Author Archives: Michael Epstein

Catching Comets

Our breathless sky cries out to no avail,
Then sheds a lonely, sad yet hopeful tear
Whose fleeting, silent-screaming dusty tail
Draws whispered wishes that return each year.
But aims of flight to long-sought stars soft-seen
Are blind men’s visions brought by fever dreams:
To dance among those heaven-favored worlds pristine
We pinched the earth with corsets of steel beams,
We struck the crust to frack out poisoned soil,
We swallowed smoke and frothed our bloody seas;
To catch that tear to fill our tanks with oil
From far-off worlds, we beg on bleeding knees.
   As falling stars give way to smoky dawn
   Our hope to leave and start again lives on.

 

Written 8/28/15

Slaanesh and Athena

Lost souls of friends live on within our heads,
No feeling left, just dreams we lock away.
And us? We’re puppets dancing, hope and dread,
While songs of bloodshed drag us on each day.
You hum your hymns of battle, tense and hot;
I feed on feast’s-end groans and lovers’ moans
Amidst the crumbling titans you have wrought
In axioms of anarchy unknown.
There’s no need now to purge your thoughts of lust,
Or loathe the love that else might make us real.
Your effervescent, searing sign of trust
Turned malcontented mark of what you feel.
    Our masks reveal our need to be divine,
    But with hope lost, the world mocks our design.

 

Written 4/13/15, submitted as a fan sonnet to the Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader Choose Your Own Adventure thread on the SomethingAwful forums. Published as part of the thread 6/19/15.

Consume

“Consume, consume!” the word oft heard,
A glowing essence of a world
That marks the land with sparking coils,
And drills the crust for oozing oil,
With plumes of smoke like banners twirled.

Into our fires we are hurled,
Among the oak and birchwood burls,
We hum the tune of our war cry,
“Consume, consume!”

Take off your gloves, cast down your pearls,
The golden bands that grace your curls!
Lift your eyes towards dark’ning skies
And take our standard, hold it high!
Burn up that word you oft unfurled,
“Consume, consume!”

 

Written 3/18/15

The Millenials

On bloody knees these children race
And scrub the floors to clear the place
With moans and cries that strip the air
Of cruel sins left by elders there
Who mock the ones that lack their ace.

This much-maligned and perfumed face
That snaps itself in grim disgrace,
Will beg for work from anywhere
On bloody knees.

The ones to blame laugh at our case,
Their crimes against us like a brace,
Which keeps us back away from where
Their ‘promised land’ now lacks an heir.
We skid and land without a base
On bloody knees.

 

 

Written 6/23/15

BU Day of the Devs and “Tattoo!”

I will be demoing the newest prototype of Tattoo! at the Boston University “Day of the Devs” one-day convention on Sunday March 29th from noon to 7 PM, and look forward to seeing friendly faces there. I will also be demoing the game at Northeastern’s Game Demo Day on Thursday April 23rd from 5 to 10 PM.

Tattoo! also made it into the event’s trailer!

The Dungeons & Dragons PHB 5e: An Analysis of Message and Meaning

The following is a “lab report” from my ENGL 3340: Technologies of Text class at Northeastern University, discussing the message of the medium of, naturally, a role-playing source book. It originally appeared at ryancordell.org as a blog post assignment on September 10th, 2014, and is being reposted here for posterity. I had not actually read through the PHB 5e at this point, and the following is based on a quick flip through the pages and examination of the cover art, so as to give my perceptions on the product as someone who may be picking up the book out of curiosity in a store.
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Note: I am going to assume that the person picking this book up knows that it is a game reference and not a novel, simply because it would be found in a hobby gaming store, in the tabletop games section of a large bookstore, or in “Toys & Games” on Amazon or in other similar online stores.


The History

On January 10th, 2012, game company Wizards of the Coast announced that it was developing a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Following the 4th edition rules release in 2008 which caused quite a schism within the community, and and with many players switching from D&D to other systems like the Pathfinder RPG (Paizo Publishing, LLC), Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions) and more for their fantasy role-playing “fix”, Wizards of the Coast needed to make a statement: that D&D is here to stay, and is still the king of the business that it started back in the 1980’s. A lofty task indeed, as it is projected that Pathfinder sales had edged out D&D from that top spot years ago (though hard industry sales data is scarce and closely held).

While the Starter Set and Basic Rules were released in August 2014, most prior fans felt the edition wasn’t truly released until the first of the three classic, “Core” volumes was released in September 2014: the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, or as it is affectionately referred to, the PHB 5e. What follows is an analysis of the PHB 5e‘s bibliographic message, based on the front cover’s illustration and text, the physical quality of the item, and a brief glance at the visual content. These are elements that someone picking up this book in a store would be likely to notice and comment on, and thus it is through these elements that the product’s message must be immediately conveyed to ensure the customer’s parting with their $49.95.

PHB 5e CoverThe Cover

As the first face of the system that D&D players will likely see when they’re at their friendly local gaming store or bookstore, the PHB has an important, threefold job to do:

  1. Entice new players to pick it up off the shelf in a bookstore and start learning about tabletop role-playing games.
  2. Convince players of other editions that 5th Edition D&D is an exciting, positive addition to the Dungeons & Dragons franchise.
  3. Convince purchasers of this volume that they should also purchase other products for this new edition of Dungeons & Dragons

As a member of the role-playing community (both player and occasional designer of RPGs), I would argue that the first piece is far more important than the second or third (more on that at some other time; short version of the argument is that grognards are set in their ways, and if they already have a favorite edition, there’s no point trying to cater to them as a major market). Thus, the cover needs to convince a new player that D&D is an exciting hobby worth purchasing.

As mentioned before, this is not a cheap book. $49.95 is a high price to pay for a game experience (especially given that the “Core Rule Set” for a D&D edition is three books; the PHB, Monster Manual (MM), and Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) are all recommended for a full play experience). Despite industry precedents of high prices for hardback RPG tomes, fifty dollars is quite sizable. The D&D PHB 4e would only set a buyer back $34.95, and while Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook is suggested at $49.99, you don’t have to buy three books at that price; only two (the Core Rulebook and the $39.99 Bestiary). This can prove to subtract from the message of Dungeons & Dragons as being an accessible game, especially for new players unfamiliar with the actual usage of this book.

As for the actual cover imagery, the book depicts a battle scene between a swordsman and spellcaster of some sort engaged in battle with an iconic D&D monster, a massive Giant (named “King Snurre”, according to an explanation on the Credits page). (The Starter Set got the dragon, in case you’re wondering why the core book of Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have the titular scaled beast adorning it). The scene is far more dynamic than the previous edition’s cover, and prominently features the spellcaster actually engaging in an activity that adventurers in D&D participate in often: fighting monsters using magic. 4e’s PHB only featured two characters posed as if for battle, but didn’t have any indication of what they would actually be fighting or doing with their swords and spells on the cover. The dynamic illustration gives a strong message of players of the game taking daring feats such as leaping headlong into the path of a rampaging giant. It almost begs the question, “Which person interested in the fantasy genre wouldn’t find that cool?”

The subtext at the bottom of the front cover reaffirms the message being sent by Wizards of the Coast of D&D‘s important place in the industry with a bold claim: “Everything a player needs to create heroic characters for the world’s greatest roleplaying game.” As the game is nearing what I view as a do-or-die period in history, this short line of text can calm and remind players of their own positive experiences with the brand.

The cover serves to illustrate that D&D 5e, and more specifically the Player’s Handbook 5e allows one to, as the back states, “Arm yourself for adventure.” The tools a would-be tabletop game adventurer needs are implied to all be contained within the book’s pages, and the image shows that these adventures will be glorious, exciting, and worth playing– all important pieces of enticing a new player to buy the game, or convince an existing player to switch editions.

The Bottom of the PHB 5eThe Physical Quality

As a roleplaying game reference, this book is likely to see a lot of abuse. Many a book has succumbed to spilled soda or had its pages smeared with the cheese of a thousand crushed corn chips, and as one of the leading companies in the business of tabletop games, (between both their D&D franchise and the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering), Wizards of the Coast knows this reality well. This is reflected in the print quality of the Player’s Handbook 5e itself. Though some customers have noted flaws in this first print run of PHBs, my copy seems solidly constructed, with a sturdy, glued binding, strong corners, and a thick, tough cover. The hardback spine looks like it could stand up to years of opening and closing without issue– an important feature for a reference book. The pages of the PHB are a good weight with a slightly glossy feeling and no transparency, and the ink is distinct on the page. This high-quality print job, while not unexpected in a $50 book, suggests that Wizards of the Coast’s products are meant to be handled for a long time to come.

Found in the Fighter section

Found in the Fighter section

The Visual Content

Unlike most video games, tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons do not feature graphics to let players visualize the scenarios characters are in. Most of the game takes place in the “theater of the mind” as spurred by verbal descriptions of characters, settings, and conflicts. Thus, each player’s “vision” of what is happening in the game may be slightly different from the rest of their group around the table. Because of this reliance on the players’ imaginations, Wizards of the Coast put plenty of inspiring content into the PHB 5e. While the original Dungeons & Dragons featured black and white art, the art contained in the 5th edition book is full-color and, in my opinion, absolutely gorgeous.

Rather than take one set style throughout the book of what characters in a D&D game might look like, there are several styles of art featured, depicting characters (even ones of the same race/class combination) from a multitude of perspectives. The game tries more than any other edition I’ve seen to appeal to everyone who may be playing it, irregardless of gender, ethnicity, interests, and more. After a quick flip-through of the book, I’ve noticed several improvements that will help D&D 5e’s core book appeal to a wide audience, especially of new gamers.

The book also features many improvements over past editions that help it drive its message of being the best RPG on the market today home. While many of these may be seen as simply artistic choices or points of clarification of little consequence, in reality several offer a glimpse into the social and societal impacts of the game.

0909142053b

  • Each class of character (a class being the fundamental concept of what a character is, such as Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard) features several options of what a character of that class might look like. For example, rather than just featuring the smirk-and-a-dagger gnome Bard “Gimble” from the PHB 3.5 (pictured below), the PHB 5e features three varied members of the Bard class: a female elf minstrel with lute and flowing coat; a male halfling performer tightrope-walking from building to building above a bustling marketplace; and a human scoundrel with numerous piercings examining an inscription on a vine-covered wall in a lost ruin. This diversity serves not only to include more peoples’ imagined image of what a Bard can be, but also provide inspiration for character concepts among new and veteran players alike.
  • There are a wide variety of cultures represented, from the Persian-armored, dark skinned Fighter, to the Soldier archetype in the Backgrounds chapter clad in traditionally-styled samurai armor.
  • [Mostly] gone is the “bikini mail” armor of past source books’ female character examples. While the armor still is mostly stylized and far from realistic (bare midriffs are still a thing that crops up occasionally, sadly), women’s armor as depicted is now almost as functional-looking as that of the men. This is important to the inclusive message of D&D, as in the past, sexist views of female characters in fantasy had abounded (I don’t even want to think about Mialee’s armor in the PHB 3.5…), and set D&D apart as a “boys’ game,” despite the fact that many girls play as well. This levels the playing field between players of different genders who may be looking to get into the hobby, and are looking for exemplary images of what they want their characters to be.
  • The game is no longer as “whitewashed” as it had been in the past. The iconic Human in the Races chapter (race being used to describe different species of humanoids in D&D such as Elf, Human and Dwarf), is a female person of color, for example. This is HUGE for the gaming community, as in D&D 3.5, for instance, the only non-white character represented as “iconic” was Ember, the Human Monk (1/11). In 5th Edition, there’s at least three non-white characters in the Class section: the Fighter, Warlock, and Wizard are all clearly non-white. 3/12 is not bad for a start, especially when the traditional “Shining Knight” class (the Paladin) is played by a gray half-orc in this book.

I fully support diversity in the gaming community, and feel that it’s good Wizards of the Coast finally is supporting it as well through their artistic choices. When someone can look through a book and find a picture that closely resembles them, or even someone they know, they are more likely to feel a connection to the product, and more inclined to feel good about playing the game, in this case. These elements all help the D&D Player’s Handbook 5e succeed in spreading a message about inclusion, fun, and cooperation; after all, if a human, a dwarf and an elf can work together to save the world, so can we as gamers!

In Conclusion

Overall, the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook delivers a compelling message of the fun that awaits any who take the time to purchase and read through it. By displaying a dynamic and exciting first impression of the hobby on its cover, and then delivering images of diverse heroes that will be interesting to a wide audience early and often, it is likely to get players energized about Dungeons & Dragons, and to tell their friends about the book as well. Further, the book’s impressive quality and size assure that it will be a staple at role-players’ tables for years of gaming to come.

 

Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant steading, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, “Are you really sure?”
-Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 5e

Role-Playing Games and Collaborative Storytelling in the Age of the Internet

This is the final project, an “Un-Essay,” for my Fall 2014 ENGL 3340: Technologies of Text course at Northeastern University. taught by Ryan Cordell. The class focused on understanding the intersections between technology, media studies, literature, and more as pertaining to the history (and future) of the written word. My ultimate intent for this piece is to lengthen it into something of a “manifesto” on role-playing games and storytelling in the future, but as the class was not focused on RPGs as such, I am limiting the scope for now.
What follows are my own beliefs and opinions on the topics of role-playing games, the purpose of rules and systems in collaborative storytelling, and some interesting developments in that field. These views do not represent those of Northeastern University, Ryan Cordell, or any individuals or institutions mentioned herein.

On RPGs and Rules

As those around me are quite well aware, I am a fan of tabletop role-playing games. I define these as games wherein a group of friends gather around a table with the goal of telling a collaborative story featuring themselves as the stars in a safe and fun setting. Role-playing games (abbreviated as RPGs) offer a chance to become someone else for a few hours, to adventure or problem solve in a variety of genres and scenarios that real life may not accommodate normally. Whether this means taking on a new occupation, a new class or gender, or even a new species in a new world, the RPG experience is one about telling stories of great achievements in a world shared among friends.

RPG Dice

Typical RPG Polyhedral Dice

Whether they are taking down corrupt mega-corporations with cyberpunk tech and magic in Shadowrun, delving for riches and power in Dungeons & Dragons, or taming the dangerous wilderness from a rodent’s-eye view in Mouse Guard, the players take on character roles not their own in doing so. To facilitate each character having similar narrative control over the story, role-playing games use systems that describe not only how to make characters that fit the setting, but how to use characters’ strengths and abilities to drive the action forward. Though many RPG systems use dice, cards, or some other method to determine an element of randomness in the game’s world, that is not required. In fact, all that players need to make an RPG experience fun is a desire to do cool things worth talking about with their friends, and an environment where they can do so.

As a gamer and game designer, reader and writer, I feel that the benefits of role-playing games should be highly valued. They provide a safe space for creative problem solving, they improve empathetic thinking patterns, and they allow players to experience different worlds. Players can act out in ways that modern society typically does not allow for, either due to social mores, or the fact that there is no way to cast a Fireball spell using magic at present. However, when a new player typically is introduced to the hobby, the experience is often tarnished by frustration with pages of meaningless numbers, obscure or arcane references and in-jokes among the community, and an aura of ostracism and strangeness that has lingered since the first opponents of the hobby started damning it as a tool of the devil (which it is not). RPG systems are thus often facing an identity crisis: evolve, simplify, or die.

While evolving and simplifying may seem to be a natural progression for a game or hobby, in RPGs there has always been some level of distrust when that occurs. Despite Dungeons & Dragons currently being in its 5th Edition (though there were half-editions, the “0th-edition” and many other spinoffs since its inception as a product of the tabletop wargame Chainmail), there are still people playing older editions… and defending them against all interlopers. The D&D “Edition Wars” still rage on to this day, as gamers cling to THAC0 and mile-long skill lists, miniature battle grid mats and “treasure-as-experience.” Because of this, Wizards of the Coast even announced 2014’s D&D 5e as having the intent of “reuniting the tribe,” while also bringing new players in via simpler rules and more modern storytelling mechanics. That said, despite the new edition’s early success thus far, the D&D community is just as fractured as it was before the announcement of 5e, and this could easily result in more players being dissuaded from pursuing the hobby. Just imagine going into a store that sells RPG products and finding people bickering over which edition is the best, and why all other editions are bad. I don’t know about you, but if that were how I was being introduced to the hobby, I would likely not take to it without hesitation. Instead, I would rather the people in a FLGS (friendly local gaming store) tell me what fun stories they’ve had with RPGs, and how to role-play, and who some notable authors and designers in the field might be. “Get people excited about the stories theu can tell, and how the mechanics help tell these tales,” is my go-to attitude towards introducing new players to RPGs, because that’s the only way the hobby will survive beyond this generation.

Though advances have been made in more accessible and simple RPG design, the idea of abstraction of mechanics from story remains in the most popular systems. What this refers to is the development of rules by the game’s designers that affect the flow or outcome of the story. Consider the following example to see what I mean:

In the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition RPG system, to climb a stone wall, a player would need to roll an Athletics Skill “check” (the result of a twenty-sided die roll, plus their character’s Strength ability score modifier, plus a character’s level-dependent Proficiency Bonus if they are Proficient in Athletics). If the check exceeds the Difficulty Class (DC) of the challenge before them, (in this case, the Climbing DC of the wall, as set by the game or the rules arbitrater), they succeed and scale the wall! If the result of their Athletics check is too low, they fail to climb the wall.

Simple, right? However, there are also many systems which eschew this granular view of mechanizing rules and their means of determining success or failure. Certain story-focused systems state that if there is no meaningful consequence for failure, a character can automatically succeed at most tasks. What this means in the above example is that if there’s no one standing guard at the top of the wall listening for the player falling on a failed Athletics check, or if the character isn’t trying to escape something at the bottom of the wall, or there is no other similar threat to their being able to climb the wall, then they automatically succeed in ascending. This prevents time wasted at the table rolling dice, and speeds the narrative along so players can find out what happens next. After all, the game system should be there for two reasons: to inspire players to tell fun stories, and to facilitate the story being told in a fair and meaningful manner. Everything else is just tertiary padding, and often gets in the way of fun.

On the 0th Rule of RPGs:

There is an old idea in RPGs dating back to the days of 0e D&D (the one pioneered by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson) that has become known in some circles as the 0th Rule. The 0th Rule lauds this idea of fun above all else, even adherence to the rest of the rules. Tom Moldvay stated it well in the Foreword to his Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook in 1977:

“No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.”

Tom Moldvay's

Tom Moldvay’s “Basic Dungeons & Dragons”

Moldvay continued on to say that rules changes should always go through the rules arbiter (often referred to as a Game Master (GM), or in D&D, the Dungeon Master (DM), who serves as the laws of physics and plays as everyone else in the world the rest of the players are exploring), but it effectively remains true in all but the most strict “play by the rules-as-written only” groups: the rules are more like guidelines. They are there first and foremost to show how to have fun playing the game and telling the story. Secondly, they are there to keep the play balanced. After all, if one player has the means to wipe all life off a planet in a breath while another can barely swing a sword, it’s not fun for every player at the table.

Because of its reliance on a Dungeon Master or Game Master’s interpreting the rules or vetoing changes, though, the 0th Rule is also often stated more bluntly as, “The GM’s rule is final.” I take issue with this interpretation, though, as it often puts GMs in a perceived position of power over the other players, when in reality they are telling the same story as the rest of their group. They may have a different set of moves they can make, but they are still a player who is discovering the story alongside their friends. While it’s always necessary to eventually decide just how much damage a particular effect does, for example, I feel that the most important deciding factor of that should be, above all, “Does it make the story more interesting, or create a fun situation for the players?” If it doesn’t make the story more interesting, (say, by stymieing the players’ attempts to reach a goal without reason), or more fun (by denying players a chance to do cool things worth talking about), then a rule or ruling has failed.

On Crowdsourcing of RPGs

One of the easiest ways to make tabletop RPGs accessible to a wider audience of new players is to hide the mechanics from most players entirely. This can be done by having the GM make all the rolls and rulings necessary, then telling the results to another player in response to their actions. This is, in effect, how a video game functions: players provide input in the form of button presses, and the GM (in this case, the game) spits out the results on screen after the input has been processed by the rules and scenario. While it removes mechanical agency from the player and makes them more of a “suggester” than a “player,” (not to mention taking away the fun of rolling dice, which feeds into a feeling of controlling one’s own fate), the benefit is that anyone then can add to the story without needing to know all the mechanics going on behind the scenes.

That said, one player still needs to know the rules in this scenario: the GM. They become a machine that processes not only the players’ actions, but also the actions of those responding to the players in-game. This, in turn, leads to an immense amount of strain on the GM in larger games with more complex rules, or when dealing with multiple players. This reliance on a skilled GM who can keep all roles and rolls straight makes this format of play extremely difficult to pull off, though in certain instances it can work in short term scenarios (such as in “amnesiac” situations in-game, when a character may not be aware of their own talents or abilities).

One strange multimodal method of communicating story to players based on their input was the Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) experiment of 2014. While Pokémon is classified as an RPG, it differs from tabletop RPGs in that it is not telling a story of a group of friends around a table in one shared adventure, but rather there is one player telling their story of an adventure through the game’s mechanics and visual/auditory aspects. As such, it is more of a solitary experience while tabletop RPGs are communal. That said, TPP illustrates a hybridization of the traditional tabletop RPG experience and the above system of suggestions to a GM combined with a video game, and its creation of a community.

TPP Animated Gif

Twitch Plays Pokémon

In TPP, the video game streaming site Twitch.tv hosted a chat box that players could write commands into, which were translated into button presses, and finally fed into the game as user input. The result was, to say the least, chaotic. A few days in there was a feature added where players could vote for “Democracy” or “Anarchy,” where being in the first state (as viewed on a sliding scale) would tally the commands every few seconds before acting out the most popular button press, while in the second state the game would continue processing every command without gauging which was the best (or at least most popular) option.

Helix Fossil Fan Art

Helix Fossil Fan Art

The results of this experiment in crowdsourcing an RPG experience were fascinating. In 16 days, 9 hours, 55 minutes, and 4 seconds, the collective of TPP beat Pokémon Red. Whole movements had formed around Anarchy, Democracy, and the Helix Fossil item; memes were produced, comic artists poked fun at it for weeks, and the video game community at large enjoyed a good laugh. Though it was inefficient, and the “story” itself was strange in its final narrative (walking into walls repeatedly for hours is great, right?), there was no doubt that they had accomplished something and told a story. Sure the story’s been told over and over again since Pokémon Red’s release in 1996. As the game’s code did not change in the subsequent 18 years leading up to TPP, the only thing to change was the way of playing the game. The medium of Twitch subverted and changed the nature of playing Pokémon in the experiment.

Making the story of one character a group activity was a novel thing for this single-player video game. Crowdsourcing control is an interesting extension of the connectedness of the internet, however, there are other games where this has been attempted before offline. A fun introductory RPG called Everyone Is John (2002) takes the idea of TPP and puts competitive tabletop role-playing mechanics into the hands of the players, rather than just taking their suggestions and throwing them against a computer’s rules. The setup is simple: there is a GM who describes the world, and everyone else plays a voice in the head of a crazy person named John from Minneapolis. Each player decides on a secret goal for John that they get victory points for him completing, but only one voice controls John at a time. Each voice comes with personality quirks and talents, but whenever John gets injured or does something stressful, other players can seize control of John by wagering control points to try and accumulate victory points more directly. When everyone runs out of control points, John goes to sleep, and the game ends. It’s a fun party game, though I find the control check format makes the game run slower than it could, but it illustrates the TPP method of acting out a story. As TPP showed, though, taking every suggestion for the actions gets chaotic when orchestrated on such a massive scale. Thus, “Everyone Is John,” in splitting up control among the players one at a time, makes sense of the madness that multiple “voices” can bring.

On Enhanced CYOA Stories

Another way of dealing with multiple votes towards what a single character should do in a story is to take the “Democracy” route of TPP. In the experiment, Democracy was a text command used to influence a change in the mode of accepting commands to help get the character in Pokémon through tougher areas that required more finesse than chaos and “Anarchy” would allow for. One fun example fusing this democratic approach to commands and tabletop gaming is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CYOA) thread, of which many have existed over the years. These draw on the themes of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series written by Edward Packard in the 1970’s, such as using second-person narration (where the main character is “you”) and listing multiple options that send the story in various directions.

Dark Heresy CYOA Screenshot

Dark Heresy CYOA Excerpt, 4:35 AM EST, 12/5/14

One of these threads which I am very familiar with, run on the SomethingAwful traditional games forum by a good friend of mine, (LowellDND in the forums), is a “Dark Heresy CYOA” fiction. Dark Heresy is a tabletop role-playing game published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2008, and set in their Warhammer 40,000 setting; LowellDND uses the game itself as a background piece for generating impact of the main character’s actions, such as effectiveness in combat or searching for clues.

Since its start on August 16, 2014, the actual fiction had reached over 32,000 words, (with an additional 5,000 in background notes, according to the author) by 1:00 PM on November 27th. It was rated as a “Gold” thread thanks to community votes, and there had been 1,303 posts on the thread, both of forum-goers suggesting a course for the story through votes, or of the story itself. Voting periods on what the main character (a tech-priest acolyte on a massive Rogue Trader spaceship, as determined by the group’s initial voting) will typically last between one and four days, depending on interest and availability of the writer, who intends on keeping the thread running as long as there is interest.

votingresults

DH CYOA Ongoing Voting Results, 8:36 PM EST, 12/6/14

An interesting option left on most of the fiction posts’ voting sections is “Other.” Oftentimes voters come up with ideas for different actions to take beyond those suggested by LowellDND, or develop “hybrid” options that utilize aspects of two of the listed paths. The interesting thing about an internet-based approach is that people around the world can participate in this shared storytelling, thus making it a communally shared and appreciated story. As well, while the original CYOA story games were restricted to options printed in the book at the time of publishing, the internet has enabled users to have more control and give feedback on the narrative, thus bringing a sense of ownership to the fiction. They can even ask for clarification on rules and the world, meaning that those who may not be as familiar with the setting or process of collaborative storytelling can still remain engaged. The fiction always comes first, and by using reader input and votes to improve and guide it, this type of story has garnered excellent responses. The writing’s pretty great in this one, too.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I believe that this “internet-enhanced CYOA” trend is a good thing for the RPG community for a few reasons. As evidenced by the media buzz of such stories as that of TPP, the world loves a fresh take on the familiar, whether that’s through an updated look and feel, like in re-releases of older games (or movies, as evidenced by the glut of Hollywood remakes and reboots in recent years), or through remediation, like what Twitch Plays Pokémon utilizes. The success of CYOA threads such as the Dark Heresy one proves that people want to participate in this activity still– which is a relief to me as someone who wants to design games based on the principle of collaborative storytelling.

I could go on for hours about why a given game is good or bad, but as long as people are playing it, enjoying it, and talking about it and the stories told through it, then it is good. Reading the posts on LowellDND’s CYOA thread, I am struck by how many people are engaging not only with the voting, but with the game’s setting and mechanics as a whole. They are playing Dark Heresy, even if they don’t realize it, and this makes the future of RPGs just that much brighter.

Useful Links:

Twitch Plays Pokémon:
http://www.twitch.tv/twitchplayspokemon

Everyone is John Rules PDF:
http://pftdcast.com/resources/EveryoneIsJohn.pdf

Dark Heresy CYOA” (SA Forums account needed to view the full thread):
http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3657951

The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games:
http://www.car-pga.org/

Ghost

The radio at Floyds 99 was turned up too loud.

“Comin’ to you on a dusty road,
Good lovin’, I got a truck load.
And when you get it, you got something,
So don’t worry, ’cause I’m coming…”

Marty’d always hated that song. First time he’d heard it he’d been drunk as hell, after all, and he didn’t like much from those days. Sure ‘those days’ lasted up until just last week, but still, he really didn’t like much that he remembered.

Stopping across from the Christian Science Plaza, he took the song in, though. The music flowed through him, the horns faint and barely recognizable. It was very hard to hear, music from another world, another time. By some miracle it was there, though.

Or maybe it was a curse in this case. Hell, it wasn’t even the original version of the song. It was the Blues Brothers one, and that made it all the more annoying. He’d never actually been into that barber shop, and now never would. Sure he could use a haircut, (his hair was matted and a bit crusty, as far as he could tell without touching it), but it wouldn’t make any sense now.

It was five o’clock in the afternoon, so of course the wide Massachusetts Avenue sidewalk was packed. There were Berklee students getting out of classes, or performances, or whatever it was they do in music school running to catch the orange or green line. Half of them seemed to be smoking, but Marty didn’t care; it wasn’t his problem what they did. He couldn’t smell it anyways.

Pulling the empty, dented Coors can he carried from his jacket pocket, he took another imaginary sip. It’d been a week, but he still hoped it might have a bit of scent in it at least. He’d tried throwing it away, but always stopped himself whenever he was actually near a bin or dumpster. At first he’d found it odd and mildly disturbing, but now approached them to feel that tug in his stomach telling him not to chuck the half-crushed can. It was painful, sure, but it was nice to feel it, he’d decided. Better than nothing.

As he continued to waft down Mass Ave towards Berklee, Marty found himself humming along with the Blues Brothers, a dour smirk on his face.

“I’m a soul man… da da da, da da da…”

“Urn” – Quick-Write #1

This is a non-fantasy “quick-write” I did April 20, 2012. I decided to use a randomly generated word to write a short scene. “Urn”, set in modern times, provides a glimpse into the two characters’ lives without being overt in its descriptions of them. I could extend this story into a longer piece, but I think it functions well as a simple scenario with no clear-cut resolution. I wrote this from concept word to end in just over 20 minutes.

“Urn”

“So this is it, huh? Just like that?” Looking down at the bronze urn on the stone table between us, I shrugged. It had been a tough day, and Dan’s face was rather flushed.

“I guess so.” Pushing my hair back behind one ear, I looked out over the hillside. The sun was shining, but a few clouds were pushing closer on the horizon. It wouldn’t stay nice for long.

Dan sighed, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. I knew he needed it, otherwise I would have chided him over it; he knew I hated the way those things smelled and tasted on his lips. Lighting it, he exhaled a puff of smoke and watched it drift away in the wind. I noticed a grimace form on his face as the wisps dissipated.

“Damn. Can’t even do this,” he muttered as he ground out the offending roll of tobacco on the table’s corner. “He never did like me smoking.” I gave a slow nod, but was beaming a little on the inside (even though I knew I shouldn’t). Taking a last long look at the urn, Dan reached down and picked it up, his hands trembling.

“Well, I can’t say it wasn’t fun,” he said, sighing a bit. “I’m gonna miss you. Really. I…” Dan paused, choking a little on his words. The two of them had been like brothers. I laid my hands gently on his shoulder and arm as he twisted the lid off, being sure not to tip the vessel. A faint smell of the ashes within wafted up in the growing wind. As he began scattering them, I thought I saw a tear in his eye, but chose not to say anything. He deserved this time, and even in his eyes, weakness is fine if you really mean it.

Placing the empty urn back on the table and tightening the lid again, Dan’s shoulders sagged a bit. I squeezed him a bit tighter, and we made our way back towards the car with careful, even steps.

“I’m going to change, man,” he murmured to the wind. “I promise.”