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

Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom part 2

The role-playing hobby is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many games, so many game ideas, and in contrast to that, only so much time. You don’t need to be all that prolific to reach a number of campaigns you want to run that will take literally your entire remaining life…and do so even if you’re just in your 30s. It’s from this massive buffet that we want to find one dish we can savor; that’s the concept of anti-boredom.

If you were here with us last time, you saw a discussion about the plots and premises that can feed a long-running, deep, and memorable campaign. Today, we’re going to start executing on our anti-boredom campaign by figuring out what support we need to make it happen. There are so many games under the sun, but some are better suited to long-running games than others, and an even smaller number still can truly support the breadth of play that will keep you, the multi-genre, multi-system, and ultimately very easily distracted GM, from abandoning them.

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On Character Creation

Role-playing games are games about characters: Who they are, what they do, and what happens to them. In most games, a character is the lever through which the player interacts with the world, and even in broader games the actions of characters are still primary in terms of what happens. What this ends up meaning is that game setup for a role-player, the act of character creation, takes on much more importance than setting up would in most board, card, or other tabletop games. 

Character creation is game setup, yes, but it’s also a game in and of itself, and was the solo act of role-playing well before solo games were popularized. Making characters is fun, and many of us who either couldn’t find people to play with or had more desire to game than time would make sheaves of characters who would never be played. As this was the one way everyone could interact with RPGs, friends to play with or not, it created a shift towards games with interactive and evocative character creation systems. Making choices was fun, though rolling random dice and seeing what you got could be fun too.

So where are we at with this? Character creation has broadened significantly since the days of D&D, and games now have longer, shorter, simpler, and way more complicated character creation methods. Each one generates different results and puts you in the head of your character in a different way, and not just because of math. This past week I had a gaming weekend with my primary gaming group, and as preparation I made characters for games of Legend of the Five Rings, Twilight:2000, and a couple others. It was the first time in a long time I had sat down to make a really involved character, and it made it clear that character creation can provide a lot more than stats if you want it to.

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Doctors and Daleks Review

Gamers have long memories. In the early 2000s, the first iteration of the Open Gaming License was released by Wizards of the Coast, and accompanied by the ‘D20’ branding, which allowed many games to claim official compatibility with the Third Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. While this new era in licensing created some new and interesting games, it also created a lot of, well, garbage. This large quantity of garbage combined with Wizards handing out the ‘D20’ branding to essentially anyone combined to erode consumer confidence in the brand. Unfortunately, D&D was the biggest game in the industry at the time (much like it is now), so this, combined with some misplaced faith in the brand on the part of game stores and publishers, caused the ‘D20 bust’. Books didn’t sell, publishers and game shops went bankrupt, and Wizards…well, they published 3.5e and went on their merry way.

The point of recounting this is that the D20 bust is one of the root causes of distrust in the current crop of games developed using the D&D 5e ruleset. Because D&D is the largest, most successful RPG brand, it stands to reason that associating yourself with that brand is a way to make more money, regardless of the quality of your game, and regardless of whether or not your game aligns with the mechanics of D&D. It also doesn’t help that one of the recent high-profile games using the 5e ruleset, the Dark Souls RPG, was released in a pretty messy state, giving it no real chance to disprove the notion that D&D was a poor choice for emulating the ‘Soulslike’ video game genre (whether or not it could have otherwise is an open question).

It was in this environment that Cubicle 7 announced ‘Doctors and Daleks’, a Doctor Who role-playing game built on the 5e ruleset. The announcement was met with a fair amount of criticism, much of it baseless given that there wasn’t a game yet. The surface-level thinking, though, made sense. Doctor Who, especially the newer runs which started with Christopher Eccleston playing the Doctor, is a fantastical series about time travel, the history of the world, and a generally optimistic outlook on coexistence with life all over the universe. The Doctor has a code against killing, gadgets like the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver have capabilities mostly defined by the scripts in that season, and the stories rapidly shift from small and intimate vignettes involving Vincent Van Gogh to apocalyptic, universe-ending plots where the Doctor faces off with the Master, or the Daleks, or the Cybermen. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, is a game where the rules are roughly 90% predicated on killing things and taking their stuff. The mismatch observation is a fair one.

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The Push and Pull of Backstories

Character histories have been part and parcel of role-playing games ever since Dave Arneson’s players had to figure out why their characters were crawling the dungeons under Castle Blackmoor. Between now and then there have been some games which took character origins and centered them; Traveller famously integrated a detailed character history into its character generation rules and many games emulated Traveller in one form or another. While many games offer a range of mechanical backstory generation, though, the most popular role-playing game and therefore the majority of players are given very little. While the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons has added a little above its predecessors (in the form of Backgrounds), first level D&D characters are largely a blank slate, leaving their history and origin up to the player.

When backstories are left up to the player, they become a battleground of narrative control. Some game masters, hungry for player input, get frustrated when a player expects race, class, and background to be enough and writes nothing. On the other hand, game masters much more concerned with their world (and perhaps not wanting to give players an opportunity to modify it) may resent even having to read the backstory a player writes; if they’re particularly vindictive or conceited they may even punish a player (we all saw the Tweet where a noxious GM joked that the character with the longest backstory would be the first to die). With such a range, it’s not hard to see that a mismatch of expectations is much more likely to cause trouble than what those expectations are.

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The Trouble With Marketing

Game design doesn’t sell games. Sorry. No, what sells games is the promise that that game offers, articulated by its designer. If the promise is good, it doesn’t matter that the game is bad; that’s what got the Fallout RPG into the ICv2 top 5. But whether the game you designed is a work of art or a slapdash ashcan, sorry, you’re still going to need to market it.

The Trouble with Marketing is either that no one knows how or no one wants to. I tend to believe the second of those two items; plenty of game designers don’t really know how to write but they manage to hire someone for that in most cases. No, marketing, in addition to being its own skill which is challenging to learn, really turns people off. It reminds you you’re selling something, it makes the whole process feel less like art.

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The Five Mechanic Game

There’s a wide world of games out there, but the ones that get played and talked about the most are more similar than you may think. In the realm of traditional games, most games have their rules structured the same way, at the same level of detail, to accomplish roughly the same goal. It means many of us that grew up among the bursting libraries of games in the 80s and 90s thought we were well-read, only to be waylaid by some markedly different ideas when the games of the Forge era like Burning Wheel and Apocalypse World started becoming popular.

Last week, I talked a bit about the idea of complexity, and grounded it to the idea of how many mechanics a game has interacting at once. This makes a game like Blades in the Dark, with many overlapping systems, more complex, while a game like Dread, where there is only one mechanic and it’s essentially ‘Jenga Or Die’, is less complex. What’s more interesting, though, is what it says about the middle. Basically every traditional game, from the real bloats like Exalted all the way down to little digest editions like Savage Worlds, have roughly the same type and number of mechanics. That number is five: character creation, task resolution, combat, game mastering, and at least one subsystem of note.

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On Complexity

Games are complex systems, and as such gamers have incredibly eclectic relationships with complexity. This is true across the ecosystem; tabletop RPGs might have Honey Heist and GURPS while digital gamers have Candy Crush and Dwarf Fortress. Gaming has always had room for one-pagers to sit alongside clockwork behemoths and all coexist. Unfortunately, as is wont to occur, someone mistakes a preference for a judgment, and then we just have Twitter, where GURPS is the butt of a joke but somehow all indie games are just make-believe story circles.

The problem with trying to have a real discussion about preferences for complexity in games as well as rules density in games is twofold. First, complexity and rules density aren’t related. Second, and perhaps equally important, is that a game’s tendency towards having either physical rules or narrative rules is also not related to either complexity or rules density. Because the world likes making things difficult, though, there are confounding factors that do make these elements correlate. This muddies the waters because many associate a complex game with a game that has a lot of rules, and many also associate indie, narrative games with low complexity. These assumptions are both wrong, or at least flawed.

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When The Game Blows Up

You have a great idea for a new campaign. You explain it to your group, and everyone’s on board. Session Zero goes great, it seems like everyone has made interesting characters and is totally bought in to the premise. Then you start playing. For whatever reason, things just aren’t hitting the same way that everyone thought. Then comes the big inciting action. This will drive everyone to really dive in, right? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe everyone’s looking across the table awkwardly. Maybe someone gets upset, maybe not. Whatever happened, the game blew up, and now it’s time to pick up the pieces.

When most of the hobby assumes that you’ll pick one game and play it forever, there’s not a lot said about the risks of trying something new. Even among those inveterate RPG collectors with four dozen different systems in their bookshelf, there were never that many games that were really *out there* until recently…and even now, the vast majority of games sold hew to a common template. So, when the range of experiences and expectations is fairly narrow, you have to be prepared for what happens when you step outside of those experiences and expectations and something unpleasant happens.

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Pacing Problems

How fast do you burn through a storyline? If you’re like me, sometimes that core conflict is approaching a climax halfway through what you thought was your campaign. Or, if you’re like me at a different point in time, you find your players have cracked the advancement mechanics on the cool new system you wanted to try and now the power curve is shooting upwards, taking the storyline in places you weren’t ready for it to go. Whether it’s from game mechanics or your own writing, it’s easy for a GM to find themselves with a pacing problem.

There are a few issues with figuring out how to pace a role-playing campaign that don’t appear in other media. The first one is simply that other media have it way easier. It might be challenging to write a novel or direct a movie, but that author or director has complete control over how fast or slow events progress. When you’re GMing a game, with players staring back at you and wondering what’s going to happen next, that control is illusory. The second is that many of the tricks we’re taught in interactive media, like video games, either don’t translate or translate poorly back to the tabletop. Once again, a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s more than one person playing and setting the clock.

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Level One Wonk Holiday Special: 2021

Welcome to the Level One Wonk Holiday Special for 2021! My traditional retrospective for the year in gaming, this Holiday Special has some extra meaning for me because of the time. Cannibal Halfling Gaming kicked off in December of 2016, making this my fifth year here out in the internet. Five years of ups and downs have seen this site go from me and Seamus writing about whatever RPG topics came off the tops of our heads to…well, me and Seamus writing about whatever RPG topics come off the tops of our heads. Though now there’s a podcast. And people send us review copies. And some even pay us!

Though we’ve been having a wild ride behind the scenes of the site, most everyone has been having a wild ride with world events as well. While we had a bit of the ‘hot pandemic summer’ I alluded to in one of our podcast episodes, much of the hope did not last, and we’re now back again in our houses and apartments, hoping more of our fellow humans get the message. But while we can’t control human nature and we certainly can’t control COVID, we can at least get some writing and gaming done.

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