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

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.

Continue reading Soft Prep for RPGS

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”?

Continue reading Are RPGs Fun?

“I’m going to turn my campaign into a novel!”

When we play RPGs, we tell stories. For some it’s a fun consequence of the characters’ exploits, while for others it’s the whole point of the game. These stories can often have great power for the groups who create them, creating characters more personal and compelling than any novel ever could. It’s natural, then, to want to share these stories outside the group. The problem here, really, is that a tabletop campaign is a big, extended instance of “you had to be there”. As fun or dramatic or gutwrenching as it was at the time, you cannot recapture those feelings by turning your campaign into a novel.

Continue reading “I’m going to turn my campaign into a novel!”

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.

Continue reading Level One Wonk: Fantasy Economics

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.

Continue reading Level One Wonk: Advancement

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.

Continue reading Changing It Up Through System Jumping

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?”

Continue reading Around the OSR in Five Games

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.

Continue reading The Trouble With Worldbuilding

“You can Homebrew D&D into Anything!”

The strong increase in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons brought about both by the increased accessibility of D&D’s Fifth Edition as well as the growth of the nascent streaming and actual play communities has meant that there are a whole lot of people getting introduced to D&D. Now that this growth has been going on for a few years, there is burgeoning realization that role-playing games as a medium are capable of a lot more than dungeon crawls and Tolkien derivatives. This is great news for everyone, right? We all know there’s a whole world of RPGs out there, from the big glossy traditional games to indie zines and everything in between. Well, something’s getting lost in translation for some, and in the #dnd world on Twitter you’ve likely seen questions like this:

“How can I make John Wick in D&D?”

“What can you do to run Star Trek in D&D?”

“It would be really cool if I could run Harry Potter in D&D!”

Fortunately, these all have easy answers: Don’t, please don’t, and I don’t think it would.

Continue reading “You can Homebrew D&D into Anything!”

The Decade in Gaming: 2010-2019

On New Year’s Day, 2010, the RPG hobby wasn’t feeling very lively. Dungeons and Dragons was plodding along with Fourth Edition, though a lot of players had abandoned it for Pathfinder, or, as your friends called it, “D&D 3.75e”. The New World of Darkness was out, but you were having trouble finding the new part. Shadowrun 20th Anniversary came out…but that was just Fourth Edition from 2005 with errata. Though things weren’t looking so hot, there was some interesting stuff going on. This new website Kickstarter had been causing a stir in tech news, and more and more of the games you’ve been looking for had been made available in PDF. Something’s going to change, you think.

Continue reading The Decade in Gaming: 2010-2019