Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Magic of Roleplaying

Reading between the rolls, adding your creativity to the barebones of the rules, this is an art - THE art of the GM. This is where the magic comes from, not from sourcebooks and scenarios. It is not the product, but what every individual table does with it.

(from a Twitter conversation)

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Happy Birthday To ME! Plans for 2023

 Hello readers!

Today is my birthday, I'm Level 52.

I suppose it's as good a time as any to set out my plans for this new(ish) year.

In a little under 30 days, my son and I will be getting on a plane back to Canuckistan.

I feel immense relief at the prospect, but not a little fear of how it will go.

Time to focus on the positive:

Business plans

1 Start a health business teaching Movement, Breathing, Strengthening, and Nutrition

2 Film and start selling video lessons on Discourse Analysis

3 Finish writing my Japanese textbook and horror novel

(Returning to academia is a plan for next year, if ever)

Life Plans

1 Set son up in a Canadian special ed 

2 Get in the sort of shape that will hopefully let me stick around as long as I can for him

3 Reconnect with friends and family

(Mentally put the last 5 years far behind me)


1 On the backburner for now

2 Eventual return to Stormbringer redux project, completion

3 Start of regular face to face gaming


1 I wrote a script that might be turned into a movie, we'll see

2 Maybe play ukelele and sing at a few open mikes

We'll see

Wish me all the luck I wish you

Monday, January 9, 2023

The Charms of Old School D&D

Well, D&D 5E / One / Mc D&D is a dumpster fire of epic proportions.

Good. Hopefully we'll see people trying lots of other games, old and new, instead of drinking the Koolaid about "the world's greatest RPG."

On Twitter, someone asked about the charms of older D&D. This is how I see them:

1) Affordable 

2) Manageable rules as player & DM 

3) The oldest RPG, no claims to greatest 

4) Powers that be were gamers, not suits 

5) Established good time, not threatened by other games 

6) No backstory or other ego crutches, PC personality came out during play

Honestly, I'd play or even run old D&D if the stars were right.

Until then, I'm happy to play, blog about, or GM other fare.

Good luck D&D lovers.

Sometimes, things need to fall apart to fall into place.

Friday, January 6, 2023

The Stupidity of Social Skills in Combat

I was on Twitter the other day, and someone wrote something akin to "I want a system that lets me use social skills in combat."


This is either a gamer power fantasy of using all your abilities freely, or a terrible delusion of roleplayers about how social skills, especially in combat, work.

Let's delve into this.

Delusion # 1 - Social Skills Are Magical

In reality, social skills do seem like magic. You simply pass wind over your vocal cords and someone does what you want them to do.


In linguistics, we call this illocutionary force. But illocutionary force has many limits, such as context, relation of speaker and listener, etc. This is how UPenn defines it:

"Illocutionary force is the combination of

  • the illocutionary point of an utterance, and

  • the particular presuppositions and attitudes that must accompany that point, including the

    • strength of the illocutionary point

    • preparatory conditions

    • propositional content conditions 

    • mode of achievement

    • sincerity conditions, and

    • strength of sincerity conditions."

This means that social skills do not work the same for everyone. A prince might have no trouble bluffing his way past the palace guard, but a beggar would not be listened to, and might get the butt of a pike or even a night in irons for trying to do so. In real life, someone is likely to open a window if you ask them politely and the room is hot, but unlikely to do so if you call them an idiot or it will let in too much cold.

In the short term (i.e. game session), the GM has the right to decide if a PC's abilities are useful or relevant to any situation in which a player might want to use them. In the long term (i.e. over a scenario or campaign), the GM also has to know what social abilities PCs have, and suggest opportunities to use them for advantage. By doing so, he or she teaches players what are acceptable uses of social skills, and encourages them to play into this, to everyone's satisfaction.

Delusion # 2 - Talking In A Fight

I don't think lots of roleplayers have been in actual barfights, because if they had, they would know that fighting is the time to shut up and kill or be killed, not flap your gums. I've been in three, two in Canada, one in Japan. More importantly, I've used my own social skills to avoid fighting at least a half dozen times. I've also seen when social skills backfire and violence breaks out.

There are basically three times for using your social skills - before, during, and after the fight.

Before A Fight

If things are heading towards combat, you should have a chance to use social skills to avoid needless combat. Police and social workers call this de-escalation. Note that if your foes are hellbent on conflict, ie they are under orders, have a valid grievance, or have the advantage of numbers or firepower, then this should either be impossible or improbable (ie skill penalty or limited success, ie they ask you to surrender immediately). Also, people spoiling for a fight are generally already wary of one another, and so should not fall for Cons or Fast Talk (ie heavy penalty or flat out impossible). Instead, using Persuade with some sort of sincere promise or give and take should have a chance of success.

During A Fight

To be honest, once fists are flying, talk is usually out of the question. I got a bloody lip in a 2-on-1 situation in Canada for trying this. About the only option I can see is using a Taunt of some sort to have your opponent drop their guard in favour of a more aggressive attack. This means they will do more damage if they attack, but you get a better chance to hit them as well. Note that using Taunts should also preclude any mercy after the fight, as the opponent is fighting in (to them) righteous anger, and thus are unlikely to stop without some sort of Will roll or intervention of allies.

After A Fight

When the fight is done, there are basically only two situations - you've either won or lost.

If you've won, you can choose your demands, but the degree to which they are met will depend on your social rolls. Talk insincerely or roll poorly and expect revenge at some point; offer the losing side a way out or mutual agreement and roll well and you can expect at least peace, at most a new ally. You shouldn't have to roll for immediate conditions (ie drop your weapons, pick up your wounded and walk away if you want to live), but will need to roll if making longterm or unreasonable demands (ie never come to town again, go back and bring us your leader for arrest).

If you lose, you may ask for mercy or clemency, but again, only if sincere or reasonable. Trying to Con the victor into surrendering should be met with laughter, but asking for a horse to bring the wounded to a hospital or church should have a chance of success, and might not even require a roll.

I've had players complain to me that they 'want to be the hero,' and use their social skills willy nilly to manipulate NPCs. However, even heroes in life and fantasy  have setbacks, defeats, and captures. It is persevering DESPITE these setbacks that makes real heroes, and games I've been in where players' egos are fanned with continued, unopposed heroic successes burn bright for a session or two, but inevitably fizzle out due to a lack of stakes.

Delusion # 3 - Spamming Social Skills

This is not combat specific per se, but I see lots of players trying to spam social skills, in other words to pile on skill rolls. For example, I have seen one PC Persuade a guard to let them into a stronghold, then other players line up to Fast Talk or Con them into getting goodies.

Uh, no.

I advise any GMs to allow ONE social ability rule per interaction, and that the PC with the highest ability should get first crack, as I proposed in a previous post on alternate forms of initiative. In the real world, if you manage to get a discount on a car rental from an agent, but then your friends chime in asking for more perks, the agent is likely to feel used, rescind the offer, and tell you to take your business elsewhere.

Basically, NPCs should not be patsies or social punching bags for loot, but instead living and breathing inhabitants of their world, and only acquiesce to social requests to a certain point.

Genre-Specific Exceptions

Since we are playing games with genre tropes that often circumvent reality, I have to acknowledge that there is some leeway in certain types of games. In Superhero or Swashbuckling games, heroes and villians should be allowed to have dramatic speeches with social effect in certain circumstances.  I'll leave the details to GMs, but there are at least 2 considerations:

1) The social skill use must fit the situation, ie superhuman telling hordes of weak foes to surrender and live, and expecting them to agree.

2) Anyone giving such a speech, be they PC or NPC, must be free of interruption. No one shoots Batman when he is explaining that he is the night, or touches Robin Hood until he is done insulting King John. Genre specific social rules should be tit for tat, and not just an advantage for players at the expense of the villians, who should be actual threats, able to profit from the conventions of their game genre or world. 


Social Skills as I conceive of them can only be used in four contexts:

1 Out Of Combat - To elicit a situation-specific response if proper conditions are met.

2 Before Combat - To de-escalate conflict.

3 During Combat - To taunt your foe into reckless attacks, but with the understanding that they'll come at you harder and without mercy.

4 After Combat - To beg for mercy when you lose, or negotiate long term conditions acceptable to both parties.

Also, stop spamming social skills, as it deflates the tension from dealing with NPCs.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Threat Levels in Horror Gaming pt 2 - advancement

 I realized that in the last post I did not articulate a way to change threat levels. Here are some ideas for progressing from one threat level to the next:

Babes in the Woods

Lose 1/10 Sanity, finish 1 adventure, OR kill one Mythos creature.

Fighting Back

Lose 1/4 Sanity, finish 3 adventures, OR kill three types of Mythos creatures.

Hunted Becomes Hunters

One party member goes insane, the party finishes a major campaign, OR kill one servitor or major Mythos opponent.

Nuclear Option

The only way out is death, insanity, or retirement to NPC ally status.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Threat Levels in Horror Gaming

 Horror gaming in older systems such as Call of Cthulhu often does not work as intended because players don't follow the tenets of the genre. Whereas the first stop on many a PC's journey is the gun shop, arming up is usually a last resort for characters from cosmic horror, and is arguably futile.

In game terms, this mismatch often translates to a jarring gaming experience, such as a cakewalk against supposedly unstoppable odds, or a TPK from misuse of lethal weapons. I have had an entire campaign derailed by an attempt to rob dynamite from a construction site, and a PC commit suicide after being stopped for wielding firearms in broad daylight.

To keep the horror in horror while letting the PCs be heroes, I'll be using the following 4 levels of  threat escalation to determine what resources player characters should have access to.

Note that the key to using threat levels is to communicate them clearly to players and gain their agreement that the current level for individuals or the entire party matches their roleplaying motivation, backstory, or experience.

1 Babes in the Woods

The investigators don't know the horror is real yet, and are unprepared for it.Weapons are limited to improvised or any provided by occupation (ie a Policeman or woman would have a Luck roll to see if they are carrying their service revolver, nothing more). Opponents are usually human or near-human, such as cultists or disguised serpent men. Conversely, downed PCs may be captured or wake in hospital, and should rarely be killed.

2 Fighting Back

The investigators have caught a glimpse of the true nature of the universe, and the horrors within. PCs are limited to any legal armament that they have the time and finances to secure, but still have to conceal or secure these while in public or risk investigation by the authorities. They will still be unarmed in social or official venues. Opponents are bestial or monstrous, such as Byakhee or Mi Go. One PC may be killed, but fleeing should allow others to avoid a TPK.

3 The Hunted Become The Hunters

Investigators are now seasoned and somewhat paranoid, being the object of frequent attack, and never have less than one concealed weapon on them at all times. PCs have gained access to illegal armament, and are often in emergency situations where they can be wielded openly. Opponents can be aliens or servitors of the gods themselves, such as the Wendigo, or Cthuloids. If players aren't cautious, they should be warned that deaths of one or all party members are in the cards.

4 The Nuclear Option

Investigators can have any weapon, and may even call on airstrikes or torpedoes. However, considering that they are up against the Old Ones or Outer Gods themselves, this should be effectively useless, a time-biding measure to stave off armageddon. PCs are putting themselves in mortal peril, and the possibility of deaths or even TPKs should be acknowledged by all at the table.

Note that the Keeper can adjust the level of threat to match the campaign. Call of Cthulhu games typically can start as level 1 Babe In The Woods horror one shots, or else could be level 2 investigators. However, Esoterrorists characters are created with their first supernatural meeting behind them, so usually start out at level 2 or 3.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Thoughts on D&D and WotC-Hasbro

So, as you can tell, I am pretty much over D&D. When I started this blog in 2013, the OSR was well established and had gone from a reaction to the 3E glut and shocking 4E paradigm shift to a creative force in its own right. I was delighted to have access to retroclones like Swords & Wizardry, as well as all the crazy free blog materials and quality indie published materials (ASE, Death Frost Doom, and Barrowmaze come to mind). Bloggers were generally open minded and friendly. Roleplaying seemed to be entering a new golden age.

That said, I quickly moved away from ye olde game, hosted the first non-D&D blog challenge in 2014, and found my interest much higher for BRP / Chaosium games, especially the old Stormbringer game. In the early OSR days, blogs for Traveller, 007, and Villains and Vigilantes among others, were easily found, and just as accepted.

But gradually D&D overtook the blogosphere, and the OSR became a D&D echo chamber. Then WotC hired OSR names to recreate 5E along old D&D lines and co-opt the very movement that had opposed their corporate product development.

Along with this came incidents of sexism and homophobia that tarnished the open nature of the OSR. At the same time, the corporate marketing push to brand D&D as 'The Most Popular Roleplaying Game in the World' became insufferable and inescapable, and I joined a Facebook page called I'm Begging You To Play Another RPG, where I was both able to indulge my anti-corporate gaming snark with likeminded folk, while finding out about killer indie games like Lasers & Feelings, Bluebeard's Wife, and Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Add to that the success of scandinavian-produced games like Mork Borg and Aliens, and it seems like another golden age.

But D&D Inc. seems to be in a dark age. Although I feel no pity for the corporate overlords, I do feel lots for the old gamers who see 'their game' being warped beyond recognition, as well as the new players who have (literally) bought into the newest edition's focus on builds and character concepts linked to race + item + joke or pun, and are being asked to pony up for lower quality materials or a whole new edition. 

This year seems to be a crisis for WotC D&D considering its recent missteps. I have recently become active on Twitter, and based on some interactions I have had there, here are my thoughts on the D&D dark ages and the way ahead.

1. The Failure of Spelljammer

As I tweeted on the failure of 5E Spelljammer and WotC's apology, "How the hell can you fuck up Spelljammer?" Spelljammer and Planescape were the pinnacle of 2E gonzo settings, and both worked well, unlike Maztica or Al-Qadim, which arguably misfired. This is a huge corporate misstep and shows two things:

1) WotC does not understand D&D
2) Hasbro does not care about the legacy of D&D

Once again, these old games are available in PDF form and easily run with a retroclone. Failing to produce a quality product for the current edition is a serious shot to the corporate foot. 

2. The D&D One Announcement

On the heels of the Spelljammer debacle came the announcement of D&D One, a supposed new edition that would be backward compatible with ALL previous editions.

Once again, this is pure corporate horseshit, and people aren't buying it. I tweeted my thoughts on the matter, and got a massive response:

Hasbro needs to realize that their job isn't to develop D&D - they lack the love, the creative freedom, and the incentive to do that. instead, all they have to do is make D&D available in print, POD, or PDF, let 3rd person parties develop materials, and shut up. They do need to implement some form of quality control or repeat the 3E glut's excesses, but otherwise, shut up, steward materials, and let the money roll in.

3. The Race Problem

Now comes the WotC announcement that they won't refer to 'race' anymore, but use 'species' instead, which is stirring up some gamers. This again is corporate strategy - there is no such thing as bad press, as Barnum once said. 

Not using the term race is pure pinkwashing - corporate wokeness for profit. Branding WotC as 'sparkle trolls' misunderstands the corporate scamjob they are trying to foist on gamers - they care as little about this as most OSR gamers. 

However, living in a world as racist as this one (I'm native and now foreigner in Japan, so I know that of which I speak), I don't think saving the word race is a hill worth dying on. As I suggested on Twitter, why not use 'folk' instead? 'Species' is such a modern, scientific word, and totally takes away from the suspension of disbelief needed for fantasy roleplaying.

4. How to save D&D?

So, if you love D&D of whatever edition, you must be asking yourself this question. Here is my suggestion:

D&D is not roleplaying. You like getting a party together and dungeon crawling? There are TONS of other games that give just as good experiences, and are better suited to individual tastes. Google 'alternatives to D&D' and you get 




(I'd play Dungeon World or Heart / Spire myself. I played a game of Ironsworn a few years back and it literally mopped the floor with most D&D games I had played before).

As for Hasnro-WotC D&D next, I think Feist says it better than I ever could: