Roleplaying Games

Couple..? So many bad jokes come to mind. So what to make of this prompt?

Couple (definition)
1a: to connect for consideration together
b: to join for combined effect
2a: to fasten together : LINK
b: to bring (two electric circuits) into such close proximity as to permit mutual influence
3: to join in marriage or sexual union
Well, I met my first wife through gaming. I met my second wife through a gaming friend. So there’s that.
Gaming in many ways has allowed me to take other interests and combine — or couple — it with socializing, with storytelling, with fun. My interest in history was really enervated by playing historical roleplaying games, specifically Space: 1889 and later Hollow Earth Expedition.
At its heart, though, gaming is about connecting people, and while playing together, working in combined effort to tell a story, entertain each other, and get the hell away from the daily grind of life.

What to do with today’s prompt: Forest. Do we take this literally (How to portray forests in a game…) or metaphorically (the ol’ “forest for the trees” canard)?

Answer: both!

Let’s start with the metaphorical. When planning a game, or even being a playing interacting with the story and setting it is easy to get wrapped up in minutiae. We’ll start with the GM side of things. Maybe you haven’t had a lot of time to plan. You’re focused on the next session. This isn’t necessarily bad for the first few sessions, but having some kind of point to a story is pretty essential. Why are they doing what they are doing? Who’s the big bad (if there is one)? What will the denouement look like. It’s a good idea to have some kind of generalized idea of where you want a campaign to go. (But have a Plan B…because Plan A isn’t going to survive contact with your players.)

It doesn’t have to be in depth. Let’s use a Star Wars campaign as a sandbox here: I want the players to 1) get mad at the Galactic Empire or start as rebels, 2) the have an initial introduction adventure that gets them on the heroic path, and 3) get their group a starship bad enough to fight back to 4) help a specific world fight the Empire, leading to 5) the fight with the big bad (in our case Sith Inquisitors), and 6) liberate the world or get martyred trying. There’s plenty of wiggle room for side quests, and it’s vague enough that if they don’t get through one of the waypoints, you can simply give them a similar challenge to overcome. This is especially useful if someone has a ‘”destiny” or there’s a premonition of something to happen that a character has. Make it vague enough to switch elements of this destiny-connected moment. Maybe they don’t see the face of the person their fighting, just the lightsaber color. It’s dark. They’re super-focused in the premonition and lose important details.

Keep the pace up enough that they are focused on the here and now. Have them look at the trees while you build the forest.


Forests are good places for things to happen. They’re so much more than “You are in a thick forest. There is a footpath you can follow…” What kind of trees? Are they healthy, dying? How’s the light? Is there noise? How about smells?

They provide cover not just to you, but to the bad guys. Woodland sounds, from birds singing to bears farting and grunting, to wind in the trees — there’s plenty of noise that can make it hard to hear someone coming. the foliage can be dense; it’s hard to see a threat until it’s “grabbed you by the belt”, as the Vietcong used to say. There’s animals to distract or attack. Some animals have a pretty strong smell. If’ you’re downwind from a bear, you know. If there’s a skunk in the area, you know.

When you take away noise or some aspect of the forest, you can create real suspense. The noise in the forests just stops…why? The dense tree cover makes it dim light, and there’s constant sounds of things moving in the brush, breaking branches, strange calls or grunts… Throw in some fog or rain. Especially the heavy rain that obscures vision and drowns out noise. What’s that strange smell? What is this strange footprint in the mud?

Forests have different qualities. There’s the cool, damp green of northeastern America or medieval Germany. Its smells and feel much different from the different from the “forests” of southwestern America, where the dry cuts down on smells, but when you do smell something, it’s usually strong and nearby. This is different from the jungles of India  and the those are different from the Amazon, or the Congo. Different plants, bugs, animals.

Making a forest unique can be a challenge, and nothing says you have to go heavily in depth, but even just a few snippets of information — “the trees are tall, their branches high above you, and their canopy obscures the light” — can tell you something. For instance, that example suggests climbing the tree to get a better vantage on something might be difficult. You’re not going to climb a redwood without gear. (Also for all the dark and damp, the redwood forest I was in was warm, even with the cool ocean breezes on the coast.)

Today’s prompt is an interesting one. Let’s start with a definition for Tribute:

1a: something given or contributed voluntarily as due or deserved especially : a gift or service showing respect, gratitude, or affection a floral tribute
b: something (such as material evidence or a formal attestation) that indicates the worth, virtue, or effectiveness of the one in question the design is a tribute to his ingenuity
2a: a payment by one ruler or nation to another in acknowledgment of submission or as the price of protection, also : the tax levied for such a payment
Now, I could get very political with this post, which is the new meow for many; shoving their opinions and gripes in your face at every turn…but I’m not going to do that because this is about fun. So we’re going to pay tribute to “that game” — the game that really sealed the deal for you. The best system or setting. The one you’re playing 10, 20, 30, 40 years later. The one that inspired you in strange ways. The one that just came together right. We all have one. Here’s mine:
Dungeons & Dragons was my first RPG and the one that created a love of telling stories. I started playing when D&D was considered the gateway into satanism and possibly heavy metal music. Which one was worse, you can decide. these were the days when trying to find other players was like being a politician in a rest stop men’s room, tapping your foot under the stall…hey, kid: you like D&D?
We played the hell out of D&D and AD&D, and a bunch of other games from the other TSR offerings like Top Secret and Star Frontiers to Traveler and Universe. But the d20 system, to me, has always had serious flaws, especially for damage and healing (looking at you 5th ed!) Then in 1983, the one hit:
James Bond: 007 by Victory Games. The first system to really capture the flavor of the source material. From damage being tied to how well you did (Quality Result), to “realistic”ish damage in combat; from the product placement quality of having different guns and cars, boats and planes have different performance; to bidding for who went first in chases and rules for seduction (be still by teenage heart!); to designing your character and not randomly rolling — JB:007 was a sea change in how game mechanics worked. It was my first system “love” and I used it non-stop until the late aughties, when having worked in intelligence I was somewhat (okay, very) cynical about the business. I used it for cyberpunk. I used it for a Stargate: SG1 campaign. In many ways, the heavy research I did to try and to give our games verisimilitude led me into the field.
Space: 1889 by Games Designer’s Workshop. This game spurred y love of history, again because I wanted to get the setting right. I wound up specializing in European Imperialism for my bachelors and masters degrees in history. I ran an 1889 campaign pretty much non-stop until about 2007, when I shifted to Hollow Earth Expedition, paralleling my doctoral studies in the interwar period.
The mechanics for Space: 1889 were, to be kind, execrable — but the setting was superbly inventive and fun. With the release of Castle Falkenstein, I ported our 1889 campaign into those rules set, but with the terrible combat system replaced with a kitbashed version of the excellent Lace & Steel rules. It was rereleased in the Ubiquity rules that power Hollow Earth Expedition so returning to it wouldn’t be hard for my players. And it is a setting i keep wanting to return to; there’s just so much to run, right now!
Battlestar Galactica and other iterations of “Classic Cortex” by Margret Weiss Productions. Starting with the solidly good rules for Serenity, the first RPG set in the Firefly universe, I have loved the Cortex system second only to JB:007, and depending on the day, more so. There was some baggage from the original Sovereign Stone  ruleset by Jamie Chambers. It would power a couple of licensed product lines, including Demon Hunters and Supernaturalbut for me it was Battlestar Galactica — with the change to how Traits and Complications were addressed — sealed the deal. I wound up running an epic 5 year campaign that you can find the play reports for in the blog. It was one of the best bits of GMing I have done and it was one of the most fun and engaging games I’ve run. It’s the only campaign I miss.
Cortex got “Fate-ified” when Cam Banks took over the games for MWP, and I was not impressed by the following Firefly, although the new Cortex worked beautifully for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying — which wona few awards and was killed off by the Marvel crew far too early. It combined simple basic dice pool mechanics with lots of wiggle room for using Hero Points to do things, and it captured that freeform feel that the old Marvel Superheroes game from the ’80s had.
So there is my tribute to the games that guided my play for the last…too long. If I were to crown a game the “best” I’ve played, it would be a tie between James Bond and Cortex; my favorite original setting is easily Space: 1889 (which got even better when Clockwerk had it and expanded the world with more Germanic setting information.)
So…what’s your “first one”? That game that really hooked you? That one that you want to play again, or maybe get your friends to stop whinging and try?

Four post in one morning — Caught up!

Today’s prompt is Vision. When you first start up a new game campaign, everyone has a vision for what the game is going to be like. Maybe it’s just the character you want to play — what is he/she/it going to be like? Maybe you have an idea of how the universe is going to look, or how the system is going to play. In a game based on a property, like Star Trek, or Altered Carbon, or even one of the canned universes for Dungeons & Dragons like Greyhawk or Theros — there’s some expectation you have for the game world, the mechanics, and the characters.

Often, those visions are very different between the players, and the players vis-a-vis the game master. Occasionally, those visions can work together and bring real uniqueness; sometimes they are in conflict and can sour a new (or even existing) game.

Usually, I write these things from the standpoint of a GM. It’s the role I’m usually given for gaming. I love, so I don’t mind. But vision is something that players should have when creating a character. It’s fine if you want to limit your character building to “he’s a bad ass half-orc barbarian who likes to macrame” or “I’m the hot shot pilot that’s so good the commander puts up with my screwball antics.” But to give them more — where are they at in their life? What do they want? Where do you see them going?

We’ve got an excellent example of both sides in a current character in our D&D game. Artun is a oread — a rare male nymph paladin who is the son of Ishtar, the goddess of war and love. He’s a raging bundle of hormones and need to prove himself. He can’t get through a sentence without invoking his mom’s name. He’s setting up shrines and trying to get her worshippers everywhere he goes. He’s rolling hard into the new Path of Glory that the Mythic Odysseys of Theros. The basic game idea has been woven with (and is heavily improved by) the player’s vision for the character. What is the vision — fame, fortune, and glory. He is hoping to one day be worthy of standing by his mother’s side (or sharing her bed — yes, I know, but it is Greco-Roman myth time, so roll with it.) The vision is both very direct. “I want to be Ishtar’s number one fan” and open enough that earning glory to get there doesn’t interfere with other characters’ arcs.

I can use another of this particular player’s characters from Hollow Earth Expedition to show how a vision of a character might start off okay, then warp, or even fall out of sync with the vision of the game storylines. Le Renard or the Fox is a cat burglar in Shanghai by night, but during the day he’s the elegant B-movie (for China) bad guy in popular films. He’s looking to be a big box office draw, but is also a man of action who just wants to have fun. He gots wrapped up in the adventures of other characters and the gentleman thief side of him just didn’t get play. He started getting into tantric magic that was being used by the villainess and the vision of the character changed. He started to get very powerful, and was steadily being drawn in to the villain’s orbit. He was mostly staying with the good guys because he was hoping to get closer to the big bad. When the campaign went on hiatus, the character had not run his course, rather he had run off the rails. He was not what the player had envisioned; he had been changed by the storylines — the vision of the GM and other players — and was no longer really the character he had saw for himself.

You see this from the GM perspective, as well. You have an idea for a campaign. You have an idea of the story waypoints — the parts of the story that “have to happen”, but can fit inside the direction the characters take so as not to railroad them. you might have a very specific endpoint. When I ran a Battlestar Galactica campaign over five years and multiple changes of players, I had certain events that “had to happen” but could be done with variations on a theme (mostly riffing off of events from the “new” show.) There had to be a successful Cylon attack, a finding Kobol moment, the discovery of Pegasus, something to possibly bring the enemies together (or really fire up comflict), and I had hoped to end on Earth with a discovery that pulled together the whole universe. Events in the game were driven by the players and took us way off track from time to time, but ultimately, the main points happened and the end was what i’d hoped for. The vision of the game world and the point of the story were clear in my mind, so that i could roll with the punches as players came in or left, requiring me to change or drop plot threads. This campaign, as a result, was hugely successful.

My Hollow Earth Expedition campaign did not have a solid vision. I had a few ideas about what I wanted to see happen, but mostly I followed the characters’ leads…which lead to the game not having a solid through line, no real “point” to the stories, and ultimately, it got a bit boring for me.

Not every universe you play in needs to have a goal, and not every character needs to have some kind of destiny. But if you have those visions in mind and you can get them to work together, it can make for a truly special game.

What visions have or do you have for a game setting, a character, an adventure?

This prompt is truly ambiguous… thread. So what to do with this one?

There’s a lot of way to craft a story, be it a novel, a movie, TV show, or a game. You have a lot you can weave with. There are the characters: what about their personalities, their goal, their weaknesses, can be used to drive them and the story. How do you tie them to the story in a meaningful way that isn’t driven by “you meet in a tavern…” Why are they doing what they are doing? Is it just a job? Is it chance? Did their plane crash and they are forced together? Is it personal? How do their goal intersect, compete, antagonize, or complement?

How do the stories tie together? Are you going to do a series of stories that are discrete, like a pre-1990s television show? Are they tied together tightly, like a season of Babylon 5, or is there a combination, with discrete adventures that aren’t tied to the main narrative? (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex had an interesting way of doing these: there were “complex” — or “push” episode that moved the arc, and “stand alone” episode that were, at most, tangentially connected to the season arc.) Being able to tie the personal ambitions and flaws of the characters to what stories you pitch at the players, and how they unfold.

And interesting idea I’ve been using is threading an overarching historical line through our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. The characters have changed from one game to the next, along with where in the collapsing then resurgent Roman empire they happen. The events of one campaign play into setting up the world for the next. Plot threads from the early campaigns play into new ones, or disappear only to reemerge a campaign down the line. It’s much more complex that i had anticipated, and seems to be paying off for the players.

So how do you “thread” in your games, in your characters?

Two of the topics I suspect will be flying around concerning Change in RPGs will be 1) the rise of the “social justice” crowd in RPG publishing, and 2) gaming via the internet. I’m focusing on the second, because I like my politics separate from my fun.

For the last six months, people have been effectively under house arrest around the world, so how do you get together to play? A lot of folks don’t like change or technology, and while I’m not one of them, I will admit I found online gaming annoying, but that’s another reason we’ll leave out here.  In our case, a small number of the group just continued to meet as usual, others joined virtually. The change in feel was palpable for me. There’s a real separation that the screen creates, but it’s better than the distance gaming via speakerphone we used to do in the late nineties/early aughties. (And may have contributed to my distaste for distance gaming.) You lose some of the non-verbal queues, and you don’t have folks sitting about having food and drink together. (Although the amount of drinking going on via distance gaming was spectacular…well, not driving home, so why not?)

What changes with gaming via screen? What platforms are you going to use? How do you ensure honesty? There are plenty of online services specifically for gaming. There’s Roll20, there’s DriveThru’s Astral, there was a new Kickstarter for Roll, which was promising to integrate the video conferencing better — just to name a few. so what to use? Right off the bat, we had issues with Roll20’s video interface, and specifically audio not working, so we bailed on it, even though it was pretty slick. We’re working adults…we don’t want to troubleshoot our fun. Astral was very slick, but the lack of video conferencing was a turn off — I want to see the players. That’s half the fun.

We wound up using a combo of Zoom — because my wife has a corporate acciount so we weren’t limited to 45 minutes a session, and the audio/video was very stable. Okay…now we can see each other. We tend to “theater of the mind” when gaming, so the need for maps was minimal, but being able to share the laptop screen was useful for pics and maps that needed to be seen. So far, so good. There’s no dice support, unlike other video conferencing like Skype and Meet, but the others were just too buggy when it came to video stability. (I’m sure it’s improved over the last half year…I hope so, because I’m teach through Google Meets starting next week.)

Now to dice: We chose Roll Dice with friends because you could set up your own rooms and see the other players’ rolls. It was mostly good, but we did have nights were it was just a kludged mess.

We played this way for a month or two, before finally deciding to just get together as usual. It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately, it lost the main thing for me about gaming — not telling stories, or being creative, but being social. Getting together with friends to be 13 year old rolling bones and forgetting all the adult shit for a few hours. If anything, the coerced nature of our Zoom sojourn — at least for me — was a major reason I wanted to get away from it. Would it be good for playing with long-lost friends scattered over the globe? Absolutely. Are there some that will want to continue playing this way instead of getting together? Sure.

But it’s not for me.

What did you use? are using? to get around the kung flu madness…or just to connect with other players around the world. What works? What doesn’t? Comment, peoples!

The prompts for RPGaDay this year are much more freeform than in years past. Beginning is the first day’s prompt and there are so many ways to go with it. I could talk about discovering D&D when I was eleven or twelve, and how role playing games gave me the escape from the world I needed at that time, and gave me new friends throughout the finally years of  school.

Instead, I’m going to talk about beginning new games. What system or games do you pick, and why? This has been a year of new games for me. The group started rotating campaigns — something I used to do but for a few years fell out of, concentrating on one particular campaign at a time for a year or more. Since the new group came together I returned to Dungeons & Dragons for the first time since high school 35 years prior. I found 5th edition combined the best aspects of AD&D and some newer RPG design and the use of Lion’s Den’s fantastic Game Master 5 and Fight Club 5 apps helped me keep things sorted without having to thumb through rules books (although they need you to add to the compendiums and character choices; it’s OSR only, but you can add stuff.)

We tried Free League’s Tales from the Loop and enjoyed a bit of nostalgia for our youths. Beginning the game led me to do something I’ve never done: use a canned first adventure. I used — with modifications — one of the published scenarios that dealt with, essentially, Transformers to give one of the players buy in. Fortunately, the current group is much more willing to buy in and try new things than it seems a lot of players out there are, just going by blogs and Facebook posts.

We started a Star Trek campaign set in the Discovery period and I had to craft a beginning that would hook the players. This revolved mostly around a very un-Star Trek premise: that not every bit of tech in the universe is perfect. They experienced a totally random, but spectacular failure that killed several people and turned out to be due to faulty workmanship at the Starfleet repair yards, which had been overworked by the end of the Klingon War operational tempo.

We tried Alien, using the same basic mechanics as Tales from the Loop. Again, I started with their canned “cinematic” adventure, then hopped to a campaign that revolved around the discovery of the scenario’s ship, Cronus, and the Engineers’ black goo. That quickly fell into the background as they were involved in corporate espionage that eventually led up to the uncovering of a secret lab working on all manner of horrors. I steer away from horror; it’s hard to do well and required buy in from the players. mine are not the horror types. (Well, maybe the Ghostbusters style of “horror”…)

We’ve trying short but interlocking D&D campaigns set not in a generic fantasy world, but in a Late Antiquity Europe where Rome’s fall was saved by the characters in the first campaign, a possible king of Britain (and son of the new emperor) rose in the second game, and the third has a group adventuring on the Roman/Persian border in the aftermath of the newly revived Rome thanks to the return of the gods of old.

I’m going to have to try and get the players to buy in a beginning a new campaign in the upcoming The Troubleshooters RPG that I backed on Kickstarter, a Franco-Belgian comic-style adventure game (think Tintin.) I’ve read through the quickstart rules and they seem quite workable.

So many new beginnings, so many new worlds and characters.

From Russia with Love introduced James Bond fans to the AR-7 .22 survival rifle. A modern take on the survival rifle is produced by TNW in Oregon: the Aero Survival Rifle. The Aero (or ASR) can be purchased in a solitary caliber, or in a kit that allows for multiple calibers and includes a backpack designed for carrying the weapon. The calibers available are 9mm, .357 SIG, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 10mm, and .460 Rowland, and changing the barrel and bolt face allows for a rapid change between loads. The ASR also uses the nearly Glock magazine. The ASR ships with an extended magazine to places without ammunition limitations. The weapon is lightweight, quick to bring to bear, and can be equipped with iron sights or other optics. The butt is adjustable for reach.


The following are the specs for the ASR in 9mm or .357 SIG: PM: +1   S/R: 2   AMMO: 10/17/30   DC: G   CLOS: 0-15   LONG: 40-100   CON: n/a   JAM: 97+   DRAW: 0   COST: $700US; GM INFORMATION: The .40 S&W version has a AMMO: 10/15/28.

The 10mm and .460 Rowland ASR: PM: +1   S/R: 2   AMMO: 10/15/28   DC: H   CLOS: 0-15   LONG: 40-95   CON: n/a   JAM: 97+   DRAW: 0   COST: $800US.



One thing we’ve seen in the Alien RPG we’ve been running is that while rolling is more limited, high-stakes actions out of combat have been leading our characters to occasionally panic. This seems a bit overboard for the usual run of the mill “losing their shit” that people do under stress. We’ve all had these moments — you’re so frazzled you forget what you were doing or where that thing is, you suddenly develop dropsy, you snap at people, you hide in the bathroom for 30 minutes…

So here’s a more appropriate social/normal day panic chart. Adapt as needed/wanted:

Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 09.27.53


pdf coverThe Sublime Porte is now live on DriveThrRPG for both Ubiquity and Fate. This sourcebook includes two adventures and maps to the Old City and “European” City, as well as the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace.

The print versions are about two weeks away (hopefully) as we wait for the proofs to come in.

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