Why the Hell Do We Roleplay?

Polyhedral DiceBy almost any measure, it’s a golden age for gaming. We’ve got access to more games, more places to talk about them, more people to play them with, and greater cultural appreciation for them than ever before.

On any given evening, you could play a tabletop RPG…or the latest great video game. Or a fantastic board game. Or a minis game. Or a card game. And I suppose you could, theoretically speaking, engage in some sort of non-game activity like books, movies, TV, or making nachos.

Those choices all offer the possibility of a sublime experience (especially the nachos). So why do we pick RPGs? The reasons are as varied as the players, I suppose.

Some of us play for the game itself. We think that an RPG is “winnable” at least on some level. We’re the powergamers and the min-maxers, but those terms have a lot of baggage attached to them. At a lot of tables, min-maxing is no crime…or at least it’s a victimless crime. Still, if that’s the motivation, why not delve into a video game RPG, where there’s generally a more complex system to master and you never have to worry about finding other players?

Some of us play for the camaraderie/fellowship. We play because people we really dig play, and a great RPG session is really a rollicking, hours-long conversation among friends. But if that’s the motivation, who not delve into a really great board game, where you have just as much camaraderie, but less rules cruft and fewer scheduling difficulties?

Some of us play to immerse ourselves in a role—an idealized version of ourselves, very much the opposite, or someone else entirely. We can attempt anything we can conceive of, and the fictional game situation lets us tap some very real emotions. Sure, the drama kings and queens are among us are in this category, but so are the intentional shit-stirrers who are always picking pockets and starting tavern brawls. There’s a certain sort of glee in vicarious bad behavior that I wouldn’t want to deny anybody.

Here’s the thing about this third group: Tabletop RPGs serve them in a way that other games don’t. They can’t switch over to Mass Witcher Creed and scratch the same itch, and they can’t become the meeple in the same way that they become their PC.

I’m not saying that this sort of role-immersion player is the best sort of RPGer, or that they’re playing games the “right way” while others are having wrongbadfun. But I will say this: For that sort of player, the tabletop RPG experience is more precious—and probably more fragile. They’re getting something out of Thursday night D&D that they can’t get anywhere else. (Well, nowhere short of actual theater, anyway.)

So take care of those folks at your table! Even if you’re playing with friends, you might not realize how much Darryl needs to just evaporate into his role. Darryl might be going through a lot under the surface. Darryl might find a bit of himself while he’s pretending to be “Chala of the Trackless Wastes.” And that’s something Darryl can do only at the RPG table.

Take care of Darryl, or he’ll be forced to seek out community theater. You’ll never see him again.

Designing Magic Items for 13th Age

13th Age Roleplaying GameWhen DASTOW does the design work on a book in the Escalation Series, we generally start with the talents and powers—the core of the book, both literally and conceptually—then work forward (toward the backgrounds and One Unique Things) and backward (toward the magic items and NPCs). The NPCs are by necessity done last; we need to know what all the options are before we build those characters.

That order of operations means we save one of the most fun parts of the design for the end: the magic items. Each Escalated book has roughly a dozen magic items, generally one for each “chakra” body slot, some utility items, and an extra weapon or two. They’re basically like dessert for the designer. [Editor’s Note: They’re really more like cilantro, where Dave loves it and Stacey hates it. Your mileage may vary.]

Here’s what’s on our minds as we do the initial design:

Know what each chakra does. Because 13th Age shares a lot of DNA with 4th edition D&D, the key chakras are those that add to attack rolls or increase your defensive stats. That means armor, weapon/staff, cloak, and helmet. Those magic items don’t need to do a lot, because the inherent bonuses are so good. They’re a good place for simple, situational, or otherwise minor-league effects.

Go broader, not deeper. Magic items can show up in a campaign at any given moment. Other forms of character advancement happen only at the moment a character levels up. That means magic items are a great way for characters to cover a gap in their arsenal based on the more permanent changes they’ve made. For example, you might have a champion-tier fighter who hasn’t picked a maneuver that can be used with ranged attacks. A simple magic spear or throwing axe is perfect, because it broadens the fighter’s repertoire. Conversely, keep a close eye on items that deepen an existing specialty. The number-one place where characters go off the rails is when similar benefits stack to game-breaking levels.

Word the quirks carefully. The vast majority of quirks are mental/behavioral, and theoretically they evoke something of the item’s nature. But phrases like “always picks fights” or “cannot say no to a drink” are recipes for disaster when given to a literal-minded player. Trust the player to do the roleplaying and provide a direction, not a straitjacket. The idea behind a quirk is that it’s a constraint, and it’s occasionally annoying. They did bring this on themselves by wearing too many magic items, after all. If quirks seem like they’ll continuously frustrate other people at the table, though, dial them back.

Make sure you’ve got the GM’s back. Magic items are more freeform than talents, spells, and other class-based abilities. Unlike other games with a d20 heritage, there aren’t economic guidelines or level-based benchmarks to fence you in. That freedom is great, but it means that you have to be extra careful to specify frequency of use and duration of effect because there’s no default answer elsewhere in the system. Whenever you make a magic item, imagine your likely user triggering it as often as possible. How often is that? How long does it last? Is there a cost? Questions like that are best answered in the design process, not in the fourth round of a battle against the Headless Cyclops King.

Finally, break the rules once in a while. Magic items are the least constrained game element in the 13th Age Roleplaying Game. (One Unique Things are unconstrained in method, sure, but their scope is constrained and you get exactly one, period, at the beginning of the character’s life.) The GM has total control of when (and if) a magic item shows up in a game—and a big say in how long it sticks around. If you want to experiment with a game mechanic or cool effect, a magic item is the place to do it.

After all, any GM worth her dice can think of a dozen ways to separate PCs from their loot.

Kickstarters We Like: Inspiration

Inspiration Card GameI was wandering around Kickstarter’s game section the other day (like ya do), and I found a game called Inspiration. It’s quite a simple game, but I think that’s one of the draws—it’s a sweet little game that you don’t have to sit around and explain for 20 minutes before you can get started. All you have to do is tell a story.

You take three art cards and a subject card that contains a single word, and you have thirty seconds to connect all of these elements into something cohesive and compelling. The player who tells the best story (making the best use of their respective cards) gets a point, and the first player to three points wins.

This is great not only if you just love making up great, quick stories, but also if you’re playing with kids (though you may want to consider easing up the time constraint with significantly younger players). Many young kids love telling stories anyway.

As a writer, I see another advantage as well—even if you’re not playing the game, you can lay out three art cards and a subject card and just use that as a writing prompt.

If this sounds like the kind of thing you’re into, go check out Inspiration! The campaign runs until June 13, and for $25 you get the base game and some exclusive-to-Kickstarter art cards, so don’t miss out!

The Escalated Rogue Available Now

The Escalated RogueGreat news for rogue fans! We’re excited to announce our first new release since our hiatus: The Escalated Rogue offers new talents and new backgrounds, new uniques and new magic items. Go all-in with high-risk, high-reward powers or finish with a flourish with these great new options.

Don’t play a rogue? Check out the other releases in this series: The Escalated Barbarian, The Escalated Bard, The Escalated Cleric, and The Escalated Ranger. Also keep an eye out next month for The Escalated Fighter!

Editorial Comments: Pristine City 5E D&D Conversion

Dave and Stacey collaborate using Google Drive and make liberal use of the commenting feature. This blog series pulls out some of those comment threads, either because they amused us or because we think they’re interesting from a game design back-and-forth perspective.

“A mohrg is using Marar’s body.”
Dave: This implies that Marar was a serial killer in life. Just so we’re aware…
Stacey: She was a war hero. Is that close enough? Surely killed lots of things. Or we could use something else.
Stacey: I feel like that’s information I maybe should have had a conversion ago.
David: Pathfinder said that “warmongering soldiers” can become mohrgs. D&D, not so much. I say let her be a serial killer; the proverbial “bad officer.”
Stacey: But she talks to the PCs and gives them cool info. How can she do that and be a huge dick?
David: “Let me tell you about the Thunderaxes, Clarice…”

“The walls in the great cavern that contains the city are smooth granite, difficult to climb (DC 20 Athletics check), and almost featureless.”
Dave: “Strength (Athletics)” and a possible parentheses nest.
Stacey: You said that you DIDN’T want to nest parentheses.
Dave: I don’t. For some reason I thought adding parentheses here would create a nesting situation. It doesn’t, though. I guess I have no idea what I was thinking.
Stacey: Well, it would have, but I reworded it because I assumed you were being crazy.

“Identifying the smoke as coming from a fire requires a DC @@ Wisdom (Perception) check.”
Dave: “Make a Wisdom (Perception) check.”
[Rolls.] “I get a 22.”
“The smoke is definitely coming from a fire.”
[Throws pizza at DM.]
Stacey: I learned it from watching Pathfinder.

“scorching ray”
Stacey: I didn’t see an equivalent for searing light (searing smite didn’t look quite right), so I changed it to also be scorching ray. Feel free to change it.
Dave: I want it to be typed damage, though, so there’s some way the PCs can mitigate it. Or a save. Or something. I’ll loop back on this.
Stacey: Isn’t it fire damage? I can just put it in there. The spell says fire damage.
Dave: Perfect.

“1 gp per laborer per day”
Dave: Another cost thing we’ll want to reality-check against the equipment chapter of the Player’s Handbook. I mean, not reality, but…

The Ultimate Fantasy Collection

The Ultimate Fantasy Collection

You may remember our flagship product, “The Pristine City,” an adventure we released for 13th Age, Pathfinder, and 5E D&D. Well, we’ve got a bit of news about it—Dreadful Dungeons has picked up the 5E version for a limited-time anthology, The Ultimate Fantasy Collection, which released today on the DM’s Guild!

In this anthology, you’ll get not just our adventure, but eight other adventures as well. The collection will only be available for a limited time, though, so if you want the chance to get nine great adventures at once, head over to the DM’s Guild and grab a copy! You and your adventuring party will be glad you did.

Full Steam Ahead

Hello friends!

We at DASTOW Games would like to express our gratitude for your bearing with us over the last several months. We’ve worked through the individual issues, and as a company we’re ready to come back strong! Not only is the Escalation Series for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game ready to get back on track (look for the next book in the next week or two!), but you can also expect to see some adventures coming up for fifth edition D&D.

In addition to these upcoming products, you can look forward to a lot more blog posts from us as we start rolling out a few new series. If all goes well, we’ll start updating here two to three times a week, so check back often for our take on design, game systems, and the industry in general.

We’re really excited about this next phase of our development, and thanks to everyone for your patience. Cheers!