RPGaDay 2017, Day 19: Which RPG features the best writing?

RPGaDay 2017 infographic

RPGaDay is an annual celebration of tabletop roleplaying. This is the first year I’ve tried to do it.

Which RPG features the best writing?

I understand this question to mean “writing” as something distinct from the part of game design associated with rules and mechanics. I take the question to be close to those “best art” questions, in that it refers to how the presentation and style of an RPG—in this case, its use of language—contributes to its setting, tone, theme, etc. A lot of people are probably going to say Apocalypse World for today’s answer, because it’s got a reputation for doing exactly that, bringing the apocalypse to life in the mind of the reader. Alas, I’ve never actually read the Apocalypse World book from cover to cover, and never got a sense of its use of language.

One game whose use of language I absolutely love, though, is Swords Without Master. Right from the get-go it makes it clear what sort of RPG we’ll be playing. Here’s the first paragraph:

Gather writing implements, scraps of paper, three or four of your cohorts, and two six-sided dice that you can easily tell apart to a table. A mahogany table adorned with thick, greasy candles and five human skulls. Failing that, a stout oaken table near a glowing hearth, replete with ale-filled steins and a succulent roast. Or, if you prefer, a tabletop chipped whole from a single obsidian stone, placed on the back of a coiled serpent of silver in a room high in a lonely tower shrouded in a prismatic fog.

But it goes further than this: use of evocative language is actually built into the game through its use of tones. Every dice roll in the game sets the tone as Jovial or Glum (or, rarely, a third tone chosen by a player), and the definitions of those tones are wonderful. They start with a list of pseudo-synonyms but then provide examples of the tone in play. Here are the examples for Glum:

The gray-green sky just before a storm, a starlit path, whispers from forgotten languages, the blade drawn swiftly across the throat, stifled laughing, gentle weeping, subtle enchantments, erudite conversation, the furtive glances of new lovers, a song sung in a minor key, a book enjoyed by candlelight, armies awaiting each other in the rain.

If running the game for the first time, I definitely recommend reading them aloud to your players.

You want the examples of the Jovial tone? Then I suggest you buy the game for yourself! Ho ho ho!

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RPGaDay 2017, Day 14: Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

RPGaDay 2017 infographic

RPGaDay is an annual celebration of tabletop roleplaying. This is the first year I’ve tried to do it.

Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?

As I mentioned on Day 9, while I’m happy to play indefinite-length campaigns now and then, when I run campaigns for other people I’ll usually want them to be of a fixed length. That usually means that I’ll have some idea of what direction the campaign is going since character creation, before the first session of the game proper.

As such, if I was going to run an open-ended campaign I’d want a system in which character creation is baked into the first session, and in which the priority is playing to find out what happens. That’s Apocalypse World. Not other games Powered by the Apocalypse, just the original. Make a setting you love to play in, take characters who bring the drama with them wherever they go, and set them loose. If characters die or fronts get resolved, just make new ones and keep going. No other game I’ve played does it better.

My (red) kryptonite: Mind control in Smallville RPG

Clark Kent (Tom Welling) with red kryptonite eyes, from Smallville via Wikia

Mind control is a staple of genre fiction. It appears in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It’s used an awful lot in superhero stories. As such, it’s hard to avoid in any roleplaying game that tries to emulate any of these genres.

But mind control is rooted in the idea of removing someone’s agency, and playing a character without any agency is just not very fun. Ask anyone who has had their D&D character under the influence of Dominate Person for round after round after round…

Smallville RPG includes mind control, at least in part because it was based on a TV show that was chock full of mind control and other forms of mental alteration. Given Smallville RPG’s commitment to the concept that no player can ever dictate another character’s choices, mind control could have been a fascinating addition to the game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s either so weak that it can be ignored, rendering it meaningless, or it’s so overpowered that it violates the game’s core principle of protecting player agency.

In short, mind control in Smallville blows harder than Clark Kent’s super breath.

In this blog, I will describe various ways that we could hack Smallville to make mind control work better, taking inspiration from some other roleplaying games. The different strategies are not mutually exclusive, and two or more could be combined in the same game. Maybe even all of them together.

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Here’s the Kicker: Character creation and plot hooks

Sorcerer_CoverLast weekend I had my first experience of the game Sorcerer by Ron Edwards. Sorcerer was originally self-published in 1996, and it was at the vanguard of the indie RPG movement. I’m not going to discuss the game extensively, but there was one thing in particular that got me thinking.

I want to talk about Kickers.

A Kicker is an unexpected event that shakes up a player character’s life. It forces the player character to react, but does not dictate how they should react. It is the set-up for the player character’s opening conflict during play.

Kickers in Sorcerer

As defined above, Kickers are not new and not revolutionary. They are basically just plot hooks. Most long-running campaigns start with something similar, usually at the start of the first session of play, to get the players invested and the characters moving. Even the standard D&D trope of being commanded by the local ruler to sort out those bandits chop chop almost meets the definition (except for not dictating how the players should react).

But what Sorcerer did that was new and was revolutionary was this: it put the Kicker into the hands of the player.

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“Why do I hang out with you again?”: The importance of group character generation

I am a huge believer in doing group character generation at the start of a new RPG campaign. I don’t just mean getting all the players in the same place to do character generation, but actually doing it together. Of the RPGs I’ve played in, nearly all of the ones I’ve enjoyed most have made character generation a group activity.

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