Ah, the romance of the RPG map

Truly, few things are so iconic to TTRPGs as a crudely drawn map on graph paper. Almost everyone has done this at some time or another. Map-making has a long tradition in RPGs, and it is one of the most common activites undertaken at the gaming table. Enough so that most gaming manuals suggest that the person that is to create the map be named. Mapping is in the rules.

Cartography is an extremely old profession and hobby, as well as art form. However, one of the trends in table-top gaming is the proliferation of extremely well-made maps. I can even think of a few people in particular who have created some absolutely spectacular stuff.

It just goes to show as well how engrained in gaming maps are. It’s so important that people have developed careers creating maps that can be used for TTRPGs. My 13-year-old self is reeling at the idea that the hobby would have evolved to this point, but here we are.

The interesting thing that I’ve noticed in this respect is what the maps look like. They are often large areas. Whole worlds, regions, or cities. Also, they are predominantly fantasy-oriented. I’m sure other genres exist in TTRPG mapping, but most of what I see are fantasy. The one exception to this would be Dyson Logos who creates dungeons, but these are also to be used mostly for fantasy gaming.

In my opinion, the evolution of gaming maps really demonstrate why this is a great time to play TTRPGs. The quality of the material has gone waaaaaay up, and I am thoroughly enjoying what is available to me. Hopefully some of this great content makes its way to your table.

Using real-world imagery in RPGs

Today, I was at work and noticed one of my co-workers had a tattoo of the triple moon.


Upon seeing the tattoo, I got to wondering, “does this person have this tattoo because they just really like the design? Or, does this person pursue a pagan spiritual path?” Because this is the kind of person I am, I started wondering if using these kinds of images in an RPG was a good idea.

On one hand it just seems to easy to insert previously existing glyphs, runes, and what not into a game. In some cases it would be even be totally appropriate. (I’m thinking specifically of the  Chronicles/World of Darkness games.) If you’re dealing with a system that directly references occult imagery, then taking time to do a bit of research on the actual images makes sense. In fact, you’d be leaving out some great stuff if you didn’t go ahead and do this.

Then again, for fantasy or sci-fi games I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate. If you’re trying to come up with a new civilization, do you really want to rehash existing stuff? Even if it seems like it would be kind of relevant, it also seems like its kind of an escape.

I might just be too stiff on this issue. For my money though, it’s just a lot more fun to try to make up new ideas where it’s needed, rather than use stuff that already exists. I might also just be a glutton for punishment. This is also a possibility.

Clearly, there isn’t really an obvious answer here. It really is going to be a matter of personal taste. It is fun to revisit this idea from time to time. Re-use/recycle or invent? Both good options, and ultimately its the individual who must decide.

The #RPGaMonth Challenge

I’m re-visiting my original post on this one, because as I enter the third month of the challenge, I’m changing up the order of books I’ll be reading. Originally, I was going to Beyond the Wall next, and that hasn’t changed. I’m looking forward to it. However, everything that comes after is up in the air now.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Wraith: The Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition is now coming out. I have my beta copy of the PDF. Its being proofread for errors, and then the final copy will be sent out. I said that if it actually came out this year I was adding it to my list. I know it’s technically a new game, but the project is something like 2 and a half years late.

Also, when I looked over my list of books, one thing really stuck out to me. Almost all of my choices for the reading challenge are PDFs. I don’t mind, but when I asses my actual collection of gaming resources I have some physical items that have been begging attention and are being neglected. I’d like to incorporate more of this stuff into my reading diet.

I think that, when the year is over, and I’d read through all twelve month’s of entries, I’m going to do a write-up for the year. Regardless, of whether or not I keep a static list all year, I suspect I’ll learn a lot from taking on this challenge. It’s been inspirational so far, and doubt that will change.

Poetry and RPGs

As a fan if poetry, I can warn anyone reading this that I’ll probably re-visit this topic. Frankly, I think poetry is a necessary element in RPGs. It’s completely realistic that poetry could exist, regardless of the setting, and adds significant depth to a game.

I make these arguments thinking of a couple of different poets, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I want to note the two points that are, in my opinion, most significant. I’ll address poetry place in the game, and how it’s presence positively influences that game.

Poetry has a long and storied history all over the world. I can’t think of a single country that doesn’t have some kind of poetic tradition. Really. When it comes to passing on information, telling stories, or just entertaining, poetry has a prominent place. While some people think poetry to be a somewhat passe art form, I disagree. I think it is wholly relevant, and it has great utility in a variety of places, such as RPGs.

Second, having poetry in a game can give it depth. Poems can be structured in such a way so that specific cultures can be reflected. Poetry can be riddles offered to the group as clues. Poetry can be all kinds of things, and lends a different sort of narrative device to the kind of experience RPGs offer.

Clearly, I’m all for it. I can’t really come up with a reason why something like this should be avoided. If anything, poetry should be embraced, and utilized for gaming. It adds flavor and depth, and can really highlight a unique experience at the gaming table. Don’t take my word for it though. Try it out and see how it goes.

Traits of a good game

This will likely be the first in an ongoing series.

What makes a game a good game? My first reaction is to answer this by saying, “there isn’t just one thing that will make a game a good game.” I feel comfortable saying that, but it also feels like an escape.

It’s true that people should play the games they like. Edition wars a just plain stupid, and there simply too many games out there for people to be quibbling over who makes the best game.

There are traits of games though that make them good or bad. The list is long, but some examples are, the organization of the text. Does reading the book make sense, or does it feel chaotic to follow the game system? Is it ugly? This matters less, but an attractive game is definitely possible, and always a reward for the reader. Are the rules consistent? Does everything work in concert, and does it work the same way every time? Poor design can lead to chaotic results.

Finding just one thing and assuming that is the determining factor of whether or not a game is good is basically a fruitless endeavor. If a game doesn’t work, there probably isn’t just one thing, unless the mechanical system underlying the game simply doesn’t operate in a coherent manner. Barring that, a game needs to evaluated in its entirety. It is the really the only fair way of working out if it actually a good, or bad game.


I’m reading through OSRIC, and will not finish by the end of the month. Know what? I don’t care. I find myself totally underwhelmed by the book. As far as actual play is concerned I’m having fun taking inspiration from re-discovered ideas, but I have really no desire to play the. At all. At no point while I’ve been reading the book have I stopped and said to myself, “You know, I need to get a group together to play this system.” Not once.

Furthermore, there aren’t fewer rules in this game than in others. Anyone who thinks back to early editions of D&D as a kinder, simpler way  to game is simply deluding themselves. It’s not. There all kinds of little tweaks, extra considerations, and special adjustments that need to be throughout the book.

Its been a gratifying experience, but I feel like nothing in the book offers much in the way of an innovative gaming experience. It really does just help people play a game they’d already been playing.

I have nothing against older systems, nor enjoy pitting one edition against another. Play what you like, that’s my motto. For me, reading through this book has simply not been an enlightening experience. I’ve learned some, but I understand even less the retaliation against the evolution of gaming. Maybe I just started gaming late. Who knows. At any rate, OSRIC is a complete game system, and offers a robust experience. It’s a rule-system that has aged so well people re-created so they could bypass copyright laws. Honestly, even if I didn’t care for it, this really does speak well of the game. Give it a try if you’re so inclined.

Gaming options for people who can’t meet up

There are multiple ways games can be played. While the ttrpg hobby started out as a thing to do with friends around a kitchen table, things have changed.  Not just because technology has given people new ways to interact, but games themselves have innovated.

First, there is Play-by-Post. (I actually use this option, and it fits my busy schedule.) This is where people meet up on, what is basically a message board, and post games over long periods of time.  This is probably the perfect option for people with really busy schedules, and not a lot of time for live gaming sessions.

Second, there is the virtual option with things like Roll20. This is basically a conference call around a gaming table. It’s a cool option and one technology enabled. You still need to have that block of time free, but you don’t actually need to be around the table with people. Great for people with the time, but not the mobility. Overall, just a cool evolution for gaming.

Third, gaming innovation has explicitly tried to address people not being able to play games. This has come in two forms. The first of these is that games have been written for people to play solo. This tried early on in the hobby, but it’s something that has only grown over time. Its a fun idea, but I always feel like it would be like playing chess by yourself. Second, Monte Cook actually tried creating a game that was based on the idea of people not all being at the table at the same time. Again, this makes use of technology, and in this case mobile technology. I’m not really sure how this would work, but its quite interesting.

There is technically a fourth option, which is the rise of solo play card games that re-create ttrpg material. I’ve tinkered with stuff Paizo has put out, and its fun. Its like RPG solitaire, but not really all that much like an actual RPG.

So there you go, multiple options that help people participate in table-top gaming. There is no best option, and so there is great stuff to choose from. Game on!

A follow-up to Elmore’s artwork

While I fondly look back at the halcyon days of my youthful gaming, I’ve also aged. Part of that aging process has included, mercifully, maturation. Basically, I’m not a kid anymore. The thing is, I still love games. When I go back now and look at older TSR publications, I can’t help but notice how different the art looks in contemporary gaming as opposed to how it looked in books that were published decades ago. Some of Larry Elmore’s artwork reflects this older style of fantasy art. I have a hard time believing that people would embrace his artistic approach, but it still stands as a major contribution to gaming. Some of his art will stand the test of time. His cover for the Basic Edition Red Box has become a sort of iconic image in TTRPG. All the cleavage and chain mail bikinis, not so much. It just really goes to show that, while the games have changed mechanically, they have also changed aesthetically.

And a lot of that change has been political/ideological. This is something that I think is ultimately a good thing. This could easily turn into a long post discussing perspectives in art history. For example, the art reflects the tastes of the people viewing it. As the gaming industry realigns itself to become more inclusive (something long overdue), it has necessarily altered how it presents itself. This doesn’t mean there aren’t damsels in distress. There are. There are also gentleman in distress, and female fighters who kick in doors to rescue them.

The hobby is changing, and I think its fun and exciting to see the changes over time. Ultimately, what is was, and what it is, as well as it will be all have a sort of genealogy. This all reflects the permutations in what the hobby means to people, because this is a niche industry, and its the gamers within the hobby that drive these changes. With all due respect to Elmore, and the artists of his era, I think we’re on the right path.

Who is the greatest genre artist of all time?

Now, what I’m really asking is, who is the greatest pictorial artist. I’m not so concerned with who is the best wordsmith, at least not in this post. And to be fair, I’m not going to decide the matter here either.

There are greats like Moebius, Frazetta, Vallejo, and more. Art is, in general, subjective. Its hard not to pick out people who had a tremendous influence though. Larry Elmore, is one example. Is he the greatest? I don’t know. Did his work for TSR help create an imagery specific to table-top RPGs? Hell yes!

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I say this because Elmore was one of the early artists for TSR. Without his art the companies aesthetic would have looked different. Truth be told, not all of his work has aged well. He did a lot of pieces featuring the chain mail bikini trope that probably wouldn’t really be very successful currently. (I chose not to add an example.) Some it represents how people saw the fantasy genre many years ago. Other images though, will likely stand the test of time.

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Again, is Elmore the greatest? Probably not. Is Elmore a legend in the world of fantasy imagery? The answer is a resounding yes. He helped put fantasy art on a product that would go mainstream. Without realizing it, there are probably tons of people who link his art with D&D, or even the fantasy genre at large, and they probably don’t even know it. His art was/is good, even if it’s not in line with contemporary tastes. Cheers to Larry Elmore, and his contributions to the world of fantasy art.

Larry Elmore - 029 - Doom Of Dark Sword

Side-effects of magic

Something lost over time in RPGs is the idea that magic has side-effects. The prospects of a spell backfiring and killing the caster or making them go crazy seems to have slipped out of favor. Who knows? However, as I make my way through OSRIC, i notice that a lot of the arcane spells have some kind of negative effect for casting, successfully or otherwise.

Imagine getting trapped in a wall, and dying as a result? Being stuck inside a gem for eternity? Going insane?

These are some of the side-effects of the arcane spells in OSRIC. My feeling tells me this stuff was largely weeded out the games because of a change of setting, but I could be wrong. Having this kind of stuff in the game says a lot about the environment the game is expected to be taking place in. I say this because, the expectations about the world must impact the game some how, or to quote (and I think it was Saladin Ahmed, but I can’t remember) a fantasy author, “your world must do something.” In this case, it is side-effects of magic.

I’m a fan of this idea, and I think that, no matter what system I run, I’m going to add this. Even if I have to home-rule it, I want consequences for power. It’s just to rich a device, both mechanically and narratively.