The latest gaming tag to do the rounds on Twitter is that of #RPGStruck4, where people post up images for 4 games that define them, my own post for it was this:
and while most people have been posting without explanation I wanted to briefly dig into why these four games are personally significant.
- Torg – Long after it had gone out of print this was my introduction to tabletop gaming. I’d LARPed before, I’d participated in freeform play by posts but had never rolled dice or filled in a traditional character sheet. As an introduction to ttRPGs I couldn’t have asked for more. I was hooked and before long was itching to run my own game, largely thanks to how well Snap, our amazing GM, had run that first campaign.
- Serenity – My first foray into GMing was… disastrous. A massive Firefly fan I’d eagerly picked up the game on its release and dived into learning the system which was very different from what I’d experienced up to that point. I’d prepped heavily, with a focus squarely on all the wrong things and the first session was a catalogue of errors. Somehow it didn’t put me off running games and Cortex quickly cemented itself into one of my go to systems, which neatly leads me on to…
- Demon Hunters – As is evidenced by the plethora of posts about it you could say I’m a bit of a fan. While I knew of The Gamers it was the original Demon Hunters that made me a true fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions. It’s my go to light hearted setting, perfect for both one off sessions between campaigns as well as campaigns themselves. The setting can handle over the top chaotic slapstick as or serious urban fantasy (I tend to drift toward the former) and the writing is just as fun, to the extent that it’s almost as good to read as it is run. The second edition builds on the first with a new system, refreshed lore and brand new comic book look based on the short lived webcomic. Oh and a few adventures by yours truly.
- Legend of the Five Rings – When it comes to games with hefty reputations few can compete with the world of Rokugan and it’s samurai society. The setting clearly defines not only the role of PCs within that society but sets out clear expectations for their behaviour and consequences for going against those very expectations. Framed by the tenets of Bushido and an honourable ideal it’s a world where doing the right thing almost always has consequences, in stark contrast to the kill, loot, profit style espoused by many D&D games. It’s not only a world that I love returning to but once that has influenced my wider thinking on the positioning of PCs within wider settings and idea of lasting consequences.
26th) Which RPG provides the most useful resources?
Quite a wide open question this. What should be defined as a resource? You could go the splat book approach in which case I would have to say Legend of the Five Rings and Corporation. For both of those games the extra books really expand upon the settings and provide (generally) useful additions to the rules. They’re also both systems where I really enjoy the style of writing so having extra books doesn’t feel like a chore to read through.
There’s also resources in terms of referenced information, such as depth indexes and system documents. In that case I’d have to go with FATE as both the core book and the SRD are thorough and easily accessible. Really handy when you need to look up something on the fly. The community for FATE is also really engaging and including Fred Hicks regularly engages with the games audience including commenting on blogs such as this one (See this post from when I was struggling with some parts of the game).
Finally there’s resources in terms of extras that add to the game without being necessary. Spell cards, custom dice, details character sheets etc. D&D and Pathfinder are the obvious answers for those games but they’re the big publishers, they rely on those sort of extras to entice players to keep spending. It’s even seen in the scale of their organised play, a great resource but not something that the smaller publishers could ever really contemplate.
19th) Which RPG features the best writing?
A quick last minute post here that I might expand on later but here’s a few that I enjoy reading for a range of reasons.
Legend of the Five Rings – Probably the best world building and setting information I’ve come across. The text is just a joy to read and really lets you know that Rokugan is a fully fleshed out setting.
Corporation – Another one that is an easy to read and gives a clear indication as to the potential depth in this post-cyberpunk world.
Demon Hunters – Almost as fun to read as it is to run. The writing does an amazing job at conveying the tone of the setting.
Dungeon World – Clear writing that helped me grok PbtA while simultaneously actually managed to make me interested in standard fantasy in a way D&D has consistently failed at.
12th) Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?
Like the cover art question difficult to answer, when it comes to art I tend to appreciate its inclusion as a whole but rarely pick it out individually. Tales from the Loop gets an honourable mention once again but I think I’ll actually go with Legend of the Five Rings. The books are, in general, gorgeous and really give a feel for the setting as a whole. I’d actually say that I think they may be up amongst the best looking RPG books I’ve had the chance to own. One of the most striking aspects is the consistency of the artwork. All high quality and in styles that mesh well with one another. Unfortunately with the transition to kickstarter I’ve come across too many games where the artwork is a mix of styles that don’t mesh or are completely different from one another due to the need to spread the load around multiple artists. It’s an unfortunately reality of being a small publisher but does (to me) stand out more than I’d have expected it would.
7th) What was your most impactful RPG session?
Once again another difficult question to answer as while I can think of numerous impactful games many of those came from looking back after a campaign and seeing how the story arcs had come together. I could mention my first campaign of Torg which saw my bitter ex-cop descend into darkness to become the very thing that had broken him in the first place. Or I could talk about the excellent Smallville campaign by Stephen of Step into RPGs where my ordinary, boring and completely un-powered sidekick character ended up having to step up because those who should have been saving the day were too distracted with their own messy relationships (seriously, Smallville is amazing and such an underrated system). Or I might discuss my introduction to Legend of the Five Rings where my samurai went from having everything he could have dreamed of to a tragic tale worthy of the pillow books of Rokugan.
But those are campaigns and the question was session. Which goes to a game where I was GM rather than players. A Demon Hunters adventure where the players decided to metaphorically turn left instead of right. We hadn’t even started the adventure but were in what was the transition period from the previous mission. One PC was recuperating, having recently been turned into a vampire. The rest decided they wanted to get flowers for her and being a rookie GM I made an offhand comment that that section of the Warehouse (an interdimensional essentially infinite storage space) had been declared off limits for some reason or another. I’d been trying to redirect them back to the job at hand (I’d yet to come across the idea of “Yes and…”), instead they ventured off into the unknown assuming the comment was a plot hook.
We’d not even started the adventure and they’d already managed to break it. I was flummoxed. I could handle players getting creative in solving puzzles or side stepping encounters but bypassing the entire adventure? That was new and from the look on my face they knew how much they’d thrown me.
So I did the only thing that was fair, I literally screwed up my notes, admitted how much they’d evaded my prep and called a 10 minute beer break. Looking back I can’t remember the details of what I’d planned but I can tell you that the adventure we ended up with was far more creative and entertaining. It eventually led to the Chapter imploding in on itself with the vampire PC giving in to her hunger for blood and turning not one but two of the other characters after having been attacked. We ended on an epic fade out with the Chapter fighting amongst themselves in a grand library while trying to rules lawyer their way out of a Demonic contract.
It was amazing and taught me a lot of vital lessons about GMing.
The Fallen Mountains campaign I was running wrapped up a couple of months ago and having gained some distance from it I thought it was time to reflect on the ups and downs of the campaign. All in all I would classify it as a success but I wanted to focus on a few individual bits that went well and a couple where I felt I was especially lacking.
The players. Dear god were the players a highlight. None of them had ever played Legend of the Five Rings or had me GM for them before but they each dived into the game and got it. They understood the role of honour but also that samurai are just human. They let themselves mess up and say the wrong thing while striving to be honourable. They also embraced both the strengths and the flaws of their clans, especially the Scorpion players who both refused to fall into the stereotype of a dishonourable ninja. Being samurai is about walking the knife edge of what is necessary and what is right, what is easy and what is polite. The players got that and the game was better for it.
Character backgrounds. Across the 11 sessions we managed to cover 3 distinct short arcs while also hitting upon at least one element of backstory for each of the five characters. The balance between them wasn’t perfect but each of them had a moment to shine and develop their characters in ways that I hadn’t anticipated at the start. I think 11 sessions was too short to give each their own arc but I’m glad we did manage to incorporate something for each of them into the wider campaign. Which brings us to…
The setting. While I always had an idea as to the mysteries lurking in The Fallen Mountains I’d never really fleshed them out, preferring to deal with it in play. Across the course of the campaign we managed to do so and in a way that really worked. The players seemed to buy into the story of the Lost Legion but didn’t chase it until they started uncovering clues. Until then they treated it as the characters would, a tale from the history books and used to scare children. It made the setting feel like what it was meant to be, a legend, and not just a simple plot hook.
Ending. We finished the campaign and in a manner that was satisfying. Like many people (I assume) that’s pretty rare for me so it’s always satisfying when it happens. I’m also coming to the opinion that those mid length campaigns suit my GMing style. It gives enough time to learn the characters, have multiple adventures and showcase a metaplot. 11 sessions is probably the minimum for this sort of campaign and I feel like it could stretch up to around 20 without feeling like I was pushing it too far.
Not so happy
The second arc. Shugeki’s wedding, the second of our three arcs, was inspired by the introductory adventure from the 4th edition rulebook. For those not familiar with it the adventure is a murder mystery that occurs during a series of inter Clan courtly challenges. The former is the backbone to the adventure while the latter provides an introduction to the system and Rokugani culture. Taking place at court it is very heavy on NPCs and in the end I just wasn’t happy with my portrayal of them. The NPCs were introduced too quickly to get a feel for them or build proper relationships with them. Likewise I didn’t feel like I’d introduced enough characters to really widen the suspect pool. Maybe that’s the best way to go, it works in TV shows where only the prime suspects ever get any real screen time but it felt forced here and isn’t an adventure I would feel comfortable running as a one shot or opening arc. I think it could work well as part of a longer campaign with a cast of established NPCs. Despite my misgivings about the overall structure of this arc it did introduce one of the best moments of the campaign, with one player fully diving into the role of being a Kolat sleeper agent and then having to commit Jigai to atone for her sins.
Combat. At the outset I’d been expecting a combat heavy game and things just didn’t go that way. Partially because of the players circumventing it (which I’m all in favour of) and partially because of how the plot progressed. When it came to the final adventure there was combat but I failed to adjust it to take into account the rapid advancement of the characters (we went from rank 1 to 4 over the 11 sessions). In doing so I failed to provide any meaningful challenge, an issue for a game with a reputation for being deadly. To compound this error I feel like I failed to properly pace the final combat, which was meant to cut back and forth with events occurring elsewhere. A lesson to learn from and I think in future I would keep the game at a low power level, likely Insight Rank 3 or below.
When it comes to GMing I have to admit that quite often I cheat with NPCs and enemies. Not with their dice rolls but with their stats. Most of the NPCs and monsters in my games consist of only a fraction of the detail that would be found in a complete write up.
A lot of the time I lean towards the bare minimum, noting attributes and skills on the fly as required. I’ll often have an idea of their competencies in my head but until they come into play they’re just that, ideas. Doing so requires a level of system mastery that I don’t currently have with Legend of the Five Rings, especially given it’s a system where antagonists can easily out-rank the PCs. To help with that I’ve put together a generic NPC cheat sheet, which covers all of the essential components other than the school specific abilities. It’s geared primarily towards bushi and courtiers. For shugenja rings will be slightly higher, skills slightly lower. It’s already proven useful in my current Fallen Mountains campaign, hopefully it’ll be of use to other GMs out there.