The 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set has been with us for five years. It’s sold over 800,000 copies and been hailed as one of the best RPG starter sets ever produced. Now Wizards of the Coast has released its successor, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a three-factor system I devised for classifying tabletop RPGs. After fielding questions about the system and thinking about it further, I’ve come up with what I believe is a better version of that original concept.
Classifying roleplaying games in an objective way that makes it easy for people to find a game that suits their needs isn’t easy. Much of the existing terminology carries the accumulated baggage of years of arguments in blogs and online forums. Theories of game design can be helpful in understanding a given game, but they weren’t created for sorting and classifying games. We need something better. Read more
If you’ve been exploring tabletop RPGs long enough, you’ll occasionally stumble across a game that truly changes your idea of what is possible in a roleplaying game. You play it once and are forever transformed. This doesn’t mean you wind up playing the game until the end of time. But the best of these games provide ideas and mechanisms you can draw from and riff off of in other games. More fundamentally, they help you understand what makes you tick as a gamer, and what aspects you want to explore more deeply.
These are three of the games that most powerfully affected the trajectory of my roleplaying journey:
RuneQuest – I’d been playing primarily TSR games (AD&D, Gamma World, Top Secret) for a few years when I came across RuneQuest. Two aspects of its design grabbed me immediately. First, there were no classes. Here was a game in which you could play a badass fighter who also threw powerful spells. Second, the world of Glorantha, though only outlined in the core book, was well-defined in supplement after supplement. It utterly fascinated me. This was the first fantasy world in which magic and the gods didn’t feel bolted on. A character’s cult affected everything from the spells they could use to their relationships with other characters, and magic permeated even mundane activities in a way that felt organic. This is the game that turned me into a setting nerd, and since then I’ve run multiple Glorantha campaigns without coming remotely close to exhausting its potential.
Apocalypse World – This is a game that combines very clear definition of how the game should be run with almost no definition of the game world. It’s a game that gives a GM tightly-defined tools for putting player characters into dangerous and difficult situations without much prep. Many of those tools can easily be used with other games, which is excellent of course. But Apocalypse World also introduced me to the notion of something that lurks between success and failure: success with a cost. Roll a 7-9 on two six-sided dice and you succeed, but something unintended and bad also happens. This simple, elegant mechanic makes every die roll potentially perilous. It also keeps the GM on their toes, because you have to constantly be thinking about what could go wrong. It’s a supremely elegant way of injecting drama into the game. Argue all you want about which Powered by the Apocalypse game is best, but for me it will always be the original. I’ve run one-offs and short campaigns as well as played, and if I ever get the chance to play it again I’ll surely take it.
Burning Wheel – Few tabletop RPGs are as complex and deep as BW. It’s an idiosyncratic wonder – strongly opinionated, filled with ridiculous skills, rigorously detailed without telling you much at all about setting, and daring in some of its design choices. Combat is unpredictable and frightening. Magic can go badly wrong. But most importantly, character advancement is directly tied to character beliefs. How your character engages with their beliefs determines how rapidly they advance. Stay true to your beliefs and you become more capable. Waver from them and you don’t. This mechanism gives gamemasters so much to work with, so many ways to hook characters into adventures and put them into situations that test their beliefs. I’ve only played one BW campaign and haven’t yet run it, but I’d love to build a campaign some time. The way it provokes the kinds of character growth you see in novels, without forcing overarching story, is amazing.
As a kid I read an illustrated version of Robinson Crusoe, and ever since I’ve found desert island questions irresistible. You know, “You’re stranded on a desert island with only one tool. What would it be?” Read more
I’ve been running post-apocalypse campaigns since the 1980s, using a wide variety of game systems. Why so much love for these games, when he idea of the world undergoing a cataclysm that wipes out most of humanity is so utterly horrifying?
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. But there is something compelling about imagining yourself trying to survive and find hope in a world at once familiar and radically different from our own.
Many post-apocalypse games have made their mark on the RPG world. Powered-armor-wearing-mutated-jackrabbit heroic explorers represents one pole, and count-your-shotgun-shells Mad Max-style survival represents another. But some of the most interesting and unique post-apocalypse games are those that put a whole new spin on the genre. Read more
The other day I came across a post in which a tabletop RPG beginner was seriously stressed out about finding the right game. He had obviously read more than a few “this game is broken” comments and didn’t want to accidentally pick a “broken” game when introducing the concept of tabletop roleplaying to some classmates. His concern highlights a problem that pervades online discussion of tabletop RPGs, which is that we tend to confuse our quest for the ever-elusive “perfect” game with how people actually play games in the wild. Read more
I’ve run several post-apocalypse campaigns over the years, using a variety of game systems:
- Gamma World — gonzo mutant jackrabbits and all
- Aftermath! — 20 years after a nuclear war, using my hometown as a setting
- Twilight: 2000 — the default WWIII-is-petering-out setting
- Basic Roleplaying — zombies take over America in multi-generational campaign
- Apocalypse World — small, isolated enclaves eke out a living, avoiding poisoned skies and other enclaves
- NEMESIS — WWIII-has-just-ended journey across the remains of America
- Mutant: Year Zero —the NEMESIS campaign extended forward by three generations
Along the way I’ve learned a few things about post-apocalypse settings and running campaigns in them. Much of that education has come the hard way, through trial and error, and I’m certainly still learning. As with any GM advice, your game is your game, and some or all of this may not make sense for you and your campaign. So take it as food for thought. With that in mind, whether you’re already game mastering a post-apocalypse campaign or are in the planning stages hopefully some of these suggestions will be helpful. Read more
Just as Kleenex has become shorthand for facial tissue, Dungeons & Dragons is the name everyone associates with tabletop roleplaying. But it’s not always the first RPG people play. In fact, an unscientific online poll I ran three years ago suggests that about 40% of gamers are introduced via other games, and it looks like that trend is increasing.
Of those, many come into the hobby by way of games based on and licensed from specific books, TV shows, or movies. This trend may also be on the rise, as the ongoing sales success of Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars beginner boxed sets suggests. Read more
The Giant at the Table: Dungeons & Dragons
D&D casts a long shadow in the tabletop roleplaying world. It’s the original RPG, it’s been around for over 40 years, and it’s the most popular. On top of all that, the OGL (Open Game License) introduced in 2000, gave rise to a huge number of games built around the core D&D mechanics, and eventually gave rise to the OSR movement. These underpinnings are usually referred to as d20, because a twenty-sided die (d20) is rolled to determine success or failure, but they also share other features such as character attributes and use of classes and levels.
There are many advantages to sticking with d20 mechanics: You’ll always be able to find players for a d20 game, because so many gamers are familiar with them. Aside from D&D you can delve into 13th Age and Pathfinder, as well as Swords & Wizardry and many other retro clones. Learn one and understanding others is straightforward.
But what if you’re looking for something beyond D&D and its kin? Where do you start? Read more