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Category Archives: Role Playing Games

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.

Does Rule Zero Empower Game Masters To Handle Problem Players?

Over at Talking Game, Eric Franklin makes the Sad Puppies out to be like the very worst sorts of gamers. “The folks involved with this are using the ‘We didn’t break any rules,’ argument,” he writes. “As a gamer, I am well aware that ‘We didn’t break the rules,’ is shorthand for, ‘I know I’m being an asshole.’ Because I hear it at the table all too often.”

This got a hearty Amen from Rev. Bob at File770:

Oh, exactly this. Min-maxers, munchkins, powergamers… the breed goes by many names, but it’s all the same thing. These are the guys who comb through the rulebooks, searching for that golden combo that is technically legal yet completely broken. They’re why Rule Zero of every role-playing game is that the GM gets to say no, with as much vehemence as needed, when such a situation surfaces. (And then he puts a house rule in place to keep it from happening again, but there’s always another loophole. Nature of the beast.) I’ve been that GM, and sometimes I’ve thought I would have to kick a player out of the game for that nonsense.

This is something that’s been kicked around quite a bit in the game blogging scene, but I don’t think this is entirely accurate. You see, Rule Zero is not in the roleplaying game books because gaming attracts toxic, competitive jerks. Rule Zero is fundamental to rpgs because they cannot function without it. In traditional rpgs, even in situations where there are rules that bear directly on what is happening in the game there is a great deal of judgement involved. Players make appeals, and a good game master doesn’t provoke the players unnecessarily, but even a guy that attempts maintain a perfect consensus at the table has to exercise his authority continually in ways both subtle and broad-gauged.

(Oh… if those min-maxer types are a hassle, consider going back to a game where characters are created by rolling 3d6 in order six times. Also, embrace and encourage the sort of play that goes beyond the strict boundaries of the rules and module definitions. You have to do it to play anyway, but you don’t have to fight it so much. And yes, I’m aware that some rpgs are more like board games and that other recent games distribute gm authority more among the group as a whole. I’m not talking about those games.)

“Booting someone because he’s a jerk who sucks the fun out of the room” is something that people and groups end up having to do on occasion, but I think that’s an entirely different subject. Social concerns such as who gets to play, where, when, how, and/or whether or not people can eat in the living room are outside the scope of what rpg rules actually address. Anyone at anytime can declare that they refuse to participate or host as long as a given person is involved. That’s not gaming. That’s people. What’s required when those situations come up is a combination of grace, tact, and good sense. Rule Zero has nothing to do with that and is no help there in any case.

Making Elves Different

Okay, I admit it. Reading Lord Dunsany changed my life. Exaggeration? Maybe a little. But the fact is, when a book changes the way you see things… when a book changes what you’re even capable of seeing… I’m sorry, that is something that is going to ultimately spill over into everything else about you.

The thing I like best about this is of course the new insights that apply to longstanding problems in gaming. On the fantasy side, we have elves being generically all tall and blonde and vaguely “gay”. In science fiction we have the “people in rubber suits” problem. I’ve heard so many complaints about this sort of thing over the years, but I’ve never heard anyone point out that Lord Dunsany had put this to bed before most of our favorite authors were even born.

Anyway, if you want to make elves in your game different on some fundamental level, here are a few things to look at:

  • Timelessness — Okay, you probably get that time doesn’t mean the same thing to people that are basically immortal. But most stories about elves have some sort of thematic element related to time. Do your elves even comprehend what time actually is? Can they stop time when they interact with people in the human world? Can elves entice mortal heroes into a place where they will be (in effect) transported ten, a hundred, or even a thousand years into the future?
  • Elusiveness — While you might set an elvish stronghold on your campaign map, that doesn’t mean player characters will be able to just go straight to it. And hey… maybe being an Elf Friend has its privileges in that regard. But somehow, some way… there should be a physical place strangely disconnected to the earth that only the elves know how to get to and from. Elfland, the Uttermost West, something…!
  • Immortality —  Tolkien explored at length what happens when mortal men attempt to achieve the kind of elvish immortality that has been denied them: bad stuff ensues! What happens when things go the other way? What if the elves desire to be more like mortals in some way… and then things go terribly wrong because of that?
  • Heaven — If elves don’t have souls, then what happens when they die? What does it even mean that there are no elves in heaven? I personally have not ever given much thought to this– and I’ve often been mystified by the fact that this turns up as some sort of rules artifact in various places. But really, both Tolkien and Lord Dunsany gave this sort of thing a great deal of attention. Have you even considered your game’s cosmology all that much…? What kind of deal would elves make with demons and so forth if they don’t even have a soul to offer them in exchange?
  • Half-Elves — The biggest takeaway from Tolkien and Dunsany here is that this is not just another fantasy race with it’s own perks and foibles. Rather… this is a rare thing that is necessarily going to have tremendous historical and mythical impact. In Tolkien you have the weird situation where Elrond chooses to be more like the elves while his twin brother chooses to become the first of the Númenóreans. In the King of Elfland’s Daughter, Orion has this strange connection to an entirely alien world– and he is the conduit through which magic spills over into an otherwise forgettable little kingdom. Do you think half-elves should have some sort of mind blowing destiny… or should they be more like some sort of weirdness magnet? Or something else entirely?!
  • Alignment — The original Law/Chaos alignment spectrum of Poul Anderson conflates aspects of “good vs. evil”, “mundane vs. magical”, and “human vs. elvish” into some sort of epic supernatural struggle. Dunsany seems to emphasize the themes of “familiar vs. alien” and “Christian vs. fantastic” even more. But in his handling, I see alignment being more of a separate stat signifying how elvish you are and how likely you are to encounter or even be aware of the fantastic. Children and princes would have low scores while peasants might have zero. Foxes will have more. Trolls and elves will have the maximum rating… but fantastic creatures that spend time in “the fields we know” might gradually lose points. However you play this… the trick is to stop thinking about alignment as being some sort of cheap Myers Briggs knock off and more about some sort of fantastic conflict between worlds that fundamentally reflects the nature of every creature’s being and which has real consequences that can impact the very fabric of reality in surprising ways.

Don’t let yourself be limited by watered down fantasy that has been filtered through a lazy combination of materialism and naturalism. Strike off into new territory by facing the demands of myth head on.

An Amazing Sort of Ass

Alexis Smolensk posted the other day about two different personality types and why one would tend to make for a worse game master than the other. He comes down pretty hard on principled types and ends up painting them as being “selfish” game masters,¹ but there are multiple cans of worms being opened here. What’s worse, the worms are getting mixed together. Let me see what I can do here to sort this out.

The first thing is… that for a lot of these sorts of character traits, people just seem to be born with them. It’s like all the people that have seen my game collection when they come into my living room. Some people hardly notice it and don’t really want to hear about it. Some people stare at something on the shelf that’s caught their attention, but wait for somebody else to bring up the subject. Sometimes, I have to physically restrain a person that is in the process of dragging all the space games down and punching out counter sheets after I’ve come back from a trip to the bathroom. None of the people having these reactions to my games might ever have known that there sere such a thing as hobby games… but they either have the “gamer gene” or they don’t. No amount of coaxing or listening or coddling can change that in a lot of cases.

It’s the same thing with these politicians that Alexis is talking about. If you poll a bunch of them, you’ll see that about half of them would be scandalized by the idea that they might ever let their own personal beliefs affect how they represent their districts. The others are insulted by the implication that they might do anything other than follow their convictions. Each side would be deeply suspicious of the other. The second group would generally look like pushy hypocrites to the first. The first group would look to the second to be navigating life without any sort of moral compass.

Both sides would even be tempted to characterize the other as pure-tee evil. We tend to have all of our talking points down pat, so this is obscured when we’re rehashing the usual political debates. Translate these two personality types to parenting and it all becomes even clearer. The first will tend to say something like, “well… we want our Mary to find her own path in life.” The second will be incredulous. “Do you really have so little life experience that you think its a good idea to leave her to try to work towards the basic tenets of Western Civilization (or whatever) through trial and error…?” The two sides differ in their views on the inherent goodness or depravity of mankind, of course, and live accordingly.

Neither side will tend to think of themselves as being evil… despite the protestations of the other. The really good fictional characters steer clear of the usual stereotypes– particularly the stereotypes that one of these sides would make of the other in their less charitable moments. Take John Carter of Mars, for instance:

“The following of a sense of duty, wherever it may lead, has always been a kind of fetich with me throughout my life; which may account for the honors bestowed upon me by three republics and the decorations and friendships of an old and powerful emperor and several lesser kings, in whose service my sword has been red many a time.” — Princess of Mars, Chapter One

Not everyone is going to find this sort of thing admirable or respectable. If you could force a character like that into a contest with their nemesis while at the same time making each side believable, sympathetic, and with reasonable flaws, you’d really have something:

“What were you in the war, that big war you failed to win? You were a Sergeant, yeah? Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds, Balls and Bayonets Brigade. Big tough veteran. Now you got yourself a ship and you’re a captain. Only I think you’re still a Sergeant, see. Still a soldier, man of honor in a den of thieves. Well this is my gorram den, and I don’t like the way you look down on me. I’m above you.” — Firefly, Episode One

Man, that’s good drama, all the more so because to the multiple layers of contrast and irony. Propaganda never has quite that level of vibrancy…. Of course, you don’t need to understand people if all you need is a Two Minutes Hate.

There’s another key personality trait at play alongside of the Principled/Unprincipled axis and that is the Purist angle. I never really grasped this one until Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings. A whole bunch of Tolkien fans went to the first one and ended up debating the rightness of the changes. Some of the people that defended the choices underlying the adaption would end up changing sides once the next movie had come out. Some of the ones that had merely mixed feelings about the matter were pushed over the line into declaring that they wouldn’t even bother going to see the third installment. The thing that was going on here was that different people had different tolerance levels for how much dissonances they could handle between Tolkien’s themes and characters and how they ended up being portrayed in the film.

This seemed to be something that was completely decoupled from political, religious, and ideological views. People were either purists or not… and the trait seemed also to come in degrees. Or maybe they could be purists in regards to some things and not others. Another example: I once knew a director from New York. She was the very antithesis of the small town, religious/conservative type. But when it came to Shakespeare, she had an iron clad rule: you could cut parts out… but you could not change anything. That’s a combination of common sense, experience, and being a purist.

The point I want to make on game mastering here is that it doesn’t matter how principled or unprincipled you are or how much of a purist you are… you will sink or swim on the basis of your game mastering skills. And your ability to listen to what your players think they want has very little to do with your success. Consider:

  • Most people have no concept of what the implications are of putting money on Free Parking does.
  • If you sit down to play a popular board game with a mixed group of gamers, not only is it a safe bet that they are playing a crucial rule incorrectly, but they are liable to take umbrage at that fact being pointed out to them.
  • Otherwise serious hobbyists stand a very good chance of wanting to house rule a new game before they’ve even played it. (Case in point: people wanting to add some kind of flanking rule to Commands & Colors: Ancients.)
  • With role playing games, if you ask the players what they want, they generally only care about the most general aspects of settings, characters, and power levels. Unless they game master as well, they are very unlikely to have any preferences with regard to the rules. For most people, most of the time, they are content with their intent being honored and adjudicated fairly in the context of whatever the game happens to be. (If they are a hard core partisan for a system you’re not running, they probably were never much of a candidate for your game in the first place.)
  • Most people are neither connoisseurs nor gaming coaches.²

If you want actionable information on how to improve your game, the players are just not always going to be the best source. They might be too nice to tell you something that would help. They might be too indiscriminate with their negative criticism to be constructive. They might not actually want what they think they want. They might want something that the rest of the group wouldn’t want. They might not be compatible with the sort of game you’re capable of running. And most people care more about the quality of the people sitting at the table than anything else.³

You really have to be an amazing sort of ass to be running a game in the first place. You are liable to have some kind of personality conflict at the table, circumstances are sure to take you out of your comfort zone at some point, and being prepared is nearly an impossibility because you can’t anticipate the one thing that will go the most wrong! No matter how many times I run role playing games, I am almost always in a tizzy about them the night before. Factors that can ruin everything are often out of my control. The truly great sessions are due to several different threads harmonizing at once– and with every player being on board with it and satisfied with how it’s being handled.

Ultimately, the most critical element to good game mastering is time.⁴ You need time for the players to become an effective group– they actually need to “click” like a group of people figuring out how to climb a ten foot wall together. You need time to try many different things so that you can expand your repertoire in directions that are proven to be worth the investment. You need a chance to make a bunch of mistakes so that you can actually learn from them.

You don’t so much listen as you watch the players engagement levels. Is something working? Get out of the way and let it work! Are things dragging…? Try to pick up the pace. It’s generally going to be obvious whether or not you’re killing it as a game master– you don’t need to hand out questionnaires to find that out. If everyone’s paying attention and no one is looking at their phones or repeating Monty Python jokes… then that’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. Though it doesn’t hurt if the whole table is screaming at a critical dice result….

There’s just so much you can’t ask the players anyway. Sometimes the players just have to communicate within the context of actual play. They may not even think in terms of what you want to ask them and they may not even be able to form a consensus if they could. Just watch how they decide to order pizza together. If it takes them thirty minutes to sort that out, do you really think they’re going to be able to help you make the most significant decisions about how to run your campaign…?

No, it’s on you to figure this out and bring the game. Sure, you pay attention to how people respond. You take into account your players’ tastes, preferences, and limitations. But your vision, your enthusiasm, and your passion is part of what brings them to your table in the first place.⁵ And game masters routinely pull off good games regardless of their inclinations and personality types. No matter what your quirks and foibles and attitudes are, you can do it, too. Just stay at it until everything falls in place and don’t be alarmed when repeating your successes turns out not to be trivial. There are an uncountably infinite number of ways to run and play in a game. Don’t be afraid to contend for the one way that works well with your style and the sort of people that are willing to hang out with you long enough to get a game off the ground!

¹ I actually looked this up to be sure, but Kevin Siembieda has the unprincipled alignment down as being selfish. Just sayin’.

² There’s only one Bill Cavalier.

³ Notice the amount of time some game masters spend interviewing players before a new campaign to determine compatibility. Or how some people recoil in horror at the thought of having to play with a completely random group of gamers at a convention. Where are the cool kids playing…?

⁴  Check out Joanna Gaskell’s video about her campaign for an example of this. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had almost nothing in common with her in “real life.” Her system choice and house rules would probably trigger multiple nerd rages from me… but she managed a campaign just fine without the help of self styled experts like me. Time was on her side.

⁵ At the end of the day, it’s the game master’s job to be the biggest ass at the table. That’s just how it is… by definition! If you can’t out-ass your players, then what are you doing behind the screen, anyway?