This was another difficult prompt for me. Focus on what? What should be the focus of the piece? What’s your focus when you game — as a player, as a GM, as a game designer? Are they the same focus? Do they have to be?

I figure I’ll start with the GM approach, since its the role I normally find myself. When you pick a game to run, there are several things you need to consider: genre, overarching themes, plots — whether serial or episodic. What is the focus of a setting? For Star Trek, for instance, it’s usually about exploration and discovery. Does that discovery have to be things and places, or is it important to have self-discovery as part of the themes examined. For Battlestar Galactica, the themes were survival, and at what cost? What is it to be human? For Alien or Call of Chthulu, it’s about exploration of the unknown and finding out that leaving it unknown was probably a damned fine idea. Now die. Dungeons & Dragons‘ focus in high fantasy and wish fulfillment…but for me a game about people taking on monsters took on a different focus (ha! worked it in!): I looked at D&D when I decided to run it a few years ago and saw horror, instead of mythic heroism in the vein of Lord of the Rings or even Greek mythology. The characters were involved in tracking down things that were best left alone, and they should be scary.

What kinds of stories work best in the game setting you chose. Our Star Trek game has yet to hit the exploration theme. We’ve focused on the politics and social disruption that comes after a near-catastrophic war. How is the Federation recovering? How do the colonies feel about being the stomping grounds of the Klingons (we’re set just post season 1 Discovery.), and the perceived lack of help from the Federation? Why colonize — the Federation is supposedly a paradise? Well, some folks don’t want your Starbucked monoculutre, and now they really don’t want your interference in their lives. Which meshes with the attitudes of the colonists in the early episodes of the original show; no one was happy when Enterprise pulled into orbit to do a health & welfare check.

I was looking at the new Alien RPGs quickstart book and found myself less interested int he eponymous monster (or any others) and more interested (much like Ridley Scott, based off of Prometheus and Covenant) on how the corporations and synthetics are endangering people. Space itself is pretty deadly — the horror of the game could come in just the simple things like environmental issues associated with space travel.

For players, what to focus on? Are you interested in your character’s background and how they might interact with that? Do you prefer to leave all that and simply be a 3rd level elf ranger who wants to kick the crap out of some monsters, get their treasure, and level up? Nothing wrong with either option, but it does move your focus — the former might not care so much about their stats, while the latter is probably very focused on the specific mechanics of their character.

Then there’s the interaction of character and story: Does a session of the game focus on the development of one of the characters in particular, with the others playing the supporting cast? Does everyone get a moment in the spotlight? It’s not uncommon, when I’m running a game to have a particular episode focus on one character’s development, with the others getting a chance to do their schtick, but the focus is on the “lead” for the session or two. For an example let’s use Captain America: Winter Soldier — it’s without a doubt, Steve Rogers’ story, but it’s also Bucky’s, and it introduces Falcon and fleshes him out with some important beats, as it does develop Black Widow. They all get time in the spotlight, they all get to participate, but this is really Cap’s emotional journey. Contrast that with Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame, in which everyone gets to do their thing, but the spotlight is shared around between the characters — everyone gets their beat. Another example might be Captain America: Civil War — which really should have been a “Avengers” movie — it’s about Iron Man and Cap’s respective journeys, with the other characters getting their beats, but the emotional development is really between Steve and Tony over Bucky and how he’s affected them. Bucky isn’t the focus, but he is the plot device to make the story move. Giving one character that position of plot device to help define the other characters is a fun and tricky way to play with focus, as a GM, on the players’ characters.

Flipping between all of these approaches makes for vibrant and interesting games where everyone eventually gets to be the lead, and everyone still gets to do their thing.

The phrase “critical hit” or crit, and to a lesser extent “critical fail” (or “fumble”, now), have been in the gaming lexicon since the original Empire of the Petal Throne (how’s that for an obscure game, just to tie in with yesterday!). There’s a blog with the name, a band, a game company, it’s on tee-shirts.

Playing a game your character might give or take a critical hit, but these can happen to the players, as well. The classic critical hit — you lose a character you’ve had for a long time and have gotten to know. It’s rarely a going out heroically moment in old school Dungeons & Dragons — it’s almost always the milk run, the filler encounter the GM tossed together that winds up be fuckin’ lethal.  Sometimes it’s that great level 1 concept you just came up with that walks through a buzzsaw. It can be traumatic. You lost something you created and invested thought, time, and emotion into.

For GM’s, it can be the players ignoring the fantastic plot and/or McGuffin you spent all weekend prepping for game, and they just want to schmooze the tavern girl, or they lock onto some random NPC you trotted out for local color, and now they are fixated on this guy and what he’s about. And what he’s about is the having the depth of a greeting card. Worse, you’ve build up the big bad and the snuff his ass before he can give you the big quest, or otherwise sideline your fantastic denouement. (For more on this, see the 0:50 mark below…)

Worse is when you prep up a game, put time and effort into the story, the NPCs, you map things out — it’s work! — only to have people regularly bail on the game. Or your work/life schedule doesn’t allow for play time. Maybe, even worse, the players aren’t into it. The game just falters and you have the choice or dumping the campaign or overhauling it. It’s upsetting.

Or the game group falls apart. We’ve had groups blow apart due to change of stations in the military, divorce — where friends either drift away to avoid the drama, or take sides; people move away, they have new schedules. If you can’t keep a regular schedule, gaming groups die…especially if the game is the only thing bringing you together. It’s one of the reasons I believe gaming groups should do other things together — be friends, not just gaming buddies. Friendships last if they’re build on more than one thing.

What was your critical hit?

I talked about familiarity and how it plays into the popularity of certain game systems and settings — d20 and fantasy. The “obscure” propt sent me down the opposite direction. Those that look for something out of the ordinary or novel for their gaming. I know a local gamer whose thing is “indie” games, and pretty much just that. He’s more interested, I think, in system design than actual play (I could be wrong — you know who you are!), but there’s also the joy of playing something no one else is. It’s like buying a Moto Guzzi as a motorcyclist, or a Polaris Slingshot as your car; it’s an attempt to be anachronistic.

It’s not a new thing for gaming, either…

From the start, there were obscure RPGs hitting the market. Dungeons & Dragons was still garnering a following when Games Design Workshop pushed Traveller out the door in 1977. The game quickly became the gold standard for sci-fi games for quite a while, but it wasn’t the only sci-fi game. There was Universe, an adequate platform for sci-fi gaming…but it had a way cool map of local space. There was Space Opera — a truly execrable attempt at game design that wouldn’t be matched for awfulness until the 5th edition disaster of Traveller. It you can find a copy of Space Opera, place it on the ground and back away very slowly.

Someone always thinks they can do it better.

To be fair, I’ve liked obscure games, myself. James Bond: 007 qualifies, because it was seriously outmatched in sales by Top Secret — a d20, TSR release. I loved Space: 1889, which was unknown outside of a few players I knew, but as sci-fi picked up on the “steampunk” trend, Space:1889 would be joined by more fantasy versions of Victorian speculative fiction like Castle Falkenstein — still one of my favorite systems, once we tweaked the combat system to be workable. We did that by using a far superior, and even more obscure game, Lace & Steel, as our compass. I liked The Babylon Project, despite the “a bit too fiddly” mechanics that Chameleon Eclectic used for the game, but on reflection had a lot of Fate’s (or more precisely Fudge’s) DNA in it. I ran it for almost three years.

What’s your obscure game? (I suspect the military folks that read the blog will trot out Twilight:2000 or it’s more awful variants.)

Role playing games are hot right now. Hottest, according to the sales figures and the number of people watching people playing online than ever. The self-publishing and Kickstarter options allow more publishers to get to market — I’ve been one of those who has benefited from this for years. By far and away, the most popular games right now are Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and Paizo’s version of D&D, Pathfinder, which essentially the same as number 2 — Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. All are, at their core, different versions of d20. Both are fantasy settings. There are a plethora of settings that use these as their gaming engine, from Greek myth-inspired stuff like Arkadia (a neat setting my daughter has been playing in) to modern spy settings and science fiction settings.

Why d20? Because most gamers start with D&D, and they know the core mechanic. Like driving a car, the controls are standardized enough to jump back and forth and not be lost. Now, d20 haters — and I’ve been part of their ranks and am trending that way again — will decry the lack of creativity in bolting on your setting to d20, or will complain about the way hit points or class/level advancements aren’t realistic, or the probabilities of rolling a whatever are flat. All good criticisms. But there’s something to be said for being able to sit down and play without having to learn new mechanics.

My gaming group loves the old Margaret Weiss games Cortex system. It’s flexible, allows you to craft a character well and design adventures that aren’t focused on killing some fauna for their stuff. I’d love to port everything we play into Cortex, and we’d all be happy, but I don’t have that kind of time…and something having a different set of rules is fun and can enhance the flavor of the setting.

Why the fantasy setting? In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons was a rip-off of Tolkein and Vance fantasy settings bolted onto a medieval wargaming engine. Orcs and elves, dwarves and halflings — it’s Lord of the Rings without the immense backstory. It was to the 1970s reader, familiar. Fast forward a few decades and D&D is now its own genre — high fantasy with house ruled settings to please kids who wanted to play teenage mutant ninja turtles, or fight dinosaurs or machine critters. the races might shift a bit, but they’re all there, but with a few “cool” additions like tieflings (who I’ll admit I like), and aasimar, and and and… It’s familiar, but you can fiddle to get what you want.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ancient, eldritch, chthonic — be it creatures, lost cities, ancient artifacts, or what have you, things old are often drivers for role playing games. There’s no mystery to what, I think. The ancient normally means pre-historic or a-historic. It’s archeological, anthropological. There’s no explanation for the ancient. It predates record. It’s mysterious, unknown. And the unknown is alluring to the curious, and terrifying to those who are not.

Because it is ahistorical, there is no backstory needed. Maybe there’s a prophecy, an artifact that leads to a lost city, there’s a legend (which is almost always inadequate to the task of explaining what’s about to happen to you), or there’s a thing — ancient but preserved in ice, trapped outside of space and time until you screwed it up mucking around in that lost temple in the jungle, stored away in the hold of an ossified crashed derelict on an unremarkable moon. It doesn’t matter, because it’s old and there’s no one around to really explain how wrong you are about to be concerning what you’ve just encountered.

It’s the time version of space — time is something we can’t just jump into a blue police box and travel through (unless you’re playing that game…) and things lost to the past are just as removed as things distant or lost in a jungle setting or on a remote island. You are isolated not so much from people, but knowledge.

Surprisingly, I had trouble with this prompt. My initial desire was to talk about gaming space — the physical (or virtual) location one plays in, and sort of the dream library (not a man cave — a proper library) I envisioned, but it turns out I’m not hugely interested in pursuing that. So what to talk about..?

Recently, I grew tired of the ’30s pulp game (Hollow Earth Expedition) I’ve been running. It’s a great game with good characters, and the players enjoy it, but it’s been one of two campaigns we’ve been cycling through every few months since this group came together almost three years ago. Prior to that, the pulp game had been the main game for the group for about a year or so prior to that.

All of this had been the rebound game after an epic, five-year long Battlestar Galactica game I’d been running. That campaign was easily the best bit of gaming I’ve been part of,  and I’ve been gaming for four decades, so that’s saying something. It remains the only campaign I miss, and I’ve had plenty of games I’ve been in I’ve really enjoyed, because I hit my stride as a GM. So recently, I’ve really wanted to return to a space opera setting…and hence the tie to the prompt.

I had considered a space-based game for the next rotation, while I get my taste back for the ’30s. The two choices were Battlestar Galactica — but I wasn’t sure we could catch lightning in the bottle again; and Star Trek. Recently, I’ve watched Star Trek: Discovery, and truly enjoyed the second season, despite the interminable “talking about our feelings” scenes and the execrable spore drive McGuffin. I floated the idea of doing a “pilot episode” for both and we started with Star Trek. To my surprise, the group — most of whom only had a passing knowledge of the various series — loved it.

Space is an environment that works well for RPGs because of several elements: First, it’s insanely dangerous. Even soft sci-fi can’t escape things like vacuum, even if you use a lot of hand-waving to ignore weightlessness and the attendant health dangers, radiation, aliens, and the forces that speeds high enough to get around the galaxy entail (inertial dampners, anyone?) are still waiting to kill the shit out of you.

Second, it’s isolating. You’re far from things in space, even in a solar system. One of the issues I had with Discovery‘s spore drive (other than the mushroom idiocy) was that it made space small. It was a similar issue I had with the J.J. Abrams movies. Need to get somewhere? Done! Trek has always traveled at the speed of plot, but this removed the sense of exploration and wonder. Everything was a quick nip down to the corner. I decided to use old show scales of speed — they are often weeks from anywhere, and communications repeaters might allow you to talk to the bosses back home, but once you are outside of the Federation, you are aloneGalactica worked so well because Man was truly alone. There were no “head of the week” aliens just around the corner, or life-sustaining planets. “The universe is a pretty barren place when you get down to it,” as Colonel Tigh tells the president in an early episode. It’s why arctic and antarctic settings work so well for horror — no one is coming to save you.

Third, there’s the unknown. You meet things that are hard to understand or communicate with. There’s physical events and things that can’t be overcome (unless you rewire the deflector dish into a spiraling quantum whatsinator…) One of the issues with the “head of the week” approach of Star Trek is that aliens become just people with strange customs…they’re rarely strange. Even with the watering down of the recent movies, the creature from Alien was strange!

There’s a number of great settings that have RPGs attached to them. There’s the hardish science fiction of The Expanse (although after a quick look at the rules set a few days ago, the game looks to be a hot mess…), there’s the upcoming horror of Alien, done by the guys who gave us Tales from the Loop; there’s various version of Star Trek (I prefer the Decipher CODA system to the new Modipius’ 2d20 system), and there’s the more customizable games like Traveler. You can get your Firefly fix with classic or the Fate-ified Cortex, and there’s even the steampunk of Space: 1889.

Get out there.

Role playing games have been a big part of my life. Since I discovered the basic set Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s until today — probably four decades and a bit — gaming has been my main hobby through multiple careers, moves to various different places, sets of friends that came and went, or stayed. It helped me make dozens of friends, meet women, get laid, get married, get jobs (true!) Until I discovered motorcycling in the early 21st Century, it was one of the only outlets I had that wasn’t professional. My first novel was inspired by some game research. Adventures I’ve run have become products for other gamers — shared on DriveThruRPG under the Black Campbell Entertainment brand. (And thus endeth the shameless plug…) There are still stories that I and my gamer buddies will talk about, “Remember that time Antae kicked in the door and the Great Evil was standing right there?” “Remember when that dipshit we used to play with asked the guard [who had missed one of his blasters in a search] if ‘he wanted the other one, too?’ ” or “how ’bout the guy that thought his character was ‘haunting him in his dreams’ because the player did something stupid, got the character killed, and we weren’t a respectful as he thought we should be. I wonder if he’s killed someone yet…”

Stories and characters and moments that still stick with you across a decade or more, and that were a hell of a lot more interesting than your job, or your marriage (or divorce), or your life in general. That’s something to be treasured.

So image my delight when my daughter asked me to run a Dungeons & Dragons game for her. She had watched her whole life as Dad had “nerd night” with his friends, playing games and telling stories. She would occasionally get to roll for the bad guys. Now, I get to share something that has been a delight for me for much of my life I now get to share with my daughter.

She threw together a ranger character because “she wanted to have a bow”, and I built a simple campaign set in Arthurian Scotland, so there was some connection to places and things she knew. She wanted to hunt “undead”, so we’ve had encounters with trolls, hags, and most importantly wights and ghosts. Her mother starting playing, as well, so now we get to have a family game night that is either board games or RPGs.  It’s lovely.

“Engage” — Jean-Luc Picard

One of the primary elements of role playing is interaction. Whether with your character or the other players, the plot, the setting, or the rules, you are engaging with multiple things intellectual, social, emotional, and maybe physical. (LARP? Figures and dice? Dress up?)

A role playing game allows you to delve into a personality you have taken on. Maybe it’s a new character that you came up with yourself that has to be shoehorned into the setting. Maybe it’s a rip off of a character in cinema, TV, or a book, but you want to do it your way. Maybe you were given a pre-generated character at a convention and have exactly NOW to create some personality for this person. Who are they? Where do they come from? Why are they like they are? What are their likes and dislikes, their interests? Are they just you as you wish you could be? All of that is you interacting with this “fake” person.

The character, as well as the player has to engage with the setting. Maybe it is a new one to the player. Maybe it’s an established property that everyone kinda knows the basics. I have a Star Trek game I’m running set in the Discovery period and universe — ’cause I like a lot of the aesthetics of the show (and I get to use the cool as hell Eaglemoss ship models I’ve been collecting) and it allows us to do a lot without “canon” being an issue. They have an idea of the setting, but most aren’t Trekkies (or even Trekkers!) They have to engage with the setting, but it is new to them. Certain things can be assumed; other’s cannot. In a fresh setting no one but the GM knows the world, at first. How does that affect the characters’ through the players’ understanding of the plot and its stakes, or how the characters “fit” in the world? There’s really only one way to find out (short of a massive game bible…and don’t do that to your players.)

How does the story affect them, if it even does? How so? How do the characters react to each other?

When this is done well, and when everything is clicking — when there is engagement — role playing is a magical experience.

This was a tough prompt…unique means the only one of its kind, but it can be used to mean distinctive. Do I go with “distinctive”, a bad synonym of unique?

Is role playing itself “unique”? It’s play, and not unlike that any child does when they are young and pretending to be a Power Ranger, or hunting aliens/zombies/bad guys, or exploring space, or or or… There are no rules, usually, in that unstructured play, but sometimes there are. Role playing has been called interactive story-telling, but people do that while talking over each other about an incident in the pub. “Theater of the mind” — like improvised theater, just at a table. But it’s also LARP. you dress up and pretend to be, well, usually vampires and werewolves, for that. It grew out of board games, wargames, and if you still use minis and grid maps, is it still kind of a board game? Is it unique? If fits in a bunch of Venn diagrams, when you think about it.

Are the game mechanics unique? Roll a die and hit a target number and/or above/below. Add a modifier, or add an attribute and skill together plus the die and hit a target number. Use cards to randomize. Use two d20s and try to figure out what the hell you did. How about some different die that do a different thing if you get a [symbol]. Roll to sixes and get above/below at target. Roll different die according to your ability or skill score to change the probability curve and hit a target. You roll and the other guy rolls: who gets higher? Are these systems, no matter how cool they might be explained, or how the math might work out truly unique?

That bad ass tiefling sorcerer with the androgynous look whose evil but really would like to be good but just can’t because zir a creature of the darkness that likes to wear leather and… Not unique. Look at the most popular race/class combos online. Tiefling sorcerer. Human fighter. Elf ranger. How about that spy you built. Nothing like another character that might have inspired it, but looks a lot like this character. That superhero that’s one part Tony Stark, one part Wolverine, with acrophobia and a bit of geeky wordplay thrown in? Unique? Maybe the way you play it!

Settings…your homebrew is certainly, in how it’s constructed unique, but it might be derivative as hell. But out there, somewhere, is there no one else who threw Pokemon for their little one into their D&D game with a side helping of steampunk because the teenager likes the look of the cosplay? Some of the best “new” settings started as a homebrew of something else — Shadowrun, for instance. Does it have to be unique?

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9, King James Bible. (But I think God was paraphrasing here. ) Is there nothing truly unique? Is everything a bit derivative? And is that such a bad thing? Familiarity with a story doesn’t make it any less impactful or fun; sometimes it’s quite the opposite. That’s why we tell certain stories over and over again, but the permutations are where we make it new, fresh, and…unique.

As you play, the characters, players, setting, and rules combine to make something fun, personalized, and wonderful.

Unique.

This piece ties in nicely with this article…

Today’s prompt, appropriately enough, was “First”, which lead to the inevitable phrase in the title. This year’s prompts are very free-form, a single word for the blogger, artist, etc. to work from in talking about role playing games. So this first piece will be equally open:

My first introduction to role playing was in 1978(ish). I don’t remember for certain the exact year, but that’s about right. We were in Hess’, a department store chain in Eastern Pennsylvania that may or may not still exist (I could look it up on the interwebz and find out but I’m not gunna.) and in the toy section there was a game called Dungeons & Dragons and had this cover:

D&d_original

So, it was at least 1977. I was into the fantasy scene thanks to the animated The Hobbit on television. The one that was about as long as The Hobbit needed to be, not three movies long.And get off my lawn. I bought the game ith my own pocket money, and read through the thing in an afternoon. What a great idea! thought I.

It took months to find anyone else who played. A “cousin” — I don’t know if they were an actual cousin or distant one, or whatever. We played a bit. There was an older guy running a game at the library that I vaguely remember as a fussy rules lawyer-y type. But it wasn’t until the last year or so of middle school that I found a few people who were also interested in the game. We would play all throughout high school, college — traveling to play together when we could — all the way up to the early nineties. I had other groups in that time, but these were the old crew, and when we got together for a weekend of gaming, it was like slipping on old shoes.

The first game we veered away from D&D was Traveller or Star Frontiers. I like to think it was Traveller, but most likely not. At that time, everything was TSR. To find a new game I had to bicycle a few miles into Bethlehem Township to the good hobby store where I got my models,  art supplies, and model rocketry stuff, as well as role playing games, from. Boot HillGangbustersGamma World — we played it all, at least once. But the one that really grabbed me was Top Secret. By this time I was really into spy novels, movies, but the d20 system just didn’t quite jibe with modern life to me. And in 1983 we got the first game I would truly love: James Bond: 007 by Victory Games.

It was the first game to use quality-based damage and results. The first to let you build your character as you wanted (for points) that we played. It was crafted for telling stories, not just fighting monsters and nicking their treasure. I ran that game for the next quarter century and it’s still on my shelf. It led me into working in intelligence. It taught me how to research because I wanted to create a sense of reality in the game. It taught me to pay attention to international politics and history. Hell, I still put out equipment profiles on this blog for it. There are other systems that i like better now, but this was my “one true love” of the gaming world.

Gaming was the first hobby where I felt I was…myself. Which is weird to say about a game where you pretend to be other people. (Maybe i should have been an actor.) At first, it was a bit like being gay at the time — you never let anyone know you were a gamer until you’d either gotten to know them, or you’d dropped a few hints that only another gamer would get, then you got together to play. Otherwise, you might get ridiculed or beaten up. (It could be a rough neighborhood.) You played with anyone, at first, because there weren’t a lot of others doing it. I could only really start getting a bit choosy about the sorts of folks (like the 300 lb. “ninja” who was “make eye contact and you’ve got a friend for life” sort of co-dependent) hang with us. But it got me my first real girlfriend in college. My first wife — found through gaming (and tangentially, my second, as well.)

And yes, I had to look it up — Hess’ was based out of Allentown and was pretty much just a Lehigh Valley, PA thing. It folded in the mid-90s.