Grant and Peter discuss the root causes of some common GM problems such as over- or under- prepping, de-protagonizing, and issues with detail and offer their advice on how to address them.
A lot of the time, these are generated by a lack of other ideas, and I find them a useful way to fill a creative gap while still handing out something useful. That’s not the case this time – I have a couple of things that I especially want to recommend this time. Quality over quantity for this one; I just have two things, but they’re both phenomenal.
The first one is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I just discovered this recently after having been kind of tangentially aware of it for a while, and it has pushed just about everything else out of my listening rotation. Even other podcasts that I absolutely love have been fighting for my listening time with this. Mr. Carlin has a way of presenting historical narratives that is absolutely riveting and if your brain works anything at all like mine does, you won’t be able to stop the gaming ideas from coming. In particular, he focuses a lot on the human side of things and first-hand accounts; there’s a strong emphasis toward “putting the listener there” as much as possible. He also shows a great deal of respect and charity toward a wide variety of different world views and cultures, which I really appreciate as a listener; he’s more one to ask you to think about why horrible things happened and how people got through them than one to rant about how awful things were or sneer from a modern moral pedestal at “backwards” people from ages past. He also references other, fictional works, which makes putting stuff in a gaming context easier. Lord of the Rings actually gets referenced a lot during the WWI series.
As I just hinted at, I particularly recommend the six-part series “A Blueprint for Armageddon” which focuses on the first world war, and currently has me ruminating on ideas for a low-fantasy setting that resembles pre-WWI Europe. I haven’t listened to anywhere near everything he’s put out so far, but I only have one or two more pieces of audio before I have to start buying his older stuff, which I will be doing happily and without hesitation. His current series, King of Kings, is also excellent, and it deals with the events (going all the way back to the founding of the Persian empire) that eventually lead up to the Battle of Thermopylae (the infamous stand of the 300 Spartans).
A few words of caution, though: this series is not for the faint of heart. Carlin gets pretty graphic at times as he describes, for example, just how terrible a WWI battlefield was or just what they did to the leaders of the Anabaptists that took over the city of Muenster when they caught them. Hardcore history has helped me understand and appreciate the value of horror about as much as talking to Kenneth Hite and Greg Stolze did, and that is high praise indeed.
The second one is much lighter in tone, and is more specifically gaming-focused. I had to go back and check to make sure we hadn’t included it in one of the previous podcasts or blog posts in this series, and I’m still not 100% sure we haven’t even after checking just now. Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick webcomic (the link goes to the first strip) is wonderful gaming inspiration for anyone in the hobby, but especially those running D&D games. It starts out as just a silly webcomic about a D&D adventuring party (complete with breaks in the fourth wall) and succeeds fairly well as just a humorous thing to read, but as the story goes on, the story gets more serious, more complex, and more interesting, and while Burlew’s setting is kind of generic by necessity, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it once the story starts scratching below the surface. Reading it will teach you interesting lessons about dealing with various problem characters (Elan, Belkar, and Vaarsuvius all represent different problematic PC archetypes, though that is far from all they are, and they have important roles to play in the story), developing a world as you go, heroism, villainy, storytelling, and so forth, but I think one of the more interesting and subtle lessons it teaches (perhaps without even meaning to) is how much you can get across with some fairly spare descriptions. The characters in Order of the stick aren’t quite traditional stick figures, but neither are they particularly detailed, yet the simple, clean art conveys a great deal.
Unlike Hardcore History, this one is probably fine for anyone over the age of 12 or so; while there’s some mild language, a fair bit of violence and the occasional sexual reference, nothing is particularly graphic, and the good guys are clearly marked and in most cases, pretty clearly heroic.
As usual, I’d love to hear if you get anything out of either of these, and I’d also love to hear any recommendations you might have.
Author and game designer Greg Stolze joins Grant and Peter to talk about Unknown Armies 3rd Edition, its Kickstarter, some of his other work, and personal-scale horror stories! We spend a lot of time talking about Unknown Armies—practically the whole episode, really—and Greg had plenty to say about personal horror and how Unknown Armies reflects that. In particular, we talk about how this sort of horror differs from the “cosmic horror” currently in vogue; how relationships can matter more in personal horror; stress and horror; and more. Enjoy!
Mentioned in this episode:
- The Unknown Armies 3rd Edition Kickstarter campaign (wraps up April 29th)
- Greg Stolze’s homepage
- The Delta Green RPG
- “In The Beginning”—a blog post by Greg Stolze describing the origins of Unknown Armies
- Dinosaurs In Space
- Milan Kundera and The Unbearable Lightness of Being
- The Babadook
Grant and I are both really busy this week, but we still wanted to give you something to look at, so we figured it would be cool to share some links to the various other “geeky faith” projects out there with you, because there are a surprising number of them these days. So without further adieu, the list:
Crossover Nexus: Both an occasional crossover project (Grant and I have both been on episodes) and an aggregated list of geeky faith projects. Start your search here; it’s not exhaustive, but it’s definitely a solid place to start.
Geekdom House: We had Kyle Rudge, the man behind this amazing site on with us for episode 68. Kyle himself is a great guy – we really enjoyed talking with him and were impressed by both his warmth and his intelligence. Geekdom house has plenty of those qualities as well, and while you won’t find much in the way of podcast content here, there’s plenty of great stuff to read.
Innroads Ministries: If you’re aware of us, but not them at this point, I’m honestly not sure how that works as they’re one of the places we’re syndicated through and we’ve had Mike Perna, the man behind it on with us on two separate occasions. (Episode 66 and Episode 33. We really should get him back for episode 99…) They focus mostly on board games, but there’s a bit of tabletop RPG content (that doesn’t come from us) in there as well. You find both their main podcast (Game Store Prophets) and The MacGuffin Factory, the monthly-ish podcast Mike Perna and Grant do that centers around story hooks there.
See you next week with an episode as usual. If you know of other geeky faith projects that I didn’t include in this list, let us know in the comments. Putting together a reference document of them is on our to-do list.
Not much in the way of news this week, so Grant and Peter get almost straight into the topic: Diaspora, the scattering of a people from a common homeland and their desire to return. We discuss what, exactly makes a diaspora and how it can be used for world and character building.
On Sunday, after I got home from the Easter festivities, I knocked something off of my games backlog: The Beginner’s Guide. It’s a really interesting experience (though I’m not sure I could actually call it a game, even by my own loose definition of “game”) and got me thinking about, well, how much thinking I do about my hobbies.
Now before I go any further, I should reiterate that I think there’s tremendous value in taking hobbies and interests (gaming especially) to a deeper-than-surface level. I love the work of Jack Berkenstock and Sarah Lynne Bowman a great deal and I really get into symbolism in my media (when I catch it, anyway). I just about jumped out of my chair cheering at the cleansing metaphor of the rain at the end of the fourth episode of Season 2 of Daredevil when I watched it, and while I’m not as good at articulating it as Grant is, I’m very much in favor of the gaming table as a way of exploring moral, psychological, philosophical, and theological concepts, as well as a place for building interpersonal skills. In short, I am an enthusiastic, happy believer in using fun for good and thinking below the surface of the media we consume.
There’s a very real risk if we’re not careful of falling into the infamous “high school English teacher” trap of over-analyzing something to the point where it loses all meaning, or at least the intended or original meaning, but there’s also the problem of thinking one’s fun has to “work” (as in “toil” not as in “function”) all the time.
Because of that, I find it useful (if a bit frustratingly difficult at times) to remind myself on occasion that fun for its own sake is perfectly okay and beneficial in its own right. The Beginners Guide did a fairly jarring and harsh job of reminding me of this as I played it this past weekend. Note: for those who haven’t played it, The Beginner’s Guide is only about 90 minutes long, so it’s quick to get through but also almost impossible to talk about without spoiling to some degree. So I’m going to spoil it a bit – you’ve been warned. Anyway, in The Beginner’s Guide, one character over-interprets his friend’s work and invents a need for help where none exists, which then leads to a betrayal of trust and the loss of a friendship. In effect (to swipe rather irreverently from Tolkien), he dug SO deep that he unearthed a Balrog. He tried to make the projects of his friend Coda work as an insight into his friend’s inner struggles and saw a call for help when one wasn’t there – in effect he fell into the “English teacher trap” and the “fun needs to be more than fun” trap at the same time.
While I haven’t shared work I wasn’t entitled to share with people it was never intended to be shared with like the narrator in The Beginner’s Guide, there have been times where I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that I really shouldn’t be having fun with my hobbies unless they were also serving some other purpose. I needed to be generating content, or having some philosophical revelation, or even just practicing my critical analysis skills (which admittedly CAN use some more development) or I should stop. I was digging down past the point where it was fun and missing some of the inherent worth of recreation: stress relief, rest, and joy. (Also: don’t let the word “was” make you think this is some long-defeated character flaw and that I now have perfect perspective. I did this to myself last week.) However, like so many of these more introspective posts, I’m not always entirely sure where those lines are. The Beginner’s Guide, for example, is clearly supposed to be thought about and analyzed even as it cautions about the perils of over-thinking and over-analysis.
At times like this, I think back to our conversation with Kyle Rudge of Geekdom House on episode 68, and try to remember that art has worth of its own and that consuming it can be edifying in its own right. A lot of the time there’s good stuff below the surface of our entertainment, but sometimes it’s worth taking the time to appreciate the surface itself and just let that be enough.
Grant’s second child is here and everybody is doing well!
Grant and Peter discuss some recent news, including Gamerati’s taking over of RPGpodcasts.com (a very good thing) and the upcoming Tavern Con and Electric City Comic Con, then get down to discussing the main topic: fear in RPGs. A lot of gaming groups have trouble handling fear in-game. Grant and Peter discuss some common reasons for the trouble and offer a number of potential solutions.
Tavern Con (no official link yet)
Episode 45 – Unity vs. Uniformity (With Ed Healy)
Electric City Comic Con
Gameable Pixar Podcast, Bonus episode 33: The Corpse Bride
Games Store Prophets Bonus Content: Darkest Dungeon
Those who listen to the podcast (which I would assume is basically everyone who will ever read this) know that I’ve been trying to finish up a degree in network security for several years now. I’d been hoping to finish it this year, but a recent trip to the community college where I’m taking my classes yielded the unfortunate news that I’m actually four classes away from graduation, rather than two. Kind of a bummer, but now at least I know exactly what I need to graduate. It occurred to me as I sat down to write this that despite the fact that I’m closing in on 40, a lot of my friends and colleagues are also in school, and that I’ve been in it more or less continually since I graduated from high school, despite the fact that in my late teens and early twenties I was burnt out on it and was a much worse student than I am today.
“That’s nice for you, Peter, but what does this have to do with gaming?” you may ask. The real answer is probably “not much” but it does bring up some interesting thoughts about character advancement. Most of the time, character advancement in an RPG has some kind of “ding” to it. You collect XP or character points and eventually buy a measurable improvement in something. You used to have no ability to pick locks but now, all of a sudden, now you can pick them half the time. There are a few games out there that base advancement on usage (Burning Wheel in particular springs to mind) but they’re rare.
On a mechanical level, it makes sense – real people learning skills do so gradually. My own knowledge of computers started out with a virus infection back on 2009, led to me building a PC for the first time, listening to a security podcast to avoid having it happen again, and then led to classes and more self-teaching that have brought me up to the level of competence that should be sufficient for an entry-level IT job at some point in the near future. However, most of the time, the process is gradual. I didn’t jump from complete ignorance to low-level professional knowledge in a sudden spasm of development – I picked up a few facts here, a few more there, learned how those facts work together, and slowly it came together. I no longer have any trepidation at all installing software (or even operating systems) poking around in the guts of a computer, swapping cables, etc. I have the beginnings of some instincts as to why systems behave the way they do when something goes wrong, but if you asked me to point to a specific date when that transition occurred, I couldn’t do it. The lines between ignorance and knowledge, trepidation and confidence, are fuzzy and ill-defined. And, for that matter, exactly how much I know (and how much I don’t know) is similarly hard to nail down because of the way the human mind works.
While clarity is often more important than flavor in an RPG context, I wonder if there’s some value in taking the time to describe what each level of competence means in terms of a character’s own perceptions and those of the people around them. This can lead to complicated feelings around one’s own knowledge and skill sets. For example, I feel pretty good about my computer skills when I’m talking to family, friends, and coworkers, but I feel considerably less at ease when talking to folks who actually work in IT, because I know they have more “ranks” than I do, and I worry about getting a job in the field even after I graduate because I feel like I’ll never “catch up” to the entry requirements. This strikes me as something that could be really interesting in games, but I’m not sure I’d want to attach more numbers to an already-crowded character sheet. I do, however, feel like some notes in a character’s backstory about how they feel about their skills could be an interesting bit of character development. Does the guy with a lot of ranks in lockpicking feel awesome when he pops a locked door open, or does he feel like knowing how says bad things about who he is as a person? Does the wizard cast her spells with flair, or does she try to avoid using magic for fear of looking foolish and “doing it wrong?” How do these people feel about what they can do, and how do they feel about how they got there? Do they think that because they learned gradually that most of their knowledge is out-of-date, or do they feel more confident for the practice? We seldom do much to explore how characters feel about different aspects of themselves in a gaming context, but I think there’s probably a lot of interesting and fun material to be found there.
As usual, I’d love to hear your opinions on this stuff, both the real-world and in-game bits.
Grant and Peter break down the various advantages and challenges of using mechanical morality systems in your game and also dig into the reasons why such systems exist in the first place. In addition, we plug Tavern Con, Innroads Ministries in general and The MacGuffin Factory in particular, and Electric City Comic Con.
This is the first post in what I hope becomes a semi-regular series of introductions to some of the more academic parts of RPG experience. I’d be particularly interested to hear what you folks think about this stuff and also how interested you are in hearing more. -Peter
One of the things that I discovered when I started listening to RPG podcasts way back in the day with Sons of Kryos was the idea that people think about gaming on a much deeper level than I’d previously even considered they would. Further years of podcast listening (and eventual involvement in podcasting myself) has shown me what a monumental understatement that was. There are some very interesting people out there doing some very interesting work of how the games we play affect us. Some of those people are folks like Grant and me – enthusiastic hobbyists who enjoy unpacking the various aspects of the things we enjoy. Others, however, are more serious academics. We reference Jack Berkenstock of the Bodhana Group and their focus on using tabletop RPGs as a therapeutic tool on a fairly regular basis, but if you’re into this more “meta” thinking, there’s another name you should know: Sarah Lynna Bowman, PhD. She is the author of one of many books I really, really need to get around to reading one of these days: The Functions of Role-Playing Games. She has also written a number of interesting articles and blog posts, but the one I’m going to focus on with this blog post is on the concept of bleed. (She’s also, as one might expect from someone who has chosen this particular field of study, a really interesting and approachable person. I’ve had very limited interaction with her, but I’ve always come away impressed.)
The original blog post that I’ll be referring back to can be found here. I would heartily recommend reading the entire thing (it’s very readable) but a quick TL;DR is this: bleed is basically the place where player and character meet. She describes two separate types of bleed in the blog post: bleed in, where the emotions, relationships, and even physical state of a player affect the state of their character and bleed out, the opposite process. Dr. Bowman also mentions that the existence of the phenomenon is something a lot of gamers don’t willingly accept, as it runs parallel in some ways to the ideas of gamers learning real magic and calling up real demons that were part of the Satanic panic back in the 80s and 90s.
Bleed is one of those things that happens in gaming that can be good or bad. It can lead to greater investment and enjoyment, or it can lead to unhealthy behaviors and pain. People sometimes seek it out and sometimes seek to avoid it. And I think it’s one of the reasons why, as a Christian, I’m a little hesitant to play certain kinds of character. I’m fairly susceptible to bleed – a former gaming group of mine (not the one Grant and I are in now!) formed an in-game clique and ostracized my PC somewhat. I didn’t deal with it very well at all and was ultimately told that the gaming group was a poor fit for me (something that was true, but that I also didn’t deal with particularly well). On the flip side, in the Shadowrun game Grant ran for a while, our player characters wound up being nearly as close of friends as the group itself was, and it was almost like hanging out with more friends than I actually was. In-jokes developed and experiences were shared. The experience was richer for my level of immersion and, yes, bleed.
Because I’m so susceptible to bleed and have actually come to see it as a core part of my gaming experience, I find it hard to play against “type” – playing a character radically different from me, particularly one with very different values from my own, feels wrong or dishonest on some level. This limits my “range” as a gamer and tends to lead to Grant lamenting that he’s always dealing with some re-skinned version of me when we game together. (By the way: if you experience more bleed than you want to, there are some thoughts on how to manage that in the original article.) To make matters even murkier, that’s not a thing I particularly want to change. I don’t mind being a little boring in service to being consistent. It also bears mentioning that I don’t experience much bleed at all when I’m GMing – that process feels more like a series of writing prompts to me than acting.
As is usual, I’m very interested to hear what you all have to say on this topic.