Archive for the ‘Musings on Roleplaying’ Category

The new Netflix series Stranger Things has been blowing up my social media feed for a couple of weeks now. I started watching it myself, at first with a little skepticism. From what I’d seen, the show was a little too artfully pandering to my demographic. Turns out, I really like it. I’m not quite through it, but I’ve enjoyed every episode thus far.  

In common with most Gen-X men, I do indeed feel a lot of nostalgia for the world presented in the show. Of course, I also remember nuclear war paranoia, Satanic cult panics and morning prayers in my public school… but let’s ignore that for now.  The boys in particular are familiar archetypes from young adult media of the period. These are the smart outsiders. It’s basically the cast of E.T. or The Explorers  or even The Goonies, except facing an interdimensional horror. The archetypes ring true because they are not inaccurate. 

Stranger Things

Stranger Things (2016):  The joy of slaughter!

I am nearly the same age as the boys in the show. I’m just a bit younger, but their fashion sense, their bikes, their jokes, and the moral code would have been entirely familiar to me in 1983. In fact, in November of 1983, I was a part of a secret club with a few other boys. Really, it was just a group of friends who lived fairly close and went to the same school. But we took it seriously. We even had codenames.  I am ashamed to admit I asked to be called “The Professor.” We considered ourselves the only people to properly understand the world, the only kids at our school with a really good handle on what was fun and what was right and honourable.

(In another eerie similarity, because of my evangelical background I strongly believed in the physical existence of demons and even believed I had encountered one in a period of sleep paralysis. I honestly feared paranormal attacks from another dimension and spent a period of my childhood terrified of being outside at night, or alone in a dark house….because there might be actual Monsters. That’s probably a post for a different time.)


E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1983): Same game table, but Stranger Things forgot that everyone smoked in the early 1980s.

We played tabletop RPGs for the bulk of each summer. We also rode bikes everywhere. We roamed the neighbourhood in a loose pack.  We played “Capture the Flag” in the park. We played on an abandoned steam locomotive near a brick factory and explored junk yards.  We ran from bullies, or occasionally screamed insults at them from a safe distance. They called us fags and we called them morons. Fist fights happened, but usually ended after some scuffling and wrestling.   We played video games and argued about Star Wars.  We had discussions about whether or not it is possible to have more than one best friend.

While I am still in touch with some of those boys (now all in their 40s) we inevitably started to grow apart. The commonality we had was built (in most cases) on proximity, rather than temperament. As we became individuals the differences became more important. But while it lasted, they were friends as true as any I’ve had. It was Us against The World.

Later in life, I realized how much of that dynamic was built on a sort of tribalism and elitism, one that explicitly excluded actual outsiders. We thought we were the outcasts, but we weren’t. We were middle-class white boys with a popular hobby. Heck, there were stores dedicated to selling roleplaying games and a Saturday morning cartoon based on Dungeons & Dragons.  The real outsiders were the kids who were born male but didn’t properly present as a nerd or a jock, who had a trace of “queer” or just didn’t have the right hobbies. There were the kids in a lower social class, kids who didn’t have a TV, even kids who didn’t have the same vocabulary. There were children who had no friends at all and we avoided them as rigorously as any of the “popular” kids were disdained.

explorers girl

The Explorers (1985): Every prepubescent boy knows that girls are best observed without their knowledge and from the safety of a force field bubble.

And of course, there were girls.  

Girls (especially before puberty hit us over the head) were a mystery, The Other. We were socialized to disdain them, or consider them valuable only insofar as their ability to act agreeable to boys. They must appreciate the right things in the right ways, and even then they were not necessarily welcome. We could make fun of boys outside our cabal, we could fear them, or fight them, or even befriend them if they passed tests of loyalty and knowledge. Girls were complete enigmas. Even after puberty, after dating,  we mostly kept our significant others away from the gaming table, as late as university. They wouldn’t get RPGs in the same way, you know? They wouldn’t get the inside jokes. The off-colour banter would suddenly seem in bad taste. We’d have to act different around them.

Stranger Things totally nailed that, too.


Stranger Things (2016): See? Girls just don’t GET it.

In Stranger Things, Eleven is not just frightening because she’s got strange powers. She threatens the cohesion of the gaming group because she’s a girl. This is explicitly stated in the show. She’s full of mystery. She shakes things up. The boys don’t know how to talk to her, they don’t know how to include her, and the group splits (for a time) because of her presence. She turns their reliable, cohesive world of secret handshakes and specialized knowledge upside down. She’s the outside world, forcing them to change. I don’t know what happens in the show, how or even if that conflict is resolved. 

When I look around gaming culture (and larger nerd culture) in the 21st century, I am still seeing that conflict, and the desire to hold on to the all-boy club. Now, they are clubs of men in their 30’s and 40’s trying to reclaim the “swell chums” or secret tribe of their youth. I can understand that impulse, totally. As I get older it is very obvious that the world is moving around me. I can’t keep up with developments, even in my favorite hobby. I understand the desire to hold things in place and try to recapture a feeling or experience that I felt to be empowering, even if it was empowering because it was exclusive.

There is not anything really wrong with that. We all want to belong and to feel our hobbies and habits are unique and special. Socially, we are free to limit our gaming table or groups of friends only to those people who polish our echo chamber. If you want to run a crunchy OSR game only for heteronormative men, by all means. Even if your play involves elements that are offensive or retrograde to some outsiders… that is also your right.

There are two things to remember about that right.

First, it only extends as far as your gaming table. When you go to a convention, you have to accept that the ground rules are different. Every player at your table is going to come from a different culture of role-playing. What they regard as normal will not be the same as what you regard as normal, even if you are both 45-year-old men who cut your teeth on Basic D&D in 1978. Accept that the ground rules are different. You may not need an X-Card at your table. You may have a house rule against people playing genders other than the one they present as. You need to put those aside and play according to the rules of the table and in such a way that you do not alienate the other players. You may think they are too sensitive, too weird, too restrictive. That’s fine. But when you sit down at a public table, the rules of the house apply.

Second… consider that your prepubescent tribe of friends may not be best model for a game group in your adult years. Consider that you cannot put the lightning back in the bottle. Remember that those boyhood cabals drifted apart because they made contact with the outside world. Your private world, your gaming table, your inside jokes…. there is nothing wrong with them if that is all you want from your hobby. But if you want to engage with the world outside your gaming table, you have to be prepared to welcome the existence of those whose enjoyment of the hobby was cut from an entirely different cloth.

Game cons and forums are full of grouchy guys talking about how the world of RPGs is just not what it was. I’m not talking about OSR gamers or grognards. I hear it from Vampire players, from Warhammer Fantasy RPG players, from boffer LARPers and even diceless Amber players. Fifteen years ago this sort of thing was mostly ironic posturing and guys in their late 20s waving imaginary canes in good humour.

I know I was guilty of it.

At some point this irony went septic and turned into real resentment. We hated the change. We did’t like the things that threatened our “way of life” and the grumbling turned to actual bile. Actual death threats have been leveled against game designers whose vision did not match that of the old boy’s view of the hobby.

And that’s weird, because it’s not like nostalgia is going anywhere.  There are still plenty of people willing to repackage and write and sell us the same experiences we had when we were 12 – talented game writers who are ready to keep bottling the lightning from our youth.  That segment of the hobby is still lively and growing and contains a lot of worthwhile product and ongoing innovation. But nostalgia only takes us so far as a collective of hobbyists. There is always going to be a new wave of gamers discovering the joy of the RPGs and they are going to engage with it in ways we could never expect.

They are creating new game experiences that reflect their world view. They play differently, because their world is different. Encompassing and accepting that difference is a way to make your world bigger and make your gaming table a more welcoming place. Why not check out their games, and not just the old standards? Check out games written by women, by people of colour, by people of widely different backgrounds than your own. It’s like seeing the hobby through a new set of eyes.

At the very least, you’ll be helping to keep your beloved hobby growing.

And remember, in the end, there is nothing particularly helpful about not wanting to play well with others.


This tablet was legit the best thing I bought all convention season. Talk about a life saver.

What aspect of Roleplaying Games has had the biggest effect on you?

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 How does your group like to start a session?

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Toronto Area Gamers Logo Fan Expo Canada Logo How We Play Logo

This summer I organized my first panel ever! It was for the Toronto Area Gamers as part of Fan Expo Canada‘s gaming track. The Finding Your RPG Style panel was recorded by Dave Leaman for the How We Play podcast.

Here is the description of the panel:

Every tabletop RPGs is different, and finding the one that fits your style can improve your gaming experiences. How much do you like to prepare? What type of material do you like to prepare? Should there be a Game Master? How much control over the game and the world should each player have? Our panelists will review common styles of roleplaying, and suggest games you should play to meet the needs of your RPG style.

Huge thanks to Alexander, Dave, Geoff, Jonathan and Kate for making this a great panel!

Check out the podcast here!

Languages in Dungeon WorldUsing languages that the player characters are not supposed to understand has always been tricky for me in games. I’ve always been of the opinion that if there is something important that the characters need to know, just tell them! However, in the back of the Planarch Codex, one of the Kickstarter supplements for Dungeon World, I noticed the following move that caught my imagination:

When you interact with someone and don’t share a common way of speaking or doing business, roll+Cha. On a 10+, choose 3. On a 7-9, choose 2. On a miss, choose 1 but they’re clearly not happy with you.
• you make yourself understood
• you grasp more-or-less what they want
• you don’t look like a fool, child, or asshole
• you catch something they didn’t intend you to understand
• you make progress in learning how to interact with these people; start a new countdown or fill in a box of an existing one

The GM should use the number of filled-in boxes in your countdowns as a measure of your fluency, helping determine when to roll this move.

Countdowns were introduced earlier in the Codex, essentially you draw three to six boxes on your sheet (depending on length or in this case difficulty of learning a given language) and the GM can give you incentives to progress down them, or make progressing down them part of a move, etc. When they are full, a thing happens. In this case it would be “Become fluent in language X”

This seems like a great way to have languages be part of a game, because no matter what you roll, the player will always have the option to understand what they want, and can choose a level of understanding that reflects how important they think the conversation is.

Inspired by this, I’ve come up with language related moves for the other mental traits:

When you study a written text in a language that you are not fluent in, roll+Int. On a 10+, choose 3. On a 7-9, choose 2. On a miss, you can choose only 1.
• You grasp the purpose of the text. (It’s a warning sign, It’s a treatise on herbology, It’s the name of this mine shaft, etc.)
• You understand more-or-less the literal meaning of what has been written.
• You glean a hidden meaning, metatextual element or cultural context.
• You don’t take a long time.
• You make progress in learning how to read this language; start a new countdown or fill in a box of an existing one.

When you actively listen to a language that you are not fluent in, roll+Wis. On a hit, you understand the conversation, more-or-less. On a 10+, choose 2. On a 7-9, choose 1.
• You gain additional information about the speakers. (Where they are from, level of education, etc.)
• You understand a reference not meant for the casual listener.
• It isn’t obvious that you understand what is being said.
• You make progress in learning how to understand this language; start a new countdown or fill in a box of an existing one.

I think these moves would be great in a game where you’ve already asked your players “What is your character’s home language?” and maybe “What language is your character trying to learn?”. They could even start with a Countdown partially filled out!

Dragon Raid Adventure Learning System

So, as Piet chronicled in his previous post, we played Dragon Raid over Easter. Despite Piet’s review of 6 out of 10, which I tend to agree with, Dragon Raid is worth playing as a curiosity in gaming history.

Dragon Raid is a game about very specific ideas surrounding a particular faith, and the mechanics and official adventures that I was exposed to seem to be designed to ensure that players are interacting with these ideas almost every time they are engaging the system.  The game includes Character Strengths like Joy, Love, Peace, etc., Character Abilities like Merciful Compassion, Hatred of Evil and Righteously Mingle with Evil,  and a “Word Rune” system where reciting bible verses has a defined mechanical effect in play.  This sort of clarity of focus reminds me of the discussions the came from the Forge that I am seeing a lot of in the modern indie games I’ve been picking up. However I feel like it drops the ball in the execution of these mechanics.  They were clunky, required a lot of calculation and charts and could use some refining when compared to something like Dogs in the Vineyard, which also touches on similar religious overtones, but asks the player different questions.

And questions is really what a game is all about.  Sadly if you came to Dragon Raid with questions about faith and Christianity and the whys and hows of it all.. Dragon Raid will not answer them. For a game designed in 1984 I think there are some ways in which it was conceptually ahead of its time.

If I have one recommendation to anyone who plans on trying out this game, don’t try to create the characters by hand. I’ve put together a quick spreadsheet that will have your Light Raider rolled up and ready to battle evil in no time!  Check it out and let me know what you think.

Dragon Raid Character Sheet




You have probably never played Dragonraid. You probably never will. It’s an especially odd duck in a hobby full of odd ducks. It’s a role playing game for Christians, published in 1984 as a safe alternative to Dungeons and Dragons.

I first encountered Dragonraid while attending a Christian school in spring, 1987. I’d just started playing the FASA Doctor Who RPG during lunch hour with a small group of friends. A player’s father expressed concern our games lacked a clear moral compass. And, he was entirely right. The game was full of random death, greed, misanthropy and the usual sorts of stupid stuff that 13-year-old boys come up with when left to their own devices.

Dragonraid was presented to us as an alternative. Not one of those shady “roleplaying games”, but an “Adventure Learning System” that would instil important moral lessons and scriptural familiarity. I was the GM, so the player handed the rulebook over to me for review. I was both fascinated and appalled. I was intrigued by the setting, a weird mix of SF and fantasy, where “monsters,” like Goblins are actually the descendants of criminal aliens.


The PTL Club Renn Faire

The game takes place on a planet called EdenAgain. During the creation of this world by “The Overlord of Many Names,” an evil dragon released an egg onto the planet, which split into nine and became the seed of all unrest and wickedness. Over time, the descendants of dragons born from that first egg gained the upper hand, and the Overlord of Many Names had to sacrifice himself to save the world. Sort of. He came back to life a while later. Let me know if this sounds  familiar…

Humanity is divided into two factions. The TwiceBorn, the servants of the Overlord, live in a magical enclave known as the “Liberated Lands.” The Liberated Lands are a small peninsula protected from the dragon dominated lands by a magical mountain chain to the north and a turbulent, misty seas in all other directions. The Liberated Lands are essentially a Renn Faire designed by Jim and Tammy Bakker. TwiceBorn humans are taught that outsiders, the OnceBorn, or Dragonslaves, are miserable slaves. The OnceBorn may have fine stone houses and plentiful food and leisure time, but as they don’t have the saving grace of the Overlord, they are not really happy. They may think they are happy, but they aren’t!

"Roll to Mingle with the Unrighteous!"

“Roll to Mingle with the Unrighteous!”

The Dragonlands are ruled by nine different breeds of dragon, each race embodying a moral failing or representative of one of the snares of Satan. They once brutalized the humans under their control, but realized that it’s easier to dominate humans when they’re happy. So, they turned to other planets to supply their victims, inviting them to send their wretched, their depraved, their poor addled masses, their revolutionaries, lunatics and criminals. So arrived Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Ogres, Flusterbeasts and other weird creatures. These races were tortured and further abused by the dragons, and thoroughly Stockholm Syndromed into liking it. They now serve specific roles in the dragon kingdoms. Goblins are sadists, torturers and the like. Orcs are the warriors. Other monsters serve as greedy merchants, spies, and so on.

Too Pagan? And Too Violent?

Two things unsettled me, at age 13.  First, the game explicitly states that humans are off limits. If you kill a OnceBorn human, no matter how evil, you’ve failed. However, evil creatures – humanoid monsters – are fair game. Not only are they fair game, God expects you to slaughter some monsters out of hand, regardless of age or infirmity. Killing orcs and goblins in their sleep is specifically condoned and encouraged.

Now, I realize that killing sleeping goblins is an essential part of every 13-year-old boy’s gaming experience. But very few games encourage the behaviour. In D&D, the secular game that lacked the supposed moral compass of Dragonraid, killing sleeping or helpless sentients is an evil act, even if they are goblins. And, the combat system is actually more explicitly violent than D&D, with critical charts that contain, for example, two “groin hit” locations.

The second thing that bothered me was the requirement to memorize scripture passages (“Wordrunes”) to achieve in-game effects. You cannot proceed in any of the modules, as written, without memorizing and parroting verses from the New International Version of the Bible. While the memorization didn’t bother me (at the time), I was bothered by the use of scripture verse as “magic spells.” You want to open the mysterious cave? You need to repeat a verse. All of you.

We decided the game was too violent and too pagan.

Think about that.

We were a quartet of 13-year-old boys at a private Christian school, which one would think was the ideal market for the game. But we thought it was theologically inferior to the Doctor Who game and went back to fighting Daleks. In other words, the game that was given to us as a holy alternative to the violence and magical thinking of Dungeons & Dragons… was full of violence and magical thinking.

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It’s a half truth when I say that I’ve been only roleplaying since 2009. I got my start roleplaying in the weird and hodgepodge world of online roleplaying; a land of instant chats, journals and forum posts. Hours of late nights staring at text prompts and pondering what my characters would do next. Freeform RP, the most pure and honest form of roleplaying! Well, according to some.

Mary Sue - Dice

Dice or, as they are known in some circles,
“The Devil’s Plot Device”

I don’t buy the argument that the the biggest difference between freeform and structured RPGs is dice. It’s an easy comparison to make, but it doesn’t really say anything intelligent about the divide. All it does is set up the “roleplay and rollplay” puns that make freeform supporters feel clever until a tabletop support points out that Amber exists and the already weak debate breaks down into mudslinging.

The biggest difference I’ve found is the freedom for a female player to play whatever she wants without fear of repercussions. This might not mean much in the male domained ends of the RPG community, but it was a game changer for me.

A large part of the problem in Freeform RPG lies with the concept of “Mary Sue”. For those not familiar with the term, “Mary Sue” is a term from fan fiction that refers to an character based on an idealized version of the author. Mary Sue is promoted to Starfleet Captain, discovers that Force is strong with her and is sorted into all of the Hogwarts’ houses before her lunch date with that sexy boy who’s been staring at her in biology class.

Mary Sue is also a label tossed on every female character that rubs someone the wrong way. Too many flaws or too little flaws? Mary Sue. Too much success, to the point of being perfect, or too little success, to the point of ridiculous angst? Of course a Mary Sue! Too strong a character, too weak a character, a name that was just a bit too exotic…

Needless to say, I was paranoid about playing female characters in Freeform RP for the longest time. I tended to gravitate towards male characters as if playing a guy made me a better person and storyteller somehow. When I did play female characters, I ate accusations of playing a “Sue”. There was no escaping it.

Mary Sue - Streets of Fire

Really, Tabletop RPGs are about playing the cast of Streets of Fire in varying scenarios. This includes the ladies.

A couple of friends invited me to a tabletop game in 2009 and I discovered something marvelous: women gamers not ashamed to play badass ladies and who didn’t ponder if their characters were legit or not. They were too busy having a good time. It took me awhile to get used to the idea of playing a woman who chewed scenery, was larger than life and wasn’t a carefully-designed-to-be-as-inoffensive-as-possible, but I eventually got over myself.

The nature of Tabletop RPGs solves most of the Sue problem. Ideally, everyone is playing a character who’s over the top already. The character sheets and stats keeps the PCs mostly in line with each other, if not the rest of the world. The dice randomly determine success or failure. You can have a character who’s had a ridiculously bad go at it, but the assumption is that you had bad luck with dice rather than created a character for self wallowing. And, if you have a winning streak, the whole party cheers with you. That party support makes all the difference. You don’t have to be afraid of a stranger judging you for playing your gender “wrong”.

I miss some of those old Freeform games I was in, but I doubt I would ever make the switch back. A Tabletop session might only be a few hours every other week or once a month, but it’s worth the wait for a few hours of gaming glory instead of hanging out in a chat room and being ignored for daring to play a woman in a roleplaying game.


It’s Christmas, 1979.

I’m five years old, Pierre Trudeau is prime minister (again).  Tim Hortons doughnuts are 50 per cent bigger than nowadays, but 500 per cent more likely to taste like an ash tray.  Wayne and Shuster are on TV, and my teenage cousin is playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

I spent that Christmas in Brockville, visiting my grandparents and aunts and uncles on my dad’s side. I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and cats, but I don’t know it yet. The house has both smokes and cats in ample supply, leading to a frantic late night E.R. visit when my left eye swelled up and turned bright red. That’s pretty much all I remember about that trip, that, and the fact that my cousin was playing a strange game. Hours before bedtime (when my eye was still “just a little itchy”), there was a break in the game. I snuck into the side room where my cousin played, to investigate his strange game of toy soldiers with swords.

The room where they played was littered with miniatures and hand-built terrain, which did double duty as landscape for my cousin’s collection of 1:35 military models. I couldn’t read yet, but I was fascinated with one of the books. It depicted strange and wonderful creatures locked in combat, both above and below ground.

I was in high school before I saw that book again, and realized it was the first edition of the AD&D Monster Manual.


 It’s summer, 1983.

I’m nine years old. I know how to read and I’m reading voraciously. Fantasy, science-fiction and science-fact, military history, the Bible, trashy creation science books, equally lurid parapsychology paperbacks –  anything with blood and death or magic and mystery in it. I am devoutly religious to the point of paranoia, convinced of the physical existence of demons who imperil my immortal soul.

The Cold War is in its last hysterical spasm. Nuclear war by 1990, say all the grown-ups, right up to the U.S. president. Nuclear war, or the Anti-Christ, or both. It’s one of the hottest summers on record. We don’t have air conditioning, or a television, or a car. I spend a lot of time reading in a blazing hot living room.

A few times a month, I navigate to the library on my bike through a scar of undeveloped land that cuts through several neighbourhoods. We call it the Pipeline. In 1983 it’s a muddy dumping ground, haunted by angry dogs and bullies from the wrong side of the tracks. It takes the better part of an hour to get to the library, and I imagine it as a passage through the Mutara Nebula, my BMX a scout ship sent to bring back information from the distant repository of antiquity.

One day, I found a copy of an unusual book. It looked like a sword and sorcery novel, but it was also a game. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but better. It was called Warlock of Firetop Mountain, a Fighting Fantasy novel. These were solo roleplaying games. Using a basic system and six-sided dice you’d navigate a dungeon or city or haunted house or a space ship, and I was hooked. I built up a collection of them over the next few years. They were an escape from the anxiety and paranoia of the real world.


It’s January, 2013.

I’m 38 years old. I have two daughters. I’m acting as game master, running their characters through Warlock of Firetop Mountain. It takes hours, but their attention doesn’t waver. They managed to sneak past the sleeping orcs, reason with the raving prisoner, puzzle their way through the Maze of Zagog, slay a dragon and claim the Warlock’s treasure. They’re hooked, just like I was, 30 years before.

I generally count my formal start in this hobby sometime in April, 1987, when I received a copy of the FASA Doctor Who RPG for my 13th birthday. It was the first “real” role-playing game I owned, and within weeks I was playing with my friends in the library of our private Christian school. That means this year will mark 26 years of being a “real” gamer. In that time I’ve been a player, a game master, a play tester, and a paid game writer. I’ve earned more money writing roleplaying games than I’ve spent buying them, though not much more.

But although 1987 was the year I started playing, it seems clear that the seeds of the gamer personality had sprouted a long time before. There’s the escapism, the attraction to the fantastic, the macabre and wonderful. I’ve never grown tired of the hobby because it is a perfect outlet for my personality.

The author George R.R. Martin once wrote:
“Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy is habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. We read fantasy to find the colours again, I think. To taste strong spices, and hear the songs the sirens sang.”

I think we play games for the same reason.