrated RPGs during this past month, what I’ve cherished has been the joy I get from this hobby that I have devoted myself to. I’m not a game designer, it’s not my living. It’s just my hobby. It’s my pastime. It’s my social activity.

For me, the best non-RPG thing to come out of RPGs is nothing more or less than the friends, the fun, and the joy this hobby has given me for 30+ years.

This month has been a fantastic chance to explore my feelings and post a few fun blogs. And this was a godsend for getting back into blogging. Daily posts for a month (okay, I missed four) have been very enjoyable. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 30

August 30th.

Favorite RPG Playing Celebrity

I’m sure my answer is about as expected as any. There are a lot of awesome public faces for RPGs these days. But my answer is pretty simple. I’m going with Vin Diesel. I’m an unabashed fan of his movies – love the Fast and the Furious franchise, and I love that he’s very authentic about his love of D&D.

I’m also a big fan of his foreward to the 30 Years of Adventure book.

So I missed yesterday and this whole thing wraps up tomorrow…

Thanks for reading.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 28

August 28th.

Favorite Game You No Longer Play

It’s funny, but where many of these questions have left me scratching my head or thinking about them for a while. This one had games clamoring for the opportunity to be mentioned, even if that means they are ex-gamefriends. They were favorites once, right?

Game One in this journey would have to be Star Wars (West End, D6 version). There was a time when this was the primary game I was playing. I mean lots and lots of D6 Star Wars. We did it all, bounty hunters, rebels, Imperials, Jedi; during the first trilogy, during the Thrawn trilogy… I could go on and on. But now, now I might pull one of these old books out for reference or for memories. It has probably been at least five years since the last time I was in a full on Star Wars d6 game. Well, when it comes to this one… it is definitely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Star Wars D6 is a great game, with a wealth of amazing supplements, a solid system, and is still one of the easiest games I’ve ever come across in terms of teaching it to new people. So there is nothing wrong here. It’s just, we drifted apart. There were other games, and other groups. We had mutual friends that we just don’t have anymore. But I will always be fond of this one, cherish the memories, and wonder what would happen if we ever met again, eyes meeting across a crowded room… could the spark come back?

Game Two I can just be up front and say… it was a different time. Mage: the Ascension was a revelation for me. That magic system! So magnificent in its understated way. So elegant and stylish. Mage really pushed me to be a better player, better game master. Mage was what I needed then. And will always be thankful for that. But it was more of a whirlwind romance in a foreign land than it was true love. And we both knew it. Some of your supplements were glorious – and I loved your Storyteller’s Guide. It’s like I still talk to your Mom sometimes, even though you and I both moved to different places. You were a great game and you came along at just the right time in my life (some might call it Coincidence, but we know it was Magick).

Game Three, well, we were so close to perfect for each other. Warhammer Fantasy RPG, 2nd Edition was just a great game. It took the old career system and smartened it up – along with the game system surrounding it – and turned it into a slick-looking, fun, dangerous little game. So many little touches went into making you great. You had this vast and interesting backstory. You managed your baggage well. You gave me a lot to think about. You got me creating again and you revitalized my [home brew] world. But stuff nagged at me. You had some habits that were just a little hard to overlook, like your insistence on using a career system which was amazing for creating characters but then made less and less sense across the life of a vivid campaign. And you had a dark side. A little too dark for me. In the end, we took a little time apart and I met someone new. I’m sorry to say, they are a lot like you – and a lot like my first love (D&D) – but merge what I loved about both of you in a way that just works for me. But hey, we’ll always have New Theris…

I’d like to thank Runeslinger (over at Casting Shadows) for the inspiration for this blog. He set the idea in motion with his post today when he made the leap that the really important part of the answer is the reason we no longer play these old favorites. Good stuff.

And this was fun. It’s been a long time since I was writing on the Rhetorical Gamer and it felt good. This month has been a good experience so far and I’m happy to be writing again.

As always, thanks for reading.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 27

August 27th.

Favorite Idea for Merging Two Games Into One

My first, easiest, answer is to simply say Shadowrun. I mean, it basically just blended Cyberpunk 2013 with D&D and got a whole new game that has thrived entirely in it’s own right. Is it the first “mash-up” game to come out of the hobby? I have no idea, but it is certainly an enduring one.

I do also like the merging of horror and the wild west that is Deadlands. Not really sure which two games they put together, more like just genres, but it is a heck of a mix that makes for some fascinating gaming. I’ve always enjoyed the Deadlands games I’ve been a part of and the mixed up nature of it is part of the reason.

Does anyone else remember Dragon Storm? I sometimes feel like the only one. It mixed CCG style card play with traditional roleplaying elements to be a collectible card RPG (CCRPG?). It was a weird one that got weirder before it went away. I loved it though. Stumbled on it at a con back in the mid-90s when it was fairly new. Susan Van Camp was the guest at the con and we played it quite a bit for a while after that. I still have all my cards and just recently discovered a quiet corner of the internet where they are keeping the game alive and active. I might have to get some friends together and try it out again for kicks.

Not sure this really answers the question but it – again – has been one of my favorite prompts to think about and write about.

See you tomorrow, and thanks for reading.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 26

August 26th.

Favorite Inspiration for Your Games

First, it is hard to believe this is almost over. I’m going to have to find things to blog about on my own again! Well, I have a few saved up from my experiences lately with ACKS, D&D Attack Wing, and just some general thoughts I’m kicking around.

But hey, favorite inspirations? Well, this is actually going to be a pretty boring answer, but my primary inspiration over the years has been the books I read. Particularly fantasy books, but it can be anything.

I find that I’m not really a visual thinker/person so movies do less for me and I’m not much into art on the whole. Spectacle is lost on me. But books stay with me, influence my thinking for a long time after I’ve finished them.

Who do I go back to for inspiration? I’ve mentioned many names before but Peter S. Beagle, David Eddings, and Guy Gavriel Kay are big sources of inspiration for me. As is Tamora Pierce. The last three pretty much shaped how the gods behave in all my games. Amber, both the novels and the game book have been intensely inspiring over the years. James Blaylock’s Elfin Ship and Disappearing Dwarf are two of my all-time favorite “go back to” reads and may do more to refresh me than they do to inspire me but it’s a thin line. Tolkien, for the always surprising deftness of his touch and to remind me that small details matter.

I also tend to draw quite a bit of inspiration just from reviewing the “GM Guides” from different games. I find that reading the thoughts of designers on how they expect or hope that GMs will approach their games is fascinating and will often trigger an idea or shake loose something that has been bugging me. The Book of Mirrors: Mage Storytellers Handbook (for the original Mage game) is still a source of inspiration to me today and I love revisiting it like an old friend.

So, not sure if I have a favorite source of inspiration (okay, I do, it’s The Last Unicorn) but I hope this list was interesting to someone out there.

Thanks for reading. Seeing the end of the tunnel now.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 25

August 25th.

Favorite Revolutionary RPG Mechanic

What is revolutionary? I’m not asking to be difficult. It’s more a reaction to the idea that RPGs were “one thing” because D&D was the first and that somehow the creations of other RPGs in the early design space were innovations. It’s also a question about whether modern design is innovation/revolution as opposed to a continued tinkering with the form which suits certain niches of the larger hobby community. Most new games don’t “change gaming forever” they simply offer another choice in a very large field of choices.

Was AD&D revolutionary for all the changes it made to D&D? Was class/level revolutionary or Class as a separate characteristic from Race on the character sheet? I could find myself making the argument that class and level are one of the single most revolutionary aspects of gaming mechanics as they are fundamental to the some of the most popularly played games today just as they were originally.

How then to compare the innovation of a point-buy system for creating characters over the random rolling of dice to generate attributes? This certainly opened up whole new avenues of gaming and was exactly what a portion of the population was looking for in their experience of the hobby.

Even more interesting to me is the transition from systems built around the d20 and 3d6 dice rolls to systems using Dice Pools (check out Casting Shadows for a take on the dice pool as a favorite revolutionary RPG mechanic). Dice pools using d6s or d10s certainly changed things for a lot of gamers. Then, of course, you have the oddly self-congratulatory d20 system, which effectively refines the original D&D blueprint by emphasizing the d20’s role even more, and somehow ushered in an entire era of gaming in the early 2000s. (I recognize that the mechanic of the d20 was less important than the OGL but many games are still building on this d20 system foundation laid by 3rd edition D&D such as Mutants and Masterminds and Pathfinder).

Hit Points – much maligned, still used – are a heck of an innovation. They effectively deal with a means for tracking the ability of your character to keep pushing forward and emulate the heroic aspect of many mythical heroes in that they rarely suffer debilitating injuries (except when it serves the purposes of the narrative, something the emergent, player/DM controlled D&D steers away from). And even games which do not use hit points often use “hit points in disguise” and simply change the names and ranges of injury or split them into two (or more) pools of points for varying attempts to simulate other things. In the d20 arena, you can look at the Wounds/Vitality split of Star Wars d20, but it’s just as instructive to look at the Health Levels of the World of Darkness (along with Willpower), and the Health/Fatigue split of a game like GURPS. Sanity in Call of Cthulhu is just a special kind of hit points to emulate a special kind of damage your character takes. And Hit Points are a staple of the video game RPG industry even if the way they are tracked is “hidden” from the player in some games. Heck, the fighting game industry puts a health bar above your head, so it’s not just RPGs.

Compare this to the consequence-laden systems of some more modern games (such as FATE) which provide a much narrower window of functional character play and then broaden it by virtue of stacking modifiers on your character. This is certainly an innovative and clever answer to the problem of wanting a very different experience from Hit Points. I’m certainly a fan of the concept if not a fan of the execution… every time I try FATE I just end up disappointed. Obviously, this is not the typical fan experience as it is a very successful and well-loved game. I really want to try Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) to see if my experience is any different.

This, of course, leads me to the “Story Game” revolution. So far, my experience with Story Games has been surprisingly flat. I read some of them and think they are brilliant (I have a serious unrequited love of Polaris. I need to play this game. I don’t want to run this game, I want to play it. It’s so beautiful). Unfortunately, I often find the end result of Story Games to feel more like they are trying to legislate game play to protect players from “naughty GMs” than to provide a better method for sitting at a table with your friends and playing a game that just so happens to also involve creating a cooperative story. Is this a fair review of story games? Probably not in all cases but it certainly is the impression I glean from many of the more popular ones I have encountered. My attitude about this has been evolving though, as some clever games have interpreted the GM-space in interesting ways (e.g., Lead Narrator in Cosmic Patrol) and I do love the shared power of narrative at the game table. I just find many attempts to legislate it to be bureaucratic and cold.

It occurs to me that I have strayed from my first endeavors point without talking about the dice. I have limited experience with early wargaming outside of playing a few Avalon Hill WWII games with my father (still a big fan of Afrika Korps) but the jump from wargaming to adding fantasy elements to “let’s use all these funky dice” seems to be a pretty revolutionary change. More than anything, I think that these wacky dice (see Dungeon Crawl Classics for a modern day revival of the funky dice debate) really could argue for being the most important revolution of the RPG hobby. It’s a hard one to argue with in my mind, especially considering how companies now are attempting to merge story gaming and heavy dice-pooling with games using “Narrative Dice” like Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer Fantasy and Star Wars lines, where the dice don’t even have numbers. Instead they bear icons which trigger specific outcomes in combination with a pile of charts. As an aside, I like the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games but I find the option paralysis and game churning slowness of interpreting dice pools, especially as characters gain more abilities to be a big drawback and it makes it difficult for me to get excited about the game.

There have been numerous attempts to get away from the tyranny of randomness in gaming from the beginning. Re-rolls, modifier points, using playing cards, etc. And as far as the eye can see, people are still coming up with new ways to play around with dice or with an alternative to dice. It’s pretty cool.

But as anyone who knows me will tell you, my favorite revolutionary game mechanic is one that is so rarely implemented well but so brilliant, so exciting, that I keep seeking the holy grail of capturing that magic… and that would be diceless play. I love reading diceless game systems. I love examining how they attempt to maneuver around the randomness space and the GM whim space. I love seeing how they handle combat. Diceless games are still rare beasts, and the pool that I consider “playable” rarer still. Diceless games, specifically those without a randomizing element at all, are like the Questing Beast for me. Playing without dice, without randomization, with only imagination, shared storytelling, and a thin veneer of well-written rules, is still my favorite way to play and the revolutionary idea that most captures my imagination.

Thanks for reading. This one was really fun to write.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 24

August 24th.

Favorite House Rule

I don’t house rule much. Overall, I tend to favor playing games the way they are written. I also tend to embrace the rulings over rules style of play where I’m happier to make a ruling in the moment and if I’m wrong later then I’ll just admit and we’ll do it right the next time.

One house rule I do tend to have for most D&D style games – though I have abandoned this rule for Adventurer Conqueror King System. During the 3rd Edition/3.5 era and extending into 4th Edition, I was incredibly reluctant to allow PCs to be raised from the dead. I effectively banned any “back from the dead” spells.

It was an interesting phase for me as a GM. I want to tread lightly as I try to explain, but overall, I think it was the no consequences power gaming feel of this era of D&D that led me to want the dead to stay dead. ACKS, and several other games have real consequences for dying and alternatives for returns. And consequences, I have discovered, mean a lot to me as a player and a DM.

So, favorite house rule? Yeah, the dead stay dead (or undead).

Thanks for reading.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 23

August 23rd.

Perfect Game For You

Another easy one. I wish there was any competition on this front but I just can’t answer anything but Amber Diceless RPG. There are so many fine games, so many games I love to play and run, but Amber will always be the perfect game for me.

Is it a perfect game? No. It is an exceptional game though. Is it a perfect game for every player or every group? Certainly not. But for me, for my enjoyment and for the kind of play experience I love – you can’t beat Amber.

So… short post today but I’ll take it. I’ve got a game to run tonight!

Thanks for reading and see you tomorrow.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 22

August 22nd.

Perfect Gaming Environment

I have often thought about my perfect gaming environment. Over the years it has evolved quite a bit. My earliest gaming was done at the end of the sidewalk in my cul-de-sac. We would play D&D with our B/X sets and lots of early board games like Saga and Mystic Wood.

Later, my gaming space became my mother’s kitchen table. I like playing near the fridge. I don’t like playing in a high traffic area.

Ask me today and my perfect gaming environment would be a room with built in shelves where I could be surrounded by my books and games and with enough room for a round table which fits up to 8 people comfortably. With enough room to add a mini-fridge and plenty of room to walk around. The round table is important to me. I like round tables to eating, for meetings, and for gaming. Having a table where everyone is equally far from the map/board and able to easily see and respond to each other is definitely my favorite way to play.

But more important, a place without distractions. As time has passed I’ve discovered that it becomes harder to get everyone to just sit down and focus on the game. So minimizing distractions is important to me.

Good stuff and thanks for reading.

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