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Pandemic Escape: Role Playing in 2020

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Pandemic Escape: Role Playing in 2020

This started off as a reply to the “What RPG’s are you Playing” thread, but I guess I had too much to say…

I have been playing D&D on and off since somewhere around 1979 but I have never done AS MUCH role-playing as I have in 2020.  With game nights and band rehearsals both on hold, role-playing on line has become my main form of social interaction and has brought some incredibly fun times.  One thing that I have learned is that role-playing, even more than board gaming, is highly dependent on the group.  Players that can bring surprises, originality, and humor (including ridiculous accents) to the game can make any story engaging and fun.  That said, in addition to D&D I have played a number of great games this year.

I think my favorite has been ULTRA VIOLET GRASSLANDS.  Set in a world highly reminiscent of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series this game has been delightfully insane.  Again, it helps that we had a group that was more than willing to really dive into the psychedelic elements of the experience and together created a story and characters that really shine.  So, for example, we had an event where we all mutated in different ways based on the roll of a die.  My mutation was that my character could no longer speak with words but instead radiated colors when he tried to talk.  I thought this was going to be horrible but rolled with it and it turned out to be a hilarious experience.  When we needed to distract a group of bionic monkeys, I said “banana yellow” to them…

I was also impressed by TALES FROM THE LOOP which has a very “Stranger Things” feel to it as we are all children or young teens that get caught up in a spooky mystery sometime in the 1980’s.  I really appreciated how refined and simple the rules were which made it so much easier to focus on telling the story rather than fighting with the rules or having to pause to look things up.  Our story climaxed with our group riding our bikes into battle side by side with scores of “living” toy Transformer robots.  Hilarious.  I loved the part when our DM (Josh Look) asked us to all describe our bicycles.  Beautiful!

Josh also led us through a game of MONSTER OF THE WEEK, which was great.  The core concept seems to be based on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with each player taking the role of one of the iconic tropes from that type of show.  Again, streamlined rules made learning and playing the game very easy so we could focus more of our attention to the story.  We only played once but I would play again in a heartbeat.

We also played some 3,2,1… ACTION! Which is another super slick role-playing game co-created by one of Josh’s friends John McGuire who does the Vintage RPG podcast.  Based on the over the top action movies of the 1980’s, this high energy system uses the roll of one die to determine EVERYTHING which helps keep the flow of the game moving at a good clip.  Our group volunteered to play test this game for John and we had an excellent time with the fun weapons and huge battle scenes.  I really wanted to continue our game, but unfortunately the module we were playing had not yet been fully written so we had to stop.  I’m hoping to pick this one up again when John is ready for us.

For the last few weeks we have been enjoying a game of TINY SUPERS, which is a super hero based game.  Our weekly group had to take a short break from UVG so my buddy Dan thought this would be a fun way to spend some time.  I love the way the rules break down every aspect of the super hero genre into discrete bits, covering not just super powers but also personality, friends, back-story, weaknesses and everything else.  Creating a character was loads of fun.  Unfortunately, the rules as written don’t always make sense and there were a few things that needed to be ‘tweaked”.  Since Dan has worked as an editor and writer for both Marvel and DC Comics these tweaks came pretty naturally to him and he spent some time with each of us individually to help strengthen the foundation of what has become an incredibly enjoyable experience.  It’s been fun seeing how very different all of our characters are, even in terms of what period of comics they seem to come from.  My character “Doctor Gravity” is clearly from the world of Stan Lee 1960’s Marvel, while Shellie is “Margo the Magnificent” a magic user rooted in 1990’s Vertigo concepts.  Getting all five of these fundamentally different heroes to work together successfully should prove to generate a very interesting story.

Finally, my friend Mike gathered together a group so that we could play a Christmas themed module of DUNGEON CRAWL CLASSISCS.  This system seems to be based on older versions of Dungeons & Dragons, though it is a bit simplified and doesn’t get into specific skills or saving throws, basing everything the basic stats.  It does add a few things, specifically the Heroic Deeds rule which gives a player an extra die and a chance to do extra damage on an attack if they are willing to specifically describe what it is that they are trying to do.  This system adds a great deal of drama and humor to combat as players come up with different crazy ways to use that extra die.  So rather than saying “I attack with my sword” the player can say “I jump up in the air and come down on my enemy swinging my sword in an attempt to cleave his head.”  Whether the move succeeds or fails, we are all having more fun hearing this detailed description of the battle. 

Well that’s about it for now, but we still have some time before we get back to face to face gaming.  I know that there are few more games and “one shots” that my friends are yearning to host, so perhaps I’ll have another list in the near future.  If anyone has a recommendation for a fun and quick game without too many rules please let me know.  It’s far past my turn to run a game and I just have no idea what to suggest.  Thanks!!!!

There Will Be Games

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ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #319358 19 Feb 2021 15:51
I think I have done more role playing over the past year than any other time in my life. We have been blessed with awesome DMs.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319360 19 Feb 2021 16:04
Tabletop RPGs were already on their way up in the culture, but I feel like Covid has just sent them into the stratosphere. It's especially great to see because the RPG format is so amenable to anyone with an idea jumping and creating their own product, since it's a relatively low investment.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319363 19 Feb 2021 17:03
I used to feel badly about it, but I now accept without shame that I am a good gamemaster and a terrible player. I am the guy who falls asleep during the long discussions about shopping, division of loot, and that very elaborate plan to outwit the bad guys. I wake up for the combats and then fall asleep during the long conversations. This is not about my (advanced aged), as I was the sleepy player even in my teens and 20s. Put me behind a ref screen, and I can keep even a large group entertained for even a marathon session. Well, unless there is another sleepy player on the other side of the screen. I never shame or mock the sleepy player, and even make occasional efforts to get them more engaged.

Last February, an old friend from high school recruited me to play in his online D&D campaign. I didn't fall asleep, but I still struggled to pay attention during the inevitable long discussions about shopping, loot, and the elaborate plan. The only role-playing that I have enjoyed since 2019 was playing Thousand Year Old Vampire and playing pc games with a role-playing focus.
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #319369 19 Feb 2021 22:26

Gary Sax wrote: Tabletop RPGs were already on their way up in the culture. . .


Yeah, I remember being shocked when a teen that I worked with a couple of years ago told me he was playing D&D. Shocked because he was the coolest, toughest kid in school. I asked him "Is D&D becoming more popular because of Stranger Things?" He answered in his cool, detached manner; "It's a very popular show".
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319371 20 Feb 2021 00:00
Yeah. I genuinely believe that more people being into RPGs is awesome, especially if it's a broader swath of young people than traditionally. It's such a different experience than many of the activities that define high school for kids---it's not a sports team, so it's not competitive, zero-sum activity. It's much more akin to being in a band or music class but as a social activity and without the heavy startup costs.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #319379 20 Feb 2021 11:46
@Shellhead

We don’t seem to have long discussions about shopping, division of loot, or elaborate plans to outwit the bad guys.

Money loot is divided evenly. Equipment loot goes to the person who found it, because usually our DM has purposely provided it for that character. Occasionally the person who found it will decide to give it to someone else, or give away the equipment it replaces. It usually takes one sentence.

Shopping is like “ You have arrived at a good sized town. Now is a good time for a smoke/bathroom break. Anyone who wants to shop can do it while we break Everything that’s on the standard equipment tables is available. Your used equipment can be sold for half price. Update your character sheets accordingly.”

I think our longest planning discussion has been, “The cleric has a command spell, so if if the bard fails her persuasion, and the pirate falls his intimidation, then we fall back on the command spell.”

Our longest discussions are about which route to take. If we can’t reach consensus quickly, we just take a vote.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #319408 21 Feb 2021 00:41
At this point, RPGs are really my main gaming thing and board games are the backup, what we do when we don’t have a full group. Even my kids forgo most of the board games (except for 1 on 1 stuff) and ask for a D&D session. I just unloaded a bunch of shelf toads and used the money to invest in Warlock Tiles, something we’ll use at least twice a week. I also bought a few sets of high end dice that cost more than a lot of board games.

Online playing has been truly transformative. Remember, I was already back deep into RPGs when COVID hit and was already realizing that the format was going though a boom period with the indie stuff happening. But once online play became the norm...suddenly it was possible to play two hour sessions instead of booking an entire weekend day with four other people to play. Suddenly there was an impetus to really dig in and learn to use the online tools. Suddenly GMing a game became easier than teaching a new board game.

I’ve gotten to play so many great RPGs remotely because of COVID...DCC, Mothership; Alien, OSE, Stars Without Number; Stay Frosty, SWRPG; Troika, Mork Borg...hell I am even about to play Pathfinder because one of my buddies wants to run it.

That’s the other thing. I am playing with friends I’ve known for 15+ years that live all over the country. People I used to see once a year at Dragon Con are now closer friends.

TBQH, I’m not sure “after this is all over” if I want to go back to the standard face to face sessions. I still want to see friends and hang out, but I think that will be a once a month thing with maybe a special long session. I do have one group that greatly prefers F2F and they actually kind of bailed on remote....which I thought was really weird. But they are also younger and want to drink,smoke, and cut up more. I was running a F2F 5e campaign with them for year before the apocalypse. I do really like playing F2F at home with my kids and their friends though...we have an awesome D&D game going - they just entered Quasqueton.

And my daughter just started running a D&D campaign she is doing- I almost cried. Actually, I did cry. It’s something to do with elemental panthers (!) and she insisted that I play a female Druid and her brother play a Kenku rogue.

I have got to get UVG going, that book is incredible. Maybe after this Pathfinder foray LOL.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319411 21 Feb 2021 02:36
What covid has meant for my gaming is like an entirely different interesting thread. For me, if I isolate just covid itself and gaming from its cornucopia of other nightmarish effects on my psyche, covid and online tools have been pretty good for my gaming. I didn't have a steady group besides a lot of two player with my spouse and this has opened a lot of doors to play with people I actually (online) like instead of braving randos in town.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319414 21 Feb 2021 11:35
Ubarose, your group sounds sensible, but different from all the various role-playing groups that I played with over the years. And it isn't like I am just playing with the same people. I have gone through numerous iterations of gaming groups over the years, sometimes with zero overlap in players from previous groups. In my last D&D campaign, I encouraged players to handle loot division, shopping, crafting, and spell selection in between sessions via emails, and I suppose the big plan thing is less of an issue in a dungeon crawl than an adventure in a town or wilderness adventure. But as a player in other campaigns, it often seems like half of every game session was spent on downtime and planning, and it dragged. There seemed to be a particular obsession with avoiding reckless mistakes by overplanning everything.

As DM, I have tried to keep the focus on action by overpreparing everything. It is rare that the game comes to a halt because I need to look something up, either because I wrote the adventure myself or I read it repeatedly before running. I spend a lot of time reading and pondering the rulebook for an rpg before even starting a campaign, and I will happily make the occasional improvised ruling on the spot to avoid halting the game over a rule question. I create cheatsheets and summaries for the current adventure and clip them to the ref screen. And I like to run adventures where player delays have consequences, like allowing the bad guys more time to recover, recruit, or advance their evil plot.

One time I ran a published Stormbringer scenario ("See Hwaamgaarl and Die") that I suspect was loosely based on the movie The Warriors ("Warriors, come out and play!"). I kept things moving at a relentless pace. If the players paused the game to have a ponderous discussion, their pursuers would immediately catch up and another fight would break out. After a couple of these attacks, the group caught on and picked up the pace. A couple of the players realized what I was doing but not why, and were resentful, because they loved the ponderous strategy talks. A couple of other players told me later that they really enjoyed the fast-paced session.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #319416 21 Feb 2021 12:33
If a player genuinely likes planning and strategizing, then that's their jam and nothing will change that.

In my experience, though, many players feel they have to do it. They might have the optimization bug that makes them think they have to haggle every last gold piece out of a transaction, or need to maximize every single possible point of damage per turn. Or they might be so attached to their characters that they are terrified of making a suboptimal equipment choice and then they are stuck without a mallet and iron spikes (or whatever).

For those players, rules changes normally help. Either house rules like Uba's, or a different system like Blades in the Dark. BITD has a few great subsystems that cut down on the boring stuff. One is that you choose your encumbrance level before a mission, but you don't choose your equipment until you actually use it. Another is that you can use "flashbacks" at any point to represent the planning you did previously. So you don't need to bribe a guard in advance, you can just decide you did it in media res. (There's no chance of failure; just a chance you might take more "Stress" if you roll poorly.) Also there's no shopping lists; your character sheet for your class just has a list of stuff you'd typically use.

For D&D specifically, I heard of a con game run by a old-school DM, one of the early TSR guys, who would start rolling on the wandering monster table every time the players started talking too much. That sounds similar to your Stormbringer solution but not quite as brutal, since there's only a chance of an encounter and not a guaranteed fight. (And the encounter might not end up being hostile.)
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319424 21 Feb 2021 15:47
One of the old school hard-boiled detective writers admitted that whenever he had writer's block, he would have a man with a gun show up to menace the protagonist. That would keep the story moving along at a brisk pace while leapfrogging over the writer's block. I'm guessing that it was Raymond Chandler or maybe Dashiell Hammett. Anyway, that was likely my inspiration for how I ran that one Stormbringer adventure.
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #319427 21 Feb 2021 16:59

Michael Barnes wrote: I am playing with friends I’ve known for 15+ years that live all over the country. People I used to see once a year at Dragon Con are now closer friends.


Us, too! Absolutely the best thing to come out of this disaster of a year. Getting together with a group of our dearest friends on a regular basis just wasn't possible before because of the distance. Now we do it every week and it has been an incredibly important part of hanging on to my sanity. I really hope we are able to keep this going when "normal" comes around, but there's no way it's going to continue to be on Saturday nights!

Michael Barnes wrote: And my daughter just started running a D&D campaign she is doing- I almost cried. Actually, I did cry.


Me, too! Zoe has become a Roll20 master in a way I could never hope to match. She is also great a giving all the NPCs different voices. Cracks me up!

Michael Barnes wrote: I have got to get UVG going, that book is incredible. Maybe after this Pathfinder foray LOL.


You REALLY do. So much fun!
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #319428 21 Feb 2021 17:05

Shellhead wrote: One of the old school hard-boiled detective writers admitted that whenever he had writer's block, he would have a man with a gun show up to menace the protagonist. That would keep the story moving along at a brisk pace while leapfrogging over the writer's block. I'm guessing that it was Raymond Chandler or maybe Dashiell Hammett. Anyway, that was likely my inspiration for how I ran that one Stormbringer adventure.


I think this is part of the DM's job. Keep the story moving. I didn't know what to do with one of my groups of young men who just wanted to rob the people in town rather than go on the actual adventures. Eventually I realized the town need a big group of heavily armed police. . .
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #319429 21 Feb 2021 18:20
Having played most of these with Al of the last year, this was a fun look back at what we've played together.

As the primary GM, I feel like I've earned the place to give an honorable mention to our Inspectres one shot. It's not a game that's easy to tell others about what made an individual game of it great, but I hadn't laughed that hard all year.
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #319462 22 Feb 2021 13:21

Josh Look wrote: As the primary GM, I feel like I've earned the place to give an honorable mention to our Inspectres one shot. It's not a game that's easy to tell others about what made an individual game of it great, but I hadn't laughed that hard all year.


Yeah, I wrote this piece before we played INSPECTRES. I almost added it before submitting, but figured I had babbled on for long enough already. I'm sure we have a bunch of RPGing to do in 2021, so hopefully I'll get a chance to write that one up in the near future. We did laugh!!!!