I’m participating again in RPG a Day on my Facebook page and Twitter, part of a growing tradition of speaking openly about the much beloved, but often obscure hobby of tabletop role-playing. The following are my first seven days of questions.
Day 1: What do you love about RPGs?
I love the cooperative creation of stories. When you read a book, it’s only ever what the author wrote. When you play a video game, it’s only ever what the programmers put in. With roleplaying games, there are no limits. It is active, ‘living’ storytelling. Your actions and the actions of your fellows change the course of the story in ways that can surprise and delight everyone involved. The combination of multiple voices creates a story no one person could craft. It means that every game is different. I’ve run the same scenario with different groups of players, and had totally different experiences, totally different stories, even though the framework started out the same on both.
Day 2: What do you look for in an RPG?
1: Interesting, captivating setting. This is really the most important thing. The setting and the characters that might exist within it are the main draw to any game.
2: Inspirational art. Don’t judge a book by its cover? Well, no. Don’t judge it by that, but there’s no denying that art helps to set the stage. Art in RPGs does a lot of legwork in setting the tone, the mood, and the style of the world within. It also gets the creative juices flowing. There’s an image in the original Fading Suns rulebook that spawned a whole campaign idea. Without that image, I likely wouldn’t have come up with the story I did.
3: System that is easy, flows, and gets out of the way of the story/characters. I have a few favorite systems. The key reason they’re favorites is that they’re easy and facilitate a lot of different styles of play. If I’m honest, a game’s mechanics tend to be the last thing to interest me, but if I read them, they’d better either be easy and good, or easy to ignore in favor of a system I prefer. For example, I recently read the 3rd edition of Skyrealms of Jorune, and found the system kinda clunky. But it would also be very, very easy to ignore the mechanics and plug in something I’m more familiar with, and know works, like Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing.
Day 3: What gives a game ‘staying power?’
It’s definitely the setting and the setting’s potential (interesting people & locations, with lots of details, but lots of questions to explore). There’s gotta be a lot of different types of stories to tell, a variety of characters to tell them with. When I’m reading a basic book, or a supplement, I should be coming up with tons more stories than I will ever have the opportunity to tell, and characters I’ll never have a chance to play. Unfortunately, it seems another element in staying power is a certain level of middle-of-the-road-ness. I love Call of Cthulhu, but taken purely as presented, it’s more of a generic, pulpy adventure game with horror overtones, than it is an existential dread filled exploration of Cosmic Horror. Of course, Dungeons & Dragons is about as generic as it gets. It’s “FANTASY.” Traveller has been around forever, and it was made to be a generic Science Fiction game.
Day 4: Most memorable NPC?
A bit of a cheat, but I really liked when a guest player took control of an NPC. I was absolutely ripping off “Event Horizon” for a Babylon Project (the “Babylon 5” rpg) game and the guest player was playing the Sam Neill character. The whole thing went extremely well, and nobody expected the crazy twist and reveal. And having a guest player take the role helped with the whole vibe. It also helped that the guest player was, I believe, the only one in the group who had seen the film.
Day 5: Favorite Recurring NPC
This one is a challenge, not because there weren’t any, but because it’s been so darned long since I was in long term game that featured much in the way of recurring characters. In the last Ars Magica game I played, there were four old magi, each one very powerful, but very strange, who ran a winter covenant our characters had been recruited to join. They were fun. But that was 20 years ago, and things are foggy, now.
The Questions from day 4 and 5 reminded me that I need to do a better job with NPCs. I know I use them, and I know that, in the moment, they’re interesting and help the story. Yet, I don’t remember any of the ones I’ve used, and that seems wrong. The next time I run a game, I want to try to put more effort into making a few really good, really interesting, really memorable NPCs that I and perhaps my players will talk about for years. How does one do that? I’m not sure. But that’s a goal for the future, for sure.
Day 6: How can players make a world seem real?
This is a big question. The GM/DM/Referee’s job (one of many jobs) is selling the world to the players. Yet, the players must do their part. To start, players should pay attention. They should ask questions. They should always try to keep in mind who their character is and act accordingly. Bringing excitement and curiosity, and helping to drive the story will help make it feel like a living world. There’s so much (needed) advice out there for game masters, but there’s not nearly enough out there on how to be a good player. The whole point of RPGs is that it’s not passive entertainment. So, sitting down and letting it all happen defeats the point, and hurts the game.
Day 7: How can the GM make the stakes important?
I’m not a big proponent of killing characters (except in Call of Cthulhu), unless there’s a good story reason or the player is being exceptionally stupid. Character death is one of the more profound tools a writer can have to remind readers/viewers of the stakes, but it doesn’t work as well in a game. So giving the stakes some weight usually means trying to keep things tied in to the character. Look at their background or at what the characters have done or been through, and grow future events from those things. If a character is from a noble house, bring in some element that might cast dishonor upon the family name. If they’re a merchant prince(ss), threaten their market share. That sort of thing. This is another time when player buy-in and engagement can make a ton of difference. If the players are investing time into the game, have goals they’re striving for and plans for their characters, the stakes will grow and intensify, without the GM having to bash the players over the heads with plot devices and threats.
There are more, interesting questions coming up, so keep an eye out. And if you’re a gamer, even a lapsed one, like myself, get in on the action. The hobby is alive and well, and it’s well past time we help bring it out of the shadows.