#RPGaDay 9: What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

Oh, I like this one.  This is the kind of thing I can sink into.

Ten sessions is a great length for any game that doesn’t have a focus on power progression and leveling up. If we compare sessions to television, what we get is a ten episode series or season. This is a really great length for creating a story arc, in my opinion.  Longer, and you have too much filler.  Shorter, and some characters might not get an opportunity to be in the spotlight.

So, let’s talk about games that don’t have a strong focus on power progression (like, say, D&D or Earthdawn does).  GURPS would be a good system for a game that doesn’t require characters to level up. That’s a classic, but I often find the mechanics a little too fiddly.  Half that game seems to be creating a character with the points buy system.  I haven’t played GURPS in probably 10-15 years, to be honest.

Another thought would be Savage Worlds again.  If I was looking to run something rules light and fast, with a focus on story, I’d definitely default to Savage Worlds because I’ve had a lot of time to really get to know it, and it’s a “setting neutral” system that doesn’t force a lot of world building on you. I like to do my own world-building.

Another idea might be the Cypher System.  I’ve only played this in the form of Numenera, but I really liked the emphasis on freeing up the GM to focus on managing the game and the story.

But let’s go old school.  I think if I had a group of people willing to commit to a ten session campaign, I would spin up a game of Mage in the World of Darkness.   Mage has one of my all time favorite magic systems, and the world building isn’t so detailed that I feel completely boxed in and unable to tell my own stories.  Characters don’t really have a huge emphasis on getting more powerful, so you don’t have something like “oh, now we have level four spells and everything about this adventure is cake now” to worry about in your planning.  (Seriously, I hate designing encounters for high level D&D play.  There’s just so much more you have to think about).

I’ve run a lot of short campaigns of Mage, and it has allowed for some of the wildest and most imaginative play I’ve ever had.  I know the ins and outs, although I may be a little rusty on the various magical traditions now.  And when I say Mage, I mean Mage: The Ascension, not whatever form it’s mutated into now.  I don’t want to play Mage with spells; the free form “spheres” magic system was the best.

Whew, thanks for taking the long way around on that one with me.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.



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#RPGaDay 8: What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?

I’m not a big fan of sessions shorter than three hours in length.  Most groups take upwards of half an hour to an hour just to settle in, unpack, and get themselves ready for the game.  That leaves little time for actually playing.

I find 3-4 hours is the perfect length for a session, although I have played shorter games and longer games.  If I was told I’d only have two hours, I’d most likely default to a board game rather than an RPG. I want every session I run to have a story arc.  A two hour session to me feels like it lends itself to “flash fiction” length games.  Three or more, that’s a short story, and that’s the length at which I feel most comfortable.

But okay, okay, I’ll do my best to answer the question in the spirit it was asked.  Probably the best game for me for a short session is one in which the rules are light and don’t bog down things very much in mechanics.  Any system like D&D that requires a lot of GM book-keeping wouldn’t be great.  You might get 2-3 encounters at best done in a 2 hour session of D&D.  Whereas, with a lighter system like Savage Worlds, I think you could get through a lot more game.

Two hours of combat wouldn’t feel like much, but a role-play heavy session of something like Savage Worlds Deadlands Reloaded could be satisfying.  A mystery adventure, something with a lot of questioning and talking.  Combat is basically, in almost every single session, highly decompressed storytelling.  Every action requires a roll.  Whereas, a game where the GM and the players trust each other to role-play and lean less on the dice, that’s likely to move more quickly.

For me, it’s not amount the number of dice rolls, and it’s not about the number of experience points.  A session’s value is measured to me in pure units of story.  So while I think two hours makes for a very brief session, combine it with a rapid play system, and you could do well enough.  Just stay away from Rolemaster.



#RPGaDay 7: What was your most impactful RPG session?

These kinds of questions irk me.   I’m just contrarian like that.  So I’m going to come at this one a bit orthogonally.

For anyone to truly understand why most RPG sessions mattered,  they had to be there.  Gaming stories retold are often pretty boring to the listener.  They don’t make good audience material.  Half the spark that makes them so important and valuable is that they happened to you, you were there, man.  We can’t ever recapture that easily for a third party.

That doesn’t mean sessions don’t impact us.  I have so many great memories. Personally, the sessions that I remember the most over time are the ones that made me laugh.  A good group of players can wind each other up with their inside jokes and their running gags to the point where an external observer would assume everyone was high as hell.  Some of my best memories of tabletop gaming involve me laying on the floor, laughing so hard that I was crying.  Literally falling out of your chair laughing is one of the best experiences one can have in life.

The “first, we get a big rock” gag that old Argyle the Scottish-styled highlands troll ran with in an epic Earthdawn campaign comes to mind.  This character was a gold mine of hilarious jokes, as he had the lowest possible intelligence score in the game and player Corey knew exactly how to play that up (with horrible Shrek style accent for extra laughs).  Then there was the time my players in a campaign of Savage Worlds realized that they had accidentally been responsible for the conquering and subjugation of the entire planet Earth.  I could describe dozens more sessions that really mattered to me, that gave me great joy and sometimes even sadness.  Every time a great new character landed on the table, or a favorite one died in a shining moment of glory; I remember them all.  The problem is, I could never convey to you their real importance to me.  You had to be there.

The best thing about RPGs for me is that they’re engines for generating life-long memories.  Personal memories.  I know they can be spectator experiences too (not for me though), but in recounting them, something valuable is lost. That’s what makes them special, I think; the limited scope and ephemeral nature.  It’s so hard to box them up and commodify them (although countless Youtubers seems to be doing a decent job of trying).  Personally, I can’t stand watching other people role-play and roll dice.  I want to be in there, playing.  Nothing beats the real thing for me.

I can remember so many things about my games that I cannot remember about my actual day to day life from those time periods.  That’s not to say that I live my life indulging in pointless fantasies, but they’re real, emotional experiences with other people.  So much of my life as a modern adult is lived in isolation. I don’t have a lot of real world friends.  The ones I do have, I don’t actually see very often at all.  I see my wife and son regularly, but just living and working takes up the vast majority of our time.

The most impactful RPG session is the one I just had, and the next one, just around the corner, might de-throne that one.  For me, in aggregate, it’s impossible for me to convey the importance of all my games that I’ve ever played.  Each one, even the bad ones, served to make me feel a little more connected to other people, a little less isolated.  In a way, tabletop RPGs are the perfect antidote to the ailments of modern, isolated living.  We need more reasons to get together in person again.  We need each other more than ever before.

I would say that the resurgence of tabletop RPGs in the past few years points towards this being a widespread problem.  We could all do with a little more laughter around a real world table, and a little less laughter emoji on our phones.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.


#RPGaDay 6: You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do!

If I could game every single day for a week, I would want to be the Dungeon Master and I would want to design an epic and sprawling dungeon using my rad dungeon tiles that I’ve featured here on the site previously.

I’d focus on classic encounters with new twists, at least at first.  Rust monsters, gelatinous cubes, goblins, and so on, but combined in some interesting ways that players don’t quite expect.  I’d build a narrative to tie things together, but the central loop of kicking open doors and killing would be the usual experience.   I’d really work at giving out the loot and experience points so that players would progress and level up at least once a day.  Each day, the dungeon would get progressively harder, more complex, more full of traps.  Each day, the PCs would get more experienced.  Over time, the encounters would become more esoteric and weird.  Combat would not always be the solution to things – good roleplaying and negotiation would be rewarded.

Basically, I’d want to run a mega-dungeon as a single campaign.  The PCs will not see the light of day for weeks, perhaps months.  But they will be epic heroes by the time they escape my Dungeon of Doom.

That’s what we would do in the mornings, anyway.  For the afternoons and evenings, we would play a series of one-shots in a variety of systems and settings that we’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t had time to experience.  Each player would try their hand at running a different game with pre-generated characters.  These could get goofy and fun, to release some of the tension that builds up during the Mega Dungeon play.

For players, I’d want to bring back the best and brightest players from my long life of playing games.  Friends from childhood, friends from college, friends from my time in Colorado.  I’d bring them all together to some rented haunted house or mansion in a remote location. We’d lock up all our devices and cellphones and we’d just focus on telling fun stories, epic stories that we’d talk about for years in that particular way that gamers do.  You know – stories that you just had to be there for, stories that would bore anyone else to hear, but stories that we made together, just for us.

That’s what I would do if I could game for a week.  How about you?


#RPGaDay 5: Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?

There can really be no contest here.  It has been and likely always will be this version of the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

We have a dark and ominous room dominated by an enormous demonic statue with bejeweled eyes.  We’ve got player characters attempting to pry one of the gems out of the statue, and who knows what will happen if they succeed?  A slain monster lays in the middle ground, and a group of players discuss their next move in the foreground. We see wizards, fighters, and thieves.

Dungeons & Dragons covers these days are beautiful works of art, and they depict epic action against towering and horrible monsters.  The scale of everything, the coolness factor, is so much more than it was back in the olden days of yore.  Even still,  no piece of art captures the spirit of being a murder hobo better than this.  We’ve got dead monsters, looting, and planning what to kill and loot next.  That’s the core loop of D&D game play for me.  It’s not deep and it’s not especially elegant.  But it’s the core of what the game was to me in my youth, and this artwork captures that better than anything else for me.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.


#RPGaDay 4: Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016?

Actually, honestly played?  Well, almost nothing.  This is something I would really like to change.

I had a campaign going of Monte Cook’s Numenera for a couple of months in 2015, but this game fell apart in the usual ways.  Players stopped committing to showing up.  Schedules got the in way.  Lives were re-prioritized. I was really disappointed, but there was no use in trying to keep it going. I let it die off, and I’ve been unable to organize a game since, despite trying a number of times.  I’ve had people tentatively commit, and then back out.  Perhaps I’m not a very good game master, or I’m a difficult person to play with.  Or perhaps it’s just the way people schedule their times these days.

P.S.: I really enjoyed Numenera quite a bit, and I hope I get to play it again some day.

As I push 40, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find people with similar interests who want to commit the kind of regular time it takes to developing a good campaign.  I find playing any less than twice a month results in a disjointed experience. The ideal time frame is once a week, but even I find that difficult, and that’s with a relatively flexible schedule.  I rarely try to schedule anything consistently anymore due to people’s lives being what they are.

For years now, I’ve found it far easier to get together temporary and ephemeral groups of people together to play board games; I can’t be the only one having this trouble, either.  When I was younger, board games were a much smaller hobby, but these days, they are probably the fastest growing section of tabletop gaming (citation needed).  I own dozens of board games that have seen consistent play, and probably nearly as many RPG books that are in mint condition because they’ve only been paged through once or twice.

If there’s one thing I really want to change in 2018, it’s that I want to develop a group of people who are as passionate about playing role-playing games as I am.  I want to find a regular group willing to set aside a chunk of their lives to experience a good, exciting story with a few other people who are equally committed.  If I’m being honest, it feels about as likely to happen as discovering a unicorn grazing in my back yard, but I’m not going to let that deter me.

The other way this is changing is that I’m starting a new company on the side of my usual business involved in developing really elaborate, tabletop D&D experiences.  Basically, an organization aimed at running professional games, with top-tier tools and resources, and dedicated to providing support materials so others can do the same.  If that goes well, i’ll be getting my fill of regular D&D games in the latter part of 2017 and into 2018 and beyond.  I don’t want to talk about that idea too much yet, but you can be sure you’ll read more about it here as our plans develop.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.



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#RPGaDay 3: How do you find out about new RPGs?

Today’s entry is going to be short, because the answer to this one is fairly simple.  I only find out about new games in one of several ways:

  • I see the game on the shelf at one of my friendly local gaming store (we currently appear to have 3 in my town alone, and a really nice one over in Olathe as well. We had four, but sadly my store of choice went out of business, so now I’m a free agent, but slowly settling in at a new store).
  • One of my friends who still keeps up with the hobby posts about the game on social media
  • The game is tied to a creator that I follow closely (Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop RPG being a recent example of this)

Social media so thoroughly dominates my mental landscape as far as how I encounter new things that I’m frankly a little worried that I’m missing out on great things I would really love.  But let’s be honest; I don’t have time to play a lot of games, so discovering brand new ones is not high on my list of priorities.

If you have a news site that you would recommend I use to keep up with the field, drop a recommendation to me in the comments, or… well, social media works too.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.




#RPGaDay 2: What is an RPG you would like to see published?

One of the problems I have as an adult with a job and a family is that there are too many games and not enough time to play them all.  I own stacks of RPG sourcebooks and systems that I have never played, and probably never will, unless I live long enough to end up in a retirement home with a bunch of grognards with too much time on their hands.  That’s about the only form of retirement that appeals to me, actually.  A return to my childhood, where I spent nearly every day with a group of close friends having adventures without ever leaving the couch.   I figure that would be a good way to wrap up my life, if I manage to live that long.   Someone should start planning the themed retirement home for old gamers right now.

Anyway, I’m very reluctant to suggest new games when I have such an embarrassment of riches, because likely anything that I would like to see published would go unplayed along with the rest of the games that I have.  That said, I’ve always wanted to see a game setting, for really any system, based on the New Cobrazon and Bas Lag setting by China Miéville.

Perdido Street StationInstrumental to me getting back into science fiction literature post-college was reading Perdido Street Station, along with some short stories by Charlie Stross in Asimov’s.   One thing about games is that they’re usually somewhat derivative of the cutting edge work going on in literature, which is not something I say as disparagement.  I think that trend is changing as more talent is attracted to working in games, given that it’s still a decent way to make a living, where all but a slim few barely earn minimum wage writing prose these days.  But for most of my life, where innovation of setting and world-building is concerned, prose fiction has led the way.   Miéville’s work for me was like an atom bomb of creative world-building.

That’s not to say it wasn’t inspired by things that came before.  Miéville has been open about how much of his work was inspired by reading the monster manuals of various roleplaying games.  Relatedly, he also explains that he never really played RPGs, which breaks my heart.  It’s long been a dream of mine to some day have China at my game table with a few other people who never got to know the joys of playing in their youth.  I imagine he’s received better offers than mine, though.

Anyway, Perdido Street Station describes a wild, bizzare, thriving city that made me want to explore it. I wanted to go off the page as written and poke around in the dark alleys and tunnels.  New Crobuzon would be a fertile place for adventure and intrigue.  The various characters are already practically archetypes for good character classes and races to build further, interesting player characters.   And later books like The Scar only served to deepen and broaden the world as all good RPG source material does.

From what I understand, work has been underway for 6 or 7 years on a game set in this world, but nothing has come out yet.  Maybe it’s better that way; it can live in that perfect and ephemeral state of idea, rather than as an imperfect execution.  It might just be too good an idea, and I would always be disappointed with any execution.  Things that I spend so much time pining for can rarely live up such unfair expectations.  But if it ever does hit the store shelves, I’ll happily buy it and add it to my pile of unplayed game reference books.  I’ve got a space for it picked out on my shelf.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.

Map image by JenJenRobot via DeviantArt.


#RPGaDay 1: What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?

If I could be playing any role-playing game right this very second, it would have to be Shadowrun, chummer.

If you’ve never heard of Shadowrun, allow me to summarize.  If William Gibson and J.R.R. Tolkien stayed up all night doing blow and riffing on each other’s work, they might have come up with Shadowrun.  In this game, set originally in the far off future of 2050 (ha!),  magic has returned to a cyberpunk future.  We have the usual themes of megacorporations ruling the world, and of crushing poverty in the cracks, but add to that dwarves, elves, trolls, and and orcs, among many other new “goblinized” races that have sprung back into being with the return of dragons, shamanistic magic, and good old fashioned wizardry.   Native Americans have taken back much of North America, and what we think of the U.S. has shrunk considerably, with one major seat of power being Seattle, which is home to several of the giant megacorporations.

In Shadowrun, the players take the role of runners, criminal operatives who eek out an existence outside the system.  It’s a game of heists, of moral grays, and I don’t think any game captures the feeling of living in 2017 better for me.  In Shadowrun, everything is coated in a layer of grime, and there’s a strong sense of living in a world that’s the product of vast, uncaring forces that could crush you out of existence at any moment. Still, there is a lingering sense of wonder, and there’s the possibility of hope, of scoring big, of making it out.   Dreaming of a better life is never quite dead in Shadowrun, but it always feels just a little bit out of reach.  Maybe one more run will lead to a better life, but it’s more likely that your corporate masters will betray you, shoot you, and leave you to bleed out in the gutter because you failed to make your DocWagon contract payment this past month.

A lot about the news lately has reminded me of the thrill of playing Shadowrun as a teenager with my best friends, Hans, Jason, and Jared.  The four of us cut a swathe through the cyberpunk Seattle that was epic and exciting.  I think nearly all of us tried our hand at game mastering stories.  Later, in college,  I played in a epic campaign not as a runner, but as a runner turned DocWagon operative charged with heading into gun battles to save dying runners who were paid up on their contracts.   Of course, not all was on the level inside of DocWagon. Conspiracies were discovered, and everything turned to shit in that particularly exciting way that always seemed to happen in a good game of Shadowrun.

A lot of games of Shadowrun played out like this:

  • Players are presented with a job by the GM, hired by some shady NPC or fixer
  • Players research and meticulously plan the job like professional criminals
  • Job goes south in about 30 seconds, but players manage to succeed at their goal

Somehow, this never grew old for me, and even though we knew the plan was never going to go off quite right, it was always exciting to see how things were going to turn.  Shadowrun was a lesson for me in how the desires of the participants don’t always make for the best stories.  Can you imagine how boring Shadowrun would have been if every single job went off without a single hitch?  You might as well get a job as a salaryman, chummer.   At that point, you’re just workin’ for the man.

Shadowrun was never a perfect game, mechanically speaking.  I’ve played something like four or five different editions, and I’ve never felt any of them balanced out very well.  Cybernetically-enhanced reflexes were nearly always a must.  I’m not sure what the current version requires, but back in the day, if you wanted to roll giant fistfuls of dice, playing a street samurai with enhanced reflexes was a sure-fire way to do so.

Me, on the rare occasions that I got to play instead of GMing, I always liked playing shamen.  I’m not a very spiritual person, but the mystical/spiritual world of shamanic magic in Shadowrun always appealed to me in some deep and profound way.  Nature spirits were intriguing, especially urban ones.  The novel series by Robert N. Charrette played heavily in my interest, I suspect.  I am often tempted to re-read these books with an adult writer’s eye, but I worry they would disappoint me.

For me, Shadowrun captures all the excitement of living in today’s upside down world, with none of the risks.  There are many a day where I would happily return to the 1990s and play Shadowrun instead of living in 2017 in the Trump presidency, watching as corporations grow in power with each passing day.  We’re getting all the negative parts of Shadowrun, and none of the good.  Sadly, it seems like a magical awakening isn’t in the cards for us here in the real world.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.


The Dungeon Tile Project

I haven’t been writing much, lately, although I am deep in revisions on a number of stories from earlier in the year that you should see coming out soon. Instead, I’ve been working on 3D printing, casting, and painting a bunch of dungeon tiles for playing fantasy role-playing games. It’s been very good for me to spend less of my “leisure time” at a computer where I can encounter political news. So, below are a few photos rounding up what we’ve made so far. There are over 300 individual tiles, plus countless doors and other items/props. Only a few of these items have been things that I’ve designed myself — the big demon statue being one of them. Most of the models are items I’ve purchased from various companies — especially Hero’s Hoard. This project has had enormous help from my business partner Elwood Schaad and painter/artist Gabe Dorsey.

I opted to go with the partial wall style tile over the full-wall style you see from companies like Dwarven Forge because in my experience, they’re more playable. Walls much higher than this get in the way of players maneuvering their figures. I wanted something that looks good, and plays well. On Monday, we’ll be playing our first official game on the tiles. I’m really looking forward to seeing how people react to them.

This is all part of a side venture I’m working on with a partner called the Level Up Guild. LUG is a company that specializes in exactly what the name says – we aim to help people “level up” their gaming experiences. Stay tuned for more information about what that means in more specific terms…


Gaming, Geek Life