Things to Look For In a Tabletop RPG

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I love Dungeons & Dragons, everyone already knows this. But, I found myself wanting to go outside of that game in both setting and mechanics. My players got roped into running a D20 Modern campaign, which was a bit of a shock to my players who were used to 5e’s more streamlined approach when they opened up the skill and feat lists. D20 Modern’s character sheet has been removed from Wizard of the Coast’s website, perhaps stuffed in its archive mode.

A Google search leads to a fan-made character sheet, and you can only find the books at game stores that sell used copies (Games and Stuff gets a shout out here) or Amazon. It was during my search for a system (which I will write about in an upcoming post since I did manage to find one) that I eventually came to understand something in RPG product reviews.

I found that many product reviews lack a lot of information that I personally wanted to know. Usually, they boiled down to discussing mechanics and general “feel” of the system, but would only bring up cost and such in a very basic way. So, I wanted to compile a list of criteria that I had for purchasing a tabletop roleplaying game.

Cost of Entry

Simply put, if one wants to actually start playing, what do they need? I often hear about prices for core rulebooks discussed as if they’re in a vacuum when you usually need additional implements such as dice to play. This usually means that I end up looking at the introduction to find out what else I need, such as decks of cards, dice, and so forth.

Partly because my players are college students, and also because I try to be budget-conscious with my gaming decisions, I tend to go for systems that are less than $30 to buy core rulebooks for. Even now, my players are still getting their own copies of the 5e Player’s Handbook, which is understandable when the only thing separating you from total starvation is Cup Noodles.

Ease of Use and Ease of Explanation

Some RPG systems require a veteran player to show you the ropes. This doesn’t make them bad, but it’s severely limiting if you have a player base that doesn’t consist of veterans and you yourself don’t have experience with the system. My nightmare with playing the Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games is such an example. I’m sure that if a veteran sat down with me and ran through the entire system that I’d eventually get it.  But, can a completely fresh group sit down and play through a setting without succumbing to boredom?

System Flexibility and Portability

Dungeons and Dragons and, by extension, Pathfinder are exempt from this rule because of their popularity. However, for other games, I’ve found system flexibility to be a key issue when determining whether or not I want to purchase a new system. Since every system takes time to learn, it’s better to have a few systems that you use a lot as opposed to many systems that are only used in select circumstances (unless you have really patient or voracious players and money to burn).

In fact, I found myself looking for a “Not-D&D” system, which could be used when modifying D&D was too impractical and I wanted something that D&D didn’t specialize in.

Of course, there are systems that are good at solving particular design issues, such as GUMSHOE which does investigative play.

Publisher Support

Of course, when you play a tabletop RPG, you are going to have to visit the publisher’s page to download a character sheet. Additionally, you’ll probably want to see if they have additional rules supplements, campaign settings, premade adventures.

Are the character sheets printer friendly? I’ve seen many times where an aesthetically pleasing sheet gets the axe from me because of the sheer volume of ink it would require (even worse when they make these sheets in color). Are they form-fillable in PDF form? They don’t necessarily need to be since you’ll be erasing and writing stuff down anyway, but it is certainly nice if you have poor handwriting and need to write in static content.

Is there an easily accessible reference sheet that players or the GM can use? One RPG I looked at, which had problems with book organization, compounded this by having no GM or player reference sheet. Something that can be inserted into a GM screen is extremely helpful.

Is there a free introductory adventure meant to acclimate players and GMs to the game? Does the publisher have a “Getting Started” section that helps potential buyers pick what they need to play? Are there introductory rules for the game that can be downloaded as a PDF and played free of charge?

Is there a System Reference Document? How thorough is it? Has some content been removed or expanded upon? Has errata been covered on the publisher’s site?

This is a particular bugbear of mine (pun very much intended) because I find that nothing sours me on a system than a website that’s difficult to navigate or that is lacking content. If I don’t feel that the publisher is really supporting the product, it’s hard for me to get invested.

By the same token, there needs to be an easy access point, lest a neophyte get inundated with the sheer number of options. Otherwise, people will have no idea where to start.

Community

But a game where people play together is only as good as the people who play it. How easy is it to find a community? Do they have presences on Facebook, Reddit, and other channels?

Are they exchanging house rules? Settings? How is the user generated content handled?

I must confess that Wizards of the Coast’s method of focusing on premade adventures as opposed to rules supplements was a strategy I didn’t understand very well until I looked at the corresponding community pages like DM’s Guild. In actuality, a publisher should not act as an opener of floodgates, showering players with content. Instead, there should be a mix of publisher and community support, creating an ecosystem where content can be shared.

So, I find this list to be something that I would use in any given review of tabletop RPGs, and eventually, I’ll submit some reviews of my own.

Session One of “Curse of The Lonely Hearts”

 

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Photo by GaborfromHungary at Morguefile.com

 

This past Sunday I began my first session of my therapeutic Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I took careful notes during the session as to preserve what had happened. All in all, it was a successful session and my therapist and I both agreed to hold several sessions. I wanted to see where this goes.

Since we only had an hour, we played a streamlined campaign. What this really means is that combat was extraordinarily simplified, which was assisted by the fact that it was a one on one session. Since she was busy with work, I took the time to pick up the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide so she could have a premade world to drop Halador into.

I was told some information that Halador doesn’t know. Omveus’s plan is to bring winter to the city of Neverwinter. I assume that he’s going to target the fire elementals that warm the river in Neverwinter Wood underneath Mount Hotenow.

The rest of the adventure notes are as follows. It began, appropriately enough, with Halador celebrating his birthday. All of it comes from Halador’s perspective. This is his story.

First Frost in Neverwinter

I spent the morning celebrating my birthday with an entourage of bards. My reputation is not unknown, I have with me a small but loyal entourage. They sing high praises of my goodness and nobility.

Yet being exposed to that constant praise did not lift my spirits. On the contrary, I believed that their words were hollow. I grew uncomfortable and left the inn. I was walking along the streets of Bluelake District, crossing the Dolphin Bridge into Protector’s Enclave. I headed for the House of Knowledge to speak with one of Oghma’s priests. Though Helm is the deity I am bound to, I often seek to acquire knowledge.

But my stroll was cut short when the sky grew dark. An ominous shadow arose from the ground. I pulled out my holy symbol of Helm to drive it away. It left a black Box of Uncertainty on the ground. I placed it in my backpack, though I was unsure of what it meant.

I was shortly thereafter accosted by a pixie. She whispered to me words that I could not understood, and blew a puff of intoxicating pixie dust in my direction. I could not resist it and was brought into Neverwinter Wood.

Treefall

In the Wood, I received a vision of a more glorious Neverwinter, a prosperous city of hope. I was told it could be mine if only I completed my journey.  The pixie handed me an acorn and then went on her way.

As I made my way through the Wood, I stumbled across a group of woodcutters. I had overheard that they were under Omveus’s employ. I was approached by a massive treant who sought an alliance with me. I agreed, as it turned out there three hundred of these woodcutters who sought to deforest the Wood under Omveus’s orders.

We were not alone. A hundred treants rose from their slumber to fight. I went after the ringleader, who shed his human disguise to reveal himself as a deadly lich. The ground around him had grown cold and dead. I thought I was done for, but I felt the trembling of the acorn that the pixie had given me.

I took it out and observed its shift. Not only did it tremble, but it changed color. It went from a matte brown to a shimmering gold. I dropped the acorn and it burrowed itself into the ground.  The lich became weak and I killed him with a single blow.

Going Forward

At the end of the session, I remarked at how quickly time passed. I was enthusiastic for the next session. Hopefully, we’ll get into meatier territory as time goes by. I’ll keep adding notes on this, perhaps this could prove beneficial to someone else.

In the meantime, Omveus’s presence looms over Neverwinter and the Curse of Lonely Hearts remains.

 These Aren’t the RPGs You’re Looking For…

 

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Photo by ClaudioT at Morguefile.com

In my experience as a Dungeonmaster, I have desired to expand my horizons. I have had a good experience with the diceless horror RPG, Dread. Although I prefer telling longform campaigns, Dread is a good one-shot horror RPG. I had a moderately successful run with my campaign that took place in the Silent Hill universe. I am retooling that for a D20 Modern campaign.

 

We also played Maid RPG, which quickly went off the rails. We had a good time playing it, but we weren’t drawn to it like Dungeons & Dragons. I wanted something meaty that I could sink my teeth into. Something that provided a rich backdrop upon which to build a larger than life story. If any universe fits that criterion, it was Star Wars. Indeed, the universe is very conducive to RPG storytelling.

If you look around at other properties, there are RPGs for a good lot of them. There are RPGs for Firefly, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek (which is upcoming), and probably any other piece of pop culture that is moderately familiar has a tabletop RPG.

Star Wars does indeed have an RPG, though perhaps more accurately you could say that it has three. In my attempts to broaden the RPG palette, I purchased the beginner games to each.

$90 and twenty minutes later, we reached a conclusive verdict: we were not adding it to our RPG lineup anytime soon.

So what happened? Why did it bomb so hard?

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The New Wave Of Dungeons and Dragons

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Every week, I meet up with my friends out in Columbia. Our stories are rich with larger-than-life accomplishments. In our efforts, we have saved kingdoms, faced off against fearsome dragons, explored strange and exotic lands, and have come across untold fortunes.

These are stories that come from our single greatest hobby: Dungeons and Dragons. For decades, the famed tabletop role-playing game has been a beacon of nerd culture. It has sparked the imaginations of countless people. But there has been something of a boom for the game as of late. Why is that?

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