Favorite Fantasy RPG
"Fantasy" is a pretty broad category, so I'm going to assume the typical gaming definition of "Sword & Sorcery and/or Elves and Shit." In that case, the best family game I've ever played is the Sword & Sorcery game that the Hex staff plays once every year or two when we can get everyone together. I've written about it here and you can download an actual play recording from the Hex website. Of course, that's a specific campaign, and the question is about my favorite fantasy RPG, which suggests a published setting.
Hex's entry into the fantasy genre, Qerth, is a product I'm really proud of, but mostly because it's such a perfect satire of fantasy game; it's not really something I actually want to play very often. And, of course, most of that satire comes from years of playing Dungeons & Dragons. My feelings on D&D are complicated. It's the game that got me into the hobby and I spent a lot of time playing (or thinking/reading about playing) D&D and and probably spent thousands of dollars buying D&D books from fourth grade until a few years after I graduated from college. I always wanted to play other games and in college I finally got a chance to play stuff other than D&D regularly, but I always came back to D&D, if only because it was the easiest game to find players for.
Then at some point I just...I don't know...outgrew D&D. Playing other games and especially writing QAGS opened up so many possibilities for gaming that the idea of running another same-old-same-old D&D game just seemed kind of pointless. Except for a 4th Edition demo and a few sessions of a Pathfinder campaign I joined because it was the only game anyone was playing, I haven't played D&D since at least 1998, maybe earlier. When I started going to a lot of conventions for Hex, it felt like most D&D players were unfailingly emblematic of everything that I hate about gaming and gamers. This added to my disillusionment about D&D while also providing a healthy dose of self-loathing for my younger, D&D-obsessed self.
Of course, nearly every other (traditional) fantasy game is basically someone's attempt to write a better version of D&D (and usually failing miserably). I've heard some good things about some newer games that focus more on the American sword & sorcery tradition than Tolkien-style fantasy, but haven't had a chance to play any of them. So yeah, I guess D&D is my favorite fantasy game, but there are a lot of caveats and I don't want to join your Forgotten Realms game.
15. Longest campaign played
The longest game I've ever played was (QAGS co-founder) Leighton Connor's "Ficton" super-hero game (not to be confused with The Hex Ficton), which I've mentioned here before. It think it lasted around six years, but I'm not sure if it would technically be considered a single campaign; the climax was rooted in stuff that had been there from the beginning, but the PC group changed several times over the course of the game. The part of the game with a more or less stable core character group who were central to the big story probably started around year two. Around the same time, I was running a fantasy game that ran for nearly as long as Leighton's game, but it was really several successive campaigns with mostly completely new character groups.
16. Longest games session played
I know I played some marathon D&D sessions in high school, but I don't remember much about them, so I'm going to pick something I do remember. Although it was technically at least 3 sessions (depending on if you count stopping to go out for food a session break), the Hex crew once played an entire campaign over the course of the weekend. One year at Gencon, Leighton and Josh came up with an idea for doing a huge Hex crossover event that incorporated all of our games and being incredibly self-absorbed, we all really wanted to play it. Unfortunately, the Hex staff is a little spread out geographically (The others live Cincinnati, Columbus, Lexington, Louisville, Nashville, and Toledo, and I'm out in the boonies where places have names like Possum Trot and Monkey's Eyebrow), so we couldn't really do a weekly game. Skype and Google Hangouts might have been around then, but they were either in their early days or a couple of us had connections too slow to use them. So, we descended on Stately Connor Manor in Cincinnati one Friday and spent the next two-and-a half days playing a game where hobomancers, laser ponies, members of the Herrick Agency and Edison Force, Sindbad, assorted super-heroes, and a bunch of other characters traveled across the multiverse on the Platonic Ideal of a Train to save reality. The train was driven by Jesus, except for a brief period when J.C. had to venture into Hell to save Elvis. William Faulkner took over conductor duties for that stretch of the trip. We rotated GMs and PCs, with each of us taking a shift as GM and playing 3-4 different characters over the course of the game. We stopped playing to eat, sleep, shit, and shower, but spent so much time gaming that it felt like one big session. It was definitely the best weekend of gaming I've ever experienced.
I just found out about the #RPGaDay2015 meme that's going around.
Since I'm coming in halfway through (and since a lot of my answers to the early questions are very short), I'm going do the first 14 of them today, start doing the "A Day" part tomorrow with #15 and post a new one every weekday for the rest of the month. I'll catch up (and make up for the weekends) by combining multiple questions with short answers as I run across them and hopefully finish more or less with everyone else. So here we go:
1. Forthcoming game you're most looking forward to
I'm working on a project for Hex that I'm really excited about, but can't really talk about just yet. As far as stuff from other companies, I like what I've heard about Ten Thousand Bullets from Crafty, but it's been in limbo for a few years (I'm guessing due to schedule changes brought on by the success of Mistborn and Little Wizards), so I'm not sure when I'll get to see it.
2. Kickstarted game most pleased you backed
I've backed Kickstarters for CDs, a new projector for my local non-profit movie theater, and a couple of Larry Elmore art books, but the only game I've gotten from Kickstarter was the d20 SnarfQuest book that came with one of the Elmore Kickstarters. I haven't read it yet, but I guess it wins by default.
3. Favorite New Game of the last 12 months
I rarely buy games, so I really have no idea what games have come out in the last 12 months.
4. Most Surprising Game
Although I never actually played the game, I was pleasantly surprised by the 3rd Edition Player's Handbook, which actually addressed the idea of playing D&D as an RPG rather than just hack and slash. Unfortunately the DMG for 3rd Edition had sort of a "screw all that story crap, here's some tables for vision distance and encumbrance!" vibe, so I suspect the Player's Handbook was an outlier.
5. Most Recent RPG Purchase
If you don't count the SnarfQuest Book, probably one of the charity bundles from DriveThru. Like I said, I don't buy a lot of games.
6. Most Recent RPG Played
If you count GMing, I ran an M-Force game for some Patreon backers in Idaho over Skype a few weeks ago. Since I live in a very rural area and it's hard to find a time when the handful of people who are willing to play something other than D&D can get together, it's been a year or so since I've actually played in a game. It was a supernatural alternate history where we were trying to keep the Scientologists from getting their hands on Joseph Smith's Golden Tablets. I played a supernatural con artist ("supernatural" as in, "fakes supernatural activity and then charges people to get rid of it"--kind of the anti-Scooby Doo). The other characters were a Native American shaman, a zombie cowboy, and a racist tree.
7. Favorite Free RPG
The fine free products from the folks at FuQit Games. No contest.
8. Favorite appearance of RPGs in the media
Because of my weird obsession with the work of Jack T. Chick, I've got to go with the Dark Dungeons movie, but Community, Knights of Badassdom, and the D&D game in Buffy (where Giles played "a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doily') are all strong contenders.
9. Favorite media you wish was an RPG
I don't really sit around wishing for somebody to make an RPG of something I like. If I think it would be a fun RPG, I find some people and play it. Of course, if I could do a QAGS supplement for any movie, I think the choice is obvious:
10. Favorite RPG Publisher
Hex Games, obviously. I liked their games so much, I co-founded the company. For other people, I'll declare a tie between Steve Jackson Games (because the GURPS sourcebooks are really well-written and because Steve Jackson was nice enough to compete against us in a live action TOON game to decide which company had the best horror guide back when Spooky came out--because how else would you settle it?) and Atlas Games (who publish stuff that just clicks with me and most of the people I most enjoy gaming with).
11. Favorite RPG Writer
Exempting the people from Hex, Jonathan Tweet has probably been involved with the most games I've really enjoyed. I also used to really like Mike Stackpole's column in Comic Retailer, but I'm not sure if I've ever actually read any of the games he's written. Deadlands was one of the first games I remember reading that didn't read like a Calculus textbook (or worse, a Calculus textbook constantly interrupted by bad prose). So Shane Hensley should also get a mention even if the "writing the rules in character" thing influenced the awful "let's use bizarre grammatical constructions constantly because there's one in the opening narration" decision that kept me from getting through more than a couple of chapters of the Serenity RPG.
12. Favorite RPG Illustration
This time I'm not exempting people who have worked for Hex, but I can't decide between the American Artifacts cover by Jeffrey Johnson (which I own the original pencils for) and Josh Burnett's Hobomancer in Hell picture from the Hobomancer Companion.
13. Favorite RPG Podcast
I really wish podcasts had been a thing when I drove a cab, because I'd have gotten to listen to them. As it is, I don't have time to just sit and listen to podcasts and don't spend much time in the car, and if I try to put them on in the background while I'm working, I tune them out. I'll occasionally listen to a podcast when I hear they've mentioned one of our games, but don't listen to enough to have a favorite.
14. Favorite RPG Accessory
When we first started running games at conventions, we used to carry around a big plastic tub full of cheap toys, hats and other random costume bits, fake gold coins, and other nonsense for people to grab and use as props during our games. The "prop box," as we called it, was a lot of fun, but when we started running more than one game at a time and doing bigger cons that required lugging everything around more, we phased it out. We still occasionally bring props to games (like the plastic ponies Leighton uses for his Laser Ponies games), but the logistics of dealing with a full "kitchen sink" prop box are too difficult these days.
You know an old game that's a lot of fun? It Came From The Late, Late, Late Show by Stellar Games. I think it's safe to say that it was the first game where the genre was "camp." The premise was that the characters were B-movie actors in a terrible horror movie. The rulebook was even "hosted" by an Elvira knock-off named Demonna. I ran the game several times in college for a group that included many of the people who would go on to be involved to various degrees in the early days of Hex Games.
If I remember correctly, the main rulebook was entirely dedicated to bad horror movies, but it might have made some mention of other genres. Stellar also released two follow-ups (with appropriately B-grade sequel titles) with rules for Westerns, sci-fi, martial arts movies, and other genres with a tradition of churning out terrible films. There was also at least one collected edition that was a much slicker book with better art. I enjoyed the game enough to buy them all, and I'm pretty sure I've got one or both of them in a box in the attic somewhere, but don't know which (though considering the original is going for $50 on Amazon, I might need to check). Even though I had the supplements for the other genres, I usually stuck with the horror premise, because bad horror movies are kind of my thing.
Since it was written in 1989, the rules of It Came From The Late, Late, Late Show were far too complicated for the premise. Like most games from that time period, character creation was a multi-hour commitment. If overly-complicated character creation wasn't just an inherent assumption for RPGs at the time, it would have been incredibly off-putting, especially since being true to the genre meant that most of the PCs were going to die by the end of the adventure. The rules for combat were also far too crunchy. I'm pretty sure it had rules for wind speed and encumbrance and femoral artery integrity checks and all the other crap that games had back then.
Fortunately, there were also rules for things like Acting Appropriately Stupid (deciding to check out the strange noise in the basement, alone) and Inane Dialog ("Is he...dead?" when he very obviously is) and all the other stuff that happens in bad horror movies. When you did them, you got experience points (called Fame, I believe). There was also a way for the players to try to create a Film Break when things were going badly (maybe by spending Fame--Late Show had some early signs of a bennie system, but I don't remember how complete it was). If they succeeded, the scene that was going badly ended and the new scene started somewhere else with the characters explaining how they escaped the previous scene. We tended to focus more on those rules than the crunchy stuff.
My favorite line from a Late, Late Show game combined Inane Dialog and Acting Appropriately Stupid, and I believe was spoken by (QAGS co-creator and writer of the Electric Team comic) Leighton Connor. His character and one of the female characters had just managed to lose whatever masked stalker was chopping up campers, so he turned to her and said (something like): "We're lost in the woods in the middle of the night, most of our friends are dead, and there's an axe murderer stalking us. We should have sex now." He got Fame points, because that's the kind of game It Came From the Late, Late, Late Show was.
Whenever someone suggests that sometimes its ok to ignore the rules, someone else inevitably asks why you should even bother to use rules if you're not going to slavishly follow them at all times, apparently to make sure that the discussion is safe from crows. A super-secret project that I'm currently working on required me to answer that question in some depth. This is what I came up with:
Due to a combination role-playing’s wargaming roots and an early focus on combat and puzzle-solving that led to an adversarial relationship between players and GMs, the first few generations of RPGs were played like strategy games. The “win conditions”--which usually involved survival, overcoming obstacles and increasing your character’s power--were more open-ended than for a board or card game, but early RPGs were still mostly about finding ways to optimize or exploit the rules in your favor. These early games included elements of storytelling, but telling stories wasn’t the main focus.
Storytelling games have more in common with party games in which there’s really no way to win purely through mastery of the game rules. No matter how well you understand the rules of Pictionary, you’re not going to win if nobody can figure out what you’re trying to draw. Also like party games, “winning” has more to do with having fun with your friends than achieving victory conditions, even if those victory conditions are just a vague notion of character success. In fact, since the goal is to tell a good story, some games are more fun when characters suffer dramatically interesting failures. Storytelling games have more in common with Who’s Line Is It Anyway? than Risk.
Rules play a very different role in storytelling games than in RPGs rooted in strategy gaming. The goal of the rules in a storytelling game isn’t to reward players who master the game system or to satisfy some vague notion of fairness or to settle interpersonal conflicts so players don’t have to talk to each other like grown-ups. The goal of the rules in a storytelling game is to help the players tell the story. The following sections explain how.
The Rules Provide Structure
Collaborative storytelling without rules can be awkward for a lot of people. While childhood imagination is viewed as acceptable and even positive, engaging in imaginative pursuits as an adult is considered a little weird, at least when there’s no secondary motive like personal growth or monetary gain. Even players who don’t feel self-conscious or silly are sometimes intimidated by free-form storytelling due to lack of clear expectations. The game format provides an aura of purpose that makes pretending to be a fictional character seem more acceptable and the rules themselves provide guidelines and set expectations by defining characters and other story elements.
The Rules Improve the Story
Predictable stories are almost always boring stories. It’s the twists, turns, and complications that keep the audience interested. Through the randomness provided by the dice, the game rules add an element of unpredictability that can send the story in unexpected directions. This both improves the story and provides more challenge to the players, since they have to react to these deviations from the obvious path.
The Rules Help Fill In the Details
Scenes that rely heavily on character interaction are natural to GM and play because we get a reasonable facsimile of what the audience would experience. We hear the characters’ dialog and in most cases see at least some approximation of their emotional reactions through the other players’ facial expressions, vocal cues, and body language. Our acting and dialog might not be ready for prime time, but it's usually good enough to ensure that everyone understands what’s going on in the scene.
When it comes to action scenes, things become considerably more difficult because more of the important details only exist in the imaginations of the players. Since everyone’s brain works differently and most players aren’t mind readers, it can be difficult to make sure everyone understands what’s going on, which in turn makes it hard to make sure that the scene flows in a dramatically satisfying way. On top of that, players have to verbally describe scenes on the fly that they’re used to experiencing visually or through carefully written (and re-written) prose, which can make it hard to decide what should happen next. The rules provide some structure to help ensure that everyone’s on the same page and the dice rolls themselves provide a sense of the ebb and flow of the action by organizing the flurry of activity into discrete actions that we can interpret and react to.
The Rules Settle Questions of Credibility
Orson Welles once said of James Cagney, “No one was more unreal and stylized, yet there is no moment when he was not true,” and the accepting the difference between realism and truth is an important step in understanding story-drive role-playing. Stories don’t have to be realistic, they have to be credible, and what is and isn’t credible has more to do with genre conventions and dramatic resonance than scientific fact. A good super-hero movie can make you believe a man can fly, but the exact same scene would completely ruin the credibility of most buddy cop films.
In RPGs, like in most fiction, establishing credibility is mainly about storytelling: making sure the story follows its own rules, the world is consistent, and the character’s actions and decisions make sense. Game mechanics usually come into play when there’s a question of whether or not it’s believable for a character to do something. In most fiction, convincing an audience that a character’s actions are credible is a function of the way in which the audience experiences the story; an author does it with words, an illustrator with pictures, and a filmmaker relies on the actors’ performances, special effects, and assorted Hollywood magic. Whether the scene is credible is obvious in the finished product.
Since RPGs take place completely within the imaginations of the players, we don’t have the kind of experiential clues that most audiences use to determine credibility, and the fact that we’re the creative team as well as the audience makes our judgement suspect anyway. We use dice and game rules to fill in that gap. Since RPGs are created and experienced simultaneously, we also don’t have the luxury of re-writing scenes that aren’t credible. Instead of writing things that aren't credible out of the story, we treat them as attempts that didn’t succeed and try to make the story work in light of the consequences of those failures. It’s one of those dice-motivated challenges we mentioned earlier.
Some character actions, like walking across the room, are obviously possible. Others, like ascending to a higher plane of existence and becoming a being of pure energy, are clearly not possible (at least in most games). For these kinds of actions, you don’t need to bother with the rules. For actions that fall between the two extremes, you may need to roll some dice. Some common situations in which rules are used to settle questions of credibility are described below.
When There Are Extenuating Circumstances
If Robin Hood is practicing archery, he hits the bullseye every time. There’s no need to roll because the character’s skill with a bow is so well-established that failure would actually be less credible than flawless success. If he’s trying to make the same perfect shot to win a wager that will save Little John from execution using a warped bow while Guy of Gisbourne screams insults into his ear, his success isn’t quite so inevitable, so the rules come into play. Common extenuating circumstances include:
- The character faces direct opposition from or is competing with another character
- The character is trying to perform the action under difficult conditions or without the proper resources and equipment
- The character is under pressure due to severe consequences for failure, time constraints, or other distractions
- When how well the character succeeds is important; for example, if the character is trying to impress someone or is being judged on how stylishly or skillfully he accomplishes the action. In this situation, the roll isn’t so much used to determine success or failure (unless there are other extenuating circumstance) as to provide a metric for determining the quality of the character’s performance or the quality of finished product (if the character is rolling to create something).
When There’s a Gap Between Player and Character Knowledge, Competence, or Experience
John “Bluto” Blutarsky is a pretty skilled motivational speaker, so he should have a decent chance of rallying the troops even the the guy playing him has trouble finding the right words and stumbles over his lines. On the flip side, the English major in the gaming group can almost certainly name the characters in The Great Gatsby with no problem, but is it really believable that the Larry the Cable Guy-inspired character he’s playing would recognize the name Nick Carraway? Rolling the dice allows the GM to decide whether the character’s incompetence cancels out the player’s ability (or vice-versa), whether the character knows something the player doesn’t, and whether the character shares a particular piece of knowledge with the player.
The experience gap refers to situations where the outcome is based on things the player can’t fully experience. For example, the player’s only indication of what the character sees and hears is what the GM describes to him. If it’s uncertain whether or not the character would notice something, the GM either has to make an arbitrary decision or roll some dice. Character memory is another good example of the experience gap, since the character probably remembers details that the player has forgotten or never knew in the first place.
When Something Seems Out of Character
Every character has thousands of skills that they had to learn at some point. They also have brains full of information that they’ve picked up over the course of their life. For example, most 21st Century Americans know how to do basic math, drive a car, and use a smart phone, among other things. They also know the rules to half a dozen or so sports, a random smattering of history, science, English, and other things they remember from school, and the lyrics to hundreds of pop songs and commercial jingles.
Since trying to translate everything a character knows or can do into game mechanics would require months of player time and a character sheet several hundred pages long, and it would still be incomplete, we have to assume that the character knows and can do a lot of things completely unrelated to the abilities described on his character sheet. Usually, a character’s assumed abilities and knowledge are obvious from the character concept and other things we know about the character, so there’s no need to bother with the dice unless there are extenuating circumstances. However, if a player wants to do something that’s so far outside of his character’s wheelhouse that it stretches credibility--for example, if a hedge fund manager wants to operate a backhoe--he should have to roll.
Rolling Dice Can Be Fun
Whenever you roll a die, there’s a moment of anticipation. When combined with good storytelling techniques, this anticipation can make things more exciting, create tension, or even make the players nervous (especially if the GM asks them to make a roll without explaining what they’re rolling for). Relying solely on dice rolling to set the scene is a terrible idea, but if the players seem bored, coming up with an excuse to let them roll some dice can sometimes get them back in the game.