Category Archives: Roleplaying

Roleplaying in the final frontier: random thoughts on Star Trek and RPGs

I’ve been in a big-time Star Trek mood lately. I’ve discovered that an episode of Deep Space 9 is the perfect length to watch while feeding The Littlest Gamer at 4am in the morning, and thus have been progressing quickly through the series—I’m partway through season 4, and have recently upgraded my rating of the show from Not Bad to Pretty Awesome.

To complement my DS9 viewing, I’ve also been catching up on The Jefferies Tube podcast, which I neglected (along with all my other blog reading and podcast listening) during the Birth of The Littlest Gamer and the Flood of Family that followed. One of the recent podcast episodes focused on Star Trek RPGs, and I can’t resist adding some of my own thoughts.

I’ve owned each of the three Star Trek RPGs discussed in the podcast. (Well, almost: I owned FASA Trek and Decipher Trek, but the version of Prime Directive I owned was the first edition, not the (much better, going by the podcast’s description) GURPS version.) While I was not overly fond of Prime Directive, I like both the FASA and Decipher games—although I’ve played them a grand total of twice and once, respectively.

I like Star Trek. But despite enjoying the setting and finding the games themselves fairly interesting, I have never felt a strong desire to roleplay in the Star Trek universe. Judging by the fact that almost none of the numerous game publishers to acquire the Star Trek license has managed to keep the game alive for more than a few years, I suspect I’m not the only one who finds Trek a difficult gaming prospect. Why is this?

The podcast points out some of the big reasons that Trek is a tough setting to game in—it’s a setting where your character’s rank in Starfleet (or the equivalent alien organization) leads to the same difficulties that military-based games run into: somebody’s character is going to end up being the captain, and somebody else is going to have to play the ship’s counselor (or another sideline role). One of those is significantly more appealing to most gamers than the other. And the podcast notes that the massive amount of Star Trek canon material makes it hard for even the nerdiest gamemaster to run a game that can’t be sabotaged by a particularly knowledgeable Trekkie.

For me, the big problem is the very strict narrative structure that defines the Star Trek stories we love to watch on TV. In a typical Star Trek episode, the demands of the storyline define everything else about the show—the technology available to the characters, the outcomes of battles, who gets killed and who doesn’t, even the means by which the heroes eventually win in the end—it’s all tightly scripted to make sure the story works out in time (and usually with a nice moral lesson to boot). The high level of technology involved makes this especially important: in a Star Trek game, if Romulan Guard A gets lucky with a phaser shot in battle, a hero dies and the story comes to a screeching halt. In the TV show, by contrast, nobody dies unless it’s integral to the storyline. The heroes in a Star Trek TV episode often have their normal tools and skill rendered useless by narrative fiat (something that would infuriate most RPG players) to prepare the way for a clever technobabble solution at the very end, in just the nick of time. (And how to simulate that staple of Star Trek, the last-minute “I could try rerouting power through the polarized chronoton pulsator, which might give us just enough energy to return us to our own dimension!” solution?) That all makes for fun stories, but it’s hard to model in an RPG game, where players expect more freedom of activity and dislike any hint that the the gamemaster is manipulating everything to force them along a particular narrative channel.

I imagine this problem is not a complete game-killer, as plenty of people enjoy gaming in the Star Trek universe. But it bugs me enough that I’ve never tried to run a full Star Trek RPG campaign. I suspect that this might be the sort of situation that could be handled by certain indie roleplaying games that grant extra narrative power to the players and which are more like mutual storytelling sessions than traditional roleplaying games. But I’m an old-school dungeon-crawl gamer, and on top of that, I don’t think my wife would really want me heading off down yet another money-draining branch of this hobby.

So maybe Star Trek gaming just isn’t for me… although you can be sure that won’t stop me from plunking down my hard-earned cash for the next gorgeously-illustrated Star Trek roleplaying game that comes along. I love this hobby….

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D&D Greatest Hits: the dungeon survival guide I want to see

While browsing the local bookstore the other day, I came across the Dungeon Survival Guide, a fairly new D&D release. (Yes, the wife and I periodically trade baby-care duties long enough to let each other take short sanity breaks at the local bookstore. Sooner or later the bookstore owner will realize that our book-buying money is now going entirely into the Baby Formula fund, and he’ll be less pleased to see us walk through the door.)

Where was I? Oh, yes: the Dungeon Survival Guide. Now this is a perfect idea for a D&D book, in my mind: a coffee-table style retrospective on 30+ years of great D&D dungeons. There are so many classic dungeons and modules in D&D’s history that you could easily fill a full-size book with lovingly nostalgic memories of them.

Unfortunately the actual Dungeon Survival Guide as published doesn’t seem to be quite what I would have hoped for it. But the idea is so fun, I just can’t let it go. Here’s what I would’ve done with this book had I been in charge of writing/editing it:

  • Pick 10-15 classic D&D dungeons, from all three editions of the game, to feature. Some of these would be chosen by the D&D team and others would be selected based on a poll of D&D gamers. I’d make sure that a few little-known gems were featured alongside the predictable classics like the Tomb of Horrors and the Temple of Elemental Evil.
  • Get designer’s notes for each dungeon (assuming the author is still alive and willing). What inspired them to create their dungeon? Was it to showcase a particular monster? Make use of a hitherto-unused environment or setting? Kill off as many adventurers as possible? I’d love to hear reflections and anecdotes about these dungeons straight from the creators themselves.
  • Get actual-play accounts from D&D players who actually played or GM’d each dungeon. What was memorable about playing through the dungeon? What off-the-wall tricks or strategies did their party use to survive? Or did their party get wiped out—and if so, by what?
  • Show us the cool parts of the dungeon! Give us details and stats for the most memorable encounters, scenes, or monsters from the dungeon. If space allows, give us the entire dungeon floor plan with key encounters described! Did the dungeon have a particularly memorable final boss battle? A really clever series of deathtraps? A bizarre environment with strange new monsters to go along with it? I wan to see ’em! I may never run my players through White Plume Mountain, but I’d love to see what encounters, traps, and opponents made it so classic—so I can borrow them or use them as inspiration for my own games. Guidelines for incorporating these encounters into the latest edition of D&D would be useful too.

The last item is the most important—as much fun as it would be to read accounts from the dungeon creators and players, what I’d really want to see is the specific encounters and dungeon elements that separated these classic dungeons from the hundreds of non-classics. I suppose what I’m describing is closer to a “D&D greatest hits compendium,” with a bit of flavor commentary on the side. Surely there are enough noteworthy dungeon elements from D&D’s long and colored history to make one heck of a useful grab-bag book for DMs.

Maybe the Dungeon Survival Guide does some or all of those things. I don’t know because the money I might’ve spent on it went into this week’s supply of Pampers. But if not, maybe somebody else will come along one day and make the D&D Greatest Hits book that I’m looking for.

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RIP, Angus McBride

I learned this week from the Ex-Teenage Rebel blog that Angus McBride, well known for his marvelous fantasy illustrations, passed away just a few days ago. He did a lot of different illustrations throughout his life, but I’m most familiar with his work for Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying Game, the RPG on which I cut my gaming teeth. His depictions of the people and places of Middle-Earth were enormously influential on the way I perceived Middle-Earth during my formative teenage Tolkien phase. To this day, his artistic style (much more than, say, Peter Jackson’s film trilogy) is the main filter through which I visualize the colors and style of Middle-Earth.

Here are my two favorite McBride Middle-Earth illustrations; the first is the cover of the Riders of Rohan module, and the second is from Gates of Mordor:

The gaming world is much richer for McBride’s contributions. Rest in peace.

(Both of the above images I found here, where you can browse many of his other excellent Tolkien illustrations.)

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This June, write your own adventure

Here’s an item I’ve been meaning to mention for a while now: Worldwide Adventure Writing Month. This June, you’re encouraged to write a 32-page adventure module. It doesn’t need to be the Best Module Ever, and it can be for whatever game system you choose; the point is just to write something down and revel in the accomplishment.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a roleplaying gamer who has not, at some point or other, aspired to game writing. (In fact, I know very few gamers who have not dreamed of creating their own game from scratch–maybe that merits a post at some point.) The nice thing about WoAdWriMo is that you don’t need to craft an epic masterpiece; you just need to put together 32 pages of adventure. If you’re a GM, chances are you’ve already got far more than that already written up, in the form of campaign notes and homemade adventures. Why not gather up your notes, fire up the imagination, and see if you can’t crank out a short module this June?

I’m absolutely planning on trying this, and have been pondering for a week or two now what my epic adventure will be. I’m leaning towards putting together a nice, old-fashioned dungeon crawl; but a tiny part of me wants to write an espionage adventure, in loving memory of the late lamented Top Secret S.I. Would-be game writers of the world, join me this June!

(Also, check out the WoAdWriMo blog for some decent adventure-writing tips, even if you don’t plan to participate.)

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Support the troops, send your games to Iraq

Got a few good games sitting unplayed and gathering dust on your bookshelf? On June 9, the first official game convention in Iraq will take place–it’s called Ziggurat Con, and the organizers are looking for help in providing roleplaying games to be played and handed out to the troops as prizes. More details here:

The largest problem with running a Con in Iraq, of course, is that there are no local stores or game publishers, and few game books on the post. Even dice are in short supply, with many soldiers breaking the unwritten taboo held by many gamers and sharing dice. Thankfully, many game publishers have also lent their support. […] But Amberson indicated that the soldiers could definitely use more.

“This convention is currently in drastic need of prizes and giveaways for the troops,” he said. “Everything donated will go directly to the troops, or to MWR to use as loaner books for the soldiers.”

What a great way to lend some moral support to the troops. Consider gathering up a few games and shipping them out in time for the convention! The post linked above has a list of specific games they’re after, but it sounds like they’ll welcome most any sort of gaming material you can send. I’ve been looking to trim down my game collection anyway–this is the perfect opportunity to do so.

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Now we know where Stephen King really gets all his ideas

It’s always exciting to learn about celebrities with RPG skeletons in their closets, and here’s a particularly fun one: the NYT is running an article about Joe Hill, an author recently outed as the son of Stephen King. It’s a nice piece about the challenge of carving out your own career in the shadow of a famous parent. But the really interesting item is way back at the top of page 3, where we learn that a certain roleplaying game factored into life in the King household.

What roleplaying game, you ask? Three guesses, and the first two don’t count:

The King boys grew up riffing on each other’s fantasies; in what they called the Writing Game, a literary version of tag, one brother would write for a few minutes and pass the story to the other. “We used to play Call of Cthulhu,” Owen told me, referring to the role-playing game based on the H. P. Lovecraft story. “Joe was always dungeon master. You had sanity points, and it was like, if you encountered Yog-Sothoth one too many times, you were crazy. You could only have so many adventures, and then you had to have a new character, and I thought that was brilliant.”

Truly, a finer summation of the Call of Cthulhu experience has never been uttered. It all makes perfect sense now. The Dark Tower series always struck me as awfully RPGish, in a very good way…

(Thanks to the M-Pire for the link.)

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The item no adventuring party should be without

I recently had a chance to run a game of Castles & Crusades. After creating characters, the players all turned to the Equipment section of the C&C rulebook to purchase the usual adventuring props: weapons, armor, 50′ coils of rope, 10′ poles, etc.

While browsing through the list of equipment, one of the players noticed something that had escaped my notice until now:


As you might expect, this discovery ensured that a walrus joke (who knew there were so many of them?) was made approximately every five minutes for the rest of the evening. If I ever need to know the going rate for a walrus, at least I now know where to find it.

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MerpCon III: return to Middle-Earth

A reader has reminded me that MerpCon, an annual conference dedicated to gaming in Middle-Earth, is coming up again. Sounds like it will be a good one:

This year’s special guest speaker is Doctor Thomas Morwinsky, author of a number of adventures and magazine contributions set in Middle-earth. He is also the designer of several wonderful large-scale, highly detailed maps set in Tolkien’s imaginary universe, including the most detailed large-scale map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Númenor ever made.

According to the website, Chris Seeman, Michael Martinez, and Joe Mandala (all familiar names in the Tolkien gaming community) will be there as well. And it’s free!

Once again I will be unable to attend–between several family weddings, a baby, and (most importantly, ha ha) Origins, all of my vacation time this year is already spoken for. But if you’re in the Washington area, be sure to check it out.

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Not quite beyond the Mountains of Madness

I confess: I chickened out a bit on my weekend pledge to start Beyond the Mountains of Madness. Upon digging out the BtMoM book, I was reminded of that campaign’s sanity-shattering complexity and extremely large cast of NPCs, and so I decided to lead into it gradually. I ran the first part of The Trail of Tsathoggua instead (Tsathoggua being one of the better Cthulhu mythos names, in my opinion). It features a hazardous journey across glacier-covered wastes in search of a long-lost city (in other words, it shares much of BtMoM‘s plot, but in much more compact form). The plan is to give my wife’s investigator characters a chance to acquire some glacier-exploring skills, then toss them to the wolves of BtMoM.

I will say this: I don’t think I’ve ever played in an RPG scenario where the Climb skill was the most critical one on the character sheet. So far, there’s an awful lot of “if the investigators fail their Climb skill check while on the glacier, they die”–not a lot of room for the GM to step in and handwave away something like that. I assume this will only get worse once we get to BtMoM. Usually, it’s the combat and weapon skills that get maxed out upon character creation. Part of the charm of Call of Cthulhu, I suppose.

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Cold of Cthulhu

I woke up this morning and looked out the window to see this:


It’s really cold and snowy here today–there’s a blizzard warning in effect, and just about every church and school event in the state is cancelled. Heck, even the mall is closed today. You know it’s serious when that happens.

So how to while away the hours? My wife and I were originally planning to play the Call of Cthulhu RPG this evening (we’re romantic like that). The plan was to start the famous Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. But with the wind howling outside, and the snow blowing so fiercely that you can hardly see anything out the window, and our apartment heater struggling to counter the deathly chill… I can’t think of anything more appropriate than breaking out the Antarctic Lovecraftian horror epic Beyond the Mountains of Madness.

I’m finally doing it–I’m actually going to run this monster of a campaign. I’ll post again… if I make it through the weekend with my sanity intact.

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