Category Archives: Articles

Plumbing the RPG Blog Depths

The tabletop role-playing game has been around for nearly fifty years, and role-playing discourse arguably longer than that. While in recent years we’ve been blessed to see books recording RPG history from the likes of Jon Peterson, Shannon Appelcline, and Ben Riggs, histories of how the RPG player base has evolved are thinner on the ground and indeed more difficult to capture than those chronicling the evolution of game designers.

To give credit where credit is due, Jon Peterson’s books do focus on the player evolution that happened early in the hobby’s history; Playing at the World spends a lot of time discussing how the wargaming hobby birthed RPGs through Braunsteins and Chainmail, while The Elusive Shift examines the first decade or so of RPG evolution through APAs and other fan correspondence. Where things start to get really tricky is in the 1990s, thanks in large part to the stratification caused by this little technology called the internet.

Continue reading Plumbing the RPG Blog Depths

System Split: Apocalypse World and the Burned Over Hackbook

It’s tough being the first. Back in 2010, before Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition (and before Fourth Edition Essentials too), Vincent Baker released the first edition of Apocalypse World. While the praise was immediate, the snowball effect of the game had just started. By the time Baker released the second edition, now (and from this point forward) sharing the byline with his wife Meguey Baker, Powered by the Apocalypse had become a force in the indie game world. After another five years, the Baker family revisited Apocalypse World again, with Vincent and Meguey working with their children to produce Burned Over.

There are two things about Burned Over which caused me to overlook it initially. The first was a misunderstanding, though also a reflection of how many indie games are made these days. Burned Over is a hackbook, and having not heard this phrase before I confused it in intent with an ashcan. An ashcan is essentially the game equivalent of a minimum viable product or Early Access; it contains the rules to play and a first draft of the written game while being otherwise incomplete. Burned Over is not incomplete; though some of the initial rules were released on Vincent Baker’s Patreon (of which I am a subscriber, full disclosure) in ashcan form, the hackbook as it stands is complete, laid out, and 100% playable. What hackbook means is that Burned Over is a hack of Apocalypse World released as a book; Burned Over requires Apocalypse World to play though this belies the differences made somewhat.

The second element which caused me to overlook Burned Over at first came from the description of what it was. When the Baker family undertook Burned Over as a project, it was described as a version of Apocalypse World which toned down the sex and violence of the original. My initial reaction was that this would be a bowdlerized Apocalypse World, and I didn’t really like that. Needless to say I was wrong, but it meant that I didn’t actually read Burned Over until I had seen praise of it elsewhere. Burned Over strongly recenters many elements of Apocalypse World without changing the core mechanics of the game or its core gameplay loop; this recentering both revises and strengthens the rules as well as shifts the game’s relationship towards its own setting. While this is perhaps too informed by recent discourse, I think Burned Over shifts Apocalypse World from genre emulation of post-apocalyptic film and games to being a post-apocalyptic work in its own right with its own setting. 

Continue reading System Split: Apocalypse World and the Burned Over Hackbook

The Trouble with NaNoWriMo: A Filler Post

The trouble with NaNoWriMo is simply that it takes a lot of time. Although most of you know me as an RPG commentator, I have been a writer, broadly, for most of my life, both personal and professional. I enjoy writing fiction, but it’s difficult to write long-form fiction and keep up the pace long enough to produce a full story. The 2000 word articles hosted here at Cannibal Halfling Gaming are, if not easy, at least easier than a 50,000+ word novel.

This year I decided to do NaNoWriMo to give my fiction writing a kick in the pants. In 2019 I picked up a rewrite of a novel I had written a decade before, right after college, and decided to give it an honest go. I got close, though the pandemic seriously disrupted my writing habits. In 2021, amidst a whole host of life challenges and transitions, the writing ground to a halt. So here, in November of 2022, I decided to challenge myself to do NaNoWriMo in order to get back into the habit of writing and build up my self-discipline enough to also finish my in-progress novel. So far, so good: yesterday was the midpoint of NaNoWriMo and I have successfully hit the 25,000 word halfway mark.

Continue reading The Trouble with NaNoWriMo: A Filler Post

Twitter and the TTRPG Hobby

If you haven’t noticed, Twitter is imploding. Since Elon Musk bought the company, it’s been learning experience after learning experience, with the most important one being the public at large learning that perhaps Elon isn’t a genius after all. Unfortunately, though that lesson was a long time coming, he’s probably going to destroy Twitter in the process.

Twitter in a lot of ways represents the worst of the app-driven attention economy internet. It’s created the term ‘doomscrolling’ and one of the most common euphemisms for it is ‘hellsite’. But, as much as we hate it, we can’t peel our eyes away. This has been strongly true, among many places, in the TTRPG community.

Twitter’s relatively easy engagement algorithm means that even small creators can find eyeballs, and they can do it without much concerted strategy. Though we’ve often termed using Twitter for promotion as ‘shouting into the void’, the fact is that if you keep at it, you will build a following, and it can be really difficult to figure out how to rebuild such a following in the absence of, well, Twitter.

Continue reading Twitter and the TTRPG Hobby

The Meaning of Heartbreaker

Ever since Dungeons and Dragons was first released, there have been designers who thought they could do better. Some of them were right, and right fairly quickly; Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, and Marc Miller are all luminaries of the hobby who made their mark before the 70s ended. Many others, though, were not. After all, game design is like many creative pursuits, and while some have the talent and skill to pull it off, others…don’t.

As the hobby developed, someone came up with a name for the less inspired clones of D&D and its ilk: the fantasy heartbreaker. There are a couple of etymologies for this phrase. The first refers to the heart of the designer. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, if you wanted to put out a game, you really had no choice other than to get it printed. Not only was there no PDF or print on demand, there was a much smaller ‘small press’ industry, and fewer printers who would take on a run of a few hundred books. No, these designers usually, if they wanted their book in print, had to order a run of at least a couple thousand. The heartbreak, then, is having a pallet of game books, unsold, in your garage or basement, serving only as a reminder of the massive bill they produced.

The second etymology refers to the heart of the critic, and due to the common use of the longer phrase ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ I believe this one is more accurate. A fantasy heartbreaker specifically is a clone of D&D, hence the genre modifier. What makes it a heartbreaker is, to put it bluntly, wasted potential. The motivation of a designer who writes a heartbreaker is to make a better version of the game they’ve been playing; generally they have somewhere between one and half a dozen interesting and often very good ideas about how to make a game they’d rather play. What they don’t have is the understanding of how to integrate those ideas into a coherent ruleset. The result, both then and now, is a game with several good ideas shoe-horned into rules which are basically D&D without any understanding of what changes were needed to make their ideas work. A critic sees the good ideas, then sees the rest of the game, and then their heart breaks.

Continue reading The Meaning of Heartbreaker