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Tag: D&D

Powers of Four: Setting

One of the first things I did when my HDD quit after seven years was choose which games to reinstall. I decided that Skyrim was on the list. I have on various occasions tried a second playthrough but for some reason August was a better time than others. I think one of the reasons why I got back into a video game from 2011 is that Tamriel is an extremely rich setting, and the writing is detailed but not overbearing. For example, I chose not to care about the civil war quest line at first because I remembered more about it from my most recent attempt at a playthrough. I thought I was bored with that part. But then I tried to explain to my wife the differences between the Empire and the Stormcloaks and found myself having to take a lot of time to do it properly. Once I got into talking about the facts about both sides I found that there was something to care about even if clearing forts is a little tedious. Despite a little bit of corny dialog, the setting is highly consistent and does not engage in much absurdity. Other games with different kinds of settings, like Great Ork Gods, crank up the absurdity because it’s fun. This is something I and the storyteller from my recent campaign identified as one of the key choices to make.

Sure, the placement is glitchy and the object (body) really should have been removed upon reload, but I feel like this is a good representation of how the Stormcloak Rebellion went for Ulfric in this playthrough.

One of the goals I have as a DM is to run a campaign, not necessarily a super-long one, but something more aptly called a campaign rather than an adventure where people love the setting so much that they want me to run something else in the same setting and/or seek permission to run something in that setting themselves. I don’t expect it will ever compete with Forgotten Realms as a setting, but it would melt my heart if someone could ask for a setting by name rather than “the same world as your last campaign.” One of the things I will be watching closely is the consistency/absurdity balance. As the person running the show I will need to keep the group interested while also considering what I want to build, which will definitely skew towards the consistent. I really don’t appreciate when I or someone else really wants to do build up a world that exists in our imaginations beyond the field of view of the player characters, but others insist on making it into a farce of pop culture references and self-parody. It’s fine to do those things as long as that’s the kind of game the group has agreed to play, but it’s something I find harder to enjoy than when it’s baked into the game from the start. Going from consistent to absurd usually doesn’t work well for me.

However, as much as it is jarring when it gets dark and serious in a setting where I expected something more along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I find it preferable to the reverse (going from consistent to absurd). There is one time that stands out to me where something shed a lot of its absurdity; I actually enjoyed it a lot. I was a player in a Risus campaign which started as a fandom mashup of stuff our group liked, but as we probed into the penal system of a very “enlightened” civilization we came to the horrifying realization that in their desire to eschew traditional prisons they invented a new kind of psychological torture. This wasn’t originally the intention, but if I am going to have intentions about this sort of thing, I hope to be able to strike the balance as well as it was done in that campaign.

As much as I enjoy Skyrim, I can see getting into something more absurd again as long as it’s the kind of game that my group wants to play at the time. Whether by meticulous planning or by skillful improv, it’s something that I think is really important to consider in some way.

gf in local

(My apologies to any email subscribers who received a draft version of this post earlier this week when I forgot to finish it before it automatically posted.)

Sometimes, when playing what I call large and expansive recreational games, I wonder how much potential they actually have to live up to my expectations. A few days ago, I was out ratting (that’s EVE-speak for using an imaginary spaceship to shoot hordes of NPC pirates, equivalent to “farming mobs” in other games). An enemy player appeared in local (a chat window with a list of all pilots in system). I warped my ship to my team’s space station, which is a common move when you see an intruder in your space. Ratting and hunting ratters is a game of cat and mouse: they win by catching me, I win by scurrying away too quickly. I make it back to the station and tether, which essentially means I am invulnerable. He starts talking in local. “Fight me,” he says. I tell him that I will not fight him in my ratting vessel (which are almost always ill-suited for combat with other players) or my salvage vessel (unarmed) so I go fetch something more suitable from the next system over. Now flying a nimble assault frigate, I warped to the same station. I tethered up, approached the enemy cruiser, and then broke tether by opening fire. We fight for a while, then a friend in my alliance stumbles across the fight and opens fire as well. I would have told him to back off if not for the fact that I saw in local that there was another alliance mate of the guy I was fighting somewhere close to us. There was to be no pretence of space-bushido here. So I won, not because I am am especially talented pilot, but through (ab)use of the tethering mechanic and unfair odds that I didn’t bother to make fair out of paranoia that doing so is taking bait for a larger trap. That, my friends, is EVE at its most basic essentials. We both write “gf” in local, which stands for good fight. Some people might find this strange, but not people who play this game.

The next day I attended the weekly session of World of Darkness I play with my friends. We went totally off script, but ended up bringing a split party together onto the same narrative thread, no rails in sight. This is the tabletop gaming that I like to think is so good and interesting, rather than it being a tangle of out-of-character debates about arcane rules that makes me wonder why I think so highly of the game. There have been times, in many different campaigns including some that I have run, that I feel like the esteem I hold for the tabletop RPG is misplaced. Not last week.

World of Darkness is often hard to pace when you have a plot arc in mind but players are more interested in negotiating their dice pool for each and every action (me, guilty of this myself? nahhh)

So what’s the point? Some games can suck up a lot of time and not produce measurable returns. I don’t think, though, that this means we should eliminate recreational games from a healthy life balance that includes other activities just because there is no instant gratification. While it may be true that Yahtzee (or, as my wife’s off-brand set calls it, 5-dice Game) always produces a winner, it’s never going to be satisfying in the same way as having a great night at the WoD table or a fantastic example of the “gudfight” that capsuleers spend so much time seeking. Not even when I have the disgusting luck of multiple Yathzee rolls (five of a kind) in a single game. It’s there… and then it’s gone. It’s a game, but not a story. I happen to think that making new stories is just as good a way to spend a midsummer night as sitting on the patio enjoying some cold ones, or cycling, or whatever. That’s what I need to remind myself the next time I feel like I spend too much time listening to other people discuss their dice pools or spinning my ships in citadels and not enough time working or writing or designing or…. any of those other things I can maybe stand to do a little more of, but should not pretend like I could be doing it all non-stop.


Site update: in case the unscheduled break wasn’t a clear enough sign, I’m having a bit of a hard time keeping up right now. I have a few more posts in progress, then I am going on a semi-vacation from active blogging for a month. A generous donor has decided to supercharge Alastair’s Steam-Powered Hope initiative which means Almost Infinite will be running 100% Full Steam Ahead, every week in August. I will still be monitoring things behind the scenes and moderating comments, and then be back in September with what I hope will be more of the content I want to be creating rather than falling into the habit of steam-of-consciousness posts about whatever I happen to be playing, just to get something published for the week. There will be more applied game theory and philosophy posts after the break. Thanks for reading.

The Quiet Con

This weekend (Friday evening May 4, 2018 to Saturday night on May 5) was the first spring iteration of Edmonton’s IntrigueCon. I had a great time playing some 5e D&D (and running it for the first time) and playing a flavour of World of Darkness that I hadn’t tried before. As much fun as those sessions were, I have to say that the most interesting game to talk about wouldn’t be any of those. It would be the one that involved no dice rolling and drawing a map on the paper table covers.

The Quiet Year is a game that uses nothing but pencils, paper, a few six-sided dice, and a standard deck of playing cards in addition to the rule booklet. There were no grand maps of the city of Waterdeep at this table nor any carefully arranged dungeon maps. Although there are a few rules to pull the game along to its conclusion in an orderly fashion, the rules have very little impact on the success or failure of the fictional civilisation being rebuilt.

The first thing we did was set the scene by drawing a coastline, a river, and some mountains to frame the area.

This is how it works: a society has suffered a catastrophic conflict with “the Jackals” and have four seasons to rebuild until the “Frost Shepherds” arrive to mark the end of the game. What the Jackals are (literal canines, gang members, aliens) is not specified, nor is the precise cause of the fall, nor what the Frost Shepherds are. This means that this game can be played out as a science fiction adventure on an alien world, as a medieval high fantasy, or anything else a person might come up with. In our case, we went with a fairly plain post-apocalypse theme.

Extremely well-drawn golden idol
The discovery of this expertly-drawn golden idol buried in the clay near the river bank was a result of drawing a card directing the player to discover an omen of some kind.

On each turn, the players draw a card and play out the corresponding events from the booklet. This may direct players to choose what shortages or abundances of resources there are, or do something specific with the map. There is often an OR choice on these events and there is nothing regulating how many times the players can choose the good (or at least less-bad) event over the worse one. After playing the card, the player may make their own choice of starting a discussion, adding something to the map, or beginning a project of their choice. Again, there is nothing stopping the players from making oh-so-convenient resources readily available, that fill the gaps in resources, and that are close to an idea plot of land to build a village on.  Players may also start a crisis for the community with forest fires and poisoned rivers. It is entirely up to the players at the table whether this is a legend of prosperous pioneers or a tragic tale of woe and misery in the twilight of human civilization.

Dice are used as counters for how many turns it will be until the project is complete.

As the game progresses, players add projects to the map and use the dice as counters: projects may take up to six weeks (each turn is one week), and this timeline is set entirely at the discretion of the player placing it on the map. The only limiting factor is that there are a set number of project dice to be deployed at any given time, so players are occasionally compelled to choose between starting a community discussion or adding a new feature to the map instead if there are too many projects active.

This is what we had created when the game ended. The clear conclusion is that none of us are taking the plunge into making a living as a freelance illustrator.

The whole experience was a lot different that the tabletop games with wargame ancestors. This was as much of a collaborative storytelling experience it could be while still being a game rather than a writers’ circle. Looking back on how much stress I was experiencing in trying to get my dungeon set up and getting players set up with suitable characters for D&D, I really see the value in a game like this where there is no preparation required and no storyteller/GM/DM to have expectations of. In being so minimal in its restrictions on players it really allows something interesting to develop at the game table. As excited as I am to run another 5e scenario at IntigueCon’s main event in October, this is the game I am going to remember for being something different.

Annus Revelati

At this time last year I was writing one of those retrospective posts lamenting the year that was. I’m not going to sit here and list all the horrific plays in political games around the world we saw this year. Almost everything that has excited and outraged us has been as surprising as a sunrise given the events of late 2016. Every violation of the rule of law and basic decency coming from the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world should be no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to 2016. That we now have unscrupulous players in Canada and other countries looking to imitate that example is as predictable as it is appalling. Yet despite all this I believe that rather than an annus horribilis, 2017 has been an annus revelati. If my Google/Wiktionary-based Latin skills are good enough, that should mean a year of showing, uncovering, revealing, and disclosing. We cannot help but see now what has been under the surface, whether it was intentionally obscured or simply invisible to those who chose not to see. This has been the year that we have been reminded of some of the things we have to take into play rather than take for granted as axiomatic truths.

As important as it is to keep the big picture in mind, it is very important that we also see the brighter things even if they seem very small in a very large world. For me personally, 2017 saw a number of happy events yet none of these were really new things. I got married, which showed the rest of the world the love that my partner and I hold between ourselves. Though in some ways it can be considered a new beginning, it was a fulfilment of the engagement that happened in 2016. I formally joined a Unitarian Universalist church, though I had been interested in the faith and attending services throughout 2016. I welcomed a second author to this blog halfway through the year who has been a HUGE help in making this project manageable at this time in my life. That, too, was suggested to me just as I was first starting: bring in guest posts sooner rather than later so that it seems less weird when it happens. It took a while, but I am glad that I did that with Alastair’s series. I got back in the DM’s chair during Extra Life, but I have spent more time talking about wanting to run more tabletop adventures than actually doing it in 2017. That adventure, naturally, revolved around revealing the sordid truth about the temple that loomed large over a destitute village.

The most exciting part of a tabletop adventure’s plot is usually some sort of revealing of the truth.

So, looking back on the year that has passed, everything that has happened in my world has been about revealing and uncovering the nature and consequences of what was already set in motion. Now it is time to look forward and think about what to do with what has been revealed. I believe that we can affect games much larger than ourselves by how we play our little games, whether recreational pastimes or the game of life as it plays out for our small individual lives. These are my recommendations to my readers for the year of 2018 CE on how we can work to improve our play:

  • Defend, but don’t play defence. Innuendo Studios is doing a fantastic series called the alt-right playbook, and in Never Play Defense we are reminded that a person can be effective without being right if they are playing aggressively. I’m not saying that you should ditch substance for bravado, but boldness is a better look than apologetic hesitation. I recently had the opportunity to inform someone at a game table that I am certain that my Romani friend would never attempt to “gyp” him of any points that he is due. Making this matter-of-fact statement was far more effective than something that started with “Sorry, but I am offended by…” There is no need to allow yourself and your loved ones to be attacked nor is there any need to turtle up and yield all of your ground. Now is the best time to speak up at your gaming table when someone is doing or saying something that could put you on the defensive and renew your efforts to be deliberate in what media to (not) consume. And, if you are so inclined, support Innuendo Studios.
  • Don’t apologize for what you are (not). Following that, when someone goes name-calling, embrace the ones that should not be an insult in the first place. A lot of what I write in this space might be labelled as “social justice warrior” ranting even though in terms of 4th/5th edition D&D classes I am probably more of a warlock than a fighter. But seriously, why should I yield this ground? I endeavour not to be antisocial. I detest injustice. I believe in fighting for what is right. Getting upset over labels only derails my intent and delivers the desired reaction to the sort of person who would wield such a so-called insult (refer again to the video linked above). So be a social justice warrior, or evangelical Christian, or whatever words people say in disdainful tones that, at face value, actually represent the kind of person you aspire to be.
  • Let go of the notion that everyone agrees with your rules. If you have not learned this again and again in 2017, then you have not been paying attention. The notion of a “marketplace of ideas” and quotes attributed to Voltaire about free speech are fine when an overwhelming majority of people in a society can agree on the basic rules surrounding minimal human decency and the existence of immutable facts which cannot be changed by the volume and repetition of spurious zingers. You can’t play a game with those who won’t agree to the rules. No fair play is possible when the torch-wielding mob is out to cause havoc. Such people must be dealt with in a different manner than people who can agree to a good set of basic rules but with whom you profoundly disagree with when it comes to how to solve particular problems.
  • Embrace a little bit of swagger. Remember that while your stated beliefs don’t make you a better person, telling the truth does. Your tweets don’t make you a better person, but playing fair does. The colour of your political party’s campaign signs does not make you a better person, but holding people accountable for their behaviour especially when it’s a popular person on your team does. So when you can be certain that you are doing and saying the right thing, do it openly and proudly. There is no reason to pretend that fair play, the rule of just law, and respecting the fundamental worth and dignity of every person aren’t for winners.
  • Read Crash Override. I am just getting started on it now, but the subject matter is really important. And it doesn’t matter what you think of Zoë Quinn personally. If you want to be a critic, be an informed critic. Know about the things you disagree with. Learn about (sub)cultures that you haven’t really been concerned with up to this point. But also, being sympathetic doesn’t excuse ignorance either; it is important to know what you are up against and what you can do to help. Games matter. The internet matters. Internet and gaming culture matter. These are important parts of, not distractions from what we call real life.

If a few more people do a few more of those things, I believe that 2018 will be a brighter year, even if just by a little bit.

Part of Something Bigger

Sometimes we play games that are extremely limited in scope. There is one way to finish a game of cribbage, by following the one track you are on to the finish line. Even chess, though there are so many ways of getting there, has only two endings (checkmate or stalemate). This is good if one wants to be finished with the game in a short amount of time. In order to be passionate about something like that, though, there must be another level to the game. Perhaps you are looking to increase your Elo rating to advance competitively, or to enjoy a brief moment of glory among family and friends before it’s time to move on. But it’s not the win itself that drives excitement, it’s the bigger picture whether it’s a score and a formal title or building and maintaining relationships. To be passionate about these games one must look at each instance of the game as part of something bigger.

A fleet taking down a player-owned starbase in EVE Online.

Other games, generally the ones I write about a lot, lend themselves to making the player feel like they are indeed participating in something that is bigger than their own experience. This is one reason that I appreciate games with immersive plots and storylines: it makes me feel like other things are going on in the in-game universe other than what is here and now in front of my face. Another way is to offer a chance to explore a world, as one can in the Elder Scrolls series. But in my experience, the most effective way to keep a game going indefinitely is to weave the social experience into the game itself. The tabletop RPG does this by ensuring that the boundaries of the game are malleable. Not that a dungeon crawl is an invalid play style, but that reminds me more of the single-instance games I mentioned at the start of this post. The campaigns we tell stories about are usually the ones that involve more than violence against the undead and making it to the end of the dungeon. The ones we remember tend to be the ones where the social interaction shaped the experience more than the dice or the rule book. Lastly, the MMO sandbox has clearly defined rules but leaves the objective and the ends up to the player.

Why did I spend an evening participating in the fleet pictured above and below? It wasn’t because of anything in particular to do with getting a structure kill on a scoreboard or what was inside that base. It was because I was a part of a corporation and I want to have good standing in that small team. I want my corporation to advance within our alliance and be a part of building that. I want that alliance to be successful because I believe in the values they profess to uphold. It’s all about being part of something bigger than my own ISK wallet and ship hangar.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

So, if you like to be done with games in the space of minutes or hours, play something limited in scope. If you like persistent games, I think the key is to fully engage with the story and/or social aspects because those are the things that make the player part of something bigger. And, incidentally, if you play EVE and really liked that code of conduct that I linked, recruitment is open.

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.

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.

Puzzles and Players

The Fellowship of the Ruby Amulet (oh, so original, guys!) enters the temple ruins and finds a pile of rune stones in the middle of the room, with a others occupying zones indicated on the floor around the edge of the room. These runestones are actually tactile elements, just like the player tokens and the gridmap. The DM obviously spent at least fifteen minutes making those.

“20, total;” says the player behind the Dwarven cleric, making it clear that he doesn’t mean to say that he rolled a critical success (20 on a 20-sided die) but 20 with all bonuses included.

“Not quite what I had in mind,” says the slightly disappointed DM who had hoped that the players would try and figure out the clever puzzle amongst themselves through in-character dialogue rather than reaching straight for the dice.

“Oh, great. Another one of these,” complains the player behind the wizard. He is frustrated because he would rather be lobbing fireballs than sorting runes and he is really not looking forward to another session that boils down to guess what number the DM is thinking of?

Why does the only door to the alchemist’s lab have to be locked with a rune puzzle?

This is why some of us who run Dungeons and Dragons games (or similar tabletop games such as World of Darkness, etc.) are nervous about putting puzzles into our campaigns. We want to seem clever and give the players a problem that can’t be too easily solved (or too easily rendered impossible to solve) by a single roll of the dice. Yet we don’t want to be seen as wasting time, distracting from the real game at hand, or being too cryptic. Here are some suggestions for Dungeon Masters who wish to strike a good balance:

  1. Read your group. To make this easy, you can ask them directly if they like puzzles or hack-and-slash. Surprise them with the puzzle itself, not the existence of puzzles. You can’t please everyone all the time, but some groups just aren’t puzzle-solving groups. And that’s okay. If your friends want hack and slash and you don’t, then don’t invite them. It’s okay to not invite all of your friends to all of your things (see also: Geek Social Fallacy #5).
  2. Steal. Borrow. Make homage to. Whatever you want to call it, there is nothing new under the sun. If you take the time to read up on previously published puzzles, whether in pure logic puzzle form or already adapted for tabletop RPG, then you know that it’s solvable by someone other than your own clever self. It is not hard to adapt a good published module to fit any setting, but one of the things I want to do in the next few months is read though Wikipedia’s lists of logic puzzles and games in game theory to see if I can come up with some innovative if not completely original ideas.
  3. Use puzzles as deliberate diversions or for earning extra rewards. If players can abandon the puzzle and carry on with their lives, they may just do that instead of spending hours getting frustrated over being unable to unlock the only exit. Maybe they will decide to go without those extra spell scrolls or self-sealing stembolts or whatever in-game items would be helpful in your setting. If you are feeling especially maniacal, pack a container with useful items and if the players skip it then give the items to the enemies later to make things harder.
  4. Build stages of difficulty into the puzzle that can have dice rolls for giving hints rather than solving everything at once. The inherent difficulty for the DM here is that it means taking extra time to build it into the game, and I have sure had those sessions where I’ve figured out the plot and the tactical encounter mere minutes before the players arrive. I think it is worth it, though, especially when you have someone roleplaying a very intelligent character who wants to feel really smart even if they are actually struggling to get it. I’ve been that guy a few times.
  5. Throw in immediate consequences to not solving the puzzle in a timely manner. Putting a timer on a puzzle is useful because it pushes the players to try solutions rather than overthinking it, allows action-oriented players to have a chance to shine. The guards/kobolds/etc. that have been chasing you catch up if the lock isn’t opened in time. The container explodes after a set number of failed attempts. This also encourages the DM/designer to keep the puzzle relatively simple rather than going overboard on trying to be clever.

I don’t think puzzles are necessary or always desirable in a tabletop RPG, but a good one can result in a better story than “I solved the thing because I rolled a really high number on this die.” I will be trying to follow my own advice over the next few months as I finally get around to taking some of those ephemeral campaign ideas and putting it into a coherent set of DM’s notes. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment somewhere (here, Facebook, Twitter, wherever you post the most).