Reflecting on 2019 – Part 1: Gaming

At the end of 2018 I was in the process of rebuilding after a couple of busy years that included moving away from my regular gaming group in Wycombe and then floundering about for a while failing to find a new, consistent game. After moving to Liverpool I’d started running semi-regular one shots at Sugar & Dice but really, what I wanted was a weekly game.

As 2018 came to close I got that, with The Immortals, a (somewhat) regular D&D game that ran all the way through to November of this year. I chanced into that game, as a colleague at work had picked up the starter set and was planning on running it even though they’d really rather have played. So I volunteered myself as DM, with a group of players that were pretty much brand new to the hobby. As I discussed during the round up D&D will never be my go to system but it was a fun campaign and it was refreshing to play for people that had yet to experience so many of the tropes that I’ve come to take for granted.

While our D&D campaign comprised the bulk of my sessions I was fortunate to be able to fit in a number of one-shots, primarily with the main group and occasionally at Sugar & Dice. Those covered a mix of systems and included playtests of material that I was writing for publication (which I’ll talk about more in Part 2). Including D&D I think I ran six distinct systems this year, which isn’t as high as I’d have liked but not too shabby. There were some systems that I’d planned to run but didn’t get around to, most notably Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition and The Cthulhu Hack so I’ll have to ensure I get around to them in 2020.

Beyond gaming with a regular group 2019 was also the year I got back to conventions. Starting with UK Games Expo in June I then managed to follow-up with a series of one day events, BurritoCon 3 and BurritoCon 4 over in Manchester before rounding the year out with Dragonmeet (and a pile of con loot). While I found Expo to be a little overwhelming it was definitely worth the trip just to see how well the hobby is doing right now. The two BurritoCon events were at the complete other end of the spectrum – small, personal and focused on playing rather than selling. It’s pretty much a given that I’ll attend them again in the future. Then, finally, there was Dragonmeet. After a few years away it felt like returning home, an impressive feat given how much it has grown in those intervening years.

Despite all of that the one thing I didn’t do much this year was play. I’m used to being the GM and it is my preferred role but looking back I’ve played in a total of only three sessions this year and each of those were convention games (Victoriana, Marvel FASERIP and Goblin Quest). I’d like to play more but have struggled to find the right games (>90% of everything available locally is, no surprise, D&D).

All of that re-engagement has carried over here to the blog. Compared to 2018 I’ve written twice as many posts, doubled the number of views and more than doubled the number of visitors. While I can attribute those increases to a small number of specific factors (I did daily posts or RPGaDay while over half of the additional views came from my review of the D&D Monster Cards) it is still encouraging to see posts building some traction. I’m under no illusion about the reach of this blog, in the grand scheme of things my numbers are tiny but growth is growth and I’m going to do my best to continue building on that in 2020.

That desire to maintain, and build on, the momentum of 2019 is my core aim for 2020. With the conclusion of our D&D campaign it will include the start of a new Demon Hunters campaign, interspaced with a mixture of one-shots. I’m also going to do my best to expand my gaming beyond my regular group, not only as a GM and player but locally and nationally given how much I have enjoyed getting back to conventions. All in all I think 2020 should be quite a year.

#RPGaDay2019 31st August: ‘Last’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 31: Last

The last game I was in was D&D 5th Edition, a campaign that I’ve been GMing since the start of the year. We’ve entered the final arc and I’ve got to admit that while I have enjoyed it I am looking forward to a change of system. d20 will never be my system of choice, there are just too many parts that I don’t enjoy. Perhaps the biggest is combat. I am really tired of trying to make combat more interesting when a hit rarely does anything more than whittle away HP. I want each and every hit to have a narrative consequence, not ‘you get hit by an arrow for the 5th time this combat, lose 7 HP’. I’ve got workarounds but ultimately the issue is with the system. We’re probably moving on to Demon Hunters next, which utilises narrative conditions. I can’t wait for the change in pace and the opportunity to introduce the group to the wider world of both the setting and role playing in general.

And with that we bring RPGaDay 2019 to a close. It’s been an interesting challenge responding to the daily prompts and I hope that people have appreciated my stream of consciousness approach to it.

#RPGaDay2019 30th August: ‘Connection’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 30: Connection

When it comes to a character generation I’m a firm believer in the requirement that each character have a connection to the rest of the group. I absolutely hate the random party that came together by pure chance or strangers that met in a tavern. It’s just a bad way to start a campaign and I’ve seen too many flounder because the group have no reason to stay together. My exception to this are games with limited run lengths such as one shots. For those it makes sense that a single event might bring people together without requiring that they stay together afterwards.

As for forming those connections between characters I use the session 0 approach, otherwise known as talk to your players. For some campaigns I’ll make use of a more formal approach such as those outlined in Fate or Smallville but most of the time I leave it more vague. We’ll discuss the campaign setting, what we’re after and most importantly how it is going to open. That provides a clear demarcation point, allowing us to set up the events that have led to this moment in time and explain why everybody is willing to work together.
 

#RPGaDay2019 29th August: ‘Evolve’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 29: Evolve

The way I approach gaming has definitely changed over the years and I hope that it continues to evolve in the future. When I first started I was very focused on the numbers. Bonuses, weapon stats, combining x and y to get something better than z. I suspect a lot of that came from my wargaming background, where working out the best combos was an essential part of putting together an army. The second driver was that I got into RPGs at the point in my life where I found myself with disposable income for the first time. As a player I avoided adventure books but was more than happy to scour eBay for the other various sourcebooks that were available for Torg, my gateway game into the hobby.

Since those early days how I game has changed. I rarely play now, preferring instead to GM and most recently I’ve been exploring design and publishing. My preference for games has shifted towards more lightweight systems but not so far as to be heavily into storygames. Mechanics still appeal to me, its just that these days I prefer for them to flow better with the story as opposed to being something that pulls me out of it. In contrast to many gamers I seem to have drifted away from online games, despite them being a big focus for me previously so it is interesting to hear about how that side of the hobby continues to evolve and push the boundaries of how what a game is.

#RPGaDay2019 28th August: ‘Love’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 28: Love

I don’t tend to proactively include love stories in games that I’m running. A large part of that is because I want to avoid the ‘hero gets the girl’ trope that’s in too many action/adventure stories. If I’m running a game that’s meant to be action focused then that is what I will bring to the table.

The exception is when a player brings it to the table, at which point I will actively promote it. During the last Legend of the Five Rings campaign I ran three of the five characters had love interests. One was blissfully married and ended up sacrificing his honour to return home to his family while the other two were in a complex mess of political betrothals and lost loves that culminated with one being compelled (aided by a little bit of brainwashing) to sabotage the wedding ceremony of the other. It was one of the highlights of the campaign and prompted some incredible RP.

Looking back I wish more players were interested in those story beats as I would happily run more relationship based games. While I’ve only played it once Smallville is one of my favourite games and relationships form the core of the system. It’s a game where who you are doing something for is more important than how you are doing it and it leads to some amazing stories that most systems are just incapable of telling.

#RPGaDay2019 27th August: ‘Suspense’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 27: Suspense

Suspense is a vital component of horror and supernatural games but in my experience it is difficult to achieve. My most successful attempts to build it have, in some ways, been through deception. I’ll drop hints and clues that foreshadow something ominous, let the tension build and then end the session. The deception? Most of the time I have no idea what I’m actually building towards and the vast majority of the elements have been improvised on the spot. Between sessions I’ll work through what has been introduced and work out what they might actually mean but even that isn’t fixed until its on the table. If the players start speculating and come up with something awesome I’ll use that but tweak it slightly to work with the larger story as in my experience most players gloss over or forget anything that hasn’t been mentioned for a few sessions.

#RPGaDay2019 26th August: ‘Idea’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 26: Idea

Project Cassandra started life as a hack of Lady Blackbird but the idea for it actually came from The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It’s a Cold War, third person tactical shooter and prequel to the typical XCOM games. It’s highly stylised and over the course of the game you gain access to a range of advanced technology that include things such as levitation, cloaking and even mind control. Playing the game it struck me that many of the abilities could easily be explained as psychic talents. It was a simple leap to go from that to secret government projects to develop psychics given they actually existed! MK-Ultra and the Stargate Project may have never yielded any results but what if they had?

The idea to focus on saving the life of the President was also inspired by Lady Blackbird. While you can play in the expanded setting of that game the published rules have a clearly defined and singular goal – escape the clutches of the Imperial forces and deliver the titular character to her secret lover. I wanted the same for Project Cassandra – a clear, single purpose adventure that could be run as a one-shot or mini-campaign. While the game could be expanded out into any number of ‘psychic operatives complete secret missions’ I felt that would spoil the central conceit. It’s worked well in playtesting and I’ve yet to feel the need to push out into a full blown campaign format.