All posts by Aaron Marks

Gaming for 15 years and writing about it for nearly ten, I've always had a strong desire to find different and interesting things in the hobby. You can follow me on Twitter at @LevelOneWonk, and read my more personal ramblings at 563rdattempt.wordpress.com.

System Hack In Practice: Painting Cyberpunk 2020 Red

Welcome back to another System Hack in Practice! Last time, we made some considerations around Cyberpunk Red, and looked at potential ways to address early complaints from Cyberpunk 2020 fans (or not). This time, we’re looking at everything the other way around: How can we take the best parts of Cyberpunk Red and bring them into our Cyberpunk 2020 game?

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The Elusive Shift Review

Jon Peterson has done it again, my friends. The author of Playing at the World, arguably the most comprehensive history of the creation of Dungeons and Dragons on the market, has released another book. While Playing at the World covered anything and everything that led up to the first publication of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, Peterson’s second book, The Elusive Shift, focuses narrowly on the time it took for ‘role-playing game’ to become an established medium. The story of how D&D and indeed the tabletop RPG itself matured in this roughly five year period is fascinating, eye-opening, and ends up asking a lot of questions about the state of the hobby some forty years later.

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Kickstarter Wonk: January, 2021

Welcome to the first Kickstarter Wonk of 2021! I’ve been waiting nine months to write that. Now, even though the state of the world is pretty much like it was in December, we’re still facing the biggest collective New Year’s Hangover in quite some time. That collective hangover may explain why there’s…four Kickstarters this month. January is often a thin month but this is thin even for January. Still, these four are good ones, and if you stick around I’ll also throw in some commentary about the RPG Kickstarter market as a whole in 2020.

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The Level One Wonk Holiday Special: 2020

Welcome to the Level One Wonk Holiday Special for 2020! Traditionally the last post of the year is when I look back on the year past and ahead to the future, thinking about what’s happened in the world and what I’m going to write next. Needless to say, looking back means reflecting on some solid, unprecedented weirdness.

No two ways about it, 2020 has been a hell of a year. The pandemic created an environment the likes of which none of us have seen in our lifetimes, and that will likely define the generation that is growing up while it happens. And that meant many of us, once we were able to manage the emergent pressures on our health and well-being, needed a retreat, a release. And for readers of this site, that retreat was often going to be tabletop RPGs.

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Vaesen Review

For reasons not entirely clear to me, I have never reviewed a Year Zero game. The Year Zero engine is Fria Ligan’s centerpiece, and maybe even their house system as well. Named for Mutant: Year Zero, the game system powers designs as widely varied as the Alien RPG and Tales from the Loop. And now Free League Publishing’s Vaesen. Vaesen is new territory for the Year Zero engine and indeed mainstream tabletop RPGs in general, being a game of fairy tale horror and specifically Scandinavian fairy tale horror at that. While fairy tale horror may not seem like the most natural fit for a system better known for maps, bases, and colored dice, Vaesen ends up being a pretty wonderful take on the system, its juxtaposed strengths working well provided that you buy into the high concept.

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System Hack In Practice: Cyberpunk Red House Rules

Welcome back to System Hack! In the past, System Hack has been about new games and experiences, either building out mechanics for a generic system (Genesys Mecha) or using an existing game as inspiration to create something new (Cyberpunk Chimera). This new System Hack series, In Practice, is about looking at common hacks and modifications that can be used when your group brings a new system to your table. For this we’ll be using the new system that my group is bringing to our table: Cyberpunk Red.

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Electric Bastionland Review

Role-playing games are rooted in rulesets which provide a simulation to help determine what happens in-game. In most traditional games, this simulation is, in broad strokes at least, based on physics; the game provides rules intended to reflect a world which players find consistent and believable. In many recent indie games, the simulation is based on narrative; the rules define what happens next based on what makes the story either adhere to a given narrative schema or, in some cases, just more interesting. What about the middle ground, though? What would it look like if a game were simulating tropes rather than physics, but of a setting rather than a storyline? It would look an awful lot like Electric Bastionland.

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Kickstarter Wonk: December, 2020

Welcome to Kickstarter Wonk for December! This has been…it’s been a year, no arguments there. We’ve had a pandemic, we’ve had an election, we’ve had so much more…and I feel like I’m still working off a sleep debt from March. No matter! The game designers are hard at work, and just in time for the holiday season we have a complete slate of Kickstarters! Ten Kickstarters, emerging from the quagmire known as 2020. Have designers been hard at work, reading my columns and heeding my advice? Well…no. Even though there have been some rookie mistakes made, there are still ten solid games listed here, ten games that deserve to get made! Will gamers heed my call? Will the designers read my summaries before it’s too late? Will the world ever forgive Brian Liberge for turning Seamus on to D&D 4th Edition? Only time will tell. For now, though, check out the games below!

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The Trouble With Discourse

For as long as tabletop RPGs have existed, people have wanted to talk about them. At the very very beginning we had amateur press associations (APAs), zines, and good old mailing lists; today we have forums, Discord, and Twitter. As our media have changed, so too has how we talk about games and what ends up coming to the forefront of any day’s given discussion. Discussing RPGs is very much like discussing anything else, except the number of people involved is often much smaller. Combine this with the excessive bandwidth of our platforms, and…well, let’s say I could cause way more of an uproar on Twitter with the right mention than anyone ever could have writing an inflammatory letter to Dragon Magazine.

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The Hows and Whys of House Rules

Every American child gets introduced to the concept of “house rules” at a relatively young age, when their parents bring out Monopoly for the first time. This old standby has any number of modifications from the official rules which are passed down from family member to family member, like skipping the auction portion of buying property or putting money paid in fines from Chance cards on Free Parking. This also means every American child gets introduced to *bad* house rules at a young age, because both the examples above slow down the game and, in the case of skipping the auction rules, might be more responsible for Monopoly’s reputation as slow and interminable than the game itself.

Just like Monopoly, Tabletop RPGs are catnip for people who like to prod and tweak. House rules are not really a form of hacking the game; they are small changes to make one of the game’s rules-as-written work better for a specific group. They’re also an increasingly small part of the RPG experience as the rulesets on the market get more streamlined and in some cases just better written. Still, one of the best parts of playing an RPG, especially if you stick with one game for a long time, is making it your own.

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