Posts Tagged ‘roleplaying games’

One Game to Rule Them All

Posted: September 12, 2015 in DM Tips, RPGs

There’s these people, I think, that believe that there is a platonic ideal game system, that is universal in nature, that can be applied to any type of story, in any setting, and excel. Let’s talk about that for a bit, shall we?

RPGs are mostly about fantasy.  My experience leads me to assume that at least half of RPG activity is in the fantasy milieu. Other genres, such as Sci-Fi, Modern Horror, anime, superheroes, spy/technothrillers, drama, historical realism, etc. are well represented. There are further subsets to these genres, but to keep it simple, let’s just list designed settings (where much of the world-building grunt work has been done by the writers of the RPG) and open settings (where very little world-building is included).

A system is the ruleset, that is mostly there to resolve conflict. Does your arrow hit the orc baby? Roll a d20, and if you roll a 4 or higher, you hit. Does the Psi Cop convince you to let him leave Babylon 5 without further incident? Roll a dice and add your resistance bonus, the Psi Cop will roll a dice and add his skill bonus, and if you roll higher than the Psi Cop, then you overcome his telepathic manipulation. The system tells you how to make characters, how to use skills, how to achieve effects and what effects are possible.

Most RPGs marry a setting to some sort of unique system. Traveller is both a system and a setting. Vampire: The Masquerade was originally both a system and a setting. Now, with V:TM, the system used in the game was separated out and is called the Storyteller system, and has been reused in various other games that either share the same setting (the World of Darkness modern horror setting) as V:TMas (such as Mage: The Ascension, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Changeling: The Dreaming, Wraith: The Oblivion) or an entirely new setting, such as Exalted which is more like a fantasy anime. Here we see the versatility of a system originally designed for a single setting to be applied successfully to different settings.

Other RPGs took a different approach, and set out to design a Universal system. GURPS, which stands for Generic Universal Role-Playing System, was designed in 1986 and has certainly had success in being Universal. Here is a list of GURPS books, and you can see from the diversity that many many types of games can be easily played using the GURPS setting.

A more modern game, Savage Worlds (2003), attempted to do the same thing as GURPS, but with a more rules light approach. Again, a list of Savage Worlds books shows the breadth of gameplay that has been published with the single, core system.

Finally, FATE Core and FATE Accelerated should be mentioned side by side with Savage Worlds, but with an entirely different approach to system design. Your character is defined by aspects (free form descriptors) and approaches (one of 6 ways problems can be approached – forceful, brash, clever, etc.). If you attempt something, you really just need to sell to the troupe whether an aspect applies, choose an approach to the situation and then roll. A Star Wars character might have the aspect of “rogue Jedi Knight”, a James Bond game PC might have “double 0 rated British spy”, and a medieval knight might have “mounted knight in the service of King Hegabold”. The simplicity and utter genericism of such an approach is truly universal.

A universal system has a huge advantage over other games. You can play entirely different games without the need to spend any time learning a new system. Maybe for a year, your gaming troupe explores wild west horror, but then you collectively decide that you want to explore play in the Star Wars universe. Later, you all get excited about the Avengers movie and want to roleplay superheroes. Next, you get the idea that you should explore deep characterization in a setting very like Gone With the Wind. Without a universal system, that’s four games that you would have to learn, each with their own intricacies and flaws. House-rules might have to be applied, sometimes retroactively, to match the game systems to the needs of your troupe.

With each game, there are idiosyncrasies that sometimes don’t match your game style. For instance, maybe healing is too slow or too rare in the RAW (rules as written) for your high adventure, high pace game. With a universal system, once you’re familiar with the system, you can apply it to another game setting, and you will probably know enough about the system to apply a skin or set of customizations to the system to match your goals and theme of your new setting.

To be fair, there are gaming groups that do this, and only play one game system. Like, ever. I know, right?

All roleplaying game systems can be applied to any other unintended setting. If you have a copy of Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition, but you want to play Star Trek: The Next Generation, then all you need to do is reskin everything. The Fighter class becomes the Security Tech class, elves become vulcans, a crossbow becomes a phaser, spells are discarded or repurposed as tech -> Teleport becomes the transporter. That’s a lot of work, but the harder part, which is designing a system where you understand how to balance obstacles and conflicts for the characters, has been done and you know how it works.

Some people love to repurpose games. D&D 5e, a recent darling of the RPG community, has been converted to countless systems as people take what they love about the 5e, and attempt to reproduce it in another setting to tell different stories without having to buy a new game system that they may not love as much. That’s awesome, and that DIY attitude is fundamental to all geekdom. You see it in cosplay, in home decorations, in historical reenactments, and in medieval faires.

The core argument that I will make, however, is that there isn’t One Game System to Rule Them All. The ‘media is the message’ rings true here for me, so let me attempt to explain my thoughts.

A superhero game is action heavy, and the game system needs to encourage the characters to attempt outrageously heroic endeavours with an appropriate change of success. A modern day horror game, however, needs the characters to be vulnerable. You could use the same system to roleplay both stories, but if the system is action heavy, the players are going to feel the urge to use some of those action possibilities in the game. It may be limited to the narrative, it may expand to character choices during character creation. If they’re sufficiently afraid of failure, they may attempt to steer their character design to maximize survivability. Similarly, if the setting is action forward but the game system is action unfriendly, say where a sense of realism is layered on the game, then the narrative and character choices are going to be mired down by action economies not intended for the high-flying caricatures of a superhero story.

The theme and mood of a story are exemplified in the system. The system informs the expectations for the characters, the realm of possible actions that can be achieved, and the relative chances of success. While experience with a system allows a player to better design the character they want to play, it doesn’t necessarily engender the mood of gameplay desired. Let’s be clear… good roleplayers can make Hamlet given greed eggs and ham, but it takes a viking child to raze a village. I get that, and even acknowledge that. But if you give those same good roleplayers a better set of tools, wouldn’t their game experience be even more on point?

On point… I think that is a ballet reference. You know, where the cyborgs are genetically engineered for perfect thigh gap and can stand on one toe? But the ballet is a good analogy. Consider Swan Lake but with Britney Spears music. Could be good, there are some decent Hollywood musicators out there that would make it work, but probably harder to mimic the intended mood of the without the original orchestral score.

As we have reached the point of the posting where my analogies are spinning out of control, lets change the channel to a new day and see you on the flip side. Variety is the spice of Arakis.

Day 12 – Favourite Dungeon Type/Location

I prefer organic locations, by which I mean, locations that have a purpose. The idea of a dungeon created as some sort of open maze with various creatures trapped behind unlocked doors serves a metaphor for player agency, and so is the heart of the boardgame element of D&D. But the other side, which is the story, is not served by randomness. Who built this thing, and why? What purpose did it serve, and what events lead it from its original function to its current state? How did the inhabitants come to their current status quo, and are they in tension with their neighbours? How do they feed, reproduce, treat their old?

It’s easier to imagine a community originally built as such that has evolved into its current state. The dungeon is thus ruins, which have been re-purposed for some nefarious ends, or overrun by its fell denizens. I like dungeons that make sense from a “hidden history” perspective, rather than a simple set of obstacles to confront the players with.

Day 13 – Favourite Trap/Puzzle

Traps and puzzles are also metaphors in D&D. They are immediate problems that can be solved by thinking it through, unlike most problems that people have. It is true, however, that sometimes our problems are simply about arranging your priorities in order to maximize the utility of your actions – if I take centre street north, then I can cross over on 6th avenue and then come back south on fourth and get to make a right turn into the alley, rather than a left turn across busy traffic. But many problems have no solution – you can’t out-think a recent health diagnosis, or solve all of your interpersonal conflicts. We spend sleepless nights agonizing through our problems, trying to find a solution. It would be great if we simply overcome all of our obstacles by the direct and safe application of thought.

So I like puzzles where you turn statues and then something unlocks.

Day 14 – Favourite NPC

My first immediately was be Xëff (pronounced Jeff), a half-orc, dual battleaxe wielding cohort to a PC (through the Leadership feat), from a highly successful, long-lasting D&D 3.5 campaign where the party were all evil. The PC was Warlady Zana Skullcrusher (a Favoured Soul), and Xëff always referred to her as Warlady. I gave him a very deep, gravelly voice with tons of timbre, much like the Uruk’hai from the LotR movies. “Yes, Warlady.” Xëff didn’t have a very high intelligence, and I put all of his 1 skill rank each level into Craft (Pies). Whenever the party would camp, he would serve them some of his delicious pies so that they always ate well. His signature move was to half-crouch with battleaxes held high on each side, while looking suspiciously from side-to-side. This move would be employed in the most inappropriate times, and basically just signaled that he was unhappy and wanted to murder someone. Both the players and I always enjoyed it when Xëff would be in the scene, and he added a lot of flavour to the campaign. I include Xëff has an NPC because the player wanted me as the GM to play him, rather than have her manage that.

Day 15 – Favourite Monster (Undead)

How do you not say Dracolich? The cornerstone of many stories set in the Forgotten Realms are those rascals from the Cult of the Dragon. The Dracolich, a dragon that has turned lich, is an amazing, powerful villain. So powerful, that the Cult has emerged because the hipster fanboys of the FR want to be in on the ground floor of each awakening of a new Dracolich.

Day 16 – Favourite Monster (Aberration)

Flumph! haha… maybe facing your players with a flumph is the D&D equivalent of rick-rolling them. SRSLY.

There are three aberrations that really stand out to me: beholders, mind flayers / illithids, and aboleths. Like the Dracolich, these creatures all can serve as capstone bosses of a campaign. They’re hyper-intelligent, massively powerful, and have well-developed cultures. They also have long histories of realm domination. Beholders have a bewildering array of attacks, mind flayers are masters of strange psionics, as are aboleths.

I need to use more aboleths, but until I do, Illithids are my fav.

Day 17 – Favourite Monster (Animal/Vermin)

Badgers. Say it with me, badger badger badger badger. In 3.5, they had an amazing array of multi-attacks, and enough badass rep to claw their way through their enemies corpses.

Day 18 – Favourite Monster (Immortal/Outsider)

Outsiders are a key aspect of my games. I tend to bring them in because they give me perspective on the system. For most creatures, I try to understand their role in the world, and how they interact with their neighbours and environment. An outsider, however, is an alien to the world, and has no established framework, no established ties or preset reactions to the world. In that way, they are the epitome of disruptions to the system and such are my default point of tension in most games. Things were going fine until this unknown element mucked things up and now the world is trying to reorient itself.

My favourite outsider that serves this purpose is the Rakshasa. Humanoid, shapeshifters, infiltrators, slavers, with a non-European flavour… they serve many of my needs for a visitor from outside the system.

Day 19 – Favourite Monster (Elemental/Plant)

I’ve discussed Shambling Mounds in a prior post, but my favourite plant monsters are Treants. Big, giant, ambulant trees with attitude. I recall treants being super creepy in prior editions, but in 3e they seemed much less interesting. I’m not sure why, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them since I stopped playing 2e. I just looked up the stat blocks in the Monster Manuals for AD&D and for 3.0, and they seem similar. The art in 3.0 looks less threatening than the art in AD&D. It’s probably a case of head canon, where when I was young, someone ran a particularly threatening encounter with Treants and I’ve always seen them as gargantuan and terrible, rather as semi-frightened twigs. I’m going to make a point of using a Treant in a game in the near future, and do them justice. Their branches will drip with flavour text!

Day 20 – Favourite Monster (Humanoid/Natural/Fey)

Gnolls. These dudes are ripe with attitude and animal-like musk. With those savage teeth and evil dispositions, a gnoll seems entirely capable of reveling in depravity. Enslaving, raping, killing, and eating their prey. They’re nasty and brutish, and not nearly as friendly as their PG-13 cousins, orcs and goblins. I see gnolls as a slavering horde of chaotic rampagers and pillagers. They’re energetic and violent and don’t at all seem like they should be anyone’s favourite anything. But we are talking favourite monsters here, and a gnoll is definitely that.

Of all the humanoid monster races, gnolls are the least likely for me to mess with and create complex civilizations. Orcs are typically seen as fallen elves, tortured by malevolent intelligence into a mockery of their origins. Goblins are sometimes given a zany, mad bomber what bombs at midnight kinda feel. Hobgoblins seem like they need to be samurai. But gnolls, gnolls are just fine being what they are, nearly animal engines of destruction, and the only trappings they have of civilization are from civilizations that they’ve pillaged.

D&D Thirty-Day Challenge

Posted: June 2, 2015 in RPGs

Random challenge found on Twitter.  I’ll start the first two days here (to match the daily challenges to the days of the month of June), and edit the post later with answers on successive days:

Day 1 – How you got started

I was introduced to D&D by a friend’s older brother, when we were in grade 4 or 5, circa 1981. We quickly went and bought our own books: Red Box ‘Basic’ D&D, and Blue Box ‘Expert’ D&D, while the older kids migrated to AD&D. We took turns being dungeonmasters, and in those days, it was almost entirely dungeon crawls with maps we drew ourselves. There were a few TSR modules played, as well, such as the Isle of Dread. D&D also lead to trying Star Frontiers, Gamma World, and Top Secret, but mostly we played D&D.

Day 2 – Favourite PC Race

I’ve always loved elves more than others non-human races. They felt oodles more heroic and ripe with fantasy than the other races. Over time, I realized that I didn’t really like how elves were treated in D&D, however, being so slow to learn stuff (starting characters are typically 80-100 years old). I used to joke that they should get a 90% reduction in experience points to reflect their flighty and dim-witted nature, which was really a joke at the systems expense rather than at elves. Once I had that in my head, I ceased playing elves entirely, and preferred half-elves or humans.

Day 3 – Favourite Playable Class

Spoiler alert: it’s paladin. It used to be wizard, because I’m a smart guy and tend to like using smarts to solve problems and wizards are smart so if I’m a wizard I gets to use the smarts. I grew out of that, though. I’m mostly drawn to roleplaying opportunities, and nothing beats the built out of the box motivation of a paladin. Sure a fighter is cool and does cool stuff, and rogues are awesome, and everything is awesome. But with these other classes, you need to mess around with complex backstories and who did what and why and the feelings and, come one, LeT’s Go MetE OuT SoMe JuStIce! For Kitteh! I try not to play paladins all the time, because I like variety. Or I’m a pleasure delayer.

Day 4 – Favourite Game World

Limiting my choices to published worlds so that might be accessible to you, dear reader, I would pick Forgotten Realms. I prefer my fantasy served with high magic, and FR delivers that. There are plenty of nations with many different cultures and structures in place, to accommodate different styles. Caveat: I have not played Ravenloft or Dark Sun, and had only a single session play with Spelljammer, all of which intrigue me.

Day 5 – Favourite set of dice/individual dice

I purchased a set of Blue Sandstone real gem dice from a kickstarter from Metallic Dice Games. They’re heavy and amazing, with a phenomenal sparkling effect.

Day 6 – Favourite Diety

I would have to go with Vecna or Tyr. Two very different gods, the first a villain from Greyhawk, the second a champion for Forgotten Realms, they both are very godly and feel that they really personify their ideals.

Day 7 – Favourite Edition

My favourite edition is 3.5, in which I include Pathfinder. The ability for strange and unpredictable customization is key, and added much wanted game complexity to the system, partially with feats, but mostly with the concept of Prestige Classes. Many other editions limited your choices is very odd ways (remember when only demi-humans could multi-class?) in order to strive for some semblance of game balance.

Day 8 – Favourite character that I have played

I would say Rirpha, a chaotic evil tabit barbarian. Tabits are descended from halflings and cat folk. I played Rirpha as a super cute, fuzzy childlike creature, who occasionally would rage and eat faces. The cute factor was a disguise and a trap. The character build was a hot mess of poor choices for feats and prestige classes (reflecting his chaotic nature) but was super fun to roleplay. Memorably, he took the Bear Warrior prestige class early on which gave some limited shapechanging ability, and would go to taverns and yell “Who wants to punch a bear!?”

Day 9 – Favourite character I haven’t played.

In experimenting with D&D 5e, I rolled up a human paladin. I used the variant human that started with a Feat, took Magic Initiate. Magic Initiate gives the character magical training in another spellcasting class (two cantrips, and one 1st level spell per long rest). I gave him warlock spells. The idea of a paladin with warlock training seemed to beg a long complicated backstory, rife with the potential for love, loss and recurring antagonists. Perhaps, the paladin has turned away from the dark pact, but every time he uses a warlock power, he regains the attention of his one time patron.

Day 10 – Craziest thing that has happened that you saw

Many years ago, we were playing through some WotC pregen adventures (Sunless Citadel, …, Bastion of Broken Souls). Each of us took turns DMing one adventure (with their own PC not participating, but still leveling up with the others). I don’t recall which adventure it was, but it was of a higher level, and we were being attacked by a teleporting drider assassin who would one-shot my Mystic Theurge and then book. We came up with a plan. I cast Anticipate Teleport and we waited. When he teleported to us the next time, his ‘port was delayed one round, and we knew exactly where he would arrive. The Elementalist Wizard cast Transmute Rock to Lava on the street and I cast a spell called Chains or something when he arrived. The Elementalist was specialized in electricity magic, so his Transmute Rock to Lava became Transmute Rock to Lightning, and I Chained the Drider in place so that he was unable to move or teleport away. Then we just stood back, waited for him to die, and tried to imagine what this lightning-transmuted ground would look like, haha.

Day 11 – Favourite adventure I have ran

Keeping this limited to published adventures, I think that my favourite was Heart of Nightfang Spire. Part of the pregens that I mentioned in Day 10, in this one, we had the Elementalist Wizard and my wife was playing a Shifter Druid. She could wild shape into a plant, and chose the Shambling Mound. We had also allowed her to take a Feat that allowed her one Supernatural ability from a wild shaped form. Now, when a Shambling Mound is exposed to electricity damage, it gains 1d4 Constitution. So the Elementalist Wizard would cast Wall of Lightning (Fire) and the Shamblng Mound would bathe in its glow for, like an hour. Her Con would be in the hundreds, with hitpoints over a thousand. Then the Shambling Mound would go open all the doors and chests and clear all the traps. She would return to the rest of the party, who had been playing cards, and report an all clear. There would be darts stuck in her, and smoke emanating from burnt parts, it was so viscerally funny. Then they would go through and see where the fireball trap had gone off, the busted chest she beat through, etc.

The Social Contract

Posted: May 31, 2015 in DM Tips, RPGs

This post is about a social convention of which we do not speak. I will adopt a name that I’ve heard it used for it, “The Social Contract”.

The purpose of The Social Contract is to establish the parameters in which we will play a game. In many games, the unspoken first rule is that: Unless otherwise agreed, we will follow the rules as written. For example, the game Monopoly includes rules for bank loans. Some players hate bank loans and so they specify a “home-brew” rule that there shall be no bank loans. So The Social Contract is thus evolved to “We’ll play Monopoly in accordance with the rules as written except no bank loans.”

Your cousin Vitaly from Minsk comes to visit, and you decide to play Monopoly because your family is lame, er, because it’s a tradition. You all sit down and shuffle the things and place the things and pick your doo-dads and play. Eventually, Vitaly tells you, in broken english made harder to understand from a slight cleft lip, that “He would likingk the $200 loan from bankk so can be buyingk Marvin Gardinsk.” Agast at this betrayal of the social trust, your family begin crying and tearing at their hair, wailing a how such a terrible thing injustice could have fallen upon your house. This drama could have been avoided by simply explaining to poor, innocent Vitaly, the The Social Contract.

In a more complex and interesting game, and here I’m inevitably talking about role-playing games (RPGs), The Social Contract also serves as a codification of home-brew rules, but it also provides what is expected of the players and the gamemaster.


Some examples of home-brew rules are that: healing potions in D&D always provide a fixed, average heal, i.e., instead of the player rolling 1d8+1, drinking a Cure Light Wounds potion instead always restores exactly 5. This is contrary to the rules as written (RAW), but in some games people have decided that it provides a convenience to not have to roll, and perhaps to know in advance what the effect will be before dedicating an in-combat action to use it.

Home-brew rules also first occur first during character creation. A game-master may say something as simple as “level 1 characters from any character build from any published books” or “official books only” or “everybody will play Neutral Good gnome bards”. There is no RAW preventing a player from choosing any character type published on the internet, or equipping said character with the best gear that internetters have invented. There should be an understanding, though, usually written in RPG books that “gamemasters have the final say in anything” including which rules will be used and which won’t. The reason for this overarching meta-rule is brutally clear: the gamemaster doesn’t have to run the game, and if the game turns into something that the GM isn’t interested in participating in, then xe won’t.

The important part here are the expectations: if the gamemaster naively or brashly says anything goes, then xe must be prepared for weird stuff, and if after being presented with 4 entirely incompatible character builds the GM grows uncomfortable, then a problem has arisen and the game may be doomed. While expectations were vocalized, there were other unspoken or implied expectations, as well. One of these might be that the party should have worked together to create characters that are compatible with the GM’s vision for the game. “I know that I said anything goes, but there are no Jedi in Call of Cthulhu.”

So it’s important for the GM, and the players (see below) to hammer this stuff out in the beginning. A common shortcut is to say “anything from the official game material is fine, but if you see an optional rule or something in some other source material somewhere, then discuss it with me and I may allow it. Also, if I decide to alter a RAW, then I will tell you in advance, or we can discuss altering your character mid-game, as necessary.”


Another big part of The Social Contract are the expectations about gameplay itself. Here are some sample expectations:

  • The GM and players should arrive at the gameplay location between 7:45 and 8:00 pm on Saturday night. Barring emergencies, everybody is expected to confirm by email that they will be there by no later than the Wednesday before.
  • Between 8:00 pm and 8:30 pm, conversation and friendly chatter is expected, but we’ll also be setting up the game area.
  • At 8:30 pm, we’ll start gaming. At this point, no out-of-game anecdotes are allowed. Late players will be left out of gameplay until the GM deems that it is feasible to introduce them into a scene.
  • We will game until 12:00 pm only, because Vitaly has to work Sunday morning in salt mine.
  • Snacks are not expected to be shared, so only bring what you want to eat or drink, and don’t mooch.

These sample rules are designed to set social parameters for the group. In some groups, these rules are less necessary, but there are always people that play fast-and-loose with schedules, and while waiting for them, the others just sit around waiting until it is agreed to do something else. If the late/absent player is in a key party role or has a pivotal scene to move the story forward, and no one knows when they will arrive or if at all, then some or a lot of the players’ and the GM’s time will be wasted. This is a real world problem that can, and has, destroyed games.

Another, largely undocumented part of The Social Contract is the expectations for the type of game. There are games that I have run that I have pitched with something as vague as “I have a great idea for a D&D campaign; everyone will start at first level”. Those games may or may not work out. A better idea is to say “I have a great idea for a Star Wars campaign; everyone will start at first level, and will know each other to start as crew members on a smuggling freighter. The theme of the campaign will be mostly pro-rebellion, but as you will also spend a lot of time in Imperial Space, you will need to be able to blend in somewhat. I want the PCs to work towards something heroic that assists the rebellion in the background of what made it to the official movies. Also, consult each other with your concepts and goals – I want the characters to be motivated to work together and the onus is on you lot to make that happen.” A pitch like this tells the players what you’re expecting of them, namely that they should all make characters that know and accept each other, and can operate a spacecraft. They may take it upon themselves to pick and choose various roles so that there are no obvious problems (like no pilot). Also, they should suspect that a Jedi is probably off-limits. Ideally, the players should be free to suggest modifications to your pitch, such as adjusting the starting point, or the theme. Perhaps the players all decide that they really want to play Imperial spies, or be traders on fringe space well away from any “Imperial entanglements”.

At this point, The Social Contract begins to take its true purpose, which is steering the game. Once the theme and pitch for the game have been agreed upon, then the GM can gently steer the ongoing action to the expected objectives, and may be less compelled to direct play along an entirely different narrative. Equally importantly, the players know what the game is meant to be, and will be less likely to all decide to go off mission and sack Bespin.


You don’t need to write out The Social Contract in excruciating detail. The big items should be discussed, and maybe an email follow-up of what was agreed can be sent out. The main purpose is to get buy-in from all of the people involved in the game prior to game start. If the schedule is too rigid for a shift-worker to commit too, then maybe they’ll agree to playing a less prominent, supporting role as they might not make it to every session. If the players make characters with goals incompatible to the agreed upon pitch, then you and they will know in advance, instead of finding out 3 sessions into the game. If a player really wants to try an unofficial character design, or use an optional rule, then you can work with them to ensure that it is appropriate.

Finding out mid-commitment that there are serious, unwritten expectations, rarely turns out well, in game or in life.

Sometimes when running a game, the game-master (GM) wants to advance the story’s timeline.  But, game-wise, what should be considered when you do this?


The main reason for doing anything in a RPG is because it seems like a good idea at the time.  Other good reasons for inserting an interlude into a campaign include the following:

  • Closure – by definitively inserting a lengthy passage of time into a story, you provide closure to the events of the first period, and provide a beginning to a new story.  This story signal lets participants now that the dangling plot threads are ‘as undangly as they gonna get’ and that the opportunity for pursuing them further was missed.  This allows the player characters (PCs) to refocus on what matters in the moment, rather than doggedly chase after every villain or rumour in their big book of adventures.
  • Realism – realism is something that Immersionist type players cherish, and it sometimes feels more natural in a story for adventure opportunities to arise sporadically, rather than two new ones popping up when one is cut off like some sort of cosmic narrative hydra.  The time between chapters then becomes part of the flavour of the immersion.
  • Expedience – the next cool bit that the GM has planned may take in-world-time to bring to fruition.  Perhaps Sarumon needs time to breed an orc army, or the villains need time to construct their new super fortress, or maybe you’re playing in London 1892 and you want to ‘skip ahead’ to 1897 when the big guy comes to town (oops, spoilers!).
  • Gestalt/montage – sometimes, when trapped in a series of repeating circumstances, it is better storytelling to simply allude to the repetition, showing typical outcomes and highlighting only that which is important.  In the movie Soldier with Kurt Russell, after the initial training, the soldier’s unit is montaged through a large number of battles, in various places on Earth and later in space.  The montage shows that there are continuing conflicts, but from the stories perspective, you’re also showing the acquisition of experience without being pedantic about each and every lesson learned or skill improved.

Game Considerations

In some games, like D&D, there may not be a mechanic for advancing characters outside of combat. But unless the PCs are cardboard cutout parodies of characters, then they probably have life goals.  They have families, careers, hobbies, that is, interests outside of spelunking and slaughtering.  Wizards may want time to research, bards time to travel and perform, and in general, maybe a PC gets married and has children, or opens a business.

However, if we’re being Immersionist, then we want some sort of sign that the 4 years a PC spent tailoring in their shop has somehow made them a better tailor.  Or, if they’re even less cardboard cutout parody action figures, then maybe they’re advancing more than a single life skill.  Does the PC as a spellcaster learn new spells, as the newlywed become more compassionate, as the sneak become more sneaky, learn more ‘local knowledge’, become more diplomatic, et cetera.

Do the characters level up?  In simple RPGs, this is often the one lever that is provided in game for advancing PCs.  You award them experience points and they spend that experience on random combat skills possibly entirely unrelated to their lives within the interlude.  In other RPGs, you can award skill points specifically related to those skills most appropriate without triggering a cavalcade of secondary consequences.

Anything Else?

An interlude can also be a story summarized.  Allusions or Coles Notes versions of events can be given, but important things can be delivered as well.  Here are my draft notes for the last interlude from my Victorian Age Vampire game.  My actual notes are longer, and contain additional details to help the PCs advance their own personal timelines, which I will omit here.  Where last we left the characters, two of them had engineered a train crash, while the other found a cabal of evil werewolves in the tunnels under London.

On a particular Sunday night, a train derailed.  Toxic chemicals spread everywhere, and a great fire ensued, destroying several chemical plants.  The wreckage lay where it fell and nobody would enter it.  The area was rendered inhospitable for some time, and no cleanup was attempted.  The area became a haven for decrepitude, until one shocking night of violence when the rats nest was cleaned out.  The damage was severe, the infestation greater than imagined, and many neonite kindred fell, as well as several powerful kindred were destroyed, including the newly appointed Scourge and the Sheriff of London.  A special crew was brought in from Vienna, and while they dealt with the matter, who knows what concessions to the Camarilla the Prince had to make for such rare expertise.

After repelling several Sabbat invasions and destroying a number of packs, the kindred of London believed the war to be over.  Many on the street wondered what was the purpose, with only a few elders dead, and no headlines in the papers, other than a few mentions of increased violence in the streets.  But the damage was more severe than could be easily realized.

The dead elders were almost entirely Ventrue, except for one Toreador.  The Tremere primogen disappeared when his haven burned down, but no body was found.  With the loss of several of the prime movers in London, a power vacuum opened, drawing in the ambitious to the unprotected core.  A nightmarish display of brutality by the Prince on a particularly egregious grab for power only forced them to become more subtle, and clever.

The independent kindred who had made London their home these past decades eventually returned.  Some had disappeared in those nights, and rumors abound of secret hit-squads that took some of them for loyalty testing, never to be seen again.  The bowels of Bedlam were searched once again, to no avail.  Of those independents that returned, could they ever trust the court of Mithras again, and vice versa, could they ever be trusted by the court again.

Underneath the city, something grew.  Perhaps it fed on the violence and destruction above, or perhaps it was the cause of it all.  The kindred who had previously enjoyed refuge in the Aethenium beneath London slowly began to disappear or otherwise abandon the tunnels.  Stories of hungry darkness and fell spirits abound, and soon the tunnels were emptied of all those who had kept watch.  They say that the Goblin Market still periodically occurs in the Aethenium, but who could possibly know.

I’ve spoken previously about mashing up RPGs, and playing different systems simultaneously at the table.  I continue to think that this would be doable.

However, a more typical mashup involves smooshing two or more fandoms into one (hopefully) glorious tub of squishy fun. For example, you might play Shadowrun but the game will be “Let’s combine Doctor Who with Django Unchained”.  After some appropriate head scratching, your troupe shouts ‘Hooray, our dreams finally come true!”  \o/

How does this work?

Why do people ask me these questions, do I look like I have answers? I guess that through immersion the imagination simulates proximity to celebrities which excites the hypocampus, resulting in a brief, repeatable flood of… Sorry?  Oh, the RPG side of it.

So how it works is that you need to decide how the game will progress.  There are some options.

1) Put characters from fandom A into story and plot of fandom B. That is, your players are the four iconic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they are confronted with the story and NPCs (non-player characters) from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

2) Put characters from fandom A into the story and plot in the style of fandom B.  That is, your players are the girls from Little Women, but they are playing in a WW2 epic inspired by, but different from, Saving Private Ryan.

3) Put characters inspired from fandom A into the story and plot in the style of fandom B.  That is, you might have the players play part of a wild west space gang inspired by Firefly, but they are playing in a story similar to, but not the same as, Moulin Rouge.  Wait, maybe that was an actual episode of Firefly.

4) For completeness, let’s add “Put characters inspired from fandom A into the story and plot of fandom B.”  That is, maybe you have a trio inspired by the core of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and your going to set them in the story Alien Resurrection, maybe as a different band of mercenaries that land on the xenomorph research vessel.

No really, How Does It Work

The trick is that the players get a free pass to imitate beloved fictional characters, or even real life people for that matter, while paying tribute to another intellectual property. The game “What If” was even the basis of a comic series, where the artists and storyers were given license to mashup, such as “What If… The Punisher went to Riverdale?” (I have that comic, btw… pure figurative gold).

The hard part might be picking the RPG ruleset to use.  If the player characters have specific abilities, then the system should have an accessible way of arbitrating the use of those abilities, like gun rules if there are going to be guns, or starship combat rules if there is going to be space combat.

This isn’t necessary, however.  Most systems are expandable if you’re okay with thinking it through.  For example, my wife is a fan of the Eddings fantasy series The Belgariad, and decided that she would like to run an RPG in that world.  [While this isn’t strictly speaking a mashup, it serves for the example.]  It might seem straightforward to use one of the many D&D systems that we’ve played, or maybe the Dragon Age RPG rules.  Instead, she chose the (classic) World of Darkness, and this makes sense.  Why?  The game has a straightforward game mechanic – combine an attribute and a skill and you get a dice pool which you roll against a target difficulty – that is easy to use on the fly, without having to look up specific mechanics in a tome of arcane rules.  Second, the game is made for superpowers (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, faeries, mages, etc) but also for playing normal people as well, so you can easily mix in some special abilities, like Barak’s bear rage, or Ce’Nedra’s nymphness.  Third, the Merits & Flaws system gives you the ability to customize the players with some of Eddings races unique abilities – maybe Drasnians get a bonus die to social roles, etc.

Once you have chosen a ruleset, and the players have chosen characters, then you need to flesh out a story that achieves the desired mashup.  Think hard about what it is about the fandom that evokes the story, and lean hard on that.  Really hard.  For example, maybe the TV show Supernatural for you is really about the angst (dramatic poles shifting from familial love and outright distrust) between the main characters, and if so, then you really need to ensure that that emotional diametric is prevalent in the story.

That’s really it.  Don’t be afraid to be unsubtle; players (and GMs) love it when they recognize elements in a mashup, so feed it to them with a shovel.

Imagine playing an RPG. Okay, now imagine that you have four players. RIght, now each of those players has a character sheet FROM A DIFFERENT GAME!! OMG, right?

Total insanity! Why would you do that? What would be the point?

I don’t know, but in some ways it seems to me that it would be pretty cool. Let’s walk through the process.

Caution: rules lawyers best leave now

First, let’s be naysayers.  “Boo, hiss, harumph… we tried that back during the winter of ’77 and our gaming group completely disbanded afterwards. Also, there was a nuclear accident.”

Those are excellent points, and in summary:

  • WTF
  • how would… how can… but the… acckkk

or more simply put: how would you arbitrate anything?

Your four players, each with a different character built from completely incompatible game systems, (like maybe Star Wars:Edge of the Empire, FATE Core, Call of Cthulhu, and Warhammer FRP), are facing a 5th generation Assamite from Vampire: The Dark Ages. Got it? Not. at. all. compatible. They don’t even use the same dice.

Except, isn’t everything compatible? We’re imagining stuff, aren’t we? We have these amazing squishy brains and they can process stuff, and make shit up, and generally fill in blanks.

That is, we can do math. We can render all kinds of advanced differential equations intuitively (try catching a Frisbee when it’s windy – that math is brutal), and generally just ‘get’ when things are fair.

Let’s assume the difficulty scale is that the player needs to “roll marginally“, “roll well” or “roll awesome“. Well, if you’re familiar with a game system, you know what all of those mean in relation to the character.  

I’ve just broken down every mechanic of every system: the player needs to roll dice, or draw cards, or rock/paper/scissors/lizard/spock against a target or opposed application of the mechanic. If the roll exceeds the target, it’s a success, if not, then it’s a failure.


Any questions?

Oh yeah, hit points.  Hit points are stupid, go sit in the corner.  No really, they don’t make biological sense.  So ‘gestalt’ them.  DMs do it in most games anyway, and say things like “I don’t track hit points, the monster goes down when it seems right that it should do so.” So why not track it as 6 marginal hits or 3 awesome hits, or something.  Bam!

Initiative/turn order? I don’t know, draw cards or something, or look up Popcorn Initiative. There are some truly cool alternate ways of tracking turn order other than “fast things usually act before slow things.”

When in doubt, have the other players vote.  “Ask, what happens?”  Players know what’s fair, let them share some of the fun.

Okay, so I have satisfied every possible question about how to arbitrate random rules in a mashup insanity game.  Let’s move on to why the fiddlesticks would you do this?

Rule #1: If you’re not doing something fun in your RPG, then maybe you should be doing something else.

  1. Wouldn’t it be cool once?
  2. It seems like an amazing way to really get to know how systems work
  3. It seems like an amazing way to really get to know what you like about roleplaying
  4. It would all be story driven, with chaotic, unpredictable interactions

I’ve spoken before about RPG Game Theory, and one thing that people like, is mastering rules and applying them to success.  This insanity random mashup?  Not going to satisfy that gamist craving.  But, for a short game or story game arc? Rules are merely there to focus the possibilities of play – we don’t always need that.  Sometimes, it’s fun just to play WHAT IF…