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Category: Tabletop RPG

The Temple

I went into last week’s Swords and Wizardry one-shot with one goal in mind: have a miserable village beside a resplendent temple, and make that the result of a magical glamour. That’s all. No maps, no written notes, just an idea stemming from a similar visual in Path of Exile when my witch said something like “I wonder what manner of magic this is” when she stepped into the Lunaris Temple for the first time. I sketched a crude map and added some names I plucked from an Uncharted Atlas map and had the players start rolling up some characters. My ideas were far from original, but that’s not necessary for tabletop improv. I just needed something that could move.

The players, whose characters were a loosely formed mercenary squad who banded together to deal with a bandit crisis but were dismissed as soon as things calmed down, dutifully reported to the tavern (because of course) where they heard that the patron of the temple was sponsoring a witch hunt. I was hoping that the phrase “witch hunt” would arouse some suspicion about his motives, but nobody grabbed onto that hook immediately. So I ran with it, knowing that whenever there is a way to play straight into the villains hands, players sometimes jump at the chance. Sometimes they should know better, sometimes it is unwitting, but a DM must always be prepared for the response “OK, sure!” when the villain is making demands.

I decided that there would be three sets of witches, of increasing difficulty. The first would put up more fight than one adventurer could handle, but having seven was complete overkill. The second I would make a relatively even match, and then the third would be as difficult as the rules suggest is possible. This would give the party an opportunity for some pause during the witch hunt, and hopefully to find a reason to cast Detect Magic, which was critically important to discovering that the temple was a lie. I had read the description of the spell ahead of time and decided that this would be the tell: if a person could see magic, they would see that there is something deeply wrong with one of the relics in the temple. It was not until after the first witch was killed, beheaded, and her hut set on fire that the magic-user found the occasion to cast that spell.

Character sheets for old-school D&D can be fairly simple, which is an advantage when you have one night to run an adventure from start to finish.

It was only after meeting the second witch, this time a pair, that the adventurers started to turn sides. Perhaps it was because it was readily apparent that these were more powerful than the last, as they reacted with annoyance rather than fear when a squad of heavily armed men and women showed up on their doorstep. Perhaps it was lingering remorse over not even trying to ask questions of the first one. Whatever it was, it was back to what I had expected would be the main plot of discovering the illusion. Because I didn’t take the time to prepare (a common DM sin) I felt that I was spending more time than I should have consulting the rule book. After a few awkward pauses (“you are on the road to the temple, please chat amongst yourselves while I frantically look something up”), I found that a single ogre-mage appeared to have hit dice suggesting that it would be an appropriate challenge for a party of seven. I quickly split the abilities and HD evenly into two creatures, there being two witches, but didn’t get to use this information yet because the adventurers decided not to continue the witch hunt.

Like many references, the Swords and Wizardry book offers information about antagonists who are primarily monstrous beasts who fight physically, rather than the humanoid spellcasters I was looking for. I had the same problem with the 4th Edition Monster Vault, though they saw fit to include a few things that aren’t instinct-driven dangerous cryptids. In the case of this adventure, the first witch was a blink dog according to the statistics provided in the Swords and Wizardry book.

The second set of witches sent the players back to the patron with a cursed scroll (looted from the last group of failed witch hunters who came through), which I rolled for the effect based on the table in the rule book. I was hoping for something immediate and decisive, whether instant death or emitting a strong odour for several days. In retrospect, I probably should have just declared it to be something like that rather than rolling on the table since the experience drain effect sent me back to the rule book trying to figure out what that means to a monster rather than to a player character. Once I came up with a way to handle it (pretend that the patron was going to be more powerful than he was, but that this scroll level drained him to the actual stats I had), the party started to dismantle the illusion. This provoked an angry response from the patron, who now had a matron counterpart.

See, I had those numbers for an ogre-mage in two persons and I wasn’t about to stop the action again to figure out how the patron should fight. So that is where the matron came from. The players even asked where she came from, did we meet her before? The answer, unfortunately, was uh yeah, she was around the whole time. She wasn’t.  She was an invention to make the action keep going as we were coming to the end of the fifth hour and it was time to move on to something else. It was time for a triumphant battle of… wait, no it wasn’t, this is old-school D&D where heroic plot lines are not guaranteed. It was time for the villain to cast sleep on everyone and get out alive. The players woke up and returned to town to find that the second pair of witches left the area after they destroyed the home of the potion merchant who was sympathetic to the patron’s witch hunt. With their job complete, the players’ party moved on. In my world, other people have other adventures while you are out having yours. The game may revolve around the players, but the world doesn’t need to. In case you were wondering, the plan for the third witch was to have a steampunk-ish gnome in a giant mecha suit. I try not to keep every cool idea on the “good” path.

So, what do I take from this experience? Swords and Wizardry is good for one-shots. Never neglect to keep different paths valid, whether “good” or “evil.” A DM does not need a detailed map or backstory, but combat statistics should absolutely be prepared beforehand. One good setting idea is better than all the written lore in the world. And lastly, never count on a large group of players to play their characters in a morally and ethically consistent manner. There is still a witch’s head in the possession of a fraudulent patron who is still at large, somewhere.

The Partial Success

“Here, try reading this,” my dad says. He is, in his retirement, enrolled in Latin classes. He hands me a printout of a passage that he had been looking at for his class. Not being fluent in any of the modern Latin languages, let alone the original, I certainly was not able to understand the whole thing. But between the cognates between English and Latin, cultural and scientific loan words, and cognates with the little French and Spanish that I have dabbled in, I was able to make out a few of the words.

Libro, Satyricon, celebrato, monstrum, lupus, ferrous, argentum. I don’t read or speak Latin, didn’t understand that it was a reference to a specific tale of a werewolf, but I managed to figure out that the passage was a reference to a book full of monstrous beasts of fantasy. My immediate thought was that I wish I did more of this at the D&D table. I think there is an unfortunate tendency towards the simplification of interpreting languages that aren’t “Common” which is a euphemism for English. Players are usually eager to check their character sheets to see if, by virtue of being a Dwarf, that it was Goblin or Giant or Orcish that they are assumed to be able to speak. But without the rule book saying that their character by virtue of race or class speaks the language fluently, the player might give up right away.

What about Giant? Can someone try talking to them in Giant? No? How about Goblin?

I can also appreciate as a DM who has definitely run some sessions with less time to prepare than what was desired, that it is a lot of work to either plan or improvise these extra steps rather than calling for an intelligence check, picking a number between one and twenty, and then either giving the player the page from your notes detailing what the ancient stele has written on it, or give them nothing if they fail. However, there are some things when it comes to extra effort on the DM’s part that makes more of a difference than others. As much as I like making visual maps, I have to admit that it’s not the highest priority a DM should have. One thing that I think does make a big difference is allowing for the partial success. An experience like the one I had in real life can make things really interesting. Think about it… rather than just having a scroll of unintelligible writing in their inventory, your players could get: something something vampire, something something cave, something something priestess. Even without expertise and/or the favour of the dice, this could be enough to keep them going on a (mis)adventure.

I don’t know if this is going to make it into the very next game that I run, but I do hope to remember that little moment I had when challenging players to try and make some sense of something that isn’t written in their everyday language. Overcoming a challenge should not always be an all-or-nothing scenario, especially not when it’s trying to pick apart a written text at the characters’ leisure. I think a really good DM is one who can make partial successes the most meaningful rather than reducing the game to rolling high numbers on polyhedral dice. As a player I would certainly rather go ahead with a partial success than be told “no” and get stuck because of that 3 on a d20. In a game of fantasy we’re certainly foolish to expect everything to be “realistic” but a little dash of realism here and there to make it feel like the character’s situation is a life that a person could live helps players feel more invested in their characters than in their dice.


Today (November 4, 2017) is officially the game day for Extra Life, but my team is holding our private event next week. If you have not yet done so, please consider clicking here to contribute to my page. Note that this year I decided to try something different and play in support of the CMN hospital in Puerto Rico because I am sure they can use some extra help. I will play for my home town again next year. I don’t know how long after official game day that my donation page will be available, so if you have the means and the inclination please don’t delay any further.

Next week, Alastair continues his Full Steam Ahead series with Street Fighter IV. If all goes well with running a tabletop adventure with my Extra Life group, I will post all of the DM’s notes with additional commentary on November 18th.

The Intrigue

Last weekend I was at IntrigueCon 2017. You can find my write-up about last year here. This year I didn’t sign up for any games in advance, which meant I had to play whatever had open seats. Of the four sessions I attended, three were variants on old-school D&D and one was a variant of Dungeon Crawl Classics called Mutant Crawl Classics (which doesn’t seem to have its own page on the website, though you can find the books in their store).

The thing that I noticed about playing Swords and Wizardry as well as getting to play Sftabhmonton, an OSR-type game that I mentioned last year, was that the potential of becoming a hero is always there, but low level characters are utterly disposable. MCC, in contrast, is unapologetic about being a meat grinder. What I really found intriguing about these different games I tried last weekend was the relative ease that a party can form and get going, without having a dedicated session for character building or establishing a plot. The rewards for most of the characters I played, though, was death.

Later editions of D&D lay out a clearer path to rewards, which can be good because I find very few adults with adult responsibilities are up for taking years upon years to finally get a shot at something that can be taken away in an instant by a snotty DM who jumps on you the one time you forget to specify every inch of the floor you are going to check with your trusty ten foot pole. We want to feel like out time is worth more than that. The older games, though, don’t hand out a reliable payoff. It is difficult in these retro versions of D&D to keep a single character alive. The increase in risk does mean an increase in reward, as a high level OSR-type character is actually something to be marvelled at, rather than some powerful hero who has spent a few dozen sessions with DMs who hand out levels and XP like candy (I have been one of those on more than one occasion, especially when running 4e campaigns).

Two of my four character sheets. I invested too much effort into making Tybalt a cat-type manimal; he died instantly at the start of the first encounter.

Whether or not it’s worth going old school instead of getting in on a D&D-brand game using the relatively newer rules really depends on what a player is looking for. A satisfying heroic romp through a complex story including a nice epilogue? Or an evolving story, that has to grow on its own because investing too much into making unique characters with well-written backstories is unreasonably risky in an old-school game? I can see the appeal of both, though I have to admit that the least satisfying end to a character is when a DM punishes me for not checking every square inch of the dungeon for fatal traps. The one time I forget to say that I check the ceiling, or the whole doorway rather than just the door, and it’s all over? Congratulations, you’re oh so clever, and that’s several hours of my life that I will never get back. If I am invested in the narrative I don’t want the game to actively interfere with my enjoyment of that narrative. It’s not to say that I want it to be free of challenge, but I want failures to mean something. Even if goals become achievable or the character dies I want to feel like there was a reason that it happened if I have spent time and effort in building up a character who is part of a story rather than just a game piece to move through a dungeon. In the longer games that I run I have to work on making a valid path that includes failure rather than softly ensuring that my players win all the time because that’s how I want the story to go.

But, for being able to sit down with no prior relationship to the DM or the other characters, and no intention of ever playing more than one session, I have to say that I really quite enjoyed the games I played and will be looking into running some for groups that aren’t going to meet weekly for several months. One such opportunity I hope to take advantage of is when I get together with my Extra Life team in November to play some games. If you have not already done so, please consider making a contribution on my page.

Alastair continues Full Steam Ahead next week with Half-Life Deathmatch: Source.

Money: Progress or Property

So, I wanted to talk a bit about money last week, but being rather ill forced me to phone it in with the hype list. Money is something I always find a bit difficult to manage within games (within real life is a whole other topic). In the past two weeks I have become richer than I have ever been in EVE Online, yet have played very little. On the tabletop, I struggle with ensuring that players feel rewarded while making it so that magic daggers can’t be traded for castles and the like (an especially potent problem in 4e, where mundane items ran in the ones of gold pieces and the really cool items run into the millions).

I think part of it has to do with figuring out whether money is supposed to represent property or progress. In EVE Online, I have noted that it is a measure of property. The most profitable activity I engaged in was coming across the randomized location of a very lucrative, very difficult to clear NPC combat site (The Maze, for those familiar). I did not receive this as a reward from grinding away; it was like finding an object on the side of the road. Pure dumb luck. Now, not being a big shot myself, I was not about to risk going in there. I sold the information on the location for quick cash, which was huge compared to what I had. That location was equivalent to property, much like the old motorcycle I just sold in real life. Money for ownership of a thing, be it a tangible object or quantified access to valuable information. The precise value in currency is not always guaranteed and you can always lose the thing.

Kill the horde of monsters, pick up the stuff, trade it for fragments of orbs, use the orbs to make better stuff. The currency items in PoE are more a measure of progress than property.

In another game I’ve been playing and talking about lately, Path of Exile, money seems to be more a measure of progress. It is not completely free from the whims of the random number generator, but I can reliably predict that I can grind long enough to get the crap items to trade for the crafting items to use on the high quality mundane items to make my super equipment of death. To get more shards/orbs/etc. I must grind, but never can I unexpectedly lose these items either. It becomes, therefore, a measure less of property than of progress in grinding my character into something more powerful than she already is.

So, when it comes to tabletop, I think it is important for the DM to be straight with the players: that family sword you went on about in your backstory… could an old naked man conceivably steal it? In a heroic fantasy that sort of crap ruins the game. But if the players are into it, then such a surprise encounter could be far more intriguing than just running through the campaign with the monster lists and treasure packets and just accumulating more stuff free of risk. Because remember, if one group always wins, one group is always subject to atrocity. And that might not be as bad as it sounds if you can successfully pull off creating cartoonishly evil villains without making it into something with unfortunate implications. Or at least if you do fall into that pit, make the most of it and challenge the party to actually think about what they’ve done to “monsters” and if that money is as clean as they think it is…


Oh and one last note about money, if you haven’t supported my Extra Life Campaign in 2017 please consider doing so.

Everybody Wants To Build The World

I met up with most of my regular tabletop group last night. It’s been a little while since we’ve played. We didn’t play our main game last night because it wasn’t until after dinner and social time that we realized that all the notebooks and character sheets were at someone else’s house. So we pulled out the playing cards and had a different sort of games night before getting on to discussing the current World of Darkness campaign as well as the next one coming up. It was exciting to talk about the new campaign, the new characters, the returning characters, the setting. Right up until the storyteller said something that troubled me. “I guess I am going to have to hurry up and end this campaign if you are so excited to start this next one.”

Every DM/Storyteller/GM shares the desire to set the scene according to their creative desires…

The statement troubled me because I have been in that exact same position. I know what it’s like and I want to avoid making people who are running the current campaign feel like the excitement is because what they’re doing is not good enough. At the same time, the friend who wants to start the next campaign is also a very good DM/Storyteller and I legitimately want to support that endeavour. I want for my friends the same thing I want for myself: to be recognized as a talented world-building creator of fun and engaging content for interactive gameplay. That’s the game-atop-the-game I want to play, where the winning condition for me is that people get excited for when it’s my turn and tell stories of their adventures long after they have been played out. What I want to avoid is making that strictly competitive; I would like for my friends to win just as much as I do.

So, my advice: be explicit in showing your appreciation for the person running the game you’re playing. Make an effort to avoid making them feel like they’re being pushed out of the storyteller’s chair. Then, remember how hard it was to achieve that balance when it’s your turn to run the campaign and you’ve got a party excited for the next one. Enjoy the fantasy world you’ve created while the players are still invested in it but be prepared to yield. Nothing ever lasts forever.

The High Cost of A Free Action

A few weeks ago I was explaining the concept of The McLauglin Group to someone who was not familiar. At its best, it was a roundtable discussion where several points of view were heard. At its worst, it was five pundits incoherently shouting over each other on television. It has always reminded me of how conversations about current events went in my family growing up, but now that I think about it, the spectacle of five well-known characters talking in five different directions over top of each other all at once reminds me of what happens when dialog scenes in D&D or WoD break down. Of course, in some tabletop games such as the session of Great Ork Gods that I played last night, dialog can look a little more like this than a raucous debate. But as a DM I have often struggled with the fact that most groups don’t get together and appoint a captain of the party with whom a prospective employer/quest-giver can easily converse with. Five different voices, five different agendas, five different questions.

The problem, I think, is that “talking is a free action” has become a slogan which is used to wring out more opportunities for a player (through their character) to do something impressive, outside of the action economy. In “combat” type situations, there are usually very specific rules on what a character can do as an action, and how many of those they can take before it is the next player’s turn. The rules of D&D make it clear that you don’t have to wait an entire round before shouting “HEY!” at one of your party members. I don’t think that it was ever intended to support off-turn monologues, but that’s sometimes what it mutates into at the expense of the flow of the game. It’s easy as a DM to make actions in a puzzle-solving or trap-defusing situation flow in an “initiative” order complete with turns and action economy even if it’s not exactly a fight. I find it difficult to rein in some of these things without seeming like I am coming down too hard on someone’s attempt at role-playing. I am usually thrilled when my players try to do things in-character rather than a metagame-rich conversation with me out of character. But right now? Really?

This does not seem like the right solution to the problem.

As far as solutions, I don’t think a chess clock or an egg timer or a conch for each player’s speaking turn would be most effective. Dialog in dramatic situations flows more freely than it does in a stilted structured debate format. What I am going to try to do is have more courage and more faith in my player groups: if I, as the NPC they are dealing with, demand to have a single point-person on a regular basis I am going to try trusting the party to appoint one without it becoming a problem. I fear that having a party leader would legitimize the behaviour of steamrolling over anyone who isn’t the loudest and most assertive player, but maybe that’s something I can trust the group to work out themselves. I am going to try and remind myself that it is legitimate for an NPC to pound the table (and maybe drive a dagger into it if it’s a fantasy setting) and demand that the in-fighting stop or tell everyone (in-character) to shut up and take turns speaking. And as for those timing devices, I might pull one of those out if there are other events going on (such as a bomb in the room or guards closing in) and subject the entire party to it at once: it’s all well and fine to debate how to disarm the ship’s self-destruct sequence, but they only have five real minutes to make it happen. Hopefully these two strategies will be effective when conversations derail the game, and I will certainly be on the lookout for more.


Today, before I say bye-bye,  I am proud to announce a new series of posts on Almost InfiniteFull Steam Ahead will be written by my good friend Alastair who has decided to share the story of his adventures in exploring the backlog of his Steam collection. Like my writing about video games, he will be reviewing the experience of the gameplay rather comparing each game to its peers. I look forward to having more than one author publishing on this site.

Priests and Pantheons

In Myth and Place I wrote about the use of myth to give a sense of where a game takes place. For escapist role-playing games it is important that the setting is made distinct from mundane places. Whether it is a campy romp through space, a heroic tale of sword and sorcery, or a Victorian horror thriller, myth is required to separate the in-game setting from the real-life context that it exists within. Often, but not necessarily, this is done through religious myth in particular.

Every Dungeons and Dragons game I have played in relies heavily on its pantheon. Whether it is an original concept created by the DM or the deities of Greyhawk detailed in the official resource books, the gods always seem to matter in D&D. This isn’t as much the case with other systems, such as most World of Darkness variants (except Scion where everyone is a demigod). But whenever religious myth matters at all in one of these fictional game settings, I find that it tends to serve very similar purposes to the mythology of real religions but with much different weightings and outcomes. And if the DM isn’t making religious myth enough of a big deal, sometimes the players will start to fill in the gaps.

In our real-life religions we tend to rely on the pedagogical and sociological functions of myth more heavily than the mystical and cosmological. In plain terms, most people don’t reach for their Bible or their Quran first when trying to explain the physical properties of matter. Many of us do, however, go straight to the stories within those books to define the right way to live, what is right and what is wrong, and what kind of values ought to be enshrined in the rules by which our societies operate. This is not to say that all of us have entirely abandoned the cosmological and mystical functions of our respective religious mythologies, but that we have a tendency to spend more time seeking answers about the human experience than about the concrete physical realities of the world.

Whether by design or emergent from play of the game, fictional gods can’t help but make themselves known.

In the realms of fantasy fiction, though, we lean much more heavily on religious myth to explain the exotic cosmology and the mystical aspect to make the setting feel different than the world we actually live in. We don’t seek answers to big life questions from our fantasy pantheons. We seek theatrical intervention, plot advancement, and a coherent explanation of the physical world the characters inhabit. Moral and ethical frameworks matter in interactive role playing games, but without a sustained focus in the roleplaying those big questions can easily take a back seat to looking into the settings religious mythology for how to do about smiting ghouls and skeletons with divine light or effectively leveraging the force or whatever it is the player characters are trying to accomplish at the time. Campbell’s four functions are still there, but the emphasis is different.

An interesting thing happened in the World of Darkness campaign I am a player in. The Asylum setting lends itself to stories with a Gothic fiction feel rather than those which prominently feature interventionist gods. Initially, the dominant religion in the setting was just there to make life feel complete; the first mention of it being when my character decided to make seasonally appropriate holiday decorations for her kids as something to do while waiting for other events to play out. Over the course of the campaign, religion has become a central focus and the mystical function has taken on a much bigger role than the sociological. This was not something that we were shepherded into. On the contrary, one of our players almost single-handedly dragged the religious myth of the settings from the margins into the spotlight. The character, in her self-appointed role of priestess in a tabletop system where spellcasting clerics aren’t actually a thing, picked up on religious myth and ran with it so far that it has become part of the canon. Now our characters look to their religious mythology for answers to physical phenomena. This is a fine example emergent gameplay at the RPG table, and I love it. And so, while a highly detailed and original pantheon may not be required for every interstellar mission or dungeon delve, this is not something we can afford to ignore in an open-ended campaign. God only knows what can happen when players engage with the religious mythologies of fictional universes.

Myth and Place

Every game occurs in a place. Each instance of a finite game, certainly, has a very specific place it occurs. Superbowl LI tool place at NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas. In general, American football takes place not in a specific place, but at any number of places that can be considered football fields. But we know that American football, especially at the college and professional level, is not just a matter of a ball and players on a field with goalposts. It is a cultural phenomenon. To really be what it is, it must either take place in the USA or if it happens somewhere else then that place must be seen as an other place, a different place, considered in relation to the USA. In Canada, we have Canadian football, which is a very similar game. It is not the same game, not just because of the small differences in rules, but also because the places where it happens are different.

The American election of 2016, a political game, also took place in the USA. There are many differences between that and Superbowl LI, but the thing they have in common is that both are, to some extent, affected by the fact that their place is in the USA. The existence of such a place rests on its mythology. It is therefore inevitable that the game is affected by American mythology. The word myth does not mean “false.” It means “story.” Specifically, a story that explains why something is, with more regard to meaning than to historicity. Every game has a place, every place has a people, and every people has a myth. Therefore, to understand a game, one should be aware of the mythology that surrounds it. Some games are affected more than others: a game of chess is more easily divorced from its context than the Rose Bowl Game which is more easily divorced from its context than a general election.

American football isn’t American football without American mythology.

Turning our attention to the sort of games I spend more time writing about and playing than football, the typical tabletop RPG is saturated in myth by design. It needs to be, because in construction of a fictional world we have to explain why the kingdom is good (and therefore the current evil king is an aberration rather than a normal leader), or why life is so rough under imperial rule, etc. In games where the place is either the real world itself or a fictional facsimile we can assume certain things: we usually don’t have to explain what Britain or China is in order for us to understand that the games which take place there. We do have to do that for players pretending to be characters in a fictional world. It is not necessary for every DM to do world-building to the same extent as Tolkien because of the metamyth that most people who play these games are already aware of. We have assumptions about the existence of wizards and elves and dwarves and fair folk that ease us into the particular mythology being created for games like Dungeons and Dragons whether in famous settings like the Forgotten Realms or the DM’s own creation.

Joeseph Campbell identifies four functions of myth:

  1. The Mystical: connecting us as individuals with something much larger than ourselves, whether it is considered formally divine or secular awe and wonder
  2. The Cosmological: explaining how and why things came to be the way they are in form and function
  3. The Sociological: shaping and justifying the power of society
  4. The Pedagogical: teaching what is and how to live a good life

Some games are very limited in scope, and therefore do not interact with all of the functions of the mythology of their place. American football, for example, has very little to do with cosmology. It does, however, have a lot to do with American beliefs about social order and how to live a good life. Other games try to build an entire universe, and must therefore concern themselves with all four functions. The bigger, richer, and more detailed the universe, the more time and effort must go into constructing the mythology of the place.

There are different ways to go about building a world and I am not here to tell anyone how to do it, but the approach I am taking right now to the world I am building for tabletop roleplaying is to consider the mythology of the place using Campbell’s four functions, in order to guide where the details need to go. I will try not to get too bogged down in the practical aspects (names, maps, pantheon, characters) until I can see the need for each of those things to serve at least one of the four functions. The goal is to make the tabletop adventure as inseparable from its setting as American football is inseparable from America. It’s a bit more work, because players don’t enter the world with as much experience with the mythology, but success in this endeavour will be a place that endures by the power of myth.

Cultural Diversity

There is a vast variety of recreational games that we humans engage in. So vast that when one claims to be a “gamer” or enjoys “games” it’s usually slang for being fond of particular kinds of games and participation in a particular culture. None of the “gamers” I know are going to pay equal attention to what happened at the GDC Expo and what’s going to happen during March Madness.

Basketball is a good example of a game where I can understand the appeal of the finite iterations of the game but not the infinite aspects of the culture. It is something I could play myself, and could probably have fun doing so if I was matched against people of similar enough skill and athletic level that we could play a fair game. I have tried watching college/professional basketball on TV. I can see that the action is fast-paced and that the game isn’t just about who is tallest or fastest; the players at the highest levels have to be highly skilled.

A game that I can see the appeal of, but just can’t get into.

I can see all that, and yet, I have no plans to watch during March Madness or during any other time of year. I’m just not into it because although I can like the finite iterations of the game, the infinite culture that supports playing that game is not something I am a part of. If I had a reason to make a conscious effort to join that culture, maybe I could get into it. It’s not likely to happen. But that doesn’t mean I have anything against basketball.

When it comes to the gaming culture that I am a part of, I am glad to see the increasing volume of people talking about inclusion and breaking down barriers to participation whether based on ability or sociological constructions. However, I am at times reminded of the need to balance our enthusiasm for our own game culture with respecting that not everything is for everyone. I don’t need to convince everyone of the need to play any particular game or class of game in order to be welcoming of those who are actually interested. So yes, I encourage newcomers to be interested in the kind of tabletop games I run and give it a try. But I am not going to try too hard to convince them, because I know that it will not be effective for the same reasons that getting me out to a basketball game might not be an easy sell. It’s not because I would be turned away, but because I don’t really feel the pull. That I have my culture and that football, basketball, and poker players all have theirs is something I see as valuable diversity rather than a competition for an audience.

When the Gods Hate You

“You’re Green, You’re Ugly, and the Gods Hate You” is the tagline for a tabletop RPG called Great Ork Gods by Jack Aidley. In this game you play as a series of Orks rather than a single character, because it’s assumed that every character will die at least once. The only way to get ahead is to use your dice to beseech the Ork gods to hate you just a little bit less.

The first interesting thing about this game is that the GM is not in charge of everything in the same way that they are in a game of D&D. Each player around the table, in addition to their Ork, receives control over one of the Ork gods. The GM still sets the scenario and tells the players what they will be rolling to accomplish a specific task such as breaking down an unlocked door. However, once it is decided that breaking down the door is a feat of strength, it is the player who has been handed the card for the relevant god (in this case, Lifting Stone, Pounding Rock) who decides whether the task is easy, moderate, or difficult. Any of the gods can then contribute a resource called “spite” which incrementally increases the difficulty, to potentially ludicrous odds. Normally it is on the DM/GM to make sure the dice rolls being asked of the players offer the right balance of probabilities for success or failure using either their intuition, notes, or guidelines from the designer of a module. In this case, it is the players around the table who have the most say over what an Ork must roll to live or die. It goes from the GM as a storyteller to the GM as a referee with the players developing grudges whenever another contributes too much spite during their Ork’s finest hour.

Scenarios can be run completely ad-hoc, or they can be framed as a quest-based adventure. In the particular scenario I got to play, our job was to do a train heist to send a message to the humans who desecrated our sacred mountain. The final boss in this scenario was named Mr. Conductor. No magic dust, but a worthy adversary nonetheless.

When you are an ork, this is what a monster looks like. (source)

Which brings me to the second thing I found interesting. It’s not that the game challenges the assumption that Orks are violent, smelly, green men who can be killed with moral impunity because, well, they’re Orks. When it comes to portrayals of Orks, I generally see them on a continuum between Tolkien’s Orcs which are mindlessly and irredeemably malevolent and Warcraft Orcs which are a misunderstood proud warrior race with a strong honour code and who can be reasoned with in the absence of demonic possession. Other settings, such as most found in official D&D source books, put them somewhere in the middle. Great Ork Gods does not even try to subvert the stereotypes. Players are encouraged to play them as simple brutes who like to solve all their problems with axes. Other games and stories subvert the trope that it’s okay to kill people if they’re ugly and green (because are they really people?) by making the Ork more human. Thrall is shown having a tender moment with his wife in the Warcraft film because we, the audience, need to be told that underneath their appearance that Orcs live and love like Humans do. When Orcs are playable races they can often be honour-bound warriors like what the Klingons became when Star Trek: The Next Generation started to explore them beyond being generic antagonists like they were in the original series. Their rough aesthetic and fondness for sharp weapons need not be erased, but to become more than violent enemies they become more human-like. So, in a typical role-playing game, Orkishness is inversely correlated with playability. Orks become eligible to be heroes once the player is allowed to play as one, and it seems less like the gods hate Orks.

This isn’t as much the case in Great Ork Gods because the player is not asked to make a green-skinned bipedal creature with tusks into a what is essentially a human with a fantastical appearance. The player is asked to play the disposable brute. The player is not the human/dwarven/elven hero mowing down faceless antagonists, the player IS the faceless antagonist. So in a way it does challenge our assumptions about Orks, but not in the same way that other stories and games do because the function of the Orks does not change just because which side the players are on does. It’s a different way of looking at things. It’s also simple fun to play an absurdly gimmicky Ork named Kudatah who solves any and all problems by cutting things with a seemingly infinite supply of axes. For what was described to me as a fun one-night diversion from a regular campaign, it turned out to be more thought-inspiring than I had assumed it would be.