The Not-So-Scary Carnival

Carnivals are terrifying, right? Something Wicked This Way Comes, is all about the dark things that carnivals bring to our towns… There are many adventures and sourcebooks for RPGs centered around the dark traveling carnival. Heck, the mighty Inquisitor Eisenhorn even faces one in a story set in the Warhammer 40K universe.

But what if the Carnival wasn’t so scary? Well, that is to say, what if, when you pull back the curtain, instead of being an even more twisted representation – it was something else? What if, when the layers of illusion are stripped away, you find a bunch of seemingly normal folk dealing with all the troubles of being itinerant entertainers in a dangerous world?

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On Being a Dick…

I saw a post today which I am pretty sure is the result of someone being “mad as hell” and unwilling to take it anymore. Basically, his problem was that players were not bothering to take responsibility for making or understanding their characters as well as the issues of players not even knowing the rules of the game they were playing.

The unclear part is whether those players were unwilling to do so or just had chosen not to. It’s a small distinction but one that merits some thought when you are confronted with it. If a player is unwilling to take ownership of their stake in the game table, then yeah, they are probably a dick. But if they just haven’t committed to it yet, then maybe that’s something else. Maybe that player just needs some encouragement to get with it. Maybe they don’t understand something and aren’t willing to ask because they are afraid it will make them look stupid. Maybe lots of things. It is also possible they are just a dick.

I’m of two minds about this though. I have a problem that when I go into a game, I’m usually pretty gung-ho. Gaming is my favorite thing to do in the world so I don’t always remember that other gamers might be in it more for the social aspect. I’m likely to jump to the conclusion that someone doesn’t care or isn’t engaged if they aren’t as engaged as I am. It’s something I try to fight against but I frequently fail.

It’s also the case that I usually try to reserve judgment for a few sessions. I mean, it’s possible – especially if playing a new system – that a player may just be dabbling and not willing to commit until they’ve seen the system and the group in action for a few sessions. This makes sense. Again, I try to respect this without always succeeding. But I try.

Here’s where I gotta agree with the thought of the original poster though… If you are joining a game, take ownership of your part. You don’t have to memorize all the rules chapter and verse, but take the time to be familiar with the ones that involve your character. If you don’t understand something, please ask. I’d rather you get it and have fun than not get it, suffer in silence, and then quit the game three sessions in.

And even though you may not understand everything in a game, once you are more than 10-12 sessions into a game, it’s time to start thinking about investing a little into the game. Consider getting your own copy of the core rules, make sure you understand the action/interaction systems (like combat, social skills, action structure). This is a minimum commitment that should not be too much to ask once you know that you are playing a game fairly long term.

Most of all though, don’t put your GM or fellow players in a situation where they have to be the jerks because they have to call you out. Don’t be lazy. Yes, it’s a game. But it’s also a time commitment, a social engagement, and something that everyone is agreeing to do in lieu of literally everything else they could be doing with that time. So be in the moment, take some ownership of your engagement, and contribute to the fun.

In other words, don’t be a dick.

SPOILERS (Star Wars Post)

SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS!!!!

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NO SERIOUSLY, STAY OUT IF YOU AIN’T SEEN THE MOVIE YET.

 

Rey and Finn were excellent. They had good chemistry on screen and they were good Star Wars characters without feeling like exactly the same Star Wars characters. There is no attempt to make Finn ‘cool.’ And it’s fine, he’s awesome just as he is. Rey is great.  She’s capable, likeable, and heroic but human. She doesn’t have the instant – I’ll throw myself into danger for a pretty girl moment that Luke has. Even with the death of his family, Luke is still very much an innocent when he goes off to adventure in A New Hope… Rey isn’t. And Rey is a little scared of the Force, despite her powerful gifts. And she gives in to the Dark Side just a little there at the end. Which was perfect.

 

I really like Kylo Ren. He was the character I was most worried about going into the new movies. How can we have another big-ass scary dude in a black outfit and mask and not have it seem stupid? But I like what they’ve done here. Unlike some, I enjoyed his temper tantrums. Yes, they were childish but that seems to be the point. He’s not in control. He’s chosen the Dark Side (and I do hope we get a little more explanation of how he reached that decision) but he’s not in control, he’s not an old man secure in his power and resigned to his fate… he’s young and foolish. He’s living up to a legacy that he clearly doesn’t understand and clearly doesn’t know how to handle. He’s powerful but raw. He is the Dark Side acolyte we all wanted Anakin to be.

 

Poe Damaron is also a great addition to the SW Universe. He and Finn had solid on-screen chemistry and he’s charismatic and unafraid. Cool. We’ll see more of him in the next two movies, I’m sure, so we’ll see how well they keep him going.

 

All I’m going to say about Han and Leia is this… I liked their weary separation. I liked when Han says that they both went back to the only things they’d ever been good at. I like who Leia is now. I was prepared for this by the Expanded Universe because they did the “tragedy drives them apart for a while” storyline and it worked there too. It’s okay.

 

Things that disappoint? There are a couple. Was I disappointed with Captain Pharasma being a bit part? Not really. We only cared that she was a bit part because of who the actor is under the mask and because we thought we’d get more based on advertising showing us her fancy armor.

 

I was disappointed that the (New) Republic was basically just standing around with a thumb up its *** while the Resistance stood up against what seems like a pretty terrifying gang of terrorists. The First Order is a clear and present danger dressing itself in the trappings of an Empire defeated within the lifetime of the characters. The wreckage of the war still litters the planets we see this movie take place over. But Leia’s not leading the Republic – or even involved – she’s out working as a “rebel leader.” This may be explained more in the future but really, so far, it was a struggle for me to square this with the few details we have.

 

And on the subject of inaction… my biggest disappointment is Luke. While I was expecting that he’d be the object of this first movie’s action (the search for Luke Skywalker), I needed a better reason for him to be moping off on the edge of the galaxy in isolation than… “my student went all evil so I runned and hided.” Does he believe that the Jedi are actually a mistake and that maybe the galaxy is better off without them? I could believe that, but then he should send Rey packing and tell her he’s not coming back. Luke is one of the few, genuine, not at all “Iron Age” heroes out there. He’s a lot like Superman, earnest, hardworking, knowing that his power doesn’t make him better – it requires him to be better. I’m too much in love with the vision of Luke that is presented by the EU but I feel that way because it was presented so well. Luke is a character that grew from being a “I can’t do it, you ask the impossible” to, “I have to do it, because I can.” We saw it in Return of the Jedi… and now, it’s gone. I guess I’m just saying that I’ll need a lot of explanation for why Luke just bailed on everyone and everything for like, the last 5 years or so (because in the vision, Ren is grown up when he turns on Luke’s new Jedi).

 

Overall, I had a lot of fun and it felt like Star Wars again. The new cast gives me hope that as the universe becomes theirs, they will make it a great place. But it had some disappointments for me too, and I hope that Episodes 8 and 9 overcome those. The good news is, I feel like – in many ways – they will.

All I Want for Xmas…

…is a little Thunder Rift.

First, let me say that I have truly enjoyed Wizards of the Coast putting the back catalog of D&D products on sale as PDFs. Being able to browse through and own all of those old modules in a nice digital format has been a lovely stroll down memory lane. It even inspired me to try my hand at running Keep on the Borderlands again after all these years (decades).

But after an initial surge where we saw a huge amount of D&D stuff posted, suddenly, the shift has been almost entirely to the 4E era. The 4E Dragon and Dungeon were disasters – and I am of that opinion despite initially playing the heck out of 4E – which are probably easy to republish since they were digital-only to begin with.

Where’s the 90s D&D? The Black Box re-release of OD&D that came out around the time of the Rules Cyclopedia and the awesome boxed campaigns that came out of that time with goblins, and undead fighters, and dragon lairs were tons of fun.

Most of all though, I want Thunder Rift back. I owned all the Thunder Rift products (save one adventure) and have run two campaigns set in a (scaled up) version of the Rift that remain some of my fondest memories of that time in gaming. There were other adventures from that era as well, Eye of Traldar, Arena of Thyatis. Now, I was running a lot more AD&D 2nd edition those days, but I used these D&D products all the time and often preferred them to the adventures being released for 2e.

So, Wizards, all I want is a little 90s OD&D love. As much as I enjoyed your 4th Edition era release of Gamma World… if you want to make me a happy little guy this holiday season, bring back the Rift.

Rebel Violence

I’m having a problem with the Star Wars Rebels show. It’s an odd problem, but it has to do with the way violence is portrayed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against violence in “kid’s” shows. Far from it. I don’t see the point in isolating children from violence when they have the luxury of exploring it in a safe space so they are better able to deal with it when they encounter it in real life.

I also know that there is a whole “Wonder how Luke feels about murdering all the janitors on the Death Star” thing that some people like to preach about. That’s bullshit, and all I’m going say about it for now. There is also the fact that the series to precede Rebels – The Clone Wars – was a very dark and violent show portraying an awful war and its effects on so many lives. The Clone Wars was exceptional and done with a keen eye toward the massive scale of the violent conflict engulfing the galaxy.

What I’ve noticed about the violence in Rebels is that it is often thoughtless. Rebels is a simpler show than The Clone Wars, and that often shows in the writing. Rebels more often neatly ties up loose ends throughout the 22 minute episode and tries to steer clear of some of the truly dark moments of The Clone Wars. This is fine – but also what makes what I’m noticing so jarring.

In episode six – Blood Sisters – this often unsettled feeling was brought home for me in a scene which I am certain (though perhaps wrong) was meant for comedy. During the episode, Sabine and Chopper are on their own, trying to get a droid carrying important intel back to the Rebels. All well and good. They have to leave Ezra behind in a dangerous situation (problematic for me but actually understandable considering Ezra’s constant attempts to impress Sabine – she obviously trusts him to save himself). Sabine and Chopper are facing an opponent in the form of one of Sabine’s old friends – who is now a Black Sun bounty hunter.

This is where the episode upset me. Sabine and Chopper commandeer a vessel – a hyperspace shuttle of sorts, with a built in droid captain. Over its protests Sabine has Chopper “shut down” the Captain and take over the ship. They run. A fight ensues. Imperial entanglements happen.

Now Sabine, who has left Ezra behind, realizes that Chopper has been captured by her nemesis. She goes back for him, because Chopper is a friend and a valued member of the crew. But a short while later, in order save herself, she has Chopper turn the droid Captain of the shuttle back on, and overwhelms it with information about what has happened since it was shut down, and convinces it to initiate “emergency protocols” in an attempt to mask her own escape. Essentially, she sacrifices this droid knowingly and willingly by setting up a situation where the Imperials will destroy it with (seemingly) no remorse whatsoever. The plaintive “Where am I?” of the Captain resonated with me long after the episode was over.

Sabine clearly respects droids as more than just “servants.” She considers Chopper an independent personality capable of emotions. He’s worth rescuing, worth jeopardizing her mission to go back for. But a stranger, she kidnaps, traumatizes, and sacrifices with no second thought. Consider if this shuttle had a pilot of one of the recognizable species of Star Wars – a human or Sullustan – would Sabine, or the show-writers, have been willing to commit the same sacrifice?

This seems like a small thing. I’m sure it does. But again, it is not the act of violence itself that upsets me. It’s the un-examined, throw-away nature of the action in context. It is the clear horror and sadness on the part of the droid Captain and his death that, to me, make me not like Sabine very much. Even though this was clearly an episode meant to highlight her growth.

I have noticed other instances of this casual disregard for violence and deception in the series which disturbed me but this episode crystallized that feeling. The Clone Wars was a dark show with difficult themes about war and sacrifice. But those decisions often came with consequences and were placed into a context where you felt the emotional impact of those decisions along with the characters. Rebels may have less violence but it is much more casual and unconcerned about that violence.

And to my point about loose ends getting tied up… end of episode, there is Ezra, right as rain and still vaguely fascinated by Sabine in his adolescent way. Not even a question about leaving him behind – because of course he’s fine.

Fallout 4

My adventures in the Commonwealth proceed apace.

It is rare that I am completely absorbed by a videogame. I came rather late to enjoying this form of game and it takes something that fits me very well to generate obsession. Oblivion did it, Mass Effect did it, but even though I have enjoyed other games… no obsession.

I am completely in love with Fallout 4. I had a week off of work and I’m pretty sure that I only saw the sun because I had to leave the house once or twice, you know, for necessities.

My wife has just started her third character. I’m playing my third character. I took the first to level 20’ish and the second into the mid 30’s. The new guy is level 8. I’ve played the game intensely. I love the settlement building aspects, I love the NPCs, and I enjoy the heck out of the ability to choose just how involved with the main quest you care to be because there are literally 1.83 billion other choices for  how to live your life in this Wasteland.

So far, I’ve been only working with the Minutemen and the Railroad. Mostly the Minutemen. But I intend another play through dedicated to doing the Brotherhood of Steel thing. Really looking forward to that.

The settlement building aspect has enthralled me completely. Though I’m still getting the hang of constructing interesting buildings, and my first two plays involved some epic fails with setting up my supply lines in an efficient manner, I just can’t get enough of building settlements, attracting new people, giving them new clothes (and new guns), and putting them to the great work of reclaiming the Commonwealth.

One problem I’ve encountered was Provisioners. The folks who run your supply lines. Once you’ve assigned them it is nearly impossible to keep track of them because they are always on the road and don’t really have any way to mark their point of origin or destination.

My solution to this problem was based in thinking like a role-player. Here’s what I do. For each provisioner, right before I assign them a route, I go to the Weapon Workbench and I rename a gun with their route – for example, Sunshine to Starlight – and then I present that gun to the Provision as a trust that they will carry out this vital duty to our coalition of settlements. Now, when I encounter them anywhere I can simply ask to trade and see, right in their inventory, their engraved gun with their route clearly marked.

It’s silly, but the life of the mind roleplaying that I can use to “make my own fun” in a game like Fallout 4 really does make an already great game better. By solving a problem with a roleplaying solution, using the existing tools of the game, I have given myself an added layer of fun and fixed my issue.

If you haven’t tried it out yet, I highly recommend Fallout 4. It offers many layers of interesting game play and different ways to experience the game whether you want to be a community leader, a warrior, a nice-guy, or just about whatever. I have found, that with my first character I was seriously just all over the place with what I was doing and how. My second character was so regimented that I didn’t actually take the time to really enjoy them. With this third character I’m finding the middle ground. I have a plan for what I want to accomplish and what I want to experience but I’m also just taking what the game throws at me.

Fallout 4 has a few flaws. Like Oblivion, Skyrim, and other Bethesda games, the Main Quest is seemingly less important or interesting that many of the other options the game offers (and has a very odd storyline problem that I won’t discuss because spoilers). It also has a few hiccups and bugs that Jenny and I are discovering on the PS4 version (I’m a console guy – what can I say) but these have been extremely minor so far and haven’t hurt our game experience.

So yeah, if you were seduced by Star Wars Battlefront or Tomb Raider and didn’t get to the Commonwealth yet, put on your Pip Boy and come join me, I probably even built a bed for you.

A Quick Review of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

I am not the biggest fan of the Forgotten Realms and effectively ignored whatever was happening in the setting throughout 3rd edition and 4th edition. This book also snuck up on me because it was out before I’d even really read much about it or realized it was on the way. I didn’t even know that Green Ronin had a hand in developing it. But I’m a big fan of 5th Edition D&D and I gladly picked this book up despite the mixed reviews I’d been seeing for it. So here’ my attempt to add a positive review, with a few minor gripes.

Setting Material
As someone who hasn’t read FR fluff since the 1990’s, this was actually pretty fun to read. It was just enough information about the area and its changes to make me feel comfortable in the Princes of the Apocalypse game I’m currently playing in by introducing me to the Realms, 2015-style. I can’t say much more than that as I am not a Forgotten Realms expert. I found the writing to be decent, enjoyable, and concise enough that I didn’t get bored.

One gripe. The maps are terrible. My biggest pet peeve, something that drives me crazy in many fantasy supplements… why would you ever take the time to produce attractive and professional maps of your setting and then not add a distance scale? There is no excuse for this. How far is it from adventure site A to town B? I have no idea! Useful.

Mechanical Material
I am a big fan of the design and layout of the 5th edition rule books. The hardcover adventures are not well organized at all but the rule books are nicely done. This book does not continue that layout tradition quite as well as the core rulebooks, but it’s alright. I struggled with identifying different headers and the breaks in sections sometimes in a meaningful way, but not so much as to make the book a struggle to read.

Overall, I found the class material offered (and the fact that they didn’t feel compelled to offer new shinies to every class just because) to be well balanced and interesting. There are quite a few new class options – mainly centered around the idea of the Archetypes classes separate into at early levels. The new Arcana domain for clerics is just plain neat. The new monk options are cool, and the FR-specific content is handled very well because it is written with the idea in mind that players and DMs may want to use this mechanical material in their own home games, not just the Forgotten Realms. This is much appreciated and doesn’t really cost much word count.

The section of new backgrounds was very fun reading, I’ve wanted a few more options over what the PHB has to offer and these are all interesting and adaptable. The new spells on offer are welcome, though the lack of new cleric spells of any sort continues to be frustrating.

Nothing in this book seems likely to break a game, requiring using any options you aren’t comfortable with (feats, for example), and provides new PC options while not changing any fundamental tenants of 5E design.

I know this is a mighty short review, but overall, I’d give the SCAG a solid B+. This would have been an A if the maps had distances on them… at all.

Can We Talk About Firefly?

I know that today is V for Vendetta day or something like that… and I shan’t wish to be hoisted by my own petard, but… let’s discuss another revolution/rebellion for a moment.

Another of those, “Bring Back Firefly” chants passed through my social media feed the other day and it brought back my complicated feelings about the “Firefly Phenomenon.” First, I should say that Firefly, seen in its entirety and in the proper episode order, is one of the best examples of TV Sci-Fi we’ve ever had as geeks. Second, it is one of my favorite shows* of all time. Finally, I’ll say that Malcolm Reynolds is probably my favorite sci-fi character. I’m a huge, unabashed Captain Mal fan. I also live in Virginia, in the heart of Civil War country. I am a comfortable day trip (or less, really) from about 10 Civil War battlefields and my home city has a Confederate graveyard.

Also, a few hours from my home, there is a yearly event called the Browncoat Ball.

I have complicated feelings about Firefly. Here’s a little part of why…

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One Year of D&D Attack Wing

D&D Attack Wing celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. As an ardent fan of the game, I thought I’d write up a quick “where are we now” post in honor of this first milestone.

Turnout, or, Who’s Playing DDAW?
I can’t say entirely because my experience is only with the player base at two local stores, but it seems that turnout for this game is pretty small. We have about 4 regular and another 4 semi-regular players at our store and the typical turnout for tournaments seems to be about 6. From what I gather from the boards over at Board Game Geek and from the turnout for the big Nationals and Worlds events this year, that is pretty much the standard everywhere.

At least two stores I’ve been to in other parts of my home state (VA) they’ve discounted their entire stock because the game never took off there. I’m hopeful that the game can continue to build momentum but this is definitely a concern.

Release Schedule
Good grief there have been plenty of releases. For a while there, the release schedule had three new creatures a month, plus a tournament figure. Wow. Oh, and four premium figures of massive dragons. This has given players a great assortment of creatures and upgrades to choose from and hasn’t felt overwhelming. I accept that overwhelming for me is different than some other players because this is currently the only miniatures game I’m actively supporting.

The release schedule has slowed down recently and I’m not sure if that will be a continuing trend or if the pace will pick back up after the holiday season. Either way, I’m happy because even one new figure a month is enough to keep interest in the game.

I will admit to being a little frustrated with the tournament structure of exclusive figures. Several good aligned dragons, some excellent monsters, and some important upgrades have been introduced into the game only through Limited Edition figures that can only be obtained through tournament play. Even though the retail release options have still been great and competitive, it is frustrating to think that players in an area with no official tournament support are basically forced to turn to ebay to pick up these additions to the game. I’m not really a fan of this.

The Creatures!
This is a source of never-ending joy and frustration for me. Overall, I am a huge fan of the creatures released for the game. Everything from the Frost Giant in wave one to the more recent Pegasus have been interesting and fun to add to the game experience.

On the one hand, there are so many fantastic options to choose from that I’m very excited to keep trying out new Legions, making up new ideas, and combining creatures in interesting ways. In the course of this first year, it seems that game balance has remained strong and most creatures are competitive if played well. A few options have come to dominate the metagame but that is almost always going to happen in an environment of competition. It still seems that Vakka is a winner, Adamantine Lance is indispensable, Mirror Image is the defensive spell to have, and the Harpy, Wyvern, and Gargoyle rarely hit the table. I haven’t seen a Harpy played since release and the Wyvern/Gargoyle have so consistently underperformed that they just get overlooked except in certain specific scenarios.

The other hand, my frustration hand, primarily stems from two gripes. One is really petty. Basically, I’m sad that the releases for this game are so tied into the other existing miniatures lines and the “event” driven releases of D&D in general. I’d love to see a few other creatures make the game. There are some excellent choices out there in the D&D bestiary just waiting to be brought into Attack Wing. There are also some obvious voids in the game that need more figures in them. More undead please. And wouldn’t the Couatl make a great addition to the game?

My second frustration though has to do with the fact that the Level assigned to creatures seems to be skewed heavily in favor of Evil and has some weird problems. To illustrate this, look no further than the fact that the game contains a Harpy and a Frost Giant at 14, both a Chimera and a Nightmare at Level 15, and a Mind Flayer at 18, but the Solar Angel is Level 14. The Solar Angel can’t even use the most powerful divine spells available in the game – which incidentally – Drizzt can. Because he’s two levels higher than the Solar. Consider that the vast majority of Good figures are level 12 or below. There are currently only four Good Aligned (non-premium) figures higher than level 12. There are 9 Evil Aligned figures higher than level 12. Once we get the Vrock and the Nalfashnee in play, there will be 11.

These gripes aside though, it is remarkable that the game retains a strong balance at this point and that the creatures from the first wave and the Starter Set are still competitive and interesting to play against creatures from the most recent waves. Lord Maximilian, Claugyiliamatar, Balagos, Eshaedra, and Nymmestra still make regular appearances in games played at our local store. Of those, Balagos and Lord Maximilian also seem to still get plenty of press in the posts I see over at BGG and from the tournament community.

So, a hearty “Well Done” to the design team for keeping the game in a nice sweet spot for this long.

Organized Play
Other than my misgivings about Limited Edition figures only available through tournaments, I can otherwise give a glowing endorsement of the OP program so far. The Tyranny of Dragons scenarios were all great fun. The Elemental Evil games were too. The scenarios often turned out to be more fun to play than I expected they would be and the variety of game types has kept regular play from ever feeling stale. It also provides good incentive to use creatures you might not choose first in a straightforward beatdown fight.

I hope that the OP program continues to be strong and exciting and that we have another good year to look forward to more unique scenarios.

Last Words
Overall, this has been a fun year. I’ve had some great games with good people. The League I started in my local store has been great (and I’m already planning the second league). The game has grown in interesting ways and has maintained an exceptional level of balance.

Happy Anniversary D&D Attack Wing and here’s hoping for a good year to come!

What Makes A Game an RPG?

This is a stupid thing, and it will probably get me in trouble. I’ve seen it many times in my years as a gamer. But I’ve been reading a lot of games over the last few years and I play many different games outside of just tabletop RPGs. Like many in our hobby, I play videogames (console and PC), boardgames, wargames, miniatures skirmish games, card games, and other kinds of games. But even though I don’t ever expect there to be a specific gospel of “this is an RPG!” I do often have a set of very specific thoughts in mind when I approach a game which describes itself as an RPG. That label gets stuck on all kinds of games. So, here is my set of expectations when I approach a game for what is required to call it an RPG. I’ll lay them out and then express my thoughts on each point after the list.

  1. Game mechanic structures existing for the purpose of telling a persistent story.
  2. Systems for making a character that can be played over many sessions and can develop over time.
  3. An implicit structure of expectations that the game is meant to be played by at least two people in some way relating to one another socially.
  4. The ability to support open-ended play.
  5. A person/player who takes on the role of GM/DM/Storyteller/Judge/Guide/Keeper…

A little exploration of these points…

  1. It does not matter what those structures are – rules light, rules heavy, diceless, card-based – or what the focus of those rules are – combat, social interaction, domain-building – so long as the result is a set of game mechanics in service to a group of people telling a persistent, ongoing story over time.
  2. No, this is not meant to exclude running one-shots. Sure, run a one-shot. My point is that the game system itself is not designed solely as a one-shot. To be completely clear… I’m not saying that a game used to run a one-shot is not a roleplaying game (D&D is a roleplaying game and gets used for one-shots all the time). What I am saying is that a game like Fiasco or Death of Legends is not a role-playing game because it lacks any capacity to exist outside of the one-shot format.

  3. This one is controversial even to me. Mainly because of the “develop over time” part. I’m not sure exactly how to quantify that in a way that makes sense. I’m not discussing the fact that you have to earn XP or character points or be able to “level up.” That is a part of what I mean, but it’s more important to stress that you have some type of agency in designing your character (you can play something you want to play) and that you have some type of agency in controlling that character’s arc over multiple sessions of play. Even if your idea of a fun RPG is just showing up and grunting at the other players over when it’s time to kill something, you are still able to shape your character’s development as the game goes on.
  4. This is perhaps related enough to point 1 that I should have included it there but it is also implicit in my thinking. World of Warcraft fulfills this requirement, though I would maintain that it is not an RPG. Mainly for other reasons on this list, but I wanted to get that out of the way. Fundamental to the RPG experience is the ability to interact with other players and the game master in such a way that you are neither “on rails” (Dragon Age or Diablo) or completely able to do whatever you want without recourse to rules or a social contract of some sort (simply writing or telling a story or playing a solo adventure). The game does not exist solely for you and solely in the vacuum of your own personal imaginary space. Your character’s actions and reactions are part of an ecosystem with other characters and NPCs who have their own goals and desires and who take action to see those things completed.
  5. Also related to points 1 and 3, it is vital to have a sense of openness to be a roleplaying game. A computer game might have a great big world but there are mountains you aren’t allowed to scale, caves you can’t enter, doors that remain closed, and chests that you can’t open unless you have exactly the right key. A roleplaying game requires the open scope of knowing that your actions are your own to decide. You might not be happy with the outcome all the time (consequences, people) but you can choose to hare off and turn the game in a different direction. You don’t have to care about the goblin invasion to the west. Maybe you really want to go to that weird city that got mentioned in passing with a medusa mayor who promises great power to any who will spend a night in her bed and survive…

    And you know, maybe when you ignore that goblin invasion it eventually gains momentum and shows up at the doorstep of your new home, but you still broke the mold and went where you wanted to go. I’m not saying that campaign settings must be infinite or even fully formed when created. I’m saying that in Fallout 3 I can’t say, “to heck with DC” and move to New Vegas. My character gets to do the adventures right in front of me. That’s it.

  6. Which leads to my ultimate requirement. A roleplaying game needs a player in the role of GM (or whatever your game calls it). Fiasco is a great game. It really is – clever, fun, delightfully wacky – but it’s a party game. Yes, the action of the game involves each player taking up the role of a character (role-playing) as the action of the game but everything is present and, in the end, many of the actions are decided by a set of tables with pat outcomes. Sure, these are modified by the actions of the players during the course of play but it’s more akin to a board game (Clue) or a videogame with proscribed choices than it is a true roleplaying game.

    The reasons for this are many but lack of a gamemaster role is a big part of it. Without a GM there is a lack of the unknown. Without a GM there is no outsider to the party and its goals to present the unique challenges of the world. Without a GM there is no outsider to act as arbiter of the rules/rulings necessary to the success of the game.

    The GM role is one of the greatest innovations that roleplaying gives to gaming. It is perhaps the most important aspect which sets RPGs off from other forms of gaming. The GM role makes most of the other points I’ve mentioned above possible in the easiest form. The GM is not a player, not just a referee, and not just an antagonist or storyteller, but some unique combination of the preceding which creates a role much more like a facilitator.

Now, I won’t say my definition is perfect. I’m sure it isn’t. Looking at the above it strikes me that many games I do not consider RPGs come close to meeting the standards I’ve outlined. Games like Descent and Mansions of Madness seem to meet many of the criteria. I would say they lack in open-endedness what they might show in the other areas.

I also won’t say that the case could not be made that some of my points are less than perfect in their formulation. It’s not that I want to put other games down (again, consider Fiasco or Death of Legends which are spectacular games) because I love those games and everything that they are. I’m not even saying that those games don’t involve a role-playing aspect as part of their play. It really is that I get tired of seeing the RPG label smacked on a game and then have my expectations thwarted because the term no longer has any real meaning of its own.

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