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00:01 Sage LaTorra: Hi I’m Sage, and this week, another question: What is the toughest RPG to master?
00:05 Adam Blinkinsop: Oh, I like it.
00:06 SL: I know, we’re trying out new things. Nice rehearsed intro.
00:10 AB: Madness.
00:11 SL: That’s the only rehearsed thing in this entire podcast. So this question was sent in by a reader named Phil, and we thought it’d be a great thing. ‘Cause we’d actually been discussing a few different topics around difficult games or mastery of games, and why not use one that somebody suggested? So we decided, through the strict science of alternating, that I’m up first this week.
00:34 AB: Deep magic man.
00:35 SL: I know. We’re getting more and more complex. We’ve got a rehearsed thing, we’ve got a clear alternation of who’s doing what. So I’ve got a runner up which, I’ll just touch on briefly, which is GURPS. It’s not maybe for the reason you were expecting.
00:52 AB: No, I considered putting GURPS on the list. Go ahead and give rationale and we will see how it goes.
01:00 SL: So, my thinking on GURPS is, there are two primary ways to play GURPS that I see. One of them is, you use the fact that it’s GURPS and you play with everything in the book basically, which is the GURPS who’s who books that stat up historical people are in. In which case you’ve got a really complex game because you’ve got Shaka Zulu and Winston Churchill adventuring side by side, and you’ve gotta have rules for all very different things. And you get into the complexity of rules, which I think is gonna be a common thing in this podcast and it’s tough to master that because you’ve gotta deal with all of these weird interactions between like, “what happens when I throw a spear and I block it with a tank?” That one’s probably not that weird.
01:48 AB: Well, unless you’re playing Civilization.
01:49 SL: Unless you’re playing Civilization. In which case that one apparently is surprisingly effective. But the other way to play GURPS is where you’re playing GURPS in kind of a specific setting which turns GURPS into a create-your-own-game kit practicaly.
02:02 AB: Right.
02:04 SL: I picked this up from my friend Luke. I had always thought of the main reason that I’d play GURPS as the throw everything in it game, but he pointed out that GURPS is also a make your own game kit, which actually I’ve played more of it that way, I just wasn’t GM-ing it so I didn’t think about it as much. But that game is complex because you’re responsible for kind of designing the game.
02:25 AB: You’re responsible for building the genre in.
02:27 SL: Yes.
02:28 AB: Because GURPS does not build genre in.
02:30 SL: Which is a considerable part of designing a game is setting up these expectations of theme and picking out which things are gonna matter and which things aren’t. And with GURPS you’re, if you’re trying to play GURPS in pretty much anything but the “let’s just throw it all in” genre, you’re gonna do that a lot.
02:48 AB: Now the GURPS game that I ended up playing, that you were not involved in ’cause it was before you got to Google, was Civil War era and we had somebody from Russian mythology who was immortal. We all built characters based on insane things. So we did the grab bag approach but without pre-stat’ed characters.
03:10 SL: Mm-hmm.
03:11 AB: One of the most crazy things I’ve ever seen. That was fun but figuring out how to move a story along, figuring out how to move a scenario along, figuring out what kind of next stuff would happen outside of the party was impossible. ‘Cause the book can’t guide you, right?
03:31 SL: Yeah. My friend Ben, who is pretty much where I get most of my GURPS stories from, either playing with him or his stories of these things. I remember going to Kinkos with him and photocopying the pages out of GURPS who’s who, so that he can hand them out as character sheets. And it’s just, “these are your guys, choose” because I think…
03:48 AB: Character creation in GURPS is insane.
03:49 SL: Oh my gosh. The only times I’ve ever done it I’ve used a computer program to help me with it.
03:53 AB: Doing it well is super insane, so.
03:56 SL: Yeah. So then the other GURPS game was a GURPS setting called Reign of Steel, which is basically the future portions of Terminator. The machines have taken over, humanity is, maybe fighting their last ditch effort. That was a great game but part of that was that so much of the choosing what things to do in GURPS had already taken place either through the setting book, which GURPS setting books are great, or through Ben, as a GM just kind of ignoring the things that he didn’t wanna have to deal with. And us as players, with the exception of I think me, most people just kinda showed up and picked a few things out of the book. And I sat down with the character creation software and got through everything and it didn’t make a huge difference in the character really. Everybody else had just as memorable, just as awesome characters but mine was point buy down to the single point, and theirs were just kind of eh.
04:52 AB: Yeah GURPS is interesting. We should have a big discussion on generic role playing systems at some point in the future.
04:58 SL: Yeah. So somebody suggest a question about what’s the most generic game? Or something.
05:03 AB: Oh man!
05:05 AB: Go ahead.
05:06 SL: Okay. So my real pick, and it’s unfortunate that I ended up going first this week, ’cause I think this is gonna contrast with how we pick a lot of other things, at least I’m guessing at your picks.
05:17 AB: Very possible.
05:18 SL: And compared to GURPS, is actually Freemarket. So Freemarket is a role playing game by Jared Sorensen and Luke Crane and it comes in a box, it’s a box set that’s the only way to get it. And the box contains materials that you need including special decks of cards. And the concept of Freemarket is that you are people on a space station orbiting Jupiter, Saturn, one of the two. Somewhere off in space that is post-scarcity. So, you don’t… All of your basic needs are taken care of. Death isn’t really a factor anymore, except in really intense situations. You have a place to sleep, you have food to eat, you can replicate things on Star Trek-style replicators kind of, they’re a bit more like matter printers but like you can…
06:09 AB: All of the normal RPG conflict is gone…
06:12 SL: Is just gone.
06:13 AB: Yeah.
06:14 SL: Which is what makes it such a tough game to master. The procedures of the game are a little complex. I mean Luke Crane’s involved so they’ve got some teeth but they’re not as crazy as some of his other games. The thing that takes a lot of wrapping your head around and that is tough to master is what happens in a setting like this? Because so many of our other games, you have all these genre touchstones. Like if we’re working with super heroes, you’re going to be like “Okay, somebody’s trying to blow up the world”, done. There’s a dungeon with something in it, there’s spies trying to infiltrate your organization, all of these things we’ve got lots of media sources for.
06:53 AB: Something is attacking your safety, your food, your shelter, your whatever.
06:58 SL: Well and compare this to Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World has an entire, you design things based on scarcity.
07:02 AB: You are the eight scarcities.
07:03 SL: Yeah, all these things are scarce. Here’s a game where nothing is scarce.
07:07 AB: Right.
07:09 SL: Or at least nothing that’s particularly important. So it’s a game that challenges you to think about that world and you don’t have a lot of touchstones for thinking about how humanity interacts in that situation.
07:22 AB: So one of the side pieces of this question is, because it’s going to take a while to get good at this game, is it fun while you ramp?
07:32 SL: Mm-hmm.
07:32 AB: Right, because if the learning curve is too steep and it’s not fun when you’re not very good at it…
07:37 SL: Yeah…
07:38 AB: Nobody’s going to get good at it unless they really really are like, “No, no, no, I’ve heard great things about this,” when you know how to do it.
07:45 SL: Well, and I think that’s the awesome thing about this kind of complexity is that when it’s a complexity of the setting that you’re trying to understand and it’s not a detail-oriented complexity. Like complex settings that are about remembering the lineage of some kingdom or something…
08:00 AB: Right…
08:01 SL: That’s not very fun when you can’t get it and nobody cares. But when it’s trying to imagine how you act in this world where you’re not fighting for your next meal or you know, you don’t really have to have a job. Like the thing you do is the thing you want to do. Thinking about that world is a challenge, but it’s kind of a fun one and it’s kind of a big part of the reason that the game exists. So it is challenging but that challenge a fun one and it kicks off right from the beginning.
08:26 AB: So it’s an enlightenment question? The idea of enlightenment being that you can understand something intellectually but not really get it, right, not be able to apply it by default and that’s actually a theme in a bunch of my own so…
08:40 SL: Interesting, I was guessing that we were going to have a lot of picks about like complex mechanics and stuff like that. Interesting.
08:47 AB: I feel like in general, role playing gamers, especially people that DM are very smart people. You need to read this gigantic book and wrap your head around it and be able to apply it in an improvisational scenario, you better be pretty quick on the draw, right?
09:06 SL: Well in the improvisational, I was thinking about how to talk about mastery and I think the mastery of the rules as the facts of them is less important than the mastery of the rules as an application.
09:17 AB: Right because if you know them all, if you can reference them all, that may be great in the random scenario in D&D where you need to be all like, “Well I know that I got armour class 27 because of these modifiers or in the all-the-time GURPS scenario”, right.
09:32 AB: “I know the combat pattern” which is just such a pain. But I feel like as a GM, yeah, let’s talk a lot more about mastery because we can’t just jump into mine yet. Gosh.
09:46 SL: I know.
09:46 AB: That was way too quick.
09:47 SL: No and there are more things about Freemarket that I’m sure will come out in the discussion, how you master Freemarket.
09:51 AB: Yeah, yeah… Definitely. Because mastery, like your book is always in front of you. And so at the worst, you can say let’s do a snack break for a second while I look up the grappling rules. But if you don’t understand how the game text produces a game experience then creating that thing, especially as a GM or worse, in a GM-less game where the group doesn’t understand the same way how the game creates an experience, everything is just going to break down, right?
10:28 SL: Yeah, and the idea that the rules are a thing that you have to internalize in detail, I mean both of us work in programming basically…
10:40 AB: Basically? We work in programming. [chuckle]
10:43 SL: Well, I mean, sure, and this often comes up when you interview at companies and stuff is it knowing the intricacies of some language and being able to point out that the syntax here should actually be this, or this is the preferred way to do this. Or is it understanding the complexities of the problem and being able to explain how you’re balancing these challenges and stuff. The application of that tool is more important than a complete and total knowledge of that tool. And it’s kind of the same way in RPGs, like if you can’t… Or I can’t think of what the bonus for plate armour in D20 was, that really doesn’t matter compared to knowing how to use the tools of D20 to make an adventure…
11:26 AB: Right.
11:26 SL: And it helps that a lot of the adventures you’re going to be there are the kinds of things that are really easy, you know, somebody has something that you want, somebody has stolen something from you, you’re poor and you need something. And Freemarket, the system itself, you’re not going to have to remember what the bonus for plate armour is but you have to figure out what life looks like when it’s not our life anymore. I’ve heard it described as living in heaven kind of. Your characters no longer have basic human needs for the most part or rather those needs are trivially taken care of.
12:04 AB: Sure. Yeah, it’s an interesting thing trying to create plot in that particular scenario.
12:09 SL: Oh but it… Oh, sorry I’m turning all over this…
12:11 AB: No, no, no, I’m just continuing to think, go ahead.
12:13 SL: The plot in that scenario becomes about a lot of things that other games don’t do very well.
12:20 AB: Sure.
12:20 SL: Creation and networking, and if you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, and you…
12:29 AB: Step up the Maslow’s Hierarchy type of thing.
12:31 SL: Yeah, totally. You can just be a game designer now. You and your friends, since you don’t need to worry about if you can make money off of it, or what other people are gonna think, you just design games and you give those games to people. You don’t even sell them because why would you sell them? The thing you want is for people to create things and for people to like your things, and for them to… It’s a social… There’s a degree of social economy and kind of a buddy system and a like system. Everybody has crazy cyberware, so you can just send somebody a thumbs up or whatever, what do they call them? Attaboys. And that’s more important than money because there’s nothing really to buy. You wanna share things with people and you wanna create things that people wanna share. You wanna be a contributor to the society, which is so different than so many games.
13:28 AB: Which leads to this very interesting philosophical discussion about what is currency in the first place.
13:33 SL: Oh, totally.
13:34 AB: Do those become the currency just on a different plane of need, right? That’s really interesting.
13:42 SL: Yeah, that’s the thing that the more you poke at the construct, the more these little bits of need and want still pop in. These things that you are, not necessarily lacking in but are still scarce in the sense that some people have more than others, which I think is interesting, this is kind of a meta statement of the game that I think we as humans are wired up to understand, we’re want machines. We’re dealing with wanting things all the time. And so once we deal with the situation where that isn’t the case anymore, to not want at all, all our ideas of conflict and success. Like success is kinda tied to conflict, ’cause you’ve succeeded over something… that’s gone.
14:31 AB: So in running like that, so one of the things when you’re talking about programming languages… There’s a saying, we’re gonna get way software engineer-y up in here. There’s a saying that you can write Fortran or C or whatever in any language and it talks about… The idea is that there is an idiomatic way of doing stuff, and so if you’ve played… I don’t know, if you played… Why not, if you played a ton of D&D, the idiomatic way of starting off is “everybody is in a tavern” or “you’re in a dungeon” or “here’s my adventure” or…
15:08 AB: You have all of these patterns that you can just fall back on, and so when you move from playing a game like that to almost anything else, part of you is gonna start with, “Well, I guess we’re gonna start in a tavern.” ‘Cause that’s the way I know how to do things, which is why some of these games that are coming out like Diaspora, Fate Core… One of the early Fate Core 3 stuff. Diaspora is a small kind of outer space, Traveller-style, “let’s go around and do cool things” RPG that starts with Fate’s normal “build relationships with all the other players,” in a really hand-wavy kind of, put down whatever you want that’s cool and come up with that back story. Once you’ve done this, you have generated all of the idioms for your session, which is great because it throws you off the default, “Well this is how you all know each other because I needed to come up with something really fast”, which is really, really important. And games that don’t give you a really good way of generating kind of that initial scenario, I feel like they’re in massive danger of just falling back to whatever the DM’s idiom is.
16:20 SL: Well, and I think that, that initial scenario, some games kind of appear to gloss over that because the initial scenario is, “I don’t care exactly how you got here, but you are here.” And this is like the classic…
16:36 AB: We’re just not gonna talk about the back story.
16:38 SL: This is the classic D&D answer that we’ve talked about before. “You start at the entrance to the dungeon.”
16:44 AB: Right.
16:44 SL: And the idea that suddenly sitting in a tavern and deciding if we’re going to go on an adventure is this weird,… I wanna know where that came from, I wanna do a historical study and figure out, how that entered as a… Jon Peterson, please: the next thing you write on, how did meeting in a tavern get started? And it really needs to be done, but speaking of applying D&D genres elsewhere or tropes the… What did you call them?
17:12 AB: Idiomatic.
17:12 SL: The idioms of D&D. I started mostly with D&D, some GURPS and stuff and started running Mutants and Masterminds for some friends ’cause we’re superhero gamers, and we thought at the time that League of Extraordinary Gentleman was just the coolest thing, that we’re going to do super heroes in kind of victorian… Well…
17:33 AB: Go steampunk superheroes.
17:34 SL: Yeah, basically.
17:35 AB: Nice.
17:35 SL: So we started with that and we ran into first of all some of the classic problems with superhero games, that games are really hopefully help you gloss over of like, “Wait, how do we know that the bad guys are attacking?” I’m like, “How do we get there? How do we get there in time?” All of these are classic superhero problems, and so many games you have your session, and then in an entirely different game we had somebody arrive to this big superhero showdown on a bus. [laughter] ‘Cause we somehow we started worrying about how would the Batmanish character get there?
18:07 AB: And you don’t care, right?
18:08 SL: You don’t.
18:08 AB: You turn the page and Batman’s there. That’s all you care about right?
18:11 SL: But of course, because we’re gamers we sit there and we’re like, “Oh, well, I guess he tops the bus.” And it was horrible but in this one, the Victorian Adventure, because I’m using the D&D idioms, ’cause that was what I’d run the most of, the players beat some bad guy on a boat. And because I’m thinking D&D and I’m thinking there must be a reward for this fight, he drops his wallet.
18:35 SL: And he’s not even…
18:36 AB: Oh, man. And that’s so not super hero, even right?
18:39 SL: That’s so not super hero. And the reward wasn’t even… Now, that I say that I think, “Oh, the wallet could hint at his identity and there could be a hole in it… ” No, the wallet had money in it. That was… I was telling my players, “Good job. You beat him. Here is… ”
18:51 AB: Here’s some treasure.
18:52 SL: Yeah, here’s some treasure. Here is five pounds, which when I said it in the moment, the players were like, “Wait, he has weights on him?”
19:00 SL: Which just made it even worse.
19:02 AB: Yeah, oh man. So, this leads right into my answers because talking about how mastery is: how can you get into the idioms of this other game? The first… I have two runners up and a main because I dropped two others off so we can talk about them later.
19:18 AB: Amber Diceless Roleplaying.
19:20 SL: Oh, that’s a good choice.
19:22 AB: Amber is by a Polish guy… I think he’s Polish, named Erick Wujcik and… Back in ’91. And the Amber series of novels is this very Eastern European fantasy series. So, if you haven’t read them… Stuff like the Witcher, is also Eastern European. It’s got a very different feel from kind of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien stuff. Kind of low-fantasy awesomeness. And in the Amber series of books, the main characters — hardly protagonists — the main characters are all hyper-powerful members of royalty. And so in the game, all the players are hyper-powerful members of royalty. They’re not friends. They’re family. They are not friends. So, the beginning of the game, the DM does this big stats auction and the auction is public and then you can privately buy up some more points. So, while you’re playing this game, you generally know who’s the best in one or two things but you don’t know who’s beating you, necessarily. So, this game becomes about, “Well, how do we manipulate the conflict if we’re in a conflict to be in my area of strength or whatever?”
20:39 AB: But the more important thing about mastery is this is a totally unrecognisable idiom. You can’t put them at a threat anywhere unless it’s against another player character because nothing else is a threat to these people.
20:53 SL: Yep.
20:54 AB: Right. The big story is this massive story of politics and continuation and how do you deal with chaos? And that’s totally different from all this other stuff. And there’s no dice. The GM is going to make everything else happen, how do you do all this stuff? How do you keep all of this information private, that the characters can know but not share. It’s just so way out of left field.
21:16 SL: Well, and there’s practical challenges to the way that RPGs are normally conducted around a table once you start them, secret information and all that stuff, which is an entire other sort of mastery. It’s a mastery of the actual physical space and little tricks and techniques, note passing and stuff.
21:36 AB: Yep.
21:37 SL: But your stat buying, it’s such a big part of Amber, it reminds me of a game that I’m unlikely to bring up somewhere else so I just have to…
21:46 AB: [chuckle] Yeah, do it.
21:46 SL: It’s so perfect for stat buying. ‘Cause it is kind of a stat auction, as well. A game called Best Friends by Gregor Hutton, which is about a clique of friends. Usually, it’s kind of a high school team, girl, best… That Lindsay Lohan movie, “Mean Girls.”
22:02 AB: Nice.
22:03 SL: It’s kind of that, but you can also do pretty much any clique of in-fighty frenemies but the amazing thing there is you assign your stats by going around the table and each person names one of the other players and says for each stat that they’re better than you at that. So, it’s, “Oh, Adam’s character is prettier than me.” And that gives you a point of the pretty stat.
22:25 AB: Nice.
22:26 SL: And so we all go around table saying that and so you are pretty because we all hate you for being pretty, ’cause you’re prettier than us, which is this beautiful take on the same trope because you know everybody’s stats and you know that you don’t like them for that reason. You know that that’s a problem to you, kind of like in Amber, you auction off these stats and then you realize, “Oh, man, I know that he’s got a better whichever stat than me, I need to be careful of that ’cause we’re gonna be playing against each other.”
22:53 AB: We’re gonna be fighting.
22:54 SL: Yeah.
22:54 AB: So, there’s some mechanical mastery that’s difficult there, too. Doing the stat buy in a group that has not done Amber before, the GM really, really has to make sure everybody understands the importance of it and also push them to auction way higher than they otherwise would. ‘Cause if you have a stat buy where everybody’s buying at 10 or 20 points, where you start with 100, it’s not as interesting as the stat buy where somebody is egged on to go to 67 in warfare and then is like, “Wait, I only have thirty points to do anything else with?” So, yeah. So, Amber is interesting. Yeah, we’ll stop there.
23:34 AB: The number two runner up is… We’ve talked about this before but not as a main game, The Clay That Woke…
23:41 SL: Yes.
23:42 AB: By Paul… Yeah, as previously referenced. The big thing here is a idiom change, right? This is not a game about the characters being protagonists in the world. This is a game about the world having really crazy shit going down and you putting a whole bunch of yourself into that, and then having all the player characters interact with that and make interesting talk happen.
24:09 SL: Yep. Which is just such a Paul Czege design.
24:14 SL: I mean, it’s wonderful and Paul’s great. I got to game with Paul last year at a convention, and I’ve met him before, he’s wonderful. But it’s the epitome of Paul is a game that makes you all sit around and say interesting things.
24:30 AB: So, there’s other, again there’s mechanical mastery interestingness here, the entire idea of doing this kind of fortune telling to move where you’re going to be talking next. And it’s just there’s so much different, and I haven’t quite had the enlightenment moment, yet. I feel like you could get there if with the right group.
24:53 SL: I have yet to play that but I got to see some of the session that you ran, and I could definitely see, that was another great example of coming to a game and not quite having the idioms for that game. You, obviously, understood all of the mechanics, I’m not sure “mastery” is quite the right term, but there was no surprises of like, “Oh wait, how do we… ” or, “What’s the bonus for this?” Or something. All that was fine but the idioms of how you actually make that happen, and even the idioms of communicating that to the players, that’s an entire other sort of mastery. If you’re the only person who has read or run the game, how do you communicate all those things to other people?
25:30 AB: Right, and I feel like Paul does communicate this relatively well in the book.
25:35 SL: Oh, yeah, it’s great.
25:36 AB: It’s a very well-written book and he discusses how to do… ‘Cause we were talking about this kind of first session problem. He discusses how to build the first session very, very well. My problem is understanding where to go and doing that mind shift that needs to happen to run it and cause interesting stuff. Because interesting stuff in this game is not, “The Orcs are coming out of the forest.” Interesting stuff in this game is, “Well, how does slavery make you feel as a person?” And it’s weird.
26:09 SL: It’s not even just how does it make you feel, it’s “What are the effects of slavery on the way our society… ”
26:16 AB: Second-order and third-order effects.
26:18 SL: Yeah, and the effects on other people, the effects on how you interact with other people because you have this. Yeah, it’s…
26:26 AB: So, it’s a game that I want to figure out, but there are lots of those games, which leads me to the third, and I think obvious answer that Sage avoided picking, which is Burning Wheel.
26:36 SL: Yes. I was briefly wondering if you weren’t gonna pick it, and we were gonna have this hilarious discussion where…
26:42 AB: We should have picked. Burning Wheel is… So, I have lots of games that are mechanically dense that could have been on the top of this list. Burning Wheel is not there because it is mechanically dense, Burning Wheel is there because it has 20,000 moving pieces that all fit together precisely, and you can’t change any of them because Luke knows what the fuck he’s doing.
27:07 AB: And if you don’t remember one of them, things are gonna be just subtly off. Your clock’s gonna tick a little bit fast or a little bit slow, and you’ll be like, “You know, this isn’t working as well as I wanted. Oh, that’s right! This rule… ” And then everything moves again.
27:24 SL: Oh, and I wanna jump back, because it’s not that you can’t change these things, it’s that it is a complex watch that… the mastery is when you get to the point where you can, you know all those interlocking gears and you can tweak them. And to Luke’s credit, the thing that a lot of people don’t pick up on in the book that I think is absolutely key, is that the game tells you that it’s built on concentric circles, basically; you can just do the innermost circle and that cuts out a lot of the gears, basically. The gears that are there are still intricate and beautiful and they work together great, but they require a bit less of that “remembering the AC bonus of plate,” kinda stuff.
28:07 AB: Even that smallest circle, though, is pretty complex. Even that smallest circle is, “Okay, your character better have beliefs that actually matter. They better have traits and remember to pay attention to them. They better have instincts that are actually going to be relevant in game. They better have goals that are actually gonna be relevant in game. Oh, and by the way, when you’re creating your characters, all of these steps in character creation are gonna need to be relevant in game. And by the way, as a DM, here are the things that you’re gonna think of as reward tokens that aren’t really reward tokens, they’re ways of making sure that the characters can proceed to do the things that they care about doing and signal to you that they’re things that they care about doing.”
28:50 SL: See I feel like the… And this may be a weakness to how the game is presented to some degree, all that stuff is actually outside the most inner circle. The most inner circle are the basic mechanics of the game which are reasonably complex, and pre-gen characters, like from “The Sword” scenario or something. ‘Cause it does take some skill to cook up good beliefs and instincts and traits… Well, traits are a little less so. But beliefs and instincts in particular. And to mesh those all together there’s a collaborative aspect to it where if everybody writes all their things individually and then sits down, you’re probably not gonna get anywhere. But if you take something in one of Luke’s published scenarios that has pre-gen characters, a lot of that stuff is done for you.
29:38 AB: Right, but so talking about the first session… First session problem, I don’t think that The Sword or The Gift count, really, as a first session.
29:46 SL: Oh, I think The Sword can totally be a first session.
29:49 AB: I think it’s a “Let me show you this game,” session. But it’s not a first session, right? If you play The Sword a couple of times or you play The Gift a couple of times, you can’t… I don’t know if it’s… That’s not gonna hold up for a group that wants to play a campaign. You think you could go from The Sword and…
30:05 SL: Oh, but I think that the spiralling outward from there… I mean The Sword ends with some notes on these are…
30:11 AB: Take this into a campaign thing?
30:12 SL: These are directions where things could go from here if you’re playing another session and I think that like with all good Burning Wheel characters, those beliefs, if you just keep on poking at those and looking at “Okay, if this character believes this, this implies these things about the world and that means that I can knock over this domino to challenge that belief”, all that stuff is still built into those characters. The Sword is just… In some ways, I think you could even drop the scenario of The Sword and just say “These are pre-gen characters and you cook up a little scenario”. Again, it’s concentric circles. The most concentric circle I think is running the sword with just the hub system from Burning Wheel. So the most basic ways of resolving dice and stuff, and just keeping on going with that for the longest time. And it still, the fact that this is the most concentric of all these circles, it means that there are still a lot of things to master as you grow out from there. But I think that that game is still really good, which I think is one of the best things about Burning Wheel.
31:15 AB: It’s a major strength of the system. There are idiom changes that you need to make but the big strength of the system is that it does survive without all of these extra pieces.
31:26 SL: The idiom change is the interesting thing I think to bring up, ’cause that’s actually part of what knocked Burning Wheel off of my list. Also, the guess that you’re gonna pick it.
31:36 SL: But part of what I think that Burning Wheel why I would argue that other games may require more mastery is that the idioms of Burning Wheel are actually relatively familiar, not necessarily from D&D but from other types of fantasy literature in particular. In some ways, Burning Wheel is a great system for, like even Lord of the Rings. A lot of the fantasy touchstones that get referenced in regards to D&D I would say actually fit better for Burning Wheel. You could totally set up, I’m sure somebody’s done this online, set up all the main characters, the fellowship from Lord of the Rings, and that would actually probably give you most of the things I guess, Gandalf spells might be a little off, but whatever. So are all these D&D spells.
32:26 AB: But people are coming from the fantasy novels, right? The fantasy novels were a touchstone 40 years ago but at this point, there are…
32:36 SL: They’re coming from the movies.
32:38 AB: Well, right. But a lot of those are coming out of… Like watch The Hobbit, right?
32:44 SL: Mm-hmm.
32:44 AB: The three movies of The Hobbit are 70% “Look at this awesome fight” or “This great CGI things” and not, “Hey, my beliefs are really being challenged here”, right?
32:56 SL: Yes.
32:56 AB: And then yeah, yeah, Luke’s stuff is built off of the good modern and even not quite modern fantasy novels that have all these useful interesting things going on and things that are not just “My character has a spell to deal with this”. But I don’t think that there is many people coming to this game, coming to RPGs from that point as they’re coming to RPGs from “I wanna hit stuff with my battle axe,” right?
33:25 SL: That’s a very valid point. Like I agree that a lot of people come to RPGs for, I hit it with my battle axe, which is a great way, there’s a reason for D&D’s enduring success ’cause that is an awesome trope, and it’s a thing that people want. And this isn’t to like cheapen that at all but I think that there are other touchstones, like the Burning Wheel beliefs, instincts, traits stuff you can easily parse out to other types of media as well.
33:52 AB: Sure, sure, sure.
33:55 SL: When we were talking earlier today we brought up Lost, which Adam hasn’t seen so I can’t even give a talk about it.
33:58 AB: No, go crazy.
34:00 SL: But a lot of the characters there, you can parse those characters into beliefs or you could do Primetime Adventures issues, which are both kind of flip sides on the same thing. I think that people, once you can help them have that insight to look at their favorite media whatever that is, and look at what’s driving those characters, like you can totally write up Batman’s beliefs. Well, various takes on Batman. There’s so many takes on Batman, Each one has their own beliefs, but…
34:29 AB: But I mean, like this is innermost concentric circle. We could talk about beliefs for weeks, like there are people that have been playing Burning Wheel for a long time and still have trouble coming up with really good beliefs.
34:43 SL: Well, but on that standard I think you could say that dungeon design in dungeon crawly RPGs has this same level of people have done it for years and can still talk about the intricacies, like it’s an art not a science.
34:55 AB: Right. But the difference between “Okay, I’m gonna build a couple of dungeons” and “I’ve been building dungeons for 20 years”, I feel is way smaller than the difference between “This is a belief that I just came up with” and “I’m really good at writing beliefs”. Like the guy that’s really good at writing beliefs. Here’s a belief that the GM can take and build an entire scenario and setting out of. Here’s a dungeon when you’re done with that dungeon, you’re done with that dungeon or here’s a dungeon and it’s enormous but they just did this enormous amount of world-building, which is a totally different scope of effort, right?
35:27 SL: I think that I’ve got a different appreciation for well-designed dungeon than you do. I actually feel like the thing with beliefs is that they take a lot of skill to write, but there are a lot of references to come from. If you’re ever in danger of trying to write a belief and you’re having a hard time you think of some drama-ish TV show, book, movie, or whatever, think of some character who has some personal struggle, translate that into your situation and that… It’s a different level of mastery. You’re not coming up with these things whole cloth, but it totally works most of the time. Whereas a dungeon has all this moving parts to it. It’s almost back to the level of game design where you’re not just coming up with one thing that can drive play, you’re coming up with an entire dungeon of in or out locking things. And I think that raising beliefs to this level of they have to be these wonderful works of art, is also tuning in the system because part of the wonderful thing about Burning Wheel is that you can change your beliefs. They’re meant to be changed in a lot of ways as long as you’re not trying to game the system by constantly changing them. The whole point is that if one isn’t working, you just swap it out.
36:42 AB: Sure. No, it’s a beautiful system. Dungeons, I don’t know about dungeons. One of the problems with dungeons to me is that very few people are really gonna take the time to craft a dungeon.
36:59 SL: True.
37:00 AB: Because there are even random dungeon generators, right? And the random dungeon generator is not gonna create something that’s really interesting in play, but it’ll create something that your players are gonna go through and have a good time with, because most of the games that use a dungeon that you are legitimately mapping out; the players are not gonna care that “This is the beholder section of the dungeon and you can tell that because of these bones here and these people are eaten over here”. Like all of the stuff that you bake into a dungeon to, especially in modern play group that’s played 10 years of D&D, they’re gonna say “Who cares? Where’s the trap? I need to know where the monster is, I need to know the tactical situation, I don’t really care about all this care that you’ve put into this thing, it doesn’t make any difference to my character.”
37:51 SL: Well, but that’s exactly where the mastery of dungeon design comes in. If you’re just throwing in random things there as atmosphere or something, you’re doing a relatively poor job designing. And even if you’re throwing in details where atmosphere would work, this is something that really well-designed dungeons and adventures in general do really well is communicating a maximum amount of atmosphere that the GM can then use in a minimum amount of text instead of maximum amount of details so the GM then has to be like, “Oh, wait, you can tell that the scorch beams are actually a little above your head. Sorry about that.” That doesn’t matter. You want the GM to be able to communicate a feel, which is a craft… crafting something like that is I think more complex than a belief.
38:44 AB: But in D&D, only one person has to do the dungeon design.
38:46 SL: True.
38:47 AB: In Burning Wheel, everybody has to do beliefs.
38:50 SL: And here I am, arguing for a game that’s not even the one that I picked. [laughter] Isn’t it interestingly, both of our top picks are Luke Crane games.
38:57 AB: So this is the thing, designing… Well, I don’t know, I guess. On the one hand, designing a game that is simple enough to pick up and play and have a good time with is very, very difficult. And the games that we have that exist right now that are really pushing that, stuff like Microscope and Apocalypse World and Fate that are, “Here are some dice, make up a couple of things go”, and the game will work out. And if it doesn’t, you can totally switch and play something else.
39:33 SL: That’s totally not new, but anyway.
39:34 AB: And I’m not saying that it’s new. I’m saying that it’s relatively hard to do, even though it looks straightforward, right?
39:40 SL: Oh, totally, yes.
39:42 AB: I didn’t have enough time, sorry this letter was so long kind of thing, right? [chuckle] And Luke Crane’s philosophy, not to put words in his mouth, but the way that his games end up designed is, they are these beautiful watches that are gonna take a while to absorb. And I think that that’s also a ton of work. And doing the editing to drop it down so that there are these concentric circles, so you have this innermost piece that you can play and that part is simple, but then you can also take the game and add all of this massive amount of complexity that still works and still interlocks is way more work than I want to do.
40:22 SL: But that’s game design work. There are games that the effort and mastery that were put into creating them is an order of magnitude different than the mastery that goes into playing them. And I think that’s actually true of most games.
40:38 AB: Right, and I think that those two layer on top of each other, though, which is why I think Luke Crane games were at the top of both of our lists because I even got Dread and Pendragon on my massive runner-up list because I feel like if you want to play them really well, you better do a lot of work to get into that right idiom and to understand that this is how you have to play this game differently than you’re used to playing games.
41:04 SL: Pendragon was almost on my list as well.
41:06 AB: Oh Pendragon is so… Okay, let’s make it your third runner-up then. Or your second runner-up…
41:08 SL: Oh, but I don’t wanna burn through so many games.
41:10 AB: They’re so good, though! We can repeat and nobody’s gonna listen to all these. So talk about Pendragon, ’cause you only get…
41:16 SL: So Pendragon, I was deliberately committing myself to just two games ’cause I wasn’t gonna have this massive list of runners-up, but now that I’m going into runners-up, I’m actually gonna go to two more. So Pendragon is this wonderful game of Arthurian legend where specifically you’re not playing Arthur or any of the knights you’ve heard of. You are playing these knights, and eventually their descendants, through the entirety of Arthurian legend, which, first of all, takes a lot of re-thinking of how you run the game, because it’s against this massive backdrop that is already known to everybody to some degree.
41:56 SL: And really the best way to play Pendragon is to get The Great Pendragon Campaign, which is a book larger than the rules that goes over what happens through the entirety of Arthur’s life, actually starting before his life. And this game, I’ve actually struggled with running it, because the backdrop is so good, and the concept of these long-running knightly dynasties, and it matters not just how you can actually fight, but the glory you can gain in battle and all this stuff, all that sounds really good, but making it work in play, I didn’t quite have the idioms. Part of it is, in some ways we wanted to take all this Pendragon stuff and play Burning Wheel in front of the Pendragon stuff. That’s eventually how my group works.
42:47 AB: But that misses… So, The Great Pendragon Campaign… So, my D&D background is with a group that was playing, that knows everything Forgotten Realms related, everything Forgotten Realms related this group knew about. They knew when their sessions were planned in the Forgotten Realms universe timeline. They knew what the year was, down to, “Well, this is the year of this thing, and so this stuff is going on, and so let’s build it in.” And so, having a campaign that existed in a pre-existing setting, I’m used to that. The thing that I couldn’t really get a handle on with Pendragon for a long time was that all of the player characters are… You have stats in Pendragon based on actions that you want to take. And the stats in Pendragon will occasionally force you to take actions.
43:48 SL: Yes.
43:49 AB: And that is the big, massive mind shift for Pendragon.
43:53 SL: And we struggled with that a little bit, because the rules, at least in the current edition that I have, I feel flip-flop on this on a little bit. How much you’re supposed to be bound by these things and how much they are things that you want to do. We ended up almost wanting something more along the lines of beliefs from Burning Wheel to some degree. It’s important to have something that can get you into trouble, that’s very Arthurian, you’re too loving and so you can’t turn away the unreasonable demands of your suitor or whatever. But we had a hard time getting the actual dice there to work, and then the rest of the rules, the combat stuff always came out really flat for us. We had a couple of wonderful sessions, and then a lot of mediocre ones and we eventually gave up on it.
44:44 AB: Yeah, I feel like… So, the beliefs are… I feel like they are less beliefs and more instincts.
44:50 SL: Yeah.
44:51 AB: Like, “I will be loving in all scenarios” type of thing. And they are instincts that you can attempt to avoid. But yeah, I’m right there with you on the conflict rules. There’s a ton of that game that is complex for it doesn’t seem like very much reason, I… Pendragon is Greg Stafford I think, and it’s relatively old, I think it’s in fourth edition at this point. And I don’t have enough experience with Pendragon to give Greg the faith that all of the rules are there for a reason. So, it’s very likely, it’s very possible that they all are and that we just don’t know it. But this is the problem with a building a complex game that is not concentric, right? So, anyways.
45:36 SL: Yeah, you have to immediately invoke pretty much all of Pendragon, and then a couple of other challenges that we came across, that by default you are all the eldest sons of various houses, which doesn’t give your characters a lot of reason to do any… There are plot things that draw you all together, which in The Great Pendragon Campaign are sometimes very just like, “No, Merlin just chooses you for some reason, who cares, you’re on the adventure.”
46:03 AB: You all meet in Merlin’s Tavern.
46:05 SL: Pretty much, you all meet in Merlin’s Tavern and we ditched that, because we were having a hard time getting all of these eldest sons to… It felt like running three solo games that occasionally overlap. So instead, we went with the eldest child and two younger children of a family that had some standing, so all three get to become knights, but one of them is definitely set up to inherit. And then we also… I mean, we tinkered pretty heavily, because things weren’t quite coming the way we wanted. We also actually added this whole thing where we decided that we didn’t really want to deal with women being totally just damsels to be saved and stuff, so we decided that in our setting women are technically allowed to inherit, but are often… They’re still often skipped over because they are declared unfit or whatever, “Oh the moon had effects on her, she’s too flighty to be the heir.”
47:10 SL: So, our eldest was actually a woman and we had to rethink all of the feudal system with this. So, whenever you arrange a marriage, you decide who is marrying into who’s house, and all… We dreamed up all of this stuff, which actually didn’t mess with the game dramatically. I was really worried that this was gonna mess with…
47:28 AB: Hey, who knows, maybe it did. Maybe the conflict rules are heavily dependent on status of women in society, right?
47:35 SL: Yeah, the conflict rules… But this stuff, at least for my group, I’m sure other groups would have a great thing, that actually led to some of our best moments. The best thing we ended up with was somebody getting murdered and the players blaming Uther’s other son basically.
47:53 SL: And taking him hostage, and like…
47:55 AB: Nice.
47:56 SL: And it turns out that it was a magical thing and all this stuff and whatever, but we had this great 10th session of the two younger brothers, who before had been kind of like, a bit at odds. And they’re not telling their older sister, the one who could actually maybe negotiate a little bit more. Oh, it was a wonderful session and a lot of that came from some of the changes that we made and from some of the focus. Like the Pendragon campaign is great for setting up things that happen each year, and this wonderful backdrop, but some of the ways it tries to weave the players into that backdrop are a little heavy-handed. Like I said, sometimes Merlin just shows up and is like, “You’re all coming with me. Why you? Because you’re the player characters.”
48:40 AB: So number three, I guess.
48:41 SL: My third runner up, since we’re just going crazy with this.
48:45 AB: Mad with power.
48:47 SL: Well, we’ve run out of episodes within the year. The great thing is I think we’ll come back to some of these games and talk about other aspects of them.
48:54 AB: Hopefully.
48:55 SL: Hopefully. But the other one, and this a bit of a deep cut, is Continuum, which is a game of time travel. And the reason that it requires a lot of mastery is because the majority of the book is not actually about the things that you normally associate with a role playing game, like how to figure out if you managed to shoot somebody with a gun or run away fast enough or whatever. Most of it is about the mechanics of time travel.
49:21 AB: Right.
49:21 SL: So it provides you this entire explanation of dealing with basically everything with… What happens when you go back and kill your own mother? Well, this, this, and this. You’ll accumulate… They don’t call it…
49:33 AB: Paradox. They don’t?
49:34 SL: Paradox. It’s basically paradox. I wanna say they have a different term, but I can’t think of it off the top of my…
49:37 AB: Of course they do. Because it wouldn’t be a time travel game if they didn’t have a bunch of funny time travel terminology.
49:43 SL: Yes. They’re a bunch of… Well, in all… The way the people become time travellers, it’s like an innate gift and when you figure out you have it, you kinda graduate into this fellowship of time travellers and you’re allowed to make a little bit of money off of it by buying the lottery ticket that’s going to win and stuff. But if you go too far there’s police, kind of, that come after you and stuff.
49:59 AB: Time traveller police.
50:01 SL: So the real challenges to mastering this game, one of them is, first of all, understanding and explaining to everybody else how time travel works.
50:11 SL: I’m serious. The majority of the book, and if I remember there’s some examples with like tearing and folding paper to help you explain how the time continuum changes and all this. The other real challenge is that it’s one of those games that to master it is to figure out what you do in the game. Like D&D has never had this problem, it’s really easy to say like, “Well, you go on an adventure, probably into a dungeon, probably to get something you need.” Maybe that’s money, maybe it’s something bigger and more important. But the problem with Continuum, what are you here to do? You’re here to, maybe… Maybe you’re trying to pull off a heist ’cause you want more money but you can also travel through time. I mean what’s the driving action?
50:58 AB: What’s the scenario? That’s gotta be… Oh man.
51:01 SL: So, yeah. This is a really interesting game. I always wanted to play it more, because I’ve always had a problem of actually… You kinda sit down to play, you manage to get through a description of time travel and then you’re not quite sure how to start a session. But yeah, it’s kind of my white whale, to actually run a good Continuum game.
51:20 AB: Man, and there’s Time and Temp. Have you played Time and Temp?
51:23 SL: Time and Temp is a… On the other hand, completely jumps over why time travel works or anything.
51:29 AB: Right. Because it’s the Star Trek problem, right?
51:33 SL: Yeah.
51:33 AB: Ideally, in fiction, here’s some crazy thing that enables plot. It works because, insert technical babble here, go. Now Continuum might have enough mechanics built around time travel, that it kind of… It drives the game and it means that if you didn’t have it, the game just wouldn’t work. But most fiction doesn’t end up doing that kind of thing.
52:00 SL: Well, no. I mean, I think the continuum is kinda like the movie, Primer. I mean that’s what I’ve always imagined it to be like. The reason that there has to be rules for this stuff is not that the rules for rolling the dice interact that much. It’s because these rules are what it feels like should drive the action of the game. Like the idea that you can die… Be dying once, jump away from that into a different point in time, but now you know to preserve the continuity of the continuum or whatever, you have to get back to that moment to die. So if you die again, you’re really in trouble. Like all these things are… In theory, that’s what the game should be about dealing with, is dealing with the rules of time travel, which is why it’s important to have all this, not do the Time and Temp thing. So Time and Temp is a game where you are temp workers sent through time to correct problems or whatever, and it very quickly glosses over a lot of the problems.
52:59 AB: Is that Epidiah’s game by the way?
53:01 SL: Yes. Epidiah Ravachol. I’m not sure how to pronounce it. It’s Eppy.
53:06 AB: Trying to give credit!
53:07 SL: Yes. And we’ll, of course, link all these from the show notes as usual. But the thing there is that it really quickly glosses over why time travel exists, how you’re not going to get sick and die, how you’re going to be able to communicate with people, how you are going to look like you fit in and why they would send temp workers back through time?
53:24 AB: The first 10 questions that your players are going to ask. Right?
53:26 SL: Exactly. All those are pretty much techno-babbled over.
53:29 AB: Yeah. We’ll save it for the time travel episode where I can talk about Microscope for extended periods of time.
53:34 SL: But in Microscope you’re not actually travelling through time. You’re just spectators, jumping through time.
53:38 AB: That’s why we can have that argument. It’ll be great.
53:41 SL: Okay.
53:42 AB: So I think, I think the winner here is, straight up, Luke Crane.
53:45 SL: I was about to say, it’s Luke Crane.
53:46 AB: And Burning Wheel headquarters, like…
53:49 SL: Luke Crane is the most complex game. The hardest game to master.
53:51 AB: Right, but I think… But the return on investment in those games is at least worth it. We could definitely pull up games where it is not.
54:00 SL: And we didn’t even talk about Burning Empires, Blossoms are Falling, and oh, what’s the name of his other one? But anyway, all of Luke’s games fall onto this category of mastering, and the thing I always worry about saying that, we both agree that his games for either the idioms or some of the clockwork of them, can all be very rewarding and tough to master. The thing I worry about saying that is that now, we’re gonna scare people off of these awesome games.
54:29 AB: Yeah, oh, man, totally worth it. But as you noted, grab The Sword, grab The Gift, grab something or find somebody at a con to play one of these games.
54:41 SL: And Mouse Guard is also more accessible than his other games I would say… So, grab Mouse Guard. I believe it is either back in print now or about to be.
54:48 AB: Second edition is coming.
54:50 SL: So, grab Mouse Guard. It involves a lot of the upsides that we’ve been mentioning, with a little less requirement for mastery.
54:59 AB: Or Torchbearer, if you wanna play more D&D-style, dungeon stuff.
55:01 SL: Torchbearer, I still feel is a step up from Mouse Guard in mastery requirements.
55:08 AB: Pretty much anything that comes out of that studio is beautiful, but will take a bit of time, so…
55:14 SL: I get to kick out of calling Luke’s crowd a “studio.”
55:18 AB: Right? Come up with a different term if you like. The other thing that I really…
55:22 SL: Burning Wheel HQ, that’s what they go by.
55:23 AB: Yeah, HQ… The other thing that they do that’s really cool as a parting note here, is that they treat their materials as artifacts. And as much as I hate not being able to have a PDF of Burning Wheel on hand, the books are just amazing. And Torchbearer, just holding the Torchbearer book makes me nostalgic and happy.
55:47 SL: Yes. And Torchbearer is definitely at the high end here. I will say that I feel like you can make a high quality book, and still sell the PDF, and be just fine because… This is the story I’ve told a few people. When we ordered Dungeon World, we talked to various people who had already printed books, and Luke was really cool. We went with his printer, and for the longest time whenever they gave me a quote, it’d a quote for “Luke Crane books.” [laughter] ‘Cause we used the exact same configuration of his books except for the few differences in cover, and size I think, it’s a smaller size than ours. But anyway for the most part, we are the exact same, the interior. Everything of Dungeon World and Burning Wheel is the same. So, and we do just fine selling our PDFs and books at the same time.
56:32 AB: In future episodes, we can do, “what is the best PDF role playing game?”
56:36 SL: What is the… [laughter]
56:36 AB: And that way…
56:37 SL: Which opens it up to just about everything.
56:39 AB: That way we can drop Luke and make sure that we can come up with other people.
56:43 SL: Yeah. Okay.
56:44 AB: Totally awesome.
56:45 SL: Well, that’s this week’s episode, and I shouldn’t say… I keep on saying this week, but we do these bi-weekly, so this is this two weeks’ episode.
56:53 AB: Gosh, it’s so hard. Maybe we should do weekly. Weekly is too much, though. We would definitely run out of stuff.
56:58 SL: I know weekly is too much.
56:58 AB: But yeah…
57:00 SL: We’re not gonna run out of stuff. We’ll always have new aspects to talk about existing games. We still have games in our queue that we would wanna play.
57:06 AB: Definitely.
57:07 SL: We’ll always have something.
57:07 AB: We’ll figure it out. Send us more questions because it’s awesome to use reader questions. That’s way better than using our own.
57:14 SL: Yep.
57:15 AB: Hit us on Google Plus at +Another Question or me, Adam Blinkinsop or Sage LaTorra. And then, Twitter @aqpodcast, and…
57:23 SL: Yep, and we’re on Facebook, not many gamers on Facebook.
57:25 AB: Nobody cares about Facebook anymore. [chuckle]
57:27 SL: Yeah. Nobody cares about Facebook. But we get a fair number of people on Facebook, and Google Plus, and yes, this is Adam Blinkinsop not Adam Koebel.
57:36 AB: Right.
57:37 SL: We’ve had that mistake a few times already.
57:37 AB: I’m not that Adam.
57:39 SL: I obviously have a type of people to communicate or collaborate with which is people named Adam.
57:44 AB: So, if you are an Adam, and you would like to go on a show, [laughter] let us know. We can interview for a position.
57:49 SL: Cool. Well, we will see all of you in two weeks.
57:54 AB: Woo!