RPG Geekery

I did tabletop RPGs as my hobby when I was a teenager, and when I went off to college and discovered just how many girls there were, I sort of lost interest in things like Dungeons and Dragons.

But a few months ago, I let myself get talked into running a tabletop RPG, by a woman I work with and her husband. They’d always been curious why their kids thought RPGs were so much fun. The Wife said she was interested, and took it upon herself to recruit another couple. My co-worker and her husband are closer to my parents’s age than my own, the other couple is about the same age as The Wife and I.

So the next thing you know, I’m designing a whole world, with different political factions, trying to work through in my mind what its economy would be like, building a back story worthy of George R.R. Martin, and doing my best to reconstruct rules from five different RPGs from memory. Commenters here were helpful in steering me to different places for ideas which I could borrow, and I set to writing.

Now about that back story. I’ve sunk a ton of thought and creativity into it, writing up scrolls and tomes with lots of information for them to read. I’m trying to visualize what things look like so I can describe the world they’re wandering around in, to script up interesting NPCs for them to interact with, and all the rest. From a writing perspective, creating a campaign like this is quite a different sort of animal than, say, writing a story. What I’ve done is tried to set up various centers of power, all of which are about equal in strength and with different sorts of objectives, and each of which has an argument to make about why their respective objectives are for the greater good. I’ll let my players navigate between them and what they do will shift power from one to another. The fate of the kingdom rests in their hands! If I’d have been writing a novel, it would be a little bit different; I could set up one faction as the bad guys and one as the good guys and set up the protagonists’ motivations to build up power in the good guys so eventually there is a big battle and the good guys win.

But for an RPG, there are no good guys, there are no bad guys, at least from my perspective. I do not control the protagonists at all. Instead, I have to let go of what the protagonists of the story are going to do, and be prepared to react to whatever they independently decide. And the thing is, I’ve got five protagonists, at least three of whom could give a damn about pretty much any of the trappings and history of the world I’ve created and will no doubt never bother themselves to investigate, much less make sense of, what’s going on politically in this fantasy world I’ve drafted for them to explore. None of them seem particularly interested in being heroes, solving puzzles, or even playing roles. Hacking and slashing seems to be just fine for them. They’re looking for the first-person shooter of newbie RPG’s.

This is a little disappointing to realize. Compared to my new hobby, cooking, it’s like making a roast for dinner and finding out that your guests are vegetarians. You still want to please them, but the big tasty dish you’ve prepared is pretty much of a waste. But, I agreed to run the thing and it’s my job to find something that will please them to do, so hacking and slashing will be heavy on the agenda.

They’re also not particularly visual thinkers. At least, they had a hard time visualizing where everything is and what it was. I’m not going to script in any complex dungeon crawls; there’s no way any of them are going to sit down with some graph paper and fill in twisty passages carved out of a mountainside. So against the advice of some commenters, I’m going to use visual aids to show them where things are.

To that end, The Wife and I met up with the other couple tonight for dinner and afterwards walked down the street to the local comic book shop and gaming center. The Wife went home so she was spared the experience of seeing RPG geeks in all their glory. But my friends had not seen dozens of people hunched over folding tables, pushing around painted figurines, laughing and joking about casting magic spells, and then rolling dice with the serious intensity of a craps player looking to recover big losses and once again be able to pay the mortgage. And when you’re playing an RPG, you’re not conscious of that pose of really bad posture, or of how the intensity of the experience and the close proximity to other people produces a certain degree of sweat and a resulting funk. (Or maybe the comic book shop just had poor ventilation.) There’s a look to an RPG in progress and it isn’t always pretty.

I took a few moments to check in to the comic books, too. You can’t read them anymore — like porn, they’re sold in sealed plastic bags and I presume that if you open the bags the value gets cut in half instantly. So are people buying them to read or to collect and resell? After I got over the strangeness of the Hulk being red instead of green and seeing Hal Jordan fighting alongside instead of against Sinestro, I was taken aback a bit by the Wizard of Oz spinoff comic book that showed Dorothy on its cover holding a six-shooter, sporting a Stetson hat and assless leather chaps over a shapley booty, and arching her back to prominently display a rack worthy of a porn star. I’m guessing she puts a few caps in the Wicked Witch of the West’s ass before finishing off the job with a pot of rainwater. Ruby slippers and adorable companion dog, nowhere in sight. Utterly surreal.

Nor had they seen the cultural driftwood of decades of RPGs accumulated in one place before. It was a bit overwhelming. Big posters of characters from Magic: The Gathering up on the walls and schedules announcing when the next match would take place, and sign-in sheet for teams and leagues to form. Seemingly dozens of hardbound books for Warhammer, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and other simialr tabletop RPGs on display — and on offer for shockingly high prices. “That’s a lot of brainpower going in to knowing all those rules,” my friend told me. I told her, “Yeah, but it’s a hobby like anything else — people get into it and the burden of learning this stuff doesn’t seem to heavy because it’s fun to do.” Which is true enough, of course, but it must have been a bit overwhelming for my friend to be dropped into that world, completely cold.

My mission was unsuccessful, though. Those little lead figurines are fishing expensive! Three unpainted lead dwarf warriors: $23.99. Tiny but detailed monsters of common enough varieties, twelve to fifteen dollars a piece. Are you frakkin’ kidding me? And there are three competing brands of these things on offer. All sorts of stuff, and it’s cool looking (you know, in a geeky, RPG-ish sort of cool) with trebuchets and elven archers and tree-people and stuff, but holy crap! I could drop hundreds of dollars on miniatures, and hundreds of dollars more on books, and devote tens if not hundreds of hours poring over rulebooks — which, come to think of it, I did when I was a kid.

But the best reaction was when we found a collection of Beholders. Anyone who’s played Dungeons and Dragons for any significant amount of time has come across the Beholder. It’s the most improbable, silly concept for a boss monster ever — a big globe of flesh, roughly the size of a full-grown turkey, that levitates through the air by powerful magic and eats player-characters and their hirelings like so many roasted almonds. It has a huge cyclops eye and an even more ginormous maw of a mouth full of buzzsaw teeth, and in place of hair on top of the globe there are about half a dozen tendrils which each end in more eyes. So four different injection-molded plastic figurines of Beholders were for sale, lovingly painted each in a different color, on offer for what I think was in the neighborhood of forty dollars. Note to gamemasters out there: if you have need of four Beholders attacking at once to provide a sufficient challenge your players, it’s time to reboot and start a new campaign because they’re too damn powerful.

Which is all to say that the RPG culture on display at the comic book store is, apparently, still imprinted on me more than twenty years since I was last really into it. So where was I in my story? Oh, yeah. I’m not going to spend two hundred dollars on lead figurines. I’ll be pirating pawns and other pieces from regular board games, and the players can use their imaginations instead: Colonel Mustard and Miss Peacock can be stand-ins for the PCs and Stratego Scouts can be the Orcs. I’ll just rough out top-down sketches of the area on blank paper as needed, and leave it at that, so they can understand why after they roll a 1 on a to hit roll firing a longbow into a melee, the result is one of them shooting their friend instead of the monsters.

They’ll hack and slash at the baddies and play “Go fetch the dingus.” But what I long for is a way I can interest my players in the story.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Lead is dead. Go for plastic or Cardboard.

    The D&D pre-painted miniatures can be got for cheap on the secondary market. There’s always that one guy with way to much time and money that bought a hundred of those randomized packs to get the ultra-rare shadow dragon and now has more skeletons and orcs than he knows what to do with. You can buy those commons and uncommons for pretty cheap.

    Alternately, there are a few different companies making cardboard tokens or plastic disks with pictures of monsters printed on. I’ve got a set from Fiery Dragon Press that would serve me well if it wasn’t easier to just steal the D&D minis my boyfriend’s brother keeps.

  2. Man, whenever I play with miniatures, it’s like:
    What have we got? Ok, so the lizardman represents Chris’s paladin, and the d8 is Bob’s druid. And the coffee cup is the dragon.

    • You’re drinking coffee while you play? The way I see it, your choices are Mountain Dew or bourbon whiskey. (Bearing in mind that the one is not a suitable mixer for the other.)

  3. But what I long for is a way I can interest my players in the story.

    This is something we’ve all wrestled with. I think that this all comes down to character creation and the first session. How do the characters know each other? Why are they all in the same party? If the characters cannot answer why this fighter and that cleric are eating at the same firepit, your next session’s emphasis might want to be on why everybody cares about each other.

    If, however, you’ve already established why they all hang and adventure together, a simple trope that might come in handy is the Arch-Nemesis. Maybe not one for every player but definitely one for the “alpha” of the group (and give him a sidekick that gets under the skin of the omega of the group (assuming you have one)).

    If the alpha of the group is a Fighter, have a Magic-User/Thief show him up (“brains and subtlety will always defeat brute strength!”), if the alpha is a Magic-User/Thief, have a fighter do it (“Flim-flammery and sleight of hand will fall every time to a knock on the noggin!”).

    Giving them a world to fit into may be too big a bite. Give them a person to hate and move from there.

    • A few alternatives:
      1) Have the guy they work for be the antagonist. Use things that they’ll want to do (Like sell goodies to get Shiny Weapons) to start to hint towards that.

      2) Don’t be afraid to use random encounters to start towards story ideas. Particularly if these kids are big enough to be “country-changing” material…

      3) Have a ringer. Take a character yourself. BE the person who is the inside man. Take these tourists someplace new. (This is Standard Storytelling for Science Fiction — always have someone lost (PIs work wonders!), so that the reader can learn what the hell is going on!).

      4) Stories don’t have to be Martin’s level. Don’t be afraid to have small puzzles (why are the kobolds carrying well-crafted weapons? Who’s supplying them?)

      5) Write a couple of stories you CAN hack and slash to a solution. Maybe the puzzle is more about choosing which way to go, which battles to fight and which to sneak past. (for the aforementioned kobolds-got-gear puzzle… maybe when questioned they just say “Great Helga Provides!” — and point back towards “military stronghold” over which Helga presides. obviously being tiny critters, and relatively weak, they’re going to have the place reinforced nineways to sunday with traps, barricades, etc.).

  4. 1) One word: Toon. It’s a fun easy game that you can start out small and work up from, the character types are all familiar, and characters don’t die (they just Fall Down — a lot). Plus, rolling a 1 in a Toon is bound to be hilarious. For my first Toon game, I put all the players in a ring around the Valley of the Sheep. The “goal” was to try and get as many sheep back to your ranch as possible (taking them from the valley or other players), dodging cars and trains that came at random intervals.

    It didn’t take long for the players to not worry about the goal as much as interacting with each other.

    2) “Dorothy” doesn’t have ruby slippers, but if you look at the last picture on that page, she has ruby spurs, bullets and a ruby-handled revolver. But no “little dog Too” anywhere.

    • 3) I look at what “Big Dog Ink” has to offer and I think “We sacrificed Critters and Pirhanna Press and Boz Chronicles to the Comics Glut for THIS!!!!!!” Blergh.

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