It’s no secret that 2020 has been a pretty ghastly year in a lot of ways, and Covid-19 in particular has laid low many of the plans I had. I’d planned to start running a new campaign. I’d planned to go to GenCon for the first time. I’d planned to keep building up the RPG Museum wiki for all things roleplaying. The last of these I did for a while, but the year eventually sapped the energy I had to even do that.
But look, it’s worth looking at the positives where you can find them. Merely getting through the year is an accomplishment, and here are some other RPG-related accomplishments that I am also proud of.
I kept playing role-playing games
Somehow, I kept playing role-playing games throughout 2020. That’s huge, frankly, because I know more than one person who wasn’t able to. I am incredibly lucky to have a great many friends who enjoy role-playing, and between us we managed to shift our gaming online without too many problems. I’d never roleplayed remotely before but I’ve found that I like it. It’s not the same as playing face-to-face, and it’s not a replacement, but it’s a good time with my friends nonetheless. We mostly use Discord, which I think is better than the other chat platforms I’ve tried (despite consistently disconnecting me momentarily at least once in every session).
Only one of my regular campaigns as at the start of the first Covid lockdown in March couldn’t make the jump to remote play, but all of the others shifted with little fuss. These included the conclusion of a Predation campaign (my first proper experience of the Cypher Systen), as well as continuations of my years-long campaigns of Unknown Armies (due to wrap up in the next couple of sessions) and Dungeons & Dragons (no end in sight).
I’ve also started playing some games since lockdown, meaning that my only experience of them has been online. These include one-shot games like The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze and campaigns like Band of Blades (of which, admittedly, we’ve only had one session so far). That’s not to mention going back to some games I’ve enjoyed before (including Microscope and Heroes of the Hearth, which I reviewed before) or my guest appearances in other campaigns being run by my friends, including as another PC’s father in a new D&D campaign and as Sir Galahad in a Spirit of the Century game using Fate Core rules. (In the latter, I am proud to have put a very distinctive stamp on the arc in which the pulp-era heroes time-travel to Arthurian times… by turning it into a Power Rangers/Super Sentai story where we fight size-changing fae monsters sent by a witch on the moon. Also Galahad is a werewolf. That campaign is bonkers in the best way.)
Thank you to everyone that has run games for me this year and that have played in games with me!
I even ran some game sessions
Somehow, I GMed some game sessions remotely in 2020. Not very many, and not in the last few months, but some is better than none and I’m counting it. I started with Psi*Run (a favourite old pick-up game that helped me get used to running game online), then Honey Heist (a new-to-me but simple game, charming if a little too thin for regular use), before then running multiple sessions of Agon 2nd edition (which I like a lot but wouldn’t know how to run without the pre-set islands, which are of variable quality unfortunately). (Actually, I’m tempted to try Agon again at some point, but that might just be because I’m playing a lot of the video game Hades right now.)
But the game I ran that I am most pleased with was… Fate of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Yes! At long last I’ve been able to run my TMNT hack of the Fate RPG using the system from The Three Rocketeers. I wrote about this hack in a series of blog posts way back in 2016, and I have finally finally played it.
And it was amazing!
The last piece of the puzzle to getting to the game was finding players who were as enthusiastic about TMNT as I was, and when everything was thrown into the air during the move to remote gaming I found exactly the group I wanted from among my own friendship circles. Thank you so much to Andre (Donatello), Ashara (Michelangelo), Louis (Leonardo) and Tom (Raphael) for letting me have this and for making it such a fantastic experience! (I’m still up for a second episode if you guys are.)
First of all, I took the proto-PCs that I created in this blog post and let the players finalise the details and customise the characters. This worked really well, letting the PCs ride that line of being both clearly identifiable versions of the iconic characters and also suited to the personalities and preferences of the players. The list of example free aspects was useful, and excitingly three of the characters used aspects that I’d written with a different character in mind, and it still worked great. The only thing I would change about this chargen process is I would re-introduce the mandatory Family Aspect from The Three Rocketeers, but have it reflect how the character relates to his brothers (instead of to a character’s status and standing in the wider world, per Rocketeers). And maybe it would be useful to have one aspect keying off the hook for the one-shot (Splinter in this case, others as appropriate), but that would require further playtesting.
Then I was able to run the one-shot adventure I wrote pretty much as-is. I was nervous about opening with the turtles in their regular lives in the sewer lair (after the actual play that used the adventure switched it for a cold open), but the players relished the chance to show off their characters’ personalities in their home environment and immediately created their own fun. It did help that I started at dinner time and the first question I asked was: so what are you eating on your pizzas?
I did tweak the adventure slightly. I removed the fight against Bebop & Rocksteady (something the actual play had done before me and I liked), which gave the turtles more time to infiltrate the Foot Headquarters. This also let me introduce Karai as a character the turtles could interact with in the Headquarters. I played her as someone who is loyal to Shredder (her father), but also not entirely on board with his single-minded revenge plan, and therefore reasonably willing to help the turtles rescue Splinter as long as they get out quickly and don’t hurt her father. In the source material, she has a particular connection to Leonardo, which worked out great for us because the only player who recognised her was the one playing Leonardo. Basically, in the middle of enemy territory Leonardo suddenly found himself having to introduce his brothers to someone that he had kinda been hanging out with in secret who was, oh yeah, the daughter of their nemesis. In the way of teenagers, they responded by ribbing him for having a girlfriend, and the whole scene was just great.
The only other change I made was to switch the Foot Headquarters from an underground base to a city tower. This allowed an easy shorthand of moving upwards being progress towards their goal, but it was most useful in facilitating their exit from the roof after the job was done. It was especially handy because, with Karai’s help and some good rolls, they bypassed the expected final boss battle to escape by hang glider with their rescued sensei.
All in all, it was possibly my favourite single session of an RPG that I’ve ever run.
Quick side note: Tools for gaming online
Most games that I’ve played online this year have used Discord for its video, voice and text chat functions. I think Discord is better than other platforms I’ve used, including Facebook Messenger Voice Call, Google Meet, and Zoom. For one thing, Discord has great bots/apps that can improve your game (I recommend Sidekick for dice or cards, and Rythm for background music). Some games even have their own bots to automate gameplay, including Bash, Oracle of Fate for The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze.
For some games, Discord and your own character sheets are enough to play, but that’s not always the case. Google Sheets is a good general purpose tool for note taking and even simple character sheets. I’ve used Trello, mostly known as a productivity and organisational tool, to good effect for Microscope (lists as periods, cards as events) and Fate games (different lists keep track of fate points, game aspects, situation aspects, and conditions).
And, of course, sometimes you want a full-on virtual tabletop and built-in character sheets. The virtual tabletop I’ve used most is Roll20, which is perhaps fairly basic but has the benefit of being free for most uses and customisable for many different games. And when it has the support it needs, it can shine.
Evil Hat Productions have done amazing work to make their games playable directly in Roll20 with its native features: Agon, Band of Blades, and the new character sheets for Fate Core are all excellent. Evil Hat are also great at accepting feedback. When the Fate sheets were added earlier this year, I reviewed them and sent feedback, and Fred Hicks very quickly responded and then addressed my points of concern. Evil Hat even added new features to the sheets that I requested, including an orange (ahem, sorry, “gold”) character sheet colour scheme to go along with the blue, red and purple colour schemes they already had. If I ever play a second session of Fate of the TMNT, I’m definitely colour-coding each PC’s character sheets to their bandanas!
The other good thing about Roll20 is that, even when a game’s publisher doesn’t provide a lot of support, other companies can. For Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast don’t seem to care overmuch, so D&D Beyond (and the Beyond20 extension) are absolute must-haves for playing D&D online.
Anyway, that’s it for my quick digression. Back to my own accomplishments this year.
I kept updating my mixed-race rules for Dungeons & Dragons
My last blog post before this one was about an update to my online tool for creating mixed-race or hybrid characters in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. In that blog post, I mentioned briefly that subsequent updates would be made to the Google sheets version of the tool, but that I wouldn’t make further blog posts about them. And, indeed, I have continued to tweak it with minor and major updates since.
In March, the tool was on v4. As of yesterday, it’s now on v10.
Significant changes in that intervening time include the inclusion of races from Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica, Mythic Odysseys of Theros, and dragonmark races and sub-races from Eberron: Rising from the Last War. (That last was a request by Modderkin64 on that recent blog post, so if you’ve got feedback you can let me know and I will work on it.) I have also added an option for the long-overdue (and slightly meagre) changes to racial ability score increases from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, and I’ve also overhauled the ‘creator’ tab so that it automates many conditional combinations (e.g. each language now appears only once).
Basically, if you’re interested in this tool, maybe it’s time to have another look if you haven’t for a while?
I would like to say that I have many other things in progress, but really my creative RPG energy this year has gone into the above. The only other thing to mention is that I have done a little bit of work recently on a collaborative session zero and worldbuilding tool for D&D campaigns. People who have read some of my older blog posts will know that this is important to me, and I have repurposed the relationship map from games like Smallville to a D&D context. My first playtest of the tool led to us creating a great and interesting world, but it also highlighted a few things that need to be updated in a second draft, which I haven’t yet been able to do. I hope to clean it up and share it here someday.