17 April, 2016
Yesterday I wrote about my college years, and today I’ll write about my adult life and experience with tabletop RPGs.
It’s probably going to come as little surprise that a gaming nerd like me, who became a professional computer game developer, still enjoys tabletop gaming.
Meeting new people and making your reaction roll
After I graduated university, I found a new job at a boring non-games company. It was like a Dilbert performance art piece, really. About a year of that and I was scrambling to talk to a recruiter to get into the game industry. I found a job working on this little game called Meridian 59 and, well, most of you know the rest of that story. But, one thing you might not know is that a few of my college friends moved with me to find work in the SF Bay Area.
So, of course, gaming continued to be a big part of my life. And, as they met people our circle grew. We started playing a lot of World of Darkness again, mostly Werewolf. One of our friends worked at Sony in Foster City, so we were able to use one of their conference rooms after hours to game. A huge table and walls full of whiteboards were a perfect setup for playing tabletop RPGs.
We played a few fairly long-running campaigns. One of my favorite characters from this era was a Shadow Lord Philodox in Werewolf. Ever since my first evil character attacked the party in our early D&D campaign, my friends have (quite unfairly, I might add) said that I have a reputation for betraying others. Shadow Lords, in the old World of Darkness, had a reputation for being conniving bastards who flitted around in the shadows manipulating and betraying others for their own ends. They want to be the “power behind the throne”, without all that ugly responsibility. The funny thing is, I really wanted to play the character totally straight: I had an Alpha personality, so I wanted to lead, and I firmly believed that the strength of the pack reflected my own strength. Betraying the pack would have been the last thing on my mind, but people still treated me with distrust. I thought it made for a great character.
The other character I played was a Utkena Theurge. The character was interesting in its own right, as the Uktena have a reputation for delving into forbidden secrets to fight the impossible enemy that all Werewolves struggle against in the World of Darkness. But, what makes this character memorable was one healing roll I made. See, the old WoD used d10s with a floating difficulty number, but 1s were always considered a “botch” that took a way successes. I made a roll to heal one of our front line fighters, and ended up triple-botching the roll. What’s worse, is the player of that character was not there that day, so I killed a character with the player absent. (I’m still sorry, Chang!)
I also ran a Werewolf campaign. It was set in Europe; I knew parts of Europe well as I was doing a lot of consulting on the continent, but most of the rest of the crew hadn’t even been to Europe. It was an interesting group. I even wrote a small program to help me manage the campaign and keep track of character sheets. Unfortunately, a bit of interpersonal drama between some of the group brought that campaign to a premature end.
This was also the crew I played WoW with when it first launched. Four of us formed the core of a group, with the fifth slot open to a small group of friends we knew, some of whom we didn’t do tabletop with! With our deep game experience, we knew how each other played and that made us a pretty good group when working together. For example, in Vanilla WoW I played a Feral Druid, which was the least powerful specialization of a class widely considered underwhelming. But, it worked well: I could swap between cat DPS and bear off-tanking depending on what we needed for an encounter. Knowing the limitations made us able to tackle a lot of challenging content.
But, all good things come to an end and a few of the group moved away. We kept playing WoW (for the most part), but what about tabletop RPGs?
The virtual reality
Virtual Tabletop to the rescue! We were able to continue some of our gaming using virtual tabletop programs. We tried a number of them, starting with a D&D campaign using the Fantasy Grounds program. This is a paid program, and the base set is very specific for D&D. The people running campaigns had trouble really setting up their campaigns using the tool, but we had some good times with it.
After that, we tried Roll20, returning to the old Werewolf setting. (We weren’t big fans of the new World of Darkness setting, particularly not for Werewolf). Two of the group were living in Alaska, including the person running the campaign, so he used his experience to set the game in Alaska. I played a Child of Gaia Ragabash, which is another one of those “definitely not me in RPG form” characters that works out my role-playing muscles. The campaign was fun, but cut short when the guy running the game decided to get married and have kids, thus diverting his free-time to other (worthwhile… I guess…) pursuits.
More recently, I’ve been playing a wonderful science fiction game run by the amazing Ysharros with Tyrannodorkus and his brother (and my significant other) playing. It’s an original science fiction setting being build collaboratively with the players. We’re using the old West End Games d6 system for the mechanics, although we’ve been going pretty light on the dice rolling and focusing more on telling an interesting story with fun character interactions. We spent some time before we started playing coming up with what type of game we wanted to play. We chose a science fiction setting with strong exploration elements. We also decided we wanted some horror elements in it. On the other hand, the group has been the type to goof around and crack a lot of jokes, so I’m not sure how well the horror elements will play out.
So far, though, it’s been great! I’m playing the captain of a ship with an experimental new type of star drive that is faster than anything before. But, obviously there will be something sinister waiting for us as we keep using the new drive. It’s been an amazing game and I’ve been diving in and contributing a lot of background to the setting recently. I think this might make the foundation for some interesting tabletop RPG supplements, even. And, if one of my newly met friends from FFXIV decides to join the group, we’ll have a group that’s 50/50 male/female.
Here’s one interesting quirk, though: despite working as a game developer, I’ve rarely played tabletop RPGs with my co-workers. I know some game companies brag about their tabletop gaming experience, but except one abortive campaign, I’ve not really played with co-workers. Ah, well, there are a lot of other people out there.
And, I’ll be quick to say that not every tabletop experience was great. I had a terrible experience with one group in college where the GM took on a much more adversarial tone than I like in my games. He seemed to delight in punishing characters, and at one point even brought in one of his own characters to “save” the party, completing a fight that was obviously too much for us. More recently, I played in a campaign with some college-aged people which fell apart when the other couple suffered a harsh breakup (as sometimes happens in college). But, for the most part, my experiences have been good.
For the next post, I’m going to talk about what I really like about tabletop RPGs and why I think they have made me a better game designer/developer.