Friday, July 11, 2014

Pen and paper RPGs aren't just bloated boardgames

This is a nerdocity level 17 rant, you've been warned ;)

I absolutely love boardgames, I've got a walk-in closet loaded with my collection and for most of the companies I've worked for I try to have weekly gatherings to drag out new games.

I absolutely love pen and paper RPGs.  Again, at most companies I've been at I'd run a weekly RPG for coworkers, and often spend as much time planning and prepping as playing.

I love both for very different reasons.

My issue with the vast majority of pen and paper games that call themselves RPGs are that for some reason they seem to be focusing on being, well, boardgames.  To me at least, playing an RPG (like D&D) is not about how many spaces a character can move, or how many spaces your magic missile can reach, or having a small deck of preprinted abilities you get to add to your standard nicely printed full color character template.  To me, RPGs aren't card games.  To me, RPGs aren't about stat leveling and getting a +1 on your sword.  To me, RPGs aren't about a modular set of modeled and painted rooms on your table or other boardgame component porn.

Obviously for companies based on selling you components, it's easy to see why they focus on making games glossier and "higher end" looking.  But, it's coming at the price of the game experience itself.

After any RPG session you should be able to ask yourself "what happened in tonight's adventure?"  If the answer is, "we moved through 6 rooms and the players struck down 23 Orcs and 7 Trolls and earned 1400 XP to get a new fire bolt spell card"... well...  Look, if *you* enjoyed the session, that's great, and that's really the bottom line... but IMO, there's better dedicated combat-heavy boardgames out there you could be playing if that's your bag.  That's a post-game summary you could have had after playing Descent, or HeroQuest, or the D&D boardgames or any number of other tile based games.  (Honestly you should just go play Diablo or Dark Souls and enjoy a hellaciously polished dungeon run, where that summary describes like 5 minutes of gameplay instead of 5 hours)

I can't wait to... uh... walk across that.  Weeee!  I'm role playin y'all!


When I'm running (or playing in) a good RPG the end of the night should culminate in everyone laughing and talking over each other excitedly about how hilarious or unlikely it was when player X did Y or reacted to Z.

"Holy shit, Andrew was playing a convicted (technically pacifist) Nigerian internet scammer and ended up tazing an infected zombie howler monkey and handcuffing it to an unconscious guard!  Hey, remember, THEY MIGHT BE FRIENDLY!"

"OMG I can't believe when we were stuck in that groundhog day time loop on that island that Josh forgot to explain himself to the kid's father yet again that morning; then he thought he could lock himself in the room with that kid without the rest of the town wouldn't think he was a pedo freak and attack us!  Not to mention we already accidentally set the fields around the town on fire!"

"What the hell guys?!  We were supposed to bring peace to this island, and ended up setting loose an angry group of centaur dwarves on their oppressors and were helpless to watch as, well, they kind of murdered everyone and we fled.  Good job, all!  We're true heroes!"

"Nice job rolling so high when you cast 'Fear', James.  Don't mind the village kids around that you irreparably traumatized.  It's cool, they'll just grow up terrified of cat-people and maybe, um, house cats."

"OK, which of us is going to try to convince Sook, the North Korean defector who only speaks english learned from business motivational courses that the militarized zombies might actually be curable if we can somehow make caffeine airborne?"

(Those are actual examples that happened in the normal course of play during the last games we played at Epic)

Remember this one sentence, if nothing else...

RPGs are an opportunity to interact with characters in ways that absolutely no other method of gaming allows.

There's an unprecedented amount of freedom in well run RPGs.  That's what saddens me with the state of pen and paper RPGs and motivates me to bother writing this.  This rant is not about, "get off my lawn, all you kids are playing wrong", I'm just bummed that a generation of gamers are going to have to rediscover that RPGs are an amazing playground for imagination and storytelling that doesn't fit on hexes and squares and blast templates.  RPGs happen in the possibility space of our heads and imaginations, and I don't want to lose that to pretty dungeon components.


If I have tips for people who want to run a better RPG, it's here:

First and foremost... make it about interacting with NPCs.  Come up with situations where players have to make interesting decisions and cause events to occur based on how a conversation with a key NPC went.

Be ready to adapt to anything and don't be daunted by it.  If you need to take a minute to organize your thoughts because a player suddenly decided, "I'm going to jump on that nobleman's coach and see where it goes", or a player decides, "Ya know, I'm going to cause the death of someone you thought would be vital to the game", cool.  This is the one game invented by man that allows that kind of completely open ended spontaneity, don't be the douchebag who thwarts everything your player's choose to do.  If they want to try something inventive and amusing and plausible, LET THEM DO IT.  You're all creating stories here.

You're running an RPG session, abandon all hopes of being "cool" and just fucking *get into it*.  Do a little voice acting for your NPCs, bring life to your world in any goofy memorable way you can imagine.  You can't be self conscious and be a great GM.

Make a list of people you know in real life, or characters that stand out from movies, and keep those jotted down somewhere.  When a player randomly strikes up a conversation with someone you weren't expecting, grab a "personality" you're familiar with for that person.  Odds are they're not going to notice, "Hey, the inn keeper seems an awful lot like Steve Buscemi".

Be careful not to make everyone you encounter be a jackass or adversarial to the party.  If the trend is you, the GM, being a sneering punk challenging their interactions, they're simply going to stop interacting and revert to caring about initiative rolls more than their charisma checks and so forth.

Have fun and break the 4th wall creatively sometimes.  I had a villain who could "read the player's minds" once by basically having the villain respond to the table talk the players were making.  I didn't let them discuss their plans verbally in private during the situation.  Good times ;)  Hell, I've got a whole planned "Ghostbusters" campaign based on that trick.  I realized the table talk between players was just getting hilarious with our group, and think we could pull off a game where all table talk is literally what their characters are saying... no carefully planned prepared answers, etc... just players being players and NPCs reacting to it.  (I warned you in the first sentence about the nerdocity here!)  In our first Epic campaign I had players make "criminal mastermind" characters, then started the campaign off with them in a prison work camp as a zombie apocalypse started.  Yaaaay twists!

Keep the game off physical maps unless you really need a combat to break out.  Don't track where people are in a tavern, don't draw that out, just describe it vividly and know that it's cooler in your player's heads that anything you're going to create.

When I need maps, I typically run games on a couple roll-out wipe-off Chessex hex battle maps with a load of colored overhead markers nearby.  If a player wants to deviate from what I expected and explore in some way that calls on me to improvise, there's nothing easier that scribbling out some walls and doodling in some new areas.  This is something you simply can't do with a well assembled dungeon tile setup that funnels your players into a series of planned out combat encounters.  Don't worry about what it looks like; again, just use loads of good verbal descriptors when you introduce a place.

When mayhem breaks out, have a red marker on hand

Don't get caught up in figure mania.  Trust me, you will never own enough.  If you want, order some blank white dice in different sizes and use the overhead markers to squiggle characters or icons onto the dice.  This also lets you flip a dice and make a frowny face or so forth on the other side to show a stunned enemy.  Otherwise, use regular dice showing the same number as figures, "all sixes are guards" etc.

The infamous Cpt Scraw and the scary ass invisible prisoner

Manage player expectations.  Hell, have your players read this.  Let them know you're not about to run a combat simulation.  Make them aware that they're about to play a session that is not about hoarding and cataloguing loot while making their XP increase.  Sure, reward people with those things and keep them around as a means of motivating them if that's their bag, but avoid players who are so hardcore about the game that they actually suck the fun out of it.  Your players will get into the swing of it.  When someone tries something cool, and you let it work out... others are more emboldened and invested in the actual events of the game.

Lie.  Lie through your damned teeth as often as you want to make a story flow at critical points.  Roll your dice behind your DM screen and if something is extremely important, bullshit freely about what you're rolling or who survived with 2 HP left, or how 3 enemies actually fled in terror from failing some morale roll, etc.  For real drama in moments where it could go either way, break the pattern and roll it in front of everyone.  When something verifiably unexpected happens in front of people... it's magic.  Ooooh theatrics!

Sometimes if I'm at a loss on how to react to a situation I'll roll a single die and ask myself, "how screwed are the players right now?" and use the result to broadly decide if I should do something really shitty to the players, or give them some amazing lucky moment.  Hell, when someone does something you didn't expect, but it's awesome... pause for a second and just roll some dice for dramatic effect.  The players will wonder WTF you're doing and get all amped up.  Don't forget to giggle or grimace mysteriously for effect.

When things get boring, change it up.  If a fight is going on too long, have the enemies retreat, etc... not everything needs to feel like a slog.  If a situation is not coming off as you would have liked, and players don't seem to be into it, recognize that and fast forward a bit.

Keep a little paper around where you jot down a note about amusing moments that happened in your campaign.  Bring that stuff up again later for continuity.  Someone accidentally caused the death of a random villager?  Three sessions later have a posse of angry inbred cousins show up looking for revenge.  A player did something crazy in front of onlookers?  Have some random bard singing a boastful song about the events a month later in a random Inn (but give a different player the credit).  Give those actions long lasting personalized repercussions and it brings a world to life like no other game can.

Keep a list on your phone of, "situations to put into a campaign".  I can't tell you how many random interesting moments come to me while I'm driving around, remembering them later helps when you're grasping for interesting campaign material.

It's not about big powerful enemies and world saving big scale moments.  Low level interactions are a blast too.  When you're just getting started, and your character is frail and could actually die if some yahoo stuck his table knife in your belly... that's some of the absolute best role-playing moments there are.  When players are terrified, there's magic in the air.  It can be hard to challenge the players as they get really "powerful" and lose their fear of Gargo the stocky stableboy with a pitchfork and a sneer.

This should be basic game running 101, but... do not kill your freakin' players because dice told you to.  Unless you've made it DAMN clear that they're about to do something horrifically stupid, and even then had to roll very poorly, don't do it.  Maim them, take something they care about, knock them unconscious and make another player carry them for drama, etc... but recognize that the rules are there to create a story, and it's up to you to interpret the gameplay.  Having someone sitting out or leaving a game session or rolling a new character is full on ass-hattery... don't act like 14 yr olds playing their first game.

Lastly, everything you do should serve to create amazing stories that players will tell at the end of the night.  But equally important is that they're an integral part of those stories, and they feel it's their own.  Don't get so caught up with what you WANT to happen that you stifle players or make them feel like a passive participant in your grand tale.


I'll give a completely unsolicited plug here...

My current RPG system of choice is "Savage Worlds".  It's a generic rule system with lots of sourcebooks to flavor campaigns in all kinds of ways.  There are Deadlands dark western sourcebooks, sci-fi stuff, pulp horror adventures out the wazoo, and of course loads of fantasy (shattered worlds we played a lot of), Weird War II, etc...

I love savage worlds, I describe it as an engine for making cool shit happen.  Even the language is like you're creating a screenplay in realtime.  Characters are called "actors", and NPCs are called "extras".  It's a system that seems to really value the same things I do... my time being one of them.

Combat is fast... like VERY fast.  It's not bogged down in minutiae and management.  Leave that junk to boardgames and video games.  A single combat in some systems will take up your entire evening game session, but Savage Worlds handles fights with a dozen actors (or dozens sometimes) easily.

As an example, enemy peon lackey "extras" have only three states for the most part.  They're on their feet and swinging, they're stunned, or they're dead.  Players and important NPC actors all have essentially three hitpoints, with every damage meaning a -1 to all rolls.  If you're under that, you're unconscious and up to the discretion of the GM (who is acting in the best interest of "directing" the story along).  Actors only have a couple basic stats... which for the most part are "which size dice do you roll for this thing?".  Jot down a couple numbers, pick an special ability or two, and you've created a load of random henchmen to toss at your players if needed.

It's a pretty simple system.  Pick a night before you kick off your game and have a little battle with premade characters, and in one night (for the most part) everyone will know the game well enough to make characters and start a campaign.  Even running the game I started off knowing little about the systems and was learning along with the players.  That's a nice counter to the often daunting stacks of tomes you're expected to know in order to run something like D&D.

It's also cheap.  The generic player's rulebook is like $10.  I bought one for all 5 players ahead of time, even hauled them to Kinkos and had them spiral bound because the binding is better, ahha.  Honestly if you've got a few dice and some paper, that's all you really NEED for savage worlds.  Oh, and a deck of common playing cards, for how they manage some mechanics with large numbers of participants.


So anyway, I hope that's not all too ranty and "Old Man Perry".  To me, those are the foundations of an amazing game session and having a blast with your friends.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this post results in even just one game group becoming a little more spontaneous and interesting.