Powered by the Apocalypse games have changed the way that I roleplay. Unlike others, I don’t believe they are the final evolution of roleplaying, or even that they can cure cancer. But GM-ing PBTA games has thoroughly convinced me of two things that have changed the way I GM most other RPGs.
NPCs and PCs do not have to be, and often should not be, symmetrically built.
By this, I mean that a GM shouldn’t have to go through the same painstaking process to make an NPC that players do when they make their PCs. The reason is twofold: NPCs are not the focus of the story, and therefore should not be as intricate, and since the GM has to manage several NPCs at once, and the PCs have to manage only one, NPC stat blocks should be drastically abbreviated.
Dungeon World (and by extension, the other Powered by the Apocalypse games) and Fate Core are two of my favorite games. Probably, their appeal for me stems from the fact that they are both so very hackable. Due to their modular design, it’s easy to create new content for them in order to create the exact roleplaying experience that you’re looking for.
Fate, I must say, does this better than Dungeon World because DW classes are pre-written whereas Fate characters are always built from the ground up. However, due to this difference, DW is a much quicker game to start playing than Fate (unless you have a crafty GM, and they start the game with on-the-fly character creation), because all you have to do is pickup your character class, select some options, and get to adventuring.
Pursuant to my previously stated interest in non-violent games of the roleplaying variety, please find enclosed a review of the indie darling Quill, which touts itself as a solo, letter writing roleplaying game. As a connoisseur of the written word, conversant in the subtle art of communication, I’m sure you will find this game delightful in its elegant simplicity.
I Have the Honor to be Your Obedient Servant,
I mentioned last week that I’m interested in non-violent RPGs. The reasons for this are expounded in the introductory post, but suffice it to say here, that I do love to bathe in the blood of my enemies as much as modesty will allow, but I’m presently interested in exploring RPGs in which combat is not the point of the game, games which may expressly forbid violence, or else have no explicit mechanics for supporting it, and games which explore relationships other than hero vs. monster.
Quill is such a game. While this indie darling (it’s won awards) does not forbid you from telling stories of bloody conquest, it doesn’t especially encourage you to do so either. You’ll find there are no rules which tell you the balance of your sword, the bonuses to damage, weapon reach, or any other such nonsense. Instead, the three attributes you’ll be concerned with are your Penmanship, your Language, and your Heart. You’ll be more concerned with the quality of your words than the damage of your broadsword in this letter-writing RPG.
All roleplaying games have mechanisms for deciding what should happen when there is a question as to what will happen next. Surprise, you could say, is the reason we play roleplaying games, rather than writing a novel. In many games, the surprise comes from the outcome of rolling dice, but this isn’t the only way surprise can be injected into a story.
Fortune, Karma, and Drama
The mechanisms for deciding the crucial question of “what happens next?” are as varied as the thousands of roleplaying games that exist, but all of them boil down to some combination of the following:
We consult dice or cards, or some other randomizer, which will tell us what happens next. This is known, in game design, as a Fortune mechanic.
Someone pays an amount of some kind of points in order to purchase the authority to say what happens next. This is known as a Karma mechanic.
And finally, someone who has the authority to say what happens next, simply says what happens. This is known as a Drama mechanic.
I wanted to talk about how roleplaying has changed in the years since D&D conquered the tabletop. There’s no getting around the hobby’s roots in wargaming. For those of you who don’t know, Dungeons and Dragons began its life as a fantasy supplement for a tabletop wargame called Chainmail. But we’ve come a long way since then. We’ve learned that there are other stories to tell than tales of bloody battle. There are stories of mystery, suspense, horror, and even love and friendship. You may not believe it, but there are stories which do not include violence at all, or which dramatically de-emphasize it.
Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, is an exploration of improv principles as they relate to your favorite activity and mine: roleplaying games. I liked it a lot. Or maybe I liked it an ordinary amount, but because it was so short, it got an inordinate amount of “like saturation”. It was a good book. Let’s talk about it.
I’ll admit, part of the joy of roleplaying, for me, is learning a new system, figuring out all the bells and whistles. The Modiphius 2d20 system really does it for me when it comes to the level of crunch that I enjoy when I’m in a mood to chew on a rule system. But the question of what is really needed to play an RPG has been on my mind a lot lately. A game like Aces & Eights which has dozens of different sub-systems, covering everything from a bar brawl to a cattle drive, to yes, getting gangrene, can be a lot of fun. However, recently, I’ve been thinking about games with lightweight (but solid) structures, and the kind of emergent gameplay that comes from minimalism.