In the early 1980s I was way into tabletop RPGs, and attempting to find my way through the jungle that is the American high school experience. For the first couple of years in that crucible, my friends and I spent many a lunch break in the safe haven of the library. It had two or three small, glass-enclosed rooms that could be reserved for group activities that might be too loud for the common area. Read more
The Internet has radically changed tabletop roleplaying, just as it has changed almost everything else. Sometimes it’s hard to even recall what it was like before the rise of the Web in the late 1990s and the resulting Internet explosion. But I do remember what it was like discovering and playing what were then called fantasy roleplaying games in the early 80s.
There were (conveniently) three things in particular about that era that can never again be the same: Read more
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
We’re living through a Golden Age of tabletop roleplaying, which means games are being introduced in a seemingly endless stream. Some are completely new and some are overhauled versions of games that have been around for ages. Here are three upcoming titles that have piqued my attention. Read more
Gamemastering isn’t as difficult as it’s often made out to be. Is it some sort of mystical power only possessed by a lucky few? Absolutely not. Is it a skill that can be continuously improved? Absolutely. 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.
Alignment is an evergreen topic in RPG forums, possibly because if you put 5 roleplayers into a discussion about alignment, you’ll get 11 conflicting opinions about it. For example, the image above is a mashup of two alignment diagrams for one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Deadwood.
Most game masters have at least a few campaign ideas rolling around in their heads. It’s a natural outgrowth of the GM mentality, because you’re always on the lookout for new ingredients to add to your game. Read more
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