Skip to content

Tag: D&D

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).

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.

Characters and Kayfabe

Professional wresting isn’t something I normally think of as being a thing I enjoy. I understand it for what it is, and I feel like I gave it a fair chance in my younger years. I watched a little bit of it, and got to go see it live with a friend (who loved the whole spectacle) when the WWF came to my home town on a tour. I even made one of those little signs to get into the fan rivalry. My sign proclaimed Kurt Angle to be “our Olympic zero” riffing on his gimmick of Olympic hero. It was fun, but even at that peak I never fell under the spell of wrestling fandom in the way I could be drawn into science fiction and fantasy. If I was going to do pretend violence, I wanted to do it with fireball spells rather than folding chairs.

So, when I was offered the chance to play World Wide Wrestling, a tabletop RPG based in the world of wrestling kayfabe rather than one of magic or spaceships I wasn’t sure how much I could enjoy this if it has been over fifteen years since I last felt compelled to engage with this kind of show in any way. But at the table with my group that usually plays World of Darkness or D&D, we started roleplaying as professional wrestlers. It turned out to be loads of fun.

This kind of scene does not occur in my usual tabletop games (source)

One thing I would recommend for anyone who isn’t already a wresting fan who wants to play World Wide Wrestling is to have a cheat sheet of professional wrestling moves handy so that you can narrate your character’s actions in the language of professional wrestling. Like the theatrical performance of professional wrestling, WWW is heavy on the narrative side. Reading your character sheet and the rule book give you a lot more information about who your character is than about the specific techniques he or she can employ. It’s up to you to know how to describe the thing you want to do, and it’s helpful to have an extra reference if “seated senton” is not part of your usual jargon. There are a couple pages of this in the WWWRPG Final Play Aids document, but I found that having Wikipedia’s list of wrestling attacks to be more helpful.

What I found is that while the real-life performance of this art is theatrical, the tabletop game plays out surprisingly dramatic. Yes, as it is in the real thing, management plans out who is going to win each match before it begins. However, how we arrive at that conclusion develops spontaneously based on dice rolls, and the narrative arc that connects the matches changes in unpredictable ways based on character choices. It’s up to Creative (that’s the role equivalent to DM or GM) to line up the matches and decide the outcome, but to weave the matches together into a coherent show is an interactive process that includes the players. The end result cannot have been predicted by Creative before the players arrived. It’s not unlike the process of sketching out a plot for a fantasy RPG and then having it warped and twisted by the schemes and actions of the players.

In many ways, this is a gaming experience that is not fundamentally different than what I consider to be more typical tabletop roleplaying games. Like the theatrical performance, I don’t think I could get into this one week after week, but every once in a while I think it’s good to try something a little bit different and I have found World Wide Wrestling to be a good way to do that.

The Con, Part 2

Last time on Almost Infinite… and now, the conclusion:

Playing D&D 5e is, for me, a little bit like coming home to a new apartment: it’s not familiar like where you have lived for years, yet it still feels good to get there and relax on your familiar furniture. I was entirely comfortable in the high fantasy setting of Ravenloft as a sellsword with an abundance of smart remarks and improbable sword tricks. It was, in most ways, the opposite of the game I was to play next: Shadowrun.

I am not saying Shadowrun is bad or that I did not have any fun. However, it wasn’t anything like my D&D experience and not just for the obvious differences between high fantasy and steampunk. The D&D character sheet can be up to three pages long, but the second two are optional. I can explain, in very short order, what everything on page one means to someone who has never played before. My Shadowrun character sheet looked like this:

Character sheet for Karl, the Elven gunslinging manhunting savant.
Character sheet for Karl, the Elven gunslinging manhunting savant.

I like to think of myself as a tabletop gamer of more-or-less average skill and ability, but this was a bit too much for me. I played Karl, the Elven gunslinger adept, as a sort of savant who was extremely good at the things he is good at (my dice pools for many of the rolls I was making seemed quite good) yet was prone to spacing out during negotiations and having seemingly no grasp on the world he lives in despite having been a part of many missions in the past. This was necessary because that was me, except for the part where I had played the game before. As soon as I started playing the game it was quickly apparent that despite the fact that not all players considered themselves to be well-practiced, anyone who had ever played the game before seemed to have a great deal of knowledge the weird jargon that mercenary-adventurers use and the setting in general. The majority of my out-of-character sentences had to start with “What is…?” I was thoroughly lost until I was told what to roll to do a thing. I had heard rumours about how cool the setting is, and my experience confirmed that to be true. I wanted to try it and I am glad I did. What I found, though, is that this isn’t something that I am going to have the time to pursue in a way that I could truly appreciate the depth and complexity of a Shadowrun adventure. I was just glad to go home and to bed after that.

And then, on the third and final day of the convention, I did not get to try the Sftabhmonton adventure. I was signed up to, but only myself, the DM, and one other player showed up. We decided to forgo trying to run the game with only two players in favour of having a great discussion about the game itself. Sftabhmonton is an intriguing remix of the old school D&D. I think you would recognize a lot of it if you’ve either read about it or experienced the old editions for yourself. However, this finely crafted mixture of homebrew and OSR is not just limited to “kill ugly people and take their treasure” adventures that the old editions are known for. It is a living world with a history generated through play. The appeal to me is obvious: I started writing because I wanted to promote the idea that games, tabletop RPG in particular, can be an agent for positive social change and creativity. I hope I never get snobby about playing new systems that push boundaries because Sftabhmonton looks like a great example of how it can be done with a rule book thoroughly grounded in the history of fantasy tabletop RPG but not necessarily sharing all of its cultural conceits. I hope to actually get to play someday.

I also heard about The Dwarvenaut during this discussion and decided I needed to watch it due to my love for visual grid maps, and Stefan Pokorny really takes it to the next level. I found it to be mediocre as a documentary. Compared to the subjects of American history and Broadway musicals, one would think a guy who writes a blog about games would gravitate more towards the story of a man who was able to achieve his dream of building a successful company out of his D&D hobby than to a PBS documentary about one of the Founding Fathers. However, I found myself easily distractable while trying to watch The Dwarvenaut and absolutely transfixed by Hamilton’s America. However, if you are interested in tabletop gaming, I think it is well worth putting in the effort to watch The Dwarvenaut because the underlying story is really quite good. I don’t know if I could ever justify the expense of what such a beautiful set of map building tools would cost, but I am thoroughly impressed that he was able to make it work and Stefan seems like a genuinely interesting person. I am therefore glad that Dwarven Forge exists even if I’m not a likely customer.

So, after such a packed weekend of gaming, what is my big take-away? In order to be a better player who can push different boundaries in new and interesting ways rather than just reiterating one of my favourite characters from other media, I can’t just play at my own table and read widely. Reading is good, but I have to get out and play more at other tables on a more regular basis. That experience will not only be rewarding on its own merits, it will make my private games better. So, having had such a great time, I will sure to be coming around to play at IntrigueCon 2017.

The Con, Part 1

I found out about IntrigueCon during the pre-game discussion leading up to that time I tried to pull some Wizard of Oz tomfoolery during a Pathfinder one-shot. In a city where the local anime convention can attract over 9000 fans and the general interest Expo attracting tens of thousands, you would think by making some not-so-wild assumptions that there are a lot of people who play tabletop roleplaying games in Edmonton. And there are. But as one of the players around the table was saying several weeks ago, it can be hard to run a convention based on this particular hobby because it is too much like monogamy: once you find the one table you want to play at, you tend to settle in and stop looking at what the market has to offer. As much as I am inclined to accept that model for my love life, I have come to find that my tabletop gaming life should be different in this way.

I don’t have a problem with my usual D&D group, but for some time now I have been open about my desire to play at other tables. It’s not that I dislike playing with them, it just gets too routine after a while and I get worried about contracting geek social fallacy #5. That is one of the reasons why I decided I needed to go to IntrigueCon, to play at tables with people I never would have met otherwise and to expand my horizons, and that I did.

Caption
Some tabletop RPGs involve pretending to be an elf and running around shooting arrows at orcs. This one involved playing a sentient wool sock on a quest for an artifact known as the “golden needle of parliament.”

The first game I got to try was one called Threadbare. It was obviously still in the development stage, but I could not help but be intrigued by the opportunity to play in a world that is a perfect mix of Toy Story and Wall-E. Each character is assembled from toys or other junk. My character was a sock puppet (a “wool sock” is a very specific archetype right there on the playbooks) aptly named Red. The rules look similar to Apocalype World, which I have not played yet, but much simpler. We relied on only three characteristics (scrounge, strongarm, and smile) rather than five (cool, hard, hot, sharp, weird). Like in Apocalypse World, the statistics are more personality traits than they are measures of physical qualities like strength or dexterity. I think this lends itself to more role play than roll play. though I found out the hard way what happens when you botch too many scrounge rolls in a row. Negative consequences take the form of having to tear a piece off your character which is both neat and distressing at the same time. So there I was, hoping to repair some minor damage, but ended up stripping it down to just the base sock as I thrashed madly in a pile of parts.

The part of Threadbare that struck me as the most profound is that in the science fantasy setting we played in, nothing was inanimate. We tend to think of hot air balloons, jet planes, etc. as things rather than friends or enemies. You really have to rethink your playing strategy when your party contains a sentient fried egg plushie who starts speaking to, and nearly going fisticuffs with, the getaway jet. I think a game like this has a lot of potential for assumption-smashing and that’s what made it fun even as I had to tear another piece off my character. The boundaries are at least as mutable as in a D&D world if not more so, since it’s not every fantasy world where your wagon (let alone your horse) might have some suggestions or objections to how to proceed with your adventure.

I think Threadbare, in its complete state, might be great to play with kids who aren’t quite old enough to introduce to D&D, World of Darkness, etc. as the rules are very easy to understand and the setting can be dark and gritty without the need for explicit violent or sexual content. At the same time, the “stitchpunk” setting is also far from being so obnoxiously saccharine that adults who are seasoned tabletop players will still be able to access it with their role playing brains rather than their caregiver brains.Once it is finished I am sure the potentials will outweigh the pitfalls in the case of Threadbare.

The next morning the second session started where I had signed up to play the Maid RPG. I knew going in, based on my experience of anime fandom culture, that there was a high risk that this would involve some elements that would be off-putting to people who actually view women as people. However, I came to try things that were different from my regular D&D (typically an ensemble cast of heroes in a high fantasy setting) and what could possibly be more different than a game based on being the best maid?

Indeed, some of the rules that came straight out of the book were pretty gross. However, the great thing about the authority of the DM (I got to run part of the session that was set in an actual dungeon, so DM is sometimes more apt in Maid than GM) is that you can exert some authorial power to take the edge off thing a bit. I know if I could do it again I would shy away from the scenario where players can gain favour by “accidentally” kissing an NPC. Or, if I am going to run something where women are seen as playthings for entitled rich men, then I would at least create a setting where boorish ribaldry could be played for laughs. If someone hasn’t created a Trump Tower themed Maid adventure yet, I know what’s going on my list of homebrew scenarios to run.

The best part of the game, though, was that it involved aggressive action without (necessarily) violence. Competition without the need to see someone die. It was a neat little mix because it didn’t dispense with any of the tension inherent in games where there is a little bit of combat simulation, yet completely avoided the concept of “hit points” et. al. In this game you simply have to prevent your stress level from getting too high. It is hardly unique to emphasize the need to do more than hit things with a sword or shooting things with a gun; what I am impressed by is how vicious Maid can get without going there. It’s certainly not a game about talking and friendships either. It is every Maid for herself in a quest to gain favour.

In our session, the random events from the book were mediated by a custom board with figurines as game pieces. In an otherwise very abstract game I thought this was a nice touch.
In our first session, the random events from the book were represented by a custom board with figurines as game pieces. In an otherwise very abstract game I thought this was a nice touch.

After that new experience I went to the next session for something a little bit familiar: Dungeons and Dragons. We played the introductory adventure in the new Curse of Strahd adventure book. This was a good old dungeon crawl where I finally got to stress test my halfling fighter that I am playing in another campaign that involves far more investigation and conspiracy than swordplay. However, I am running long in the word count for this post so the whole story will have to wait. To be continued…