Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice

I Blamed It On a Dragon Of Their Acquaintance 01 October 2017
  1. Posted by Brett Evill at 01:33pm on 01 October 2017

    On a recent trip I read Brian Jamison's "Gamemastering" http://wwwgamemastering.info. On the whole I found it good.

    Chapter 3 is about creating the universe (setting). Jamison's approach is very definitely to keep the initial development simple and skeletal; he suggests that creating a setting for a game ought to take less time than it takes to read a typical game setting (a couple of hours). This is because, he says, having a skeletal setting allows you to incorporate good ideas that the character-players come up with, allows you to customise detail to the needs of an adventure as it occurs, and (most importantly) allows you to design a world that is suitable to the adventuring requirements of the player characters, about whom you will not even know until they are generated.

    Jamison's assertion is that a setting painted with a broad brush at the beginning of a campaign, with appropriate, convenient detail filled in only when and as needed, is actually better than having a richly defined setting. Perhaps because my morale is especially low just now, I thought he had a point. What grew to be the rich detailed settings of mine to which players returned enthusiastically were perhaps more fun to GM when they were starting out, and I was fractalating significant features as I went along.

    I've always enjoyed answering questions about Gehennum and Flat Black more than I have liked writing out methodical descriptions. (Except that one time in '91, the accident with a borrowed Mac and a bout of hypomania.)

    Peace!

  2. Posted by Brett Evill at 01:44pm on 01 October 2017

    I think you were asking about how we got into RP. I read an article in "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine" in 1979. It was "On Evenings Beyond the Fields We Know", by the late John M. Ford. I found it very convincing. But I had to move to Sydney from the small country town where I lived, and start going to a very much nerdier high school before I found anyone else to play with, or a source of rule books.

    We taught ourselves out of 1st edition D&D books. Our games were awful. I'm amazed that I stuck with it.

    There were some people who didn't run their own games in the thicket I played in at Uni of New South Wales in the early Eighties. I knew one person who played but did not GM at the Australian National University in the late Eighties. Generally, though, the idea was that GMing a couple of games and playing a character in a lot was normal.

    Is that what you were asking about?

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 02:05pm on 01 October 2017

    It's good to have a flexible world, I agree, but it's also good to have enough of a framework to be able to say "yeah, I can answer that question in a way that's consistent with what I've said before and what I'll want to say in the future, because I know at least in outline what sort of legal system these people have".

    It is of course much easier to build up a vast detailed construct inside your own head (plus notes) than to transfer that construct to someone else such that they can run it.

    The general question I'm asking is "did your first experience of role-playing have someone in it who'd played before with other people, or were you all starting from just having read the rulebooks?". Sounds as if you're in the second category, which is what I'm regarding as fairly unusual in the early days.

  4. Posted by Michael Cule at 05:14pm on 01 October 2017

    I'd agree with Brian Jamison's advice and I tried to say in the podcast (perhaps not clearly enough) that I get a lot of pleasure out of the early days of a campaign, when I'm exploring what sort of world must exist to give the players the characters they want and what sort of things the questions the players ask imply.

    But I don't think that fact should prevent people like you, Brett, or the more exalted example of Professor Barker, from giving what they have to the world. Just as long as you clear mark it as 'this is they way I did it: you can (and must and will) use it differently' then that's fine.

    And I remember that Mike Ford article... Checking my bookshelves it seems to have gone to the Oxford University Speculation Fiction Group along with the rest of my ASIMOV'S collection at my last move. I think the title of JMF's earlier piece ON TABLETOP UNIVERSES must have been in my mind when I wrote a 'let's tell people about DnD piece' for the KNIGHTMARE fanzine and called it WORLDS ON A TABLETOP.

    The grandiloquence of the title that Brett remembers (which I think echoes something in Lord Dunsany) was also in the name of one of the postal games I ran: BEYOND THE GATES OF DREAM.

  5. Posted by Lee Williams at 06:06pm on 01 October 2017

    About enthusiasm levels, I also hardly ever get excited about new games these days (I'm 52) but I think the important thing is to still enjoy gaming. A very well-reasoned opinion from Roger about the upcoming Dark Conspiracy 4th edition. Having been involved with the now-defunct DCIII, I will say the the one major goal that we didn't achieve was a fully fleshed out worldbook. The idea was to redo the rules, which we did, and the detailed game world in a separate volume which Roger would have enjoyed as it was to be as close to systemless as we could have managed. We all know that people have their own preferred system and the setting doesn;t have to be from that game.

  6. Posted by Dr Bob at 06:25pm on 01 October 2017

    Thanks for the plug for Squaddies! Drinks will be provided!

    I don't remember WHERE I'd heard of it, but I was aware there was this thing called 'D&D roleplaying' before I ever laid eyes on it. My first game was when Brother#1 came back from a friend's house with a handful of borrowed polyhedral dice and some vague notions of the Basic D&D rules, so he ran a game for me and Brother#2. I was sufficiently intrigued to go (a) head to a games shop in Hammersmith when on a family holiday to Londonshire and buy my own AD&D rulebook, and (b) go looking for the D&D Society at university when I went back after the holidays. Again, I somehow knew of the games shop's existence and address before heading there. Perhaps there were adverts for it in 2000AD or other UK comics I read???

    My main early experience of gaming was that uni society. There were enough members that there were several games on the go at the same time. So people were divided into folk who GMed a lot, folk who GMed a little and folk who never GMed (or tried it once and didn't like it).

    Future topic for you - how do you become a good GM and when do you know it has happened?

  7. Posted by Lee Williams at 06:51pm on 01 October 2017

    As for how I got into roleplaying, I was a keen miniatures wargamer as a lad. One weekend at the regular club meeting I noticed a bunch of older chaps (I was 12 or 13 and they were uni students at this point) having a great deal of fun at a corner table but with no minis visible. The following week I went and made a few enquiries and that was it. Almost 40 years on and I'm still into it, although I don't have a regular game at the moment.

    insert whimsical passage-of-time special effect here

  8. Posted by Jon Hancock at 11:28am on 02 October 2017

    Lovely to hear S. John Ross' "Uresia: Grace of Heaven" get a mention. Not only a beautifully done and very accessible setting, it's also one of a depressingly small number of fantasy worlds not mired in the notion that adventure must always involve violence and general unpleasantness.

  9. Posted by RogerBW at 01:53pm on 02 October 2017

    Lee - and yet pretty much every worldbook published now does have an associated system, and mostly it's rules-and-world in a single book in a way that would look familiar if I'd just woken up from a 25-year role-playing coma. Because, I think, that vast majority of role-players wants stuff to kill, ready statted up, and you can't do that if you're systemless.

    One approach I've seen recently is to use a simple descriptive system with percentages or something of that sort, and have conversion guides. Not sure how well it'll work.

    Dr Bob: how do I know when I've become a good GM? I don't! Every new game session I run has a frisson of mild terror and impostor syndrome. Call it stage-fright if you're being polite.

  10. Posted by Brian Parker at 02:05pm on 02 October 2017

    Starting in Role-Playing

    I had just started working for ICL in the late 1970’s and my first assignment before commencing my licketyspit ascent up the digital ziggurat was to tend a group of mainframes used in a British Telecom project. I never found out exactly what the project was about but the job left me with ample free time so during one 12 hour night shift I picked up a copy of White Dwarf that my colleague had left on the console.

    I was intrigued enough to start buying my own copies and soon after found myself at Hamleys handing over the cash for a D&D red box basic set. Both of my younger brothers were interested so I set about preparing for the Keep on the Borderlands which went down mostly successfully. This progressed to AD&D 2nd edition which has been the bulk of my RPG experience since then however I have always had a soft-spot for Traveller going back to those days (LBB owner) even though it didn’t get properly played.

    I still don’t really know why but in 1984 I abruptly departed the UK to travel around several European countries plying my computerist trade. I finally settled here in Luxembourg where I bumped into a local group of AD&D 2nd edition gamers and we had a great time playing beer and crisps games, I even got them playing Paranoia from time-to-time which everyone enjoyed.

    I don’t get to play so much at the moment but I’m still very interested in GURPS, Traveller (GURPS and Mongoose 2nd) and occasional Paranoia and have even just bought Night’s Black Agents and the Laundry with an eye to maybe some modern era gaming. I can also run a mean AD&D 2nd game which usually has very little to do with dungeon crawling but that’s another story.

    Anyway, you were asking about how we got going and not my life story so I’ll shut up now.

    Many thanks for the highly enjoyable podcast.

  11. Posted by RogerBW at 03:27pm on 02 October 2017

    So far that's two each of "got it from others" vs "got it from the books". I, and I believe Michael, both got it from others.

  12. Posted by Robert at 04:43pm on 02 October 2017

    On the introduction to RPGs topic I experienced a mix. A fellow student brought a copy of the 1983 revision of the Basic Set to school. I looked at it with him during recess, took the players book home and learned from the numbered paragraph intro section that evening, returned the book, played two encounters over three days and then couldn't get hold of anything for a long while. I would have been around 10 years old at the time. This was circa 1987 in Arkansas over in the states. The barriers to availability from culture and age were pretty high.

    I picked up nearly everything else from books at that point. FASERIP Marvel and Palladium Robotech being standouts. A signal event was stumbling on copies of modules B2 and X1 in a used book store. Mind you I did not have any rules for D&D at that point.

    I did not have a steady group until undergraduate in the mid 90s. In that setting I was normally the one introducing games. The folk I fell in with were pretty heavy on AD&D2E that I'd never touched but World of Darkness landed then and consumed most of the bandwidth for three years.

    The main things I've gotten from others were names of books and settings that I pursued. GURPS and Amber are the two standout differences in that another active GM showed up during undergraduate showcased those very well and had an active hand on teaching the rules and setting.

    My other compatriots in undergraduate may have been oddballs though. When there was a break for me to enter an existing Champions game I was handed a copy of hero system that had been punched into a three ring binder from falling apart, asked to build a character and bring it back for revision.

    As I look at today's RPG environment, availability of PDFs strikes me as the key difference. For a very long time after first exposure I simply could not afford the books or get to a store to pick up books. A GURPS lite pdf in 1987 would have made a world of difference. Not that GURPS lite wasn't out there but access to it was a different beast.

    To summarize, I'd say I got the spark of interest in RPGs from another person but chasing and learning from books was what built the fire. I consider Mentzer's approach to structuring the 1983 Red Box to have had a considerable impact on that. At age 10 that Red Box taught me that I could learn RPGs from books.

  13. Posted by Robert at 11:00pm on 02 October 2017

    Talislanta comes directly to mind on the topics of single book settings with reliable goodies, creators of old resurfacing, and kickstarter issues.

    The fourth edition ("big blue book") of Talislanta is an exceptional example of one big setting document with a system tacked on. The first and fifth edition "The Chronicles of Talislanta" and the Second edition "Talislanta Worldbook" and "The Cyclopedia Talislanta" are essentially system-less versions of the setting.

    There are seven distinct regions. Each region in the book is presented as a capsule of who is there, what they do, some monsters, and some story ideas. I know the fourth edition specifically has lists of seven story ideas by region in the GM area.

    To my tastes anyone working on a setting document would benefit from at least a look over how Talislanta is laid out. I think Roger's observation that the current PDF environment could reward smaller documents over larger is relevant here. I could see the old free "What is Talislanta" backed up by seven smaller setting docs rather than one large book. Of course all of old Talislanta is now free on line thanks to the creator Stephen Michael Sechii.

    With his name in the mix, a kickstarter for Talislanta Savage Lands completed recently which moves the timeline back to a time immediately after a magical disaster. I am a backer for full disclosure. It is interesting to consider it from the discussion of a creator returning to old material and what that might say about their views of the original.

    The project advertised five rule set versions of the new book including Savage Worlds and Pathfinder. They have had to back off of those promises from insufficient demand to get those two systems licensed. Not critical to my enjoyment of the kickstarter although I was interested to see the Savage Worlds version. Sadly the passing of Stewart Wieck was one of the impacts on this project but it can be an object lesson in system-neutral versus multi-system.

  14. Posted by Brett Evill at 10:08am on 03 October 2017

    I ought to clarify. My friends and I taught ourselves using AD&D first edition, not D&D first edition.

  15. Posted by Tim Ellis at 02:35pm on 03 October 2017

    There was an XCom (tabletop) RPG - I remember seeing it, but never gave it much attention as I don't really do computer games, so it wasn't a setting that meant anythi ng to me.

  16. Posted by Tim Ellis at 02:42pm on 03 October 2017

    I was introduced to Roleplaying games through friends at my Scout troop - and they had been introduced through their school wargames club - so even back in the Eric J Holmes "Basic D&D" I was learning off people who had learnt off people (and one of the people they learnt off was probably future Imazine & White Dwarf editor Paul Mason...)

    A few years later in the days of "Red Box" Basic, one of my school friends was given a set for Christmas, and a group of them attempted to teach themselves - they got started, and then got stuck and invited me along to show them how it should be done - more friends got invited and I soon (if only briefly) had two groups...

  17. Posted by RogerBW at 04:54pm on 03 October 2017

    Robert: at the moment there isn't a reliable way to link from one PDF to another, which makes life harder for the flight of multiple small documents approach (not to mention you'd have to keep them in sync - some of us remember GURPS 3rd edition and its page number reference codes). Though many modern PDF readers can be told to index all the text content of a directory of PDFs, so you can have a quick game-specific search engine.

    Tim: as someone who's played the original XCom a little, I find myself much more inclined to make up my own off-brand XCom-a-like RPG setting than to play in an official one where the players will already know a bunch of the secrets. I like making up the mythology and backstory, and my players like engaging with it and working out the answers.

  18. Posted by Phil Masters at 11:43am on 06 October 2017

    I was introduced to wargaming through an overheard conversation at the lunch table at school, in the mid '70s, which led me to go along to the school wargames club. Then, being a wargamer in 1978 or so ensured that one would hear about this new Dee-un-Dee thingy via magazines and such.

  19. Posted by Brett Evill at 10:10pm on 08 October 2017

    Roger, Mike:

    Do you perchance know how many times each episode of your podcast is downloaded? What's the figure? Do you want to increase it?

  20. Posted by Anthony Shostak at 06:06pm on 09 October 2017

    Dear Robert and Michael,

    Regarding your podcast discussion and question as to how players got started in RPGs, my experience might be typical of the more isolated players (in my case, central Maine, USA). I did not learn RPGs from anybody. It was 1977, and my city (pop. About 25,000) had no gaming store. Nobody I knew even knew what an RPG was, let alone played one. I saw an ad in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine for a little, inexpensive game called Ogre, and ordered it through the post. It was great. And, in the package was a list of other microgames by Metagaming. I sent away for The Fantasy Trip: Melee, and fell in love with it. Soon after, I picked up TFT: Wizard. 1977 and 1978 saw the releases of the animated features The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which kindled the imaginations of just about every student in my school. So, when I introduced all the kids in my neighborhood to the Melee and Wizard, they proved to be popular pass-times. Shortly after, my brother and I picked up the basic boxed set of D&D, the one with the red dragon on the lid. We liked the somewhat more complex characters and switched to pretty much just playing D&D, quickly graduating to the Advanced rules as paper route income allowed. But, as soon as TFT: Advanced Melee, Wizard, and In the Labyrinth were released, we switched back. Although it was much simpler than D&D, TFT was more satisfying due to its deliberate (rather than random) character generation, skill system, non-Vancian magic system, faster-yet-more-realistic combat, etc., and we spent far more time in character with TFT than skimming through rules books, which was always happening with D&D. Since I was almost always GM, it was easy for me to insist that we play TFT, and nobody but parents who shelled out for those expensive D&D hardcover books seemed to mind. We stuck with TFT until GURPS came out, and we made that switch. But by then, our gaming group was scattering to the four winds, thanks to college and the necessity to work a whole lot more as adults than as teens. I didn’t find anyone with the time or inclination for RPGs in college, so fell out of gaming for many years. Finding players as an adult these days is very difficult in my geographic region, due to its relatively small population spread over a wide area; the subset who enjoy playing RPGs is difficult to muster.

    Thanks for your entertaining (and informative) podcast! It makes my commute far more enjoyable. Keep them coming!

  21. Posted by RogerBW at 10:45am on 10 October 2017

    Brett: as I write, this episode has been downloaded 314 times. Some of those will be multiplier services like iTunes, and I don't know how many downloads we may get there. More of an audience is always welcome, though!

  22. Posted by Brett Evill at 11:15am on 10 October 2017

    314 plus however many you get through iTunes, noting that I subscribe through iTunes and surely there must be someone else like me. At least 316. That's pretty prosperous.

  23. Posted by Dave Morris at 04:49pm on 16 October 2017

    My godson recently joined our game, having moved up to London to go to college, and I was astonished to hear that it was the first time he'd got to play in a game rather than running one. Given that he's been playing for almost ten years now, I'd say his group have been a bit lazy in that regard.

    Incidentally it was interesting to see his reaction to our style of play. We're all in our 40s to late 50s, he's not yet 20 and obviously used to systems a lot less baroque than GURPS 4e with all the trimmings. As we got into a gunfight and started totting up the damned modifiers for range, darkness, posture, etc, it was as if we'd brought out our tax return forms. To see oursels as ithers see us, indeed!

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Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice! is a podcast by Roger Bell_West and Michael Cule, in which we pontificate on role-playing games.

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