Category Archives: Level One Wonk

noun
: a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field
broadly : NERD
: a TTRPG wonk
: a game design wonk

Revisiting Blacow’s Model

As soon as a role-playing game had been run in at least two places, the attempts to categorize and catalogue gaming styles began. Even in the 1970s, when most of the market only knew D&D, foundational work in understanding how and why role-players play had already started. One of the most influential early theorists was Glenn Blacow. Originally exposed to D&D at MIT, Blacow published an early typology of gamers in the small gaming zine The Wild Hunt. This typology, after being expanded for publication in another, larger zine, Different Worlds, became one of the first and most influential classifications of RPG playstyles. Among other things, Blacow is credited, through the Different Worlds version of his essay, coining the term ‘power-gamer’.

Although one might guess that Blacow’s model has declined in relevance somewhat since its original publication in 1980, in reality it still serves as a foundation for many player and play style classifications in wide use. GNS Theory owes its start point to Blacow’s Power Gamer and Storytelling archetypes, and D&D’s seven player types start from Blacow’s four play styles as well. As much as we still see story and optimization as driving forces among gamers, the dichotomy of fantasy and wargaming is a concept that has slid from relevance as the days of the wargamer/fantasy reader schism grow further behind us. Still, behind this dated framing is an idea that’s still worth investigating.

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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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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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Soft Prep for RPGS

New Campaign day is a very exciting day. Your group is ready to try something new, and everyone’s agreed on what it should be. Now you may be getting ready to run a Session Zero with something like Apocalypse World, where the feeling and the aesthetic of the game’s implied setting is broadcast to you, loud and clear, from the first page of the book. You may be getting ready for character creation in D&D, where the implied setting is strong but allows for a lot of variation within its fantasy tropes. Or, you might be walking into a game where the world has sprung from the mind of the GM, and you don’t know what to expect beyond maybe a few sentences that have been shared. Regardless of what situation your campaign will start with, now is the time you’ll most benefit from some soft prep.

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Are RPGs Fun?

The English language would make a terrible role-playing game. There are a lot of rules, many of them contradict each other, and in certain places there still isn’t enough detail to make the mechanics do what you really want. Some words, therefore, words we use frequently in some cases, are surprisingly hard to define. Imagine, if you will, that someone asks you why you play role-playing games. Many of us will answer such a question with our favorite aspect of the hobby, saying something like “I enjoy playing interesting characters” or “I enjoy making a story with my friends” or even “I enjoy the thrill of combat”. These can all be chased down, toddler-like, with another question, “why do you enjoy that?” When you’ve been run down by questions, how many of you will end on (for either accuracy or to get the questions to stop) “because it’s fun”?

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Level One Wonk: Fantasy Economics

Tabletop RPGs are not realistic, and this is a good thing. On one extreme we don’t really want to simulate the hygiene of our fantasy worlds, and on the other we don’t really want to play Apartment: The Playstationing. What RPGs should and do have, though, is verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the appearance of being real, and in RPGs this means that the characters exist in a world which behaves in a way the players expect. One place where games fall down in this respect is in having a world that changes around the characters, one that might even be responsive to their actions. That is why I’m returning to my old stomping ground, the field of economics.

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Level One Wonk: Advancement

How much of a meme is RPG advancement? It’s so much of a meme that it’s right there in my pseudonym. Levels, experience points, and the various versions of same filtered through the ‘TSR don’t sue me’ lens have been considered inseparable from the notion of a tabletop RPG pretty much since D&D sold actual copies. The notion of awarding experience points (or XP) has become so ingrained in the concept of an RPG that tack-on advancement mechanics are *the* thing added to video games to give them “RPG elements”. The reason why this is the borrowed element is fairly clear: experience points have always been and continue to be an elegant mechanic to turn a game into a Skinner Box, to get us to keep pushing the lever in modern video games with perhaps repetitive mechanics. So why do they continue to be a mainstay of tabletop RPGs, where there should be more going on than just watching numbers go up? Well, read on.

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Changing It Up Through System Jumping

A good RPG campaign usually takes on a life of its own. The longer you play, the more the characters, the places, and the events of a game overshadow the rules which you use for the game. Ironically, it’s this shift in importance away from mechanics which can sometimes reveal that the mechanics you’ve been using aren’t going to work for an important part of your ongoing game. In another situation, your campaign has taken a dramatic, albeit temporary, turn. Your grizzled heroes find themselves masquerading as schoolteachers, or your starship crew finds a rip in the space-time continuum, or your cyberpunks have to chase a villain into a virtual reality game. Whether it’s a mid-story diversion or a permanent change, sometimes you’re going to want to jump systems.

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Around the OSR in Five Games

Few segments of the RPG fandom are as misunderstood as the OSR. At least, that’s what they keep saying on Twitter. The OSR, or “Old-School Renaissance”, are gamers who appreciate both the mechanics and implied playstyle of older editions of D&D, any of the TSR versions but usually Basic D&D and usually the versions of it (B/X, BECMI, or Rules Cyclopedia) that existed roughly from 1981 to 1991. The real problem with the OSR is a marketing problem; in the past it has been hard to distinguish those genuinely interested in the play philosophies of older D&D from those who were merely retreating to older games. Every time I’ve tried to look into the OSR and OSR games, I’ve come away asking the same question: “why are there so many hacks of Basic D&D and why exactly should I care?”

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The Trouble With Worldbuilding

In theory we all know what worldbuilding is. The process of creating a fictional world isn’t technically related to role-playing games, but it has become inextricably intertwined with the hobby, given the preponderance of science fiction and fantasy settings in the most popular games. In considering and examining worldbuilding, I’m not going to spend a lot of word count talking about what it is, or even how to do it well. Instead, I’m going to talk about how worldbuilding affects RPGs specifically, which boils down to a lot of mistakes, missed opportunities, and general poor form.

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