Tuesday, February 2, 2021

What are You Looking For?

"Mirdon waits patiently for more Pacts & Blades"
Made with Hero Forge, used in accordance with the EULA

This Probably Sounds Familiar...

I hoping to help you figure out how to get what you are looking for in a TTRPG, by telling you how I figured that out for myself. This is vitally important to know if you really want to get the most of the time that you can afford to spend on this hobby.

 I played a fair variety of TTRPGs in my teen years: AD&D (both ed'ns), Palladium Fantasy, RIFTS, TMNT, After the Bomb, Robotech (Palladium veers.), Top Secret SI, Shadowrun, Aliens Adventure Game (Leadng Edge vers.), Cyberpunk 2020, Vampire: the Masquerade, Mage: the Ascension, and Thrash FFRPG

I wanted variety in my gaming experience, and I was very fortunate to have a group of friends with open minds and hungry imaginations; they were always interested in trying new things. They had no compunctions about trying new rules if it offered them a new experience. And I often had new players in and out of my group who were eager to learn.

My 20s was spent playing much more intimate games; I played with the same five people pretty much constantly. While they were interested in trying new games, it had to be a rare occurence, balanced with comfortable and familiar systems like Dungeons & Dragons 3e. During that time I did manage to get in some Shadowrun, some GURPS, and a little Call of Cthulhu d20, and Mage: The Awakening. But I as often found that if I tried to play a system that strayed too far from my players' comfort xone, they would quickly ask to shut it down, which is why I played only a small amount of Fate Core and only three sessions of Changeling: the Lost despite really liking the system, myself.

My 30s intensified this trend. My players locked themselves down to World of Darkness, Pathfinder, and Dungeons and Dragons 5e. I could no longer persuade players to try anything new. They had the games they liked, and that was that. No more experimenting with systems for me, thank you. As this carried on, I became deeply unsatisfied with the role-playing game hobby. I was not getting to experiment with new rulesets, and I had this creeping feeling like I was going nowhere as a GM.

When my oldest son was born in 2015, I developed a hobby of reading new systems and materials, just for myself. Numenéra and The Strange were my gateway drugs to this habit. I managed to get my wife to play one-to-one in Cypher System for me, but I had decided it was fine jusy reading TTRPGs without much expectation of actually getting to play them. I bought Cosmic Patrol, Overlight, and the Ultimate Edition of RIFTS with exactly zero expectation of ever being able to bring them to the table. At that time, I was a work-at-home-dad with a lot of time on his hands, caring for a very sleepy baby.

Lieres is the kind of guy who would ask for a lot of...
erm... specific new subsystems for his game of choice.

When I was buying games solely for the purpose of learning a new rule-set, and maybe playing a small dose of Solo with them, that strange feeling changed and grew when I thought about my TTRPG hobby, and I felt a sense of loss stemming from the fact that my current crop of friends were either not able to play due to time constraints, or were unwilling to try these other games I was exploring. My disappointment was so great that I had given serious thought to just leaving the hobby at times.

But I could not figure out why it mattered to me.

The Blessed Time Crunch

As my second son came along, we moved to a bigger home, and I found myself needing to attend to my oldest's schooling, my time became a lot more scarce. I had resigned myself to playing Dungeons and Dragons 5e and the odd game of Shadowrun, but continued to read. But the problem was that D&D5e is slow as Hell. I would often only have two or three hours of playtime a night, and that rarely let me do more than two or three encounters, even with my best table management skills brought to bear. It was leading to very unsatisfying sessions.

I needed to find a way to play Dungeons & Dragons faster, and with a high-octane approach that made sure my players felt accomplished in every session. And so I hit YouTube for tios, and very quickly found myself doing a deep dive thanks to two YouTubers in particular: Dan "Professor Dungeon Master" DeFazio and Hankerin Ferinale.

Here are two of my favorite videos from this point to give you a sample of each:

Thanks to YouTube I found myself very swiftly doing a deep dive into the OSR.

Here we had a network of game developers doing one or both of two things: taking the frame of fast-moving TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons and then upgrading it with innovations from more modern TTRPGs and from a community of players who have been tweaking that particular engine for decades; or creating new games with simple systems that imitate the feel and pacing of older TTRPGs.

What set the dozens of retroclones created by the former apart was often just one or two things: minor mods to emulate a particular genre here, or a hacked in rule to make some subsystem easier there. While the latter group was looking for ways to create rules that did a better job than the retroclones at creating the experience of Appendix-N literature or the quintessential dungeon crawl.

It was as I was voraciously consuming readily available hacks like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Basic Fantasy RPG, and Index Card RPG Core 2e that I finally understood why I and my Highschool friends had moved from game to game so hungrily, and why I felt so stuck and frustrated as I was reading TTRPG manuals for fun:

I was looking to fine tune my RPG experience.

My friends and I had played so many games because we were constantly on the look-out for a game that could give us a new and exciting experience at the table. We realized intuitively that some games could give us what we felt like at the time better than others. Why not try dozens of games, and look for the one that was closest to what we wanted?

One of the things that I was not even consciously aware of was that reading RPGs was my way of shopping for the right experience. I would catch myself saying things like "I love Overlight's setting, but I would rather have a more D&D-like mechanical structure... the rainbow die thing is too gimicky," or "I like Numenera's character generation, but the Cyphers are too random, I would really prefer to have a way to use the slots like Vancian spell slots that are character type specific."

I was hoping to find the most satisfying RPG experience for a given creative endeavor or impulse. And frustrated when my more hidebound players refused to come on the journey, not because they were totally satisfied with Dungeons & Dragons 5e, but because they felt too invested in the complex rules system to try anything else. They had settled when I was not willing to.

System and Presentation Matter

Now that she's 1st level, Róinseach
is trying to be a little more cultured
The mechanics of a game system does a lot for the experience. Not only does it shape how players play by incetivising certain activities, but it informs the pacing, how it is learned, how immersive the game is, the duration of campaigns, and much of the culture that builds up around the game over time.

You could theoretically play the exact same adventure in a nearly identical setting, but if you use a different system, you are going to have a different experience. Take my 5e adaptation of Temple of Elemental Evil: by adapting the adventure to conform to Dungeons & Dragons 5e's challenge rating system the Temple of Elemental Evil was an exercise in monster-crushing super-heroics. The players never felt the need to spy or infiltrate dungeon factions, nor did they ever seem afraid to push hard into the dungeon. It was most definitely not the killer dungeon of AD&D fame.

 Both the Black Hack and Into the Odd are derived from Dungeons & Dragons, using a d20 roll-under system. But while the Black Hack offers tense and gritty combat that challenges players, Into the Odd makes for terrifying combat that players will move Heaven and Earth to avoid unless they have multiple advantages and the element of surprise. 

The more I have looked at systems the more I have come to understand that small changes to a game can make huge changes to the experience in play. My voracious consumption of TTRPGs was a way to look for ideas that I could use to build a better experience.

Likewise, how a system is presented can make a huge difference in how one learns and engages with it. Overlight, for example, is a pretty unconventional sysyem; it doesn't resemble other dice-pool based games. It is unusual, and yet it was interesting to learn and tempting to try because it was well presented, with useful tables, elegant art, and fits of soaring prose.

On the other hand, however innovative Pathfinder 2e might be, the out-of-order, kludgy way it is presented hurts my brain too much to want to read or try it. My interest in the game ended on about the fifth page of the Bard class description. And it's Art, being mostly character glamor shots with no action or context don't feed my imagination about the setting much. I consider it a cardinal sin how wasted the considerable talent of Wayne Reynolds was by some of the art direction in PF2e.

Looking a game both as a ruleset and as an objèt-d'art both help me assimilate the rules and inspire the kind of game I compose, and how it plays. I cannot help but want to try out multiple different systems to find the ones that come closest to the experience that I am looking for at a given time.

There is No Platonic Ideal of a Role-Playing Game

1973 poster for "Fantastic Planet",
 ©Les Films Armorial Ceskoslovenský
And "at a given time" is a big portion of this equation. I am a voracious reader of pulp and genre fiction, and player of video games. Role Playing Games, for me, provide an opportunity to take the adventures I enjoy in a good novel or video game into a deeper, more intense and immersive experience. One that engages my imagination actively and is deeply interactive at the same time. What game I want to poay depends greatly on what worlds I want to visit, how I am remixing them, and what I want to do there. 

If I want to go on a weird journey, like something out of Fantastic Planet, I am going to want robust rules that can handle whatever bizarre situation might erupt from the GM's fevered imagination. One in which Luck plays A very small role, and one in which violence will rarely be a survivable solution to my problems, like Into the Odd.

On the other hand, if I wanted a fast, furious pulp adventure full of ancient evil sorceresses, Immortal monsters, and dinosaur-riding villains like Abraham Merritt 's The Face in the Abyss, I might be better served with a fast, moderately crunchy B/X Clone like The Black Hack.

If I want a strange tale of superheroes learning to manage their powers, I would consider using The Cypher System with its simple, broad mechanics and easy improvisation.

This isn't to say there is no such thing as bad design, but more often, problems arise because a design choice doesn't match the goals of the player; especially when the designer and the would-be GM & players sit on opposite sides of the immersion vs. story divide. Bad design, where it does exist, is usually the result of either half-assed effort or building a system totally out of line with the experience you are trying to create.

A working understanding of several games and some of the common optional rules out there can let you select the ideal game for the experience you want as you go about planning a campaign.

I Built this Blog to Help GMs be Lazy

At some point, I figured, if I am going to compulsively read TTRPG books anyway, I might as well help others. This is why I started the blog; to help GMs find the right game and the right tools for them by going over the games, adventures, and resources out there. To make sure that the coolest ideas and projects are easy to find. In the process, I hope I can help cure others of that sense of dissatisfaction, just as reviewers like Prof. Dungeon Master, Ben Milton, and Hankerin Ferinale helped me. 

(That people sometimes send me books to review is a pretty cool bonus.)

The Endgame

As GMs become more familiar with the tools available, most get a sense of what baseline they find useful, and which rules they can hack into the game to make it more effective in creating the experience they want to offer the players.

This month I want to write a fair amount on game hacking and popular optional rules for traditional TTRPGs. 

To give my eyes a break from screens, I will also be reviewing a few print books I have sitting around that I have been meaning to review, such as Blades in the Dark and Dungeon World... Both of which are great for talking about hacking the rules. 


  1. Thanks! Your work here is appreciated.

    1. And thank you for commenting! I am really glad to hear that I am helping.

  2. Ugh, I'm the opposite when it comes to screens. Something about my cataracts makes it nearly impossible for me to read light reflected off a page. Backlit screens, my huge computer monitor, are a godsend.

    Black on white like your site is the best. Thank you.

    As for the perfect ruleset, they don't exist, of course. :-).

    I'm a fan of simple systems though, that I can grok easily, and gamemaster around, and my players don't need to know anything about. I like a beer and pretzels ruleset, but with plenty of quick and easy random tables for me to turn to when my improv fails.

    So I tend towards Maze Rats, Knave, 5 Torches, Searchers of the Unknown, Dead Simple, etc...

    After a few beers it's great to just say, "Bah, roll a 10 and you chop his head off." Lol.

    I've removed everything tedious over the years, and my current homebrew is enjoyed by ages 7-68 so far. But I think it's because I have a giant tennis ball sized d20. Fun dice go a long way!

    1. I watch my little kids all day, so most of my reading has, recently, had to happen either on an 8" tablet or phone. With my mild astigmatism, reading anything on a small screen eventually leads to eye-strain. I am lucky if I get to read on my PC screen at all. Books are way easier on my eyes. Making my site easy on the eyes was an absolute must as far as I am concerned.

      I have not heard of Searchers of the Unknown, and Dead Simple is somehow not on my list. I will add both to my to do list.

      At this point minimizing my games to the bottom of my players' thresholds is a high priority. My main group is mostly video game designers and engineers these days, though; they need some level of crunch to be happy.

    2. They are both 1 page RPGs, which of course then expanded like crazy, lol.

      Searchers is here - Check out the 'Refired' versions on page 11 and 12 of the collection.

      4th Edition here is still the 1 pager, 8th edition is many pages.