Sunday, October 10, 2021

I Don't Think I'm Going to Allow Elves to be Playable Anymore

This is going to be a fraught post and I'm not sure I'll articulate everything I mean to clearly. That's not meant as a shield, it's just the truth. I'll try my best though. I know I have a very patient audience.

I mean, for one thing, we can start optimistically. There's lots of great fantasy fiction that's humans-only! A Song of Ice and Fire, Conan the Barbarian and most other Sword & Sorcery, Arthurian Mythology, most other real-world mythologies, most fairy tales and fairy tale-inspired fiction (e.g. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and whatnot), most gothic fantasy/horror (e.g. Dracula), most pirate-y fiction, and so on. And others are human-centric to the point that things which may be called "dwarves" or "goblins" or whatever else are either clearly not societies or they're so peripheral to the action that "playing as one" wouldn't make much sense at all. Hellboy, Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, et cetera.

So if anything, it's really the default option, right? Elves and dwarves are the exception. Everyone should be asked to justify why they are including non-human player options, rather than me being asked why I'm not.

But here I am. I need to explain myself and it's going to be messy. If you're getting used to hearing arguments about orcs and dark elves a lot lately, this post is about that. I've been sitting on this post for a while now. This is going to take me a while to explain my line of thinking but please bear with me. There is a reason for each section in this post. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Gritty Realism: Adventuring in Weeks, Not Days

Because apparently this is a 5E blog now, I'm going to talk about the Gritty Realism variant rule suggested in the DMG on page 267. But wait! Don't go! You know me better than that. Of course I'll find a way to make it relevant to you and your rules-lite artpunk post apocalyptic furry heartbreaker as well, since I know you don't play D&D 5E.

So there's a type of adventure scenario I like to call a "Die Hard plot." It's not a good name, but it's what I always think of. In the movie Die Hard, the whole ordeal takes place within a single evening. The movie almost happens in real time! It's a really jam-packed day. See also:
  1. The Warriors
  2. The Avengers (well, like 90% of it)
  3. Night of the Living Dead
  4. Clue
  5. Dredd
  6. The Goonies
  7. Escape From New York
  8. 24 (the TV show)
...and plenty of others. Now of course, lots of movies take place entirely within 1 day. But these ones here are specifically all movies that are a great model for D&D ADVENTURE! Sure, My Dinner With Andre takes place in one day, but that's because it's just a dinner conversation. These movies are set within a single day in spite of how much crazy shit happens within them.

Every movie on that list is great (and 24 is okay I guess), and you should steal from them occasionally. But the main appeal of Gritty Realism is that it affirms a simple truth: you can't run an entire campaign of just Die Hard plots. Or rather, I think you probably shouldn't.

I'd like to talk about this at length and help us all to appreciate this better.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

It's All Levers

Your game is just a bunch of levers. Everything in it, every single thing, is just a lever that your players pull. Your prep work going into a session is a list of levers you know are in your world and what you know will happen if they're pulled. During the session, you'll see your players pull some of those levers and the answers in your prep notes will be useful. You'll also watch them discover levers you didn't know are in your world. If they pull those levers, then the effect may be obvious. But more likely, it's a conveniently delayed effect. Delayed until the next session begins, when you've had some time to think about what happens when that lever is pulled.

You go into every session with a list of known levers and answers. Your Players discover more, you write them down and stall until the session is over, and then go into the next session with answers for those levers and some other new ones.

The game is just levers.


Friday, October 1, 2021

Tricks & Treats: Jack-o'-Lantern Nightmare

Happy first day of Halloween! Have a free Halloween-themed one shot adventure you can run this month, built for use with a Lasers & Feelings hack called Tricks & Treats, created by Octava Oculta (Reddit username u/shardsofcrystal). It's an ultra-lite system fit for all ages or experience levels, and I made a kick-ass adventure for it last year during lockdown. Just follow that link, make a copy of the folder and its contents, and use the materials within to play a fun session of spooky adventure.

Here's the pitch: play as middle schoolers going trick or treating in your typical North American suburban neighborhood, encounter a big horrifying monster that the grown-ups are helpless to stop, use your noggin to save the day. Stranger Things is a really useful comparison here, because it's the perfect balance of family-friendly adventure and supernatural horror. Basically, I aimed for "more tense and easy to take seriously than The Goonies" but "less violent and mature than Stephen King's It." When the monster is present, it should feel legitimately threatening, but at the same time, you won't see it tear a 9 year old in two pieces and spray blood everywhere.

At least, that's how I run it. It's your table, do whatever you like. Maybe you and your group would prefer a game where the monsters violently massacre the neighborhood, but you also decide that you don't want your players to get called a homophobic slur by a shitty 12 year old. Use your grown up judgment on what's best for your group and what you want out of the game.

A note on audience: hypothetically, you could run this adventure for a group of kids about the same age as the protagonists. Pretty easily, in fact, since it's such a simple rule system and the scenario is easy to grasp. However, I personally feel like the ideal audience is actually a group of adults, since much of the appeal of the adventure is 1) nostalgia, and 2) being able to laugh at the cringiness of middle schoolers.

In a couple weeks I'll be releasing my sequel to this adventure, so if you enjoy this one then stay tuned so you can run another one before the end of the month.


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Model United Nations: the Most Popular FKR Game

We don't actually have the numbers of how popular Model UN (MUN) is but we can reasonably guess there's as many as 180,000 people who participate in it just in the United States alone. It's played all around the world by students ranging from middle school up through university and has been around for many decades. And even if it turns out I'm totally wrong and the number of people playing Jim Parkin's ultra-lite Star Wars game actually outnumbers the people playing Model UN ten to one, the point is that Model UN has a Parks & Rec episode.

And yet I bet you don't know much about it. I bet you didn't know that it's an FKR game. And yes, it really is. Not in like a "you know, if you really think about it, it kinda fits the definition!" way or something cheeky like that. It's very straightforwardly an FKR game, and if more was known about its history (it's a bit murky tbh) then I strongly suspect we could probably trace its lineage back to the original Prussian kriegspiel games.

I have not written much about my experience with FKR games before. I've mentioned them here or there, and at least once have pissed off some of its fans. But I have actually spent many years using the FKR philosophy of play! Just not in the form I think that most people would imagine.

I've written about Model UN before so if you've read that post, you can skip this. But I decided to write all of this again for 2 reasons: 1) I think it needs another pass and I've written it better this time, and 2) I think it deserves a post of its own, independent of the context in which I wrote about it in that series. And I promise that if, after this article, it is clear that no one in the RPG community gives a shit about this then I'll shut up about it forever.

But if Model United Nations is one of those things you've always been vaguely aware of from pop culture or the club fair at your high school but you never really gave it much thought, then let me tell you all about it and how cool it is.

A rough outline of this post (with each of these containing some sub-sections):
  1. What is Model United Nations?
  2. The "mechanics" of how it works
  3. What to take away from this for TTRPG stuff
  4. Some fun stories where I gush indulgently

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Iterative Design

If you work in any form of engineering then this is probably a familiar idea. I just want to talk about how valuable I find it to be when it comes to RPG design. I've always really liked that the standard in RPGs is to have new "editions", rather than straight-up sequels. And because it is, to greatly generalize, a fairly scrappy and accessible hobby, we get to do lots of communal collaboration. We build on each others' work. We actively encourage the theft of good ideas (within the bounds of intellectual property rights). Most RPGs list their "Rule 0" as being something along the lines of "the GM can and should ignore or change any part of the game they want to if they judge it best for their group." It's like you have a game designer at every table.

The problem is that a lot of folks are pretty amateur as game designers. The single biggest failing, I think, comes from this very gap: not enough would-be designers are engaging with iterative design.

You look at what's come before and you use it as a basis for what you'll create anew. You examine the previous version to understand its design, paying attention to the context which created it and asking yourself whether or not those same factors remain relevant. And at the very least, the common corollary to that rule 0 is this: "a good GM will first make an effort to understand the original rule's purpose before deciding to change it." All-too-often ignored wisdom.

I especially find this to be common in two cases: 1) people complaining about design they don't understand, and 2) people making poorly thought-out houserules. Let's talk about some examples.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The New School, the Old School, and 5th Edition D&D

This was easily the funniest picture I found for "Edition Wars"
People have short memories.

Actually, that's only part of it. People also need tribalism, and tribalism needs enemies. Also, lots of people are new to the hobby, so maybe they genuinely don't know.

I frequent a lot of OSR spaces online, and while it's far from a consensus, one of the most pervasive sentiments among this community is that 5E D&D is the devil. It's representative of all things we old schoolers hate in gaming, and is the ultimate metric to contrast one's own game against if you want to appeal to this crowd. At this point, "5E" has literally become shorthand for "new school" in, seemingly, most old schoolers' vocabularies.

Which is funny, because I was there when 5E came out in 2014, and at the time it was being called "old school." It was a "return to form" for the franchise. "The legacy edition." A victory for the OSR, who had finally conquered the mainstream. It pulled back many of the trends of 3rd and 4th edition D&D and abandoned the way of the new school in favor of trends that had been started by the grognards years before. It openly embraced many of the specific Zen moments from Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. Zak S, who got credited in the book as a consultant, went parading around GenCon with his entourage wearing shirts saying "Zak S saved D&D."

Don't believe me? Behold, some archaeology: