#RPGaDay2022 How would you change the way youstarted RPGing?

I think the real difference between when I started playing RPGs and now is that back then, nobody (except a very few thousand people in the whole world) actually knew what an RPG was. Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago my kids were playing with Lego. They had each built a small community of figures (and their houses), who were “mining” the pile of Lego and trading bricks with each other. Eventually a disagreement led to a declaration of hostilities between the two communities, and then between the two children as one of them claimed the other’s action (I can’t recall the specifics) was unfair.

At this point I intervened, explaining that when there is a disagreement in “grownups’ games of let’s pretend” they often roll dice to work out who’s idea gets into the story. And soon I was explaining the basics of Fate Accelerated.

I didn’t create two gamers then. Yes we played a few actual games. But my daughter didn’t carry on. The boy retains an interest, but it’s not as all consuming as it was for me. But what’s important is that it was for him and his sister, presented as something “normal” like, for example, playing an instrument, or football.

Laying games was fun when I was a kid, but as teenagers, my friends and I suffered mockery and bullying from our peers. I could have done without that. And it seems this generation of gamers don’t suffer the same derision.

#RPGaDay2022 What is a great introductory RPG?

The obvious answer here is D&D, it has always been D&D in whatever edition is published at the time. Why? Because that’s the game a new player is most likely to find. It’s the game that has the most groups running. It’s likely to be the game a friend plays. And if not, a complete stranger can walk into any Friendly Local Gaming Store and sign up for a game. Until very recently I co-ordinated Adventurers’ League at my local store and every Saturday, we had five to eight tables of people playing D&D. It is “great” because it is big. But it’s not the game I have introduced new players to RPGs with.

When my kids got their introduction it was with Fate Accelerated Edition. They were arguing over a story they were inventing around a Lego town they were building, and it was getting to the “trashing the town” stage of anger. So I explained that “grown ups” setting such arguments in let’s pretend with a robust set of rules and some dice.

I was running a “Great War veterans vs Body Snatching Aliens” campaign in Fate at the time, so I explained Fate dice to the kids, and very soon, Lily’s Princess Leia was working with Tom’s Cowboy in an Ape MechSuit to rob a train. family fun for all. But Fate isn’t a great introductory game either. It uses a lot of words to explain simple concepts. It works with kids, who aren’t going to bother reading stuff, but grown ups?

No, what grown ups need is Alien. The RPG that I helped write. (I love saying that). Seriously, it’s a great introduction because even people who have not seen Alien have a “folk-memory” idea of what it’s about. And people who are nervous about “acting” a character are helped with the character’s agenda. That agenda also helps players expecting with the concept of “winning” a game get used to the idea of a game where you win only by having fun, in a setting where pretty much everyone not played by Sigourney Weaver loses.

I am not blowing this trumpet theoretically. This comes from practical experience, and from anecdotal evidence. Alien has attracted a lot of fans who had no previous experience with RPGs and even encouraged sone of them to start running games before ever playing in them. The simplicity of the system helps in that regard – as far as Year Zero Engines go, this is one of the simplest. (Not the very simplest, Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood are simpler still.) So it’s a lot easier to learn to run Alien that it would be to learn D&D.

Players like the simplicity too. Throw a bunch of dice to see of you get a six, if not don’t you can though them again adding a stress die to your pool. Watch out for ones on the stress dice. That’s all the rules in a nutshell. The push mechanism is fun possibly the most fun of any Year Zero Engine game – and feels so right for the story. Try harder and get better, more likely to succeed, until you panic.

I have recently introduced three neophytes to tabletop roleplaying with this game, and they all loved the experience.

#RPGaDay 24: Pay what you want

“Share a PWYW RPG publisher who should be charging more”*

I’m not going to presume to advise any publisher upon their business model. But if a mate came an asked me how to go about pricing their first RPG thing, I don’t think I’d suggest Pay What You Want.

One publisher that uses the model, and apparently with some success, is Evil Hat. They have been pretty open about their results in the past, blogging quarterly sales reports until the middle of last year. Looking at the one I linked to, they made almost $200 dollars that quarter out of PWYW sales of Secrets of Cats, a game which I downloaded, paying what I wanted (nothing). I chose to pay nothing because I wanted to preview the game. I thought it might be something my daughter wanted to play. It turned out is wasn’t, or rather, though she expressed an interest in it, we never found the time to play until her interest waned. So I paid the right price, it seems. We never made use of the game.

Conversely, I paid a little over the odds on PWYW for Fate Accelerated. I did that because I’d previously downloaded Fate Core for free, and like it enough that I subsequently bought a print version. I knew though that I’d be happy with the PDF of Accelerated, so I paid something like £5 for it. Which is more than the print version might have cost me.

I can’t speak to Evil Hat’s PWYW strategy, but it must be informed by a few things like:

  • They made more than they expected on the Fate Core Kickstarter (over $400,000, against a $3000 target)
  • Their plan was surely to get Fate into enough hands to make it “mainstream” (with in the RPG niche)
  • Most of the development had already been done during Fate’s time as an online System Reference Document.
  • They would also be selling printed versions through traditional channels.

In short, they offer PWYW because they could afford it. So, if I had worked on an RPG product of some sort and wanted to release it. I’d do one of two things:

  • give a PDF away for free, because I work on it in my spare time, it’s fun and I have a salaried job to support my family. Also I’ll take (limited, I admit) game and glory over cash.
  • sell a PDF for what I think my time was worth via DriveThru, because I want to test the market enough to see if I can give up my day-job eventually. If I discover I’ve priced it too high I can always discount it or lower the price more permanently.

In reality, I like my job well enough, and I like eating every day, so I’d be more likely to go for the first option. In the unlikely event that what I gave away made me famous enough that loads of people wanted to pay me for things, I’d look to platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter to put food on my table.

*edit – the more I reflect on this question, the more annoyed I get. I think that it’s wrong-headed and perpetuates a dangerous misconception: it presumes that publishers offering PWYW are not confident in the value of what they are offering. I don’t think Evil Hat would agree.

#RPGaDay 23: In which I rant (again) about graphic design

Please, please, please, graphic designers and layout artists (or rather, I suspect, commissioning editors), will you just STOP faffing about with overly fussy layout?

Just because the costs of full colour production have come down to meet the price that RPG geeks seem willing to pay for books, it doesn’t mean we need to have colour splashed across every page! Something started going wrong with RPG layout design in the nineties, but I’m not going to look back on the past – rather I’ve going to survey some of the books I’m using now to make my point. Which is, I’ve spent forty years imagining fantasy worlds, I don’t bloomin’ need the page to look like parchment or vellum to evoke the spirit of the game.

RPG books are technical manuals. and you don’t see Haynes setting their text and diagrams against a background of vinyl upholstery to “evoke the spirit” of a Mark II Ford Escort. I want to understand the rules. I want to be able to flick back and forth while I’m learning the game. I want to look stuff up quickly. I might well want to print some pages out to share with players at the table. I want CLEAR, CONSISTENT, INTUITIVE DESIGN. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so. I have a lot of love for Coriolis, but why oh why is it all so black?!

Yes, I get “Darkness Between the Stars” and all that but even the main body text is printed on blue. And what’s with all those frames around the body columns? What an extravagant waste of space. The book would be a hundred pages shorter if it was printed black on white.

It seems to be a particular problem for science fiction RPGs. Traveller in its very first edition was the epitome of elegant simplicity. The latest version from Mongoose, while edited so much better than their first version, is full of fussy design.

Well at least its not black, but we’re not going to be using those pages to mapping out the galaxy so why are the covered in hexes? And that the hell is that metallic-edged starfield at the top and bottom of the page meant to be anyway? An extremely thin window in your spaceship?

Firefly, laid out by the brilliant Daniel Solis, at least pushes the graphic fluff to the edges of the page. And also takes its inspiration from some of the interfaces seen on that short-lived TV show.

The “telephone directory”* tabs on the edge of the page help you navigate the book, and some of the graphic elements are actually there to explain the rules, in this case how the dice pools work.

I like those graphic tabs on the edges of pages, so I get particularly annoyed when some sort of graphic element used there has no point at all. Will the current offender, Symbaroum, please take the stand:

This and the entirely unnecessary “parchment” effect spoil an otherwise nice, understated design that lets evocative art take centre stage. There’s even a little design element that I really like on this page. See that little notch in the illustration, up near the top of the page? That appears only where the title in the text is the thing being illustrated, taking the place of a caption.

Readers can do without most of these other useless graphic elements. And the Warren proves it.

Simple, one-column text, using colour to differentiate examples. Full page illustrations on opposite pages, only rarely is their an illustration on the same page as text, and where it happens, frankly it spoils the design. Far better are the quotes from rabbit related literature.

The Warren though, is a short game, and longer texts can make navigation easier with graphics. Fate is, I think, one of the best designed examples.

Telephone style tabs on the page edges work better in this book than in Firefly or any other book they’ve appeared in. I think that’s because of the simple black and white design, which makes for very clear blocks on the closed book. Pelgrane uses a similar feature for Night’s Black Agents, but its less useful there because its impossible to remember which chapter a rule might be in. Another thing I like about Fate is the marginalia, pointing making it really easy to find definitions or related rules. In the PDF of course, these are all hotlinks.

All in all I think Fate is the best designed RPG ever. But that doesn’t stop me giving credit to the clean design of Unknown Armies third edition.

This from a scan of the book, because the PDF is subtly different, with hot links to all the different chapters down the edge of the page. But you can see this uses the margins to point to related rules too. An honourable mention goes to small presser Phil Day’s Sol, which was an attempt to push RPG deign in a different direction, a 21cm tall 9cm wide  pocket sized handbook is all you need to play, with a character sheet on a fold-out back cover. Stark two colour design, showcased some effective black and white illustration. Here’s one double page spread:

But… but the closest I ever came to a jaw dropping RPG layout, I admit, commits most of the sins I rail against above. Not only that, the typeface is a couple of points too small for comfortable reading. I saw this PDF on special offer for just £5, a LOT cheaper than usual. I had no intention of playing it. But I fell in love with it, as I’ve recounted elsewhere. It’s Legend of the Five rings, in all its full colour “lets print a ‘paper’ texture onto our paper” glory.

Now, I run it, I play it, and I’ve spent too much on buying it. Its not the best RPG design, but I think its my favourite.

*A note for younger readers. Once upon a time people had to write down the addresses and telephone numbers of the people they wanted to stay in touch with, in a little book.

#RPGaDay 21: Fate (Accelerated Edition)

Which RPG does the most with fewest words?

My real answer to this is: “let’s pretend”, roleplaying in its purest form. Two words = everything a child can imagine. Beat that, Lady Blackbird. But the problem comes when two children imagine different things: “BANG BANG! I shot you, you’re dead!” “No I’m not! You missed!” So the hitherto collaborative, story (no GM in sight) breaks down in recrimination and somebody crying all the way home.

A few years back, my kids were building an intricate Lego world, with bases, trading, raids and treaties. They fell to arguing eventually. A offered as a system to resolve their argument, Fate Accelerated Edition. It’s more than two words, more than Risus, The Black Hack or many shorter rulesets. But the imagination is unlimited.

#RPGaDay 15: Fate

Day 15: Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most

A lot of people seem to have a problem with Fate’s “complexity”. I don’t. I can’t claim to be a very good Fate GM, or even to have read the book cover to cover. I probably have by now, but I definitely read it in pieces and I might have missed a bit. Perhaps the bit I missed was the complex bit. But I muddle along, and my players seem to have a good time. 

And it’s strength is that it can be adapted to anything. It’s isn’t even a game until you’ve created one out of the tops it provides. You can’t pick it up and say “this is a game about space cowboys, and this is how it works” but you can most definitely pick it up and say, “lets play a game of shape cowboys, how should it work?” And with the help of a few universal rules, you are off! Not maybe within ten minutes, but it takes less than an hour to create a world, and your characters, and thet hour is also fun. 

Perhaps it’s the lack of numbers people don’t like, the emphasis on words. “How do you know how high the cliff is?” They cry. I’d reply: “They are called ‘The Cliffs of Insanity’, they are very high.”

I’d argue that games with more numbers (and don’t get me wrong, I like games with numbers) are trickier to adapt, because you have to have a go at balancing those numbers out. 

In Fate you can make anything, a character, a world, a game, with just three sentences.  

#RPGaDay 13: Play to find out!

Day 13: Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

It didn't go how I expected. I was running Fate. We'd created the campaign in the manner described in the book, through conversation, and had ended up with "first world war veterans vs. cannibal body-snatchers from space." The first session saw a PC death and his body being taken over by an alien, which that player played until its inevitable discovery halfway through the second session.  At which point, his new character was introduced as a liaison from a nascent anti-alien intelligence unit. I thought we were heading in the direction of a conspiracy thriller, but with overtones of possibly co-opting alien tech to give the Brits an early start in the space race. When the PCs killed the rocket scientist I introduced, because "he knew too much" I realised that wasn't going to happen.

Indeed that session, I'd prepped a load of leads and hooks which the players (literally) burned through. And I realised that, although the aliens might indeed be real, this was the story of coping (badly) with PTSD, and paranoia. The aliens wore their human flesh like skin-bags, cut them and you could see the chitinous armour underneath, so our crew quickly got into the habit of regularly cutting their fore-arms to prove they were human. The self-harm analogue did not not go un-noted.

I filled a house with clues, and they burned it down, straffing the escaping (innocent) occupants from the air "just in case". I didn't care that all my prep was destroyed in that fire, I was sitting back and enjoying watching the paranoid characters rationalise terrible, terrible decisions. It was the easiest GMing I'd ever done.

Afterwards, my face ached from grinning.  I'd had such fun without doing anything. The players were having fun too, and yet we were also affected by the profound trauma the characters were experiencing. These were truly broken people.

What it taught me, or rather reaffirmed, is what they say among the "Agenda"s of Powered by the Apocalypse games:

Play to find out

I am absolutely converted to low prep now, both as a GM and as a player. In my teens, I used to spend hours crafting the worlds and histories that we explored around the table. As an adult with jobs and other responsibilities, that level of work was no longer possible for my GMing, but I still enjoyed thinking about my character's backstory. What I've learned is that all that prep, and a GM or as a player than actually limit what goes on at the table.

All you need (as a player or GM – I can't say this enough) is the situation. Play with show you what happens, play will uncover your backstory.