Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Role Playing Games

The Best RPG Account on Twitter!

After many, many months of putting in sweat equity in the gym, playing classic vintage games, and dropping hot takes on social media sites… all my efforts have finally paid off.

That’s right, y’all. #TeamWinningSecrets scientific polling indicates that my Twitter feed is in fact the best RPG account on Twitter.

Very stoked about this!

If you are an elite level player that would like to win at RPGs, please join me there for my wholesome D&D content!

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Amazon Women, Pulp Fantasy, and Old School Game Mastering Advice in The Fantasy Trip

The year was 1980 and Steve Jackson’s first complete role-playing game design hit the market. A pivotal time in gaming to be sure!

Sign of the times: there are no amateurish drawings of naked women in the pages of this module. But take heart! This game nevertheless has its foot firmly planted in the staggeringly awesome days of gaming’s primordial past. A scantily clad Amazon chick not only appears on the cover but also as an explicit option for unironic play:

AMAZON: The beautiful, dangerous female warrior. She probably has high DX and wears little armor. Talents
include Sex Appeal, Unarmed Combat, Bow, and Thrown Weapons — plus several other weapon talents.

Nice!

If you shelled out big bucks for the recent monster-sized Kickstarter edition of this game, don’t bother to look for this. This was evidently expurgated for being way too spicy for the high strung pearl-clutching gamers of today. (Fortunately for us pulp fantasy fans, Tarzan remains in the archetype list for the Woodsman “class”– though the name was character type was updated to “Ranger”.)

One surprising bit that was left 100% intact, however, is this choice bit from the game’s background setting of Cidri:

This enormous polyglot world was chosen as a background for two very good and totally opposite reasons. The first is variety. Cidri is big enough to hold thousands of Earths; it has room for the world of every Game Master who’ll ever put pencil to hex-paper. There’s room here for every sort of fantasy adventure to coexist — in a logical manner. And it provides a workable rationale for the weird melange of legend, historical fact, prehistory, science fiction, and sheer wild imagination that characterizes the work of the best fantasy gamers.

What an astonishing line there!

Granted, anyone that is familiar with role-playing games of the 1970’s could see why Steve Jackson would say such a thing. And Cidri is truly a bizarre game setting. It’s like Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series mashed up with Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. It’s like a weird inversion of the default setting of the much later Steve Jackon  release of GURPS Fourth Edition– instead of “Infinite Worlds” it’s Infinite World!

Rough sketch for the cover of the Melee MicroGame? A stray illustration from the 1980 edition of In the Labyrinth? No on both counts! It’s a picture of Dejah Thoris by Frank Frazetta!

But look at that sentence again. It is very much like how I have (on many occasions) attempted to describe the best work of A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett to a generation that is almost entirely unfamiliar with the pulp era. And here Steve Jackson in 1980 casually declares the work of the best fantasy gamers to be JUST LIKE THAT. He had no idea that there was about to be a sea change in how people even conceived fantasy to even work!

Incredible. The intrinsically weird/pulpy foundations of fantasy gaming confirmed!

But wait, there’s more treasures to unearth in this old game!

In Steve Perrin’s review of it from the April/May 1980 issue of Different Worlds, he says this: “Perhaps the best part of the book is a column by publisher Howard Thompson, describing the story-telling requirements of being a GM. Truer words were never spoken.” Story-telling? Sounds potentially heretical to me! Too bad purchasers of the new edition will not have the benefit of this awesomely TRUE gaming wisdom from the dawn of the hobby. Steve Jackson deleted it for some reason!

But don’t worry. I have the text right here:

NOTES ON SUCCESSFUL GAME-MASTERING

Most of you will eventually want to design your own labyrinths and take a turn at being Game Master. A fantasy role playing game is certainly more enjoyable when you can provide fun and adventure for your friends. In our experience, there is one philosophy of game-mastering that consistently leads to success. That is this: A GM is a solo entertainer of an unusual new variety. He is a writer, performer, and group facilitator rolled into one. Players participate in an adventure campaign for entertainment — not to let the GM be a petty god and manipulate their characters at will. It takes practice, attention, and sensitivity to lead a group through an adventure and leave them feeling good (win or lose) when it’s over. Thinking of yourself as a semi-professional entertainer like a bard or other
small-group yarn-spinner will help.

Don’t try to control the action or predetermine specific outcomes for everything. Your labyrinth and its supporting environment must be flexible enough to evolve as a result of the players’ actions, be they successes or failures. There must be room for players to build, destroy, live and die as they choose. This doesn’t mean that things should be easy. Player characters will get killed — fairly regularly, for the careless or headstrong. As a GM, you must be firm – but not so attached to your creation that it doesn’t also become something of the players’.

You needn’t bully your players or allow them to intimidate you. There will be points of disagreement during play, of course – but the best way to handle them is to postpone any
real discussion until a “critique” period after the game session. Players should feel free to ask questions or make comments about the GM’s actions, but it shouldn’t go farther than a few brief comments while play is going on. If you goof, and a player catches it immediately, you ought to fix it then and there IF you can do it without breaking the “feel” of the adventure. The ability to do this is a mark of the experienced GM. Real disagreements should always be discussed AFTER an adventure, in preparation for the next. You can stand by your actions and refuse to discuss them — but to the detriment of your campaign.

Remember – you are an entertainer. The adventure unfolding is your “act.” Nurture the story, let it build, involve players in the action. Within the framework you’ve constructed, let events happen as they will. What you and your players will create is a spontaneous experience that can be a rewarding entertainment “high.”

— Howard Thompson

This is solid, straight ahead advice. If all you had were a bunch of fantasy game materials from the seventies you’d probably hit on this eventually. The Hickman Revolution was a not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at this point, of course. And Steve Jackson’s own particular brand of role-playing philosophy (which would fully flower in the mid-eighties with GURPS) was not yet in evidence in any of The Fantasy Trip’s material.

Of course the approach to role-playing that would become dominant in this century in the aftermath of TSR’s demise was even further off. Which is intriguing. One thing that sets The Fantasy Trip apart from original D&D that it has in common with D&D 3.5 is the hyper-regulated combat and movement system.

Here is Steve Jackson’s own rationale for why he developed it from his designer’s notes in The Space Gamer 29, July 1980:

It started in early 1977. I had just found out, much to my surprise, that I could design games… people were buying Ogre, But the game that I was playing a lot of myself was Dungeons & Dragons. And like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating– but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement– you just rolled dice and died. T&T was the same way. Monsters! Monsters! was more detailed in some ways, but still allowed no tactics. So I did something about it.

Amazons from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons and 4th Edition Tunnels & Trolls. If your game doesn’t have them, it sucks!

Indeed he did. Steve Jackson would end up making two of the greatest microgames in history, which is pretty cool given that he’d already created the definitive microgame with his debut game design.

Steve Jackson is far from being the only person that could look at the first two role-playing games and declare the combat system to be completely broken. Of course at the time he wrote that, we were decades away from anyone being able to provide a cogent argument for why the nature of those early systems were a feature, not a bug. But given everything we’ve seen in five decades of role-playing at the tabletop, we have to ask. Is a hyper-regulated combat system intrinsically bad for rpgs? Is that the root cause that made D&D 3.5’s completely linear “everybody wins nobody dies” adventures the gaming travesty that it is…?

It’s a reasonable question, really. After all, the Melee/Wizard adventure “The Lost Lair” published in The Dungeoneer 11 in 1979 did not embody the design principles outlined in Jaquaying the Dungeon even though it was created by the person whose name would become synonymous with the idea.

The seeds of destruction really are there, perhaps. But given Howard Thompson’s spot on game mastering advice included in the original edition of In the Labyrinth, I have to say…. It doesn’t have to be that way!

Fake Gaming is Real: Misha Burnett on that Critical Role Blowup

Author Misha Burnett weighs in on the recent commotion over the Critical Role show:

I started a thread about the Critical Roll situation in a Facebook group this morning. The group is kind of a general all things geeky group and I can count on them for good discussions without anyone getting political or screaming about being oppressed.

It was, for the most part, a good discussion, with a lot of different perspectives.

I did notice, though, some people getting really defensive when I pointed out that a DM who “doesn’t let player characters die” is a DM who is breaking the rules of the game to force a particular outcome.

One person insisted that she did not mean that a DM should break or ignore rules but instead just “fudge the rolls” to insure that no PC ever dies. Other people said that PCs should only die when it is the player’s choice, and one said that she will only play in games where character death is not a possibility.

And I think I figured something out. I have always wondered why players who emphasize “story-based gaming” and similar terms even bother to use books and paper and dice at all. You can have interactive storytelling just fine without them. If your goal is to just get a bunch of people to tell a story working together you need nothing more than the people and room to talk.

What’s more–the big storytelling advocates tend to have a lot of books, expensive hardbacks with tons of rules in them.

And it hit me that they want the illusion of rules, but not to be bound by them. It’s the same thing as the Soviet habit of holding elections even when there was only one party candidate to “elect”. They wanted to control the outcome while pretending that “the electoral process” put the right person in the right seat.

Storygamers want the rules in the same way. That’s why they got so defensive (I got one commenter tell me “I’m done arguing with you” when she had, in fact, not advanced a single argument) when I pointed out that if the rules weren’t being followed there’s no reason to have them at all.

They don’t want to admit that they are being capricious and arbitrary and just deciding how they want things to go. Instead what they want is a stack of rules that they can point to that prove that they are playing fair and earning their successes and that they all have 20th level half-unicorn bloodmages because they are just that good. And pointing out that they started at 10th level with magic items and have a DM who “fudges” away any negative result makes them livid.

So they keep bringing up “House Rules” and “Rule 0” and about how the DM is the final arbitrator of the rules. And that’s well and good, I am all in favor of house rules. But there is a big difference between a poker dealer saying “twos are wild” as he’s dealing and someone who says, “I’m going to turn this two into a seven to fill my straight” after the cards are turned over.

These people are only cheating themselves. The situations that develop when players are subjected to coherent rules and actual risks are so much richer than those that are derived from what people think would be the most intriguing. And I can almost understand it.

The rules and the dice really are there to protect you. They are like a climber’s rope and harness. They work… but you have to trust them. And when you’re fifty feet up on the wall, you really start to wonder: if I start to rappel down, is this stuff really going to work? It’s scary. It really is! But the moment you throw yourself off that wall… wow, is that ever fun!

It’s the same thing when you’re sitting there with half a dozen people looking at you expecting a good time at your table. I can’t imagine it really, having all of those rpg books, dice, adventures… spending countless hours “gaming” but never once seeing what happens if you just go where the dice and the rules and the adventure and the player choices take you.

I really can’t imagine it.

Kitchen Sink Gaming is “The Best Gaming Evar!” Gaming

A reader writes in:

One of the best games I ever ran was deliberately crazy; I literally made up most of the setting itself on the fly, and I did whatever sounded fun and ridiculous and crazy. There were airships flying over seas of mist that were inhabited by daemons to get to cities on plateaus and tepuis that poked up out the mist. There were wars between sentient gorillas and Amazon warriors from Opar (La even made a brief appearance.) There was a gun that could kill almost anything (ripped straight from the first season of Supernatural.) There was an extended riff on Freaky Friday where two characters got their bodies swapped with nearby dead NPCs—the groups misogynistic Don Juan was stuck in the body of Fast Times era Phoebe Cates and the slimy used car salesman slash pirate hobgoblin was stuck in the body of a gorilla with a hook for one hand. There was a caper involving a noblewoman that was not terribly unlike the issue the Three Musketeers had to resolve between Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham. Later, I borrowed the basic plot of The Hangover and had them realize that they’d somehow “lost” a few days from their memory, during which all kinds of crazy things happened, including the hobgoblin getting married to a half fiend spy.

You know… this guy is making the point that the stuff that makes for great gaming is not what you’d want for great fiction. But I think a whole lot of people would actually want to read something this awesome.

Responding to “The joy of reading role-playing games”

Okay, I really have to comment on this one. Most of the text from the article is here in pull quotes. But do be sure to read the whole thing.

I’m a lifelong fan of role-playing games, but I rarely play them. Dungeons & Dragons. Call of Cthulhu. Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyberpunk 2013. Traveller. I’ve been enchanted by the words and illustrations, and drawn into the imaginary worlds of as many RPGs as novels. So I’m always surprised, and a little dismayed, when RPGs are left out of the popular discussion about books and reading.

Spoken like a man that does not read the Castalia House blog. Heck, even Black Gate and Tor.com and The Escapist have plenty of gaming related posts that delve into the literature that inspired them. Never mind the hundreds of game blogs that kick this stuff around day in and day out. Good grief, man, you’re not the first person to get the idea to write on this topic.

Though the term didn’t exist back when I was a teenager, squatting on comic-book floors to thumb through expensive hardback editions, RPGs are an example of the kind of literature described by Espen J Aarseth as “ergodic”. These are books, like digital literature, computer-generated poetry and MUDs, where a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. And they are more common than you might think, especially in geek culture. Game books that allow you to “choose your own adventure” are ergodic, as are fantasy novels with extensive maps and world-building notes. But the RPG handbook pushes ergodic reading to its limit.

RPGs are arguably (as S. John Ross has said) the apex of genre fiction. What’s interesting about them is not the fact that they can be categorized under the umbrella of an academic term right alongside text adventures and choose your own adventure books. What’s interesting about them is the fact that they are insanely fun.

By putting aside simple narrative storytelling and replacing it with detailed description, the RPG offers the total immersion in an imaginary world so valued by geek readers. The elaboration of leading characters, political factions and major historical events is sometimes a very dry exercise in world building, but done with enough skill it can spark a deeply satisfying response.

Okay, now this is where it is clear that you don’t actually play these games all that much. There is a particular sort of game master that comes off more as a failed novelist than someone that is keen on mastering a game. Their works within the medium– particularly when they get paid by the word– are almost uniformly atrocious. The things that seem excite you as a game book reader are the things that are least relevant to getting a good game experience.

For writers such as Junot Díaz, who often played Dungeon Master, RPGs were “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship”, where he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play”.

Junot Díaz’s greatest contribution to gaming was that he dropped out of it when he finally got to the point in life where he could get a girlfriend. Seriously, though… why is it that “journalists” always have to bring this guy up every single time they talk about tabletop gaming. This guy has nothing to do with it. He is not an authority on it. It’s like every topic is an opportunity for you to talk about a couple of your buddies. It’s weird.

China Miéville talks about a childhood playing RPGs – which gave him a “mania for cataloguing the fantastic” and a “weird fetish for systematisation”. For Miéville, the best weird fiction is at “the intersection of the traditions of surrealism with those of pulp”.

“I don’t start with the graph paper and the calculators like a particular kind of D&D dungeonmaster,” Miéville explains: “I start with an image, as unreal and affecting as possible, just like the surrealists. But then I systematise it, and move into a different kind of tradition.”

China’s a great guy, I’m sure. But again, here… there are a lot of people that played RPGs when they were kids. The people that only did that, regardless of how they distinguished themselves elsewhere, really don’t have anything of interest to say on the subject. Again, this is really weird.

First published in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons became the first globally successful RPG because it encapsulated the genre of heroic fantasy. Stories of Robert E Howard, Fritz Lieber and Jack Vance were little-read in the 1970s, but Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson used them to provide the character archetypes and world for their game. In turn Dungeons & Dragons spawned a revival of heroic fantasy fiction and also inspired the video game makers who would create a swathe of massively successful computer RPGs.

Yeah, not like all those other RPGs that came out before D&D. Man, if you’re an expert on all of those games, you really owe us a few blog posts on that topic. I bet a lot of people would love to hear what you say about those!

Great RPG writers give players a sophisticated narrative framework, with which they too can be great storytellers. Epidiah Ravachol’s indie RPG Swords Without Master is a brilliant example of such expert game making. In just a few dozen pages Ravachol dissects the structure of heroic fantasy narrative into its archetypal parts. Swords Without Master is a very different game to D&D, reflecting the shift within RPG design away from rules and dice rolls, towards pure storytelling…

The pleasures of reading Ravachol are not entirely abstract. The reader is drawn in to a world of “strange sorceries, brutal violence and astounding wonder” right from the first page…. You emerge from reading Swords Without Master not only convinced you understand every nuance of heroic fantasy, but also with the impression of having spent time in a world very different from our own.

Okay, so what. If I want to be drawn into a world, I read a novel. If I’m going to judge this game… I want to know how it plays. I want to know what kind of experience its players are liable to have. Again, this idea of you getting your kicks reading an RPG and then dressing up the whole thing in some sort of pseudo-academic jargon is really weird.

Shock : Social Science Fiction by Joshua AC Newman performs a similar trick with the complex beast that is science fiction. Writers and critics of SF have argued for decades about what defines the genre, a Gordian Knot that Newman cuts through like a 21st-century Alexander the Great. Shock allows players to explore near future worlds which have been disrupted by “Shocks”. But what makes a shock a “Shock”?

Okay, now you really lost me. I mean… are you seriously talking about using your experience of not playing games to improve your experience of not writing science fiction? That’s pretty out there even for the Guardian!

These gems of indie RPG design are only the tip of what is now a very sizable industry. When the fifth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Guide was published in 2014 it took the No 1 spot on Amazon.com.

Pulp adventure RPG Planet Mercenary recently became the latest in a long line of RPG-related Kickstarters to achieve success on a similar scale. And of course, RPGs continue to dominate the world of video games, expanding their audience into billions, far beyond the scope of any single novel.

The size of the industry is irrelevant to hobbyists. Amazon rankings are sneered at when any other topic is being discussed. (Hint: Sad Puppies.) Kickstarter has had a largely negative impact on the scene. And computerized RPGs are so different from their pen and paper forbears, they really have nothing much to do with them. But yes. These two paragraphs will succeed in making these games sound relevant to a large group of people that don’t actually care about them.

Can the novel itself learn a few lessons from RPGs? The ergodic reading experience broke into the literary mainstream with Mark Z Danielski’s House of Leaves. But the novel remains stubbornly attached to traditional narrative structure. For all their pop culture aesthetic and emphasis on escapism, in these days of the mega-novel innovative reading experiences are to be found in the mysterious worlds of the RPG.

No. Failed gamers can be really great failures at writing, too. But when it comes to games, the play’s the thing. And what is it with your insinuation that the “novel remains stubbornly attached to traditional narrative structure”? I mean, just because you want to try something different it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with all the books that people are enjoying and reading and discussing right now.

But really, it’s hard to get more pathetic than the idea that a non-existent literature exists in a pile of games you don’t play. Seriously, though, it’s a shame that you couldn’t take bandwidth you’ve used here to talk about all the great times you’ve had running “Swords Without Master”. That actually could have been useful to people. But thank you for once again demonstrating that if people read about RPGs in a major newspaper, they will read people who know nothing about them talk about things that have nothing to do with them to people that don’t really care.