Watch a Hobby Eat Its Own Tail

At DASTOW we’re expanding our 5E content. It’s a good system and one we have lots of familiarity with. One promise, though: I want no part of the nostalgia parade.

Look at the existing 5E products, and you’ll see a lot of work inspired by the great adventures of yesteryear. Look at all the remakes, “spiritual successors,” and straight-up reprints. The dream of the ’80s is alive in Renton, Washington.

I have close friends who wrote a lot of the content in Tales from the Yawning Portal, but just seeing it fills me with sorrow. This could have been something new, but it’s a “greatest hits” album with 5E stats. At least they had the honesty to put “yawning” right there in the title, eh?

Imagine if they’d put the effort into something new. I am aware that WotC is a business, and their greatest hits compilation is going to outsell a new album. But that’s true only in the short term. What do you do in ten years? Do a remake of your remakes? Nostalgia is not a check you can just keep cashing.

The tail-eating isn’t just a WotC thing by any stretch; it’s just that they have one of the longest tails in tabletop. Tails are at the top of the menu in the video game world. A few years ago, I went to E3, North America’s biggest trade show for video games. As I stood at the entrance, I saw a dozen banners draped over the arena and the surrounding buildings—each banner at least five stories tall.

Every single video game mentioned had a number at the end: Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Assassins Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Resident Evil 6…you get the idea. Imagine what those studios could have accomplished with those teams working on new worlds and experiences instead?

Again, they’re businesses—I get that. But it’s short-term thinking. All those billion-dollar franchises started as one-offs, and if you never start anything new, you’ll never get to the point where you’re contemplating the lucrative sequel.

In our own tiny way at DASTOW, we’re going to deliver new experiences. Maybe someday they’ll be part of someone’s nostalgia kick, but honestly I couldn’t care less about that right now.

New stuff, as fast as we can dream it up. ’Cause that’s a more satisfying meal than a tail could ever be.

Finding Inspiration in the Real World

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

Absolutely everything can provide inspiration for a creative endeavor—whether it’s writing, painting, or even game design.

I recently took a month and drove the entirety of Route 66—backwards, from Santa Monica to Chicago—and there is so much just here in the states that can ignite new ways of seeing or thinking about things. [Editor’s Note: Backwards, but not literally in reverse gear…] I visited three different cave systems over the course of the trip: the Grand Canyon Caverns, Onondaga Cave, and Meramec Caverns. Getting into the cool features and differences of each—state owned versus privately owned, dry versus wet, and so on—would take a blog post of its very own (comment if you’d like to see such a post!), but suffice to say that I learned quite a bit about what made each one unique. It gave me a new way of thinking about caves in

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

adventures—what they could hold, and what it might really be like trying to navigate through them with just a few torches. I took many photos—some for beauty, but some just for reference. I want to be able to look at them and imagine an elf, a gnome, and a couple humans crawling through the stalagmites, stalactites, and low ceilings. What else might they find?

I saw cliff dwellings—abandoned for centuries, but still up there. I saw the Grand Canyon and hiked around the Rim Trail, thinking about how strange and wonderful it was that I could get so close to the edge of the canyon (parts of the trail are inches from the 7,000-foot drop). Now, fighting through encounters along a ledge or in a cave are by no means novel, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a new or interesting way to approach these things—especially when

Grand Canyon Caverns

Grand Canyon Caverns: Sleep in a cave!

you have a physical place to work from, a physical cliff to study, a physical cave to get down on your hands and knees in. It’s one thing to imagine your players in a hypothetical cave—it’s another to imagine them right here, in exactly this spot, their hands as cold and wet as yours as you crouch down to see the path through the columns.

Natural wonders are, of course, not the only thing from which to draw inspiration. There are plenty of strange and wonderful museums out there that focus on everything from mechanical dolls to westerns to vacuums (really). The thing to remember is that if you’re willing to look hard enough, everything has something to offer you. Learning the history of the most mundane item can spark something you didn’t even realize was inside you.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns

I doubt very much I’m espousing any new information at all, but every now and then, we can all use a reminder. Travelling absolutely anywhere—even just hiking near your home or going to see a nearby art exhibit—can be just the thing you need to get exactly the right setting or the right encounter or the right NPC for the adventure you’re working on. Keep your creative glasses on, and everything becomes fodder. The chipper, totally-with-it person who checked you into your hotel room or the cousin you’d never met who welcomed you into his home like an old friend—these are real people in the world, and they can be real people in your adventure. They may even be the emotional hook that brings your players into the game.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns: Light show!

The more you can use the real world to influence your game world, the more fleshed out it becomes. Pulling from the physical world gives players something to connect with, something to feel more invested in. Even if they themselves have never been inside a cave or walked along a canyon’s edge, adding real-world details often feels more authentic.

The thing to remember when creating a game world is that everything in the real world has something to offer you. Everything has a piece you can take home. You just have to keep an eye out for it.

GM Improv: Coming Up with Names on the Fly

The great secret about improvisation is that it isn’t just an in-the-moment burst of creativity. Improvisation often has its roots in preparation and practice. Just as an improvising musician knows the proper key and chord structure, an improvising GM should have a sense of the narrative and setting. That’s where our GM Improv series comes in.

Fantasy Name Generators

A list of elf names from Fantasy Name Generators.

There you are, running a game for your friends, and they go off-script (according to your genius plans). Now they’re wandering around the tavern, talking to every nameless NPC—except they can’t be nameless anymore! What do you do?

While someone working in a science fiction or modern setting could just keep a standard baby book handy (or a baby-naming database, for that matter), that’s harder when you’re running a fantasy game—whether D&D or another system—where even the humans have names you’re unlikely to hear out on the street. One way to work around this is to simply keep a list of fantasy names near you, but you’ll still have to spend time creating that before one of your sessions—don’t you already have enough to do?

Keeping a name generator at your fingertips is a great way to quickly and easily solve this dilemma. My favorite online name generator is probably Fantasy Name Generators, because it’s pretty robust. You can find almost anything you’re looking for—not only can you generate fantasy names for just about any fantasy race you can think of, but you can also generate real names from nearly any place around the globe. Not looking for a character name at all? You can generate potion names, continent names, river names, and even company names. You’ll get a list to choose from, and if you don’t like any of them, just ask for a new list. It’s really easy.

If you’re looking for a specific cultural slant, Dave often recommends Kate Monk’s Onomastikon. While Fantasy Name Generators uses a concatenation style to generate names, Kate Monk’s Onomastikon pulls authentic (if perhaps obscure) names. It all comes down to what you’re looking for in a generator—and, frankly, in a name.

When I use a name generator, what I really prefer to do is use the generator itself as inspiration. I go through a few different generated lists, and eventually sort of mix and match words, switch up letters, and generally create a kind of word stew until I come up with something I like. That’s fun if you have a little extra time, but if you’re sitting there at the table under pressure of the clock, there’s nothing at all wrong with just picking a name straight off the generator. That’s really what it’s there for.

How do you like to deal with the sudden need for names? Do you prefer to keep a pre-developed list on hand or use a name generator? Do you have a favorite name generator that you depend on? Let us know in the comments!

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.