If you haven’t noticed, Twitter is imploding. Since Elon Musk bought the company, it’s been learning experience after learning experience, with the most important one being the public at large learning that perhaps Elon isn’t a genius after all. Unfortunately, though that lesson was a long time coming, he’s probably going to destroy Twitter in the process.
Twitter in a lot of ways represents the worst of the app-driven attention economy internet. It’s created the term ‘doomscrolling’ and one of the most common euphemisms for it is ‘hellsite’. But, as much as we hate it, we can’t peel our eyes away. This has been strongly true, among many places, in the TTRPG community.
Twitter’s relatively easy engagement algorithm means that even small creators can find eyeballs, and they can do it without much concerted strategy. Though we’ve often termed using Twitter for promotion as ‘shouting into the void’, the fact is that if you keep at it, you will build a following, and it can be really difficult to figure out how to rebuild such a following in the absence of, well, Twitter.
Games are static documents. No matter what supplements or errata are released after the fact, the text of a game is just words on a page once it leaves the designer’s head. What makes a role-playing game more than that, though, is the act of play. Role-playing games are different from board games or card games because unlike those, where there are procedures and set-up and specific things to do, role-playing games in their text form merely template the play experience. In traditional role-playing games, it’s up to the game master, or GM, to actually produce the play experience.
I haven’t discussed much in the way of procedures for running a game, and this oversight became more clear as I was attempting to write about how specifically to run a long-duration game in the conclusion of Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom. Also, and surprisingly, there’s been some discourse about game prep recently? I was under the mistaken impression that understanding how best to prep for a campaign or session was essentially a solved issue at this point, that writing about prep would mean giving advice, not taking a position.
That all said, there is better and worse prep technique, and there are better and worse games to prep for. One reason that so much of what constitutes ‘GM Advice’ in the broader RPG discussion world is merely advice on how to prep for and run a gaming session is that the monopoly game, Dungeons & Dragons, is a poor tool for GMs. When it comes to running the game D&D has been getting worse by the edition, really, and players who were raised on earlier editions, versions of the game that were much more specific about how to prep and play them, are only getting older. So if you are struggling with running your game, my first piece of advice is to stop playing Fifth Edition D&D.
From time to time, you’ll see the gaming press and sometimes even the broader ‘nerd’ press pick up a story about a years-long or decades-long RPG campaign. One thing you’ll immediately notice is the focus of these articles: “Meet the GM who keeps on using the same damn world”. “This group has been playing one single game for 35 years. See how the GM does it.” The GM is the key to any campaign, but when a campaign is both long and sustained, others take notice. Long and sustained is the key for an anti-boredom campaign, and though it may not last 35 years, putting in the work will help keep a long, complex, and rich campaign going for longer than you may have initially thought possible.
GMing a long-running game isn’t about shortcuts, but it’s not not about shortcuts either. As a campaign builds history and increases in complexity, the amount of work the GM must do just to keep everything straight is going to increase. ‘Lazy GMing’ isn’t a preference here, it’s a way to make sure you can do everything you need to do without burning out. This is also where much of the content of the other articles begins to synthesize. A system with more mechanics that support what you want to do will take less effort to run. A setting that is constrained but has depth is much easier to do bookkeeping for than a sprawling wasteland of 150 dungeons and ten nation-states. That said, once the game has started, all that’s left to do is run.
Play in any game system long enough, and you’re going to want to tweak things a little – there’s something missing, or a rule doesn’t quite work the way you want it to. Or maybe you’re coming at things fresh with an idea of what you want to do. No game system matches your idea 1:1, but there are a few that come close enough that you don’t want to have to design a game from the ground up. Whether it’s just for a home game or you’re designing one yourself to publish, that means it’s time to change or ‘hack’ the system in question. But what thoughts might you want to have along the way? I’ve got three.
Welcome to the Cannibal Halfling Weekend Update! Start your weekend with a chunk of RPG news from the past week. We have the week’s top sellers, industry news stories, and discussions from elsewhere online.
The game master rules, but what rules them? How do many games leave the one running the game out in the cold, what kind of rules do other games assign to them, and what is gained in the process? Seamus and Aaron try to figure it out!
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.
When writing, one of the most important things to know is the audience you’re writing for. And while sometimes it may be obvious, it may also be that writing for a subset of your audience helps focus what you’re doing and clarify your intent. In writing for Cannibal Halfling Gaming, sometimes the audience I write for is myself. No matter what I write about any given week, I go either run or play a session with my home group nearly every week, and just like so many gamers I’m always looking for things to make my games better. So it was when I wrote ‘The Curse of the Wandering Eyes’. The person who the curse had afflicted in my life was myself, and I still am tempted by so many games and campaign ideas that I come across.
When considering my affliction, I asked myself a question. How would you structure a campaign in such a way that it would keep your attention? What would you actually need to go back to the same storyline week after week? This series of articles is an attempt to answer that question. There are certain gifts that a longer campaign gives, mostly in the form of more and more robust character and setting development. Growing attached to a character that you’ve seen grow and change over months and years is an amazing part of role-playing games, and at the same time seeing a setting really become familiar and ‘lived-in’ engenders a lot of affection for and attachment to the campaign. Getting there, though, can be tough, and it requires some long-term thinking and planning.
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.
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.