Chasing Frostburn


To those that don’t recognize it, the above picture was the cover art for an old D&D 3.5 supplement book, Frostburn. Frostburn was all things arctic for D&D. Avalanches of d6’s, chasms of frostfire, steeled swords forged from blue ice, fields of acid slush, and playable neanderthals were just some of the feature available.

I loved this book. Frostburn scratched several different itches for me. For one it was all things thing northern. Being from the South, I have what is probably an unwarranted romanticism for all things north – the landscapes, the weather, the feelings. I prefer grey days to clear ones, cold morning runs are my favorite, and snow, snow, snow. I suspect too that I’m not the only that fetishsizes the the north. Though there’s almost certainly more to it, it’s still interesting to note that the high watermark of World of Warcraft was in Northrend just as the best selling Elder Scrolls to date was Skyrim.

The other itch that Frostburn scratched for me goes back to the beginning. My first character ever was a druid, and my first game of D&D ever was an elaborate exercise in hunting/gathering – shuffling through my tackling box, picking locations to fly fish, selecting kindling for campfires. As odd as it seems in retrospect, I actually quite liked these experiences. And though I was clear-eyed enough to not get that granular, Frostburn was still the wilderness-survival campaign that I always wanted to run.

Frostburn does a quite a lot for wilderness-survival. There are charts for thin ice, snow blindness, traversing costs, and so on. Frostburn also categorizes existing terrain and severe weather, as well as introducing a slew of new phenomenon with great names such as: death hail, razor sleet and blood snow.1 Frostburn resurrects the rules for altitude sickness and hypothermia, as well as introducing a new system, cold protection, that does its darndest to try and conform with the existing (e.g Endure Elements) tools out there.

Frostburn was the campaign that I always wanted to run but never got quite to. There was some stuff I did later that was like Frostburn. For example, I ran a campaign in the far north that had an impending necromantic crisis (in retrospect I realize how much I might have plagiarized from Northrend), but anything I ran never seemed to be like the Frostburn that I had read about. So what happened? White whale syndrome? To some extent, sure. But for this campaign, and any others since, the biggest part that I’ve noticed to be missing is what Frostburn seemingly wants to emphasize most – the wintry danger – i.e the wilderness survival.

As described in the previous entry of Tabletop Syndrome, what undermines wilderness survival in Frostburn is what undermines inventory in general – magic. Frostburn does the best it can. As mentioned before it actually configures spells like Endure Elements into its cold protection system, but still there remain other spells that prove to be deeply problematic. Goodberry and Create Water both ruin any chances of extending survival into thirst and starvation, while Leomund’s Tiny Hut removes any possible dynamic associated with finding/constructing shelter. Even a measly cantrip such as Know Direction plays its own role in taking tension off the table. And this doesn’t even say anything of teleportation!

An argument can be made that these are just the perks of having a party (caster) that progresses in abilities, but especially as Frostburn is concerned, an alternative argument could be made that what should be happening isn’t that a system is slowly peeled away until it’s at first tedious, and then finally irrelevant, but rather it should grow more complex and dangerous as the adventurers get increasingly powerful. Dire weather strikes. Luckily the wizard’s Resilient Sphere can prolong what would have otherwise been a death sentence. But will the magic hold long enough for the ranger to scout out a permanent refuge?

Frostburn 2
Equipment from Frostburn – the antler polearm being my personal favorite

Perhaps then it’s ironic that, despite everything I think on this subject, I’m right now putting the finishing touches on yet another Frostburn inspired setting. Like I said before, definitely a little white whale syndrome going on here. In my defense however, I have a few different factors going in my favor.

  1. Lower/adjusted expectations. For the most part I’ve given up on the wilderness-survival idea, given that I have both a druid and cleric in the party. Banning Goodberry seems cheap, especially when it’s been a campaign fixture,2 and taking away the ability to create water from a storm cleric seems worse than arbitrary. Mostly I am just hoping to break from the present adventure path, ditch its the end of the world-isms, and put some of the wild ideas that are in Frostburn into a giant snowy sandbox.
  2. No more Endure Elements. For some mysterious purpose, 5e has cut endure elements out. The reason I suspect has nothing to do with wilderness-survival, and in fact, is probably for the opposite purposes of minimizing environmental effects. In any case it’s an accidental win for my campaign, which can now operate with a heat/fuel system.
  3. My players are bean counters. While I questioned in the previous entry whether pen and paper is the best format for bookkeeping, or whether even most groups would want anything to do with bookkeeping, my present group (or at least the majority) is the exception to my own rule. The wizard in particular loves the deliberation of such an approach, and as such there is reliably half an hour’s worth of debate before any potential combat whatsoever. A good two thirds of encounters in my sessions are circumvented by other creative, which as far as I’m concerned is fantastic.

Back to the original point though, the heat/fuel system works less like Frostburn’s cold protection system and more like a finite amount of provisions to keep track of. I am normally not a fan of giving players (and myself) something extra to keep track of, but given these players, it’s something I’m willing to experiment with.

Will the wizard eventually render this experiment obsolete? Yes and that’s fine. That’s a part of adjusting expectations. The real solution of course would be to adopt another system that actually embraces the wilderness-survival, or to overhaul the existing one. But even if this group would be more inclined to it than others, these just aren’t the circumstances in which we met. D&D pulls strangers together. [Insert indie title] does not. Perhaps the hopeful thought to hold on to would be to reason that with sufficient time, we could wrap up this campaign, gain newfound trust/ambition, then switch to that gritty inventory heavy system after all to finally achieve the dream that I first found in Frostburn.

Would this actually be a good idea however? Or is all this effort exerted in the service of something that is better left imagined than implemented? My own fear is that, as RPGs are concerned, white whales are not limited to the sea.

1: An honorable mention goes to Fairie Frost. What sounds quite gay (frivolous) at first is actually fairly unnerving. Taken from Frostburn:

…faerie frost resembles an ice sheet with a faint rosy hue. It costs 2 squares of movement to enter a square covered by faerie frost, and the DC of Balance and Tumble checks increases by 5. A DC 10 Balance check is required to run or charge across faerie frost. Creatures who remain in a region of faerie frost for 1 minute or more become subject to its deadly hallucinatory curse, and must succeed on a DC 18 Will save or become dazed. This is a mind-affecting compulsion effect. Creatures that succeed on this save are immune to the effect of that patch of faerie frost for 24 hours. Dazed creatures remain so indefinitely, but are entitled to a new Will save once per hour to break free of the faerie frost’s effects. While under the curse’s effect, ensnared characters experience euphoric delusions of warm temperatures and inviting flowery meadows. These characters often sit or lie down on the ice. They remain subject to the normal effects of cold or other existing conditions, remaining completely oblivious as they slowly freeze to death. Characters who remain in a patch of faerie frost for 24 hours must succeed on a DC 18 Fortitude save or turn to ice (as the spell flesh to ice). If a character succeeds on this save, he must make a new Fortitude save once per additional hour (DC 18, + 1 per previous attempt). Spotting faerie frost requires a DC 20 Survival check.

2: Once the party came upon a hill giant crossing that was taking food for a toll. The voracity of hill giants is of course well known, so travelers were being compelled to offer livestock, bushels of crops, untold pounds of flour, etc. It was then that the druid offered the giants goodberries. How filling is one goodberry? The language in 5e states, “Eating a berry restores 1 hit point, and the berry provides enough nourishment to sustain a creature for one day.” It can be argued in other words that one casting of Goodberry can feed anything from a mouse to a Tarrasque – assuming the later even needs “sustaining.”

The common sense ruling is of course to put a size restriction (medium), but finding this oversight hilarious, I instead opted for an interpretation that rules that giants of any size can indeed be sustained by a single goodberry a day, and further that they quite like goodberries and will take a liking to you like a dog that you have fed only one dog treat to. It’s been a recurring problem since.



Tabletop Syndrome – Inventory

Courtesy of the infinitely funny, insightful, and timeless DM of the Rings

Is inventory fun?

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about treasure or magic items – or even weapons and armor. I’m talking about inventory – the bookkeeping, tool fetching, rationing kind. Is it fun?

Fun is of course a subjective word – but not so much that we have to tie ourselves up in knots. It’s possible after all to look past local possibilities in favor of overall trends: what is most fun to most people most of the time? Or in this case: what is the average player experience with inventory like?

This is what makes inventory interesting. You would think that, with any given RPG title consistently spilling a whole chapter’s worth of ink, inventory was somehow as integral to our enjoyment of the game as classes, combat, or magic are. And yet I have seen nothing but the opposite. Inventory is at best treated as means for crunch-oriented gamers to squeeze every last drop out of their characters, or at worst, is treated as an unwelcome addition that only remains fettered to the game in virtue of the rules or out of duty to “realism.” In the average case, most players tend to forget that inventory exists period.

So why keep it around then?


Inventory exists for those moments when your character suddenly pulls some hitherto obscure item out of their inventory to unexpectedly change the dynamics and/or resolve the encounter.

I have a player right now, a wizard, that ascribes to such a philosophy. The joke at the table is that if anyone (namely the authorities) ever went through his inventory, this person would probably surmise that they were dealing with someone who was half museum curator and half serial killer. The wizard keeps all these items in his inventory because without a doubt, MacGyvering scenes are some of the freshest moments in the game. There’s nothing quite like a seemingly useless item suddenly having its time to shine. MacGyvering not only breaks up the uniform rhythm of combat, but it also creates connections. The events in your sessions actually feel linked together, rather than being a series of subterranean rooms. So truly then if there is any one quality that can offset all the drawbacks of inventory, this might be the one.

Still however I think it needs to be pointed out that for every scene that a player succeeds at being MacGyver, there are three scenes of grasping at obvious straws, losing sight of presented cues, and embarrassing plans. Is glory is possible? Yes, but so is fifteen minutes of over-engineering. Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Evidently since I have this wizard-player in my campaign, it’s a possibility that I’m open to. Although that the player is a wizard is a relevant irony – more on that later.

Resource Management

Inventory exists because it’s an extension of resource management. It adds an extra layer of metagame beyond the combat.

Do you keep going for possible greater rewards, or do you head back to town before you run out of torches/rations? There’s two different ironies to this example. The first irony is that this paradigm actually used to exist in D&D. Rules on lightning, specific “burning times,” encumbrance, starvation, and so on, all showcase what must have once been a robust part of the game. Truly though even the ten foot pole has lost most of its importance – while the rest resembles something of a vestigial organ to the game.

The second irony is that a CRPG like the Darkest Dungeon has emulated this dynamic better than any TRPG has or will ever hope to. No doubt the second irony is directly related to the first one. Potential for complexity is often touted as one of the strengths of RPGs, but I don’t understand why people say this. Pen and paper is clearly one of the worst formats imaginable for bookkeeping. It’s not even that you’re transcribing information onto paper that could be much more quickly, much more seamlessly written onto a computer. No rather the worst part is that if used as designed, you’re using the same piece of paper for all your information – i.e the writing and erasing and erasing over again until your paper forms those dreaded inky bruises.

Admittedly anyone that takes inventory seriously outsources the relevant parts. Although this just begets the question. Why is there bad design in the first place? Why does any character sheet have an inventory section at all? Either inventory doesn’t matter to the player, so they’re never going to look at that section anyways, or inventory does matter to the player, in which case they’re going to invariably carry a seperate sheet and/or maintain an excel spreadsheet.

MacGyvering pt 2.

Inventory exists as a toolset. It’s a non-magical means for creative problem solving.

There’s another joke at the table about the wizard. There have been multiple instances now where the he has tried to use a bag of marbles he keeps around for the purposes of tripping. Invariably these attempts either flop, backfire, or pale in comparison to the spell he could have casted instead, and thus the joke is that, despite his chronically flirting with this option, literally any action would be more productive than using the marbles.

So here then is the relevant irony – the tension found in virtually all RPGs: One can look at inventory as a toolset, an alternative to magic, but how do we sort out the details? What is magic in relation to inventory? Is magic also a toolset? But if you can freely acquire and discard inventory, while conversely magic is limited and relatively static, then how fair is that to magic users?

The original creators of D&D no doubt had to face this conundrum, so evidently what we got as a result was to make inventory secondary: useful here and there for examples like locks vs lockpicking tools, but overall not meant to usurp a wizard’s incantations. Class balance wins out in other words.1

It wins out in several respects actually. Class balance not only makes inventory as a toolset secondary to magic, but it also makes inventory as resource management secondary to magic. Light replaces torchlight, create water replaces canteens, and a single goodberry spell can feed even sizeable caravans indefinitely – so much for wilderness survival.

In short when it comes to inventory vs. magic, it seems that true coexistence is impossible. One has to subordinate to the other. Undoubtedly it’s no coincidence that high inventory campaigns tend to veer towards low magic, just as surely as high magic RPGs like D&D have been steadily moving away from inventory, edition by edition. But if this is the case, if the conclusion is foregone (for the latter), is there any reason to stall it?


Do players really care about provisions? Clearly a game like the Darkest Dungeon shows us that there’s a market that’s into the nitty gritty logistics of adventuring, but we’ve also already established that this concept is better suited for CRPGs than it is for TRPGs. Further we can return to the sentiment before: what is the average case? Ultimately, although inventory can provide a memorable moment here and there, I suspect that there’s a reason why that when players have exhausted all previous options, they resort to poring over their inventory. In short this is precisely where inventory stands in the hierarchy of importance for most people: at the very bottom.

A particularly zealous group can always tailor the game to fit their needs. It’s in their nature to do so. For an average group however, the first experience might be the last. So why then would we leave something in the game on the expectation that most players are going to ignore/forget about it? In any other industry these kinds of decisions would be marketing madness, but in RPGs these practices are part and parcel design.

Can there be a place for inventory in RPGs? Of course. Bookkeeping has its own unwieldy appeal. But for the RPG that is going to beat Tabletop Syndrome, for the RPG that is going to move all other RPGs forward, we should be able to fairly assess the odds: inventory is almost certainly an encumbrance.

1: One of the strange contradictions in this set up is that the most useful pieces of inventory (e.g lockpicks, spellbooks, holy symbols) are functionally conjoined to their respective classes anyways, so then you would think that someone would eventually ask: why have a separate inventory system at all? Shouldn’t a rogue just come with lockpicking tools in the same way that a wizard comes with a spellbook? In these two examples after all both (though especially the latter) are mechanically hobbled anyways if they lose their choice pieces of inventory.

Like so much in RPGs I would say that this dynamic needs to be either explicitly built into the game (e.g a monk’s advantage is that it’s not as inventory dependent as other classes are) or it needs to be explicitly banished. There needs to be in other words a decisive decision to move in one direction or the other.

Truth in Numbers

How big is the RPG market?

Yesterday the latest ICv2 reports came out – this time in pie chart form. These numbers confirm what any honest RPGer already knew: the hobby is a niche within a niche.

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Numbers like these struggle to speak for themselves, as an inevitable tide of reactionary logic swells up. In the RPG community’s case, opinions tend to skew towards the defensive side. It’s worth running through some of these thoughts.

“Who cares?”

In many respects this is the most legitimate opinion of them all. If you have a great group, then nothing else has to matter. If on the other hand it seems curious that a game once dominant in its sector has since become the demographic equivalent of Eskimos, the market question is worth pondering. In any case the market question affects anyone from the moment that they lose that “great group.”

“We can’t draw conclusions from [x].”

When it comes to these kinds of conversations, I find that there are two types of skeptics present.

The first kind are genuinely curious to see what the numbers are like, and thus they are only criticizing the existing methodologies because they want to see more accurate results in the future. Obviously this is fine.

The second group however are wearing the skeptic hat for a different reason. They don’t want to come to terms with what the big picture is saying, so they deny it via the details. This process kills two birds with one stone. They 1) get to make perfectly legitimate criticisms about the particular flaws of [x], while 2) they also get to deflect the broader question: is [x] is more useful than it is useless. A much sought after side effect of this approach also seems to be 3) giving the impression to everyone else that you are a wise and careful thinker.

How do you tell one from another? There are no hard rules, but there is something that I use called the margin of error test. If a person claims that a study is too flawed to draw any conclusions, I ask them in turn exactly wrong they think the numbers are off. Are they off by 5%? 15%? 70%? The answer they give (or lack thereof) will speak most clearly to what they really think.

In this case, let’s pretend that the ICv2 is terribly off – like 100% off. Which is to say let’s pretend that the ICv2 is capturing literally only half of all RPG sales that are occurring. Where does that put the market share of RPGs then? From 2.9% to 5.8%? How many magnitudes larger would we have to go to not be concerned? It hardly matters where we place the goal post in any case because what this notion assumes is that only RPGs suffer from the ICv2’s deficits – quaint. Once you remove this assumption, the argument more or less collapses.

Is there room for improvement in the ICv2 reports? Where isn’t there room for improvement? The point however is that this question is separate from the question of whether the reports remain useful. A skeptic avoids collapsing these two questions together. A “skeptic” wants both questions to collapse.

“These numbers make sense because RPGs are hard to monetize.”

By their nature, RPGs are hard to monetize. Any video game exec would balk at the notion that one player could buy and freely share a product that 4+ other players could latch onto for free with. No DRM, no subscriptions, no $60 games with $40 season passes, how are you going to make your money? That’s one way of looking at it.

The more common sense way of looking at it however is to wonder why is this so bad? Market wisdom dictates that cheaper products with customer friendly practices out-compete over their more expensive, more cumbersome counterparts. How can Netflix make any money with $8 subscriptions, big budget productions, and a leeching culture worthy of memes? Well they do just fine apparently. In fact, the revenue that Netflix alone brings in is more than twice the size (2.64 billion) of the entire hobby games industry.

Personally I see more opportunity than disadvantage.

“These numbers make sense because RPGs are time consuming.”

Can RPGs be Netflix? Of course not. One barrier (if not the biggest barrier) is the time and people investment. Market wisdom also dictates that the product that you can enjoy anywhere anytime will out compete the product where you have to coordinate and mesh five different people’s schedules together into a 4+ hour time block. Once again however this is more an indication to me of what is possible. What if an RPG was 2 hours long instead of four hours? What if it didn’t have to be played by the same people every week? What if didn’t take multiple sessions to clear a single dungeon?

Truly it seems that the extent to which you solved the time problem would be exactly the extent to which RPGs can enter the mainstream. It couldn’t be entirely solvable of course. A movie or video game will always be faster. But what is so baffling to me is how little attention this dimension gets. It seems like the sole condition that, if alleviated, could cause the RPG market to explode, and yet when a D&D 5e AMA comes around, the headlining story-question is about the initiative order. What?


Before closing, it’s only fair to mention the trajectory of the numbers. The RPG industry is not only growing, it’s booming. The market has doubled in size since 2013, alongside the rest of the hobby industry. Although I would want more information. How much of that growth is 5e siphoning? How many of the non-celebrity kickstarters are performing well? Just how healthy is the industry really? A pie chart of exclusively the RPG market would be invaluable. But lest I inadvertently fall into the aforementioned “skeptic” category, I want to make this clear: are RPGs dying? Of course not.

Citing the 2.8% figure isn’t a case for the apocalypse, it’s case for being forthright. Let’s be honest about where the hobby is at. Once we do that, we can then be imaginative about where it could go.

Sorting out Inventory

This week is a feeler post on reddit.

I want to get back into Tabletop Syndrome proper, and originally I planned to dedicate this week to writing about inventory in RPGs. But for many of the entries in Tabletop Syndrome, I’m often finding a mismatch between what I’m writing and what other people’s experiences have been.

With the weirdo entries for example, it was interesting to see how unwilling people were to grant something that I would think is just patently obvious: that there’s more weirdos in RPGs than on average elsewhere. I suspected that people would get defensive, even disingenuous. One person, amusingly enough, refused to grant that there could be any difference at all between people that play RPGs and people that do pilates.

I am also willing to consider however that it’s a very decentralized hobby. The type of DM you may have had could be like the type of parents you had growing up. You wouldn’t know what was normal until you had another set. While we can look at blogs, modules, and shifts in rules, and now Actual Plays, it’s still fairly hard to gauge what the standard RPG experience is.

This week then is a different approach. I assume something to be obvious (i.e that inventory is never fun), but instead of going forward on that assumption, I’m going to first gauge other people’s thoughts/experiences with this part of RPGs. Hopefully then with results in hand, it will be possible to produce something that gets less mired down in reactionary tones and obfuscation. Till next week.

Thoughts on the X-Card

Have you ever heard of the X-Card?

I hadn’t either – not until I happened across this post, which in turn I only caught thanks to a chance encounter on the right blog. It’s not something I would normally care about. I couldn’t ever imagine myself using the X-Card. But from a RPG culture perspective, the post is infinitely fascinating. Anything that gets locked down in matter of hours (not before getting 100+ comments) is probably worth discussing. So for this week of Tabletop Syndrome, we’re going to do just that. This entry is essentially going to be a response post – a bump for those that might have missed the conversation the first time around. I recommend quickly skimming that post before reading on; otherwise I’ll provide background information whenever necessary.


What is the X-Card? The X-Card is a tool for RPGs. Literally speaking it’s an index card that you draw an X on. It’s existed for years apparently, and what the X-Card does in short is that it allows the players of the game to quickly, silently, air any grievances that they may have with whatever is going on at the table. If something in the game is making you uncomfortable you simply take the X-Card, flash it, tap it, or otherwise present it to the group in some manner. No conversation is needed. Whatever is going on will get edited out of the session and the game will continue.

The post in question was evidently quite pleased with the X-Card. Along with advocating session zeroes in general, it even went so far as to say in the headline that the X-Card, “should be mandatory.” Understandably, this part provoked quite a response.


From what I could gather there were two opposing camps on this issue.

The first mindset was obvious. How could someone possibly feel entitled enough compel everyone within a voluntary hobby to adopt their mandatory device? More so however responses from the first camp seemed to contain a skeptical gut reaction. That even if you took mandatory off the table, there was still something off about dealing with in-game problems in this seemingly passive-aggressive manner.

The second mindset countered with two different considerations: 1) why not just let consenting adults do whatever they want to do with the game? And then 2) why wouldn’t we implement something that could facilitate respecting the boundaries of others?

Given the bad headline, I’ll admit that my sympathies primarily lie with the first camp. Although after reading some of the comments, I am not so sure that I would want to take their side either. The OP evidently hit a nerve. Despite what looked like a near consensus against the OP, the post managed to garner about as many upvotes as it did downvotes. And given that the upvote/downvote system is typically wielded like an agree/disagree button, this seems imply that there is more support for the OP’s sentiments than even the comments let on. I could understand how. Other than the headline, I don’t think that the OP’s points are actually too far off the mark. I’ll elaborate on what I mean by this, but first, a few points in favor of the first camp.

The mandatory clause is obviously a non-starter. Plenty of people in the post were quick to this point. One response I didn’t see however would have cut more directly to the central issue: does it work? The premise of the X-Card as I understand it is that it is meant to be a covert way of flagging events at the table that are going beyond your comfort zone. Clearly it must work well enough to have a name, but still it’s not obvious to me that the Card would work that well. If anything I would imagine that using the Card could actually make matters worse than if you just had a traditional at-the-table conversation. How so?

Personally if I were DM’ing and I saw someone flash the X-Card, I would feel compelled to stop the session then and there. The X-Card would after all be filled with tremendous symbolic significance – and everyone else at the table would equally understand this significance too. Could you seriously continue in earnest like nothing happened? Worse, being a symbol, the X-Card doesn’t convey much information in itself. What event caused the X-Card to be flashed? Or was it something that another player said? Are the person’s feelings hurt grievously? Can they continue on? Or should the session take a break immediately? Ironically then if you don’t discuss why the X-Card was flashed (if it’s working at intended), this would seem then to actually add an element of social tension to the table.

Granted, the creators do encourage the last option (to take a break) if it is in fact not clear what caused the X-Card to be flashed. Although 1) this seems to contradict the intended mission of the X-Card (to avoid slowdowns/confrontations), and 2) neither this nor any other recommendations present on the website address what would seem to be the most important obstacle to hurdle: how do you mitigate someone’s anxiety without bringing extra attention to it? I don’t see the X-Card doing well in this respect. I could even see a reverse dynamic evolving where a player self-censors precisely because they don’t want to provoke the micro-incidents that would come with using the X-Card.

So that’s all in favor of the first camp. But as I mentioned before, I do have some sympathy for the second camp as well, so I want to get to those thoughts. I think once you discard the “mandatory” clause, it’s considerably easier to switch between sides.

The X-Card is geared towards addressing a problem that many in the RPG community aren’t willing to consider a problem at all. What am I talking about? I’m talking about anytime anyone brings up player/culture problems, the default response is to suggest that the poster has a case of something I like to call: Vitamin Adult Deficiency – i.e there’s no problem at all, you might be the problem in fact, and overall this whole problem could go away instantly if you just had a grownup conversation.

In some sense I understand why this is the default response. If you don’t know anything about the poster in question, this route is going to be the most reliable advice of any you could choose from. When isn’t an effective conversation to be desired? The obnoxious part of this answer however is how it tends to exclude literally any other consideration. What if the problem player is the host and he’s your ride back home? What if it’s the only place you guys can play or the campaign is bust? What if the problem player is a coworker with seniority? What if the problem player is your wife? The X-Card asks an arguably even more difficult kind of question: what if the problem player was traumatized?

Saying that you should just “talk about it” or “talk to the person” is akin to saying “Well if you have a problem, you should just solve it” – quite true, but also quite unhelpful. The most critical blind spot, in any case, of Vitamin Adult Deficiency is to never meaningfully consider what the player’s comfort zone might be. Is the X-Card shelving issues instead of addressing them? Perhaps so; perhaps not. But we could just as easily turn the tables: should we seriously expect that RPGs be the time and place for someone to address and solve their most personal issues? Is this what you would want in your game?

The answer for most people I imagine is no. It sounds bad to say, but I’ll stick and neck out and say it without remorse: it’s perfectly reasonable to not want to go outside your comfort zone. Career may be one thing, public policy another, but these are games we are talking about. Games are supposed to be leisurely. No one has a duty to make your game easy, but by this same token you also don’t have a duty to sort someone out that is making your game hard. Don’t want to deal with it? Card it I suppose. I might not agree with it, or even think its effective, but I understand the gravity of the problem. How else should you handle that scene in your “gritty” campaign if someone at the table has been a victim of rape? Don’t just parrot what would work on paper. Imagine what the circumstances could be and then be realistic about it.

On this note then, I wanted to extend a second olive branch to the OP and the second camp: two suggestions for what might make for an even better X-Card.

While I can sympathize with the goal. The problem is with its relative lack of subtlety. The X-Card communicates an idea silently, but its implementation screams a thousand words. So I offer this counter-idea: I wouldn’t know the specifics of what technology you could use, but it seems to me you could accomplish this same goal much more effectively with texts and smartphones. If for example there was a game where something in the DM’s descriptions was making a player critically uncomfortable, that player could send a covert text that simply causes the DM’s phone to vibrate. The DM takes this cue, adjusts accordingly, and none of the other players at the table are any wiser.

It’s not a bulletproof idea. Two-way (or five-way!) communication might be trickier to implement. And obviously in a perfect world you would still want some kind of conversation afterwards that clarifies what the trouble areas were, as to avoid them in the future. Other specifics might be elusive. How would the player, for example, send a text covertly and how would the vibrating phone be soft enough for the other players to not hear? Perhaps added anonymity still does enough good? If not many of these problems seem like issues that could be solved through a simple app.

Alternatively the other big problem with the X-Card seems like you’re not getting the information you need until it is too late. Perhaps if you had the players type up, anonymously, any given number (top 3?) of areas of concern, the DM could read these concerns either publicly or privately (depending on what you’re trying to accomplish), so that everyone could know what kinds of topics to avoid in the first place. Admittedly this is basically like a session zero. Although the brief contention I would voice with a session zero is that, like any group conversation, the vocal are favored over the quiet, which is obviously no good. Once again being vocal would solve the problem, but what we are looking for are viable alternatives – and not RPG platitudes.

Anyways that’s all I got. Do check out the post if you haven’t already. Make up your own mind. It’s fascinating in its own right. Whether your sentiments lie with the first or second camp, I think you will find that there are traces of Tabletop Syndrome regardless. Till next week.

An Alternative to Leveling Up

This week there are two different parts to Tabletop Syndrome. The first is to satisfy a vague promise I made at the end of the last article to supply an alternative that I think remedies the problems of leveling up, while still having something that maintains its appeal. This is one such proposal. The second part is a (soon to come) video that is a response to the responses of the previous article. Time is a precious resource and I must use more of mine to save some of yours. In the meanwhile…

In its current articulation, characters have four levels. The hyper-condensed outline below requires either understanding the jargon or understanding what is meant by certain words. In both these respects, details can be found further below.

The four levels
1. “The Setup” All failures are pivots.
2. “Escalation” Villains no longer nullify players.
3. “Struggle” All failures are now setbacks.
4. “Climax” There is no more spin. All failures are to be taken at face value. Arch-villains no longer nullify players.

Pivot – A pivot describes the lateral move that the plot takes to be able to continue moving forward. A pivot is the most benevolent kind of failure. The player is unharmed as a result of their failure and it changes the flavor of the plot and nothing more.

Setback – A setback is a more inconvenient resolution. Once again the player is essentially unharmed as a result of their failure, but the plot may hit a dead end that in a narrative sense may require turning around and trying to navigate through, or in a mechanical sense, may require an extra scene or two of session at the table.

Nullify – By default no character, creature, entity, etc. in the game rolls. It’s a deterministic universe in which whoever has the higher attribute always wins. Heroes however are special, and to be suitably special, heroes can stretch (via rolling) the limits of their static attributes. Villains are special too. While in the presence of a villain/arch-villain, heroes lose this ability until they have reached the appropriate level.

Failure – A failure here does not designate literally any check but rather any check that is significant enough to determine how the rest of the session, or campaign, plays out. The plot won’t pivot simply because a character failed a check to snatch a fly from the air.

Three extra elements to consider.

  1. Every failed check that would result in a failure, gets a second (harder) chance to succeed.
  2. Every failure permanently girds the character against repeat mistakes. Whenever confronted with that kind of failure again in the future (DM’s discretion), the character gains an extra dice to roll.
  3. Possible class-specific elements for advancement throughout the four levels. Given what has been said previously however about the problems of leveling up, extra care would have to be taken to make these elements as light as possible. A new level must contain something that is fun, coherent, and meaningful.

Other Thoughts/Concerns – Many rules here are condensed, but vague enough to be subjective. Elaborations and examples would be added in to ensure that a DM’s interpretations don’t stray too far away from the original intent of the mechanics. Then again there’s no sentence, no matter how carefully worded, that can completely safeguard against a DM that is sufficiently wayward from either the system or from the expectations/wants of his players.

Toying with the idea of giving each player the option, at a given level, of being able to deliver one setback/pivot to the villain/arch-villain. Unsure about whether this would make the stories too chaotic or not. A single setback/pivot that the party shares might keep events from waffling too incredibly, but I am also not a fan of any process that requires a group vote. These are some of the slowest conversations in the universe.

Tabletop Syndrome: Leveling Up

I was working on my campaign recently when I had an epiphany. For months I was wracking my brains around a plot hole in the story. The campaign begins with the players discovering a magical loom, only to later discover that it is an artifact of cosmic importance. The broad outline is that they’ll be recruited by the secret society that is the original owner of the loom, and in due time, they will be traveling from plane-to-plane to thwart a plot that threatens the fabric of reality itself. I had a clear picture of virtually everything, even the ending, but what was giving me the most trouble was the initial plot point: what would compel this secret society to entrust a bunch of low level adventurers with said matters of cosmic importance?

I was ready to employ all these incredibly contrived reasons when, after a timely conversation with a friend, I had my profound realization: what if I just pretended that the adventurers weren’t level 4? What makes this epiphany funny of course is that it’s hardly novel at all, and in fact, it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book for dealing with one of the most persistent problems of RPG storylines: how do you foist low level players into a high level story? I estimate that there are, broadly speaking, three paths to take.

1. Make up some paper-thin reason about how all the powerful people are busy and can’t be bothered with the quest.

2. Make the quest about something else until the adventurers are ready for the real quest.

3. Pretend that the adventurers are the best candidates for the quest all along.

There are other methods no doubt, and not every campaign suffers equally, but like pot holes in the middle of the road, there can be no straight path without bumps. Why did the evil cult send level 3 henchmen to retrieve the artifact of cosmic important?… Because although the loom is powerful there are in reality multiple looms… and therefore the cult can afford to miss out on a few… so they only send their second or third best men? When dealing with plot holes in RPGs the better question isn’t how best to fill them in but whether the endeavor itself is worth it. If my players don’t know, don’t care, or are otherwise willing to suspend their disbelief, then should I care?

I don’t necessarily care. Virtually every story has its contrivances. Still though it’s annoying to know that the issue is entirely preventable. Why am I having to deal with this at all? Because I’ve got low level adventurers. Why do I have low level adventurers? The surface answer is because we were all new to this edition of the game, and we didn’t want to be too overwhelmed. But below that answer, the fundamental reason is because levels and leveling up are more ensconced into RPGs than my magical loom is into the fabric of reality. But what are levels doing for us? More than merely producing weaselly plots, there is a bevy of issues that levels and leveling up are bringing into RPGs.

Levels limit what kind of characters you can create.

Just as levels restrict stories, so too do they restrict characters – particularly lv. 1 characters. What makes for an interesting character? It’s a big question to tackle succinctly, but in broads terms I think we could say that an interesting character has 1) a well developed personal style and philosophy and 2) a breath and depth of previous life experiences.1 We could even argue that former is subordinate to the latter, but we’ll leave that debate aside because in either case a lv. 1 character cannot reliably fulfill either prerequisites. Literally the whole point of lv. 1 is that your character is not developed – in respect to either criteria #1 or #2.

A lv. 1 character is like a Luke Skywalker. Sure you’ve got some starting background, personality, and hopefully even a good hook, but mainly you’ve just got destiny. The most interesting parts of your life, and the majority of your character development, still lie ahead in your future adventures once you get off of Tatooine. Obviously there’s a place in great stories for a Skywalker, but a party of five Skywalkers? Even Luke has Obi Wan, Han, and the rest of the cast. Harry Potter’s proximate circle is occupied by similarly naive friends, but this circle is in turn surrounded by a broader context of masters and mentors. A great story requires a diverse retinue of characters, so what the hell are we supposed to do with five lv. 1 characters with analogous experiences and abilities?2

Levels arbitrarily sequester and distribute abilities.

Why do I master deflecting arrows first before learning how to land stunning strikes? Wouldn’t it be more important to learn the stunning strikes first? What if that doesn’t make sense for my character? These problems can admittedly be the personal problems of any given system (to be fixed in a supplement book!), but no one can deny that on the most fundamental level to gain stuff, stuff has to first be withheld from you. But what stuff should be held withheld from you and what stuff should not? Usually the new tools that you get are engaging as well as thematically cohesive, but on the flip side there will inevitably be the arbitrary game design decisions. Maintaining class and combat balance is necessary for fairness, but it also comes at the expense of immersion – for us picky players at least.

Levels create expectation mismatches.

More so than any details about character creation however, easily the worst transgression that levels commit is how they turn new players off to the game. Nothing kills interest faster than a session of misses and failed rolls and nothing collides more directly with the promised tone of heroism that RPGs promise than the reality of level one flops. No one imagines a level one hero so why are we making, what could literally be a person’s first RPG experience, a level one experience?

Further what makes this problem doubly pernicious is that, unlike other issues in RPGs, this one is essentially out of the DM’s control. Dice are by their nature random and low level characters are also by their nature inconsistent. Combine randomness with inconsistency and a party’s first adventures are bound to skew not towards the heroic, but towards the comedic. To some extent the DM can mitigate these situations with fudged rolls, but admittedly this is not always an option. A roll could either be so transparently bad (like natural 3 bad) or the players could have already inferred the difficulty of some task and to fudge a roll then would be to flagrantly and obviously cheat at the table. The other point to make is that even when fudging is possible, or even successful, it’s still worth noting how once again, like the previous problems above, the DM/player is having to actively work against the system in order to make the story work.

Why not just start players at a higher level or just switch systems entirely? These are solutions, but not the complete picture. Just a few observations here. The first thing to say is that virtually every RPG has the leveling problem to some degree. Of course if an RPG literally uses no leveling up [insert indie RPG here], it’s not affected, but otherwise this problem is fundamental. To the extent that an RPG distributes abilities over any period of time, to the extent that an RPG starts players out as any sort of neophytes, that RPG suffers from the issues outlined above. Still handling the leveling problem even marginally better than D&D/Pathfinder does is being in a better position period. And many RPGs do just that. No contest here.

The second thing to say however is that no RPGs are more popular than D&D/Pathfinder either – by a very long shot. These two practically (if not literally) make up 90% of the market,3 and so by extension it’s very difficult (guaranteed impossible in rural areas) to find games for these systems that do handle the leveling problem better. What consolation is it then to the new player, or to the DM trying to run something else, that there’s a system out there that handles his problems better?

So what is this to say then? That every other RPG just needs to somehow get better marketing and magically appear on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble? Obviously this isn’t a helpful wish to dwell on, but there is a third, interesting observation to be made before we abandon this thought entirely: there seems to be a very strong, positive correlation between a game’s popularity and the robustness of its leveling system. Is this then the negation of everything that I’ve been saying? Do all these supposed problems of leveling actually mean nothing towards dissuading new players and in fact levels do just the opposite? I have a few different suspicions here.

First I suspect that like any pastime, RPGs select for those that are sufficiently predisposed towards the hobby to overcome its initial barriers. The majority of people might in fact find leveling up to be weird, arbitrary, and off-putting, but the hobby could precisely be selecting for a minority of people that are biased to think otherwise. It’s also possible that there is something else in these games, some unknown variable, that attracts and retains people despite these initial flaws. And then almost certainly there is an appeal to a leveling up itself – one that even manages to overcome its own drawbacks.

Still it’s a lot of baggage to carry. I long for the days that I don’t have to contrive a campaign plot around the mechanics of the game, or for the days that I don’t have to constantly apologize to new players starting out with level one characters. Would there be any way of discarding this baggage and thereby creating an unequivocally more successful game? One that could bring more people into the hobby, and by extension, bring in the already existing retinue of RPGs waiting on the sidelines? Or is it just logically entailed that curbing the issues of leveling means curbing its appeal? Can you have it both ways?

I personally think it’s possible to. But getting into why would make an already long entry even longer. Perhaps if I could condense this part into a single sentence: I would say that if the appeal of leveling up is the tangible sense of overcoming old challenges and facing new ones, with new tools, or new stakes, then it could be possible to create a system that more easily and directly cuts to this sensation if we past the old notions of incrementally stronger characters. Still I fear that this is too vague a sentence to end on. So instead at this point, I would rather wrap things up with a call for other people’s insights on this topic. Thoughts? Concerns? Favorite system that already does all these promised things? I leave the conversation open.

1: One hobby within RPGs is to ridicule orphan adventurers – particularly because it’s seen as lazy storytelling. And while its possible that the player might be indeed an edgelord, the ironic fact is that being an orphan is only one of very, very few ways that a lv. 1 character can realistically fulfill the requisite wide range of experiences for being an interesting character.

2: Everything that was said in the first footnote applies identically DMPCs. What else should the DM do other than try to introduce diversity into the cast of characters? There are misuses of DMPCs too of course, but otherwise we can see an example of how once again one has to actively swim against the current to create effective stories.

3: I suspect that people are going to be skeptical about this point, so I just want to cite something very concrete and personal. It’s not perfectly scientific, but I see no reason would be so unique as to be an outlier. I go onto /r/lfg from time to time to see whats brewing and determine whether I might be able to get into a campaign as a player for once. As of May 2017, If you go and type in my city name within the /r/lfg search bar, and select for posts that are less than 12 months old, you will see 13 posts: 9 are for D&D 5th edition, 2 are for either D&D or Pathfinder, 1 is for Cypher or Shadowrun, and 1 is for “whatever the group wants” (hint: it’ll probably be D&D). I do not, by any measure, live in a small town. I live in the capital city of a decently populous state. One OP from ten months ago jokingly referred to the “desolation” of trying to find a group.

Solving the Weirdo Problem

The previous entry in Tabletop Syndrome concerned itself with introducing and describing the weirdo problem. It may be necessary to read that article to get some context for this one, but it also may not. As I mentioned at the very beginning of that article, I feared that the weirdo problem was either so obvious, as not to warrant any further elaboration, or was so controversial that I was going to have to immediately defend myself against any uncharitable interpretations. Defining your terms is a thankless job, but at the very least we are now poised to tackle the followup question – the question that justifies articulating the problem in the first place: what are we supposed to make of the weirdo problem? Is it possible to do anything about it?

Conventional wisdom seems resigned to weirdos. That like a homeless man that has come to occupy a street corner, the weirdo problem is an essentially permanent fixture of our RPG lives that’s better to steer clear of or avoid entirely. There’s a sense here that if something is irremediable then there’s no point in talking about it. Why? Can’t a conversation be worthwhile regardless of whether the outcome is fixed or not? It seems interesting to me for example to discuss whether the 1 in 5 metric sounds right or not and whether this is a tenable state of affairs or not. I don’t know – personal preference I suppose. In any case I think this outlook is still wrong on two critical fronts:

1) Nothing is permanent – especially as culture is concerned. Maintaining that the weirdo problem is intractable would be to maintain that RPG culture is going to stay the same forever, but why would this be the case? What culture has ever stayed the same over the span of decades? Granted the question could then be how much change exactly. The culture of football today is probably different than fifty years ago, but is it appreciably different? Probably not. Are RPGs then stuck with weirdos in the same way that football is stuck with jocks? I don’t rule this out as an impossibility, but it’s also possible that RPGs and football are too disparate to draw any helpful conclusions.

Rather I think the best place to look would be to the cousin of RPGs, video games, for a rough template of what could change/remain from decade to decade. Is the arc of video game culture anything we would want to emulate? It’s hard to say. On one hand, the change has been undeniable. One gets a feeling that the mainstream exposure that video games are getting now is going to change the landscape dramatically in the future. But on the other hand, much has remained the same. There’s probably even more weirdos frankly in a CoD match, or on WoW trade chat, than there are in RPGs. And then somewhere in between there’s GamerGate. Was that mess an indictment or an exoneration of video game culture? I still don’t know. It’s a mixed bag to say the least. But what video games do unambiguously illustrate is the second point I wanted to make.

2) Nothing is permanent – especially as you introduce more people. Clearly what’s shaken up the bag in the first place is that over the past four decades, video games have done extraordinarily well at attracting new people. Can a culture stay the same if you introduce more people, and different kinds of people, into it? The answer I think is just logically necessitated (no).

But if this is the case then the weirdo problem, in some sense, becomes subordinate to the marketing problem. How do you get more people into the game? Factors unique to RPGs could still matter, but an equal consideration could also be what has allowed video games to step into the mainstream, while RPGs still languish underground.

Obviously RPGs can’t follow the same path that video games have, yet I don’t think that RPGs are in as obsolete a position as people usually imply either. The decline of split-screen co-op, sequelitis, and nickle-and-diming are all worsening trends in the video game industry, all of which could conceivably work in favor of the RPG industry. There are of course things that don’t work in an RPG’s favor either (time being the #1 culprit IMO), but all this indicates to me is that the extent to which you could mitigate these problems would be precisely the extent to which RPGs could reach a wider audience. This will have to be a later discussion however – back to the original question.

Can we solve the weirdo problem? I don’t see why not. You couldn’t get rid of literally all the weirdos of course (this was never the point), but clearly there are actions that we could take that would either make the this problem better or worse. Nothing in the universe forbids one outcome or the other. I wouldn’t expect that RPGs will ever be able to step into the mainstream, but between video games and the rest of the “nerdstream,” there seems now more than ever a growing supply of people who are culturally acquainted with, but not presently playing, tabletop games. Can’t we do something about this?

This is what discussing tabletop syndrome is all about. What is keeping these potential players from entering the hobby, and what could we conceivably do about it? Because like a tide that lifts all boats, solving the marketing problem wouldn’t just solve the weirdo problem, it would also solve any number of adjacent problems: finding groups, finding groups for your indie RPG, the state of your FLGS, ability to describe your hobby to outsiders, etc.

The weirdo problem is easy. What lies behind the weirdo problem is much more difficult to solve, let alone describe.

Tabletop Syndrome: Weirdos

RPGs have a weirdo problem.

This sentence, I imagine, is either so painfully obvious that I will get pushback for even elaborating on such an insipid point, or for reasons I can’t anticipate, is so painfully controversial that I will have to push back to not be thrown off a cliff. With this in mind then, I will tell a story that hopefully caters to the needs of both equally mad parties.

A few years ago I answered an online post to be the DM of a newly formed Pathfinder campaign. At this time in my life I was just beginning to appreciate the full bleakness of the post-college RPG pickup scene, and so when I saw that there was finally a group looking, that all they needed was a DM, and that I was going to get full creative control over the sort of campaign we played, I was quite excited to say the least. I was too excited perhaps to notice a small detail: something about the previous DM “dropping out at the last minute.” What I initially figured was a stroke of fortune should have instead registered as the first warning sign.

The outside looked bad and the inside looked worse. The host was a man in his 30’s living on disability checks in his grandmother’s apartment. I hesitate to add such personal details to this story, yet nothing cuts more directly to what this placed looked like in terms of its size, aesthetic, and general cleanliness. Incidentally I was having the exact same thought process at the same time. Was I being unfair? Was I just being condescending and judgmental?

When I met the rest of the group, I found some reason to reverse my prejudices. First and foremost I remember the group’s only couple. They were technically weirdos in the sense of having an unconventional lifestyle (they were Wiccans), but more importantly, for the purposes of the game, they were socially proficient, quick to jokes, creative, and well attuned to other people’s cues. In every respect they were just the kind of players that a DM would hope for, and a bright spot in the oncoming experience.

The idea was to run a traditional “you meet in a tavern” scene, with an added case of mistaken identity, as well as an ensuing bar fight. More specifically three dwarves, self titled the Bashing Brothers, mistake the adventurers that stole all their gold, clothes, and a “priceless family trinket.” The Bashing Brothers were meant to be a cross between WWE wrestlers and the Three Stooges, and they might have occasionally broken into a haka or two as well – with rhymes. It’s hacky of course, but its a scenario I had ran before. It’s good for introducing characters, better for staving off the inevitable post-introduction awkwardness, and it runs decently well within the confines of 1st level Pathfinder characters. In short it’s a light-hearted, open-ended, action adventure opening that reliably breaks the ice between five strangers, as well as giving me useful information on what exactly everyone wants in their campaign. Better yet, it comes with a McGuffin. What’s not to love?

Anyways everything was going well when the host suddenly pulled his character (a rogue) out of the fray to start pilfering the contents behind the bar. This of course was perfectly fine. It’s no bar fight if there aren’t hijinks on the side. But then one thing led to another and before the end of the session, the host had burned down the inn, slit the throats of two of the unconscious Bashing Brothers, and then lastly in no uncertain terms, corralled and then raped the innkeeper in the basement of the inn.1

Does it matter that his character was a human male and that this NPC was a female gnome? No I don’t think so, but perhaps this small detail can provide some insight into just how many layers of weirdness I was dealing with here. Needless to say I wrapped up session as fast as I could,2 thanked everyone for their time, and was never seen again.

Its worth stepping back a moment to survey the hereto neglected members of the party in order to get a full sense of what I mean by “weirdo problem.” First there was the Wiccan couple, which I’ve already described before. Were they weirdos? Sort of, but not really. A problem? Absolutely not.

Afterwards there was an older player that described himself as an old-school RPGer. A weirdo? While incidentally I would go on to have an entirely different kind of horrifying experience with this very same player years later, that story is for another time. At this particular moment he was harmless enough, so no – neither a weirdo nor a problem.

The second to last player was a man that I don’t remember much about, other than that his character was a gnomish wizard. He wanted to utilize the polymorphing rules I house-ruled to cast spells, as a cat, whilst flying. Wierdo/problem? Please. If you can’t play a flying cat wizard then what’s the point of playing RPGs?

And then of course last, but not least, there was the aforementioned host: the very epitome of a rogue character and exhibit A in what I mean by the “weirdo problem.” Which is to say that while there are perhaps different degrees of weirdos to consider, there remains a clear and easily definable line between a player that merely indulges in a quirky hobby and a full-stop sociopath. The weirdo problem has nothing to do with the former and is exclusively concerned about the latter.

Why did I not just get rid of the problem player? Mainly I was just demoralized. Beyond personal crises I was having at the time, there was also a broader context of previous failures, and this one was only the most recent (if not in retrospect the most memorable). Still though even from the perspective of years later, it remains tempting the play the would-of/could-of/should-of game. As far as I could tell this player was the sole weak link in what could have otherwise been a solid campaign. So once again, why did I not just get rid of the problem player?

Other than the problem of time traveling, what scenarios like these bring out is just how intractable the weirdo problem is. The first point is the most obvious, such that some of you may have guessed it already. I literally couldn’t. Not only did I lack the foresight to gather everyone’s contact information independently of the host, but more so, said host was our only ticket for a venue to play in. Aspiring tennis players can easily access courts that cost thousands to maintain, but RPGers struggle to find even a modest table and a private room? There’s much more we could say here to support/debunk this characterization, but to stay on point, let’s shelve this topic, and simply say that a change of location was not on the table.

Ok but what if he wasn’t the host? Yes that is one hypothetical that would have worked in my favor, but what makes the weirdo problem so pernicious is that, generally speaking, there’s more that can go wrong than can go right. Is the problem player the wife/husband/SO of another player? Have you assembled a group from friends/coworkers? Relationships and kinships alone could render any number of theoretical solutions practically impossible. But even if the link can be severed cleanly (or you’ve chosen to bite the bullet), can the group survive it? Groups of 5 perhaps can reliably absorb these blows, but once you get down to the classic 4, you are a single player away from the dreaded 3. Do you have another friend lined up? If not then the fate of your group is tied to the speed of chance encounters on internet forums. This isn’t to say that smaller groups can’t work. Outgoing, proactive players can carry their weight (and more), but inversely, shy and reactive players need to be carried by their vocal counterparts. The question then would be: do you have the kind of players that can weather this decision?

Another point to make here is that while not every RPGer is a total asocial deviant, there are plenty of steps in between to give your groups grief. A weirdo after all is someone (I would contend) that, at the most fundamental level, has some diminished ability to register the social cues of others. And so while this trait can manifest into a notable horror story, it’s just as likely, if not more likely, to produce a player that simply fails to notice how his actions/playstyle are hindering everyone else’s ability to enjoy the game. It’s virtually impossible to gauge what percentage of RPG conversations are about That GuyTM, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s a whole portion of /r/rpg, of some noticeable size, that functions like an emergency hotline for distressed DMs and players.

On this note then, the last thing I want to say is that in my experience, before and since, this group was fairly representative of the average RPG experience. Which isn’t to say that every group is aborted as disastrously as this one, but rather, that when forming a group, roughly 1 out of every 5 players seems to be the kind of weirdo that you have to play defense against, lest they bring down the entire campaign with them. “But my group is great and we have five players.” Yes, but what I’m saying is that what you have is precisely in virtue of beating the odds – not because of. If you are seriously skeptical of this paradigm, by all means, prove me wrong and discard your present group. Change your job, change your city, your school, whatever, and try to start from scratch with four strangers. I cordially invite you to do so. And then do it again.

While I imagine that it’s common sense how RPGs are especially vulnerable to the weirdo problem, still I see tightrope much like the one in the beginning. “Isn’t this a problem with any sort of group activity period?” It’s true that there are bad apples in every bunch. And in this respect, there might actually be some meaningful corollaries to RPGs. Hockey for example is played with roughly the same number of people (1 goalie and 5 players), and presumably a player with an attitude that doesn’t mesh with the others is as problematic on the ice as it is on the tabletop or anywhere else.

Two points to this though: 1) this characterization assumes that it is just as hard to replace players in hockey as it is in RPGs (which I tend to doubt), but more importantly 2) this analogy also assumes that there are just as many asocials in hockey as there are in RPGs. I would hope it’s obvious why this is wrong. Clearly different hobbies attract different kinds of people. And while perhaps each hobby then has its different attendant issues (a jock problem in Hockey perhaps?), we shouldn’t go so far as to say that literally every hobby fares identically. Let’s be honest here. There’s a difference between Pilates vs RPGs. To suggest that both are equally likely to produce horror stories is equally absurd.

I would hope too that no one forgets about the foundation and heritage of RPGs. RPGs were created for nerds, by nerds, and continue to be known for their nerds. There’s nothing wrong with this of course (remember which weirdos we’re talking about), but still it must be a twist of cruel irony that a game that needs socially proficient players to thrive attracts just the opposite type of people.

What then are we to do with the weirdo problem? Where does it come from and how might we “fix” it? It is possible, or even desirable to fix at all? If Let’s Play videos are any indication, this problem may be phasing out on its own, whether we discuss it or not. Still though there is plenty left in Tabletop Syndrome to describe so perhaps there will be another opportunity to return to the weirdo problem regardless – at least for as long as conventions still smell.

1: If you absolutely need context, I don’t know what to tell you. Without a hint of sarcasm, levity, remorse, change of tone, or even a facial expression, the host said to me (I’ll try to remember this word-for-word), “I force her to have sex with me.” I think maybe he was playing a neutral evil character, and this was his idea of how to act that out? Not that that explains or forgives anything. At the time, I was desperately searching for some way to spin this and what I settled on at the time IIRC, is to not take him seriously and move past the scene as fast as possible. Maybe, I figured, something was wrong with my interpretation, and there was some detail, or choice of diction, that was I missing that would suddenly purge all the awkwardness out of this situation. But given the unease of everyone else at the table, it seems that no one else could figure it out either.

2: We played for 4 hours, which apparently was not long enough for the host. He actually chastised me at the very end of the session and suggested that we should normally play 8 hours for each time we meet. A long session once per month? Nope. We were to meet once a week. Just another layer of weirdness for you.


Tabletop Syndrome: First Impressions

What is the single biggest obstacle to entering TRPGs as a new player? Is it the culture? The marketplace? The time/players required? The games themselves? Tabletop syndrome contests that all of these factors play their part. However as an outsider is concerned, the highest barrier to entry might come much sooner – immediately even.

One could make the case that “TRPG” is the single clunkiest descriptor of any hobby, sport, or otherwise leisurely activity. Start with a minor point: the length. Note how most activities only take a few syllables to articulate. Soc-cer. Two syllables. Bas-ket-ball. Three syllables. Horse-back ri-ding. Four syllables. Ta-ble-top role-play-ing game? Coming in at seven syllables, “TRPG” isn’t just a few standard deviations above the mean, it occupies the peak of cumbersome. It’s awkward to pronounce (even when truncated), which in turn may explain why it’s always easier to tell someone that you play D&D – even when you don’t!

If syllable count seems superficial though, there’s the much more direct question of efficacy. How effective is the label? Once again its instructive to look at how every other pastime fares with this issue. If the answer isn’t directly in the name (bird watching, hiking, fishing), then there is at the very least a commonly understood vocabulary that can succinctly describe even the most obscure of endeavors. Never heard of Squash? I can say, “squash is a sport,” and with literally a single word, I can have given you most of the context you need. “Ok so its some sort of competitive outdoor game played with teams. Oh its played indoors and with balls and rackets? Like Tennis sort of?” So on and so forth.

Unfortunately nothing of this sort seems to apply to TRPGs. It’s astounding how literally no word in “TRPG” conveys any helpful information whatsoever. This is worth demonstrating word-by-word.

1) Game – “Game” is about the clearest part of “TRPG,” yet it’s also vague in its own ways. What kind of game are we playing exactly? “Game” of course can never clarify in its own right, yet at the same time, is it even proper to call TRPGs games at all? In the traditional sense of winners and losers? Ironically enough the clearest part of “TRPG” might also be the most misleading, and it could even account for why so many groups often suffer from player mismatches. Which is more to blame, powergamers or false advertising?

2) Roleplaying – “Roleplaying” is the supposed to be the fulcrum of “TRPG.” Rp is meant to clarify what kind of game we’re playing, and so conversely, it is also meant to clarify what kind of game we are not playing. “Roleplaying” however has two flaws.

The first problem is that its mildly embarrassing to say. In virtually any other context, “roleplaying” has either psychiatric or sexual connotations, meaning that you’ll be stumbling over more than just the acronym when explaining to your grandmother what exactly roleplaying on the tabletop means.

The main flaw of “roleplaying” however is that it is too vague. Or more precisely, that there is no one mutually held definition of what roleplaying is. Saying, “its what my character would do” for example technically conforms to a coherent definition of what roleplaying is, but in reality, this idiom is rightly infamous for shattering any other existing criteria of sensible and decent gaming. For these reasons and more, it is no understatement to say that as the promised savior of TRPGs, roleplaying occupies a place at the very nexus of Tabletop Syndrome.

3) Tabletop – While “roleplaying” and “game” each do damage in their own ways, “tabletop” is without a doubt the primary source of the whole title’s clunkiness. It’s not a tongue twister per say, but it doesn’t roll gently off of said tongue either. Why bother mentioning what surface area the game takes place on? Do we call tennis “asphalt court game?” or chess “square board strategy?” Is hiking “earth walking?” Perhaps the promise of “tabletop” was to cue outsiders into the format of the game (both card games and video games succeed well on this front). Unfortunately however, “tabletop” simply does not meet this mark.

Given then how literally no part of “TRPG” works in its favor, it’s no wonder then that TRPGs have had to be transmitted like they’re viruses. Virtually every TRPGers first game seems to involve 1) a friend or family member, 2) a soft kidnapping, and 3) a “trust me this is fun” moment. While these make for great first-time stories, it’s also understandable how this quirk of the hobby might have given it problems in the past. “There’s this new game out called Dungeons & Dragons, except no one can describe how it’s a game? And they’re “pretending” to worship heathen gods, and they’re trying to induct new players from my child’s summer camp?”

The Satanic Panic is of course long over. More so, as nerd culture continues to percolate into mainstream media, TRPGs have gotten crucial snippets of exposure. These moments usually don’t amount to anything more than small cameos, and frankly these cameos are usually jokes, but at least the jokes are loving – if not repetitive. So most critically, TRPGs will never be dangerous again. Still however the original problem remains. Even among increasingly receptive outsiders, how does one effectively communicate what a TRPG is?

The irony here is not lost on me. In criticizing how woefully inadequate the linguistics are, I am in the meantime complicit in the problem itself. I would gladly take a better alternative, but the question is do any alternatives exist?

TRPGs are sometimes also referred to as pen-and-paper RPGs, but for reasons that should be obvious, this name is not much better and should be appropriately be cast into the fires. The other obvious alternative would be the one that I have been holding off on for a while a now. Why not just cut the “T” off of “TRPGs?” Doing this would not only remove the most cumbersome word, by my own logic, but one could even go further by simply pronouncing RPG as the acronym-word that it has more or less evolved into. Hardly anyone uses the long form anymore, and further, plenty of people already use RPG as a synonym for TRPGs, so why not make this same jump?

While admittedly RPG solves the syllable problem, it also creates some of its own problems in the process. First the obvious point: no acronym is ever outsider friendly. But also outside the context of community, RPG is susceptible to misunderstandings. “I play RPGs.” “Oh you mean like Mass Effect right?” Sadly, this is a sentence that one can utter.1 The meaning of RPG in other words has been hijacked to some degree, and so should RPG should really be our go-to description?

The primary problem with RPG however are the ones that we’ve already described – i.e that neither “roleplaying” nor “game” are particularly good descriptors of what is happening at the table. In truth, if it was possible to attract a kind of player that corresponded to the kind of title crafted, I would much rather call roleplaying games something like “cooperative hangout adventure” or “collaborative improv game.” Obviously however one would hope for something more, not less, succinct.

My own attempts at this problem would be to call RPGs either “Social Games” or “Role Games.” The former would emphasize (or hope for) the social aspect that is required to play the game well, while the later would be a verbal pun that highlights both the rolling and the playing roles. I will admit however that I don’t like these alternatives either. Both “social” and “role” have the same problem of vagueness, and neither title is frankly either evocative or catchy. This is admittedly a hard problem. I suspect that if there were an unequivocally better alternative, we would already be using it.

So is this it then? Is TRPG the best we’ve got? I want to leave this question genuinely open; though also I suspect that we’re probably stuck with what we got. In my own estimation any that pursues this endeavor has to ask the attendant question: is it possible to rename the wheel this late in the game?

1: Don’t get me wrong I like Mass Effect, but since when did playing a character with regimented abilities that gets progressively stronger count as a roleplaying game? I suspect that saying this will not be very popular, and that I’ll have to say more about this later.