RPG

This page lists the most recent journal entries related to role-playing games (RPG). There are some more pages on the related German page (Rollenspiele).

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2016-07-27 OSR and DIY D&D

Ben Milton recently asked about the difference between the OSR and DIY D&D on Google+.

OSR is about going back to the old games and exploring avenues not taken at the time. In terms of products, this meant republishing rules compatible with the old games and adventures looking like the old modules. As time went by, the OSR developed new settings, new ways of presenting setting materials, rules that where still compatible but included many house rules, or rules that were incompatible but still recognizably derived from the old rules. This latest development is what I call DIY D&D. So for me, DIY D&D is a subset of the OSR.

The market being so small, all of this was driven by very small teams of people and facilitated by POD. I’m not convinced that words such as independent and anti-establishment mean so much in this context. If a writer, two or three artists, an editor, a layout person and a publisher make a book, is it all that different from how Paizo and WotC work? Are their teams so much different? It would seem to me that their product is simply more opinionated, less designed to reach the widest audience possible. As such, I also see DIY D&D as an aesthetic movement. In way, pushing the hardest down “avenues not taken at the time”.

Zak also left a comment: “DIY D&D is a term I invented because I hate a lot of old stuff but I liked the bloggers who talked about it and their garage-rock house rules approach.”

If you’re wondering who Zak is, you might want to read his blog – or you might want to read this piece by Vanessa Veselka, The Best Monster (2014), as an introduction. I liked it very much.

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2016-07-07 Unprofessional

An excellent article by Zak, Stay Unprofessional. I laughed, when I came to the following paragraph on alienation.

In short: it’s possible for even indie RPG authors to be so professional they aren’t making anything they want to (or have to) live with. In a curious quirk of early 21st century post-hobby production, they have alienated themselves from their labor, with almost no help from the larger capitalist system.

How true.

It’s why I’m only doing the stuff I want for my own games. The amount of effort I put into the Caverns of Slime for Fight On! #15 which never got published showed me that every step of the process has to be enjoyable. If it is not, if it is premised on some later reward and recognition, what happens when the reward does not manifest? Time wasted, that’s what.

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2016-07-07 Preparing a Sandbox

Recently, Rob Monroe asked about tools to use when preparing a sandbox.

I listed the following:

  1. A map. I started my last one with a random Text Mapper map using the Hex Based Campaign Design blog posts by the Welsh Piper.[1][2]
  2. I also enjoy +Kevin Crawford’s system of assigning two tags to each hex as described in his book Red Tide, and of establishing a cabinet of evil movers and shakers right at the beginning as described in his book An Echo Resounding.

Alternatively, I could also imagine running my next game as a point crawl based on the structured input of my players as suggested by +Jason Lutes in The Perilous Wilds.

Jason Lutes then linked to two examples of how he did it in 2013, which are also based on blog posts by the Welsh Piper, random generators by Chaotic Shiny, and all that, in order to create the world and a village.

It looks like a lot of work but it looks super beautiful!

I still think that starting out with a random Text Mapper Map and adding notes and settlements to the text describing the area and using the tool to render a picture of the area still is the best value for my time. See How To Get Started With Text Mapper for more.

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2016-07-07 Being a RPG Referee

This post is a translation of an old post I wrote back in 2014 about the responsibilities of a GM—or referee, as I like to call myself in English. As I translate from German to English, I’ll note that sentences are longer and more convoluted than usual. Welcome to the German Way. :)

Sometimes I meet people in my games that would like to run a campaign. Sometimes, they just hope that the current group will just stay together and keep playing, at the same location, at the same time. If you’re already playing with friends looking for a new referee, then that’s a great way to start. But sometimes just wanting to run a game is not good enough…

  • Referees must find new players on Facebook, Google+, Nearby Gamers, forums, friends, partners, relatives, coworkers, and so on. Yes, everybody should share in this responsibility, but in my experience, the referee is usually the one with the biggest network.
  • Referees must coordinate schedules. Somebody has to announce game dates. When game day is moved around a lot, then players like me, people with no spontaneous personalities and inflexible tendencies, will have a hard time dealing with this. I can’t come on short notice, and when game day is canceled I’m angry because I would have preferred doing something else instead. Sooner or later, game day will get a lower priority and it won’t be belong before I’ll be making other plans just to be sure that I’ve got something going on for sure.
  • Referees must solve conflicts. Players trash talking gays, prostitutes, foreigners? Anybody can speak up, but when I’m a guest somewhere else, I might feel that I’d rather send a friendly good bye email rather than engage in the conflict and play with such people. As a referee, we’re not only responsible for finding new players, we’re also responsible for maintaining a pleasant gaming culture at the table.
  • Referees must pick or propose rules they like. There’s no point in picking a game the referee doesn’t like to run.
  • Referees must explain rules, clarify them, establish rulings, remind players of the rules. Sure, you can delegate the rules to a player, but in general it won’t work all that well. It’s a tricky thing to contradict the referee, breaking the flow, asking for short retcons, i.e. the alteration of previously established facts in the continuity of the events at the table.
  • Referees determine spot light time and need to intervene. Some players are louder than others, have more ideas than others, constantly convince their fellow players to change their minds. Sure, the distribution of introverts and extroverts is a natural thing and often the behavior matches what people enjoy most. And yet, this must not get out of hand. A clear turn order, allowing quiet players to make particular decisions without interference from their fellow players and similar small interventions will help balance spot light.
  • Referees are responsible for the timing. When do we start, when do we stop, do we begin in media res, do we end with a cliff hanger, do we have an extra half hour, should we aim for a close? As a referee, one of your eyes is always watching the clock.
  • Referees are responsible for the tempo. Is the game boring and we need to push on, or do we chill and take in the scene, listen to long speeches and enjoy the little details? Referees react when players pick up their phones, yawn, start doodling, sort dice, or stack dice.
  • Referees run the game. When they’re unsure, the table loses focus. When they are sure of themselves, players can focus on the game.
  • Referees usually host the game. This is maybe a European thing where space is expensive and thus game shops are small and offer no organized play or open tables, and pubs and coffee shops are crowded. We meet at home. We invite strangers to play in our living rooms. And that’s why referees usually provide the books, the binders, the material, the extra dice, pens, erasers, mats, water jars, glasses, bowls for chips and dried fruit, pistachios, peanuts, tangerines, or dishes for trash.
  • Referees must make time to prepare. As a player, you can afford to just show up for game night and not know a thing. As a referee, you will have to think about the game, take notes, have dreams…
  • Referees must write session reports. Players don’t often do that. It’s great when they do, don’t get me wrong. But it’s hard to force them if they don’t, and you need notes to create continuity. Somebody has to go through the last session and think about what happened. Players won’t remember the details. They won’t embellish events. As a player, I’ll just scribble a few notes on the margins of my character sheet. I’m not going to write a session report.
  • Referees must create a setting. It can be small, a dungeon, a village, a wilderness, a city, multiple cities, a whole surface world, a network of underworlds, a beyond, the planes, everything needs thought, setting books must be read if you decide to use a published setting.
  • Referees must prepare adventures. Or they need to prepare situations that can lead to conflict. And as we saw with this list, this is not the only thing they need to do!

I don’t want to scare anybody. Being a referee is a great hobby. I just want to prevent people from thinking that all it takes is to read an adventure and show up somewhere in order to run a game. There are many responsibilities which end up being ours.

At the time, there was an interesting discussion on G+ where people talked about running a game as a service and delegating tasks. My first reaction to all these responses was always the thought: “I wish!” Yes, I do. But I wrote this list remembering friends and acquaintances, convention games and statements from fellow players, people wanting to take over one of my groups, asking whether I know any players looking for a game, complaining about players not mapping or not writing session reports, or not reading the session reports they wrote, and I think to myself: “Stop dreaming! Sure, that would be nice but primarily, this is your job.”

And yes, there are game systems that do without some of these responsibilities. Some games require no preparation, some games require no explicit referee, but most of the responsibilities I listed remain. You don’t need to prep a plot for Mountain Witch but somebody still has to know the rules. You don’t need to have a referee for Western City but you still need a host. You don’t need to learn about a setting in Dungeon World as you can create a setting together when the game starts, but everything else still holds true.

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2016-07-07 Barbie Gaming

In a thread on G+ about Burning Wheel, +Christian Buggedei introduced us to the concept of Barbie Gaming.

In regard to Character Burning: In some german RPG circles, there exist the term “Barbie Gaming”. (This might sound a bit derogatory, but it isn’t meant as such.) The idea is that there is, for some folks, a source of fun in tinkering with their character, figuring out how the different mechanisms interlock, how to plot the path to this or that power, how which lifepath choices affect the outcome, etc.

The point here is that what to me (and apparently +Zak Sabbath too) is a horrible tedious thing that stands in the way of actually having fun, is for them one of the big sources of fun in the game. Also, there is the sense of achievement and satisfaction when they figured out that system and end up with something that they really like.

And it’s fun that they can even have when for some reason the weekly game just got cancelled!

It is as if you combine the fun that a kid has trying different dresses and shoe variations on the Barbie doll with the satisfaction of a jigsaw puzzle coming together.

A bit later I wrote the following:

To be more specific in arguing why Barbie gaming is something I dislike: even if some people enjoy it, chances are that not all of the players will enjoy it. If some enjoy it and others don’t, then you’ll get very different characters at the table. They might differ a lot in combat effectiveness, as happened in my D&D 3.5 game, where I distinctly remember having set up a fight with a ranger with humans as favorite enemies, and human slaying arrows, riding a nightmare, to fight one particular character, and using a bunch of demonic boars for the rest of the party because all their characters were hopeless in combat. That’s when I decided that I no longer wanted to run games with rules that afforded this kind of spread. To bring this back to Burning Wheel, I’d argue that spending more time in character creation does result in a wide variety of characters, but at least the spread is more overt. You can have an abbot skilled in words, and everybody at the table will know. Those that did not manage to plan their life paths well enough will end up with less of a leader but they won’t feel totally outclassed. In addition to that, a typical game has a wide variety of skill checks, on the topics you expressed interest in via beliefs and all that, so it’s not as bad as playing D&D 3.5 with a dedicated character builder friend. Specially since there, the gap widens as you go up in levels where as in Burning Wheel I’d assume the gap to close over a campaign as advancement is easier for those who fail at Barbie gaming.

But still, these observations still don’t recommend rules that provide for Barbie gaming. When I run a game, I’ll be careful to choose a system that does not. Even if the effect is not as strong as for D&D 3.5, some players will still want to talk to me about it, have question, and I just won’t care for that kind of conversation. Better to pick rules that don’t afford this kind of conversation. So, even if some people enjoy it, I’d prefer it if they played it as a solo game and didn’t talk to me about it, and didn’t outshine the other players at the table that don’t care for character building, and didn’t bring a big book to the table and talked the others through character creation, establishing a power dynamic at the table based on an interest I do not share.

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2016-06-22 Love

Yesterday I was running my game and we’re once again going off into unprepared territory. We’re approaching a small town called Corkbridge in the Outlands (Planescape), halfling apple farmers, the party is looking for a healer and so there’s this hedge wizard halfling, they knock at her door, and I’m trying to think of something surprising to say. So… uhhh… “She has tears in her eyes as she opens the door but wipes them away as looks at you and asks how she can help you.”

The players are surprised! Good. OK, they’ll probably want to help, so how about something even more surprising… uh, she doesn’t want our help! “A personal thing, family. Nothing you can do but thank you for offering to help.”

The players are intrigued. Good! They decide to invite her to the inn and gain her confidence over a drink to two, and so she goes with them and tells her the sad story of her brother and his failing marriage, his wife always going off and him being angry and sad and alone, and jealous. The players nod and look at each other. Nothing to do here, they agree.

The wizard leaves and the innkeeper shows them their room. On a whim, he says: “So, she told you about her brother, eh? Married an adventurer he did. And she’s always off, can’t just stay and work the orchards, always chasing after some rumors, looking for treasure and all that.” The players nod and grin and remember a former halfling player character. He continues, “So how’s your love life? Anybody waiting for you at home, hoping you’ll come back, hoping that this time you’ll stay?” And he goes around the table, asking the player characters.

Too busy studying books and magic, says one. I’m a frog man and we don’t really do relationships, you know, says the other. One day I’ll retire to Monkey Island and there will be other giant apes like me and I’ll find myself a woman and settle down, says the third. I loved it.

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2016-06-09 If I run a Science Fiction RPG

I was looking at Ed Ortiz’s post, To Vesper Skies: Prologue, where he talks about aliens:

“The crazier, the better. So I want my game to have a decent amount of playable alien races from the get go. Of course, you have to wonder, where humans fit in all this. With exotic races with some weird abilities, how do you make the baseline humans more interesting?”

And I’m reminded of two things:

  1. “In essence, we’d be Space Orcs.” You can follow the thread up and down on Tumblr to find variations on that theme.
  2. “But if you’re hurt, if you’re trapped, if you need someone to fetch help? You really want a human.” Such a lovely thing.

All the aliens would be smaller, weaker, brittle, lonely, vulnerable, inflexible. Perhaps richer, perhaps more cunning, perhaps more powerful, but we are mammals.

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2016-05-03 Mortality

Regular readers know I use an entourage approach in my games. Each player has a “main” character who gets a full share of treasure and their charisma determines how many other characters there are—the size of their entourage. In one of the campaigns, I’ve limited the number of characters on an adventure to three per person because some of the players are slow. Thus, even if you have seven henchmen, you can only bring two of them along on any single session. The end effect is that some players play only a single character, others play a trio, most have “small” characters guarding their ships and holds and homes, and sometimes we run adventures for the low level characters.

In an classic D&D campaign, how do you or your players deal with high mortality if you don’t use multiple characters per player? One of my campaigns currently counts 12 casualties after 24 sessions, for example. And I’m using the super generous shields shall be splintered and a death and dismemberment table instead of instant death at zero hit-points.

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2016-04-20 How To Get Started With Text Mapper

Here’s how to get started with a random map:

  1. Visit https://campaignwiki.org/text-mapper
  2. Click the Random button
  3. Click the Submit button
  4. Use the Back button to make changes

(If you click the Random link then you won’t be able to get back to the text that generated it all – you’ll have to look at the page source and at the very end you’ll find the text that generated the map in a comment, just in case.)

To get a feel for the icons available, do the following in another tab:

  1. Visit https://campaignwiki.org/text-mapper
  2. Click Help
  3. Scroll down to the Gnomeyland section
  4. Compare example data and result

Campaign Wiki Bonus: If you can find a way to store your text describing the map online, then your map will be live – you can change the text and reload your map, and it will have changed as well. For one of my campaigns, for example, I keep the text on on a page, and I use the link to the raw text of that page to generate the actual map.

Dropbox: If you store your map in a public (!) text file you can edit the map and regenerate the map on demand. Here’s the text file for my current map.

Awesome! :)

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2016-04-19 Immersion

Recently, William Nichols argued on Google+ that some games avoid the dichotomy of Sandbox vs. Railroad one often sees discussed. This was in reply to me sharing a hilarious video, about 15min, about two campaigns: the sandbox that turned into The Hobbit and the railroad that turned into The Lord of the Rings. It comes with many asides that I remember myself thinking when I was younger, e.g. the idea that players had a social obligation to go along with what I had prepared.

William basically argued that some rules designed the problem away by using improvisation and he listed Dungeon World (which I have run) as well as Fiasco and Apocalypse Now (both of which I have played).

I think these examples are definitely role-playing game designers trying to design their way out of the problem space of “wasted prep” – either because it’s a lot like work for the GM or because it affords railroading, which is not fun for players.

But then again, if you manage to set expectations such that people know that some parts of your game are not improvised, then these locations on the map will be “more real” than things you all just thought up. That’s how I work, at least.

So that’s the counterweight I see: we can design away the option of a railroad, but we must be careful not to design away an important source of immersion, the suspension of disbelief that there is an actual, imagined, shared, pre-existing world out there. For me, that idea is powerful. In games that afford a lot of improvisation, this is often lost, I feel.

Dungeon World navigates this by suggesting the creation of a map beforehand and Perilous Wilds even offers a procedure to create a shared map at the table.

To make a long story short: I think it’s important to remember that adding more improvisation also means that you loose something. Being aware of that trade-off is important.

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Comments on 2016-04-19 Immersion

I partially agree on the “more real” part, but for a different reason. I think things created through collaboration are fun and useful, but feel soft to the players. Things fully in control of the GM, whether prepped or improv’d, feel harder and “more real”.

– Aaron Griffin 2016-04-19 16:54 UTC


Yeah, I don’t really know how this belief in the imagined world is created. In 2014 I wrote that rolling treasure on a table made it “more real” than simply making it up, so even I as a DM benefit in some weird way. To use your nomenclature, rolling random encounters and random treasure on a pre-existing table makes it “feel harder” and thus “more real”.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-04-19 17:20 UTC


The discussion in that G+ thread continued. I was asked, “is there disagreement to the proposition that prep is a product of design?”

I don’t think we ever had a disagreement. To argue that there is only sandbox and only railroad would be foolish. When I posted that link talking about sandboxes and railroads, it was mostly for entertainment reasons. Also, my preference is sandbox classic D&D, but I have played plenty of indie games to feel that I’ve made an informed choice. Up above, I argued why a lot of improvisation is no solution for me. But clearly, improvisation is an important skill and there are various techniques that are useful to any GM out there. Prep is a product of design, I agree, but improvisation is not a panacea. I guess that was my point somewhere in all of that.

Further down, the conversation turned to prep. William argued that good game design would make sure that very little time would be spent in prep otherwise “my time as GM is not valued.” And furthermore, the requirement for prep “is one more way we keep people not like us out of the hobby.”

I personally find more than half an hour prep per three hour game of classic D&D is my upper limit. Sadly, the older D&D versions did not come with a good discussion of efficient prep. Luckily, we have blogs and oral tradition and where as new games incorporated all this accumulated wisdom into the actual text of their rules, nothing stops a DM from eclectically building their own procedures for prep. So yes, I concede that the actual rules are lacking, but it will still work for people. And one aspect we haven’t touched upon is that prep can also be an enjoyable solo activity. It’s not for everybody, but if it is, then D&D is for you.

So, what about those other players at my table. Are the rules of D&D and the requirement to prep holding them back? I’d say that I don’t want the others at the table to GM because they don’t want to GM, as far as I can tell. Those that do get to run their games, using their preferred rules, no problem. And I scratch my itch for other games by having an indie game night. There’s no need for my game to be the one game to serve all people.

So, does D&D need an excuse for it’s community of bloggers, of oral tradition, of advice given? Is all of that necessary because it’s simply badly designed?

Our lives are full of activities that are not fully prescribed and these lacunae allow us to bend these activities to our preferences, and to make blunders, yes. But that doesn’t mean that all our games need more rules. I don’t share the enthusiasm for the designed experience. I prefer my games to be less like a board game. I want there to be gaps.

Let’s go back to the beginning, however. What are we talking about? The conversation started with the contrast between a sandbox and railroad. Then we argued whether improvisation could help solve this problem, and we talked about the perceived burden of preparing our games. I basically argued that not improvising and instead preparing for games also increases there verisimilitude, and I argued that preparation is also an interesting activity in and of itself. And thus, for people like me, for people who enjoy this kind of game, classic D&D remains an option.

Perhaps we need to reevaluate where this discussion is supposed to go. Are we trying to come to agree on a single answer to what’s best in RPG design? I don’t think this will be possible. I’m trying to illustrate the width and depth of the space we’re talking about and I guess I was warning against thinking that improvisation would be a cure-all, and I’m warning against thinking that no-prep is a cure-all. I guess I’m arguing for an appreciation of the variety of human needs and the design space available to all of us as we write our RPG rules, or house rules, or rule variants.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-04-20 14:34 UTC

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