State of play

Dungeon World cover

Dungeon World cover. It looks like what I felt like as a kid playing D&D!

I was asked to write about where roleplaying is, locally, as I see it, in Finland right now. This came at an opportune time as I’ve thought hard about it recently. The objective of the exercise is to really get an idea of the state of Finnish roleplaying by asking bloggers for their perspectives. I don’t have any delusions of being a major component of that, but without any documented practice surely it’s impossible to form any sort of image. If enough people do the same, we actually can form an image.

Any honest – or rather, real – image of roleplaying as a practice or culture must be about the games we play. We can talk a great deal and I’m sure there are a couple of forums with people doing just that, but in the end it does come down to how we actually get on at the table. I can talk about that.

I’ve gone through a number of crises with my roleplaying. I have always been a gamemaster and always a system jumper; I’m leap frogging from game to game, chasing the elusive ultimate experience. Before Dungeons & Dragons, fourth edition (4E), came along, I felt lost. I was just not enjoying my old games like I used to. 4E re-ignited my love for the original game – Red Box D&D was my first love – and indeed it was the rather sketchy but adorable repackaging of the Red Box that got me in all over again. I stumbled on it waiting for a Gameboy concert to start in a comic book shop in Los Angeles. I then played in a 4E campaign and loved the mechanics of it, culminating in getting the then new 4E Essentials products and starting my own game in 2011. I vividly recall the planning sessions and the anxiety of starting a new game. We played that game for coming up on three years over something in the region of forty sessions and more than a dozen players. That campaign folded in a planned fashion in March 2014. We set out to cover levels one through ten, and we did just that.

My regular group was seven players, and most of the time we had the full seven players at the table. We painted miniatures and I pulled out all the classic D&D tricks from rust monsters to dragons. For much of the three years, it was glorious. Only towards the end, perhaps from level eight onwards, the mechanics just broke down, and with seven players and D&D 4E, the mechanics was almost the whole of the game. I didn’t enjoy the last couple of levels.

Around 2010, I think, myself and most of my roleplaying friends played in a mega campaign with some fifty-odd players, covering a hundred games. It was called Century, and I believe it changed most of us, at least the serious, life-sentenced GMs among us. It solidified a lot of ideas I had had kicking around in my head, mostly about narrative driven, meaningful mechanics and a decidedly anti-simulationist bent. Ever since then I’ve been getting seriously into Fate and “Powered By Apocalypse” systems. Last summer we played a short campaign of Heavy Gear to take a break from D&D. Heavy Gear is my all-time favorite game world and system, and now it felt too old school to bear. I just couldn’t function with a clunky system like that anymore. It got in the way. I can’t believe I’m saying this, with the amount of love I have for those books, but time has passed them by. I have outgrown them.

I suspect that’s the case with any of the dozens of books on my shelves. The defining, life altering works for me have been The Mountain Witch, Fiasco, Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, and Fate. The quality of experience you get out of those games is so decidedly, objectively better (yes) than with an old-school system that it seems foolish to go back. Why would you want to go back? Abandoning the simulationist approach doesn’t feel like an alternative, it feels like an evolution. These games deliver the sorts of experiences I was always looking for, and never could reliably reach. It sometimes happened, but more as a fluke or because of ignoring the rules. Now you can get to those places in a reliable, if mysterious, fashion.

It seems weird, then, that we’ve spent so much time with D&D 4E. But the circumstances have been different. Our group is very large, and you couldn’t run these other games with that group. We need the mechanics to carry the game wholesale. I’ve had to go back to my dungeon crawling roots, in a very real fashion back to my childhood and my formative years, and D&D was the only vessel that could carry me there. At the same time, as the campaign progressed, I started integrating more narrative devices and mechanics to get to the same kinds of places these new wave games could take us. Between our second and third season of the game, we played a few games of Dungeonworld, and going back to D&D after that felt like settling for an inferior experience. At that point it was all about spending time with the people, and attaining closure on the long game. My heart was lost to Dungeonworld.

I wonder what my next game is. It’s going to have four players and it’s going to run for perhaps four to five games, I think. My shortlist is my Pacific Rim inspired mecha thing running on Fate, Vampire (circa Revised) without the Storyteller system (again, Fate), more Monsterhearts and Fiasco, Trail Of Cthulhu. I’m thinking I’ll run Monsterhearts and Fiasco just for the narrative and player workout. Those games are great for massaging the storytelling muscles of any player, not just gamemasters.

We are still going back to the regular fantasy campaign thing, though. We ordered the Bones II Kickstarter’s several hundred euros worth of miniatures, so the next winter is going to see either D&D Next (it does sound pretty good) or Dungeonworld.

As a player I’m active in a modern horror campaign running on an extensively designed homebrew system (lots of Apocalypse World inspiration there). That’s unlike anything I’d run, with its thirst for very long form, unedited, uncut player interaction. Our group is comprised of very experienced GMs and we spend a good hour-plus after most games to debrief and discuss the systems, tone and developments on a meta level. Sometimes it feels like we played the session merely to gain topics for the post-game discussion.

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