Leave yourself room for later. If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing lots of worldbuilding—for my own linear fiction and for the collaborative fiction of RPGs—it’s that trying to fill every last nook and cranny of a setting is a daunting task. And actually filling up everything is choking, stifling. Don’t fill up everything. It leaves no room for the future, and it leaves no room for anyone else.Continue reading
Category Archives: Gaming Culture
Finding a way into D&D 5e
My partner is curious about RPGs but didn’t reliably click with D&D when we played online over the first year of the pandemic. Some of this is no doubt an artifact of that group and its dynamics, and my partner only knowing one other player in that group. Some of it came from their struggles to find the sweet spot for playing their character and engaging with the story. We spoke about that a good deal.
But I think it was also due to D&D simply being… not simple. It’s not straightforward, or intuitive, or streamlined, or… any of that. My impression of 5e as an “easy” system is grounded in decades of playing RPGs, starting with 2nd ed. AD&D before I could reliably read or write. And while a different system wouldn’t have removed any of the hurdles posed by story, character, or group dynamics, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have made the other issues feel more approachable or less insurmountable.
There are plenty of other RPGs to play. The very narrative-focused systems which have grown from the indie RPG scene would offer games more focused on the character and story. Any number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems would have given my partner a more mechanically streamlined introduction to gaming. Hell, I love Monsterhearts and would happily play that all the time, and my partner enjoyed playing that for a little while too (though that group fell apart due to COVID).
We could have gone with Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for the straightforward percentile-rated skill-based gameplay with no (or very few) special abilities. I even could have used an extremely simplified GURPS—presumably with plenty of help during character creation, because that system feels like it’s intended to train future CPAs, and navigating all the possibilities of GURPS is a headache in its own right. What I’m trying to say is, I have a laundry list of RPGs that I’ve played and run before. At last count, most of a decade ago, I’d run more than a dozen systems and played close to thirty… and a lot of them were easier to engage with than D&D. That isn’t necessarily true for every step of playing them, but many have a lower mandatory cognitive load for “effective” play. Unlike with D&D, you don’t always have to keep track of an ever-growing collection of powers and abilities with hyper-specific uses.
But none of those other games are D&D. And that’s the problem. In so many other contexts, in pop culture, with other groups, or just playing with me and my sibs, my partner knows they’re going to run into D&D. And they’re abundantly aware that, for that to be accessible to them in the future, they need to pick up the basics at some point.
Which brings me back to the issue at hand. What other game might I run for them first, to give them a better feel for RPGs before they try D&D again? How might I run D&D differently to better engage them, and to help them feel their way into familiarity with the system?
I have some ideas.
We can talk through what genres my partner is excited to play, and choose a system with mechanics which fit. We can try some solo-play, to give my partner experience with a system without the distraction of larger group dynamics. And we can try a couple different one-shots or brief stories, to let us more-quickly sample the many different flavors available. Just jumping in and trying different systems and genres is probably our best bet.
D&D 5e doesn’t work equally well for everything, I’m very aware. But hopefully we can find ways to play that my partner enjoys, and give them the background to feel comfortable with D&D even if it’s not their game of choice. Wish us luck.
Blood Bowl 2, for socializing with friends
This is not a recommendation, this is just me musing on a game that I’ve been enjoying with my friends for the past… COVID, really. We started playing together in the spring of 2020, when we realized that we weren’t likely to see each other for a long while. I’d never played Blood Bowl before, though I remembered seeing a couple painted minis for it when I was a little kid.
I thought those looked cool, like pretty much everything else that my older sibs touched.
Normally, my friends and I would all see each other in the summer while we worked at LARP camp. We’re also quite close, emotionally speaking; being able to talk to them regularly was (is!) sanative and restorative for me. Given that I’m bad at staying in touch with anyone I don’t see regularly or intentionally schedule time with, playing a semi-weekly fake sports match in a league with my friends was pretty ideal.
The game, however, was not easy to love. Blood Bowl is a satirical mashup of soccer hooliganry, American football, and rugby, and it’s about as violent as it is tongue-in-cheek. It’s also a troublesome beast, full of non-obvious rules and capricious randomness. You can absolutely play an excellent game and still lose because you were sufficiently unlucky with your dice. And you can win a game with a mere tactical victory, while most of your team lies broken and bleeding on the pitch.
In a strange way, I think Blood Bowl was a very appropriate game for me to start playing during the early stages of a pandemic. You have to learn equanimity to play well, or at least learn to recognize when you’ve lost that balance. You can only play your best, try to control what you can, and understand that there’s always something that simply isn’t up to you. In that way, it was quite good at teaching me to let go of trying to control absolutely everything.
Useful, given the world’s circumstances.
For a long time, perhaps over a year of playing the game, I wasn’t even interested in playing with anyone besides my friends. No matter how much fun I had playing, it was often still stressful. And the thought of playing with anyone I wasn’t close friends with—anyone I wasn’t LARP-camp friends with—had very little appeal. A lot of the joy I got from the game came from naming my team and players after good bits, things that I could play to the hilt and which I and my friends could laugh about. It helped that some of my fellow players were into pro-wrestling and convinced us all to indulge in the kayfabe and the creation of faces and heels for our league.
But I think I’ve finally turned a corner. I can’t say I’m likely to start playing games with randoms on the internet, but I’ve finally reached a point where the game feels more rewarding and less stressful. Maybe that’s from growing skill and familiarity, maybe it’s a shift in mental health and brain weather, or maybe it’s something else. Suffice to say, I do actually enjoy the game these days. I don’t only engage with it as a way of maintaining regular contact with my friends (though that is still something I treasure).
For myself, I’m looking forward to more seasons of Blood Bowl to come. And I can’t wait to see whether the Skraghaven Squigbitas can take down that uppity bunch of varsity kids, the Kronar High Neandertals. I plan to watch, and heckle, and root for my friends this Saturday while we find out what wildly improbable inanity will happen this time.
I think I finally understand what people love about rooting for their teams in real life sports. I won’t say that you should try the game, or that you’d enjoy it, but… you might?
Under the right circumstances, you might.
Picking Players: Fun vs Creativity, Quick Thoughts
When making a group of players for your RPGs you want people you like playing with, and you want people who will contribute creatively. The first is more important than the second. Honestly, I think that’s true in nearly any group you’re part of; you’d best be able to get along with them if you’re going to spend so much time together. If you’re spending time together for fun, that’s doubly true. I don’t mean there can’t be friction, but I do mean that you should feel comfortable with them, able to ask for what you want and have them honor those requests and talk with you about it.
Those two factors—whether you like spending time with someone, and whether that someone contributes creatively—aren’t entirely separate from each other. Someone that you like playing with, and who likes playing with you, will have an easier time falling into a collaborative creative rhythm over time. Someone who contributes creatively is likely to add things to your game that make it better, and which make playing with them more fun. But.
I don’t think it matters how much creative material someone adds to your game / story / group if they are not fun to play with or be around. Spending time with someone who contributes creatively while being fundamentally not fun to be around is honestly miserable. If they keep adding new ideas but can’t play well with others, or if they aren’t willing to engage with your time together *as play,* you have a recipe for trouble. When I’ve faced this before, I’ve felt stuck: the player’s contributions are excellent, and feel good, but I’m constantly reminded that the player themselves is just not quite right as a fit for the group.
Without outside requirements to include a negative player, there’s no reason to keep them. Until something changes, their creative contributions aren’t worth the added stress of working around their presence. That doesn’t mean that people can’t change, but it helps to have a certain level of shared trust and context before encouraging someone to shift their way of being in a group. Whether you want to put in the work to help them change their behavior is entirely up to you, and that work is *not* required of you. In the long run it may be helpful for them if you tell them why you don’t want to play with them, but you don’t have to engage in that potential drama if you don’t want to.
Relatedly, paying attention to how other people in your group feel about each other is worthwhile. Your experience, obviously, isn’t the only one in your group. If someone in your group is making another person miserable, that should be resolved too.
Also, just because you like spending time with someone in other situations doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be a good match to play RPGs with. It helps, but it’s no guarantee.
Flexibility in RPGs’ platforms
One of the biggest things I’ve gained through years (decades) of playing roleplaying games is the flexibility to play them in a variety of contexts, via a variety of means. If I had only just started playing RPGs recently, and were I stuck playing them entirely online without the experience of playing them in-person, I am not sure I’d be nearly as committed to them. Nor would I feel capable in them, like I had any reason to believe in my own ability to play and enjoy roleplaying games across the internet.
The biggest impact on my comfort playing RPGs online came from a truly goofy game I played over AIM and some other IM clients, using a home-brewed system to play a dino-loving sorcerer in an alternate history Rome. Yes, I made the “dinosaurcerer” pun repeatedly. It was an incredibly fun game, despite being a clunky system with no verbal interaction and lots and lots of typing.
I loved that game. And it taught me that—with the right group of friends and some good turn-taking dynamics—I could make wonderful fun happen in truly bizarre contexts. We played at a time when video calls were just new, demanding, and unusual enough that we didn’t bother trying to make a multi-person call work. We were absolutely better off for it. We were patient with one another (or at least that’s how I remember it), and we worked together.
If I hadn’t played that game then, I wouldn’t be so comfortable running games for kids over Discord now.
So here’s to practice, and expanding our comfort zones, and finding new ways to explore the things we love together.
Don’t Know Where the Story’s Going, Quick Thoughts
This post follows Be Boring and Be Hungry. It’s all about making characters for roleplaying games, and how to think about RPG character creation from the perspective of a writer.
Playing RPGs recently, one friend of mine was struggling with how to make and play her character. It was not her first time playing RPGs, but she felt less experienced than most of the other people at the table and was anxious to make a good impression and make good story contributions. She has a writing background, and is familiar with arcs and storyboards and how to make a good dramatic narrative. But she was foundering as we sat at the table, sinking beneath the weight of making a character who would be interesting enough to the rest of the players, a character who would have a complete story. She couldn’t see a way to do that, couldn’t see a way to tell the stories that seemed right for the character she had, and couldn’t reconcile her knowledge of how to tell stories with the structure of our RPG.
In a darkly funny sort of way, Continue reading
Good deaths at LARP camp
I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.
Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.
I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.
Building Engagement in RPGs, Quick Thoughts
This pulls lessons from all over, but especially from Apocalypse World.
Roleplaying games are a conversation. Like any conversation, they’re at their best when the people in them are engaged and present, not distracted. Playing an RPG means sharing a collaboratively created world and holding that mutual fiction in your mind; thus, the conversation suffers when people disengage.
So how can we keep each other engaged, and avoid Continue reading
Be Boring: Making fun characters, Quick Thoughts
Last week I said that your characters should be hungry.
This week I’ll add: be boring.
“Be boring” is for your character’s history, it’s for their personality, it’s for their hopes and dreams. Character creation doesn’t have to be a painstaking chore. You don’t have to create a beautiful new being, perfect and unique.
Be boring. Be average. Be a familiar trope. Use things you’ve seen elsewhere.
If you’re really stuck, Continue reading
BE HUNGRY: Building your own Buy-in, Quick Thoughts
So many of the stories we tell, so many of the stories we read, are about reluctant heroes and passive adventurers. But those character tropes are woefully misleading and destructive when it comes to driving collaborative story-telling. Characters like that work in fiction because the creators of that fiction spend a tremendous amount of time finding ways to force the characters into action. That’s time and effort that you don’t see or recognize when you look at the story as a consumer. It’s time and effort that can suck energy out of gaming groups.
This is about defying those tropes, and having fun while doing it.
You don’t sit down at a diner counter and demand that the waitstaff convince you to buy food; you’re there because you’re hungry. You picked that place because 1) you already know they have something you want, or 2) you want to try something they have.
Besides, insisting that waitstaff Continue reading