With today’s releases of Baldur’s Gate games and Planescape: Torment for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, some of the most influential video games of the last 20 years complete a very long journey to the kind of wide audience they’ve long existed just outside. They’re also very old games that have spawned newer, flashier imitators, and they show their age.
This definitely makes them a little less appealing at first blush, but it’s worth stressing: If you’ve never played any of these before, it’s worth taking the time to experience them.
Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, developed by BioWare, and Planescape: Torment, developed byBlack Isle Studios, are computer role-playing games created by what were, at the time, dream teams of RPG designers at the top of their game. 1998’s Baldur’s Gate in particular revived and perfected the style of RPG that sought to closely emulate the experience of Dungeons & Dragons—wherein you gather a party of colorful characters and venture out into the world, taking on monsters and confronting moral dilemmas. One year later, Planescape: Torment bent that format into something more narratively ambitious, where fighting was allowed but it was more interesting to talk, to read, to ponder over dialogue and wonder how characters were connected. Torment, to this day, is widely regarded as one of the best video game stories ever told.
An increased development focus on consoles killed much of the momentum built by these games at the tail end of the ‘90s, even as Baldur’s Gate II released to even greater acclaim in 2000. As publisher Interplay ceased operation, the games went out of print and became difficult to run on modern hardware without fan mods. For a while, you could get them, but it took a lot of work—until 2012, when Beamdog Interactive began releasing Enhanced Editions of these classic games for modern devices, including smartphones and tablets.
Twenty-one years later, it certainly helps that the newest ports are—at least on PlayStation 4—surprisingly excellent, taking games designed for a boxy CRT monitor and refitting them to play well on my flatscreen and work with a controller. There’s some clunkiness—a lot of how you play these games involves navigating menus full of items and abilities and indicating where you’d like them to take effect, and that will always be clumsy on anything that’s not a mouse and keyboard. That said, I did play Baldur’s Gate on an iPad a few years ago, and while it was less than ideal, I played nearly the whole damn game.
As officially licensed Dungeons & Dragons games, they take settings previously published for tabletop campaigns in the late ‘90s and use them as the backdrop for epic single-player adventures. I did not know this for years until I finally played them, and knowing that is important for understanding what makes them special.
In a way, it’s about limitations. A hallmark of tabletop role-playing has always been liberation, the way players are free to dream up and take part in adventure in ways that more rigid media like, say, video games couldn’t really allow for. While Baldur’s Gate is far from the first video game take on D&D (it’s not even among the first dozen) it kicked off an era of video games that achieved the platonic ideal of D&D-style role-playing, no dungeon master needed.
By this I mean: They told stories, good ones, in which the player felt they were truly taking part. Your decisions didn’t just matter, they colored the tenor of your experience far beyond the good/evil/neutral trinary of modern big-budget RPGs. They let you get inventive the way you could in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, tackling encounters however you liked as long as the dice rolled in your favor.
Baldur’s Gate cast players as Gorion’s Ward, an orphan raised in a monastic life under the care of the scribe Gorion, suddenly thrust into the wider world when they learn that their real heritage might be connected to something monstrous. Of these three games, it’s the most straightforward, about going on a grand adventure and learning something about yourself. In Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, you’re asked a more complicated question: Now that you know what you are, what are you going to do about it?
In Planescape: Torment, you’re The Nameless One, an immortal man stripped of his memories on a quest to piece his long life back together. Like It’s A Wonderful Life in reverse, you slowly become aware of all the lives you have touched in your journeys, and must deal with the fact that your personal history might have been an awful one.
All three of these games deal with themes of legacy and memory, which is potent fodder for a video game narrative. Games are about interesting decisions, the stories told by the choices that we make in them. Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment make this a literal part of the stories they tell, with a level of nuance rarely seen in games before them and since. In their spiritual successors like Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect, the stories are about how much you mean to the world. In Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, it’s more about how you shape your character in response to these worlds. They resonate all the more for it.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
Role-playing games are one of my favorite genres. They’re also the genre I came latest to. I didn’t play video games for most of my teenage years, the time when I would have lost entire weekends and nights to them. Coming to love them as an adult has been a minor tragedy, because the amount of time I have to dedicate to 60-hour epics is shrinking dramatically with each passing year, and I am not quite ready to admit that I cannot play them all.
So I look for that sprawling feeling elsewhere when I can—books, mostly, since the time I spend in front of screens is probably best described as “unconscionable.” Strangely, I don’t really gravitate toward fantasy literature, since I’m not particularly interested in swords and magic and courtly intrigue. I specifically want the feeling of role-playing games: I want to be so transported I feel outside of myself, watching the beautiful little struggles of people who are ultimately small cogs in something incomprehensibly big.
Recently, I finished reading award-winning novelist Marlon James’ latest work, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, precisely because that’s what it offered. In a recent profile, James—who previously made his name in literary fiction with novels like A Brief History of Seven Killings—declared his intent to “geek the fuck out” with an “African Game of Thrones,” to give the kinds of people and folklore that rarely get centered in Western fantasy their due. It rules—partly because it feels a hell of a lot like playing through a Baldur’s Gate game.
The novel is about a man known only as Tracker, who recounts his personal history to a mysterious inquisitor who ultimately wants to know what happened when Tracker accepted a job to find a missing boy, a job that ultimately leads to something horrifying.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a dense, difficult book that slips in and out of focus from one passage to the next. It’s a tall, thick volume at 620 pages long—to read it for long stretches is to fall into a trance where you’re aware of the shape of things, even if you can’t always make out the details. It’s reassuring to have some kind of horizon to look toward, a wall to lean against when I felt disoriented.
That’s why I say it feels like a good role-playing game: The story starts with Tracker coming of age in the villages of the Riverlands and follows him until he comes to a city and joins a party. They venture out and face monstrous horrors on the road, and then, at another city, they find answers. Along the way, we meet characters who tell their stories at length and have their own agendas and side quests, some of which seem like they’re detracting from the main plot but ultimately end up being diversions you’re glad you took. (The story of Sad Ogo—a massive man you should not call a giant—is devastating.)
This isn’t something we haven’t seen in fantasy literature—it’s good narrative structure. You can recognize this in all sorts of stories across media. It’s just cool to see video games fall so neatly in this tradition, another voice in one big story that we’re all telling. It’s becoming more explicit, like the way the current generation of fantasy authors are openly influenced by Japanese role-playing games. (If you want something that will rock your goddamn world, put Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings next to Suikoden II.)
Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I felt small. Maybe it’s weird to say this, but that’s one of my favorite feelings in video games—I like big sprawling games that suggest a wealth of stories unfolding around me, with nothing but my time and attention keeping me from finding them. And man, how I wish I had more time.
This Saturday is Free RPG Day, an annual celebration of role-playing games mostly observed at local game shops. Participating stores are handing out free stuff including game modules, dice, and t-shirts, as well as hosting games and other events. Here’s what to look forward to.
Get something free
The idea behind Free RPG Day is that everyone gets something free from their local game shop (donated by game publishers), and hopefully they buy something while they’re there—or a free game sparks their interest in a publisher’s other offerings.
To see what your local shop is giving away, check their website and their social media pages. And to find local participating shops, search on the Free RPG Day site.
The free stuff usually runs out by the end of the day, so show up early and don’t expect guaranteed freebies. That’s only part of the day’s fun, anyway.
Play a game
Most game shops also have a few tables where customers can play games, not just today but all the time. These games can feel a little intimidating, but an event day is a good time to work up some courage and ask how to join in. It’s like showing up to church for the Christmas Eve service—a good shop will be especially trying to win over converts today.
Again, check the social media for your local shop to see what they’ll be playing, and to ask them directly how you can get involved. You might even need to sign up ahead to get a seat.
Download a game
There are thousands of RPGs that are always free, all the time. DriveThruRPG, “the largest RPG download store,” is advertising its wide catalog of free games and modules. It’s a mess of offerings with little explanation or guidance, but an experienced gamer can look around and try anything interesting—and since it’s free, you can download a ton of material and sort through it later. This is a good weekend to discover a new game or a cool scenario for one of your favorite games:
If you’re new to gaming, that array of options can be a little overwhelming. Let me steer you toward one-page RPGs, which are much less complicated and usually free. I wrote a whole guide to this exciting genre, which skips the chunky rulebooks and supplements and even the weird dice. You can play a game with nothing more than a few dice and a sheet of paper.
If you’re still intimidated, find one friend who’s experienced with RPGs and have them run the game as your dungeon master.
Host a game
If you already have an established gaming group outside of a store, and you’ve got all the gaming stuff you need, this is still a great day to play your own game, especially in public.
To play at a bar or in a park—or anywhere a group of people can talk and laugh without being rude—play one of the minimalist RPGs listed in my other post, or one of these other options:
Lost in the Fantasy World: You’re modern kids trapped in a D&D-style universe, fighting to get back home. You have to choose between helping people in this world and reuniting with your own families. It’s Jumanji meets Stranger Things meets The Neverending Story.
Or find a game on the OnePageRPGs subreddit, where I got all of these. Many of these games are posted by their creators, so you can ask them directly for any rules clarifications, or find their other work. Now go inside and play!
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
It was about two months ago when, reading the latest updates on the Sega Genesis Mini, I thought to myself: “Wouldn’t it be cool if the classic 16-bit action role-playing game Crusader of Centy was on this? That’s what I’d probably play first.” The next thing I thought was: “Idiot, you have a Mega SG! Just play it!”
So I did. I’d never played more than a few minutes of Crusader of Centy, but it was easy to fall into. A young boy lives in a small village and suddenly finds himself on an adventure that grows in scope until he finally ends up killing God, all from a top-down 2D perspective with Zelda-style mechanics. Ah, yeah. That’s the good stuff.
The 16-bit action role-playing game is like a frozen moment in time, a particular artifact of a very specific era of game design. There were action RPGs on 8-bit consoles, but in general they haven’t really aged well; they’re clunkier and grindier than their descendants. The Super NES and the Genesis were where the form truly came into its own. The controls became more polished, the graphics and music more beautiful.
Then 32-bit and polygons happened, and that was pretty much it for the 2D action RPG. But there was a very specific 6-year period in the early 1990s that I’m now trying to mine it for all of its treasures. After finishing Centy, I played through the similar Super NES classic Illusion of Gaia for the first time in 25 years. Then there was nowhere else to go but its sequel Terranigma, of which I’d played about a third a few years back. I decided to start over and properly finish it for the first time.
What’s so enticing to me about action RPGs is summed up in the name. You have to attack and dodge enemies in real time, and maybe also do some light platforming. You can also boost your power by killing more enemies, finding better items in chests, or collecting money to buy better stuff. It’s this combination of elements, of scraping by in a battle thanks both to your own reflexes and having put in the time and energy to grind and get more powerful, that produces a feeling that I find more satisfying than a pure action game or a turn-based RPG. There’s some weird alchemy there that I love.
What I had forgotten about Illusion of Gaia in the past two decades is just how few RPG mechanics it actually includes. It has a lot of the surface-level trappings that we associate with an RPG, like extensive storyline sequences, a world map, and items hidden in chests. But your character’s progression is locked in place: There are no extra weapons or armor to find, and your stats only go up once you clear out all the enemies in a room for the first time. This means you can’t grind to become more powerful than the game wants you to be at that moment.
Crusader of Centy is similar; like Zelda games, you can only boost your HP by finding extra life containers scattered around the world. You can’t grind out extra power by slashing up mobs of enemies. In these cases, the games feel more like RPGs thanks to the emphasis on story, but when you start looking at what’s under the hood, they’re more like story-heavy nonlinear action games.
Terranigma’s RPG bona fides, though, can’t be argued, since your character does level up by defeating enemies, can find better weapons and armor, and can grind out cash for upgrades. You have to do this at certain parts of the quest or you won’t be powerful enough to defeat certain bosses—you’ll only do 1 hit point of damage per attack, making your success highly unlikely.
The thing I like best about Terranigma is its commitment to freedom of movement and thrilling action gameplay. Where many action RPGs simply let the character attack by swinging his sword, Terranigma lets you combine dashing and jumping with attacks to create a variety of different moves. You can jump while attacking, fling yourself through the air while dashing, or do the ultimate move by running, leaping into the air, and pressing attack, which will send you down in a flying slide kick that does the most damage of all your basic moves.
What all of these games have in common is beautiful pixel art, catchy chiptune soundtracks, and that endearing sort of prototypical video game story where you can see the ambitions of the writers straining to escape the restrictions of low-resolution graphics and the limited ROM space they can fill with text. You don’t see games like this made anymore. This type of game, which seemed like such a big part of the gaming world during my late adolescence, was, in retrospect, limited to one brief technological era.
This is all to say that I need some recommendations for other 16-bit action RPGs to play. Don’t suggest Secret of Mana, which I’ve played quite a few times already. But what should be next?
I was only about 10 hours into The Division 2, a game that I expect I will play for dozens of hours when I realized something about the perks in the game. I was going to be able to unlock them all easily once I hit level 30 and the final perks became available to grab. Suddenly, I didn’t care about what I picked. These perks became a checklist that I barely thought about. By giving me the option to get everything, I stopped caring about any of the options at all. Games, stop doing this.
It is wild how quickly I went from planning which perks I would grab to literally just unlocking them in order from first to last in the menu. I knew that I would probably be able to unlock most of them if not all of them eventually, but having that moment happen so early and be so apparent completely killed any interest I had in that part of The Division 2. This isn’t the first game where I’ve encountered this same issue.
Fallout 4 was another game where I realized I could eventually unlock nearly every perk if I played enough. Just like that, my idea of working on a specific build evaporated. Unlocking a perk became less exciting and eventually, I would even forget to unlock new perks and let them build up before remembering that, “Oh yeah I have some perks to assign.”
It’s just hard to care about picking specific perks or abilities when it becomes clear you will get them all. Sure, early on I still focused on certain things, although eventually, I stopped caring because I was just going to get them all anyway. The more recent Far Cry games also have this issue. I usually get more health or combat moves first, however towards the end of the game, I’m just randomly picking stuff without much thought.
By letting players unlock everything, the game robs the player of any meaningful choices in how to build up your character. But it also makes it harder for me to remember what I even have unlocked. I feel like some of the perks I have in Fallout 4 I completely ignored because I didn’t think about them when I unlocked them. Same with other games that let me get every skill.
Compare this to the feeling of leveling up your character in something like Fallout New Vegas.
In that game, I would plan out builds. I would do mental math in my head to figure out how many SPECIAL points I should assign in combination with a later perk to max out a stat I cared about. I would have to make hard choices to really get a skill or strong perk. I also remember getting really excited when I leveled up. It was a few more points I could spread across my build. Each new perk or skill I gained felt memorable too and to this day I still remember certain characters I created and how much fun or how terrible they were.
In contrast, I’ve never felt compelled to create a new character in Fallout 4 because eventually, they will end up with all the perks as my original character.
I understand that part of the reason games like The Division 2 have unlockable skills and perks is to give players a sense of progression. Yet, if everyone and every character ends up in the same place I feel like that does a disservice to that feeling of progression.
In The Division 2 I also became less motivated to explore and grab some of the in-game items because I didn’t need them. I don’t require any more SHD Tech, the tokens used to unlock perks because I’m already drowning in them and have nothing to unlock. Maybe future updates will add more perks or ways to use SHD Tech yet, for now, I’m stockpiling something that feels worthless.
Good choices in video games aren’t about offering you something, but about making you choose to sacrifice something. Yeah, you can take this perk to gain more ammo capacity, though you will miss out on this perk that gives you more accuracy. MOBAs actually do a great job each match of pushing the player into picking things and making important choices.
I wish more games would see the value in limiting players and making them think about their choices.
I used to play in the same Dungeons & Dragons campaign every week. Now my friends and I struggle to arrange a play session every few months. At one point I tried to make it work with another group. We made a six-month Doodle calendar to find one date we could meet. We got together, discussed character creation, and never met up again. A campaign takes so much setup, homework, planning and scheduling and rescheduling, it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Meanwhile, I made more friends who wanted to play, but didn’t know the rules. How would I ever find time to introduce them to the game, if I couldn’t even find time for more experienced players?
I wanted to play outside the house, with minimal supplies, planning, or commitment. So I had to change my approach. I looked for games that met my needs: mechanics everyone could learn in one session, but were still strong enough to bring structure and keep this from being make believe; scenarios we could jump into without an extra session for planning or character creation; no piles of dice or sheafs of paper or GM screen; no commitment past the first session.
I figured out how to play RPGs in any setting, with minimal supplies, planning, or commitment. I got to play RPGs for the first time in months. I ran two sessions in two weeks, with zero emails or Doodles. One session with my experienced friends, and one with four Lifehacker staffers who had never played an RPG. Both games were a hit. Here’s how you can run your own.
Play a One-Shot
If you and your friends are too busy to run an extended campaign, you’ve probably already tried a one-shot. Because everyone is less invested, they can whip up characters faster and start in the middle of the action. Everyone, including the GM running the game, is motivated to get less bogged down in side quests or negotiations or foreshadowing visions. Because you start fresh each time, you don’t have to keep track of possessions and levels and skills.
This style is great for casual play, when you have no standing date for games, and when you’re playing out and about. You could start a three-year campaign with deep character development, but I’d advise starting with a few one-shots, until one feels fun enough to keep playing.
A lot of RPGs are overpowered for a one-shot—when you need to wrap up the story in two hours, every minute you spend looking up weapon damage feels wasted. But if you’re already familiar with a ruleset, you can choose to follow only the basics. Dungeon Crawl Classics has one of these built in: a DCC campaign traditionally starts with a “zero-level funnel,” in which each player controls multiple unskilled peasants, most of whom die by the end. That’s a great one-shot on its own. Character creation is minimal, players have few stats to look up, and all the characters are equally suited to the task. (The GM still has a lot of characters to keep track of, and a lot of dice to roll.)
Game developer John Harper, creator of the popular one-page RPG Lasers & Feelings and the three-page Dungeon World spinoff World of Dungeons, loves complex games. His favorite game, he tells me in an interview, is The Burning Wheel. “It’s one of the rare games where the more work you put in as a player, the more you get out of it.” How much work? He says he really started sucking the marrow around the thirtieth or fortieth play session. But his usual gaming group also liked to play out at a bar. “It felt weird to be at the bar and have a very intense role-play scene.” So they’d play more “punchy, adventurey things,” often pausing the game to chat, switching back and forth. It helped to have a focused mission instead of a grand plot. One of his favorite games for this kind of play is the 48-page Into the Odd, a gothic game where each character has only three stats, and where a session can run about two hours. The group also played Dungeon World and Apocalypse World.
Use a One-Page RPG
In a casual setting, you want a game that’s mentally and physically smaller. Mentally, you want fewer rules to learn, fewer specifics to choose for your character before you start playing. You want to make decisions fast, and you want the GM to keep up. The more you can rely on imagination and cooperation, the less you have to rely on a sourcebook.
Physically, you don’t want all the stuff used in a typical RPG: sourcebooks, specialized dice (or funky dice), printouts, maps, a GM screen, pencils and paper, figurines or tokens. This is all cool and fun when you’re committing to a campaign with a group: one person shares their sourcebook, the GM keeps everyone’s character sheets between games, and everyone loves collecting bags full of weird dice. But you can’t pull out all this accoutrement at a small coffee shop or a picnic. And you can’t rely on the one person with the extra dice if they don’t show up to every game.
What you want is a lightweight, portable RPG. Super light weight. Ideally a single page. Luckily there are dozens of popular microRPGs online, with rulesets that fit on one or two pages, given out for free by their creators. Most only require a couple of six-sided dice (D6’s, in gamer terms), though some use the typical set of specialized RPG dice, especially the famous D20.
You’ll notice a lot of these games are silly, and the rules can be vague. They’re not built for long campaigns that fully explore your character’s backstory as you grow more powerful. Not until you hack them, anyway.
All the games listed above and below are free, and many explicitly carry a Creative Commons license that allows others to remix and redistribute them. Some players have collected their favorites into PDF compilations, like this four-page pack of 12 games.
If you want to watch someone else play a game, the Tempting Fate series (from gaming channel Saving Throw) is dedicated to playing microRPGs.
Actually, Just Use Lasers & Feelings
I was immediately drawn to Lasers & Feelings, which uses a simple system with two stats: lasers, and feelings. The better you are at one, the worse you are at the other.
Technically it’s one stat—a number from 2 to 5. Whenever you try to do something difficult, you decide whether it requires “laser” skills (logic, science, research) or “feelings” skills (passion, seduction, morale). Then you roll a six-sided die. You want to roll higher than your one stat to succeed at feelings, lower than your stat to succeed at lasers. There are no modifiers, though you can roll an extra die to represent preparation or expertise.
Similar to the Powered by the Apocalypse system, you can get results other than success and failure: critical success, which allows you to ask a question of the GM, and mixed success, which comes at a cost or with a caveat.
Also similarly to PbtA, the GM spends most of their time introducing the next complication or twist and asking the players, “What do you do next?” Combat is handled the same way as other actions, with no hit point or damage systems.
To play, all you need is a copy of the rules and at least one die. Character creation takes about five minutes (in addition to the stat, there are some class and flavor choices), and the GM can select a scenario from the given options, or roll for a random one.
The game only works if you can common-sense your way through things—or intentionally go nonsensical. All the crunch—number-crunching, the game mechanics—is shrunk into one stat and one dice roll, so everything in the game depends on interpretation. Everyone needs to be ready to agree with each other, because arguing over the rules would be absurd. The players need to be flexible, the GM needs to be reasonably consistent, and everyone needs to be creative. But that’s why you chose an RPG and not a board game.
John Harper wrote Lasers & Feelings in four hours in 2013, updating it the next day after a playtest. He borrowed the over-under system from Trollbabe, a 2002 game with a 70s underground comics vibe. He mostly built L&F for experienced gamers, who could use their knowledge of RPG conventions to interpret his concise rules. “There are still fairly unclear rules that people still ask me about,” he tells me. But he likes leaving them ambiguous.
The Lasers & Feelings system is so robust that the game quickly spawned dozens of “hacks,” which adapt the rule system to different genres. These games still use six-sided dice and one or two pages of rules, but they switch out the setting, the character classes, the stats, and the possible scenarios. The blog Writing Alchemy has collected over 40 of these hacks, including:
You can tweak any of these, or hack your own—which doesn’t require writing up a new one-sheet. You can just name a few character classes, describe your setting, and invent an adventure. For one of my playtests, I whipped up a medieval palace intrigue called Swords and Sorcery. It was very poorly thought out and it worked great.
Most L&F hacks are based on an existing genre or specific media property. There’s no room for a compendium of original monsters or extensive lore about the setting and characters. You have to pull from existing tropes and make up the details.
Everybody Play Nice
The less written material a game has, the more the players and GM need to work things out with each other. The rules lawyer in your group might hate this. So will the GM who likes to rule as a petty tyrant. In a traditional at-home game, says Harper, the GM tends to be high-status. Playing out in the world helps to level that playing field. Lightweight games can’t support an antagonistic relationship between GM and players.
Almost anything goes in these games, so you have to bring your social skills if you don’t want to devolve into a game of “Oh yeah? Well I’m wearing an infinity suit.” The GM also needs to orient the players, guide their level of contribution. In L&F, Harper says, it’s helpful that the GM asks the whole table “What do you do?” instead of just one player.
You have to ignore (or have fun with) a lot of details in a casual game. As a player, your items don’t have stats. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re wearing leather armor or chainmail, unless you want to make it matter for some creative reason. If you’re used to playing RPGs like a video game, you have to think differently.
As a GM, you need to improvise a lot more. You have to know how to have fun and keep things moving, but also how to avoid “crazy town”—an improv term for a situation where there’s nothing normal to hold onto, so none of the silliness matters. But this is a fantastic trade-off, because you don’t have to plan. At all. You can literally roll a die to figure out what adventure you’ll be narrating.
You do owe your players an ending. Don’t let the casual nature of the game lead you to fizzle out. Most of the time you’ll want your players to succeed, unless it’s in the nature of the game (like anything Lovecraft-inspired) to have a high chance of failure. But even if you’re going to spend a half-hour just hanging out afterward, you’ll feel better if you have some closure.
While microRPGs can be good for new players, I wouldn’t recommend them for first-time GMs. If you want to run a microRPG, you’ll find it a lot easier if you’ve run, or at least played, several sessions of an RPG (whether it was traditional or micro).
Always Be Ready to Play
You can comfortably play most micro-RPGs using only your phone: pull up a PDF to look up the character types or scenarios. Google “dice roller” and Google will roll a six-sided die for you.
If you prefer real dice, keep a pair of dice in your pocket or bag. Or see if your local bar or coffee shop has a couple board games in the corner, and borrow from those.
The first time you play a particular system, it can be helpful to have the rules printed out, maybe even an extra copy for the players. But even that first time, you can get by with phones if you need to. If phones get too distracting, ask everyone to go to airplane mode.
After the first session or two, you should know how to start a game anywhere. You just need a few friends gathered for at least an hour, in a space where you can all comfortably hear each other: at a barbecue, a late-night diner, even in the car on a road trip. It’s a great activity for the tail end of a party, or for entertaining kids.
Case Study 1
My first game was with three members of my usual group, Tim, Molly, and Jason. We met at our local bar, High Dive—good beer, free popcorn, pinball in the back—and after a little chatter and pinball, got down to business with some printouts of Lasers & Feelings. Everyone picked their role on the crew of the SS Raptor, and their style—a sexy engineer, alien doctor, and hot-shot pilot.
I rolled up a secret threat: (1) brain worms trying to (2) protect void crystals to (3) fix everything. Not much of a threat—unless I made it an existential threat for the crew, who would have no more problems to solve around the galaxy once the brain worms had pacified the universe. So I needed to infect the crew with these worms. I, a creative genius, looked at the cup of to-go coffee I’d brought over. And I told my players that the ship had run out of coffee.
We spent two hours on a ridiculous quest on a coffee planet. At one point I image-searched coffee plants, and discovered that (at least on a phone) they look a lot like various poisonous red berries you see in a forest. There we go, a problem to solve. At another point Jason mentioned this scifi book he’d read, where dragon showed up out of nowhere and practically winked at the camera, and how incongruous it felt with the story. So I threw in a fire-breathing dragon to guard the coffee plants.
I’d intended to bring in the brain worms after a few minutes, but I only snuck them in at the end—they’d burrowed into the coffee beans. “The coffeebot turns your foraged beans into delicious coffee, and you’re all energized. But in the middle of the night, Zapf Dingbat wakes up. Zapf, something is whispering from inside your brain: ‘Destroy the ship!’ Oh no! What will happen next time on Lasers & Feelings: I’m Thinking About Those Beans!?” The end.
We were only slightly more grounded than an episode of Comedy Bang Bang: if anyone made a joke and it went over well, it was now canon. People introduced ridiculous bits of backstory on the fly. The alien kept getting new mediocre powers. And because we only had to sustain the story for two hours, we could pile it on.
And yet somehow it remained a game, and not an improv scene. We still cared whether the team completed their mission. Because characters were constantly trying to accomplish tasks, we were rolling dice more often than our usual D&D games. I’d barely read through the one-sheet before we started, as I am very lazy. A couple of the others had given it a skim. But we quickly picked up the mechanics, although as we got drunk, we had a little trouble remembering the over-under rule.
It was a relief to play without all the table-setting, literal and metaphorical, of our usual games. And because we were out at the bar, anyone could stay after—no host to kick everyone out. We’re meeting next week to play a hack of Lasers & Feelings. Currently arguing whether to theme it on Indiana Jones or Boss Baby.
Case Study 2
So it was easy enough to play a casual game with experienced players. But as Harper tells me, with such a barebones system, “you don’t have a lot of stuff to hide behind.” So I stress-tested the L&F system on four people who had never played a tabletop RPG. And it worked great.
I gathered four Lifehacker staffers—EIC Melissa Kirsch, writers Alicia Adamczyk and Josh Ocampo, and senior video producer Joel Kahn—for a happy-hour game at the bar across the street. They’d requested a medieval setting, so over my lunch break I’d hacked up Swords & Sorcery, inserting some medieval tropes into the rules of Lasers & Feelings.
Alicia became Princess Peach, Melissa played a barber-surgeon, Josh a secretive dwarf knight, Joel a scheming wizard. Instead of offering character goals, I borrowed a trick from the Powered by the Apocalypse system and asked everyone to describe their relationship to the character to their left. It turned out they were all involved in the palace court—and most of them were related.
You don’t say no to the players. So instead of a dungeon crawl or quest, I gave them a game of palace intrigue: the king and queen gathered everyone important into the throne room to name their successor, but before they could make their announcement, all the torches sputtered out and the king and queen were murdered. Now our players had to compete for the throne.
I’d never run a player-vs-player game before. It seems harder to sustain friendly make-believe when everyone is competing, especially when who “wins” is really up to the GM. But competition turned out to be a great way to jumpstart interaction. I’ve seen even experienced players take a while to get their merry band together, but here we had characters who canonically knew each other well—easy lifting for these newbies. This is one of the ways a lightweight game relies more on players: you can’t justify things by pointing out your character’s stats, so you have to invent in-world justifications. Everyone got used to adding backstory and details to justify their skills and choices. Character creation never ended, it just turned into gameplay. It was perfect.
Everyone stomped around the castle, trying to take power by persuasion or force, backstabbing each other and forming coalitions and raiding the armory. NPCs came, went, and died. I forget who took the castle, only that the end was a Hamlet-level bloodbath. Conversation flowed faster in this fantasy world than in our usual small talk. And we did it all over cocktails without a single mechanical pencil.
Ethan Schoonover (known as Mr. E. to his students in Seattle) took to Twitter recently to describe how he started a Dungeons and Dragons club at his all-girls middle school—and how you can, too.
I must admit that before I watched his 47-minute video explainer, everything I knew about Dungeons and Dragons I learned from watching Stranger Things. But Schoonover talks about D&D and the benefits for kids who play it with such knowledge and passion that he’s got me hoping my son picks it up in a few years—or that someone at his school starts up a similar club.
If you’ve ever thought about starting a tabletop role-playing club, you don’t necessarily have to pick Dungeons and Dragons. There are all sorts of other RPGs with a variety of non-medieval-fantasy themes. And if you’re working with elementary-aged kids, you might want to try something like No Thank You, Evil instead, which has a younger, more cartoonish feel to it.
Schoonover says he chose D&D intentionally because it is the oldest and most well-known RPG and has been marketed so heavily to boys; he wanted his female students to feel ownership of it, too.
Step one: Pitching the idea
There are certain games and clubs that people think of as socially acceptable for schools or youth centers: chess clubs and photography clubs and any number of sports, to start with. But mention a role-playing club and eyebrows around you might raise.
Schoonover suggests you start the conversation by talking about the benefits, which are both social and academic. Socially, kids who play RPGs have to work cooperatively together. Academically, they’re reading, they creatively solving problems, they’re researching, and they’re even doing a little light math when they consider the probability of the roll of the dice.
“There is one key phrase that I think you should consider using,” Schoonover says in the video. “When I would talk to parents, I would use this phrase and it was almost all I needed to say. And that phrase is: ‘No screen time.’ You just say, ‘no screen time’ and parents’ eyes light up.” Schoonover even takes it one step further and implements a cell phone ban during play.
(He also tried to give the club a catchy name—“Swords, Stories and Statistics”—but one week in, students were calling it “D&D Club” anyway, so I wouldn’t bother with that.)
Step two: Getting started
There tends to be a lot of bookkeeping and paperwork up front during what’s known as “Session Zero,” or the group’s first meeting. But Schoonover wanted to be careful not to bore the kids straight out of the gate; he wanted them to tell all their friends how super fun it was and that they should play, too.
So for the club’s first meeting, he suggests simply starting with the main stats: race (type of mystical being), name and background. (Having a list of suggested names is also key because some students will be stumped if they have to come up with their own.) He keeps the character backgrounds fairly basic and grim: pig farmers, glass blowers, stable hands, apprentice hunters and the like.
“I had one student who recently got the background of librarian’s assistant,” Schoonover says. “And she picked dragonborn as her race, because it was such a fun idea for her of wandering around the librarian as a dragonborn, breathing fire and not being able to do that around the stacks of books.”
He gives his students two rules:
1. No evil characters.
2. Everyone works together.
Then, they dive right into play and “trouble” comes to town.
Step three: Keeping it going
Try to pick a day and time when the kids are feeling fairly fresh and rested. Schoonover runs his club on Fridays after school, which he admits is very much less than ideal. His students are at the tail end of a long week and everyone is fairly tired. But it’s the only time slot available to him, so he combats their crankiness with snacks; one at the beginning and one halfway through, which his students refer to as “second breakfast.”
Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael E. Shea, which Schoonover says offers “great sound advice on how to prepare, how to not over-prepare and how to prepare the right stuff to play D&D or any other role-playing game.”
Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D. Laws, which Schoonover says changed the way he ran the pacing of the game.
It’s also good to have a couple of “secret rules” that you don’t tell the players. For example, Schoonover’s students occasionally ask him whether he’s going to kill off his characters. “And of course, the proper response to that question is just to raise your eyebrow and look mysterious,” he says in the video. “But of course, I’m probably not going to kill their characters; my rule is essentially no player character death.” Unless a student really wants to move on to a new character, he doesn’t think it adds a lot of value to kill them off, particularly because his students become very emotionally invested in their characters.
He also tries to avoid putting players into situations where they end up becoming what he calls “murdery;” i.e., where they might leap to conclusions and start murdering things for the sake of murdering, particularly where it involves humanoids.
Schoonover started with just six students in the club—a number he admits he thought would be too many for him, the “Dungeon Master,” to manage on his own. But now, he has more than 20 students in the club, a problem he has solved by training a few of the more experienced students to be Dungeon Masters themselves. The students can write their own adventures or use pre-written adventures to lessen some of the pressure and time-commitment.
“You want to be the one providing those resources and not just leaving it on their shoulders to figure out,” he says.