Monday, November 18, 2019

What Kind of Content I'll Actually Buy or Use

I'm writing this just as much for myself as for others. When thinking up whatever it is I want to write and publish, I try very hard to keep in mind the question of what other people would even want. I wonder how close it is to the kinds of things I myself want.

If you don't already watch the YouTube channel Questing Beast, then you should. There are other channels that also review RPG products, even ones that focus on OSR content, but they aren't as good as this one. Same guy (Ben Milton) who wrote Knave, in fact. Anyway, you'll greatly enjoyed perusing his video collection and seeing all the wild and crazy shit that he's reviewed. There's no shortage of fantastic content being made by creative individuals in this hobby. So what factors make the difference whether I'll spend my money or not?
Here's what I'll buy:
  • If it is cheaper, I'm more likely to buy it. But I've been known to drop 50+ dollars on an RPG (while also having stopped buying textbooks for my classes years ago).
  • If it is system-agnostic or really, really, really easy to convert into some edition of D&D mechanics, then I'm more likely to buy it.
  • If it seems compatible with Underworld, my campaign setting, I'll be more likely to buy it. So nothing sci-fi, steampunk, modern, or inspired by cultures from the New World. If it helps me fill a gap in content for the setting, then I'll snatch that up. By the way, if anyone has a recommendation of some amazing Middle East-inspired D&D content, especially something based on the Levant, I'll be interested.
  • If I can get it as a PDF, I'm more likely to buy it.
  • If it has great art, I'm more likely to buy it. This is probably unreasonable but I really like art okay.
  • If it is dense then I'll buy it. I want the biggest bang for my buck. I want lots of statblocks, monsters, items, rule modules, etc. If you are selling me miniatures then I want lots and lots of them for cheap.
  • If I see myself using it some day, then that helps. If I actively plan on using it, then that helps more than any other factor I've listed thus far.
As for what I'll actually end up using... that's trickier to answer. Here are three important ones that I have big apprehensions about buying and using, and they are Questing Beast's 3 most common review categories:
  • Megadungeons: I fucking love megadungeons but there's a huge obstacle to me using them. By definition, they take a long fucking time to use. I generally prefer to run my own adventures if I can, but I'm okay occasionally running a pre-made adventure. But this is a lot easier if it's for a one-shot or if I can still tweak it a lot to run experiments (which is a purpose my own adventures would normally serve). Megadungeons just aren't good for that. More importantly, when I am impressed enough by a megadungeon that I decide to use it with my group, that means that we will be unavailable to play new adventures for potentially months. I swear, a week after I bought my last one I saw, like, 3 reviews for other really cool ones and I thought, "gee, can't wait to play one of those 2 years from now."
  • Campaign Settings: A campaign setting is an even bigger ask of me than a megadungeon because, hypothetically, it would change everything. If I were to adopt an entirely new setting then we probably couldn't carry over any PCs or NPCs into it, we'd have different lore to learn, adventures with lots of world details couldn't be used, etc. Like I said, I want as much of what I run as possible to be done in my own setting so I can flesh it out more and help my players come to learn it thoroughly. You can't convince me to suddenly switch to Eberron or Ravnica or something. They're cool, but I'm also invested. Luckily, there are some setting books that avoid these problems. They are oftentimes small, focusing just on a region or a world aspect, and they are easy to steal from without adopting entirely. The two best examples are Yoon-Suin and Veins of the Earth. The former you can just use as its own region and drop it into your campaign map, and the latter you can just use to improve your own Underdark. Very compatible with other setting content.
  • Entire Role-Playing Games: This is the biggest ask of all, and one that I almost never make exceptions for. How could that be, you ask? Don't RPG players, especially OSR folks, love trying out new RPGS? It's true, I do love reading about new RPGs and seeing the kinds of ideas people come up with and how they innovate or make decisions and whatnot. But I cannot reasonably ask my players to keep undertaking new learning curves all the time. If I tried a new cool RPG every time I learned about one, I'd be asking my players probably every single week to either dedicate an hour or two of the session to learning the basics of a new ruleset or, if possible, doing some preliminary reading before the session on their own. And then, once we're playing it, they'd have to get used to it, which can take awhile. Don't get me wrong, we like trying new things. But we also like experiencing system mastery. Attaining system mastery 1) makes the game way smoother, and 2) opens up its own possibilities
When I say "smoother," I mean there's a whole lot less rule-checking and thinking about decisions. You'll find no shortage of articles, blog/forum posts, and videos offering advice on how to reduce page-flipping at the table when you need to consult a rulebook, but there is probably no better method than just becoming so familiar with the rules that you don't even need to consult it. I'm not kidding, my group and I have been playing D&D 5E long enough that we almost never need to check the PHB anymore. We've invested in learning one system and it's paid off really, really well.

When I say new possibilities are opened up, that's more complicated. I think there are a lot of ways of playing a game that only emerge with a certain amount of familiarity and thought. Like, when you're new to a system you're likely to apply it in the most straightforward way possible. You are, as I mentioned before, likely to frequently stop and consult the rules just to make sure you understand how to correctly perform a lot of the most basic actions, things that you know the book has a clear answer for. But eventually, once you are familiar with it, you'll know what's possible in the rules. You'll start thinking of better ways to apply them to optimize the system.

Here's an example: in most RPGs, if you want to attack something and harm it with a weapon, they'll have a procedure for doing so. In most editions of D&D, you can expect that to look like some variation of, "roll a die, aim for a number with a certain modifier, and roll a damage die if you hit." So you can jump into any edition and learn the specifics pretty quickly. In 5E, the specifics are, "roll a d20, aim for an ascending AC, add your STR or DEX mod and your proficiency bonus, and if you meet or beat the AC then roll your weapon's damage die plus your STR or DEX mod." And you'll probably not complicate it any more than that for awhile.

BUT... as you become more familiar with the system, you'll begin to see potential strategies that aren't immediately obvious. My fighter has a combo he uses a lot. First, with his shield-focused Feat he got, he uses his bonus action to knock his opponent to the ground (yes I already know that Jeremy Crawford said this requires you to hit first. Our group doesn't care. In any case, you can just assume that this combo is performed after first hitting an opponent). Knocking to the ground doesn't do damage, so it isn't an intuitively sensible strategy. But you have advantage on attacks against prone opponents and the opponent is required to spend half of its movement speed to stand up from prone. So then, with my attack, instead of hitting them with my sword, I grapple them. Again, this doesn't do damage, so it isn't the most intuitive action. But a grappled opponent loses their movement. Therefore, you now have an enemy that cannot stand up. This effect emerges from the combination of needing to use half your movement + suffering a condition that eliminates your movement altogether. So now they are stuck in a position where everyone who wants to attack them has advantage to do so. And it fucking rules.

Now, I know some people who identify as "story gamers" have an instinct to deride this type of "strategic focus" as a power-gamey kind of approach to roleplaying, and I fully sympathize with that. But both I and my group enjoy both of those forms of engagement. Sometimes we like telling a dramatic story, sometimes we like solving puzzles, sometimes we enjoy the complicated tactics of the D&D combat system. In fact, I find it weird when someone says they prefer one style of play over others, because to me I can't imagine prioritizing one as my "favorite." Even people who are quite generously admitting that it's purely subjective and that storygaming/rules-heavy powergaming/OSR or free-form gaming/etc. is their own personal preference, I still find that a bit limiting. Sometimes I'm in the mood for different playstyles. If anything, that's the main reason why my group would change from one RPG system to another: because tonight we want to play a bunch of murderhobos instead of complex characters with intense ethical dilemmas. Maybe tonight we want to enjoy a several-hour-long boss fight with a fairly board game-like combat system instead of doing a room-by-room dungeoncrawl where they disable traps with creative thinking. But no matter what, the full potential of one system's strengths will always be held behind the obstacle of needing some commitment to that system before any other.

So if every RPG can be hypothetically optimized for certain playstyles, when will we be convinced to switch? Well, when it does so distinctly enough. OD&D, B/X, AD&D, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, The Black Hack, The White Hack, Here is Some Fucking D&D, and many other RPGs are very, very similar. They each make small tweaks that are neat and I can see the advantages of, but none of them make substantial enough tweaks overall to be worth switching over to from another, in my mind. In contrast, a game like Dungeon Crawl Classics is certainly distinct enough that, yes, sometimes I think it is a special enough experience to drop D&D for the night and instead do an insane DCC funnel.

That means there's this tricky balancing act. An RPG needs to be distinct, but not too far from D&D for it to be unfamiliar to my players. A d% system like Zweihänder or a Troupe-style thing like Ars Magica could be too big a departure for us to merely "try out." The fucking lore learning curve has kept us from trying any World of Darkness game. Even with Knave, you saw in my last post that I tweaked its language to be slightly closer to 5E D&D all over the place just to smooth the transitions over.

Bottom Line
This is not to say that I won't buy megadungeons, campaign settings, and RPGs. There is empirical evidence otherwise. But I've definitely passed up on a lot of those things over the years. I like buying content that's a little easier to mesh with my game as it already exists. Give me dungeons, especially one-page dungeons. Give me spellbooks. Give me monsters. Definitely give me new rule modules that are compatible with the rules I already use. I haven't read Strongholds and Followers (I've heard mixed reviews) but, at least on paper, it is exactly the type of supplement I look for. The reason I paid for Kiel Chenier's Weird on the Waves is because of hearing him talk about creating a structural framework for running seacrawl adventures. Any supplement that expands the possibilities of what kind of adventuring/storytelling I can do in my campaign, that's my #1 interest.


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