PDFs or physical books

The amount of digital content available for RPGs is crazy. There’s just tons of it. I just saw a blog post on the site GeekNative that had a tally of something like 1700+ free RPGs. That is crazy pants. Just about all of this stuff is listed as a PDF only though.

Which makes sense. Take away the publishing costs and the Internet becomes a pretty efficient way to distribute content. The problem becomes the actual game use.

For my part, I find PDF gaming texts very efficient to transport, and relatively simply to read. However, to search and use for an actual game they can be a bit cumbersome.

During a session with my last static group, we tested whether it was faster to look stuff up in a printed book versus a PDF. The physical book won. It was easier and faster to go to the index or table of contents and search out the specific ideas. Searching the text for a specific word just wasn’t faster and easier. Maybe other people have different experiences, but that was mine.

In the end, I find them useful in their own ways for completely different purposes. PDFs are just infinitely more portable than physical books. Gaming books tend to be substantially large books. Not always, but often that is the case. At the same time, even if they’re bigger, they tend to be more useful at the gaming table. Just something to think about. Eventually this debate won’t matter, but for now, gaming offers different ways to get material. Different ideas for everyone.

The setting part 1

Setting is a topic I’ll return, and that’s why I gave this one a number. With regards to tabletop gaming, what is setting? This is probably one of the first things we’ll need to tackle, so it will be the first thing I address in these posts.

Like a lot of jargon in gaming, “setting” gets kicked about a lot. It tends to be discussed in terms that are synonymous to world-building. Are they the same? Not really. Are the only used in conjunction with each other? Not really.

A recipe for confusion to be sure.

However, “setting” matters.  A dictionary definition is the place or type of surroundings where something is positioned or where an event takes place. (Used “Define “Setting” as my search terms in Google for this definition.)

That definition is broad, but I often see setting as the immediate place where a game takes place. Not so much the “world” of the game, but the particular locales. A place like “Waterdeep” in Dungeons and Dragons is a good example. It’s just one place, but it can host a game perfectly.

The reason I think it’s important to consider setting for gaming is that the circumstances that surround the characters will help drive the game. For example, in a novel, a writer can use setting to drive the story. By explaining the immediate surroundings a mood can be created. Concepts that motive the characters can be introduced, even if nothing is actually happening to the protagonists. Taking setting to heart can make a big difference on a game. I think that, no matter what kind of game you want to play, taking the time to create, or understand where the story is to take place will really make a difference.

Low Fantasy Aesthetic

Recently, I was wondering about the aesthetic of low fantasy as a genre. People talk about things like, “realism” or “grittiness”, but what does that translate into aesthetically? Like any red-blooded netizen, I searched the internet for images using “low fantasy art” as my keywords for a search.

I had expected to see imagery from “A Song of Fire and Ice” and maybe “Conan” show up, but no. Actually, what I found were mostly portraits. This kind of interesting. Why?

It almost makes me wonder if the emphasis in low fantasy is almost more on individuals rather than setting. Epic fantasy requires some big time world-building. When I read about how to handle fantasy worlds, something that often comes up is that the setting needs to be actively present in the story. Setting needs to do something in fantasy.

But maybe not in low fantasy. Maybe the real idea in low fantasy is to scale down setting, and play up character. It’s still fantasy, and it’s still magical, but these things play less of an importance. Maybe.

I don’t know that this is true, but I like this idea a lot. Maybe in a low fantasy, an imposing forest can be just a forest, but charged with emotional baggage from old tales, rather than a magical place over-populated with ghosts and spirits and what not.

It’s just an idea, but one I like. There’s a lot to like a bout low fantasy, and I feel like it’s an iteration of fantasy I’ll be playing a lot more of.

More on genre

I’ve been writing about low fantasy as it pertains to ttrpgs. I have to say that, I really like what it offers. Specifically, what I’m going to discuss today is a overiview of Beyond the Wall from Flatland Games.

The core rulebook is one of my book projects right now. I’m really enjoying it. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I’m about halfway through. The game has been easy to read, logical to follow, and offers some innovation, despite describing itself as OSR. (A clone of an early edition of D&D, basically.)

However, a few specific things stood out to me. Every character has a relationship to a place. This removes murderhoboism to an extent, and I’m immediately a fan of that. Second, magic is fundamentally altered to make it a significant, but less prevalent component of the game. Magic is rare and powerful, with possibly awful side-effects. Outstanding! Finally, the game has lore written into its rules. Also cool. For example, if you want a taste of the setting the game is aiming, read the description on elves. This says so much. (Sorry, no spoilers!)

So far, I’ve really liked what I’ve seen. In many places I feel like the game isn’t as robust as I’d like, but its a lightweight system that will offer a lot. Multi-year campaigns? Maybe not. Outstanding adventures just the same? Almost certainly! The game stands out as a well-considered winner, and does a great job (so far, I’m only halfway through) of embracing low fantasy.

Gaming on my mind continued

Right, so now the heavy lifting. I took off last night, but I’m back on the blog.  Essentially, the best place to start is with the core mechanics. That means, probably, things that pertain to dice.

Therefore, I present what should be most important, making the game playable. I used to wonder why so many games made use of d6s, but now that I’ve been gaming longer, I get it. They’re probably the most common die at someone’s home. It would make the most sense if a game made use of a d6 rather than a d10 which has to be purchased from a specialty store.

The trick here is making sure the dice can be used to their utmost. This also explains why there so many games based around d6. A roll of a 5 or a 6 is a success. A roll under a d6 that is based a score of up to 6 is a success. This stuff makes perfect sense. People are already familiar with using a d6. As a base die, it offers a lot.

Then again, it’s a little boring. In Numenera by Monte Cook Games, the core mechanic is mostly based a single 1d20, and d6s. It’s clear Monte was thinking about this stuff, and I empathize.

The problem is that, like I said, a d6 is a bit boring. There are other ways of pushing games forward with dice. Using a d6 almost seems like an escape, but a completely reasonable one.

Game design issues

There are a lot of factors to consider, but I once received really useful advice that stuck with me. It was, basically, “think about what you want the game to emulate, and then build the mechanics around that.” I think this is solid advice.

You don’t see anything about balance. There’s not a word about genre. Nor is there anything about the simplicity of the rules. (The whining about “crunch” in rule-system is awful. I’ll get to that in a different post.)

Basically, build a system that makes the game feel like it revolves a certain concept, or set of concepts.

That’s it. I think this is really accurate as well. When I think about successful game systems, they all work around a very tightly crafted system that orchestrates the game. Warhammer Fantasy Role-playing, all of the White Wolf games, hell, even D&D are all examples how a mechanical system can be very different, but work to facilitate the objectives of the game.

Developing a system with relative ease and finesse is no small feat. In part, because many tabletop games have come to rely on polyhedral dice as a canonical prop for gameplay. Gaming without dice almost seems like heresy to some people. That means that dice, in some capacity are going to play a part in the game design, and will do so in what will probably be a meaningful way.

To that end though, all of the other components need to elicit that same effect that using the dice will, even if you’re not dealing with some feature that is probability based.

This just goes to show that, there are components of a game that are probably taken for granted by a lot of people, and that’s ok. Until you want to start thinking about building your own game. Then this stuff matters, and I’ve (briefly) outlined why this stuff is worth thinking about. I’ll pick this back up tomorrow.

Gaming on my mind

In fact, I have gaming on my mind all the time. I guess it’s a side-effect of enjoying the hobby, but also writing about it. I need content for my blog. Fortunately, this is easy since I’m often pondering topics specific to gaming.

Recently though, I’ve been thinking about designing my own game. I guess when you involve yourself in something this is only natural. Gaming is no exception.

Concepts like reward systems, dice mechanics, and aesthetic have all been bouncing around in my head.

Some issues I’ve been fighting with…

  • How to have a reward system for players that isn’t based purely on killing monsters
  • How to eradicate, or at least very very strongly discourage the murderhobo aspect of gaming
  • How to take a less is more approach to the game, and still have compelling story lines that can satisfy a wide audience

All of these things are important in a game, and there are even more issues to consider. However, the last one might sound a bit like a genre discussion, and to be honest, if I were to write a game, it would probably be low fantasy.

The other two points are a bit trickier. Reward systems are not easy, and there is no universal solution. I’ve even seen at least one game just get rid of them entirely. A novel approach. And then there are the murderhobos. It’s a tough thing to judge somone’s fun as wrong. This is the issue with the wandering homeless killers. Some people really like to game this way. I get that. I don’t do it, but I understand the drive to want to play this kind of adventure. In my game though I feel like it should be discouraged. That’s just me. I think all these things are worth considering, and over the next few days I’ll elaborate on why.

Genre Discussion, Low Fantasy and RPGs

What does low fantasy bring to the RPG table? This is the question I want to wrap up this little overview with. To put it briefly, it brings a lot.

Why? Because the “lack” necessary for low fantasy to be what it is requires other things to make up the difference. I frankly am really drawn to the idea that magic isn’t everywhere. It exists, and its powerful, but its limited. When I think about novels I’ve read powerful magic is mostly tied to rituals, not run of the mill combat. This is something I think most fantasy gaming gets wrong. It makes to easy to step in battle and just start blasting anything and everything with powerful spells. It also cuts down on the need for creativity.

If all you need to do to solve a problem is cast a spell that deals damage, then you can kill your way to success. That’s lame. Feel free to disagree, but I think that approach is one-dimensional and not fun.

However, making your character take a lot of time, and invest the PC in something really powerful, that’s cool. It then means you can make every day magic weaker, without really ruining magic’s prominent place in the game. Also, it makes powerful magic items more valuable.

The major point though, at least for me, is that in low fantasy the stakes feel higher. Not everything has a quick fix. I don’t know that I think this is realistic, or gritty, just a qualifier for the type of game that is being played. Frankly, this makes the game a bit more tense. Those decisions matter. Skills people might completely disregard take on new significance.

For all these reasons and more, low fantasy can make a game great. Simple first-aid skills become important in a way that they didn’t use to be. The effects of taking on a low fantasy setting are actually fairly significant, but all in all, its best to try it. Not everyone will like taking on the ramifications of this kind of game. Some people like the magical safety nets, and that’s cool to. Low fantasy is just one option on the gaming menu, but a cool one.

Genre Discussion, Day 3

Yesterday, I presented 3 definitions of low fantasy. They are all quite different from one another, but as I noted they shared one trait, all of them referred to a sense of realism. I think this is worth noting.

Today, I’ll be presenting my own version of low fantasy. I don’t profess to be an expert in the sub-genre, but I’ll offer my two cents anyway. Isn’t that what blogging is all about?

First of all, I don’t know that I buy the realism argument. Mostly just because it’s fantasy. By definition, the story needs to be set in a world that doesn’t exist. That pretty much gets rid of realism, or anything particularly realistic.

I’ve often felt that low fantasy is a rebuttal of high, or epic, fantasy. It’s still fantasy, but scaled down. There’s magic, but less of it. Demi-humans can exist, but they tend to serve a narrative purpose, rather than just a way to make a story seem, well, fantastic.

In fact, low fantasy is the genre scaled down. Realism always makes me feel like I’m in the world I live in now. That could be fantasy, but doesn’t automatically denote low fantasy.

I feel like low fantasy is a version of fantasy that relies on implied fantasy, rather than overt fantasy. There is magic, but it isn’t everywhere all the time. There are fantastic creatures and races, but they aren’t all over the place all the time. Rather than minotaurs being a distinct race (possible, but not needed), there are individual Minotaur. (I stole this reference from a podcast, but I really like this as a description of low fantasy.) Finally, it is a world where everyday problems might be solvable by fantastic means, but only sometimes. As a definition this is more like a shopping list, but it underscores things I really like for low fantasy. Tomorrow, wrapping up with a chat about how low fantasy can be good for tabletop RPGs.

Genre Discussion, Day 2


Today I’d like to take some time to work out a definition of low-fantasy. There is no single definition that is available, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to come up with one. The best place to start with would be other definitions, so without further ado…

So here’s one from Wikipedia:

Low fantasy or intrusion fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction where magical events intrude on an otherwise normal world.[1][2] It thus contrasts with high fantasystories, which take place in a fictional world with its own set of rules and physical laws.

Here’s one from the website TV Tropes

Low Fantasy is a catchall, and rather inexact, term for that sub-genre of fantasy that is set in a secondary world but is neither High Fantasy nor Heroic Fantasy, though it may overlap with other sub-genres. Not a good way to define a genre, but English is funny like that — especially our particular brand of it.

Here’s a third from the website Mythic Scribes. In this case, its lifted from a discussion about writing low fantasy stories:

Low fantasy is generally an alternate view of Earth, with many of the same traits that we see around us, but a few differences. For example Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus, set in modern-day London where all the politicians are wizards who summon demons to do their bidding. The main physical rules of Earth apply, but we have the addition of wizards and demons.

These interpretations are all very different. My take on this is also different, but I’ll pick up on that tomorrow. For now, I’ll just draw the attention to the fact that they all seem to focus on a sense of realism.  I don’t know if I’d take that approach, but I think its worth noting that all the definition embrace this idea. That’s a good place to pick up on for tomorrow.