Role-playing games are games which involve role-playing, and that would only be a tautology if the category was consistently named. As it is, plenty of games termed RPGs can run just fine without any role-play to speak of, and plenty of role-play described in so-called RPGs lacks the structure which would allow it to fit the loosest definition of a game. Whether not an RPG is a game or involves role-play, it is certainly a product, and perceived experience sells a product as well as if not better than the actual experience that the product delivers. There is no other medium where the audience exclaims, quite positively, that they did not in any way engage with the experience as delivered to them.
When gamers state, often with happiness, that they went through a whole session without touching their dice, this is a tacit declaration that they did not engage with the game they were playing as intended; if the game did not intend for the players to roll many dice, or had no dice at all, such a declaration wouldn’t typically be made. This is not debatable, the experience of not engaging with the rules is special only insofar as the rules are there to be engaged. As much as it’s clear that the game isn’t being played as intended, what we cannot do in a blanket way is state this is a bad thing. RPGs are designed to deliver specific experiences and many of them, especially more rules-intensive games, deliver multiple specific experiences depending on the fraction of the game you’re engaging with. Looking at what players are or aren’t doing with a specific game requires which mechanics they are or are not engaging with, as well as what they’re doing in their game which isn’t in the rules and is done without touching any dice at all.
Continue reading “We Didn’t Touch Dice the Whole Session!” →
Welcome back to How the Wonk GMs! Last time we had a bit of an introduction, framing the GMing experience by talking about campaigns and how one sets up for a campaign. Today, the discussion will be more specific, talking about how one gets ready to run a session. Later, I’m going to go into what I actually do in the GM’s chair, and what running a session looks like.
The one comment I got on the last post in this series was that it was vague, and I concede that. Here’s the thing, though: After you frame up what kind of campaign you want to run, what conceits and systems would be fun for you, you want to keep it vague. An RPG campaign is not a novel, and when you’re setting everything up prior to play you want to leave as many doors open as possible. It is now, when you’re looking to set up an actual session that your players are going to show up to, that you can start closing the doors and settling on what you actually want the game to look like.
I call this session prep, but in the real world with schedule breakdowns, cliffhangers, and everything taking just a bit longer than you’d expect, this might be more of an ‘adventure prep’ given that some of these ‘sessions’ will last two or three. For the most part, then, we’re going to be talking in units of plot rather than units of time. For each of these units of plot, you’re going to be figuring out a problem statement, a problem space, and then a problem resolution. When you’re prepping, though, you start with the problem resolution from last time, use that to write your new problem statement, and then use the new problem statement and your existing prep to define a problem space.
Continue reading How the Wonk GMs: Session Prep →
If there’s one thing I’ve been asked to write about over the years, it’s what my home games actually look like. Not an imagined campaign, not a system hack, just how I run when it’s my friends, my ideas, and my time. Needless to say that’s not something that can be condensed to 2000 words, so instead I’m welcoming you, albeit temporarily, to ‘How the Wonk GMs’.
I’ve recently come off of a literally five year stint of GMing for my primary gaming group, and I have run a lot of different games in that time. Spending all this time in the GM’s chair has reminded me that I’m extremely lucky to have as engaged and curious a gaming group as I do…as well as the fact that breaks are good. While taking this break, though, I’m going to be trying to distill down my methods and madness into something approximating fit for public consumption.
Continue reading How the Wonk GMs: Intro and Campaign Prep →
After graduating into one of the worst recessions the global economy had yet seen, I cut short a fruitless job search to go to grad school. I ended up with a Master’s Degree in Innovation Management, a field which sounds like it was made up by the Business School industry but yet taught me a lot. While invention is the act of creating something new, innovation is the act of deriving value from new things, from inventions. According to the World Economic Forum 1.7 million patents were granted in 2021, which is a huge number. But even setting aside things like filing the same patent in multiple countries, a small fraction of those patents represent anything like tangible value to society at large. While invention can happen with a bit of creativity and some work, innovation is significantly more dependent on exogenous factors, on what happens to the invention after it comes into being. RPG designers are like inventors in that way; many many people are designing, are inventing, but the vast majority of games will never make an impact on the market at large.
While there are certainly forces contributing to a greater stagnation of the RPG hobby (D&D comes to mind), the low ‘hit rate’ for new RPGs when it comes to moving the needle in the greater marketplace is largely structural, and unlikely to change in the long run. On the creator side, making an RPG is relatively easy, requiring significantly less money and specific skill than making video, digital games, or visual art, and often less time than writing long-form fiction. This means that the number of entrants into the market will be relatively high. On the consumer side, RPGs have higher switching costs than virtually any other form of media; a consumer needs to find a minimum of 2-4 friends to play with them, with a play time of two hours on the low side. Beyond that, when the presumed norm of the medium involves campaigns of literally dozens of four-plus hour sessions and understanding at least one densely-written rulebook, the perceived switching costs are significantly worse than the already high actual switching costs. These things combined to make the number of consumers in the market relatively low, and the number of games they will consume lower still.
Continue reading Most Games Don’t Matter →
The biggest piece of news in the RPG world so far in 2023 has been OGL 1.1. Wizards of the Coast announced a revision to the Open Gaming License for Dungeons and Dragons back in December, and then earlier this month a copy of the new license, OGL 1.1, was leaked to the gaming press. As of last week, the full text of the leaked license is available for anyone to read. While the terms of OGL 1.1 are simply worse for third party creators than OGL 1.0a, the previous version of the agreement, the worst part of the whole thing is the attempt to ‘de-authorize’ OGL 1.0a, a move which, if deemed legal, could threaten the futures and possibly even the back catalogs of dozens of creators. With the stakes that high, there has been an outcry on social media directed towards Wizards of the Coast and its parent company Hasbro. Among that outcry, though, is a lot of armchair legal work which is only confusing matters.
There are really only two things that need to be understood about what’s going on with the new version of the OGL. First, OGL 1.1 is a problem for game designers because it gives Wizards of the Coast a lot of control over licensees’ work, and takes away licensing rights which many designers assumed would be there in perpetuity because of the earlier version of the agreement. Second, intellectual property law and contract law, which cover what goes on both in and around the OGL and games affected by it, are both arcane enough that nothing about the new agreement’s legality, applicability, or enforceability is truly known unless a case goes to court. With that said, let’s take a look at intellectual property law and why it’s particularly weird for games.
Continue reading Intellectual Property for Gamers →
Role-playing games were initially an offshoot of wargames. What made them different was first a question of scale, moving down from military units to single combatants, and then a question of intent, aiming to play out scenarios with more ambiguity than a classic side versus side battle scenario. As soon as the RPG medium began spreading out from its origin, many people other than wargamers saw the promise that these games held. Science fiction and fantasy fans flocked to RPGs, driven by the promise of new stories and new paracosms that could be created with the games. They were the largest influx into the hobby until the Basic D&D Red Box completely opened the floodgates in 1981.
Now, at the beginning of 2023, the influence of the RPG is seen a little differently. Sure, we’re still over here with our books and dice, but over the last fifty years or so RPGs carved a path through interactive media, permanently changing the board game, wargame, and video game hobbies. In the same way, these hobbies, no younger than the RPG at their youngest, have changed the RPG. The world of games, in a broad sense, is different, and that means the RPG fits into that world differently. With the constant growth and innovation happening across the tabletop games industry and across entertainment, it’s clear that the differentiator in RPGs is story.
Continue reading For RPGs, storytelling will win →
Welcome to the Holiday Special for 2022! 2022…what a year. For Cannibal Halfling Gaming, 2022 was the year of pandemic bifurcation. Having started at around this time of the year in 2016, We now have three non-pandemic and three pandemic years in our history. Needless to say, it’s been a strange time in our lives, both for gaming and for everything else. At this time, though, the year is ending and we get to take a chance to stop, collect our thoughts, and look back at what the year brought us.
Continue reading Level One Wonk Holiday Special: 2022 →
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 →
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 →
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 →