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!

With Great Power comes great enjoyment

Cover of With Great Power (Master Edition), art by M. P. O'Sullivan

With Great Power by Michael S. Miller is a superhero roleplaying game that emulates the melodramatic, four-colour style of the Silver Age of comics. It’s uncannily attuned to the tropes of that era, and what’s more it’s fantastic fun to play.

I wanted to play a staunch defender of the people, a larger-than-life, powerful, positive character and boy did I ever get that in the Glowing Guardian! With his allies, Little Young’un and the Armoured Arcanist, he defends New York City (because of course New York City) from the plots of supervillains like Zoltrak the Cursed and the Incandescent Inquisitor!

So how does the game itself encourage such incredible stories?

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Racers Without Master: A Fast & Furious hack

Cast of Fast & Furious 7, from furious7.com

One week ago, Ryan Macklin launched the Furious Game Jam on his blog. The idea is to hack an existing tabletop roleplaying game to be like the Fast & Furious franchise.

I wasn’t planning to participate. I’d never seen any of the Fast & Furious movies. Michael Duxbury got excited about it since a mutual friend of ours had suggested (ages ago) a cool, feminist Fast & Furious hack of Psi*Run. (Said hack can be found here (link updated 19/02/2016)) Michael pitched two games… then he went and wrote a third completely different game. (Check it out here.)

Basically, I’m stealing the only one of Michael’s unused ideas that is based on a game that I have actually played: Swords Without Master.

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My glum and jovial discovery of Swords Without Master

Frostfire Monkey by pierdrago. Used without permission

Swords Without Master is a game by Epidiah Ravachol designed to emulate the classic sword-and-sorcery, weird fiction, pulp adventure tales typified by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian stories. I’ve mentioned the game before (in my post on using pictures as aspects in Fate), but I’ve finally played it properly and now I want to talk about it.

The overtone

Overall, I like Swords Without Master. I think it’s a great game and it excellently captures the feel of the genre it’s trying to emulate. I would happily play it again as either a Rogue or Overplayer.

I had more mixed feelings about my first experience of the game. That’s not a big problem. Mixed feelings are entirely appropriate for Swords Without Master, which is all about tone (usually jovial and glum) and how different tones intersect in cool ways.

In this post, I’m going to talk about some of my first impressions. And because I’m fairly certain that most (if not all) of the issues I had with it can be resolved with more experience, I’ll talk about some things I’d do differently if playing again. Hopefully it will help other players that are thinking of trying the game have a more unambiguously jovial first session.

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Pictures as character aspects in Fate

The Fate Core rulebook defines an aspect as “a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to”.

But in many cases pictures could be used instead of phrases, and they would work as aspects just as well.

I am not the first person (by a long shot) to suggest using images as aspects in Fate. Ryan Macklin talked about using the cover image from Shadowrun as a game aspect back in 2011, and last year he revisited the idea when talking about using Dixit cards as session aspects. In both cases, he was primarily talking about inspiration and tone, something that pictures can often do much better than words.

Based on this, I was going to do a post on all sorts of different ways you might use pictures as aspects in Fate, only to find earlier this year that someone had already done it. Tangent Artists Tabletop has done an amazing blog post on image aspects, covering some ways they might be used even during play (that is, drawn right there at the table, e.g. in marker on a laminated sheet) and when it might be particularly appropriate. They even included some neat hacks, all of which seem to have been playtested.

So I’m not going to do the blog post I originally planned. Instead, I’m going to talk about something that wasn’t covered in these blog posts: pictures as character aspects.

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