Who is Ross Watson?
Ross Watson is an award-winning game designer, author, podcaster, and game development consultant. He is the creator of the Rogue Warden blog, where Ross discusses game design, conventions, IP management, gaming, and more.
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Greetings readers! Today’s blog post is a bit of a time warp, as it discusses games that span decades—and when you’re talking about decades and gaming, especially video gaming, you’re talking about a longtime. (As a side note, isn’t it interesting how time dilation occurs when you’re talking about different cultural things? Decades is a long time in television years, not so much in terms of radio, even less for newspapers. When you talk about the internet, you’re describing time in singular years, and when it comes to things like social media, twitter, and facebook, sometimes trends can last a matter of months or weeks.)
I’ve been a gamer for over 25 years, and some of my best memories involve playing a number of computer roleplaying games (hereafter referred to as CRPGs). It’s fair to say that I’ve been playing CRPGs since the very earliest incarnations, and I have actively studied the genre from a design, experience, critiquing, and writing perspective. Mainly my purpose with this blog entry is just to go over and highlight the history of CRPGs as I experienced them and hopefully bring across not only my love for the genre, but also how it has affected me as a game designer and writer.
This is the map for Baldur’s Gate — there’s a lot of adventure in this game.
Special Note: I’m purposefully excluding MMORPG’s from this discussion, as I’m not really an MMO player and I don’t really have a lot to say about them from an experiential standpoint. I’ll concede the point that technically, MMO’s are CRPGs, but I don’t count them when I think about the genre.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Back in the early 80’s, CRPGs were primarily in textual form. Primarily the ones I remember playing from this era are the Zork series and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There were other text adventures out there (Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Leisure Suit Larry come to mind), but Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide made the biggest impact on me. I’ll skip explaining in detail what these games were like (the Wikipedia links should suffice for the curious) and simply say that they were fairly primitive and exercises in frustration… if you didn’t have a game guide or type things in a very precise and systematic manner, the game would only be fun for so long.
Behold, the cover to Zork. And below, a screenshot of the game itself.
So what did I learn from this era? Oddly enough, precision and a systematic approach. Seriously, the uncompromising gameplay of Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide kept me at it until I mastered the basics of these ideas, and that’s not a bad thing for a young mind. Additionally, these games were purely text, so I learned a lot about effective description—there’s an art to creating an image with words, especially a lasting image with meaningful details.
Moving on to the late 80’s, CRPGs took a slightly more advanced form in what I like to call “the boxed game” beginning with the SSI “goldbox” games of this period (technically Heroes of the Lance and a few other games were “silver box” predecessors, but that’s splitting hairs). Specifically, I’m thinking of Heroes of the Lance, the Bard’s Tale series, and the Ultima series. King’s Quest and Buck Rogers also had some notable entries in this period. These games were only really superficially a roleplaying game—although the player could make choices, those choices were really only meaningful in terms of what characters they could create and control in the tactical interface. It was a step up from the limited action/response options in the previous text adventure era, but still far short of any narrative experience. On the other hand, the tactical gameplay was really, really fun, and there were plenty of stories I could tell you about how my characters managed to beat some pretty hefty odds… which was not that dissimilar to many of the actual Dungeons and Dragons adventures of that time either.
Here’s the cover and an in-game screenshot from Countdown to Doomsday, a Gold Box adventure game.
So what did I learn from this era? Tactical expertise, resource management, and the importance of having the right mix of characters in a party. In the Gold Box games, you could make a party of all fighters if you really wanted, but doing so meant you would struggle against many of the encounters in the game. Likewise, not having a theif to pick locks on doors or a cleric to heal your party in between encounters would change the experience greatly as well. The best way to progress through the game (for myself and players like myself) was to create a party like you would in an actual D&D game—meaning that you have a varied mix of classes and roles in your group. This approach allowed me to conquer many of the game’s challenges without having to reload the game too many times.
Special Mention: The Pool of Radiance series and the Buck Rogers games were some of my favorites—I’d love to go back and play these again someday. Pool of Radiance had a fun story with some memorable villains, and the Buck Rogers games actually had a fun ship battle interface! Alas, I never really got to play any serious games of Ultima or the Bard’s Tale, but I did muck about with them briefly.
Concurrently with some of the other entries on this list is a phenomenon called the JRPG, or Japanese-style Roleplaying Game for short. JRPGs are similar to the Gold Box games in that they generally emphasize tactical gameplay over narrative, but there are some very notable entries in their genre that should be discussed whenever one talks about CRPGs in general. The Japanese approach to the CRPG generally took a much more detailed approach to many aspects of gameplay, from the various items of gear to the types of magic the wizards can cast (Red Mage, Black Mage, White Mage, anyone?). JRPGs spanned the timeline from the late 80’s through most of the 90’s with the entries I discuss here.
I like to split up my experience with JRPGs into two sub-categories, Tactical and Storytelling.
The tactical side of JRPGs focuses on the combat, leveling, and character growth elements in a CRPG. In many of these games, developing your character over time is critically important—choose the right set of careers along the way and your character can end up quite powerful. Make foolish or dead-end choices, however, and it’s back to the start screen for you!
Ack! This screen is from Dragon Warrior.
Probably the most well-known of these games is the Final Fantasy series, but I actually began my journey into the realm of JRPGs with the NES game Dragon Warrior. I remember that I was so fascinated with the game that I stayed up all night killing slimes and raising levels. I did eventually get into the Final Fantasy games after that point, of course, and my personal favorites include FF6 (3 in the US), FF7, FFX (or Ten), and Final Fantasy Tactics. FF6, FF7, and FFX all deserve special mention in that they also possessed a very stirring and compelling narrative that draws you into the game far above and beyond the simple factors of fun and engrossing gameplay. The Disgaea games also fall under this category.
Square is definitely a fantastic company for this kind of approach, and I’d like to single out another similar tactical game for special praise: Front Mission 4. If you love Final Fantasy and giant robots fighting each other, this is the game for you. In recent years, a new notable entry into the same field is Record of Agarest War, which blends the typical JRPG with dating sim elements and introduces an interesting new mechanic in dynastic gameplay, where your character’s choices determine the effects to the next generation of characters—up to five times in the first game!
As previously mentioned, FF6, FF7, and FFX all shared a truly dynamic and engaging narrative. Alongside these giants in the industry are some slightly less well-known games that are definitely RPGs but stress the story elements over the actual gameplay. For this section the games that come to my mind are the truly excellent Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger for the SNES. A later entry into the same general type of game is the amazingly immersive Shenmue.
A memorable moment in Chrono Trigger. Behold the time portal!
So what did I learn from JRPGs? From the tactical side, I learned that you can create compelling gameplay elements for tactical thinkers – combinations of abilities, little mini-games to power up abilities (remember Vincent’s games from FF6?), interesting opportunities for traversal of the overland map (airships!) and how you can combine effects and/or special events (i.e., “limit breaks”) to build some impressive cinematic combats. From the storytelling side, there’s a great deal of narrative value to be found in things like FF7 and Chrono Trigger, from making characters the player can identify with and care about to building a villain with a tragic past that the player nevertheless is determined to stop at any cost.
During the late 90’s into the mid-2000’s came a wave of computer roleplaying games that truly took the genre to the next level. I consider this timeframe to be the era of the “True CRPG,” since these are the most iconic games that I think of when describing the term. CRPGs really came into their own about this time, with fascinating storytelling, engaging gameplay, and the ability to build your own character and interact with some of the most memorable NPCs of all time. CRPGs of this era also included branching storylines and incorporated meaningful choice into the gameplay experience for the first time, meaning that multiple playthroughs could have very different outcomes.
The originator of this era and probably the most well-known is the Baldur’s Gate series (which also includes the Icewind Dale games). Created by Black Isle/Bioware, these CRPGs pioneered many effective gameplaying techniques that are still in use today. Fantastic music, voice work, art and interface design combined with a great story made for an unforgettable experience. The characters of Baldur’s Gate resonate through the entire industry—up to and including references in modern games like Mass Effect.
Note: For me, personally, Misc is the greatest NPC and companion of all time.
This is the man.
Of special note is the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition that is nearly out now—a great way to experience this game-changer of a CRPG.
The True CRPG Era started out strong but it would hit an amazingly high peak by the unparalleled Planescape: Torment in 1999. Torment redefined what an RPG was capable of and how people perceived the genre. A tour de force of storytelling and characters, Torment set a standard for CRPGs that has yet to be equaled.
Other CRPGs of this era include the very influential Fallout series. Fallout’s contributions are many, amongst them a unique vision of a post-apocalyptic setting and cementing the isometric 3rd-person interface as the preferred method for many RPGs to come.
Torment was followed up by two worthy successors: Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights 2. Neither of these games were quite as good as Torment, but that isn’t to say they aren’t both great games—they certainly have earned that title.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura was a flawed but exceptional game that had a ton of potential. It combined magic and technology and cashed in on the (then-brand-new) Steampunk aesthetic. I encourage anyone who loves CRPGs to give Arcanum a shot, because it also possesses a fascinating story and some great characters.
This game is a must play!
Neverwinter Nights 2 was developed by Obsidian Studios, featuring a lot of the same creators as Torment. Whilst Neverwinter Nights 2 is fairly pedestrian from a storytelling standpoint, it does present everything you’d expect to find in a CRPG with some unique twists. The companions in the game are well-designed and the major selling point is that you eventually are given a keep to supervise, upgrade, and defend in an extremely memorable climax. Alas, the otherwise unremarkable story and the perplexing ending keep this game from succeeding wildly.
What did I learn from True CRPGs? The right voice can turn a good character into an unforgettable character. Exploration gameplay and storytelling does not have to be linear. RPGs can turn your world upside-down and change your perception (Torment!). The nature of a man can change through belief (more Torment!). Classic fantasy RPG tropes can form the foundation for truly epic stories and intense game experiences. Music and sound are vital to the experience of a CRPG. Challenge beliefs, change expectations, and you can create something beautiful.
Starting in the mid-to-late 2000’s, CRPGs moved primarily into handhelds and consoles. With this move came an increase in technology and the ability of the game to convey information, primarily through visual means. This stripped away some of the verbosity from CRPGs – where before, a crucial conversation could involve multiple pages of text, it was now resolved with just a few sentences. Storytelling remains strong in console CRPGs, but the focus has shifted again, lifting visuals and gameplay experience more into focus.
The Sith Triumvirate of KOTOR II are some of my favorite villains ever.
The Knights of the Old Republic series is probably the first and most heralded of the console CRPGs. In my personal opinion, I credit KOTOR 1 and 2 for saving Star Wars after the truly atrocious prequels nearly destroyed any interest I had in the IP. KOTOR (once again created by many of the same minds behind Baldur’s Gate and Torment) paved the way for even more advanced CRPGs to come from Bioware. The Dragon Age and Mass Effect series(with the unfortunate exception of Mass Effect 3) were both excellent game franchises that capitalized on all the strengths of the genre. Mass Effect and Dragon Age returned some of the depth in the form of in-universe journal entries and informational packets, helping to build some very strong worlds, organizations, and characters that have made an undeniable mark on the genre.
A very underrated CRPG is Alpha Protocol, a CRPG that goes into a rarely-entered subgenre of espionage action. If you’ve ever been a fan of James Bond or Jack Bauer, make sure to give this game a try.
A scene from Alpha Protocol. The game features about a half-dozen ways to get around those guards, from direct combat to smooth talking to stealth.
Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas helped to cement this era with open-world gameplay and a very “sandboxed” approach that contrasted nicely with Bioware’s much more linear designs. Both games are very good, but New Vegas really pushes the envelope with its amazingly innovative DLC designs.
In addition, no mention of console CRPGs would be complete without discussing the surprise smash hit of 2011, Skyrim. This entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise made a huge splash into the gaming market and introduced a whole new generation to fantastic, open-world gameplay linked with stunning environments and excellent level design. So far, the only thing I can critique about Skyrim is that its DLC is very lacking, especially compared to Fallout: New Vegas.
One special note here is the Shadowrun SNES game from 1993 is one of the earliest console CRPGs that I remember… and it was very, very good.
What did I learn from the Console Era? Meaningful choice as the centerpiece of a game is a powerful tool. Concise textual design can get the main ideas across without requiring a player to read multiple pages. Memorable climactic moments can turn a good game into a great one. The importance of creating a good, solid ending to a CRPG cannot be overstated. Building a character’s story over multiple games in the same line can launch a legend.
Death is a badass. In Darksiders II, you get to play Death. Seems like it would sell itself, right?
A special mention I’d like to make here is for Darksiders II. Whilst Darksiders II is an “action RPG” and is definitely further towards the action side of that scale, it is a fine RPG and features design and writing work from yours truly.
For diehard CRPG fans like myself, the future is actually looking very good. Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition are on their way to completion from some very good teams in the industry, and they promise to bring back much of the “True CRPG era” strengths to new technology like the ipad whilst leveraging more modern design principles. The success of Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3 have bolstered the role of CRPGs in the marketplace, and the upcoming Dragon Age III promises to build on that legacy of quality. I, for one, am very optimistic about what’s coming soon for CRPGs and I hope that the genre continues to build momentum long after today.
This blog post has been all about my experiences and memories of CRPGs – what are some of yours? No doubt there are a lot of folks who will point out some games I missed along the way, so don’t hesitate to make a comment below!
Greetings, readers! Today I’m very pleased to present an interview with Rich Baker, a man with a long and legendary pedigree in the world of roleplaying games.
Rich’s career spans a multitude of game worlds, from Star*Drive to Dark Sun to the Forgotten Realms and beyond. I spoke a little about Rich back in my review of the Birthright campaign setting, and it is through Birthright that I personally first became aware of his work.
Rich Baker: Man. Myth. Legend.
Rich is also a novelist, and I will definitely recommend books like the Shadow Stone and City of Ravens for anyone who enjoys good fantasy fiction. However, my personal favorite is still The Falcon and the Wolf!
I’ve made a point of speaking to Rich every Gen Con if possible — mostly to geek out about Birthright — but also because I’m honestly a big fan of his work. I want to extend my gratitude to Rich for agreeing to this interview, and I heartily suggest that anyone who wants to know more about Mr. Baker should check his out his blog at Atomic Dragon Battleship.
And now, on to the interview! As always, my questions are in red.
(Click below the fold for the entire interview!)
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
RB: I guess the easiest way to answer this is to tell you what I’m playing these days. I get together with a good group of guys on Thursday nights for D&D; I just agreed to step up and DM for a while, and we’re playing a multi-edition hybrid game set in the world of Birthright. (Believe it or not, I haven’t played a Birthright game in close to 15 years.) Before that, we played Saga Edition Star Wars, and before that, a long-running 4thEdition campaign. My Thursday night group includes noted WotC expatriates Steve Schubert and Dave Noonan—it’s a great table to play at.
Rich Baker and Bill Slaviscek aboard the D&D Party Bus. No, I am not making this up.
I also play a broad variety of boardgames when time permits. Some of the games we’ve played recently include Lords of Waterdeep, Mission Red Planet, Lords of Vegas, Axis & Allies (the anniversary edition), and Conquest of Nerath. Once in a blue moon I get a chance to dust off some of the old Avalon Hill or SPI titles—a few weeks ago I played Kingmaker, and a few months back I played Empires of the Middle Ages and Victory in the Pacific. I have a weakness for games with thousands of counters and huge hex maps, and I’ve been itching to play A World at War (the GMT update to Avalon Hill’s Third Reich and Rising Sun games). I had a small gang of co-conspirators at Wizards of the Coast who kept AWAW games going for years, but most of us are gone from the company now. Oh, and I play a lot of Civ 5, Eve, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.
As a game industry pro, well, I’ve been lucky enough to work on the sort of games I like to play: RPGs, strategy and historical boardgames, and historical miniatures games.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
RB: I played D&D and wargames growing up, and loved ‘em all. In 1991, I finished up a 3-year stint as an officer on active duty in the Navy, and I started looking around for the next step in my career. I sent resumes off to dozens of companies… and as long as I was at it, I sent one to TSR Inc. for the pure hell of it. To my surprise, they responded by sending me a design test—a copy of the Complete Viking Handbook, and a request to provide a 2000-word writing sample based on that material. Well, I knocked out the sample encounter, and TSR liked it enough to bring me out to Lake Geneva for an interview. I started as a designer for TSR in October of 1991, and went on to spend twenty years with TSR and Wizards of the Coast.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
RB: Working with people who share your passion for games. First of all, it meant that there was always a game group running after-hours that I could hook up with, or a gang of people ready to commit a couple of weeks of lunch breaks to setting up a big sprawling boardgame. I got a *lot* of gaming in with twenty years at TSR and WotC. But working with people who share your love for games means that you strike up a number of great friendships, too.
My vote for best 3.5 supplement of all time.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
RB: Unless you’re fortunate enough to land at one of the very few top companies, there isn’t a whole lot of money in it. If you’re entertaining the idea of making this your career, make sure you’re okay with that. It’s also a very small field, with a very limited number of positions or freelancing opportunities available. If you’re an accountant, well, there are a thousand companies you might consider working for. RPG designer? Not so much.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 20 years?
RB: The business got more and more in the way of the creativity as time went on. After the initial success of 3rd Edition, the whole industry slowly contracted. Marginal companies went under, and bigger companies faced a never-ending spiral of trying to do more with less. Each individual release had more and more riding on it, and the business teams became less and less willing to take chances. When I first started at TSR, we were publishing close to 100 RPG titles a year. You could do idiosyncratic, wildly creative things, understanding that if it tanked, you weren’t going to sink the whole line. Over the last few years, WotC has been publishing more like a dozen titles a year, and they’re subjected to a brutal evaluation process to ensure they’re only producing the titles that have the biggest possible upside. In retrospect we know that TSR’s business model was unsustainable, but those were happier days.
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?
RB: From the publisher’s viewpoint: Hey, freelancer, do your work on time and write to the specs. Don’t run weeks and weeks over, and don’t give me 50,000 words when I wanted 20,000 (or vice versa). Nothing else happens until we get a manuscript in hand, and it’s more or less about the size we wanted. Almost as important, accept direction and don’t be difficult to work with. I dropped freelancers off my list every year because they’d argue with me about the direction I needed their manuscripts to go.
One of the best adventures for D&D 3.5, go check it out!
From the freelancer’s viewpoint: I have less experience being outside the ivory tower, so I’m a little less qualified to comment on this. But, based on conversations with my freelancer colleagues, I’d say it’s simple: Hey, publisher, pay me what you owe me in timely fashion. WotC was always pretty scrupulous about this, but that wasn’t necessarily the industry standard.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
RB: A better online distribution, marketing, and delivery system. Realistically, the RPG market is never going to be a major moneymaker again; PC games, console games, and mobile games have been making pen-and-paper RPGs a niche product for years now. (A highly successful release of the next D&D edition may reverse or stabilize that trend to some extent, of course.) That sounds terrible, but really, a good niche is nothing to be ashamed of: high-end boardgames and RPGs deliver an experience that just can’t be replicated in the digital format. There’s always going to be a small but devoted audience for that experience.
So, rather than waiting and hoping that somehow people will suddenly get bored with technology and abandon their digital games, I think it would be more realistic and sustainable to figure out a way to make sure that your small but dedicated audience can *see* your products, *connect* with people who share their hobby, and *purchase your product* when they’re ready to buy. These days, that probably means creating a top-notch online retailer that is a community and a destination as well as a retail outlet. It’s technologically feasible, and there are several sites and companies out there that are close to providing that gaming Mecca I’m talking about. The smart brick-and-mortar stores would be plugged into that; they can offer face-to-face networking, play space, and café culture to supplement the online community.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
RB: These days, I’m publishing a blog with updates every ten days or so, and I’ve got quite a few friends on Facebook. I also attend the occasional con or local gaming get-together. Obviously, when I was with WotC, I was on the clock for maintaining articles like the Rule of Three, the Opening Salvo previews for A&A minis, and other regular postings. I probably ought to put together a Rich Baker website at some point, but I’m just a caveman game designer; your modern world frightens and confuses me.
Here’s a link to my blog: http://richard-baker.blogspot.com/
I encourage folks to subscribe. I do talk politics fairly regularly, but I segregate it off in its own header, so if you don’t like my opinions on that front, feel free to skip over that part.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
RB: I’d say the work I’m most proud of is the work I did in the design and development of 3rd Edition D&D and the 3rdEdition Forgotten Realms product line. Elements of my class, system, and spell design survived all the way through the 3e development process and became industry icons—the notion of super-proficiencies that became feats, the sorcerer, the warlock, as well as elements like the paladin’s smite evil and the barbarian’s rage. There’s plenty of things I did that disappeared without a splash, but when something you came up with sticks around and changes the landscape of D&D forever after, well, that’s a neat feeling.
Definitely a fun read.
For the Forgotten Realms, I served as creative director for the first couple of years of the 3rd Edition line. Not only did I help to shepherd the 3rd Edition FRCS along (a very successful campaign setting book), I also had a lot to do behind the scenes with products such as Silver Marches, Unapproachable East, City of the Spider Queen, Lost Empires of Faerun, and Underdark. I felt that towards the tail end of 2nd Edition, Forgotten Realms had become a little, well, introverted. We were creating material that rewarded the initiated, and didn’t hold as much appeal for the uninitiated. I think those first dozen or so products in 3e Realms brought the setting to a lot of people and provided a great deal of gaming content that was good for both old hands and newcomers.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
RB: I’d say, 4th Edition Forgotten Realms. It’s clear in retrospect that 4th Edition D&D created a very damaging split in the D&D audience, and we compounded that mistake by “taking away” the existing Realms in the process of providing a new Realms for the 4e fans to play. We would have been better off to produce a clean, comprehensive “current era” 4e, or even restarting the setting. I wish I could tell you that it wasn’t my idea, or that I resisted the change, but that wouldn’t be entirely true; while I had my reservations, I was persuaded that a reset was necessary and made plenty of my own contributions to the new Realms. (Most of my work was in the background and planning—I actually did very little writing in the 4e FR Campaign Setting or Player’s Guide to Faerun.)
I think Wizards of the Coast is taking some good steps now with the setting, but I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that—I have some insider knowledge that is still confidential. It’s not exactly what I would do, but it’s a much better and more sustainable long-term direction for the setting.
RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?
RB: To be honest, I never really got too hung up on this. I try to build material that is solid on a couple of levels, material that tells a good story with both the mechanics and the flavor. One of the things I really liked about the discussions we had about D&D Next (before I parted ways with Wizards) was the creation of a philosophy about things like searches and negotiations—if a player is engaged enough to narrate the exact right course of action, the game should tell the DM to let that character succeed. For example, if a player says, “I’m checking the desk drawers for hidden compartments,” and that’s where the hidden compartment is, well, maybe you ought to give it to him. If the player says, “I search the room,” with no more details, that’s where you ask for the roll. I’m using that idea in my current 3e hybrid campaign.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
RB: A warlord or marshal. I’ve always liked playing smart fighters.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
RB: It’s a little old-school, but I’m a big fan of the Champions system and universe. I’ve always loved superhero RPGs, and I loved thinking up character concepts for that game and making them work. Call of Cthulhu is a close second.
(Editor’s Note: I applaud your excellent taste, sir.)
You heard it here folks. Champions: the choice of veteran game designers.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
RB: An article or pitch that explains how they would have done something different in the game—for example, “I want to create a system that makes weapons work much more historically,” or “Elves aren’t cool enough, here’s the way I think they should be,” or “Here’s my update to the Red Wizards of Thay that fixes all the continuity goofs and finally makes Product X and Product Y both correct.” A pitch that begins with the premise that some part of the game is horribly broken or flawed, and then promises to fix it, is a pitch from a guy with axe to grind. In my experience, a lot of those guys are not going to accept direction easily, and even if they’re right about something being not so good, it’s hard to patch a game that’s already been published. We don’t have an updater or automatic patch like an MMO does.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
RB: Champions. I can find D&D games pretty easily, but I don’t ever get to play superhero RPGs.
(Editor’s Note: Next time we chat, Rich, I’d love to bend your ear about Champions!)
RW: Birthright is a unique and distinct setting that I think has been greatly underappreciated (despite its Origins award). What were the main goals you wanted to accomplish with Birthright and how do you feel it succeeded (or perhaps did not quite succeed) at those goals?
RB: Birthright came out of a competition of sorts, in which upper management invited all of us editors and designers to submit proposals for “the next D&D world.” Many interesting ideas came out of that; I still remember Jeff Grubb’s sky-world and Jon Pickens’ patchwork-world proposals. Birthright per se wasn’t one of them, but notions of a “You are the king” theme were rattling around in several of the proposals, and that was extracted from the collected suggestions and seized upon. So, I was brought on board to be the lead designer with the basic mission statement already settled on: Design a world where the PCs are the kings and queens. That, clearly, was goal number one, and I think we hit that pretty solidly.
Birthright, my personal favorite D&D setting of all time.
At the time, we had Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance game lines running simultaneously, so a secondary goal was to create a world that had a distinctly different feel that the high-fantasy D&D settings that already existed. We decided to create a lower-magic, more-historically grounded setting that would use a lot of familiar elements from our own world to make a moodier, darker, grittier world. Again, I think we succeeded for the most part.
In retrospect, I wish we’d left a little more wide-open wilderness to tame: Birthright could easily have addressed the classic D&D trope of building a stronghold, attracting followers, and clearing land for a settlement of your own. I think less emphasis on bloodlines and bloodline powers would have been a good idea, too – the “you are a king” bit was enough of a hook, we didn’t need to include special powers for your royal bloodline too. And I think that the awnsheghlien are pretty hit-or-miss; I like the idea of unique monsters, but we went to the well of tragic downfall a few too many times. Some of them could have just been unique monsters.
RW: You and Colin McComb designed the boxed set for Birthright and the setting of Anuire. If you could design Birthright (the core boxed set) again, what would you do differently?
RB: Ironically, I’ve just been looking at Birthright for the first time in many years. If I could do it over? Well, in terms of realm rules, I think I would give Sources and ley lines to primal casters like druids or shamans, not to wizards. I’ve been playing around with an idea that wizards use Artifacts as a time of holding, and that there are a very small number of Artifacts in the setting—there are temple and law holdings in just about every province, but an Artifact holding is more like one or two per realm. I think I would also try to emphasize more conventional adventuring in the setting; the Ruins of Empire book spends a great deal of time and space providing data about what regents are where, but it doesn’t say much about where the adventure is or how the DM is supposed to employ that information. Finally, I think I would try to move a lot of realm management into roleplaying—make it less about the numbers, more about the characterization and interaction.
RW: During the playtesting for Birthright, what were the most interesting outcomes? Were there any particularly noteworthy or amusing situations that occurred while testing the setting or the domain rules?
RB: Roger Moore played the wizard-king of Alamie. He discovered the realm spell for making undead legions and went berserk, hurling his bony hordes at every kingdom around him. It turns out that taking on three kingdoms at once is never a good idea even when you’re an arch-necromancer.
RW: Was Blood Enemies developed separately from the rest of the line? The tone and style of that book seem distinctly different from other Birthright books.
RB: In a word, yes. The author was Dale “Slade” Henson. Slade was assigned to work on the book more or less at the same time that Colin and I were finishing up the boxed set, and simply was less plugged in to what we were trying to do and the mood we were trying to set.
RW: To be honest, I’ve always felt that the Rjurik Highlands felt the most “odd man out” of the published regions. What are your thoughts about the Rjurik Highlands — what was your vision and goals for that region?
RB: The tricky thing about the Rjurik is that we were striving to create a society that was Viking-like, and at the same time had strong druidic or almost Native American elements. I wanted something that could draw from old Celtic culture, Picts, Saxons, and of course Danes and Vikings, and wind up somewhere around Cimmerians. It was a difficult combination and didn’t quite come together the way we would have liked.
This book was released to read for free online. Go read it!
Ironically enough, 4th Edition D&D eventually nailed down the kind of idea we were groping toward when it examined the idea of various power sources and came up with the primal source, shared by druids, barbarians, shamans, and what-have-you. If I had had that tool in my design toolkit back in 1994, it would have been the exact right tool for describing why the Rjurik culture is fundamentally different from the other nationalities: It’s the part of Cerilia where people are tuned into primal power, not divine power. That would have been an interesting distinction—some semi-civilized Rjurik domains where the rulers and the big cities acknowledge temples, and some more barbaric ones that cleave to the old ways and stick to the forest spirits.
RW: If there was ever a way to bring Birthright back in some official form for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, would you want to get involved?
RB: Sure! Time permitting, of course. I could build a pretty good 3e or 4e setting guide for Birthright. In fact, when D&D Next comes out, there are some tools in the toolkit that would probably work very well for describing the Birthright setting. Although to be honest I would have a hard time resisting the urge to tinker under the hood.
First, yes… late blog post is late. My apologies, this month has been quite full of stuff, like GDC Online and an upcoming Seattle trip.
I owe the inspiration for this week’s blog post to my friend Matthew Steen, who wanted to find out some of my thoughts about setting the scene in an RPG. Matt is a very creative person and very interested in the narrative aspects of RPGs, so I thought his suggestion was quite interesting.
My History With RPG Scenery
I’ve been playing RPGs for about 27 years now, and setting the scene was always something I found to be important. After all, the heart of an RPG is all about imagination—so I generally tried hard to make each game as immersive as possible. When I started out, this idea was mostly expressed as focusing on the “cool” parts of the game while relegating rules mechanics to a far secondary role. Thanks to another friend of mine, Brad Wilson, I did learn to let the story and the mechanics work together a lot more harmoniously during my high school years.
This, just the camera is in your mind.
When I got to college, I joined a Champions group that met very near to the University of Wyoming campus. In this group I learned a lot, but one of the most memorable things about the group was the way that describing the scene worked. I was actually co-GMing the campaign with another player, and I often found myself jumping in to help out by adding detail to the descriptions of various scenes—particularly the flashy superheroic battles that the group engaged in. During my time in the military, I discovered how powerful setting the scene can be when trying to evoke a particular genre or emotion in your players. This was further defined with my gaming group in Maryland where we reached some truly spectacular heights with a horror-themed game that relied heavily on the ambience and description of each scene.
My journey of discovery with setting the scene in RPGs has been quite instructive to me, and I’m glad to share my thoughts on the subject. Evocative roleplay is my favorite kind!
Note: the subject of this blog post is highly subjective and is unlikely to apply in equal measure across all groups. I’ve done my best to give broad advice here, but you should keep in mind that every group has their own approach to RPGs.
What is Setting the Scene?
Setting the scene is all about effective description; whenever an environment, character, action or event is being described, that is part of “setting the scene.” This kind of description can vary from extremely basic (“You see a 10’ by 10’ room. Inside is an Orc guarding a pie.”) to flowery and detailed. Switching from one style to the other is often considered a telltale sign that something is special about the upcoming action. One of my favorite quotes to this effect comes from Knights of the Dinner Table: “Anything with that much flavor text is obviously a trap.”
Basically, this. If the cheeseburger was flowery description.
Basic descriptions provide the bare minimum needed. I like to think that many Game Masters provide more than just the nuts and bolts—they try to make an impact with their descriptions. This is what I think about when I imagine “setting the scene.”
Here’s an example of setting the scene from one of my early Shadows Angelus games where the party was investigating a mysterious asylum:
“You are standing outside the darkened asylum as rain hisses down all around you. A light fog roils around your ankles and you sense a sharp, coppery scent of blood in the air. There’s a hushed, expectant atmosphere as if your arrival here was no coincidence. Suddenly, you can hear a thunderous roar erupt from the asylum’s depths – a primal sound of endless hate.”
Tools for Setting the Scene
If you’re looking for some methods to use to help craft immersive and interesting scenes in your RPG, here are some tools that I use to benefit this approach:
Excite the Senses
Often, describing the scene is purely visual (see the example of the Orc and the pie above). However, we all have many more senses than just our sight – describing what the scene sounds or smells like, providing details about the texture or subtle vibration in the floor, and adding some information about the gritty wind blowing across the plains can all help bring the action to life in the minds of your players. Sight, hearing and scent are the easiest cues to build into a scene, but also consider the other senses from time to time.
The accordion kings want to remind you that hearing is important.
In one of my Birthright games in Louisville, Kentucky, my good friend Bryant Smith was playing a fallen paladin who had succumbed to alcoholism. In a truly memorable scene, he found the only cure for a terrible disease ravaging his body involved drinking from a unique liquor known as the wine of dreams. Because this was a very important scene for his character, I went all-out describing the thick, honey-like substance, the sweet and spicy scent, and the riot of flavors across his tongue as he downed the bottle.
Relate to the Real
It is sometimes easy to forget that the players don’t always have the same context and memories as yourself. It’s not hard for me to remember, for example, the size and majesty of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. However, it would be a mistake to assume that my players can all relate to that same image if I attempt to describe the monster as being “roughly the same size as Devil’s Tower.” On the other hand, I can generally assume that most players have seen a skyscraper building at some point in their lives—so describing the monster as being “several skyscrapers high” is much more effective.
Consider using measurements that are easily relatable… and the more easily memorable, the better. If you can use the dimensions of the room, for example, that is generally a good way to help people imagine the scene. You could also use nearby features, such as the parking lot across the street to establish the general dimensions of an abandoned keep, or point to a visible water tower out the window as an example of the wizard’s tower.
Similarly, don’t forget weather effects! Not every single adventure needs to take place during a sunny day – rain, snow, high winds, or fog can all enhance a typical scene and add extra drama to a confrontation in-game.
For my Shadows Angelus campaign, I had decided that the city experienced weather similar to London – high amounts of rain and fog. Consistently adding these details helped set the game experience apart and made certain moments in the game very memorable.
Find the Right Words
Vocabulary can make quite a difference in the description of a scene. Consider the following two examples:
Description 1: “The creature staggers towards you, covered in slime. Instead of a face, there is only a wriggling mass of tentacles.”
Description 2: “The creature lurched across the threshold, noxious slime dripping from every pore. Its face was merely a squamous mass of writhing tentacles.”
While these are both perfectly serviceable descriptions, the second has a particular flavor that is missing in the first. Choosing the right words to describe the scene can add or enhance the tone of the game. If you have a particularly heroic, high-fantasy game, for example, you could consider using words like “valorous,” “bastion,” or “sublime.” A gritty, street-focused modern or near-future game might instead benefit from terms such as “grimy,” “glaring,” or “suspicious.”
Like much of the rest of this blog post, vocabulary choice is very subjective—thus, your mileage may vary, and you should always take into account your personal style and that of your group.
Don’t underestimate the power of physical props to get your players immersed in the game. Obviously, some games are going to find this easier than others – high fantasy rarely lends itself to common props that a game master can easily get his hands on, for example. However, even just some basic actions or objects can really enhance the experience.
During a very memorable Dungeons and Dragons game, my character encountered a disguised monster known as a Lamia. Taking the role of the Lamia, the GM moved in close and constantly made small touches to my leg while we were talking. (If this sounds vaguely uncomfortable, that’s okay… it was /meant/ to be!) The Lamia drains Wisdom as a touch attack, and my poor character had been reduced to a wreck without rolling a single die.
Another time, I was running a game of Dark Champions where the player characters were all street-level superheroes. During one of their investigations, they came across the wallet of a dead man containing vital clues. I had actually acquired a used wallet and mocked up various items found inside, such as business cards, ID, etc. Rather than describing what they found, I simply handed over the wallet and let the players go from there.
Using evocative description is a great way to build a proper atmosphere for your game. This can be done over a single session or over an entire story arc, depending on the scope of the theme or mood you wish to highlight.
What I do when I want to build atmosphere is select a certain theme; “betrayal,” for instance, or “fairy kingdom.” Next, I use a set of key words that bring that theme to the forefront and scatter them throughout the descriptions I use for the game. If I am trying to build atmosphere during a single session, I like to a slow build—maybe two or three references at the beginning, moving up to about double that at the middle, and then hitting it really hard in the third act.
For a long-term campaign, building atmosphere relies on consistency—if you refer to the Swanwood as peaceful in one session, it shouldn’t suddenly feel threatening later on unless there’s a very good reason for that.
I’m currently part of a Birthright campaign where this concept has been used well; the Swanwood is a place of peace and serenity, and visitors to it always feel as if a weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Wisely, the GM makes small references to that whenever we visit the Swanwood after the first time, even if we’re just passing through.
Similarly, in Shadows Angelus, the extradimensional Entities always invoke feelings of nausea and illness (known as “Entity Sickness”) to any being nearby. Every time an Entity shows up, I tried to be inventive about how sick it made the player character’s feel just to be around them.
I recommend using an index card listing a specific theme and the vocabulary choices you want to use to reinforce that theme. Keeping a small set of these cards handy to review during breaks can be helpful.
Narrating the Action
One thing that I like to pay close attention to during any RPG I am playing in is how the narrative aspects of combat are handled. I’ve seen a lot of games (probably too many) that rely simply on “I hit, you miss,” and similar comments. Even more games have battles that (aside from spell effects or gunfire) are eerily silent.
For me, I like to imagine each game as a movie in my head, and that means I lean towards the cinematic as often as possible. This also means that I like to have my characters (and NPCs) talk during combat, exchanging quips or threats, or even just stating the obvious (as you do, especially in a superheroic game) such as “Our weapons are useless!” or “You’ll never get away with this!”
I recommend varying things up more than this, though.
I believe that the player characters are meant to be the protagonists of the story, and that means they should generally feel competent in what they do in combat. This means that when I am narrating the action, I try to do so in a way that empowers the character concept and furthers the story. Few things can affect a player as strongly as when he feels he or his character is being mocked—it is easy to chuckle over a critical failure now and then, but it can easily damage a player’s enjoyment of the game if he constantly feels like the narrative description of his actions casts him in a bad light.
Take a look at the following two examples of narrating the action, both occurring after a player has made a bad roll against an opponent during a combat scene:
Example 1: “You swing at the Orc and nearly drop your sword, fumbling the weapon and almost tripping over the scabbard.”
Example 2: “You swing at the Orc, but he brings his axe up to intercept it, snarling defiantly at you, ‘No one gets out of this dungeon alive.’”
The first example de-protagonizes the character and makes him seem foolish. This is occasionally fine (and more often acceptable in a lighthearted or comedy-styled campaign), but it often is harmful to the player’s overall enjoyment of the game. The second example empowers both the character and the story, giving the player something to riff off of should he choose to respond.
How Much is Too Much?
The pace of a game is very important, and it should be noted that descriptions can get overly flowery and detailed—thus slowing down the game for little benefit. Naturally, a game’s pace will vary based on the group and the GM, and every group has their own unique style. That having been said, I would recommend that most scene-setting descriptions should get the idea across as concisely as possible.
My recommendation is to write down what you would consider a typical description and time yourself – any descriptions that take more than twenty seconds or so is probably too long.
In combat, keep things short and snappy in order for the action to flow smoothly.
Setting the scene, as you can probably tell by reading this, is important to me. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to talk about it, and I hope that you find this blog post helpful for setting the scene in your own RPG games. If you have any suggestions for other ways to help set the scene, please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments section below.
Most RPGs have a “default” style of play that they promote and are designed to accommodate. For example, early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were heavily oriented around the concept that the player characters would be exploring dungeons and looking for treasure. Naturally, these days most players understand that Dungeons and Dragons campaigns can vary wildly from one extreme (pure dungeon-crawling) to the other (pure roleplaying) with plenty of room in between.
I’ll make a bold statement: nearly any RPG can support very different styles of play. This is a lesson I learned over time, but one of the best examples of this idea comes from the classic cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun.
Larry Elmore captures Shadowrun like no one else.
On the surface, Shadowrun is all about playing as skilled operatives/criminals that exist outside the system. These “shadowrunners” are hired by megacorporations to strike at their rivals because they are deniable assets. The setting is a future where man, magic, and machine all exist side-by-side, and style generally triumphs over substance.
I spent over two years playing Shadowun online (as mentioned before in another blog post), and I discovered that for that particular RPG there are two very recognized and distinct styles of play; Mohawks and Mirrorshades.
The first style embraces the whole concept of “style over substance,” and the name itself is a reference to one of the more recognizable features of much of the early Shadowrun art featuring characters with hair styles into outrageous mohawks. Typically, the Mohawk style of play is characterized by over-the-top, cinematic action. The idea of “anything goes” and using some of the more unusual character options (such as playing a vampire, ghoul, sasquatch, AI or Free Spirit) are often associated with Mohawk style. Mohawk puts the “punk” in cyperpunk, and often the outcome of any given situation can be quite bleak.
Check out that mohawk!
One of my early characters for Shadowrun was definitely made for the Mohawk style. X’ian was actually based on an anime character and had a career as a professional athlete (Urban Brawl) before becoming a shadowrunner. Visually and vocally distinctive, “subtle” was really not part of X’ian’s dictionary. She was a lot of fun to play because of how unusual she was, but I did encounter a lot of issues with integrating with other players and staff in the online game who were more interested in a different style of play.
A very memorable incident with X’ian illustrated both sides of these different Shadowrunning approaches. The situation was this: a child had been kidnapped from a rich corporate family, and was being held for ransom. The family had made it known that there would be a large reward for the safe return of their child. X’ian had happened upon some clues about the kidnapping, including an odor trace for her cybernetic olfactory booster, and followed it to a deserted warehouse surrounded by an empty fenced parking lot.
“Aha!” I thought. “This is clearly where the kidnappers are lairing while negotiating for the ransom…” And what, you may ask, did X’ian do then? Did she gather her shadowrunner friends and make a plan to infiltrate the building and rescue the hostage? No. She walked right in through the front door.
She was promptly shot nearly to death by a sentry gun set up inside the warehouse. I think the GM was being fairly generous, in fact.
So lesson learned, right? Not quite. X’ian rounded up the usual suspects (her fellow shadowrunners on her team) and made back for the warehouse lickety-split. This time, she figured, they had a car. Said car crashed through the front gates of the fence and drove right up to the front door. X’ian and crew went full frontal assault on the warehouse, guns-a-blazin’.
This car is way cooler than the one X’ian had.
It didn’t work out so well. In the end, the ninja physical adept had to carry everyone’s bleeding, unconscious bodies back to the car. A pair of white phosphorous grenades had immolated the warehouse, consuming both kidnappers and kidnapped.
This time, I learned a valuable lesson. And I’m proud to say my Shadowrun characters have never advocated using the front door ever again.
To be honest, it was actually quite an eye-opener to find out that bombastic, cinematic action wasn’t going to work with all GM’s. It was time for me to think about adjusting, to consider trying out a more subtle and (dare I say) professional character.
In contrast, the Mirrorshades style of play is oriented around professionalism, preparation, and planning. Mirrorshades games focus on doing things “smart” and “subtle.” Mirrorshades games are often more realistic and tend to be quite challenging intellectually (often ending up trying out to outguess the GM!).
This is Mirrorshades style.
Much later in my online Shadowrunning, I created a mercenary named Reason. Reason was one of the most “professional” characters I’d ever made up to that point, although I hadn’t built him so much with that objective in mind. However, that’s how he developed during play, and I actually observed other players that I considered good at that style of play and learned from watching them. Possibly because of this approach (and no doubt helped by my growing experience with the game), Reason was—by far—my most successful Shadowrun character. He ended his career with over 200 karma (Shadowrun’s “experience points”) and actually achieved his long-term goal of retirement after a massive one-million-nuyen job.
Reason and his team (called “Black Omen”) approached every job with a mindset of accomplishing it as efficiently as possible. We researched our targets thoroughly, created detailed plans, and prepared ourselves as much as possible. I developed a leadership style for Reason that took into account the fact that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” So, Reason would get together with his team and make a plan, but he would keep it simple and make sure everyone knew the core goals of the mission. That way, when things went to crap (as they always did), the runners all could react on their own initiative to accomplish the mission. (Oh yes, and I never used the front door!)
I actually had a more “Mohawk” style GM complain that my team was not as much fun to run games for, because Black Omen worked too much like Seal Team Six and had not enough “style” for his preferences. In a way, it was quite a compliment! On the other hand, I could sympathize with him; I could tell he was bored with the clinical approach of my team and was craving something “cooler.”
I definitely enjoyed playing Reason with the Mirrorshade style, but I could tell that there was definitely something to be said for a more stylish and cinematic approach.
The Space Between
Sometimes called “Trenchcoat,” there is a style that lies in between of Mohawks and Mirrorshades, a style that combines some representations of both. “Trenchcoat” can mean many things to many people, so rather than attempt to further define such a broad term, I’d like to present another anecdote from my online Shadowrun days as an illustration of one possible meaning.
This story involves my character Alita – street name “Mouse”—a cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunter. Mouse and her partner, Danrath, had been investigating a series of ghoul sightings in a certain area of the city. A bounty had been placed on these ghouls and Mouse was determined to collect.
My inspiration for Mouse.
Mouse and Danrath followed the trail of the ghouls into the local sewer system and bagged a few of their prey along the way. However, it didn’t take long to discover something very unusual down in the sewers – the sound of pounding rock music. Investigating, Mouse and her partner found another set of bounty hunters camped in a side passage, music playing from a portable recorder they had brought with them. Chained to the wall was a beautiful human woman, her skin and hair colored a stark white, her eyes blank and pupiless. The woman was dancing for the two bounty hunters, but she was clearly their captive.
Mouse, naturally, wanted to know what the hell was going on, but her questions only led to the other bounty hunters to attack. Mouse and Danrath defended themselves and wiped out the opposition. Mouse questioned the woman, who claimed her name was “Lady Death” and that she was “Queen of the Ghouls!” Suspecting something was definitely amiss, Mouse slapped the woman with a tranq patch and knocked her out before taking her back to a safe house apartment for further investigation.
Mouse and Danrath debated what to do for some time… after all, there was a chance that something supernatural could be going on, and there were many mysteries in the Sixth World that had yet to be fully understood. It was decided to take “Lady Death” to a local street doc to have her checked out before taking any further action. Surprisingly, the street doc’s report was that “Lady Death” was in fact a normal human with extensive biosculpting. She even had a datajack registered to Aztechnology – a powerful megacorp that, in Shadowrun, has an extremely dark reputation.
When “Lady Death” awoke, Mouse and Danrath attempted to learn more by talking with her, but she refused to believe anything other than the story she had first given when they had met. Frustrated, Mouse jacked the woman into the Matrix and then pulled the plug, inducing dumpshock on her neural system in hopes this could break the programming. The drastic step worked – “Lady Death” was actually a daughter of an Aztechnology executive who had no memory of the last few weeks. She claimed she knew her name and her father’s name and was very grateful to have been rescued from her fate.
Suspicious but unaware of what else to do, Mouse and Danrath took her at her word and escorted the young woman to meet her father inside the Aztechnology corporate building. The handover of the woman was fraught with sinister undertones considering the nature of the corporation, but her father seemed normal enough. He rewarded and thanked us and then we were escorted out of the building.
Mouse and Danrath had many questions after that – was the girl telling the truth? Why had she been put through that bizarre situation? What was the link with the ghouls? Unfortunately, all these questions would never be answered – but even now, thinking back about the situation, I can imagine many intriguing scenarios that would explain just what we had stumbled onto.
Alas, Mouse’s story has a bittersweet ending. She actually ended up arrested by Lone Star and placed into prison. I definitely feel that the GM was attempting to offer me a way to turn that failure an opportunity, but I was too discouraged to consider it.
Universal RPGs like GURPS don’t generally have an issue with a default style of play. Champions also falls into this category, although it drifts close with its heavy focus on superheroes. As stated earlier, D&D is so wildly varied that it is difficult to define a “default” Dungeons & Dragons experience. Rifts, similarly, is very widely varied in the types of campaigns it can support.
Not exactly what I meant, but close.
Games like Traveller and Star Wars, by contrast, both have a generally accepted “typical” style of play (although both can support multiple styles).
However, no matter what your chosen system of RPG may be, it is fairly easy for established groups to fall into a pattern of a specific style of play. There’s nothing really wrong with this – you should definitely game the way that is the most fun for you – but I would like to encourage gamers to consider thinking about the other options that exist.
It can be very refreshing to try out a different approach to RPGs, to get a fresh look at perhaps your style or the styles of others. Game conventions, such as PAX, Genghis Con, or Gen Con, are one of the best ways to try out a new game and a new style. Even at home, consider trying out something new as a one-shot game night, perhaps for a special occasion like Halloween.
Changing things up from time to time can be really good and give you a fresh perspective on not only what you like about RPGs, but also about how they appeal to other folks as well.
I’m currently involved in a truly excellent RPG campaign that fully engrosses my attention when I’m playing. This is what they call “immersive storytelling.” I’m invested.
In last weekend’s game, the GM presented an opportunity for the characters to reach out from our struggling nation and make peaceful contact with neighboring realms. It was an excellent chance both to get some much-needed aid and to build a foundation for a lasting alliance—and these things were very, very important to my character. I happened to be the most diplomatic character, and I had built my skillset so that speaking to other rulers was something I did well. I spent some time the night before the game preparing what I felt was a good speech and had two printed pages of dialogue ready to go during the session.
Given the title of this blog post, I’m guessing you already know how things went. Let me be perfectly clear: I screwed the pooch.
I see what you did there.
Not only did I fail to establish better relations with one of our (up until this point) peaceful neighbors, I managed to kick off an entirely separate front of hostilities. My entire diplomatic team was exiled from the realm on pain of death, and large portions of the nation I was part of were seized. Citizens weren’t killed—they were given plenty of warning to evacuate—but towns and villages alike were burned to the ground. Thousands of people with no homes, no farms, no food, no hope.
It was all my fault.
Again, to be entirely clear, this was a pure roleplaying situation—no dice were rolled. It was simply my choice of what I had to say and how I said it. The GM was generous in that he gave me plenty of coaching ahead of time from a reliable NPC as to how to go about things, and in some regards, I went against that advice.
And so, the land was ravaged.
How Does It Feel?
As I had said earlier, this is a game I am highly invested in. I look forward to it every week and exult in the moment when we’re playing. I’m very much “in character” when I’m playing in this campaign. In addition, we’d been very successful up to this point. Sometimes, wildly successful by bucking the odds and acting like Big Damn Heroes when the situation called for it. So, in many ways, I was feeling cocky. After all, I reasoned, this is what my character is good at.
When I first realized just how badly I had screwed the pooch, I froze up. I was paralyzed. I had no idea how to respond. My stomach was churning with embarrassment… this was certainly not how I had expected things to go!
And then things escalated. The realm went from being mildly pissed off to becoming belligerent. Suddenly, my character—a champion of good, nobility, and heroic ideals—was directly responsible for starting up hostilities and the burning of several villages and towns. It was like a punch in the gut.
I had that sick feeling that this was a mistake I couldn’t just fix. There were consequences to my actions… fairly dire ones, in fact. And I was responsible.
Fortunately, some of the other characters in the party were able to manage the situation before it went any further out of control. Nevertheless, I knew that this was a big moment in my character’s life.
There’s a number of ways to deal with a failure of this magnitude. I’ve known some players to simply pack up and leave. In fact, the last time I was this invested in a campaign and my character died, I nearly did that very same thing myself! Other players can get angry, or very, very quiet (which in many ways is just as bad).
Luckily for me, I trusted my GM. I knew that he had not chosen that I would fail because he was punishing me… rather, it was simply the outcome that the story called for at that moment.
My good friend Dave Mattingly, head of Blackwyrm Publishing, once helped discuss failure in RPGs at HeroCon in Glen Burnie, MD back in 2006. Dave said something that stuck with me:
“Failure gives the heroes twice as much screen time. First they fall down; then they get back up.”
Dave is a wise, wise man.
The idea that failure is—and should be—another opportunity is a powerful one, and I try to look at in-character setbacks in the same way Dave does. In the situation I mentioned above, I took my character’s setback and used it to try and build some growth of his beliefs and relationships with others.
When it comes to handling failure during the game, the most crucial element (and one that I cite often when discussing roleplaying) is trust. If the players trust the GM, if that bond exists, then it is okay to fail. Failure is another opportunity, it is a way to examine (as I have done) how the character deals with setbacks. Comparatively, it is easy to roleplay a character who is successful… often, it can be more rewarding to handle a character through his darkest hour and come out the other side.
Another very wise man.
Accidental Failure and Deliberate Failure
Failure can come in many guises during an RPG. I like to separate failure into two categories; accidental and deliberate failure.
Accidental failure is unintentional on both the part of the players and the GM—typically it revolves around die rolls. It can be a single crucial roll or a series of important ones. It can even take the form of a certain card (such as in the infamous Deck of Many Things) or just having your miniature in the wrong place at the wrong time on the battlemat.
Deliberate failure happens when someone chooses to fail. Often, this comes in the form of the GM deciding that “this didn’t work.” However, players can also deliberately fail—although rarely in the interests of the game. Most often that I’ve seen, deliberate failure on the part of the players is a way of showing disdain for the game itself, a “I’m taking my toys and going home” sort of decision.
Degrees of Failure
“So just how bad is it?” This is a common question asked whenever a player rolls a critical failure during an RPG. Some games (such as, famously, Rolemaster) have quite a list of possibilities. Many of my own games in the 40K Roleplay line have quite a few horrible fates for a psyker who rolls particularly badly, as another example.
I didn’t make this graph, but I generally agree with it.
For me, I like to divide failure up into two categories. Either the failure is manageable, or it is one of those moments when you say “Oh s#!t.” These categories are what I like to call
Minor Failures and Spectacular Failures.
As mentioned above, Minor Failures are manageable. They’re usually temporary and have few if any consequences.
Spectacular Failures are, well, spectacular—they have long-lasting effects and often come with a boatload of consequences after the fact.
Change of Perception
Failure of either kind can change your perception of the character. A series of minor failures or even a single spectacular failure can have an effect on the tone for a story arc or even an entire campaign.
Generally, the effects of failure are magnified if they occur earlier in a character’s adventuring career—and by “career,” I don’t mean backstory. I’m talking about actual, in-game performance.
A classic issue of different expectations, and a reaction thereof.
Allow me to illustrate what I mean with an anecdote from my own gaming history. I had one of those character concepts that I was really, really excited about but never got a chance to play long-term. I got to play the character one time in one game, and that was it. So when a friend offered to GM a campaign that was perfect for this character, I was thinking oh yeah, this-is-gonna-be-awesome. The character’s name was Nimrodel, she was a dryad who survived her tree getting cut down, and she had become a warblade (a fun fighter-type class from the Tome of Battle for D&D 3.5). I was, to say the least, jazzed to play this character.
So, in the first session, we’re fighting our way through some guards when my character gets her chance. “I got this,” I announced confidently, triggering one of the cool warblade powers for kicking ass and advancing on the enemy.
What happened next? I rolled a critical failure. Yep, the very first swing with my awesome sword-mistress was a fumble.
It was fortunate for me that I didn’t end up rolling a lot of fumbles for Nimrodel, but it certainly affected both how I and the other players saw the character in-game. This was definitely an accidental failure, not a deliberate one, but it was still a real bummer and the fact that I’m writing about it here shows how memorable it truly was. I am sure that I’m not alone… no doubt many players can think of moments like these for their characters.
Another example I can point to regarding how failure can change the tone of a campaign comes from Shadowrun 4th edition. Our characters discovered that regardless of having high skills in Infiltration (the catch-all “Being Sneaky” skill) and ruthenium (think the Predator’s camouflage) suits, we were getting spotted by your typical beat cop on patrol at one in the morning. This is an example of deliberate failure—the GM had chosen that sneaking around like ninjas just didn’t work in his campaign.
Failure, Frustration and Punishment
I started out talking about how failure should be looked at as an opportunity, and I believe that is a good ideal to strive for because the alternative is detrimental to the game—frustration and a feeling of punishment. Failing every so often can be a doorway to some really great roleplaying. Constant deliberate failure can feel more like you’re being punished for trying to go against the GM’s style, story, or preferences.
Let’s do a quick breakdown of the types and degrees of failure—when do they stop being opportunities and become frustrating?
Deliberate Failure: When deliberate failure happens occasionally, it can cause frustration (especially if it results from a misunderstanding of expectations from either the player or the GM), but it is generally going to be manageable. Deliberate spectacular failure is, surprisingly not as frustrating, probably because failing big can be quite entertaining with many groups. In fact, many roleplayers that I personally know ascribe to a “go big or go home” school of thought.
However… constant deliberate failure, as mentioned above, is generally about as fun as getting smacked with a lead pipe.
Accidental Failure: Occasional accidental failure is simply part of the RPG experience. Any game with dice is going to have times when they completely abandon you. The vast majority of gamers are pretty philosophic about occasional accidental failure. Constant accidental failure, however, can be extremely frustrating. As humans, our brains tend to seize more on the outliers when looking at a random system, meaning that you remember the really amazing rolls and the really crappy ones and generally forget the far more numerous average results.
I’ve known some gamers, including a good friend, former roommate, and game author Grady Elliot, who can get really frustrated with a bad run of dice. Grady’s bad luck with d20’s is fairly legendary, in fact. I can sympathize… it’s no fun to fail over and over again.
Again, this category usually causes more feelings of frustration when the failures are manageable than when they are spectacular—but I should definitely mention that it depends on the game and the situation. Losing the fight against the big bad because of one critical fumble is certainly memorable, but it can also cause some serious stress in many players.
Final Thoughts on Failure
If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from this post, it’s this: don’t be afraid to let your characters fail from time to time. It can change your perception of the character’s place in the world, give you fodder for more stories, and act as a catalyst for change. Just don’t make it a punishment… especially if you’re the GM!
Sorry about the lack of updates—August has been crazy for me this year, possibly one of the craziest months ever. Not an excuse, just background. My father was kind enough to give me some incentive (i.e., “I’ve read enough about Gen Con, time for something new.”) so get ready for more blog goodness here on Rogue Warden.
Today’s blog post is about Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs… but not in the way you’d think. Currently, MMORPGs in the video game industry seem like they’re suffering—good examples include City of Heroes and SWTOR—and the business model is in the process of change. It’s possible that MMOs as we know them may be on the way out. However, rather than talking too much about the present and future, I’d like to focus on the MMORPG’s distant past… a world of text-based adventures on the early internet known as MUDs, MUSHes, and MUXes.
An MMO By Any Other Name
If you can’t already tell, dear reader—this post is chock-full of acronyms. Don’t worry… I’ll explain. A MUD is a multi-user dungeon—these online games generally were the closest to modern-day MMORPGs in that they weren’t really about roleplaying. Instead, MUDs centered around the player taking his character through a series of dungeons, slaying enemies, and taking their stuff. There were also guilds to join, characters could get married, shops to buy things and bars to get virtually drunk.
It’s not that kind of mud.
By now, this should all sound very familiar to any World of Warcraft player. Of course, the major difference here is visual—everything in a MUD (and by extension every other MU* game I’m discussing in this post) is entirely scrolling text on the computer screen. Scenery, actions, battles, monsters, gear… literally everything in the game was described through text, with the player’s actions being entered in a series of commands. Typing “L” for example, meant that your character looked at his surroundings, and a description of where your character was would then appear on the screen. This was usually followed by the command “kill orc” and then “get gold.” In fact, the first MMORPGs started out with the label “Graphical MUD.”
The Wikipedia entry for MUD contains a lot more detail about these games, so I won’t re-state much here about that… instead, I’ll tell you about my experience with them. I first encountered MUDs at the University of Wyoming in 1992. A friend of mine introduced me to MUDs after discovering we shared an interest in roleplaying games. (Side note: I was one of those nerds who took every single rpg book I owned with me to college. Yeah. I’m that guy.)
Thus I began my exploration of Shadow MUD (there’s currently another game of that name, but I don’t think there’s any relation to this earlier incarnation) and I was instantly hooked. As I was a writer, this was right up my alley—it was using all the typing skills I’d developed in high school and putting them into practice online. I could play any time of the day or night, and I could even play with some of my friends, including my then-roomate.
Keep in mind this was twenty years ago, so my memories are a bit fuzzy… I think my character’s class was a Shadow Mage. I remember that the character could summon shadows to devour the bodies of the slain and gain health. Shadow Mages were also unique in the game in that they could heal other characters that were not in the same virtual “room,” no matter where they were in the game. When I reached a higher level, it was common for me to grab a few virtual beers in the tavern while casting heals on adventuring parties out fighting dragons and whatnot! Drinking beer, in that game, helped restore a character’s magic and hit points at the same time.
As much as I enjoyed MUDding, I grew tired of it quickly and sought out a new challenge. Fortunately for me, I had made several friends online, and one of them pointed me towards another online game that would prove to be a huge impact on my life. This game, he told me, was ALL about roleplaying.
Read more (a LOT more) about MUDs and MUSHes after the break!
Is It Time For My MUSH?
The place I was directed to go was a game known as TwoMoons MUSH. MUSH stands for Multi-User Shared Hallucination. There are various other kind of MUSH, such as a MUX (multi-user experience), MUSE, and many more. Eventually, the shorthand became MU* to indicate that you were talking about the general category of MUSHes.
Just add elves!
In stark contrast to most MUDs, the majority of MUSHes are focused nearly entirely around roleplaying. Several MUSHes, for example, have no actual coded commands for combat. Instead, all conflict (yes, ALL conflict… even “I swing a sword at you!”) is handled by storytelling and mutual consent. This is not to say that all MUSHes were like this. Some MUSHes (such as many of the World of Darkness and Shadowrun MU*s—see below) did have plenty of conflict resolution coding present so that characters could resolve combat, skill uses, and any other reason for rolling virtual dice.
However, TwoMoons was of the first type; it was definitely all about the storytelling, all about the characters, all about the experience. TwoMoons was based on the ElfQuest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini, a series that I had read and enjoyed greatly in my younger years. I was instantly attracted both to the theme of playing in the world of ElfQuest and in the idea that everything happening in TwoMoons was in-character roleplaying. I did have some difficulty adjusting at first, but I’m a quick learner when it’s something I’m really interested in… and in no time it seemed like I was an old hand helping out other newbies learn all about TwoMoons.
A tale of adorable pointy-eared short people and their pet wolves.
I could write an entire blog post just about this game. I played a number of characters, my two favorite (and most well-known amongst TwoMoons players) being the wolfrider Truestrike and the underworlder Melendrian. I did some of my first world design with TwoMoons: I was the main designer for Ravenholt, which was a large, detailed region in the game that characters could explore and at the same time, a tribe and group identity for players to use in their backgrounds and storytelling.
TwoMoons was a very long-running game that was in operation from 1991 until only a few years ago, and players came to the game from all across the world. I myself met many players from Norway, Sweden, Australia, the list goes on. I made several lifelong friends while playing the game, and nearly got married (yes, married in real life) to a woman I met on TwoMoons. My best friend whom I have known over 19 years was once a curious player who wandered into my character’s home on TwoMoons and struck up a conversation while playing the game. A fellow TwoMoons player that some of my readers may recognize is the novelist C.E. Murphy, who had a very memorable character on the game.
Playing TwoMoons was the opening of the creative floodgates for me as a young man. Not only was I telling stories in a way I never had before, I was interacting with people on a whole new level and building dynamic relationships both in and out of the game. I wrote songs, I wrote poetry, I wrote entire stories about my character and others, I commissioned artwork of my characters. It’s fair to say that playing TwoMoons changed my life.
However, I would not remain in this idyllic realm of pure story and imagination forever. There was a slightly darker side of online roleplaying that was calling my name and seducing me into the shadows.
Beasts and Bloodsuckers
The RPG scene in the early 90’s was dominated by the World of Darkness games from White Wolf—Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse being probably the two biggest and most influential. The world of online text games like MUSHes were no exception, and once Vampire hit the marketplace, there was a veritable explosion of World of Darkness-themed MU* games. One of the first of this breed was simply called Masquerade (shortened to Masq by many players), followed by Elysium, Texas Twilight, and many, many more.
Alas, poor storyteller system. We knew you well.
Unlike TwoMoons, these MU* games had quite a bit of coded gameplay. While, for the most part, storytelling and roleplaying was still freeform, there was now a way to roll virtual dice to determine an outcome. Each game had staff members (commonly called Wizards or Wizzes) and a site owner/operator (commonly called the God/Goddess of the MU*).
When a character playing the game was in need of getting a die roll adjudicated (for instance, if the character was attemping to pick a locked door, there was no option to simply go through the door), he would contact a staffer who would then arrive on the scene to handle the situation. Often, this involved throwing down an object called a “timestop.” This object was important, since what would happen if a staff member was around is that it would naturally draw bored players like moths to a flame. In our example, the poor guy trying to pick a lock would suddenly have a dozen folks “just happening” to be in the area once the staff member showed up.
This is the opening screen of a typical MUSH
The timestop fixed this by establishing a basic boundary—no one could enter the timestop except for the staff member and the players involved. This limited (and in most cases, outright stopped) any interference from other players. Once the area had been “roped off,” the staff member would then observe as the player rolled his virtual dice and then make a ruling on what happened next.
Since coordinating efforts between multiple players can be problematic, even through the near-instantaneous medium of the internet, often a timestopped action scene could take hours in the real world to resolve. These kinds of situations only grew more complex by adding in more than one player into the mix. Similarly, anytime two players were attempting to attack each other, things got even crazier.
So now, gentle reader, you may understand a bit more about what things were like on these early World of Darkness MU*s when I tell you that timestops and player-versus-player combats were happening constantly.
Since the MU* was operating 24/7, plenty of action was occuring even when a player was logged off. Other players could steal his stuff, kill his girlfriend, or set him up as a criminal in the eyes of the police by the time he logged back in—although generally, this was fairly rare. Most times, players would prefer to settle things when their targets were actually online inside the game.
Despite all this chaos, I found the World of Darkness MU*s to be fascinating. Now, in most World of Darkness games, the players take on the roles of vampires, werewolves, and other such supernatural creatures. However, in the World of Darkness online realms, the MU*s commonly chose to limit the number of supernatural creatures present in the playerbase. So, if your game had around 150 players, only about 30 would be supernatural in origin… all the others would be normal people (although, granted, we’re talking about roleplayers here… so many of those “normal people” were certainly not normal, although they were mundane humans, just with bizarre lives that you’d only find in fiction).
My first character on Masquerade was Rand, a fairly normal Irish-American jewelsmith who’d wandered into town in order to get away from a clingy girlfriend. Rand quickly got involved in some creepy stuff with a local business owner who was tracking a kidnapped girl. Rand volunteered to help and ended up following a blood trail through the sewers that led straight into the basement of the local hospital. I could my feel my neck hairs lifting up while I was playing through this scene, since it was genuinely creepy… and I knew that I was just a normal guy poking his nose into a situation that involved some real monsters.
Rand’s life became very complicated soon afterwards, and his jewelry experience was put to the test making silver bullets for a group of vigilantes seeking justice against the supernatural monsters infesting the city. Alas, Rand poked his nose into one situation too many, and he was betrayed, arrested, and assassinated in jail by werewolves working for a vampire clan (I told you it was complicated)!
Ultimately, few plots and storylines in the World of Darkness MU*s could pack the same impact and meaning—in fact, I found many of the storylines to be fairly mundane, even with the supernatural trappings. The fact of the matter was that these games were so popular and so oriented towards a certain demographic, that the playerbase turned out be much like the early days of internet fanfiction… mostly amateurish and fumbling attempts to present an “artistic” story.
World of Darkness MU*s actually had a bit of a reputation for such melodrama, and these games were also full of other internet issues of the decade, like cybersex and identity theft. Often, the only way some staff could get their player’s attention towards a story was to throw a seemingly-random adversary at them and then breadcrumb the players (usually bickering between themselves!) towards the set-piece where some resolution would be planned (but only rarely achieved…).
One website described playing on a World of Darkness MU* as very, very unlike a typical tabletop RPG. “Instead,” the website explained, “imagine that all the players around the table are either fighting each other, screwing each other in the closet, or huddled whispering with each other in the shadows. After a few hours of this, the GM jumps out of the hallway and shouts, ‘A scary monster attacks you!’ That’s kind of what it’s like.”
Should you want to investigate further the internet drama of online text games like the ones described here, check out the forum known as When Online Roleplaying Games Attack, or WORA for short.
The Cyber Generation
I dropped out of playing online games for a while to join the US Army. After training and a memorable deployment to Korea, I returned to the United States at Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1996. I was definitely ready to get some more roleplaying going! Wandering around online, I happened to locate Shadowrun Seattle, the original and longest-running MUX related to the Shadowrun RPG by FASA. In checking things out at Shadowrun Seattle (hereafter simply called SR Seattle), I discovered that this MUX was quite a bit different than others I had encountered before. SR Seattle was part of a new movement of MU*s that had chosen to become “elitists,” focusing on quality in writing, character concepts, and ability to roleplay. This was often described as “Less angst, more story please.”
Like others of its ilk, SR Seattle required several steps in order to successfully build a character and join the game. Central to this process was an application. The player would need to fill out a long form of information about the character he wished to play, including backstory, personality, and story hooks that could potentially be used to create further stories in the game. The implication was that Staffers would read these and create stories just for your character at some point… but this promise was actually rarely fulfilled. However, that didn’t really matter—what was important about the application process is that a member of the game staff (sometimes folk of lesser authority or volunteers) would review the application and flag it either for further review or for someone of higher authority to check over and then grant access to the game.
SR Seattle was unapologetically elitist about this approach. It was entirely intended to weed out casual players and retain only those were very passionate about the game, passionate about their character, and had a modicum of talent at being able to write and get across ideas that could grow into stories.
The chargen model embraced by SR Seattle and other places like it resulted in generally smaller playerbases than the World of Darkness games, but the people who did play did so in much more stable manner. People stayed around, and since you had spent so much effort on your character in the first place, character death became much more meaningful. Weeding out the casual folks also resulted in generally higher quality of roleplay, in that you could generally enter into any ongoing roleplaying scene with your character and expect to find some interesting stories to get involved in. Juvenile behavior and anything that didn’t match the genre was discouraged.
This is not to say that SR Seattle was some mecca of perfect roleplayers and writers… but it was certainly a step up from the MU* scene I had left behind a few years earlier. The 24/7 schedule of the MUX meant that I could log in and play anytime of the day or night, and the generally high level of roleplayers involved meant that my time was spent getting into some very rewarding stories. This period of time was right at the end of Shadowrun Second edition and extended into much of Third edition’s lifetime as well. I spent several years playing Shadowrun online, from about 1996 to 2003. My most well-known characters are probably Alita (Mouse), X’ian, and Reason, the latter two having been developed on Shadowrun’s sister game set in Detroit. If playing on TwoMoons had improved my typing skills and gave me a basic ability to write well, Shadowrun refined both these skills to the next level. Writing a single pose for Shadowrun could be quite a challenge, and there were times it seemed like there was quite a friendly competition in the game to see whom could write the most descriptive action for their character.
Unfortunately, the latest build of SR Seattle closed its doors in 2012. Farewell, old friend—you will be missed.
The MMO Connection
In case it isn’t clear from the rest of this article, there are many, many similarities and patterns in modern-day MMORPGs that have their roots solidly in the days of MUDs and MUSHes. Many influential designers in the MMORPG industry were once players, designers, and staff members of MUDs. I myself am a video game designer who’s done some MMORPG work, and I definitely credit my background in the textual realms for much of my own skills and development as a designer. I suspect I’m not alone—I believe that there’s quite a few people out there… dozens, maybe hundreds, possibly as many as thousands… who once upon a time, lived and breathed through words on their screen and adventured through the worlds of MU* games.
When I was working for Fantasy Flight Games, Gen Con was described as “the Superbowl of the industry.” I think that’s a fair assessment of the impact and importance of Gen Con to the gaming field—specifically for RPGs but also encompassing board games, card games, miniature games, and even interactive media like videogames.
The lovely Marie-Claude Bourbonnais, cosplaying as Rin from Relic Knights. MCB made the costume herself!
Each category of games has their own “main event”—for board games, it is probably Essen Spiele. For Miniature Games, it is becoming Adepticon. Videogames and other media have Pax Prime and the San Diego Comic Con.
Gen Con, however, is like a delicious mishmash of those categories with a generous helping of tabletop RPGs ladled over and surrounding the whole.
I’ll admit it—I’m additcted to Gen Con. I’ve gone just about every year since 2000, and every year it’s one of the things I look forward to most. The things that I enjoy most about each year’s con are the friends I meet there, the events I get to enjoy, and the energy and inspiration that I bring home with me.
Energy and Inspiration
Gen Con always instills me with a fresh sense of purpose. Seeing all my friends, their accomplishments, and the brand new horizon for the industry never fails to get me all fired up about my own projects and assignments.
Some awesome cosplayers for 40K; a Warrior Acolyte, Vindicare Assassin, and a Tech-Priest.
There’s a sense of celebration and enthusiasm that simply can’t be contained at the show. Fans, retailers, authors, freelancers—we’re all alike in that Gen Con is a form of homecoming. It’s a place where we all belong, where our passions can run free (but not too free, or someone will call the cops).
The convention is also a great kick in the pants to anything I’ve been procrastinating or waiting on, and I can’t help but feel propelled to get more things done after seeing all the coolness on the shelf and being enjoyed by the fans at the show.
Even this blog post right here is an example. I came home and was ready to smash some writing! If you’re looking to get a boost on your motivation to get things done in the game industry, visit Gen Con and I guarantee you’ll come home jazzed to begin some serious work.
Gen Con is also where I meet a lot of friends that I see rarely… generally once a year, in fact! I’ve made a lot of contacts in the gaming industry, and I’ve been very fortunate to also have a lot of friends who are also either gamers or game industry professionals.
I’ve heard it said by some of my friends that “Ross knows everybody” at Gen Con. While this is not technically true (Sean Fannon has that honor), I do know a lot of people at Gen Con. Walking through the Dealer’s Hall results in me saying “Hi” to someone I know around once every five minutes on average. I’m not saying this to brag, but just to help express how much I love going to Gen Con and seeing all the people I know. It’s a good time to catch up, to shake hands, to congratulate them on their accomplishments… and, of course, to give them my card if they’re looking for a writer. 🙂
Lars makes the sign of the Aquila at the Dark Heresy game.
This year I spent a lot of time hanging out with my “partners in crime,” John Dunn and Jason Marker. The three of us are kind of like the Musketeers, once you get us together, anything can happen.
Special shout-outs for this year also include Sean “where’s the party at?” Fannon and Carinn “I’m a brunette now” Seabolt, Andrea Castellow, Randall “Leviathans master” Bills, Jason “I also liked Fields of Fire” Hardy, and Mack “I made a game about evil babies in 6 weeks” Martin. It was similarly awesome to hook up with my compadres at FFG and hoist a mug or two to the announcement of the new Star Wars RPG.
Gen Con is stuffed full of things to do. If you’re a fan of any kind of pop culture, you’re going to have a plethora of options for events during the entire weekend. In fact, things have grown so much that I’ve started calling it “the best /five/ days in gaming.”
This year, as with every year, I had a lot of fun in the events. I tried out the Dungeons and Dragons crossword and got the answer right with “Catoblepas.” I joked with the organizer that he should’ve had a harder word like “ixitxachitl” or “penanggalan.”
There were plenty of parties and celebrations at the Ram and (my personal favorite) Scotty’s Brewhouse. There were the ENnie awards on Friday night, which is quite fun—and Paizo cleaned house for another year with Pathfinder products. Good work, Paizo Team!
I attended the Fantasy Flight Games InFlight Report and learned what is coming up in the future for my old alma mater, and it was there that the big announcement for Edge of the Empire, the new Star Wars RPG was unveiled. This announcement was complete with stormtroopers and free copies of the beta game, so it was kind of a big deal! I helped a little with the skills and races, but unfortunately, most of my work was cut out of the Beta so… my name was left off the credits. (cue sad, sad trombone!)
Of course, the best events for me were the games.
I got to play in Jason Marker’s Savage Robotech game, which was a real hoot—also present was my friend Paul Algee, John Dunn, and Josh “Dead Reign” Hilden. This adventure helped codify a particularly distinct attitude that can be summed up thusly:
“Why? Because F&*@ Yeah Robotech, that’s why.”
Behold the glories of Shaintar, presented by Sean Fannon (far left)
I also played a totally awesome game of Shaintar with Sean Patrick Fannon—as I’ve mentioned in his interview, Sean is a true game master, and this session was no exception. Shaintar has recently been released as a free beta, so I encourage you to go check it out.
I got to play a game of Leviathans with the developer, Randall Bills. Leviathans is a really fun ship-to-ship combat game that is unlike nearly anything else on the market. It was a complete blast and it is no surprise that Leviathans sold well throughout the convention.
Saturday, I played in a Dark Heresy game run by Andrea Castellow, featuring some old friends (Hi Lars!) and some new ones (like Teras Cassidy of Geek Nation Tours).
Late Saturday night I ran a game of Deathwatch using the “Traitor’s Dawn” scenario from First Founding. I call this my “podcast” game, since I had the D6Generation crew, Cody and John from Game On, and the Nerdherders all gathered at my table. It went really well and it was a great session.
When going to Gen Con, you’ve got to prepare. Even this year, when my schedule was really light, it was also very chaotic. I ended dropping the ball quite seriously for a Thursday night game of Deathwatch I was supposed to run for the Catalyst Game Labs guys, and I feel pretty crap about it.
In addition, there’s just so much going on at Gen Con, I never get to do all the things I want to do. I always end up looking at the program book a few days later and thinking “Man, how did I miss that?”
Next year, my advice is the same as my own intentions: plan ahead as much as possible!
Lastly, I want to give a special mention to the VIG program. This is a premium package that is well worth the extra cost. The amount of goodies given away to VIGs this year was mind-blowing, plus VIGs don’t have to worry about huge lines for registration, they have a place to store their bags for free, plenty of refreshments, and lots of special VIG-only events. VIGs also get to go into the Dealer’s Hall an hour early on Thursday, which is huge.
All in all, Gen Con is and continues to be a great show. If you’ve ever thought about going, I hope this account has helped you make up your mind—it is totally worth it!
Greetings, readers! This week’s blog post is all about one of my absolute all-time favorite campaign settings: Birthright. This setting was initially created for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition and was released in 1995. I first encountered it in 1996 when playing Dungeons and Dragons in the army at Fort Knox. At first, I wasn’t sure about all this—players are kings? Prior to reading Birthright, my main exposure to a fully-developed campaign setting was the Forgotten Realms, so it was with some suspicion that I picked up the boxed set and began reading.
Michael Roele falls before the Gorgon and ends the reign of Anuirean Empire.
Overnight, I became a Birthright nut. It’s fair to say that I am one of the most ardent fans of the setting in the world—I’ve ran or played in over a dozen campaigns, both tabletop and through the internet; I contributed to the 3rd edition Birthright fan-made sourcebook; I negotiated for original art with the main artist of the setting, Tony Szczudlo; I tracked down the creators at every opportunity to thank them for making such an awesome setting; I read all the novels and played the hell out of the computer game. I’m proud of being known as “The Birthright guy.”
So it should be clear by now that the Birthright setting is very important to me as a gamer and is a significant part of my gaming history. Writing this blog post is something I’ve wanted to do for some time, but I wanted to make sure that I took care to do it right!
When you talk about Birthright, there are four names you need to know.
Rich Baker and Colin McComb were the architects of the main setting and rules, while Ed Stark and Carrie Bebris fleshed out much of the rest of the world of Birthright.
The talent of this group is remarkable—consider that these folks created 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, built the Forgotten Realms we know today, developed the best iteration of the Planescape setting, and helped craft amazing games like Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2—and that’s just a highlight reel.
It should also be mentioned that the art of Tony Szczudlo really brought the setting to life; he brings a stark and grim style that still feels epic and fantastic and encompasses everything Birthright was about in his paintings.
Birthright is a fantasy setting that has a distinct feel from other “D&D-like” realms. I enjoy Baker’s quote about Birthright from a Dragon Magazine article (and referenced in his Wikipedia Page): “I’m very proud of it. It represents an entirely new approach to the traditional fantasy roleplaying campaign, and the world itself is filled with a strong sense of history.”
A glorious battle scene by Tony Szczudlo.
The main focus of Birthright is the continent of Cerilia and the default region known as Anuire. Birthright’s Wikipedia page contains some info on the other regions if you’re curious.*
*Note: I’m going to be careful to try and not re-state info from Wikipedia, and if you really want to know more about Birthright, I’m including some links below to a number of freely available materials on the web.
More about Birthright after the break! (This is a long one, folks)
Death of the Gods
Probably the most significant element of Birthright is that a major war between the gods occurred over fifteen centuries ago; the god of evil, Azrai, gathered a huge force of monsters, men (mostly the tribes of Vosgaard), and elves (whom Azrai had seduced with promises of support to root out the humans from their forests and restore their ancient glory). The other gods gathered their own armies and together these two forces met in battle on the slopes of Mount Deismaar. The battle was apocalyptic in scale—the elves switched sides at a pivotal moment, tipping the balance against Azrai.
The battle ended when the gods sacrificed themselves to destroy Azrai before he could unleash his vengeance. Thus, the gods died—their divine essence rained down onto the battlefield, raising new gods from those closest to the confrontation and imbuing hundreds more with divine power in their bloodlines that connected them to the lands they ruled.
Anuire forms the ruins of a shattered empire. Once, the rulers of Anuire straddled most of Cerilia, having conquered vast portions of the continent over generations of war. However, the last emperor perished roughly 550 years prior to the current campaign date, plunging the empire into disarray and civil war. In the current time, Anuire is a fractured realm, with many smaller kingdoms struggling for dominance. There are a handful of contenders for the Iron Throne of the Emperor, but there is plenty of room for a resourceful and strong player character to unite Anuire beneath his banner. Anuire has a strong historical and cultural link to Britain, and there are many parallels that one can draw between struggles in Anuire to the War of the Roses and other civil conflicts in Britain’s history.
A cleric invests a scion’s heir with his bloodline as he lays dying on the field of battle.
(This is not limited just to the main region of Anuire. Much of Birthright’s setting is based on real-world historical cultures and conflicts. The region of Brechtur, for example, is modeled upon the Hanseatic League.)
What I like about Anuire: While it’s fair to say that I really like all of the Birthright regions (I have a special fondness for the Khinasi Cities of the Sun and the Brechtur Havens of the Great Bay), Anuire is my favorite. I love that you can find nearly every example of Birthright’s touchstones in Anuire, from dangerous Awnsheghlien like the Gorgon and the Spider to mysterious elven realms like the Sielwode. Powerful wizards like the Sword Mage can be found there, as well as lawless regions crying out for a hero to forge them into a realm—such as the Five Peaks. The goblin kingdom of Thurazor, the wonders of the Imperial City, unexplored islands lying temptingly close to familiar shores, ancient ruined keeps and deep-delving dwarves—Anuire has it all.
The region of Anuire is also chock-full of interesting personalities and NPC’s. The Gorgon is the most powerful awnsheghlien on the continent and constantly schemes to claim the Iron Throne. Rhoubhe Manslayer represents the resentment and hatred of the Elves towards the tribes of humanity who drove them out of their forests. The Mhor of Mhoried holds the unwelcome position of the realm most likely to suffer the Gorgon’s wrath; he must be ever-vigilant to raise his defenses against an inhuman and implacable foe. The Archduke of Boeruine schemes to position himself as the pre-eminent candidate for a restored Empire. The wizard known as the Eyeless One conducts mysterious experiments among the lawless mountains of the Five Peaks.
You can practically /taste/ the epic. If you’re like me, you’re probably hearing the Skyrim (or the Game of Thrones) theme in your head right now.
And these are just a handful of the cool characters to encounter in just one region!
The Shadow World
Cerilia has a dark twin, a twisted reflection of itself known as the Shadow World. This is a parallel dimension where shadows and night linger and take the forms of nightmare. The undead draw strength from the Shadow World, and it is a sinister place of great danger for any living thing. The Halflings claim that they once dwelt in the Shadow World, but the dimension slowly changed into its current form and drove them away.
The Raven is a powerful Awnshegh with ties to the Shadow World.
There are still places in Cerilia where the boundaries between it and the Shadow World are thin, and creatures may pass from one to the other easily. There are some advantages to doing so, for each step travelled in the Shadow World is hundreds of paces in Cerilia, allowing for extremely fast movement between two points. There are many who claim that Azrai’s divine essence corrupted the Shadow World and exists there as a foul and murderous avatar known only as the Cold Rider.
Take your Dungeons & Dragons game, place it in a kickass setting, and add a dash of Highlander. Now, you’re getting closer to Birthright. Since the destruction at Deismaar, the divine essence of the old gods has been passed down through bloodlines. These bloodlines vary in strength, and grant unusual powers (known as Blood Abilities) to the Blooded. Known as Scions, creatures with a divine bloodline can increase their power either through wise rulership or (more commonly) through slaying other blooded creatures with a blow through the heart to steal that divine essence. This process is known as Bloodtheft.
Some old-school miniatures of Blooded Scions and Regents of Cerilia.
Those scions possessing the bloodline of Azrai face a particular danger—if their bloodline gains significant strength through bloodtheft, it is possible that the blood may corrupt them into inhuman monsters of great power known as Awnsheghlien (“blood of darkness”). Several Awnsheghlien roam Cerilia—some of them even rule vast realms and command armies of loyal followers. Others are nearly-mindless beasts who occasionally rampage through civilized lands.
The impact of blood abilities is to add a new layer of interesting things to do and react to in the game. For example, a noble paladin might have the blood of Azrai in his veins, and must struggle against that part of his nature. A stealthy theif may have the blood of the sun goddess and find he has powers over light. A character with a minor bloodline may scheme to improve it, whilst a character with a great bloodline may be pressured to live up to his dynasty’s ideals.
Land of Legends
The Birthright setting is a curious mix of low-magic and epic fantasy. On the one hand, most magic-users in Birthright practice what is known as “Lesser Magic,” essentially illusionists who are restricted from casting truly powerful spells that affect the real world. Blooded Wizards and Elves, however, practice “True Magic” and can cast any of the normal Player’s Handbook spells. This means that wizards who practice True Magic are vanishingly rare—a blooded Wizard is often a figure of legend and fear. Most of these wizards have a particular name or title that reinforces that feel, such as the Sword Mage, the Eyeless One, and so forth.
True magic is impressive stuff…
When it comes to True Magic, there are three distinct tiers. The first is the normal adventuring magic found in the Player’s Handbook. The second are known as Battle Spells—these incantations are very similar to the ones in the Player’s Handbook, but take longer to cast and can affect entire units of soldiers on the battlefield. An example of a Battle Spell is the Storm of Magic Missiles. The third and most powerful tier is known as Realm Magic—these spells can affect large regions of a realm, known as provinces, and can have an impact on hundreds of people with a single casting.
Similarly, many of the more fantastical monsters of D&D are missing in Cerilia—beholders, ropers, and illithids are unknown, for an example. Instead, many of the classical D&D monsters—Dragons, Griffins, etc. exist in Cerilia, but in small numbers (there are roughly only twelve Dragons in the known world) and are possessed of awesome power. A Cerilian Dragon would probably wipe the floor with most Dragons from other D&D settings, to give you just one idea.
This is expressed even in the nature of player characters—Elves are immortal, capricious beings who haunt their forests like beings of fey. Dwarves are as tough as the rocks they live amongst. There are no known gnomes, tieflings, or other such races in Cerilia.
There are no generic orcs in Birthright… instead, the main foes are the Goblin races (Goblins, Hobgoblins, Bugbears), Gnoll raiders, and Orogs (massive, ogre-like evil humanoids who tunnel up into the world from below and a major enemy of the dwarves). Many of these monstrous races control realms and kingdoms of their own, often right next to (or carved out of!) more civilized lands of men and elves.
The Awnsheghlien, mentioned above, are legendary foes that all have histories, and occasionally special abilities or weaknesses hidden in the stories whispered of them by minstrels. Each Awnsheghlien is simply a fantastic enemy—just reading about them makes it seem like would be eminently satisfying to defeat such a monster! Part of this feel is reinforced by observing the map of Cerilia and understanding that each Awnsheghlien rules over hundreds or thousands of (usually) oppressed subjects and threatens any surrounding realms with death and war. This escalation of importance of the bad guys really brings home the level of threat… and consequently, the potential rewards of finding victory in combat against such a dire foe. The Elven realm of Cmwb Bheinn (pronounced Coom Veen) is threatened by two Awnsheghlien realms, and reading about it never fails to make me want to draw my sword and defend that lonesome forest against the encroaching darkness.
One of the most interesting features of Birthright is another layer of rules that encompasses ruling a realm. Again, the Wikipedia entry covers this in pretty good detail, so I’ll limit myself to commenting on my own feelings about the Domain rules.
An Awnshegh known as the Ogre destroys a noble’s knights… only a blooded hero can face such a threat and survive.
The Birthright Domain rules were one of the first of its kind—before this, there hadn’t really been any decent rules for running a country or for roleplaying at the level of a king. The rules for running a domain are quite well-developed, robust, and innovative. It all turns on the nature of the regent, of course, meaning that Fighters generally run law holdings better and Rogues get a free Espionage action, as examples. The way the Domain rules are laid out it is entirely possible to run a game without any of the traditional D&D tropes of dungeon crawls! Many, many play-by-e-mail campaigns have been set up using the Birthright Domain ruleset where the rulers of each realm struggle for dominance without ever once setting foot in a dungeon or drawing a blade against a dragon.
The Domain rules are not without some flaws; there’s no real way to run or create secret holdings—regents are generally always aware of all holdings inside their realm. Druids tend to be somewhat screwed compared to other Divine Casters, in that they don’t really benefit from high levels of civilization. The default setting is that Wizards require unspoiled lands to have high level holdings, which can be rather counter-intuitive for other campaign settings (such as the Forgotten Realms), which limits the versatility of the ruleset somewhat.
Even so, these Domain rules are overall well-designed and could be used to portray nearly any fantasy campaign setting with a few judicious tweaks. Even if the other aspects of Birthright don’t really light your fire, definitely check out the Domain ruleset.
Given what I said at the beginning of this post, gentle reader, it should be clear by now that I love Birthright fiercely.
I feel that the setting fits together really well. Every piece feels interrelated and part of one, singular vision. I think one possibly explanation as to why Birthright feels so solid to me is that it had a short and limited print run—there was never an opportunity for things to go off the rails like so many other settings. This is not to say that Birthright is perfect… some of the Player’s Secrets books are particularly flawed, but others are fairly good, so overall I would call it a wash.
The names of the setting are all very cool, although often difficult to spell and pronounce… especially the Welsh-derived Elven words and names!
The Domain rules and divine bloodlines are unique elements of Birthright that I feel were elegantly executed and make the setting stand out as a truly memorable place to set your campaign.
Swept Under The Rug
Unfortunately, Birthright did not enjoy great commercial success—some have said it was due to the products arriving near the end of TSR’s “setting glut,” a time in which the market was saturated with different D&D settings from Mystara to various flavors of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, amongst others.
In many ways, Birthright never really got the attention it deserved… after the initial release, the line ended prematurely with several products still in development, and few nearly complete (such as the Book of Regency and Blood Spawn).
Possibly the greatest oversight is that the Birthright setting was left entirely out of the 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons retrospective book… a book that covered every other D&D setting ever published.
I’m pleased to say that I was involved with the 3rdedition fan creation of the Birthright setting, found at Birthright.net.
In addition, many of the products of Birthright were made available for free by the Wizards of the Coast in 2005. Amongst these is probably the best of the Birthright novels (written by Rich Baker himself), The Falcon and the Wolf.
Also created for Birthright was a very popular boardgame known as Legacy of Kings. Although this board game had non-stop lines at Gen Con every year it was shown, the board game was never produced.
Just as a side note, if anyone from Wizards/Hasbro is reading this–please release this board game! You seem really into doing D&D board games right now, and this one is a surefire hit! Thank you.
Sierra created a computer game for the setting known as Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance. Although this video game had poor sales, I consider it to be very fun and enjoyable as a Birthright fan.
I won’t share links on this blog post, but the original free downloads of Birthright products made available by Wizards of the Coast are still out there on the internet if one has sufficient google-fu.
I’m excited about this week’s interview… Owen Barnes is a very talented and prolific RPG writer whose work has appeared in a number of places, possibly most notably in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition and in all(!) of the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay lines, from Dark Heresy on forwards into the present.
Owen is a consummate professional and extremely good to work with–when I was a lead developer at FFG, Owen was a surefire way to generate great content for any book. It was Owen I turned to every time we needed to generate a Free RPG Day preview of the upcoming 40K Roleplay Game for that year. Owen and I worked together in dozens of books, and I’m pleased to call him both a colleague and a friend.
From my own career, working with Owen was in some ways a “passing of the torch” from Black Industries when I took over the 40K RPG line at Fantasy Flight Games. Owen is, in fact, part of the original Dark Heresy team and has been uniquely involved through the entire run of the game lines.
I never really got to meet or work with most of the other creators of Dark Heresy, but I always felt that by incorporating Owen into everything we did, we were continuing the legacy of those pioneer game designers.
As a fun note, Owen himself appears in the Deathwatch supplement Rites of Battle as “Inquisitor Barnabus.”
It’s a spitting image of the chap!
Now, onto the questions! As before, my questions are in red.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
Owen: Like a lot of gamers I started young; my first memories of gaming were in the early 80s at the age of seven when my older Brother wouldn’t let me play DnD with him and his mates… apparently it contained gold pieces, secret doors and other things I wouldn’t understand. Needless to say it didn’t put me off and I spent much of my youth gaming in one form or another; starting out the with classic DnD Red Box and then moving on to ADnD and finally discovering the wider world of RPGs in high school. Fast forward 20 odd years and somehow I’ve managed to turn writing adventures for a small group of mates into some semblance of a career.
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
Owen: Growing up in New Zealand and then Australia I never really gave much thought to actually having a career in roleplaying games, especially in the days before the internet when the people who created these games seemed a long, long way away. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK and got a job at Games Workshop that it became a possibility. It all kind of just happened very randomly, and while I started at GW as a mail order troll, it’s the kind of company where I got the chance to write something for the then Black Industries, which in turn led to a job, and the figurative ‘foot in the door’.
A trip down the picturesque and perilous canals of the Old World…
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
Owen: The thing I love more than anything else about the RPG industry is that you are sharing in other people’s imaginations and the worlds and adventures they create with their friends. Few other hobbies have that same level of involvement with its members, where when you write a book you are not saying “this is how it is and will always be” but “here, take what you want and create your own stories”. I know from my own experience the memories of adventures and campaigns played with your mates live on years after they finish, and to be part of that with other people is an amazing thing.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
Owen: The first thing that springs to mind is money… though to be fair writing is universally a poorly paid profession unless you are very lucky, very talented or more likely both. Unfortunately it means a lot of people which would make excellent writers, games designers and artists will never get the chance because there are simply better ways of making a living, many of which leave little room for the time and effort of creating games.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
Owen: For the last five years I’ve largely been working as a freelancer, and it has taught me a lot about myself, and my limits. Coming from a large successful company and sitting in an open-plan office to surviving as a freelance writer does feel akin to leaving the Staff HQ and joining the men in the trenches. While it has been hard, it has also been great, and I feel closer to the industry. It has also helped my writing no end; nothing like the fear of not getting paid to get fingers hitting keys.
This product was one of the highlights of Free RPG Day 2012!
RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of?
Owen: Having now had a fair amount of experience from both sides of the fence I think I’d try and communicate more with the other writers, developers and designers, and encourage them to communicate more with me. From my experience many of the issues encountered when creating a project seem to stem from misunderstandings or divergent ideas, which can be a problem to set right once you have a finished draft in your hands. It’s also been my experience that everyone working on a project wants it to be great, and so even a few emails or a five minute conversation can clear things up before someone knocks out 20,000 words, which as great as they might be don’t fit the brief.
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?
Owen: As a freelancer: hit your deadlines, keep to your brief and most importantly of all talk to your developer; you need to know what his vision for the project is and you need to tell him any ideas you might have early on, so he can work it into that vision (especially if there are other writers involved).
As a publisher: create clear briefs and make sure your freelancers (be they writers, artists or developers) know exactly what you want from them; you can’t blame them for creating something you are not 100% happy with if you didn’t tell them what you wanted. As a publisher I’d also say be flexible and don’t micro manage too much; like a good landlord you need to create the environment but then step back and let them get on with it.
One of the great cover art pieces of Ralph Horsely
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
Owen: I’d make it bigger; say 10 million more avid roleplayers would be a good start. This of course would mean more money, bigger and more professional companies and more people choosing it as a career path, becoming designers, writers and artists. It would also most importantly mean more high quality products for gamers to choose from.
That said though I do think the RPG industry does pretty darn well given the resources at its disposal.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
Owen: Sadly I don’t get to meet fans of my work very often, though I have from time to time chatted with people at cons. While I do post on forums about gaming I tend to do so anonymously, an old habit from years of working at GW. I also read a lot of forums and observe people (not in a creepy way) at cons and events who are looking at things I’ve worked on. Though it doesn’t really count as ‘engaging’ one of my abiding memories of this was in 2007 at a con in Sydney. I was going down a stairwell and had to go around a bunch of young guys pouring over a copy of Dark Heresy (which at the time had just come out); reminded me of how excited I get about games and what it is all about.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
Owen: I probably say contributing to the Free RPG day for the last 4 years, writing the free adventures for Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade and most recently Only War. I really enjoyed creating something which anyone could get their hands on and which was for many the first taste of a game. It was also an added bonus that I got to work with the fantastic Warhammer 40,000 world and Fantasy Flight Games which have very high production values, even when it comes to a free product.
A very close second though would be the Critical Hit tables from Dark Heresy; which are up there as the most fun I’ve had as a writer.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
Owen: Not doing enough of my own stuff. I think to really succeed in the RPG industry you need to be really motivated, you need to not only do the stuff that pays but the stuff that might pay and the stuff which doesn’t pay but you want to do anyway. I have a lot of trouble with the last two, and tend (like most freelancers) never to turn down a paying job, which means I don’t get around to writing my own stuff, or working on products I am simply interested in but for which there is no real paying work.
Owen served as the developer for the Dark Heresy line with Black Industries with Kate Flack and Mike Mason.
RW: You’ve been with 40K Roleplay since the very beginning (Dark Heresy). How do you feel about the way the lines have grown and changed over the years?
Owen: I think it is great how much it has expanded since its relatively humble beginnings. Given the few books Black Industries created before we closed down, and that there were only really a couple of us putting them together I didn’t think at the time it would have the life it has taken on. I was prepared for Dark Heresy to be a standalone game with a few supplements, existing by itself until someone had another crack at RPGs in the 40k universe. The way Fantasy Flight Games has taken it and turned it into one of the biggest RPG lines out there is awesome, not to mention it has given me a chance to continue working on a universe I really love. Someone was telling me recently that there is actually more written about the Calixis Sector and its surrounding regions than all of the table-top material put together. Certainly it has to one of the most detailed sections of the 40K setting.
I’m also pleased to see FFG expanding and cleaning up the system from the rather creaky thing we started with (basically the 2nd Edition WFRP system adapted for 40K). Like any roleplaying game for it to grow and develop people need to play it, and publishers need to put out books and I’m happy to see the 40K RPG is doing both.
RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?
Owen: This is actually something about roleplaying games I love. Unlike a lot of other creative mediums you are inviting the end user to take what you have created and alter it for their own needs; adding things, taking things away or ignoring things to make their own games the way they want them.
I did find this a challenge at first since I was coming from writing wargames which by their nature need to be clear cut. The real trick I discovered was finding that balance between just enough information to be useful without drowning the reader in detail; something which is especially true of adventures, where you need to predict what the reader is going to what know for his players.
Owen’s done quite a bit of work for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay both in 2nd and 3rd edition.
RW: If you were a fantasy adventurer, you’d be a…?
Owen: A disillusioned Cleric of a little known god, wrestling with his questionable life choices and a love/hate relationship with his deity. He would preach the virtues of his god to any who will listen while inside struggling with self-doubt over the righteousness of the path he has chosen to walk.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?
Owen: SLA industries. I love the dark cyberpunk nature of it mixed with the crushing bureaucracy and the monstrous nature of the PCs themselves. Over the years I’ve had some great games of SLA which mix in my mind the best bits of horror and investigation along with some really gritty combat thrown into the mix. Bullet tax: love it.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
Owen: Command of English is a pretty big one, something which you can tell early on from reading someone’s work. This is not to say that the grammar and punctuation need to be perfect (though in the age of spellcheckers there is no excuse for misspelled words), but it shouldn’t be difficult to read and should have some kind of flow. Communicating ideas is also an important aspect; does it clearly tell me something, or do I have to dig through the text for what the writer is trying to say.
When I was working as a developer for Black Industries I would actually forgive the above as long as the writer had a good understanding of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings. In my experience it’s easier to improve your writing techniques than it is truly ‘get’ a setting, and be able to create something which fits seamlessly into it.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Owen: Savage Worlds. I’ve come to it kind of late, only really getting into it in the last couple of years but I have been very impressed with its versatility and depth as well as its ease of play. I used to use GURPS for all my generic gaming needs (when I wasn’t playing in a world with a specific system tied to it), but it only really shines with a group of people that are very familiar with it. By contrast Savage Worlds can be picked up in a few minutes, characters knocked out in that same about of time and you are on your way!
Greetings, readers! This week, I’m taking a look at a somewhat obscure RPG from the 90’s that took on some ambitious goals—and in many ways represents an innovative step in roleplaying game design. I’m talking about the boxed set containing cyberpunks, barbarian warriors, dinosaurs and superheroes… ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the game known as Torg.
Cyberpunks and Priests. This is actually just one realm in Torg.
Created by West End Games in 1990, Torg is a cinematic, multi-genre roleplaying game from the talented pens of Greg Gordon and Bill Slavicsek. Torg is an acronym for “The Other Roleplaying Game,” and its original presentation was as a boxed set that included rulebooks, a “possibility shard” that was in fact an oddly colored D20, and a “drama deck” of cards (more on these later). Also included in the box was an advertisement for the Infiniverse magazine, a periodical of in-universe information for Torg that promised to track and include the progress of a campaign through “rumors” in the magazine that would be confirmed or denied. This system made use of a response form to tell West End Games what happened during your campaign.
What is it all about?
Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
In “the near now,” Earth has been invaded by a number of other dimensions, each ruled by a “High Lord.” The High Lords have changed the natural laws wherever their reign rules supreme, and large areas of the planet have transformed to match the invading reality. The player characters are “Storm Knights,” special people from Earth and the invading dimensions who are gifted with a limited ability to affect “possibility energy,” a rich field that envelops Earth and interacts with all of the invading dimensions. The Storm Knights oppose many of the High Lords and the plans of one in particular, the evil Gaunt Man.
For the rest of the review, click to follow after the jump!
In my opinion, the most distinct and interesting things about Torg were its setting and its system.
Pseudo-Victorian gothic colonialism Horror is just one of many, many parts of the setting.
Torg’s Wikipedia article does a better job than I can explaining the various “cosms” that have invaded Earth in Torg, but I will single out a few to mention here that I found to be interesting or unusual.
The Cyberpapacy: This realm is bound to raise some eyebrows with its very concept, and it can definitely make some folks uncomfortable with its portrayal of a pre-reformation—meaning /very/ corrupt and immoral—Catholic Church.
The Nile Empire: This realm rocks, period! The authors of the game are obviously fans of pulp adventure, and it shows through in many places. Not just the Nile Empire, either: Orrorsh, the Land Below, and (of course) Terra are all very pulp-y and flavorful.
The Nile Empire has some really great character archetypes, from the Amazon to the Rocket Ranger, and I heartily endorse it as my personal favorite realm—both to adventure in and to build characters from.
Tharkold: This is a really interesting mashup of the Terminator and Hellraiser… and definitely the kind of place I don’t think you’d be able to find anywhere else. While it is not as interesting to me personally as the Nile Empire, it is still a cool idea and worth checking out.
One notable thing about the Torg system is that it strongly encourages a cinematic approach. Game sessions are divided into Acts and Scenes, for example, and the ways that characters interact with the world are intended to be more epic than a typical roleplaying game. Keep in mind that the following is a very basic overview and that my own experience has been limited to just a few games so far!
D20 and Result: To resolve actions in Torg, you roll a D20 and consult a simple chart. Low numbers on the roll give you penalties, high rolls on the chart grant bonuses. Applying these to the base attribute or skill produced your result. The D20 is rolled again if the player rolls a 10 or a 20, meaning that very high results are possible. The value of a skill is directly added to an attribute for this purpose.
The “possibility shard” d20.
Here’s an example: Rex Steele is trying to hit a cultist serving the evil Dr. Mobius. Rex’s Dexterity is 10 and his Unarmed Combat skill is 3. Rex rolls a d20 and gets a result of 14, which is a +1 result on the chart. Adding the +1 to Rex’s Dexterity and Unarmed Combat gives him a total of 14, which is higher than the cultist’s Dodge. The cultist is roundly struck by the Rocket Ranger’s fist.
Possibilities: The idea of Possibilities is interesting; these represent the Storm Knight’s ability to affect reality. A player can spend a possibility to enhance his roll, giving him an additional roll of the d20 and adding it to his previous roll to find the result on the chart (for example, Rex Steele in the above example spends a possibility when attacking the cultist. Rex rolls an additional d20 and gets a result of 9. Rex adds the 9 to the 13 that he previously rolled for a total of 22. Comparing that number to the chart shows that Rex would get a +8 modifier. Adding that to his Dexterity of 10 and Unarmed Combat of 3 means that Rex’s total result would be 21.).
Characters start the game with a number of possibilities (typically 10) and are awarded more at the end of each game session. Spent Possibilities are gone forever.
Unfortunately, Torg also says that Possibilities are your experience points. Player characters spend possibilities to increase their abilities and attributes over time.
What is cool is that characters can learn and grow in interesting ways. A mage from Aysle can learn Kung fu. A priest from Orrorsh can learn computer hacking skills. A superhero from the Nile Empire can learn to cast spells. Gaining abilities like this is not cheap, but it is possible!
Characters from the Nile Empire with superpowers were required to spend a number of Possibilities (typically 3) every session to keep their powers working. I’m not a fan of this approach. At all.
Many of the named bad guys (the more important and dramatic foes that you encounter during a session) can spend possibilities as well, and doing so is the only way they can re-roll a low result. However, possibilities can be spent to oppose each other, essentially cancelling each other out. Therefore, a character may spend a possibility to stop a hated foe from re-rolling a low result, or vice versa.
Actions: In keeping with the cinematic nature of the game, Torg allows all characters to do much more than simply attack an enemy in combat. Other Actions that any kind of character can take include Maneuver (Move yourself or someone else, shift positions, etc.), Trick (get someone to do something you want them to do), Test of Wills (attempt to get an opponent to flee or surrender), Taunt, or Intimidate. These abilities are further incentivized by the Drama Deck (see below), where characters are offered a bonus if they perform the specific action called for on the card.
The Drama Deck: One of the most controversial elements of Torg’s system is a deck of cards known as the Drama Deck. These cards are multipurpose; not only do they determine who goes first in combat (either the heroes—the PCs—or the villains), they determine various effects that occur in combat (such as Setbacks) and offer players a number of options that they can play during combat to enhance their own abilities (such as cards that offer extra actions or bonuses).
When the Drama Deck is being used to determine initiative, it also offers a selection of actions (see above) that are given a bonus; if the player performs one of the actions during that round of combat, he can draw an additional card from the deck into his hand. Thus, if the card is turned over at the beginning of the combat has “Maneuver/Trick” on it, players are incentivized to use those actions that round.
Personally, I really like the Drama Deck, as it makes combat interesting and constantly provides something fresh to work with in every part of the fight.
Realities and Cosms: The rulebook also contains some really interesting rules for how the various cosms work; each one has their own “realm laws” that change the way things work when in that reality. On top of that, there are ways for groups of Storm Knights to use their abilities to affect reality, create “possibility shards” to help stabilize their own individual realms, and even carry a portable piece of a certain reality around with them.
In Addition: The game handles separate rules for miracles of faith, magic spells, cybernetics, and superpowers. Later on, psionics were also added.
A Troubled History
Alas, poor Infiniverse… a great idea brought low before its time. I seem to be saying that a lot lately.
Torg had some limited success in the market, but was held back by a number of issues. One of the most notable issues involved the writing of the rules system—while the system itself was sound, the descriptions of how things worked had been left at a very technical stage and there was no time allotted to edit it into something more easily understood. Some sources claim that Torg was rushed into production to compete with Palladium Books’ Rifts game that came out at roughly the same time.
It has been said that one of the common sayings is that if you could send Greg Gordon to every gamer’s house who purchased Torg to run it for them, the game would have been a huge success… this concept was called “Greg-in-a-box.”
Unfortunately, the game ground to a halt only a few years later. Infiniverse floundered, and the game did not take any advantage of the birth of the internet.
A company known as Omni Gaming Products released a new issue of Infiniverse as part of their attempt to relaunch the game, but the attempt failed.
West End Games announced in 2004 that they were interested in and working on a new edition of Torg, but despite promises that the game would be revealed at Gen Con 2006, nothing has actually been produced for a Torg “2.0.”
Just about anything is possible in Torg!
Torg’s setting and mechanics are, in my opinion, inspirational and revelatory. The Drama Deck is exciting and unique, and the die roll mechanic is a blend of Savage Worlds and D20, with a simple and elegant resolution mechanic.
The game’s focus on cinematics encourages imaginative combat scenes with lots of action and creative stunts.
The system as a whole strikes me as one that is surprisingly rules-light while providing plenty of depth.
The setting is intriguing and presents so many options that it is hard to find something that doesn’t give you a few adventure ideas just on a casual read. In addition, many of the settings (especially the Nile Empire and Tharkold) are quite cool and unlike anything else out there in the RPG industry.
The idea of your character using the universal laws of various dimensions and taking advantage of his own ability to affect reality is especially cool and distinct, and I definitely feel that this is a great game to study as a game designer for some interesting and unusual twists on the normal RPG experience.
The way the rules of Torg are written, they are difficult to understand and are not very well explained—a good editing pass and some additional playtesting would have really helped, but in my opinion the rules sections should be entirely re-written with an eye towards clarity and ease of use.
I feel that Torg failed to capitalize on many of the unique opportunities of its setting. A good example is the Victorian-Horror realm of Orrorsh. While you can play a vampyre or a werewolf, some additional attention to playing as monsters (like Frankenstein’s monster) or monster hunters (perhaps in the same style as Solomon Kane) would have really added a great deal of flavor. In the same vein, I think it is good that the realm of Aysle exists in the setting, but I found it extremely difficult to motivate myself to play a traditional fantasy adventurer with all of the other options that are available.
Each Cosm has different ratings in Technology, Spirituality, Magic, and Culture. Generally speaking, if you try to use an item, skill, or ability that has a higher rating than the cosm you are currently in, it has trouble working or may fail to function at all. Therefore, using high-tech gear in the Living Land (which is primitive) or Aysle (which is roughly medieval, much like many fantasy worlds) has a chance to result in failure—the item may disconnect from your home reality or even transform into something more fitting for the cosm you’re in at the time, like a rock or a sword replacing a handgun.
This is generally fine as an idea, but it means that low-tech items remain useful more often than high-tech ones. This means that an Eidinos (lizardmen native to the Living Land) with a stone spear can continue to use his stone spear without too much trouble in nearly every realm. Likewise, a Hospitaller from the Cyberpapacy will find that his power sword, machine gun, and cybernetic implants are far more troublesome to use in nearly every other realm aside from Tharkold. Overall, this means that lower-tech items are more valuable over the long run. Admittedly, this is a bit of a nit-pick, but I feel it is worth mention.
Lastly, I think it is quite a shame that Infiniverse floundered the way that it did, and I wish that the game had more embraced the World Wide Web during its day.
The back side of the Drama Deck cards.
The way that Possibilities act as both a way to boost your abilities in the game and as experience points is a terrible, terrible idea. Punishing players who want to do cool things is a direct refutation of the otherwise cinematic-focused system. Possibilities should be used just as boosts or as ways to interact with the reality rules of each dimension… something completely separate should be earned and used instead as experience points. Otherwise, Drama Cards and the use of Possibilities in-game as boosts become an option that several players—including myself—would simply ignore in favor of developing the character’s own abilities.
Characters with cybernetics are basically screwed right from the start. Oh, cybernetic characters have a lot of built-in advantages; they’re usually better in many ways than other starting characters and have access to very effective gear. Some of the best starting weapons and armor in the game, for example, are available to cybernetic characters.
However, Cybernetic characters have a unique flaw in that they suffer from cyberpsychosis—whenever a card from the drama deck indicates a “setback,” cybernetic characters must make a Spirit test, and the result of that test is compared to the Cyberpsychosis chart. Most of that chart is bad, ranging from suffering minor penalties to being stuck doing nothing for a couple of rounds. Some of the chart is very bad, involving rolls on a systems failure chart (no good results on that one, either) and going bezerk, attacking all other characters for a number of rounds. At the extreme end of the chart (and, admittedly a very unlikely result), the character is removed from play and becomes an NPC.
The issue here is that Setbacks are very likely to occur around once per game session, and Cybernetic characters don’t really gain any other benefits from having a good Spirit. The Tharkold sourcebook later introduced a skill called Cyberpsyche that could be used in place of a Spirit Test (skills add to characteristics and are generally easier to improve), which did go a ways to help out. Taking into account the technology issues of using higher-tech gear in lower-tech cosms, Cybernetic characters faced significant handicaps compared to other kinds of characters, which is unfortunate given the rich array of character options for cybernetic PCs.
My Torg Experience
My favorite cosm by far.
I bought the boxed game for Torg when it first came out, and I was initially very excited by the game’s promises of cinematic gameplay, multiple genres all crossing over each other, and the living campaign through the Infiniverse magazine.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite figure out how to play the darn game… the rules were written in such a way that I couldn’t grasp what I was supposed to do to make the game work (and this is in the era where I was regularly running Star Wars D6 games, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Robotech!).
Thus, the box remained unused and forgotten for many years.
Later, I had the honor of working alongside Brian Schomburg at Fantasy Flight Games. Brian had previously been a big part of the art direction at West End Games, and through talking to Brian about many games of mutual interest—amongst them Star Wars D6 and Ghostbusters—Brian brought up the subject of Torg. I hadn’t really thought of the game in years, but after discussing it with Brian, I began to remember some of the more distinct elements of the game and I became interested in it once more.
Unfortunately, Brian and I weren’t able to play Torg during my tenure at FFG, but again Fate stepped in. I was hired at Vigil Games to work with Ed Stark, a luminary of the RPG industry with numerous credits under his belt, including a stint working on Torg.
Ed ran a game of Torg for me that was a twofold landmark moment. It was both the first time I had ever played Torg and the first time I had ever played in an RPG alongside my father. Needless to say, I had a great time, and having played Torg, the mechanics of the game suddenly all made sense.
Since then I have joined another group for a Torg campaign and it is quite enjoyable.
I really like Torg. But I do have some issues with the system.
I wish playing a superhero or a cyberpunk didn’t come with so many negatives. I wish that possibilities weren’t also XP. I wish the rule system was easier to understand.
Overall, however, it is an excellent cinematic system for fun, action-filled games. With all the setting material, you can basically play almost any kind of game you want, and I like that there’s a sense that anything can happen. Playing around with the concepts of different rules for each reality is interesting and unique.
People who love RPGs and especially those who enjoy cinematic genres should play Torg to check it out. It is a unique system with a lot to offer even the most jaded gamer. I would love to see a second edition of this system that cleans up the rules and explains them in a much easier to understand way, changes possibilities so they are not your XP, and fixes cyber characters and superheroes to be more playable. I’d love it if a company like Fantasy Flight Games or Catalyst Game Labs would pick up the license for a Torg 2.0 and release a new boxed set of the Possibility Wars.