You Say You Want a Revolution
In the last edition of Playing Roles, I discussed the close knit relationship board games have with roleplaying games (RPGs). These tabletop cousins are forever bonded by shared themes, mechanism, and sometimes even designers. I made the case that board game enthusiasts that enjoy narrative social experiences owe it to themselves to give roleplaying a try.
Today I want to talk about the next step, because there has arguably never better time to get started with roleplaying. It’s no exaggeration to say that RPGs are experiencing a boom time right now. Wizards of the Coast recently released Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition with a ruleset that is more welcoming to new players than ever before. Fantasy Flight Games is riding high with their recent Star Wars RPGs (Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion, with Force and Destiny coming soon) that centers around an intriguing new dice mechanism that is also new-player friendly. Other stalwarts of the genre, like The One Ring and Shadowrun have also been updated in the last few years creating convenient jumping-on points for newbies and veterans alike.
Slightly more obscure than these juggernauts are several rules systems that don’t have IPs or specific settings attached to them. These so-called generic systems are perfect for applying your own unique worlds or adapting your favorite movie, book, comic, etc. Two such games are Savage Worlds and Fate Core. I’ll be talking about these and the above-mentioned mainstream systems in future editions of Playing Roles.
Today We Celebrate Our Independence Day
The real revolution in RPGs is happening on an even smaller scale. Independent roleplaying games (indie RPGs) have never been more numerous or popular. Thanks to the widespread adoption of tablet devices, the rise of sites such as DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, and the influence of crowdfunding, the variety and availability of small press RPGs has never been better.
Why is that a good thing? The indie RPGs scene is where a lot of the most creative and innovative designs are coming from. These designers aren’t tied to licenses, established fan-bases, or any pre-conceived settings. Not only do most of these systems eschew the complexity and crunch of their mainstream brethren, but they typically ask for a minimal investment. Sometimes no investment at all. The confluence of simplicity, variety, and low cost represents, for my money, the best avenue for interested board gamers to jump on the roleplaying train.
So where to begin? There are literally hundreds of perfectly legitimate first RPGs. You can certainly begin with the big dogs. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has a great Starter Set that simplifies the core rulebook and even provides and adventure to get the players started right away. Many other popular RPGs have free basic rules and scenarios that significantly lower the barrier to entry.
That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with jumping in with both feet and buy one of those 500 page tomes full of rules and lore, as long as you’re prepared to take the time to learn these systems and are willing to make the investment. That’s a deal-breaker for many, especially those uncertain about roleplaying. For them and for all of you, I have just one word: Fiasco.
Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn
Fiasco by Bully Pulpit Games is a Coen Brothers movie come to life. It’s a rules-light system, not much more complicated than charades, putting humor and collaborative storytelling above dice and stat sheets. Fiasco even contains a built-in cooperative world building mechanism that does all the heavy-lifting when it comes to crafting the story. It’s a quirky dark humor system that plays enough like a party game that even non-gamers will enjoy it, all in an inexpensive softbound booklet that’s easy to read and teach. For those reasons, and many others, Fiasco is a top notch beginner RPG.
In Fiasco, players begin with a “playset”, which is a series of reference tables that contain setting elements unique to a specific scenario. These playsets help players define character relationships, establish locations and events, and establish other details in the scenario. Each of these elements is numbered 1-6 in their respective categories. To facilitate narrowing down the many options provided, a number of standard six-sided dice (4 per player) are then rolled and players take turns spending the dice to assign elements from the playset.
As dice are spent to create wacky connections between equally wacky characters, the Coen-esque flavor of the game starts to come alive. More dice are then used to add settings, motivations, items, and other narrative hooks. It’s quick, collaborative, simple, and doesn’t require anyone to spend endless hours crafting a story ahead of time. There’s no traditional gamemaster role in Fiasco, meaning there’s no pressure or preparation required to get a game rolling (no pun intended).
The actual game of Fiasco is essentially improv. Players interact in two-person scenes, letting the established relationships and their own wild imaginations dictate the flow of the narrative. It’s not about winning; it’s about telling a fun story and seeing how crazy things can get, and you don’t have to be an accomplished actor or storyteller to create really compelling scenes. All this builds to a pivotal event, the Tilt, which sets the stage for the inevitable Coen-esque everyone-loses endgame. Sometimes the best you can hope for is that your already emotionally scarred character narrowly avoids a burning building only to get hit by a car. Fiasco is devilishly funny and creates some of the most memorable group experiences you can imagine.
O Players, Where Art Thou?
Next time you reach for that copy of Say Anything or Cards Against Humanity, consider taking one of Fiasco’s playsets for a spin instead. It’s pressure-free roleplaying that requires little time or monetary investment from anyone involved, yet still embodies all the best parts of the hobby. As a gateway RPG, you could hardly do better especially given then endless fan-made playsets. There’s something for everyone, and chances are you have all the elements you need to play the game in your home already: people, dice, scratch paper, and alcohol…okay that last one is more of a suggestion than a requirement. See you next time!
Image found at: http://mothersofbrothers.com/crossing-the-streams/
Crossing the Streams
As fellow renaissance geeks, I’m certain that there are many among you who dabble in all sorts of tangentially related gaming activities that don’t necessarily involve quad-fold boards, colorful chits, and endless decks of cards. Video games, sports, trivia nights…any excuse to get together and have a good time is completely valid and makes us well-rounded social creatures.
Many of you also roleplay, an activity that is as near and dear to board games as peanut butter is to jelly. There are many reasons that the Venn diagram between these two hobbies overlap to such an extent. Many board games and roleplaying games have similar thematic and media influences. There’s also a collectible aspect to each that extends the life and replayability indefinitely. Both hobbies are also by definition social, and rather than offering a freeform experience that might turn off extroverts like myself, board games and roleplaying games provide a structured platform for social engagement and helps ensure that all participants have related interests.
There’s more to the overlap than just people sitting at a table chucking dice. Board games and roleplaying games evolved from a common ancestor: war games. Much like modern board game mechanisms, roleplaying spun out of an attempt to simulate many aspects of warfare. Roleplaying’s forefathers simply zoomed in on the action, designing experiences that simulated the struggle between one combatant and another. From one-versus-one, few-versus-few was the natural next step and thus was born the adventuring party that we’ve come to know and love.
As board games and roleplaying games developed alongside each other, each influenced the other. Today we can see roleplaying games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition that actually includes cards and chits like a traditional board games. In the other direction, we see the proliferation of so-called dungeon crawl board games like Imperial Assault and the Wrath of Ashardalon series replicating some very common roleplaying elements: advancement, persistence, cooperation, tactical gameplay, and even the acquisition of wealth. Incidentally the publishers for both of these games, Fantasy Flight Games and Wizards of the Coast produce roleplaying games as well. The connection between these gaming styles is undeniable
So why should board gamers take the next step and dive into the crunchy world of Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and other lesser-known roleplaying games? The best answer, the only answer that matters really, is that they’re fun. Really fun! Roleplaying games are a platform for creative storytellers to weave grand epics and see those story beats come to life. They allow individuals to imagine strange worlds, evoke unique characters with interesting personalities, and work cooperatively with others to solve problems and discover hidden bits of story. As evocative as a theme can be in a board game, roleplaying games bring us even closer to living out our imaginations.
Getting Past the Gate
From an outsider’s perspective, roleplaying can seem extremely intimidating. Likely your friendly local gaming store has at least a few shelves of thick tomes full of complex rulesets and impenetrably detailed lore. Alongside those expensive books are miniatures, paints, gridded mats, weird dice in crazy configurations, and all the other trappings of the roleplaying hobby. It’s intense and can be more demanding on your wallet than board games.
That’s a completely reasonable perspective, but I say ignore all that. Like board games, your investment can be as little as a $15 deck of Fluxx (not recommended) to a $2000 near-mint copy of War of the Ring: Collector’s Edition on eBay (also not recommended) and everything in between. You don’t have to go all in; in fact you can spend zero dollars on roleplaying and still have an amazing experience that will leave you wanting more. I’ll go into how to get started in another Playing Roles article, but suffice to say, price should not be a barrier to this incredible hobby.
The other element of roleplaying that intimidates many of the uninitiated is the perceived requirement to really get into it. Pop culture tells us that real roleplayers adopt their character’s personas like method actors. Accents, costumes, make-up, foam weapons, mock combats in parks populated by normal people- that’s a lot of geek to take on for someone who just thinks it might be cool to play as a Jedi for a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon. Well forget about all of that affectation. The only thing you need to roleplay is yourself, an imagination, and some basic social skills.
Roleplaying is really just a game of improv with some additional rules bolted on. It’s no different than charades or even the act of storytelling. It’s not hard and it doesn’t require an appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio to do well. Chances are you’ve already done a little roleplaying and didn’t even know it. Have a favorite role in Pandemic that you’re drawn to? Have you acted like a pompous jerk while playing the sheriff in Sheriff of Nottingham? Have you felt a bit of a sting when one of your survivors dies in Dead of Winter? At some level, that’s roleplaying. Just like telling your significant other about the crazy day you had at work and getting an appalled reaction. You did it! Now how would you have told that story if you were a Cleric of Palor and facing down the zombie king was your day at work?
Entering the Arena
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard roleplaying referred to as “poker for nerds”. There’s even a Dungeons & Dragons podcast called Nerd Poker hosted by comedian Brian Posehn.
This comparison to poker is referring to the commonality of weekly poker nights that perfectly normal individuals have all the time. They’re playing cards, telling jokes, talking about the latest episode of The Walking Dead, complaining about work…everything you would expect from adults engaging in an organized social activity. Roleplaying is no different, just swap out “playing cards” with “fending off a goblin ambush”. Which one sounds more fun to you?
I encourage anyone with an interest in roleplaying to check it out. Look for meetup groups in your area, or pick up a rules-light game like Fiasco and try it out with your friends and family. Roleplaying is an extremely rewarding pastime with a ton of variety and a very welcoming community. They can played with kids and adults, geeks and civilians, and for as long or as short as you like. Just be friendly, be open, and don’t touch anyone else’s dice. That’s a crime punishable by death!
WizKids continues its series of articles on their mega hit D&D Attack Wing Miniatures Game by taking a look at an army build that’s making waves in the tournament scene: the infamous 120-point 3BG (three ballistae and a frost giant).
Moonlite Comics’ Jay Kirkman talks strategy, and takes his own version of the build for a spin against Balagos, a Copper Dragon, and a squad of Sun Elf Archers. The article provides a detailed play-by-play, giving the reader a good sense for the game and why 3BG is so dominant.
“The Copper blasted an acid breath, hitting three of my four units (killing one), while Balagos brought the fire on the right. After a withering salvo of bolter fire girded by target tokens and artillery master upgrades, though, both dragons were seriously wounded in this initial exchange.”
We won’t spoil the rest! Check out the article for more details on Kirkman’s build, and a thrilling turn by turn overview of his epic battle.