#RPGaDay2020: Days 1 to 7

Saturday, 1 August 2020 9-minute read

August is #RPGaDay month. Seeing that there are several different prompts for every day, and Twitter isn’t the best platform for the length in which I wanted to write, I decided to write my posts to my blog. And instead of writing 31 individual posts for each day, I decided to do them in weekly blasts, starting with this post for days 1 to 7.

Day 1: Beginning

One of the systems where I really enjoy beginning new campaigns is Masks: a New Generation. What I love about the system is how it has built into its character creation a way for players to not just create a tangled web of relationships between characters, but also a collective back story for the whole party. The players each are given mad-lib-style prompts to fill in one aspect of the party’s back story: when the team first came together, which big enemy did they take down? What rules did they break? What collateral damage did they cause? What bigger conspiracy was the enemy part of?

What this mechanic, even in character creation, does was not only did it give me, the GM, a wealth of plot hooks to work with while building the world around the player characters, but this back-and-forth models for players the core dynamic at the heart of the game: it is a narrative game where everyone collaborates to build a story, and we listen to, improvise with, and build off of each other’s contributions. And rather uniquely, it fostered a conversation where we got to know the players: we assembled a cache of inside jokes and references that eased us into playing a game together. This is one of the most fun and engaging aspects of character creation, and it is an outstanding way to start a new campaign.

Day 2: Change

In the scant few years I have been engaged in this hobby, I’ve noticed my style of running games has changed dramatically. I started out very much trying to keep control of the story, having run mystery investigation games or very much by creating a world which I expected players to explore. I even fell victim to the usual pitfalls of being too precious about my world, getting frustrated with players who didn’t interact with particular aspects of it, getting vindictive about mismatched expectations of the story rather than facilitating an open conversation around the table, et cetera.

It was a steep learning curve, but as I broadened my repertoire of games that I ran, I started noticed my style become much more adaptable to running different kinds of games, but also more specifically adapted to particular styles. And I much prefer games where players are much more equal contributors to the setting and story because I know that the wit and creativity of six people at the table will be far more than what I can muster in my weeks of preparation. And having seen the different kinds of games that I prefer running, I know how to have clearer conversations about expectations from the start and negotiate mismatches and differences. Learning this did take a while, but I expect it is quite a welcome change.

Day 3: Thread

Coincidentally, the theme for 3 August — Thread — takes place on the day of Rakshabandhan. I thought I would write a magic item that loosely considered the significance of voluntary kinship and shared beliefs. But as with every Hindu rite, there are complexities of caste that need to be disentangled.

Thread of Kinship — Magic item

Concept: A talisman tied to the wrist of a character in a rite symbolising voluntary kinship between participants over a shared belief or oath. The thread tightens around the wrist and cannot be cut by ordinary means, but can be cut through a voluntary severing of the kinship or as a consequence of betrayal. These bonds of kinship are not to be underestimated or entered into lightly.

Background: This is a mark of kinship between people. Like any form of kinship, the loyalties, obligations, and shared beliefs can be the basis of hierarchy, discrimination and power. Wealthy families or families of higher castes might use this to further their ends and segregate themselves from those they see as beneath them; different groups may use this as a mark of loyalty to exclusionary causes. Or it may be a radical, subversive kinship that breaches social divides.

Effect: The thread strengthens the wearer’s resolve in whatever common, shared belief all participants had that motivated their kinship. This could be a common objective, a family creed, or any other idea that unites the participants. They would get powerful mechanical advantages or bonuses as per whatever the system allows for upholding this belief or protecting the other kin in their pursuit of it. Any act that would be reasonably interpreted by the other kinsfolk as betraying the shared ideals would be obstructed by the thread tightening and staying their hand (imposing a proportionate penalty on the action), and any act that intentionally seeks to harm the others will lead to the thread severing and causing excruciating harm to the wearer.

Day 4: Vision

One of the biggest challenges I’ve found was making accessible versions of character sheets and RPG materials. I’ve played with people with visual impairments that have often required adjustments like large format character sheets. This remains a significant barrier to players being able to attend or access tabletop gaming events. The difficulty, moreover, is exacerbated by the fact that this is not something the publishers of these games often take up themselves. And in fairness, many indie games are made by small publishers who don’t have the resources to dedicate to re-doing all their materials.

The trouble then is that the labour falls on the fans, especially many who have their own difficulties to negotiate, who end up having to the labour of advocating for themselves for little to no compensation, just so they can be equally present at the table.

In that regard, I found it really helpful that there have been many people out there who have designed their own custom character sheets for mainstream systems that are large format and adapted for people with visual impairments. It was likewise reassuring to see Evil Hat Games have large format designs for their Fate character sheets. But it is something that other games, particularly Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark games, are still having to catch up with because of how heavily they rely on information being presented through the physical medium of the character sheet. I would really like to see some of my favourite games come out with re-designed materials that were adapted for people with visual needs to save me the trouble of having to muck around with InDesign to re-do everything myself.

Day 5: Tribute

Some of the most fun I have in TTRPGs is when I make characters or settings that are in tribute of things I like. I remember the first TTRPG I GMed was a one-shot at Conpulsion, my local tabletop gaming convention, which was loosely based around events in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven, including his falling out with Napoleon, his conflict with George Bridgetower, and the massive benefit concert where he premiered the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.

One of the most fun game sessions I ever had was when the entire table went wild paying tribute to Star Wars. This was something the whole table bonded over, while at the same time expressing the frustrations we had with the franchise — like its issues with gender or the narrow-minded orthodoxies of what is canonically Jedi philosophy — and things we wanted to see changed. This is an example of transformative fandom, and one of the most exciting aspects of it is how well we threw ourselves into the project of re-imagining things we loved out of a love for it.

Fans paying tribute to something they love is a powerful thing, and it is the same creative generosity that has driven so much creativity in the TTRPG scene.

Day 6: Forest

The Root RPG is possibly one of the most promising new games I have seen released. It is based on the popular board game by Leder games. It is set in a forest, and follows anthropomorphised animals who are ‘vagabonds’ on the run from a tyrannical society, working for or against different factions in their setting. I love its The Wind in the Willows-style setting, and its anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment setting where the player-characters are different flavours of rogues. My go-to beginner’s RPG of choice is currently a toss-up between Root and Quest, with the latter having the edge because of how deeply accessibility to beginners is embedded within its mechanics and presentation.

But that is not to say Root is not without its unique advantages for a beginner’s RPG: it is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, which makes it very easily teachable as every move’s script is clear and self-explanatory. It is also a fairly complex system, with many different mechanics like equipment durability, different forms of harm, and reputation with competing factions, that synergise really well. But most importantly, it has political and ethical questions about power and justice embedded within it. It is a great beginner RPG for people who wouldn’t mind complexity.

Besides, the forest theme is what really sells it for me. I love how textured its world is, and how the game gives GMs resources to generate the many denizens of the woods. As an RPG, it does a great job of bringing a forest to life.

Day 7: Couple

One of my friends who got married last year was the kind of person who loved very dramatic parlour games. We would play Consequences with the house rule that we would have to re-enact the final mad-lib we got. They were the kind of person who would probably have loved the idea of a TRPG.

As a wedding present, I got them and their spouse a copy of Fiasco, and I also wrote them a custom playset based on all of our friends and people we knew. I don’t know how many games the couple got out of it, but given the kinds of shenanigans we always saw unfold in the parlour games we played, I am sure they and their friends would love a game like Fiasco.

There is something I find especially fun about role-playing things that are especially comedic, embarrassing or ridiculous, and that’s an expression of vulnerability and self-deprecation amongst people you love. I’m far more willing to play a bungling, incompetent character who messes everything up around people I know and trust because they’re more likely to play in the right spirit, whereas I’m more likely to play to my strengths in front of people I don’t know. But equally, there is something really special in being able to share a nerdy hobby like this with people you really like.