Surprise, it’s not the normal Level One Wonk this time, though I am gladly ripping off his format. At the start of the month, nominations for the ENnie awards were released. The nominations present a wonderful resource for GMs and gamers, and similarly for game reviewers. It had turned out that a number of nominations were games that we had written about in the past, but there were plenty more for us to study as well. In particular, there was one category that interested me: Best Free Game. Occasionally, players and GMs run on tight finances but still require their gaming fix. SRDs are plenty helpful, but sometimes you want to try something a bit different. A number of these games are more demos or skins for games that stop early than full, completely ready out of the box systems, but it is enough to get started, and to see if you enjoy the product enough to buy the full version . . . or creative players and GMs might be able to push it beyond expectations. These are only cursory reviews, and if something interests you, I fully recommend checking them out. They are, after all, free.
Time Travel is a daunting mechanic for any GM to attempt to incorporate in their game. While using time travel as a platform for historical settings and conflicts can be fun, eventually your players are going to ask “wait, what happens if we show Beethoven a recording of his Fifth Symphony before he writes it?” or, even more problematic, “can I go kill my grandfather?” These are questions which, for the sake of the integrity of the concept, can’t be left completely unanswered (though you can probably tell the player trying to kill his own grandfather to drop it before something bad happens). The good thing is that time travel as a game concept leans heavily on improv, and does so in a way that can be very helpful with developing your improv muscles in a fun, non-game breaking way. That’s because with time travel, you can come up with whatever consequences you want…the players already have the mechanism to fix it.
It’s the genre that started it all, and it has set the baseline for what people think of when they hear the term “role-playing game”. It’s a literary genre of astonishing breadth, that still seems to get people thinking about elves and wizards. So why is fantasy role-playing such a different animal than fantasy in general? And what sort of games are hiding in the wings around the 500 pound Gygaxian elephant in the room? Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look around what fantasy role-playing is, how it’s related to fantasy literature, and what that all means when it comes time to sit down and roll dice.
Ah, GURPS. One of the most comprehensive toolkits on the RPG market, GURPS and its plethora of supplements offer the ability to play in almost any genre at almost any complexity level. The tradeoff here is that when you open the GURPS Basic Set for the first time, you are dazzled and overwhelmed by a vast range of options to select, dials to adjust, and levers to pull. Coming from a game like D&D, a GM starting with GURPS isn’t going to know where to, ahem, start. Steve Jackson Games realized that, and recruited two GURPS veterans to write How To Be A GURPS GM. While this slim volume is thin on generalizable GMing advice (with admittedly good reason), it does exactly what it says on the tin, and provides some guidance on how to actually make GURPS do what you want it to do.
Theories are tools for understanding and explaining any number of different subjects. As role-playing games began to increase in subject matter breadth, there immediately followed an attempt to explain what different games do, and what games do best. Unsurprisingly, attempts to “explain” the range of games on the market were typically incomplete and sometimes dreadfully inaccurate. Despite this, some theories stuck around, usually because they were punchy and easy to remember, and were “close enough” to work as a shorthand. Today, the Level One Wonk is going to look a bit at game design theory, and use one of the most popular theories as a springboard to discussion about RPG Theory as a whole and what it’s trying to accomplish. As George Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That is the best way to understand many RPG Theories, including the GNS Model.
Style Over Substance. Attitude is Everything. Take it to the Edge. Break the Rules. I’m the Level One Wonk, and today we’re going to the hairy edge, the space between real and digital where high tech and low life mix into a dark future where it’s always raining and everyone wears their mirrorshades at night. That’s right, choombas, we’re going Cyberpunk.
Dark Fantasy is more than just dying messily. While the genre does stand in contrast to “High Fantasy” in that way, there is more going on than just added mud and blood. High Fantasy and Swords and Sorcery are typified by great power, heroic character arcs, and the grand struggle between good and evil. Dark fantasy does highlight the violent aspects of pre-industrial society, but also contrasts itself from other fantasy genres by making sure that morality is represented by shades of grey, and that any quest for power comes with a price attached. The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power brings forth a dark fantasy world of the players’ creation. What makes it pop for me is not just the violence and the superstition, but the intrigue and mechanics behind it. The game sets character against character with ease but also puts these characters into positions of power over one another, encouraging jockeying and scheming right out of the gate. This Powered by the Apocalypse game turns Apocalypse World into Apocalypse Westeros, where otherworldly threats sit right alongside petty vendettas and power-grabs.
Greetings, wastelanders! I’m the Level One Wonk, and today it’s the end of the world as we know it. The end of the world has captivated authors for centuries, and also left a strong mark on film. Whether it’s anxieties about where society is going or fantasizing about being a sole survivor, post-apocalyptic novels, movies, and games have been popular for quite some time. The post-apocalyptic genre works very well for tabletop RPGs, too: an unexplored world full of dangers, potential treasures and traps existing from the old world, and driving motivations that are simple and strong make for a huge palette of potential games. A post-apocalyptic setting conceit can be layered on top of many other genres, and the resulting games can range from a brutal struggle for survival to a gonzo trip down Fury Road. What’s important is not the particulars of any given game, but rather how to choose and write those particulars to best serve your desired play experience.
Are you an old-school gamer, or a new-school gamer? I’m the Level One Wonk, and I consider myself both, which may be why I enjoy this week’s game so much. Today we’re going to talk about Stars Without Number, a game designed by Kevin Crawford. Crawford has released many games through his Sine Nomine Publishing imprint, which are all built around similar design principles: hackable sandbox experiences with an old-school heart. Games like Godbound, Scarlet Heroes and Stars Without Number are all designed to bolt right in to both old-school D&D and its retroclones, but these games are no mere clones. While Stars Without Number has characters with six familiar stats, saving throws, classes, and levels, it stretches the D&D framework quite far. As you may be able to guess from the name, Stars Without Number is a science fiction game.
Welcome back! I’m the Level One Wonk, and this week I’m being totally down to Earth. Fact is, we live on a pretty interesting planet, and if you’re running a game that concerns itself with the past, present, or future of humans as we know them, you may be running a game using actual places. Depending on your disposition, using the real world as a basis for your games can either be way easier than worldbuilding, or way more difficult. Everything in the real world is “written” for you, which can be a boon to those of us not predisposed to improv…but on the other hand, the idea of doing research to run a game rubs a lot of people the wrong way. However, no matter the preference, anyone can run a fun game in the real world, or something like it.