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I am on rare occasion given cause to wonder if I should be doing this blogging, if the damage I cause in a reckless moment outweighs anything positive I contribute when I write something well. But I’m not just doing this for self-aggrandizement. My whole life has been balanced on the edge of a knife – financial ruin, which can drag down the people around me, the people I love. And there’s at least a slight possibility this blog will be a launching point for doing something that brings financial success. It’s good to be adjacent to people who get clicks. So here I am.

I’m in the middle of my work week. Got two more days of unpleasant labors before I can rest. I have irons in fires, gonna spend my mid-week weekend doing tests and arranging interviews for (hopefully) better things. It’s getting late. My next shift starts in like eight hours and I still have some chores to do. But I haven’t been blogging enough lately. Gotta keep up my FtB points. What to write about?

Role-playing, sure. Been thinking about that lately.

RPGs are one of the most emotionally fraught and difficult hobbies you can have. There are a million ways for games to go wrong and not as many ways for them to go right, and a bad game can cost a friendship. A bad player can violate consent, abuse people. Why do people play these games?

I forget, honestly. I used to be more of a player, decades ago, but in recent years I’ve game mastered so much I don’t remember what it’s like to want to play a singular character all the way. And maybe as a result, I have a different perspective on what RPGs are – what their purpose is. I think RPGs are collaborative writing projects. Most players probably don’t feel that way, though I admit I’ve lost touch with their motivations & could be wrong.

The collaborative writing projects model explains a lot of what goes wrong in games. The GM spins a tale, but needs their co-writers – the players – to help keep the narrative strong from their side, with the characters they control. But in order to feel surprise, a sense of interest, information is withheld from the players that would not be withheld in a more conventional writing collaboration. If your players aren’t understanding your sense of the drama in a scene, don’t have a sense of what’s possible in the universe you’re controlling as GM, then their writing can suffer. And from that, the whole work suffers.

Back in the day, RPGs usually didn’t leave a comprehensive paper trail. It was like improv acting where you could forget everything tomorrow and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Now that so much RP happens on the internet, it’s nice to be able to look at the record and see something fun, interesting. If you look at the record and it shows a bunch of dead ends, bad humor, anticharismatic characters with no goals slouching from one ugly situation to another, to me that represents failure. You collectively told a bad story and odds are no one had as much fun as they could have with a more sensible narrative.

But I’m a bit of an oddball this way. I know my players never read their old posts, but I do. I read the old stories to remember fun times, or have a dark laugh at times things were sucking in an interesting way. I see lines I’d forgotten, words written by myself and my collaborators, which can entertain me again. Because some of my old games are recorded – and were pretty good – I have stories I can return to for fun. I don’t understand why other people choose not to avail themselves of that, and why they don’t put more effort into treating their characters as part of a narrative, so that in the final showing they’ll be more fun to read, be less embarrassing.

To me a campaign is a long-form work of written entertainment. To most players, it’s something much more ephemeral. A moment to drink like a can of beer, smash the can on their head, and walk off leaving the work behind like blackout memories. I guess that’s fine. To each their own.


  1. avalus says

    I feel you there.
    When I started RPG, I was a very selfish player. But mostly mastering for a few years now, I think it really depends on the group. If they want to weave a good story and are inquisitive, then it usually works for my group, if they want to be Brutal McAwesomson the bloody Slayer … not so much. Finding those right people is a tiring process.
    I hope you can find fun in RPG again. Sometimes a break may be needed?

  2. ridana says

    But I’m a bit of an oddball this way. I know my players never read their old posts, but I do. I read the old stories to remember fun times, or have a dark laugh at times things were sucking in an interesting way. I see lines I’d forgotten, words written by myself and my collaborators, which can entertain me again.

    I do! Or, rather I did, until the computer I had them on needed a new board and I can’t access them with the newer software on the replacement. I just recently thought about setting up an older computer so I could read them again, but that’s too daunting at the moment.

    Good times, though.

  3. says

    avalus – I’m on a break at the moment, maybe it will help. If you prefer playing to GMing, hope you get a chance again some time.

    ridana – My old adventures are mostly on public boards, but that isn’t necessarily safer than a local hard drive. I should really back those things up. 😛

  4. lanir says

    @Ridana: Not sure what software you used but you can get free, open source software at the link below that will read most older word processor formats. In the case of MS Word specifically, LibreOffice reads the older files better than newer copies of MS Word do.

  5. suttkus says

    I’ve noticed a trend in RPGs lately toward encouraging players to take part in the storytelling and world building. FATE, in particular, openly embraces it as an ideal, and is built around mechanisms to encourage it. Now, if I could just find a group willing to try FATE…

  6. lanir says

    Public boards do vanish… I’ve had problems with that before because I’ve been gaming a long time. I don’t reread my stuff too often but sometimes it can be a lot of fun. It’s one of those things where I just don’t think to start doing it.

    RPGs for me started out as an escape, just like novels. I didn’t understand where to invest in them so I’m pretty sure others saw me as a casual player who didn’t invest much in them. Over time I got into games that emphasized different aspects of the experience and solidly nudged you into creating and playing a character rather than just making a placeholder with maybe pointy ears or maybe not, a listed hair and eye color, a height and a weight. When I began exploring that, I realized I could use these characters to explore aspects of my personality I’d never allowed to surface in my normal relationships with other people. I tried being more assertive or more empathic than normal. It was a fun time with characters I still remember fondly.

    As a GM, I mostly try to encourage people to create more fleshed out characters but unless the system itself promotes this I don’t always feel like I can ask a lot of players. If they feel like I’m asking too much they’ll just walk, so mostly I just demand that they all know each other and not make me work to kludge their PCs into a cohesive group. I do sometimes have disasters pop up that could have easily been avoided if the players had invested, however.

    My most recent disaster involves spending quite a bit of time setting up an environment that wasn’t at all ambiguous (a dictator controls whether you eat or get sent off to die in a hopeless battle). And as the players built characters, I explained that they shouldn’t just metagame and look for “quest markers” and so forth like it’s a bad video game or assume that because an NPC tells them something it’s the truth. The NPC may not know the truth or may be lying. So… right after that we start, play a short session and they ignore all of that (PCs meet dictator who ostentatiously showcases his power and… a PC snarks at his expense). *facepalm* This may be my shortest campaign ever but my hope is it will help us to be on the same page next time I run something (result: PCs have 3 days before they’re sent off to die in battle; they may escape but not without consequences).

    It may sound petty to stick them with consequences over offhanded snark but I’ve had similar problems with the same group and tried to brush it off. That backfired and it became a problem affecting months worth of play because it got at the character’s motivations for participating in the actions of the campaign. So I’m trying a different approach. Hmm. Maybe this is a common theme… Issues pop up whenever motivations are tied to a powerful NPC (doesn’t matter if the NPC is a threat or on their side). But they create characters with absolutely no internal motivations and I think they’d be unhappy with an entire campaign around threatening them with losing something (hometown attacked, family kidnapped, basically a threat to the life they have already).

    Anyway, that’s how I’ve been thinking of RPGs both recently and more long term.

  7. ridana says

    @ lanir and G.A.S.:
    I have two problems. Some of the files are Word on floppy disks or Zip disks (remember those? I still have that version of Word on floppy disks somewhere too!), which I don’t have a slot for on this computer, and others are in early versions of AOL’s stupid Filing Cabinet system, which you need that software to access and a computer that’s old enough to run it. So either way I have to do some excavating to get to them. While it’s good to know they’re still there if I desperately need to read them again, I’m not that desperate just now. 🙂

  8. says

    suttkus – I feel like someone (you?) were upselling FATE in my comments before. If you don’t mind, could you remind me how that one emphasized storytelling? I’m interested but don’t feel like dredging my old comments for the info.

    lanir – On having the characters know each other, lol, those bastards do what they want don’t they? More than once me and my dude insisted people have characters that know each other and as they cliqued up they retroactively decided this guy wasn’t close to that guy and so on.

    On disasters, I know exactly what happened there, had it happen to me as well. People will nod and say they’re paying attention and then immediately demonstrate they didn’t bother to understand a thing you said. Kinda important in getting a sense of scene, making characters do shit that makes any sense at all. It doesn’t seem petty, but the usual caution that in-game rectification isn’t always the best option. Sometimes you just have to reboot the scene after busting chops out of game. I’m sure you made the right call tho.

    On the particulars of that campaign, I’ve had bad experiences for similar causes. A lot of stories involve the characters not being the most powerful and important person in the room 24-7. Most old White Wolf games required the characters to be weaker than – sometimes subservient to – more power NPCs. But players gotta be punky. And when they realize they can’t get away with snark or threats with the dictators, then they turn to whining self-pity. It’s fucking annoying. Good characters in fiction may have at least a little self pity, but the more they have the less likeable they are. Luke Skywalker was pretty repellent sometimes over that.

    Ridana – The further we get in time, the more inaccessible that stuff is going to become. Emulators for earlier versions of windows, physical hardware that can interface with old disks, all this stuff will be less supported and available. So if you feel inspired to find a solution sooner than later, it may go better for you.

  9. suttkus says

    I’m known to be occasionally redundant!

    Fate defines characters in two ways, some basic numerical skills, and Aspects. Aspects are the key to the system, they’re just sentences or phrases that describe something important about your character.

    In play, the basic function of an aspect is to provide a character with dice manipulation. If you roll poorly, you can spend a Fate point (more on them in a minute) and invoke an aspect, if you can tie the text to the current situation, to either reroll your dice or just add a flat +2 (which is a good amount, given how the dice work).

    Bob: “I climb the Cliffs of Doom.” *Rolls -4* “Ugh, but ‘I grew up in the mountain village of Ybellis’ (his Aspect), so I’m better at climbing than that roll!” *spends a fate point and gets a new roll*

    So, already, you can see how the aspect system keeps you focused on what your character’s story is to get mechanical benefits, instead of looking at your sheet as a collection of numbers.

    Of course, you’re not limited to your own aspects. You can invoke other player’s aspects to get the job done. So, you’ll be encouraged to remember other characters’ stories as well.

    Bob: “I try to signal that it’s a trap to Glenda without the Duke noticing.” *Rolls garbage* “But Gary is obsessed with ‘Preparing For Everything’ so he’s probably drilled us in hand signs.” *Spends point and gets a reroll.*

    And everything has aspects, not just characters. The campaign will have aspects, the current location and situation will have aspects, all of which can be invoked by players. (This can lead to Fate sessions looking like the aftermath of the Attack of the Infinite Index Cards.)

    In addition to invoking aspects (using them to your benefit at the cost of a fate point), you can also compel aspects, which is having an aspect used against you which gives you a fate point. The best aspects, thus, should encompass both ways to be advantageous and disadvantageous. The honor-bound character points out how his honor is limiting his options here, gets a fate point. Again, tying the mechanical advantages to the character’s story.

    The aspects can also serve as world building on the part of the characters, since they introduce story elements. “Oh, there’s a mountain village named Ybellis somewhere, I’ll have to put that on the map.” They also act as not-so-subtle hints about ways for GMs to keep the story character focused. “There’s a mountain village named Ybellis, and it is very important to Bob’s character, because he put it as one of his aspects.”

    Like I said, I haven’t actually had a chance to use the system, I’m just fascinated by the way it tries to integrate story right into the game’s mechanics.

    There’s more. The character creation system encourages players to integrate their stories, so you can avoid, “You all meet in a Tavern when…” openings. Players can spend Fate points to introduce story elements, too. I could go on, but I don’t want to sound too much like a commercial.

    *Waits for sweet checks from Big RPG to start rolling in.*

  10. says

    Big RPG, heh. I like it.

    I feel like the last time I heard about this, I didn’t see what differentiated it from similar concepts in other systems, but I get it better this time. It’s fancy. Seems like it may take a bit of getting used to, but could be cool.

  11. lanir says

    @ridana: Sooner rather than later is definitely the way to go if you want them at all. Those media types aren’t intended to last this long. They may be junk already. I

    There are data recovery services that could access the files for you but I’d probably try a local computer repair shop first. Not a big name one, something local. You might have to talk to a few, zip drives are not going to be all that common but someone will remember they have a usb floppy drive gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.

  12. lanir says

    For RPG stuff and powerful NPCs, I know I’ve actually played characters that had attitudes before, even with people who were powerful. One in particular comes to mind from a vampire game. Something happened and my very blunt character walked up to the head vampire honcho of the city (a laissez-faire social manipulator) and asked him what he was doing to fix it. Told him it was his responsibility and after the GM recovered, he had the NPC delegate that responsibility to the PCs to handle. I think we negotiated a reward and then got busy tackling the problem. Didn’t derail anything. Although both that and the PC snarking off to my dictator are superficially similar, I tend to view them differently. I think you can get away with it when you’re working with the story and reacting to the NPCs as they present themselves.

    On another note, the worst example I’ve ever had to shoot down of a link between characters was when one player wanted to be an enigmatic sniper and told me his “meeting” another character was when he shot someone they were in close combat with from a rooftop a few blocks away. That was a FATE game actually.

    Overall, introducing RPG elements via mechanics is something FATE goes in for very heavily. Whether it will work for you or your group basically depends on how people use the Fate Points and Aspects. The designers intended there to be a sort of economy going on where PCs get challenged and rewarded along the way, then choose to spend their earned points via Aspects. There are other ways to use Aspects that don’t involve Fate Points but they take a little work. For example, if I were fighting some thug, I might try to maneuver to take advantage of the environment to trip him up rather than just attack as often as I can. That maneuvering is handled as setting up a one-shot Aspect that you can use later for free.

    If your players are very mechanics focused then they’ll struggle to use Fate Points and Aspects effectively, especially if they’re the type of player that tries to avoid ever facing negative consequences. Conversely, FATE is easy for theatre nerds and similar creative types that are new to tabletop RPGs. If you like the idea but don’t want a game that’s quite so centered around it then I’d probably recommend something that’s using the Cortex engine. It’s a bit easier to use for people familiar with traditional tabletop RPGs than FATE is.

  13. says

    lanir – Sounds like you’ve gotten to try more systems than the average nerd. Just finding out a wee bit about stuff you’ve mentioned led me on a heckuva wiki-ride.

  14. says

    lanir – And regarding your successful snark moment, one wonders what the best context in which to allow that is. Every time my players have had characters do it, they got some kinda brutal smackdown -or- i had to make an npc be unrealistically forgiving / treat it as a joke for the sake of keeping the story moving. But then, in recent years I’ve been running stuff more like V: tM where the power dynamic is like that.

    Games with more powerful / less explicitly subordinate characters might allow for more sass, reasonably speaking. In Vampire, the characters are brought into a strict hierarchy that enforces itself with violence and mind slavery (blood bonds) because it doesn’t have armies and police. In the average D&D game, the players are travelers who aren’t necessarily subjects to a given king, might be seen more like wild card to be careful with instead of a chihuahua that bites.

  15. lanir says

    I’ve dabbled in a lot of different games. I find it interesting to see how they all approach different tasks. I’ve even learned really useful things from a couple of games I never actually played or ran (Torg’s world ratings in various areas was really useful for multi-reality games and I learned about treating failure as an interesting consequence rather than a full stop just from reading a review of Mouseguard). Sorry, that will probably also prompt a wiki storm. 🙂

    I think the difference between snark that’s useful characterization and snark that’s not is what the PC does immediately afterward. Really the problem with snark is when it’s inappropriate to the scene. An in-scene smackdown is fine if the character reacts to that (and that makes the whole episode become appropriate). A lot of hard-nosed NPCs can use that sort of gaffe to enhance how terrifying they are, so they’ll go for that rather than immediate beheadings. That’s reasonable. But if the PC insists on trying to essentially challenge the powerful NPC to be king of the hill, then you have to shrug and ask the player how they want their PC to die, with a bang or a whimper. You can’t just stick yourself with ridiculous gymnastics to avoid the issue at that point. The GM is a player too so you have to make sure you’re having fun. You’re there to provide an interesting environment to play in, not dance while someone else yanks your strings. There needs to be some common ground even if you all get different things out of the game and prefer different playstyles. If there isn’t, you’re just not playing the same game and someone will be stuck with the very un-fun task of translating between the two games for people who are deliberately making that difficult.

  16. says

    Think I’ll leave mouseguard to yon furries.

    Common ground, that’s the thing I think is lacking when players treat characters as a vehicle for wish fulfillment or wanking rather than a part of a story. In my ideal, people would try to have enough sense of a scene to not have characters throwing their lives away.

    It’s easy to risk your character’s life for the sake of living out a power fantasy of being a tuff guy that takes no shit, because it isn’t real. I’d like these kinds of players to imagine that their character would like to live. Imagine what it would feel like to be in a dangerous scenario. How can you experience the excitement of an action or horror scenario if you don’t treat your character like someone who is more motivated to live than to show off their dick size?

    Of course I have players go the opposite route and play being too fearful. This is the challenge of the shared writing exercise – telepathy doesn’t exist and complete communication of every aspect of what I have in mind for a scene undercuts any surprises. RPGin’ ain’t easy.

  17. lanir says

    I think part of what makes these problems hard to address is that the GM will naturally try to give the players some leeway in how they address the problems presented in an RPG. Trying to accomodate the players and let them have a sense of agency can lead to giving them more rope to hang themselves with if there’s a misunderstanding. When a discussion about it finally happens this can cause it to be more polarized. I’ve had similar issues where settled down after a good discussion about what was going on and what everyone else needed to make the game fun for them.

    As long as you can meet in the middle you’re okay. It’s the discussion to get there that can be awkward.

    On a side note, I ended up discussing the issue I was having with my players. None of them could recall the comment that created the issue so I decided to retcon it and the reaction to it. I’m guessing what happened is one of my players was commenting how they’d like a game more like what they saw on the Critical Role youtube series. I watched some and decided the two elements involved were professional acting and immersion (less side talk). I think what happened was someone made a throw-away comment intended to be OOC and I reacted in character to it. Next time I run I’ll compare notes with them about this and see what they all really want. The person who commented about Critical Role does a lot of side talk so it’s entirely possible they like the idea of something they wouldn’t be happy actually doing.

  18. says

    lol that last comment. Players not knowing what they actually want. That’s a problem that touches back on the first part, about discussing what people want out of a game. Sometimes players act like they want their characters choices and actions to matter, like they want the agency to be the prime movers of the plot.

    But they’re really bad at it when given a chance. They don’t see what’s possible in an open world, don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re bad at having goals, planning and acting on them. What they really want is the illusion of control, of agency, within a plot-on-rails that has NPCs showing more deference to and interest in their goofball characters than is reasonable.

    Basically, what they’re used to from video games. No matter how inane or bizarre they act, the NPC says “well done, hero!” The plot is never damaged by random homicides or hours wasted on utter hijinks. Or maybe I’m being too harsh on them at the moment.

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