blog culture roleplaying

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.



There’s a fair bit of sucking and clawing involved.

Monsterhearts is a tabletop roleplaying game about sexy supernatural teenagers ruining their lives. It is very direct in its aims, seeking to create a teenage sex horror story. We played it last weekend for the first time and I came away stunned, really, impressed and inspired. It was one of the best sessions I’ve ran, ever, and while we do have a great group, a lot of it was thanks to the game.

Monsterhearts is a story game and as such there’s an emphasis on narrative integrity and story driving everything. Rules are important, but they are there to protect the narrative. The focus is on the characters, and the players are studying things they find interesting in those characters. The game is based on Apocalypse World, so if that (or its popular offshoot, Dungeon World) style of playing is familiar to you, you have a pretty good idea of how it works. Except Monsterhearts is all about the social dynamic – it doesn’t care about anything else.

There’s a couple of things that make Monsterhearts stand out. They’re things you might want to explore in your games, too, regardless of whether you’re into the Monsterhearts’ theme or not.

It’s wholly improvised. The gamemaster’s job is to make the characters’ lives interesting, which typically means picking any loose end and bringing it back in with as much noise and mess as he can manage. Most of the time it was obvious what the next scene must be and what’s going to happen in it.

We did have a couple of moments where this didn’t happen and as a GM I realized I’m without my usual bag of tricks, because the GM is forbidden from preparing the game in advance – it wouldn’t really work, anyway, because everything happens because of the PCs (see below). Thus my only option was to poke at the PCs until something interesting came up.

But as a player, you need something to work with, too, and I think we probably should’ve had some more chaos-spawning NPCs around. In a sense we had run out of NPCs in those situations. With improvised games I’m always worried there will be no satisfying arcs, but that proved to be incorrect: all three PCs had great personal stories that did come together beautifully (horrifically) in the end.

The instructions for the GM are not vague “you could try doing these things” type directions – they’re rules on how to keep the narrative “feral”; unpredictable and engaging. No player – including the GM – should know what’s going to happen in any scene, going in.

It’s only about the player characters. The gameplay is fully social. The giving and taking and using of “strings” (emotional power) you have on other characters drives everything you do. We had awkward, magnetic scenes between two characters falling in love that I would’ve cut short in any other game, but here you simply had to see them through, all the way until the clothes started coming off – and even then we had to cut back in as the vampire was getting… urges.

The single biggest reason which keeps the play about the social dynamic is that your characters have no physical abilities. Pretty much everything on your sheet comes back to relationships. Thus in order to “play the game”, you have to create drama.

Because everything revolves around the player characters and there is effectively no world beyond their agency, you automatically get powerful tension. All the rules and all the action is driven by the players and directed at themselves and the other player characters. There is no external force to which you could just react to, as you do in many games. The GM doesn’t even get to roll dice: it’s always the players doing things and dealing with the consequences.

The mechanics create the gameplay. I was doubtful about if it’s possible to create the kind of feel the rulebook evokes in a single sitting, but the rules made it work very well. The experience mechanic drives the action; players like being rewarded and they like playing with their character sheets, so they look for opportunities to gain experience. To do that you need to use your character’s “moves”, and those moves invariably create problems and result in tension. Some of your important abilities are only triggered after sex – there is a “sex move” on everybody’s sheet – and naturally you want to get to play with all of your abilities… hence sex. Finally, as the characters’ Darkest Selves start manifesting, you’re well on your way towards a dramatic, messy, memorable climax. If you didn’t have all these rules in play, you would pull punches and not go to all the places the rules push you to. Play it as written, though, and you’ll have a hell of a hot mess between your group.

It builds on and feeds off sex and romance. I’ve thought about romance and sex in games a lot, especially since the original release of Vampire: The Masquerade made it explicitly part of the characters’ unlives. Monsterhearts makes it work.

Because the romance and sex are tied to your abilities – your stats are Hot, Cold, Dark, Volatile and you have a bespoke sex “move” – it doesn’t feel like forcing something into the game that the game isn’t about. It’s plain to see to everybody that you’re supposed to be in a relationship (or few) and you’re supposed to have sex. It feels like you’re missing out if you don’t. And because it’s openly at the table, it doesn’t feel so hard to go there – you’re not standing out as a player, you’re just the first one to go there, with the understanding that likely everybody will.

Of course the first sex scene in the session still felt awkward, but then it was two teenagers trying to figure it out. The rules and the setting makes sex possible in a game, but they don’t take away the power.

Contrary to what you might, understandably, suspect, the mechanical basis for romance and sex in the game does not diminish the intimacy at the table. This would be a very difficult game for me to play with strangers (or it would lose all its power). It does make it easier as you have some rules to fall back on, but to make romance and sex work in a game, the group needs to pay very close attention to what’s happening. You have to be sensitive, or the romance doesn’t work, and you have to know when to call it a scene or it becomes just cheap and nasty. The rules can’t do this for you. My rule of thumb is figuring out if you could show it in a mainstream TV show, á la Buffy. Well, we may have gone a little bit further than that, but not quite HBO.

If you only had mechanics that would encourage characters to have sex, you’d have a sex game, obviously. Monsterhearts subverts that by introducing the Darkest Selves. Our game was all awkward teenage romance until the vampire got laid with the mortal, the mortal’s sex move then triggering the vampire’s Darkest Self. The Darkest Selves turn the teenage characters into literal monsters, forcing them to cause no end of trouble at the table. Relationships are broken, feelings are hurt, blood is spilled. The violent scenes in our Monsterhearts session felt like the easy stuff – even if those, too, were more powerful than in most games thanks to the grounded, believable teenage setting.

The hard parts were the ones in which the Darkest Selves did horrible things just with words, abusing already tender relationships, and we had to watch the characters deal with it. The decisions, even though dictated by the rules governing playing your Darkest Self, felt heavy. I had trouble believing the things our vampire did and said, although nothing in it was R rated.

It’s a great game and if you have a group of friends you trust, you owe it to yourself to play it. It’s also easy to play and very easy to run. After the one session to get your head around the dynamics and what works, it’s pick up and play with zero preparation.

roleplaying tabletop games

Heavy Gear summer campaign 2013 post-mortem

Mock movie poster for Operation Drop Bears Dive by KodiakDestroyer on DeviantArt
Mock movie poster for “Operation Drop Bears Dive” by KodiakDestroyer on DeviantArt. The campaign featured no Bears, of a dropping variety or otherwise (although it should’ve, really, as a pun on our D&D campaign’s mascot bear), but that’s a Heavy Gear alright.

I had planned a two-game summer special to take a break from my two-year Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It took five games to clear part one of the planned double feature. This is a post-mortem of that campaign; what went right and what went wrong. Don’t worry, we’re not spending any time on a recounting of the game’s events, just the takeaways.

The game is based on Heavy Gear’s fiction. If you’re not up to speed with that and sensitive to this sort of thing, perhaps best to stop reading now, but we are talking about things that were revealed in writing fifteen years ago in out of print books.


“The Beast Trail” took as its main focus the destruction of Peace River in the second interpolar war on Terra Nova by an anti-matter device. The game’s fiction strongly alludes to Earth agents being responsible for the act. I wanted to stage the game around racing to stop the Earth infiltrators, but being unable to change the final outcome. This required the players to be some sort of military intelligence agents. Running out of time to come up with characters and unwilling to spend a session in character creation with a new system (I hadn’t run Heavy Gear in a decade), I opted for the premade characters in the Operation: Jungle Drums Redux scenario.


The pre-written characters were a little bit mystifying to me as their tone suggested a very colorful, over the top anime story, which doesn’t seem to really gel with the rest of the setting. While this was a problem in terms of overall tone, it seemed to help the players get very quickly into their characters and bringing personality and (melo-) drama to the forefront in no time at all. I was so encouraged by this, in fact, that from now on I’m going to be suggesting over the top melodrama over hidden inner feelings any day.

We played combat in three ways: mostly freeform with barely a sketch of a map, a drawn map with rough distances and full-blown hex-map tactical combat. The hex-map way was by far the best option, but understandably took lots more time; hours instead of minutes. They all managed to carry the tone of Silhouette fighting with very high stakes; it tended to be one good hit and you’re down. Players were sufficiently terrorized in all cases, fighting against GRELs and SLEDGEs (Earth-born cloned supersoldiers) and Striders (four-legged gun platforms towering over Heavy Gears). It was dramatic combat. Even on a hex-map we managed multiple over the top anime moments with Heavy Gears jostling to climb on the Strider’s back to vibro-blade it, rocket launches leaving streaks in the desert air and giant robots zig-zagging on roller skates in the sandstorm, seeing barely fifty meters (a single hex) ahead. Fighting with giant robots is a lot of fun! I would recommend playing all giant robot action on the hex-map, though: it brings a sense of warfare, tactics and seriousness to the proceedings, adding to the weight and meaning of the mecha. In a counter-intuitive way, playing it seriously with the mecha helps having fun with it.

Since Terra Nova is my favorite roleplaying game setting, it comes as no surprise that I could come up with some cool set-pieces, using the game world to full effect. We played mostly in the Badlands but there were plenty of interesting sights and effective locales, including being lost in the McAllen tunnel network, fighting in a sand-storm, an archaeological dig, a maglev train being stopped due to the war setting off, and having coffee while the city came under landship bombardment. We had the works, really, from military intelligence operatives and Southerners vacationing in the North to Badlands caravans, GRELs, SLEDGEs, hovertanks, Striders, hex maps and affecting the written storyline of the game world. Come to think of it, the five-game campaign saw a lot of components. In a lot of ways it was the game I wanted to run when I was younger and very excited about the game and the world, but just didn’t have the capacity or vision to do so.

There was a big pacing problem with the game (more on which below), but I had the good sense to change my grand plan as the campaign grew. My original plan was to have the heroes die in the Peace River anti-matter detonation, but after multiple games it started to feel like cheating. I came up with a mechanical system I thought was stacked against the heroes, awarding them a playing card per cleared major plot point, scoring them against the bad guys’ total. When they cleared all of that effortlessly, I essentially let them win.


I severely underestimated the time it would take to play through the planned scenes. If we had skipped rules entirely, it might’ve been plausible, but I wasn’t willing to do that. We covered two scenes per game, which I should’ve guessed as that’s our D&D pace, too. This wasn’t really a problem as I had no other concrete gaming plans for summer, anyway, but it lead to serious pacing issues: when I thought we were going to finish in the next game, and that happened four times, I had no real idea where to take the game. During the finale I decided to entirely skip fighting due to its time requirements and cut very aggressively from scene to scene to make sure we finished on time. It lead to a good session to end on, actually beating the clock by an hour or so.

The rules weren’t a problem per se, but we should’ve gone over the players’ options in any situation more clearly. I tried to run it as a more freeform game than our D&D but that just didn’t sit well with the military scifi setting and our D&D sensibilities. Luckily my players are vocal enough to tell me when they want to see more maps and so forth, so we adjusted to more tactical play on the fly.

I had no good grasp of the players’ power level. Every time I thought I had hit them with a real challenge, they breezed through it, taking down GRELs and SLEDGEs (test tube super soldiers from Earth) and Striders (giant walker mecha) without breaking a sweat. The only reason the perceived challenge worked at all was thanks to the Silhouette system, which is very unforgiving of mistakes, and the initial encounter’s first shot resulting in a player’s mecha blowing up on the first shot. That early experience set a mood for the whole campaign.

The players struggled with the game’s atmosphere all the way through (over the top anime vs hard scifi, silly characters vs drama), vocalizing their issues. I wasn’t able to fix that. With my next game I’m going to make sure we have enough scenes of the characters behaving like they’re expected to very early on to make sure the players catch on. This was probably a result of both the game world being too familiar to me and the characters as written contradicting everything else going on in the game.

With aggressive cutting to new scenes and minimizing of downtime you get a dramatic game that clips along, but you risk not giving enough time for the players to really get into their characters. I probably went a little overboard with it. This is easy to fix by just adding bespoke “color” scenes with, well, downtime. I would make a point of making those about a character’s conflicts, though.

I failed to resolve a big conflict that I set up in the very first scene of the game – there was a double agent in the heroes’ squad who was obviously just waiting for the right time to re-emerge. The players talked about it all the time, obviously waiting for him to make an appearance. I had planned a great return scene for him in every single game session, and in all cases the players decided to do something that made it unworkable. The next time I absolutely need an NPC to do something, I need to come up with a way the players cannot sidestep it – for example starting with the required scene. This isn’t a concern for my dear plotting, by the way, but a serious failure in the game’s narrative construction.


It was a good game. I enjoyed the break from our fantasy tropes and the different group dynamic – all the players were the same, but we were missing two players from our D&D group – and everybody’s characters were rather different from the fantasy group.

It’s great that even after 25 years of running games, you still make big mistakes and can learn a ton from any game you run.


Mechanics as atmosphere

Dream Pod 9 logo
Dream Pod 9. This game has amazing art… which is nigh-impossible to find online due to its age. It really is worth the hassle to hunt down the books to dive into it.

(Yet another roleplaying post. I have been running a lot of RPGs this year, what can I say… This is also a super short post as I realized it’s coming up on midnight on a Friday and I’m still at the office and I need a break from work.)

This is also yet another RPG mechanics post – there appears to be a lot to say about the relationship of mechanics with storytelling, even when lots of folks are saying their polarities reject each other.

We played a game of Heavy Gear last weekend. It’s my favorite roleplaying world and game, even if we haven’t played a ton of it. Easily worth tracking down even though it’s been out of print for years now.

I had a problem with nailing down the atmosphere of the game for the group. Heavy Gear is science fiction and it’s war themed, but it’s still anime inspired with over the top character archetypes, and all these watchwords and somewhat conflicting directions had my players’ heads spinning. I couldn’t think of a way to put it succinctly and cleanly – my long history with the game got in the way and I couldn’t see it from a newcomer’s perspective. (Entirely my failure, I realise it.)

This was all still bothering me when we got into the finale of the session. The players were portraying military intelligence operatives chasing two suspects in a desert. We finally brought the titular giant robots, Heavy Gears, on the scene and the players got into the whole power-tripping side of it, laying down autocannon fire at genetically-engineered supersoldiers and dominating the battlefield.

Then the first hostile shot of the game was fired, a hover APC gliding from cover and opening fire with a scatter laser cannon. Dice rolled and on an average result, on first contact, the players’ biggest gun, a Warrior Heavy Gear, blew into a fireball in the desert night, seriously wounding the player character inside. The mood at the table immediately shifted.

“Oh it’s that kind of game.”

“Now I get what you mean with the not-glorified warfare, albeit high action.”

With any other but the Silhouette system, this would’ve played out another way, and the players would still be guessing about the game’s direction.

Mechanics set the mood after human interaction and imagination had failed.

Games roleplaying tabletop games

RPG mechanics on table and screen

Running my current D&D campaign, I’ve been thinking about mechanics a lot. I want to make the game mechanically interesting: it should be a good game, any other qualities notwithstanding. As the play has become more regimented, I don’t feel that we’ve lost any of the freeform creative air of a tabletop RPG, paradoxic as that may sound. But that leads to another question: could a digital game ever recreate both the situations and their solutions that come up in playing with humans, in a human designed and run game?

There are seven levels of mechanical interaction in-game as far as I can tell: personal/emotional, tactical, resource, extended tactical, abstract, micro and arbitrary systems.


The “personal/emotional” level is unsurprisingly what human-run roleplaying games do the best. As you’re interacting with other people and adapting to their play on the fly, even somewhat lacking roleplaying and acting is in practice pretty good. You get insights and experiences in-character that would be very hard to achieve in a digital fashion. But this only happens because the digital games tend to make one big mistake.

In digital games “emotional” tends to mean literal and canned. Someone has written a story you’re supposed to care about, happening to characters they’ve written. For emotion to happen in an interactive experience, that should all be flipped around: characters you’ve envisioned, with their personal motivations, are doing interesting things. This is not the same as having a blank canvas of a character (which, naturally, nobody cares about), but rather giving the player enough room to project their own ideas into. As a crude example, a player being forced to kill someone in-game is only marginally better (in terms of impact) than having that happen in a non-interactive cutscene. That could be elevated very simply by giving the player actual choice.

While counter-intuitive, this level of interaction is often elevated by having fewer words and visible emotions. When you’re free to imagine things, they magically become better, as long as you don’t contradict it elsewhere. For good examples, see Fable II, The Sims and FTL. You can build emotion out of very simple, visible, free to interpret interaction. For extra points, tie it all into game mechanics.


“Micro” means the stuff that happens between the lines of the written rules. Because the Otyugh is so big and the roof so low, it crushes the roof as it walks underneath it, eating it, denying that top floor to everybody and turning the area around it into difficult terrain due to the rubble. Magic missiles can be used to bring down sections of the roof as well as targeting enemies. This can be reached, to a point, by simulating a hell of a lot more than we’ve used to. Dwarf Fortress does a good job of this. A computer would be in theory good in following up any sort of simulation, but in practice a human editor is vastly superior, as a human is good in judging intent and drama.

Do we need to concern ourselves with the finest detail of physics in this particular chase? Most often the answer is “no”. It’s just that sometimes it becomes crucial to the quality of the game. My belief is that adding as many often-seen, relevant micro-level simulations as possible would add to the likelihood of neat, memorable, emergent things happening during play. You could do a lot just with accurate physics and material properties. It wouldn’t be the same thing, as the computer would be bad at making value calls, but it could very well be good enough. Thus, more physics simulation would be a good step in the right direction.

Arbitrary systems

“Arbitrary systems” means rules that exist to make sense of the game world or to add interesting interaction on top of the basic framework of the game. Think locked doors and lockpick skills and single-use automatic lockpicks, as you might see in a Deus Ex game.

As a tabletop example, Dungeons & Dragons, fourth edition, has an oft-derided mechanic that I like a lot: the skill challenges. The basic idea is that the players are presented with an objective and asked to reach it using a combination of their skills, with some limits based on what’s applicable. What makes this interesting is that everybody in the party must take part, even though they often do not have any obviously suitable skills to contribute. This leads to situations where, for example, the fighter is helping out by carrying people around the library on her shoulders, or the druid figures out where the bad guys are hiding from the way insects are behaving. It’s really all up to the players’ imagination – as a game master I typically have no idea how they might reach their objectives, yet they always do.

This is not quite the same as just imagining the world as a sandbox with a “do anything” motto. The game is doing its best to present interesting objectives and giving you enough tools to make it happen. The Deus Ex games are trying to do this, but they stumble in their artificiality. The systems should mix more. We need systems that welcome messing about, producing surprising offspring. The way to make arbitrary systems work is to encourage them breeding.


“Tactical” is easy – that’s the basic combat scenarios you’re likely to find in most old-school RPGs and all digital RPGs. Computers are very good in this stuff, eliminating book keeping and providing AI opposition for solo players, and the only worthwhile tabletop advantages are evident in the other categories I outlined above – micro and arbitrary systems. XCOM is a lot of fun, and probably more fun digitally than it would be on tabletop.

Extended tactical

However, the “extended tactical” level is where the tabletop wins out every time. If you would run the XCOM scenarios on tabletop, they would become dull very soon. There’s not enough variety. In our bi-weekly D&D games we fight a lot of tactical battles, but I spend a lot of time making sure there’s some new element in play every single time. It could be an enemy with a unique ability or a feature of the environment the players haven’t met before. There could be timed events. Any of these elements would be easy enough to replicate in a digital game, but the problem is that you need so many of them. I want something new for every single fight.

If you were to analyze these unique elements, you’d find that they do follow patterns. Most of them are variants of the same basic components, just put together or simply presented in new ways. There’s timed events, traps, NPCs that need protection, the elements imposing a negative quality on everyone, parts of the environment being hazardous, moving environments, multiple waves of enemies, template enemy formations, and so forth. If you were to design your attributes carefully enough, there is no reason why you couldn’t put together compelling, interesting and even unique combat scenarios for every single fight. The automatic response in videogames is either “the design will become messy” or “it’s too expensive”, but anybody saying those things needs to play more tabletop games.


“Abstract” mechanics sit right at home in digital games and are rarely found in tabletop games. I’ve been introducing them into my pen and paper campaigns a lot lately. As an example, instead of a straight roleplaying scene where the heroes accompany the king on a night ride through a city in civil war, I crafted a simple board game scenario out of it. The players had to choose which of their allies to use against which threat, and then deal with the outcome in person. This elevated something that could’ve been a very brief roleplaying moment into a more tangible situation with interesting decisions and thus more dramatic weight to it.

Digital games are very good in this sort of thing. They almost always have these abstract systems in place on the meta level. As an example take Alpha Protocol’s mission preparation and choosing or XCOM’s base building and planetary surveillance. That gives the games overarching structure and purpose. The same holds true in a tabletop game, and could be more commonly used in long-term games. As a good example, in a game I played our character sheets became this sort of abstract meta system with their own mysteries, only revealed under certain in-game circumstances. We also had a deck of tarot cards shared by all the groups playing the game (there were a lot of players). Over the duration of the very long campaign, some players claimed certain cards of the tarot as their own, and the groups started to affect each other.


Finally, the “resource” level is about giving players the option of using or withholding something they’ve been given. Both tabletop and digital games very typically have the problem that the mere pursuit of more stuff is not very compelling, and players are really bad in actually ever using everything that’s been given to them – case in point, health potions. In most cases this is simply a case of the game’s overall math and power economy needing more attention. In my D&D campaign I’ve slowly turned up the difficulty until the players have started to run out of potions and other assets. This keeps the game tense. Game designers and game masters often miss the fact that the players actually enjoy being in a bind!

Something often found in tabletop games is that players have less obvious resources: influence, contacts, allies, knowledge, history and so forth. Many of these would be tricky to represent properly in a digital game because they’re so open-ended, but a good case could be made for a lot of them. Alpha Protocol tries some of this in an intriguing way – letting you choose your allies and how much you invest in them, being rewarded both on a personal and a tangible level, with also some nasty surprises in wait – and I only wish it did more. The key is tying these resources to some of the other systems in play, for example limited use abilities on the battlefield. Even if you think that the tabletop possibilities are too unlimited for a digital game, a lot of the dramatic possibilities with non-item resources actually fall into just a few categories, which could very well be represented in a digital game, too. In this way David Braben’s Outsider was a very interesting project and I hope we get to hear more of it one day.


In conclusion, game designers should play a lot of games of both the digital and tabletop variety and pay attention to the mechanics, especially when they’re not readily apparent “rules”. A lot of the hard to define stuff in a tabletop game actually does follow rules when you think about it a little harder and most of it would do a world of good to digital games.

Freeware PC roleplaying tabletop games

Card Hunter and digital vs physical gaming

Card Hunter wallpaper
Card Hunter has the best visual design for a game I’ve seen in years.

As a regular reader might know, I play a lot of roleplaying games of the paper-based, face to face variety, as well as other tabletop games. So I pay attention whenever digital games approach this realm.

Obviously tabletop Dungeons & Dragons has had a major effect, inspiring digital games from 1970s onwards, and that inspiration has flowed the other way, too, with the current edition of D&D taking a lot of design cues from digital online RPGs (MMOs). My currently running D&D campaign uses a lot of very structured play – rules – and we spend the majority of our time at the table hunched over a map, pushing miniatures around. It is, essentially, a tactical exercise. If you leave out the human interaction and just hanging out with friends, is this something that could be adequately replicated in a digital game? One might think you could even improve considerably, what with today’s 3D rendering and computers taking care of the number crunching.

There is a very interesting case in point in Card Hunter, the beta of which is currently opening up. It makes an infectious, charming effort to take you by the hand and recreate that 1980s kitchen table where you sat down with your teenage friends to play (A)D&D. Even if you never did, I believe the feel-good warmth of it comes through. If you did, it’s equal parts endearing and maddeningly nostalgic. Those days may never return, but this is probably the closest you’re going to get. Card Hunter goes as far as including a newbie game master that stumbles through explaining the game to you, his more experienced, obnoxious older brother, and a pizza delivery girl the GM has a crush on. The game is presented as laid out on a table, surrounded by dice, cheese puffs and soda cans. The actual game components are cardboard, representing collectible cards and cardboard cutout characters on little plastic stands. I find the aesthetic completely irresistible.

Interestingly, Card Hunter’s approach mirrors what’s been happening in the tabletop roleplaying scene for some years now – a return to the simpler pleasures of hitting monsters with a sword and taking their stuff. There’s been a wave of retro-revival games, some of them very good.

Card Hunter is not roleplaying per se – all you do is fight exquisitely balanced tactical battles. Character development is all about equipping the gear you want, which in turn grant you more cards for that character’s deck. Mechanically, it combines the best elements of tabletop roleplaying by way of Dungeons & Dragons and collectible card games. But what you actually do at the table – fight battles over a grid-based layout, considering positioning and powers – resembles our bi-weekly D&D sessions very closely. It’s missing the real life banter and color you get from the characters’ long histories, loyalties and conflicts, ongoing jokes and drama, but the rules level and tactical space is similar.

Card Hunter screenshot
Card Hunter gameplay.

So does the tabletop experience have anything over the digital adaptation, on a mechanical level? You do get to play faster, and the fights resolve much quicker on the sceen, after all.

Even if you count out the face to face interaction, there are things digital games just can’t do, which turn an hours long tabletop confrontation with monsters into a memorable scene, whereas any given fight tends to be forgettable in a videogame – even if the fighting itself is very enjoyable, as is the case with Card Hunter.

I have a longer post coming up on this – the systemic differences of digital and tabletop games – but it’s interesting to see the differences just on the tactical level: grid and characters and powers. Because a videogame rarely relies on imagination, what you see is what you get. Characters on a grid are just characters on a grid, they aren’t actually just representations of the real game that’s taking place in the shared imagination of the players at the table. There are rules for movement and line of sight, but the digital game can’t adapt to surprising changes. You can’t suddenly bring in elements from above the flat game board or change things – unless, of course, they’ve been planned that way from the beginning. As the intensity ramps up in a tabletop fight, the players get crazy creative, using their powers in surprising ways, trying to find a way past their circumstances. In Card Hunter I must pray for the right combination of cards to get me through my “single hit point left and three foes standing” predicament, whereas in a tabletop game I might run away or improvise with a magic missile, perhaps bringing down the roof to buy some time.

And that element of the unknown is what keeps me coming back to the tabletop experience. Even if things start from an equal setup, a different group of players is always going to shape it into something new.

There are things I believe digital games could add to have a better chance of replicating that tabletop freedom of creative play despite basically quite strict and clear rules. But more on those in that longer post.

roleplaying tabletop games

Running a D&D campaign for seven people

Map of the insect store - the heroes’ home for most of second season
Map of the insect store – the heroes’ home for most of second season

We’ve been playing the same Dungeons & Dragons (fourth edition) campaign for over two years now. Twenty-four games, ten players, levels one through eight. The goal was always to play all the way up to level ten, bookending the first “tier” of play, and now, with the second season concluded successfully, it feels like we’ll make it for sure.

The one thing that makes our D&D game special and unlikely – at least by the standards I’m used to – is that we have seven steady players. In most of our games, it’s the full seven players present, plus myself running the show. I never thought it could work, but I couldn’t bear to deny anyone entry, so we decided to give it a shot. And what do you know, it works so well that I would be uncomfortable running the game for, say, just four players, which used to be my sweet spot. But having this many players at the table means a couple of things, which I’m going to dive into here.


Something that can be hard to plan for is the interpersonal chemistry at the table. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! But in a game this big, it requires extra thought because any conflict or friction is going to quickly escalate. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, optimizing who’s playing who, who’s sitting with whom and just generally who we invite.

I am super happy with our chemistry. Missing anyone in a given game means we have a skewed dynamic. There’s a sense of loss. You might think that this is a problem, because when are you going to have eight people available for every game, roughly every other week? But at least in our case, everybody makes the time and people generally very rarely miss games. Probably it all being so unlikely brings a sort of gravitas to the proceedings.

One detail I’ve been wondering about is whether our gender balance changes this in some way – we have usually a 50-50 gender mix or leaning by one in one direction. I have not reached a conclusion on that, but if anything, it helps.


The game’s logistics are somewhat demanding. Just having the room for eight people can be a problem. The amount of game you can fit into a single night is surprising – in how little it is. The seven players talking among themselves takes a lot of time. I can generally manage 1-3 roleplaying scenes, with 1-2 fights. We like to eat before or during the game and if we’re cooking for the whole group, you better pencil in that whole day just for preparing food. Also normal campaign upkeep like levelling characters and printing sheets is something you need to set aside time for.

Running a combat with seven players plus a familiar and a roughly equal number of worthy enemies is a lot of work. My players like to take command of the battle mat, and I’m benefitting from that, having them track both initiatives and hit points for the entire cast, including their foes. It also helps the players focus on the game.


The number of players and their abilities means that most mechanical challenges are pushovers, no matter what the numbers say. I’ve upped the difficulty level all through the campaign to make it challenging enough, and it’s still tough hitting that sweet spot. My advice would be to go overboard rather than shy away from pushing them – the players have so many tricks up their sleeves in 4E it’s very difficult to actually hurt them in the long-term. This works the same way in fights. The recommended numbers in Challenge Rating do not apply at all – I’m routinely overshooting by over a third to create situations the players will find fun and challenging. D&D combat is best when a number of characters are in genuine danger of dying and it’s the gamemaster’s job to provide that.


The biggest issue is storytelling. While we’ve talked about character development, internal conflicts and so forth at the table, it’s just hard to come by any sort of meaningful drama in such a big group. A couple of sessions ago I introduced a mechanical solution. Every time the players rest – basically sitting down in camp – one of the players is required to develop their character. Like in Mountain Witch, the story doesn’t advance until someone progresses their personal story.

Of course this requires that all of their characters actually have compelling conflicts and built-in drama that just needs an outlet.

In practice, the players are instructed to either set a scene and welcome the other players to resolve it for them, or vice versa – exactly as in Fiasco. Others can jump in, and almost automatically relationships deepen and take sudden turns. Even though the “drama turn” revolves around the group, and it’s artificial in that way, so far it’s worked admirably. I think most games could use a mechanic like this, especially when in big groups where it may be difficult to find the time in the spotlight and loud players automatically get all the attention.


Another mechanical knock-on effect has been our use of board game style mechanisms. I often draw up and outline a mechanic the players need to operate in. This is designed to take them through a long part of non-combat play. While many might scoff at this fashion of mechanics “replacing roleplaying”, what actually happens is that the mechanics make roleplaying possible in the large group. The mechanics direct the players’ attention and by way of providing barriers and requirements, inspire roleplaying. I started by using Skill Challenges a lot, and have gradually made it more structured and abstract. Examples of these “mini-games”:

  • Running an insect store for a week
  • Sneaking across the fallen, petrified body of a dead god
  • Fighting through a city in upheaval, escorting the king through rebellious city guard
  • Exploring a swamp, hex by hex, looking for the hydra’s hoard
  • Singing contest (Eurovision special game)

I’m going to run some smaller games on our D&D break during the summer. We’ll see if there’s cross-pollination in one direction or the other – I fully expect some insights!

miniatures roleplaying tabletop games

Troupe play


Utopia game in progress
Utopia game in progress. Sgt Fender’s attack dog Baton posing.

We’ve been playing a science fiction miniatures campaign with heavy roleplaying game elements for half a dozen games now. I’ve always liked the idea of having a handful of characters to run at the same time and this game is the first instance where I’ve got to really try it with other people. As a much younger man I used to play some RPGs by myself, running a group of characters against myself – I remember playing Earthdawn, Mechwarrior and some edition of Dungeons & Dragons this way.

So played in a group, in this game, it works great. So what do we do and why does it work? Could it be used elsewhere?


The campaign, called Utopia, is basically Starship Troopers plus Aliens plus the RPG 3:16. We’re playing pointedly generic space grunts deployed on a variety of missions across the galaxy. The whole campaign is basically an excuse for the gamemaster to get to play with his large collection of scifi miniatures. We’re facing new kinds of enemies every other game, roughly. So far we’ve peered Alien xenomorphs, Terminator cyborgs, Predator… aliens and various human rebels down our sights. For a group consisting of same-aged scifi nerds, it’s pretty much ideal. We’re essentially playing with toys on a playground we all know and love.

Each player – we have three plus GM – has three soldiers they’re playing simultaneously. They’re all on the same sheet. When new soldiers are introduced to replace KIA/MIA soldiers, they’re initially just a name, a role and a rank.

The game always opens with the soldiers lounging in the mess hall. The GM goes around the whole squad, asking questions to bring every soldier into the spotlight in turn. All told we spend around an hour on the roleplaying as we get a new mission and adjust to the changing dynamics of the group. That’s enough time to involve everyone out of the nine guys in the squad, plus their commander and random guest stars, for instance soldiers currently in the infirmary.

Before we move on, we build on a chart of relationships in the squad. This is straight soap opera, just establishing entertaining and interesting connections between the guys. Everyone is linked to someone else, and if characters survive, you build on those links.

Then it’s off to the mission. We break out the miniatures and start playing. We’re using Flying Lead, which is absolutely spot-on for this kind of small units gaming. It’s detailed enough to work with single characters, yet abstract and fast enough to not get in the way. You should check it out if you’ve ever desired a modern or scifi small units tactical game on the character level.

Flying Lead adds to the drama, often resulting in sudden changes in the fight dynamics, especially because of the way the initiative and activation system works. It’s not a straight you move – I move dynamic: there’s always the option of going slow and steady and not accomplishing much, or pushing your luck, rushing it, and sometimes just falling completely dead in the water.

When playing, the roles of the soldiers have started to take more and more center stage. We’re making very questionable choices on the field, just because trooper Lau is a superstitious junkie of an infantryman, or because the medic secretly loves the old sergeant, or because there’s no way the characters could tell what they’re actually facing is zombies, not shell-shocked civilians.

More often than not, all this color results in troopers dying. It’s great! There’s drama in every activation. Every single fallen soldier hurts, not necessarily because of the time invested in them, but because they feel like actual characters thanks to the roleplaying. I would recommend a similar setup in any sort of ongoing miniatures campaign, because it adds so much.

Flying Lead roster
Flying Lead roster of my characters so far, six games in.


I initially thought that this would be very confusing for a player, but it’s not, thanks to there being so few details about the soldiers available. It’s not a lot to keep track of. Because you need three guys at all times, you use shorthands – “the new sergeant is basically Robert Patrick from The Unit”, “okay, in that case, who’s wife is he sleeping with?”, and so forth. Stereotypes really work!

On the battlefield, it works thanks to Flying Lead. You couldn’t really do this with Warhammer 40K, say, with its unit-level abstraction (unless you went with “hero” characters only, but even in Kill-Team it’s just not as good), or even in a roleplaying game like D&D 4E, with its high level of detail in the characters. The index card sized characters and their fates are perfect for the unit sized drama.

While the losses feel much more painful, the victories are amplified in the same way. The emotional highs and lows of the game far outlie what’s normal for a miniatures game. You love seeing the story of the battle shape, and everyone’s rooting for the guy in the spotlight, despite also controlling their own guys. It’s an experience that could only be done in this fashion, it wouldn’t come through in any other medium.


It would be interesting to try this with some other setup than a war game. I believe we’re getting a lot of help from our shared experience of similar scenarios, be it Vietnam movies, Battlestar Galactica or Starship Troopers. We know how to make our scenes entertaining and true to the fiction. So what if we take away this useful crutch?

The problem with most typical roleplaying game setups and troupe play is that jumping from deep within a character to another character is very difficult. Instead, you need to adapt to playing on the surface. That doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful, but it does mean that you need to be able to turn characters on and off immediately.

Consider the game master in any game. He’s effectively playing a large troupe every night. It can be difficult, yes, but it’s something you do learn better at. By using shorthands it’s possible to run a group of strong NPCs in the same scene without being too preoccupied with any one of them.

Things I use to quickly establish characters is figure out a single connection to another character and make that obvious through action, add one or two details about their presence (smell of sea, kind eyes), and use likenesses from the real world when possible – I often use Hollywood actors everybody likely knows as a quick way of borrowing their presence. (Just make sure the character matches with that actor’s or character’s generally expected attributes. You wouldn’t want to cast Daniel Day-Lewis in an inconsequential role. Unless you wanted to say something with that.)

What about a game where every player had a cast of characters like the GM? I think it could work, as long as you give people the room to settle deeper into a single character when they want to, much like a TV show does, typically focusing on a couple of characters per episode even if they have a cast of dozens. The instant when it becomes more work is when you have multiple characters per player in the same scene. In addition to making sense to yourself, portraying the characters, you need to keep in mind the other players, who may have trouble following who’s acting and speaking, if you’re not careful. Again, the miniatures help here.

I would strongly suggest a group scenario, like everybody belonging to the same motorcycle club, criminal gang, police unit, or the like. This gives you room to sidestep some of the motivation issues as you have the group’s shared goals to use.

Fallen Predator
Fallen Predator. We got a lot of shit for that mission, not managing to capture it alive.


Suppose you would set up a troupe game. What would you tell your players to follow through with your idea? On the surface it looks like you’re signing up on a lot of extra stress for no gain.

Troupe play is kind of like shooting with a shotgun. Your individual characters may not be as strong, but due to their sheer number, some of them are really going to click with the other players and their characters.

An added bonus is that when you just have one character, it’s common that you need to compromise on your vision or goals for the character to make a good fit with the rest of the group. With a whole cast of characters, you can take more risks and find out quickly what works. Quite literally, you can have a go at the same scene with a bunch of characters. Didn’t work? Try again.

From a game master’s point of view the fact that you have more than one character gives more room to operate. You don’t have to be so careful with the characters. You can really put someone in a tight spot and risk their lives when you’re not ruining that player’s night if their only character would die or be so inconvenienced that he’s effectively written out of the story.

While this may sound like a cop-out, I find it gives more room for high drama. High stakes just tend to work better than playing it safe. And it’s the same for a player – you can take much bigger risks and go for big plays when you know it isn’t such a big deal if some characters suffer.

roleplaying tabletop games

Dungeon World

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

Dungeon World is a modern repackaging of the way you remember D&D/AD&D being, back in the day. If you never played those games, it’s supposed to deliver a straight-up, no-nonsense dungeon crawl.

It does this with rare wit.

Initially reading the game, there is a lot you recall from A/D&D: hit points, armor class, those six statistics (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha), classes and races. A great many powers and spells are straight from AD&D 2nd edition.

But they all work in a super light, cohesive framework that anybody picks up in a minute. To do anything, you roll 2D6 plus applicable stat. There are very few exceptions or modifiers. There’s two tricks to this. One, the game master never rolls. It’s always the players reacting to things, their own actions potentially causing them pain. Two, most of the time you don’t quite succeed in what you wanted to do. Instead, you get a partial success or a failure. Critically, these carry the game forward in surprising directions.

Failure in a roll is always awarded with XP. This makes players actually look forward to failing, and it’s easy to excite them to think about the consequences. Every roll carries the fiction forward. You get into a very smooth, natural rhythm of talking about the action and the fiction, the mechanics barely registering once you’re into it, even though you’re rolling all the time.

You will be totaling up your weight allowance and coins, all abstracted to a level that’s fun and easy to manage, yet forces you to make decisions and manage the resources. You really do get all the fun with none of the drudgery!


I ran Dungeon World for three new players today. I only had very limited experience gaming with any of them and had done zero prep, barely printed the character sheets and move lists before the game.

We improvised the entire game, but it did run surprisingly coherently. The mechanics really made interesting things happen – the class specific moves are very well thought out, bringing life to the portrayals. Everybody liked the bonds they had with the other players that help you figure out the relationships on the fly.

My only issues were with coming up with good enough NPCs on the spot so likely I’m going to prepare a bunch in advance to be used wherever. Note that this is kind of against the spirit of Dungeon World: you’re not supposed to bring pre-prepared materials to the table, but rather let the play define itself. It really has been designed as low to no preparation.

As far as instant gaming goes, Dungeon World is easily my favorite.

The character sheet is the best example of the no prep ethos: the whole character is created by choosing options from the sheet, including gear, looks, name and levelling up. It’s a beautiful design, bringing together decades of shared experiences.

Also special mention goes to the exemplary shopping lists, especially where services and those random weird numbers are concerned – the prices for castles and assassinations and the like.


Dungeon World feels like a lighter alternative to my regular D&D 4E campaign. I can see them co-existing. Dungeon World has more laughs, turns and colorful characters, whereas we have more… I guess weight in D&D. I’m by no means ready to ditch D&D, as it’s just a different experience.

As a cool comparison, I played AD&D 2nd edition the previous night, for the first time in around 20 years. I didn’t remember how quick and easy it was to play! Compared to DW it’s missing all the cool mechanics and it’s constrained by the initiative system and other relics, but regardless, as an office game it was fine enough to continue. Merciless, though! Our wizard had two hit points. Oh, the times.

roleplaying tabletop games

The power of mechanics

Map of the insect store
The insect store

When discussing roleplaying games with gamers you don’t know all that well, you often run into a cliche. You get the people who say they don’t like the games, they like the storytelling. A common variation is “in my group we practically don’t roll the dice at all”. It’s like rules are filthy. Something you want to get away from, something you elevate yourself above of. People actually compete on how little rules they use.

And maybe that’s right for some of those people. Maybe they are better off just freeforming. But having seen over a hundred players in my table by this day, I do say the vast majority of players are happier with a set of rules, no matter what they say. To exchange a cliche with another – it’s not the tools, it’s how you use them.

That’s all just my way of saying “let’s forget about that argument for now”, because I want to discuss rules.

In my recent games I’ve had a lot of mechanical, game rules-y twists as experiments. I think it really started with skill challenges in Dungeons & Dragons, but my fascination with rules and mechanics goes back much farther than that.

In our current D&D campaign our heroes have a backstory of being insect hunters. To begin with we didn’t even outline what that meant, later on we agreed that they catched bugs and sold them. It’s been just words, really, up until now. I knew I wanted to make it more relevant to the game, and I wanted the players to get something out of it. I felt like I had been abusing the concept because it hadn’t been explored at all. The players were supposed to buy into it, yet it held nothing of substance.

My first instinct was to make an adventure out of being insect hunters, but that would’ve taken away from our focus on the heroes’ epic – they already have heroic (tier) goals and I didn’t want to make anything that should be heroic feel pedestrian. No, the insect hunting would be compartmentalized.

A lighter option would be to use light roleplaying and vignettes to establish what it’s like running a store, hunting for insects, much like you might do in establishing shots in a movie. It wouldn’t have really changed anything, though.

What I really got into was the idea of turning their backstory into a game. I was inspired by Recettear: Item Shop’s Tale.

So I put together a set of rules on how to run an insect shop in a fantasy town.

The players had to decide who’s doing what over the mornings and afternoons of a week of running the store. They would come back from their adventures and their shop clerk (who they had to detail beyong the name I gave him) would be furious, having had to close up shop the previous week because the shelves were empty. They needed inventory: various insects for the different customers (eight kinds, from children to adventurers to elves), requiring different kinds of hunting trips to catch them. They needed someone to man the counter, someone to clean up the place, several someones to handle marketing. It was fun to get to combine some of my real-life background in marketing with the game! They would arrange sales and wonder what to do about their ridiculous overstock of critters for women. They discovered new things they’re good at.

Over the course of the week, the players made all the notes of inventory levels, income and expenses, and tallied up their revenue at the end of the week.

When we began the game, I had no idea if they would like it or not, but it turned out everyone really got into it. The game basically ran itself for the around 90 minutes we spent on the shop.

I did a couple of things I would use again. First, I made the players describe and draw up the map for their multi-story store. This grounded everyone and provided a visual focus for the game. Then I opened up the game by running a fight in the store, making it considerably more real than “just” something they came up on the fly. We gave it substance.

Second, the shop game wouldn’t have worked unless the players did all the accounting and note taking. It couldn’t be my show or nobody would’ve cared. Always give the new fidgety bits for the players to take care of. They’ll appreciate it more and be more involved, plus it makes things easier for you.

Third, the rules for the game were not really good. I only wrote them up the previous night and decided against a playtest. I knew they would break, but I also knew (just based on experience with mechanics) they were good enough for the one go. I did have to adjust things on the fly, too. But because there were meaningful decisions and plans to make, it felt good enough. It didn’t matter that with just a little bit more thought it would’ve been easy to exploit the way it was set up. When planning something disposable like this, don’t over-do it. Focus on what the players can see and affect.

I don’t think we ever need to go back to the insect shop. It’s been established powerfully, and it has a place and meaning in the players’ minds. And that’s all thanks to mechanics.