December is a time for meditation and self-reflection, to review the year that has almost passed and see what lessons can be learned for the future. It’s also a time when roleplayers go home to family or whatever, and with campaigns on hold, obsessives like me have nothing better than scrutinise their year in gaming.
I plan to follow this up with “state of the hobby” style examinations, but for now I’m indulging myself by chronicling my personal experience. Along the way, I’ll be ticking off some topics that weren’t big enough to get a blog post of their own, and hopefully making some broader points of relevance to my fellow hobbyists.
By my count, I ran four RPG campaigns this year and played in five – thankfully not all at the same time! Some of them I’ve blogged about extensively, some of them have just quietly perched in the widget up on the top right, but thankfully all of them have been enjoyable.
- Ferrymen ran right the way through this year, like it did the year before and the year before… and there’s still no end in sight. In that time, we’ve had the first departure of a player character, a multi-session long-forshadowed mega heist, and the set-up for a new phase of political machination. I like this campaign a lot. The shared history of our group gives the roleplay a rich texture of emotion, but since we play on an intergalactic scale, we’re still finding space to discover new things (we only JUST started exploring the setting’s perspective on religion, for example). Next year, we’ll likely be plunging back into spaceship combat, and from there seeing how the group gets on challenging the institutional status quo, whilst avoiding the sabotage of enemy covert agents. Obviously, this is a game I’ve blogged about extensively, and as new rules make their way into the game, I’ll drop them up on here too.
- This summer I returned to run “Season 2” of Watcher, exactly one year after the end of the previous campaign. Set in the universe of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“, season 1 chronicled a young Rupert Giles and his friends at university in Oxford, culminating in disillusionment with the Watcher’s Council that prompted him to drop out and head down to London. Season 2 – the “Ripper Years” – detail Rupert’s continued descent into darkness, with the assorted personal and paranormal problems of his friends distracting them from the growing influence of Ethan Rayne. If you don’t know Buffy, and none of this means anything to you, then the important thing is that this is a dark, brooding time pregnant with emotional drama and straight-up angst. Thankfully then, this has been one of the most intensely “feely” campaigns I’ve run, and I’m immensely grateful to the players for bring their A-game. We’re coming up on our final act now, which should see our second season completed in January or February. I can’t wait to see how it ends.
- I ran a short Gaean Reach campaign over the 2014-15 bridge, after picking the book up solely on the strength of its back cover blurb. We ended satisfyingly, but had a few problems along the way, many of which I recorded here. I keep meaning to put up a mini-review of the game, but the similarities between Gumshoe games make it hard to review one without reviewing them all. Short version: the tagline system is not easy to engage with, and the follow-the-breadcrumbs campaign frame of Gumshoe is not always the best partner for sandbox sci-fi.
- Between Gaean Reach and Watcher I ran “Cure”, a game about rebuilding society after the zombie apocalypse using the Drama system from Hillfolk. This one I did actually write a review for. Again, we had a few challenges engaging with the system, but it succeeded in creating a cast of compelling characters whose clashes were an electric source of tension and entertainment. The ending was gloriously depressing too.
- For the last couple of years I’ve been playing in a “Musketeers” Fate game, inspired by the works of Alexandre Dumas. We don’t meet all that often (the players are all busy people, myself included), but it’s one of the games I most look forward to. I love playing in Fate – it’s a unique perspective on a game I GM very often – and our GM brings an infectious enthusiasm for the genre and historical setting that is never less than inspiring. This time next year, I suspect we’ll be done. It’s a sad prospect, but then again, I could probably doing with trying a game that isn’t Fate, at least for a while…
- After a good two and a half years of play, my Trail of Cthulhu game finally drew to a close, even if it did take several months to successfully schedule the last session. Since I was reprising a character I played in the GM’s previous Trail campaign (intrepid explorer Dr Mannfred Gotterich, German Jew and basketcase of mental traumas), this marked the conclusion of nearly five years of storytelling. Many thanks to said GM for introducing me to my first Gumshoe game, for directing some of the best roleplaying sessions I’ve ever played in, and delivering a delightfully appalling final session. I’ll miss you Mannfred Gotterich. Good luck with your evil doomsday cult.
- At the end of last year I started playing in my first ever Dungeons and Dragons game. It fizzled out halfway through the year. I have Things To Say about this game – it’ll get its own section below.
- Around the same time I started D&D, I was also invited to a Dungeon World game, which made for a useful side-by-side comparison. We finished the campaign yesterday with an epic set-piece battle against a dragon. Overall, the campaign has provided consistently funny, breezy entertainment, which was to be expected from a group of people I always enjoy roleplaying with. A mini-review of the game is probably coming, in the meantime my GM has been blogging about the lessons he learned from the campaign – check out Part 1 and Part 2.
- Finally, in the last couple of months I started playing in a Rogue Trader campaign, rescuing me from a grim fate of a whole year without Warhammer 40K. Every time I come back to the 40K system after playing other, better games, I’m struck by its clumsiness and inelegance – and Rogue Trader has been no exception, even with the updates from Dark Heresy Second Edition our GM has subbed in where possible. That said, I’m really enjoying the campaign. I’ve connected with my character much earlier than usual, and the larger-than-life cast of other PCs is a perfect match. Moreover, the GM’ing has been excellent, which is doubly impressive for a system that is so hard to GM well. I’m really looking forward to carrying this on through next year.
SPOTLIGHT: DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS
I suggested at the start of the year that I’d be posting a series of articles about D&D from the perspective of a total newbie, but I didn’t have the heart to follow through. My DM did a great job wrestling with a difficult system, and I would have happily played longer to give the campaign more of a chance (it ended for entirely out-of-game, real-life reasons). But ultimately, my experiences with D&D as a system and setting were more negative than positive, and demonstrated that this shit definitely isn’t for me.
I don’t think anyone, be they a fan of D&D or not, is interested in reading a huge block of wall-to-wall hate. So I’m going to try and keep my critique as succinct as possible:
- The core D20 system is dated as all hell. Nothing can prepare you for the soul-crushing despair of waiting 20 mins for your turn, fluffing your attack roll, and knowing there is NOTHING you can do about it – no re-rolls, no resources to spend, not even an impression that your failure impacted upon the game world in any way. Moreover, the fact that a party of supposed adventuring heroes can critically fail every action they take 5% of the time is a bizarre tonal disconnect, and is as responsible as anything else for making the stakes in a D20 game feel comedic and trivial.
- Attempts to introduce new mechanics into 5th edition that reflect the last decade of game design just come off as bizarre and incongruous next to the same old stodgy roll-to-hit, roll-to-damage, saving-roll/armour class/HP loss stuff.
- I genuinely don’t understand who this game is for. It seems to be trying to please fans of original D&D and AD&D and 3rd and 4th, as well as contemporary roleplayers – but none of the old editions of D&D have gone anywhere if fans want to keep playing them, and everyone else has better games to play. It might just be nostalgic fanservice for people who played D&D when they were children and want to reminisce with a game that’s similar but (slightly) less dated… but obviously I am not one of those people.
- I am sad that this is the poster child for the roleplaying hobby, because I’m sure D&D puts off as many prospective roleplayers as it attracts.
- Adventurer parties are bullshit.
- Spell lists, and the whole “guess at the start of the day what spells are going to be useful, then just settle for the boring magic-missile stuff because everything else is too circumstantial to be worth the gamble” thing, are bullshit.
- If this game is supposed to be a cerebral tactical exercise – which, I suppose, would be the justification for making everything so complicated – then it fails to deliver. And is therefore bullshit.
- I don’t like this game.
I haven’t written a review of D&D because I’ve never DM’ed for it, and I feel like I would have to for a truly fair and balanced critique. However, since I never intend to play a game of D&D again, as DM or otherwise, I think we can probably call this post my unfair, unofficial half-critique and put the matter to bed forever.
In January, one of my dear friends started a monthly RPG Book and Brunch Club, for a handful of us to meet-up, try out a new game, and discuss our preliminary thoughts. Mostly it’s been just a brilliant opportunity to eat great food (supplied by people other than me) and enjoy great conversation (supplied by people other than me), but more relevant to this blog, it’s also introduced me to a number of fantastic RPGs.
I sometimes worry that I don’t expose myself to enough different games. There’s nothing wrong with having preferences, of course, but I do think that trying out lots of gaming systems broadens my appreciation and understanding of the hobby, and provide lots of ideas for mechanics and themes that can be gleefully plagiarised for other games (which is particularly important for a hypothetically aspiring game designer). When I look back over the nine campaigns I’ve played this year, it disheartens me that three are Fate games, two are Gumshoe, and that the remainder includes 40K and Powered by the Apocalypse games – systems that I already know extremely well.
Brunch Club is my salvation. The range of games I’ve played through these regular meetups is far greater than I would have otherwise managed through ad-hoc one-offs. We’ve been playing a lot of story games in particular, and whilst I generally like sampling indie and traditional stuff in equal measure, the set-up of brunch is particularly well adapted to short-form gaming. Not all of our games have been hits, but there are definitely RPGs I’ve first played at brunch that I am eager to play (or have already played) again: Microscope, Swords Without Master, The Final Girl and The Quiet Year.
These meetups have been the highlight of my gaming social calendar this year, and I can’t wait to carry them forward into 2016. Now if I could supplement these by improving my attendance at the London Indie RPG Meet, my education in story gaming will be set!
This has been my first complete calendar year of blogging, and I’m still kind of amazed I’ve kept it up. In the past, I’ve worried if I have the staying power to follow through on my creative ambitions. This bodes well.
By FAR the most successful the thing I’ve written this year, if page hits can be considered a measure of success, is the Ferrymen series. As I mentioned back at the start, I’d hesitated to post about the game, for fear my audience would find it boring to read about a campaign they weren’t actually involved in. It seems I was very much mistaken.
I don’t think I’d go as far as to put up actual play reports, or blog about my other campaigns in as much detail as Ferrymen. But I’ll definitely be less hesitant to blog about similar topics in the future. It seems that material I generate for my campaigns is of interest to more than just myself, so I’ll do what I can to make that available to other GMs and players in the new year. That said, it might be that Ferrymen was just a fluke. We’ll see!
Although I didn’t go to GenCon this year, I did pay my first visit to the UK Games Expo, as chronicled here. I also made my annual pilgrimage to Dragonmeet two weeks ago, which was a delight as always.
The Dragonmeet seminars were a bit strange this year – back to just one track, after experimenting with two last year, but cutting out absolute mainstays of the convention like the Ian Livingston/Steve Jackson autobiography. Instead, the chunk of the day was dominated by RPG publishers taking their turn with sales pitches: Pelgrane Press, Cubicle 7, Modiphius Entertainment and Chaosium. I did miss the “topic” panels, but I enjoyed the Pelgrane and Cubicle 7 seminars just as much, and as long as Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff keeps running I’ll be satisfied.
As usual, the sales room took care of all my geeky Christmas shopping, and I even picked up a couple of things for myself (including Hard Helix, an adventure pack for Mutant City Blues, going for an absolute bargain in the Bring and Buy). And I got to play a game this year! Thank you to the London Indiemeet guys for setting me up with my first game of G x B, which was exactly the kind of entertaining fluff my brain needed by the end of a long day conventioning.
The big disappointment of the day was that I signed up for a demo of the upcoming Conan RPG – with Modiphius, the convention organisers no less – then discovered once our table became free (25 mins late) that the game had been over-booked, with 10 players turning up for a 4-5 player game. I dropped out whilst the organisers were still trying to work out what went wrong. I hope at least some of the players managed to get a game… for my part, I’m just glad that the London Indiemeeters were able to set me up, so that my one attempt to game didn’t end in disaster.
Anyway, this hasn’t at all dented my enthusiasm to attend Dragonmeet next year, along with the UK Games Expo AND GenCon. Three conventions in one year equals exciting times ahead.
PLEASE STOP, THIS IS TOO LONG
That’s pretty much the personal, ego-stroking stuff accounted for – next time I’ll be talking about 2015 for the hobby as a whole, before looking ahead to what’s exciting me in 2016.