#RPGaDay2021 – Theory

Most gaming theory is bollocks. Esoteric, mutually contradictory nonsense, often misapplied from other disciplines. Most of that theory is also applied to computer games, while role-playing games are very much their own creature.

What little game theory has come out of gaming itself isn’t that much better. Mostly attempts to categorise and define the different mechanics, modes of play and their overall feel.

Perhaps the most well-known of these, though it has since been dropped, is ‘GNS’ theory. That games are a mixture of Game, Narrative and Simulation – to which I would add ‘toy’.

A low Game system might be something like Amber Diceless Roleplaying. A high Game system might be something like Iron Kingdoms or Cadwallon.

A low Narrative system might be something like an OSR game, where the dice lead the action and story emerges from action. A high Narrative system might be something like Apocalypse World, where there are constant modifications of narrative and the narrative leads very much over any other aspect, moreso even than FATE.

A low Simulation system is something that is not trying to represent reality, or even genre emulation. Again, Apocalypse World would meet that definition. A high Simulation system goes to a great deal of effort to replicate reality – or a fictional hyperreality. Millenium’s End or BRP might be more in this camp.

To that I would add ‘Toy’, which defines how directed or directionless a game might be. A high Toy rating is someting like playing with lego, or a plot-free sandbox world. A low Toy rating is something much more directed. How much a Toy a game is might well depend more on the GM and players than the game’s default setting.

This might have fallen out of favour, but as a design framework it is still quite useful.

How important do I want to make the mechanics? How deeply can you customise and dick around with the system?

How important is the story? Do I want to include player overrides, remove some GM power, allow get out of jail free cards? Do I want the story to be more in the hands of the GM, or to emerge from play?

Is this more of a sandbox toy, with pieces that come together and fall apart, or is it something much more directed and pointed? Railroaded even?

My game Actual Fucking Monsters, for example, might rate (out of 10):

  • Game: 4/10
  • Narrative: 6/10
  • Simulation: 4/10
  • Toy: 8/10

It’s not mechanically complex or deep, it is a story-led game, but without much story led mechanics. It is more genre emulation than simulation, but it is trying to simulate types of horror tale (Near Dark, Nightbreed), and it is largely open-ended. It can run itself without the GM needing to do much of anything.

Theory is interesting, but I don’t know that there’s anything valid here yet. Studies, for example, show that representation matters in passive media, but not so much in active, interactive media like computer games. That would suggest that TTRPG representation is not as important as people are making it out to be – probably because you’ve always been able to make up your own characters.

TTRPGs are just too niche to attract decent scholarship, thhough there are notable exceptions. As we saw back in the DiGRA days, being a niche just makes you a target for ideological, rather than science-led scholarship.

More’s the pity.

#RPGaDay2021 – Welcome

I’m going to tell you something that most of you already know, but which a lot of you aren’t going to like.

The tabletop hobby has always been open and welcoming.

The tabletop hobby has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to being progressive, despite what you may have heard.

In fact, it used to be more open and welcoming than it is now. Ironically it is the efforts of the supposedly progressive that have made the hobby more closed off, wary and gatekeepy.

Why?

Because the old guard has been constantly insulted and painted as villains. Because it has had stupidity foisted upon it which harms the art and the fun of roleplaying. Because they’re being gatekept out of their own hobby. Because simply having different priorities in games, they get monstered and called awful things.

When you run an open house, it’s all well and good so long as nobody takes advantage.

After you’ve had Aleister Crowley over for dinner and he’s turned up naked and shat on the rug, you might well be excused for introducing a vetting process for future guests, and being a little less open.

This also rather makes one question why anyone would want to join a hobby that they seemingly hate everything about.

RPG gaming was tolerant and open precisely because it was escapism, because people left their bullshit at the door and whatever size, shape, colour or anything else anyone was they were there FOR THE GAME.

Now people seem to want to bring their bullshit with them, not to examine it with artistry, metaphor and allegory, but to just play themselves, in a kinder, softer version of reality. Not a challenging imaginary world of excitement, adventure and really wild things.

Leave people alone, stop hurling accusations, keep in mind that people who’ve been doing this for decades, might actually have a clue to do it well. If you actually love gaming, stop wrecking it. If you value its ability to bring people together across their divisions, stop fucking that up.

Both the argument from tradition and the argument from novelty are both fallacious. Keep that in mind.

#RPGaDay2021 – Translate

Here’s a quick cheat for you if you need to come up with fantasy names for locations, towns, natural features or even people.

Use Google translate.

Pick a couple of related or similar languages that have the right ‘feel’ to them, translate your phrase, mix match and mingle willy-nilly, and you’ve got yourself something that sounds like a real language (because it kind of is) and which has a ring of authenticity, even though it isn’t really.

Often the more obscure the better, though you may have to use piecemeal online dictionaries for Catalan, Cornish or Old English.

Couple of examples:

Dwarves, I like to think of Dwarves as Welsh rather than Scottish. It’s much more evocative given Wales’ reputation for coal mining and cultural cues that would make dwarves interesting.

Anyway, let’s try a couple of options for people, places and things, using a mixture of Welsh and Cornish (an almost lost dialect from England’s Southwest).

Person: Big Fat Black Lung.
Welsh: Mawr Braster Du Ysgyfaint.
Cornish: Torrek (Big-bellied) du Skeven.
Mix & Match: Tawrek du Skevaint.

Place: Silver Gold Mine.
Welsh: Arian Aur Mwynglawdd.
Cornish: Arghans Owr Hwel.
Mix & Match: Arawell.

Thing: Axe of Deep Shadow.
Welsh: Bwyell o Dwfn Cysgod.
Cornish: Bool a Down Skeus.
Mix & Match: The ancient axe ‘Boladunskus’.

For orcs you might want to mix Russian and German.

For elves you might want to mix French and Italian dialects, though wood elves might be better with a Tolkienesque inspiration from Finnish and Estonian.

Give it a go! Show me what you came up with in the comments 🙂

#RPGaDay2021 – Memory

A large part of what seems to be going wrong, and fuelling the conflicts in gaming is a lack of common memory and experience.

The newer players weren’t around for the Satanic Panic, the Vampire Panic, or even Jack Thompson’s rampage in computer games. If they remember anything, they wrongly remember Gamergate as a harassment campaign, rather than a continuation of resistance to censorship and media irresponsibility.

Even those who were around in the old days seem unwilling, as companies, to resist the more modern moral panics. Sensing, perhaps, the way the wind is blowing, a great deal of cowardice has been displayed, compared to the courage of the past. This seems to be entirely because the new moral panic is wearing progressivism and social justice the way the Bug wears an ‘Edgar suit’ in MiB.

Nor has this current generation endured the sheer awfulness of bullying, book-burning and torment older gamers did. As such, they weirdly come to conclusions that gamers are gatekeeping, rather than protecting themselves, that they were and are racist/sexist/homophobic when the gaming table was always a haven for outcasts and the marginalised.

Talk about victim blaming.

It’s also peculiar to see people who believe so much in the importance of identity exclusive spaces and safe spaces, wilfully and gleefully vandalising important ‘safe spaces’ of others, recasting victims as villains, creativity as evil, verisimmilitude as exclusionary, hyperreality as wrong-think rather than immersion.

If they had been through the same formative events, I don’t think they’d be so ready to hurl accusations, to demand censorship or to pillory anyone who even mildly disagrees with them.

Maybe they’ll learn.

#RPGaDay2021 – Substitute

Oh noes! A player can’t make it for some reason! You don’t want to continue the main story and game and leave them out, so what can you do? What’s a good substitute for a regular game session?

1: Something Else set in the same World

Some games are properties with many games and interpretations. Some have boardgames, card games, computer games that you can play together and more. Doing this you can keep the players in a similar mindset and inhabiting the game world until the next session, with a bit less of a gap and disconnect.

2. A One-Shot

If the game is simple enough, you could run off a one-shot, simple adventure and some new characters, just to have something else in your specific iteration of the game world. You can even import whatever happens there, or even the characters you have created, into your main game.

3. Do some world and character building

Go over the character backgrounds, their place in the world, figure out more about them and how they interface with the game world. This can give character specific background, side events and knowledge for when you do get back to the main game.

4. Any other game!

Play something else. It’ll scratch that itch and bide you over until you can play again.

5. Take the L, and Use the Time

Cancel the session, apologise to everytong, spend the extra time to make what you have planned for the next session even better, tighter and well planned.

#RPGaDay2021 – Simplicity

Does simplicity make a game better or worse?

Simple games with simple rules are easier to grasp, easier to remember, generally use less paraphenalia and are easy to prep and improvise from. This is great, but it does come at a cost.

Simple games tend to lack depth. They find it harder to simulate complex or ongoing actions. They tend to lack the capacity for character improvement in a granular way, often lacking range in statistics, skills or powers, or not having enough different ways for you to advance. So they’re less suited to long term play, or rags to riches play.

Some players like all the fiddly bits to games, and so like games with more granularity, more depth, more expansive and granular opportunities to develop and change. Some Games Masters like it too, but the more fiddly and prep-heavy a game is the less easy it is to improvise, the more tempting it is to railroad.

The ideal game, perhaps, from both a player and GM perspective, would be one that’s simple enough in application that it’s low prep and easy to do thing, but which has enough granularity and system permutations to tackle a wide variety of situations.

Many games seem to make the mistake of an unsatisfyingly simple core mechanic, which they then fuck up the advantage of by layering hundreds of interwoven exceptions into (PbtA and Tri Stat, for example).

Can you think of a game that strikes the balance?

#RPGaDay2021 – Foundation

There are some basic foundations to good storytelling that apply across multiple media forms, and that includes games.

Having just gotten through with an enormous Twitter argument, in which many people – some of them, alas, employed by RPG companies – demonstrated a total lack of understanding of these basics, it seems wort quickly reiterating them.

Internal Consistency

The game world has to mae consistent, internal sense. The players don’t necessarily have to understand it, but if you know how things work you’ll be able to make rulings and create events that follow a pattern.

If magic works a certain way, then it should always work a certain way.

If you allow someone to pull off a stunt in one situation, then you sould let them do it again – unless there’s a really good reason not to.

The rules of the game world don’t have to match up to the real world, they just have to retain and maintain that internal consistency in and off themselves.

The People Stuff Must be Right

In the same way we can look at a CGI image of a person and be creeped out by the slightest flaw, despite being able to see a face in a couple of dots and lines 🙂 so unbelievable behaviour, social structures and so on will jangle our nerves.

Game of Thrones worked, in its early seasons, because it had a strong establishment and basis in real history (the War of the Roses) and thus in real societal structures, politics and interactions. Not ones we’d especially like today – and they got flak for that – but ones that make sense in context.

This is why it is jarring and detrimental when historical pieces, or historically derived pieces, engage in changes to sate the demands of Twitter activists, at the expense of story and verisimmilitude.

Dragons are an unknown quantity, they could act in almost any way, do almost anything, but you’d better get te people stuff to a good standard or it’ll trip you up.

Nothing is Arbitrary

The GM is ‘god’, of a sort, but he shouldn’t be a random and capricious god. You have dice to moderate those sorts of things, and rules. You set the likelihood, buit (most of the time) not the result. The rules model reality, or hyperreality, in a way that’s consistent, makes sense and reflects the character’s capabilities.

If it all possible you should avoid just making arbitrary decisions as much as possible. With the character’s fate in your hands you might well decide to be too vindictive or too forgiving, and there won’t be a consistent, removed, neutral way to determine what happens.

In books this follows the story logic and how you need the story to develop (without violating the character’s personality etc). In games this follows the game rules, and the character sheet as written, the strengths and weaknesses of that character play into it appropriately..

Plausibility

Pure simulation is all but impossible to create. Rather than aiming for a fully realistic simulation you just need to go with what’s plausible. What’s believable enough and consistent enough to make sense. It’s just believable enough to pass a sniff test, and that’s sufficient in most cases.

#RPGaDay2021 – Theme

HERE is a HUGE fuck-off list of themes in literature, movies, poetry and other forms of creative endeavour.

Roleplaying games are their own art form however, and don’t quite fit into anything else. RPG story themes share most with literary themes and movie themes, but you’re going to have a mix and match of those themes from adventure to adventure, from the campaign, and from the player’s story arcs.

Common Adventure Themes

  • Uncover a mystery.
  • Avenge me.
  • Eliminate a threat.
  • Look for treasure.
  • Find a clue.
  • A farcical heist.
  • Fuck that guy in particular.
  • Escape a threat.
  • Survive a disaster/the wilderness.
  • Leave the Shire.

Common Campaign Themes

  • Machinations around the throne.
  • An ancient evil threatens to rise.
  • Rags to riches.
  • Aimless wandering.
  • Absolute power.
  • Unraveling a conspiracy.
  • Overthrow that dick.
  • One of us is secretly really important.
  • Liberate the homeland.
  • Big damn heroes/villains.

Common Player Arc Themes

  • I am a frustrated novelist. Validate my ideas.
  • Become the best at what I do.
  • Become a ruler.
  • Avenge my mentor/family/etc.
  • Get fat, rich and old.
  • Earn the hand of the fair princess/prince.
  • I’ll show them, I’ll show them all. Muahahahaha!
  • Become a god.
  • Become immortal.
  • Take up my rightful position.

Default Game Themes

  • Old School D&D: Rags to riches.
  • Cyberpunk 2020: Get rich enough to live above dystopia.
  • Twilight 2000: It’s a long way home.
  • Traveller: Explore strange new worlds, and sell them things.
  • 5e D&D: Highschool drama and the occasional dungeon.
  • Call of Cthulhu: Accrue lore, delay going mad.
  • Vampire the Masquerade: Accrue the power of an elder without becoming an asshole.
  • Degenesis: Survive and thrive on a dying planet.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Heroic failure.
  • Eclipse Phase: Find out what it means to be human while trying to prevent (another) hard singularity.

#RPGaDay2021 – Write

Since I’m working on a project (Wightchester, back it now) it seems like a good time to give a quick summary of how I go about breaking down my writing while I’m working on it, to create a workflow that goes well with my brain issues. The way I do it I can manage a decent word count, whenever the brain worms give me even a small amount of energy to expend on a project.

Assuming you’ve already figured out what system you’re using, what your game is about and so on, it breaks down like this (but on a larger scale).

You’re basically creating a ‘skeleton’ of your whole project, and then proceeding to add the ‘meat’ to those bones until you end up with a fully formed monstrosity of a lumbering, malformed first draft.

CHAPTER

SECTION

SUBSECTION

SUBHEADER

LIST/TABLE HEADER

EMPHASIS/EXAMPLE

So I will go through the prospective book, page by page, section by section, laying out the titles of the sections and making bullet-points of the things I need to cover in each section.

The advantage here is that you can add things as you think of them, easily reference things (by heading) when you want to change them, and that you can pick and choose what bit you want to write, without having to write it out in order.

You can bounce around the text, nibbling away at the overall wordcount, avoiding writer’s block by shifting topics.

Not in the mood to finesse the system? Work on the lore, and vice versa.

Breaking it down into smaller chunks also gives you a real sense of progress as you can complete a paragraph, two, three, four and feel that you’re making headway because you’ve completed a few sections.

If you have trouble concentrating, feel like you can’t make any headway on a project or feel intimated by the size, this really can make a difference in terms of motivation and those little hits of happy brain juices you get for hitting accomplishment goals.

#RPGaDay2021 – Trap

Traps in dungeons and tombs can be a bit hackneyed, but it’s just one of those things that people expect. Did these things really exist? Sure, but the traps in the real world can take forms we never thought of when it comes to our games.

Haematite Powder

Haematite powder was spread around in some tombs and chambers. This fine powder is jagged at a very small level and can be intensely irritating to the skin. If inhaled it can do permanent damage to someone’s lungs in much the same way as asbestos or coal dust. Not immediately deadly, but pretty vindictive.

Cinnabar

Cinnabar is a bright scarlet form of mercury-sulphide, the mercury (absorbed in fumes or from the dye) causing itching, impaired senses, swelling, peeling skin, discolouration, sweating, heart problems, high blood pressure and death. Ritualistic burials sometimes coloured the bodies and their grave goods with cinnabar.

Flooding

A popular trap in many tombs, though the water might evaporate or run away from its holding tanks if far from replenishment sources. Typically a false wall or carefully balanced support will give way, allowing the water to flood out. In cold climates it may be salt water, to prevent freezing and to it any thieves with much colder water.

Sand

Some real world ancient tombs have had sand hidden in much the same way as flooding traps above. The weight of sand is obviously much higher, and you cannot swim through it.

Pits

The old classic. Pit traps found in many ancient tombs are 20 feet deep, or more, so as to preclude easily climbing out witout assistance.

Mercury

Liquid mercury may be used decoratively, as is rumoured to have been the case in some ancient Chinese tombs. The presence of the toxic metal liquid in such large quantities could be even more affecting than Cinnabar.

Automatic Crossbows

Another rumoured ancient Chinese trap, mechanical crossbows might stay functional for longer if they – and their strings and bolts – were made of metal. These are likely to be triggered by simple mechanisms such as doors, plates and switches.

Curses

While they might not mean anything to us today, in fantasy worlds curses may well have a genuine effect. Just something to consider.

Sliding Blocks

An corridor angled upwards, a false flagstone. One false step and a great stone block crases down, squishing whoever set it off, then grinding down the hall under the force of gravity to lodge at the end, cutting off the corridor and the poor saps it has run over.

Filth

In more modern times punji stakes in pits have been ‘primed’ with faeces, and there’s no reason to think older spikes might be covered in similar nastiness. Disease spores can also last a long time, smallpox almost came back once because of a couple of scabs in an old book. Why not prime your tomb with disease?