Archive for the ‘So You Think You Can RPG’ Category

So You Think You Can RPG: Fundamentals

02 Sep

Last post, I introduced the main idea of this series: to explore the fun, value, and history of tabletop roleplaying games by designing one. I’ve had a few weeks to think over your many suggestions as to what kind of game I should make. Paring down the list wasn’t easy, because there really weren’t any bad ideas; my decision was based primarily on which one had the most straightforward, intuitive, and well-understood thematic hooks.

“Fish” (no relation, I am assured, to the Oxford Fishes) suggested this:

“Fantasy politicking. No big damn heroes, just courtly airs and intrigue, with any combat being on an abstract army scale.”

That’s what we’re gonna make. We’re gonna cook up Game of Thrones without the long waits between installments. I don’t know about you, but this is something I think I could use in my life–and even if you’ve never played a tabletop game, ever, there’s a good chance you’re thinking the same. Especially since, since it’ll be your version of GoT, you can have it without that one thing that absolutely ruins it! You know, the [pointless character deaths/historical inaccuracy/ethnocentrism/constant sexual menace/oppressive bleakness of tone/hypocritical Mary Sue-ishness] that you and your friends can’t stand. Running an RPG campaign is a lot like making your own beef jerky–the advantage of going homemade is that you can do things commercial releases can’t or won’t.

So let’s design our jerky maker.

My first move is to do a thematic sketch. This is a lot less fancy and technical than it sounds. Basically, because I’m not designing this game to tell one specific story, but to allow the telling of an infinite number stories upon a certain thematic base, I have to give myself a loose idea of what the dimensions and contents of that base look like. So I write down a list of things that spring from what I had in mind.

Letters that take months to arrive. Armies making camp. Balconies and fancy living detached from the realities of war and turmoil. Diplomacy. Knives in the dark. Poison in the wine. Evil advisor. Romance. Betrayal. Spies. Vassals.

That’s a pretty good start. I can kind of see it like a montage in my head–a rough generalization of what an average game will look like over the course of a few dozen play sessions. Now I think of things that players will want to do:

Form pacts. Break pacts. Broker trade agreements. Put out contracts on the lives of others. War with other nations. War with each other. Try to unravel one anothers’ motivations. Leave a legacy.

That last point feels particularly interesting. “Leave a legacy”–what does that mean? That everything they accomplish in the span of the session should feel important. That when they declare war, or cut off aid to Elfland, or turn away refugees, they’re going to have some kind of permanent and tangible effect on the world.

I do a little more brainstorming. After a while, I come up with this premise for the game and how it is played:

The first session, the players create nations or factions in a fantasy world, then personal characters to represent those entities. Players spend the bulk of the session pursuing goals, often at cross-purposes. They will play out the effects of a few months or a few years of history between their factions. Eventually, all conflicts come to a head. There is a climax, followed by resolution–treaties, concessions, or outright surrenders, as appropriate. Based on how well they did, players get to define parts of what happens over the next few years or decades.

For the second session–and every session thereafter–players pick up after the last time-skip, create new characters and factions when appropriate, and negotiate another period of turmoil.

This game is now codenamed “Truce.” I think we’re going to like it.

Next session: We get to the real nitty-gritty stuff.


So You Think You Can RPG: The Project

18 Aug

I started writing this series over a month ago, and you haven’t seen an update since. That isn’t because I haven’t been writing things, or planning posts–I certainly have. It’s because they’ve all suffered from one fundamental problem.

They’ve been boring.

See, I’m writing this series for two audiences at once: the people who play roleplaying games, and the people who have never actually done that before. And it is challenging to write posts in a way that keep the attention of both groups. People who’ve never tried RPGs often have an understandably loose grasp of the fundamentals and practicals, and people who run them all the time don’t want to stick around for five or six sessions of tutorial. Writing a series the way I was writing it, I was bound to lose somebody.

So I’ve found a workaround.

I intend to show my readers the goals, tools, systems, and pitfalls of tabletop roleplaying games. It occurs to me that there are few better ways to do this than to take a leaf from Shamus’ book and just make something already. Instead of talking about RPGs as an abstract and elbowing vaguely at the context they fit into, I’m going to design a game from the ground up and talk about exactly what’s going into it and why. Eventually the game will be playtested and released in full.

Key parts of this process I will entrust to you, the readership.  Speaking of which…


When you get right down to it, playing an RPG is just telling a story with your friends. So why is the “game” part there at all? Why are the dice there? The character sheets? The rulebooks as thick as cinderblocks? The graphs, the miniatures, the wiki with six open tabs, the supplement, the dog-eared binder of house rules?

No two groups are going to have exactly the same answer to that question. Some people just enjoy rolling dice. Some people like the strategic parts of the game and enjoy the extra layer of lateral thinking that RPGs usually offer over your classic rigid, heavily constrained boardgame. Some people like having the rules there because it provides a check that keeps any one person from ruining the experience. But the commonest, simplest, truest answer is this: if you design the rules correctly, they’ll help you tell a better story than you would have come up with on your own.

That’s something the really hardcore roleplayers, like myself, are sometimes reluctant to admit. People who’ve played too many poorly designed systems are used to rules that just get in the way of storytelling; for them, die rolls and result tables are crutches for people who can’t keep up or bones tossed to the Magic: The Gathering player who joined out of boredom. But they don’t have to be.  A good RPG system can salvage a story the way a great director can save a mediocre script.

I’ll be exploring why that is as I design my system. Now, I’m not going to be making what’s called a “general system.” General systems are like platformers in the 80s: the idea is that you can pretty much adapt them to fit any kind of story, setting, and tone that you want. They exist to make sure player-controlled characters succeed when they ought to and fail when they ought to, and that’s it. The system itself is practically a glorified referee.

But the other kind of game, and one I’m going to be exploring in great length, is a game designed to help tell a specific kind of story. For example: every single mechanic in the game Apocalypse World is supposed to make players feel like their world and their lives are hanging by a thread, which makes it great for gritty post-apoc stories. Everyone is John introduces a scoring system to make players compete and rapid, Mario-Kart style turnarounds to make sure players are always pushing for the boldest options possible–making the game ideally suited to slapstick. And Great Ork Gods lets players decide how easy and hard things are for each other, thus creating exactly the hostile, macho orky atmosphere the developers intended.

So here’s where you come in. What kind of story, mood, or attitude should my homebrew system strive for? Post your suggestions in the comments.


So You Think You Can RPG: Gamer’s Origins

31 May

Let me talk about how I came to Dungeons and Dragons.

When I was six, seven, eight years old, I did not have a good time in school. I had a very few friends I worked hard to keep and a lot of enemies I just seemed to pick up. New kids just sort of got the memo on day one–“For Pete’s sake, stay away from that kid. He once spent, like, twenty minutes trying to explain what a hobbit is.”

Every kid needs to feel cool, liked, and respected occasionally, and I tried–I really did. I think I sometimes downplay how hard I tried. At that age I really wanted to grow up to be that leather-jacket, motorcycle, sunglasses cool–the sort of guy who could spend a whole evening not talking about the wicked scar right over his eye. The sort of man who never voluntarily strays more than a few meters from a broadsword. I trust I’m shocking nobody by relating this is did not turn out to be the case. I don’t want to pay for leather, I’m certain I’d crash a motorcycle, I can’t wear sunglasses over my regular prescription glasses, the only scar I’ve got on my face is from mishandling one of those inflatable balance balls, and as for broadsword, I doubt the plastic one I LARP with counts. What I am now is exactly the sort of worst-case-scenario disaster area that my Marlon Brando larval form would be ashamed to tote in his sidecar.

But on the bright side, I make an excellent found-footage horror protagonist. Random webcam shot unrelated.

Read the rest of this entry »


Uncle Rutsky’s So You Think You Can RPG (And You Really Should): Introduction

23 May

Yes, we’re in intros week–a boring but necessary part of relaunching the regular content cycle. Monday’s entry on TES: Arena will mark a transition to weightier posts.

I’d actually planned to start this series cold, but after giving it some thought I decided I wanted to take a survey first. This is going to be a series on tabletop roleplaying games aimed at beginning, prospective, or potential players–an attempt to spread the gospel to people who’ve never had access to an established group. So I’d like to start out by asking a couple questions of those of you who have never played or even seen a tabletop RPG in action:

1.) How good an idea do you have of what a tabletop RPG is, how it plays, or what it’s like?

2.) How interested are you in trying one?

3.) If you did play a tabletop game, would you prefer to play one of the famous classic experiences (like Dungeons and Dragons) or something a little more modern and cutting-edge?

4.) Have you read any novels based on tabletop games (the Drizzt books, the Dragonlance series, etc)?

5.) How capable would you guess you’d be of running a tabletop game without having someone else demonstrate or directly teach you how–just from buying a game off the shelf and reading the materials?

Answering one or all of these in the comments will help considerably. Again–only if you’ve never done it before. The series will be aimed at a wide audience, but I need answers from that group in particular to get my thesis totally finagled.

Thanks in advance, peoples.