Episode 81: Uninfected Curates

This month, Mike and Roger do RPG-a-day, or more accurately RPG-a-3.1-minutes. Apologies for the audio quality; Roger messed up the setup (it won’t happen (in that specific way) again), then mostly rescued the recording with Heroic Sound Engineering Skills.

We mentioned:

Mythras and Mythras Worlds at the Bundle of Holding (until 9 September), RPG a Day (Facebook link, sorry), Sisters of the Raven, The Grognard Files, Battlestar Galactica, In a Wicked Age, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk, Madness Dossier, Forsooth!, GURPS Monster Hunters series, GURPS Fantasy: Portal Realms, Dread, time loop stories from 12:01 PM to 12:01 to Groundhog Day to Replay, Dark Universe, Tékumel, Roger’s WWII game, and The Dracula Dossier.

Here’s our tip jar.

(We do get free access to the Bundle of Holding contents, but this happens whether or not we plug them.)

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com, Silent Partner, and other royalty-free sources.

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Time Loops: Wikipedia seems to trace the time loop idea back to the 1940s, Richard Lupoff’s complaints notwithstanding, but it’s going to depend on your definition; I recall a Victorian story which looked like a time loop but turned out to be a story about damnation — and “you are trapped in a recurring situation you can’t escape for eternity” presumably goes back to Sisyphus in that sense. A proper time loop probably has to have either a pseudo-scientific explanation or an escape clause.

Evolution of RPGs: First off, we have to remind ourselves that, to a first approximation, “RPGs” means “D&D (and maybe Pathfinder) plus a rounding error”. And that sort of RPG can only evolve within very tight constraints. But anyway, I’ve long said that we know what RPGs evolve into: choose-your-own-adventure books, and Warhammer, and computer games, and Magic: The Gathering, and who-knows-what next. Anything that takes the motifs and art style that D&D pioneered, and subtracts the difficult or long-winded bits.

But RPGs continue alongside their descendants. They’re basically coelacanths and Wollemi pine at this point.

Portal Fantasies: I think that anyone planning to run a portal fantasy game these days has to take a look at Kieron Gillen’s Die at some point beforehand, if only because some of their players may turn out to have done so. Gillen has been known to refer to it as “Goth Jumanji”; I tend to think of it as “Narnia gone very wrong indeed.


Does Gillen have them going into the other realm? From the description it sounds rather as if the other realm were coming to them.

Oh, the protagonists very definitely enter the other realm – twice, even. The description is very slightly misleading, I suppose; what “returns” to them on the second occasion is a contact from the other realm (just as, say, Narnia makes contact in Dawn Treader), and dramatically, the consequences of their actions decades before.

I’m not sure that genre emulation is a trap so much as it is a fad. It’s going to be the in thing for a while, and then fade away. Like pseudo-medieval fantasy and “you are the monster” horror I suspect it’s going to stick around as one of the standard types of RPG, but I suspect that eventually its popularity will wane.

I think on reflection that this really mixes two of the cues - we aren’t going to get a useful critical vocabulary for RPGs from people who see them primarily as ways of telling existing styles of story.

But I think I’m agreeing with Phil when I theorise that the reason RPGs remain a minority hobby is that they’re hard work to do well, and if you are prepared to put up with a bit less – if you want to bash monsters on a map of an underground complex while not developing a personality that can impair your actions – there are easier ways to do it. (Gloomhaven and Descent are the recent names I’d say are missing from Phil’s list.) And most people who hear about games will find one of those other larger hobbies first, and unless they have an itch which can really only be scratched by RPGs they’ll have no reason not to stick with the board or computer games.


“Genre emulation” is a slippery term, really. The first game I encountered where I realised that the designers weren’t going for memetic “realism” but were consciously and efficiently emulating a genre was Champions, back in the early '80s. (And there are people within the so-hip-it-hurts genre-emulating-games movement who fully acknowledge the point.) Admittedly, the genre it was emulating wasn’t so much “superhero comics”, as I thought at the time, as “'70s/'80s four-colour Claremont/Byrne superhero comics”, but it did the job with a smart wargames designer’s precision and efficiency.

So I tend to think that we’ll always see large elements of genre emulation in tabletop RPGs, because only obsessive purists want purist memetic realism, which is itself a trap, leading at the extreme to a rather introverted, geeky approach to designing games which never actually get played, because the creator is too busy refining the upper/lower body strength distinction to actually recruit players. It’s notable that even the most memetic-realistic game that currently has any kind of audience (GURPS) has genre-emulating mechanics throughout (Luck, Serendipity, Gizmos, Destiny, the healing rules…). The genre-is-everything, who-needs-a-physics-model approach is doubtless a fashion that will come and go, but games will always need to use genre as a touchstone.

There’s genre-reality, and there’s story shape, and they overlap to some extent but not entirely.

I think that you can have an enjoyable game om a 70s/'80s four-colour Claremont/Byrne superhero comics genre reality (the brick can lift a supertanker without it breaking in half, superpowered punches are more powerful than guns) without also having to follow a series of up-down story beats in the model that Hamlet’s Hit Points would encourage.

There’s also the fact that genres change… or at least the depiction of them in telly and movies changes, and to a lesser extent in books/comics (mainly because their readership is lower than TV viewing figures).

So it is only in recent (ish) years that anyone needed to emulate - for example - Scandi Noir crime series or YA teenage girls fighting dystopian governments. And no-one wanted to emulate the tired old zombie apocalypse genre until 28 Days Later, the Walking Dead, In The Flesh, I Zombie, etc kicked some life back into the tropes.

Or Ye Olde telly science fiction - ropey special effects, terribly choreographed fights. No-one wants to emulate ropey and terrible. Thus instead of emulating that, you put in rules for the physics of cargo loading in 0.37g, and 5 pages of tables of spectral data on stars. Or perhaps that crunch is emulating the scenes from Golden Age SF short stories where the heroes feverishly apply slide rules to solve the plot???

Meanwhile, an observation from one of my best friends. Back in the day, we used to write a lot of fanfic for the SF series we loved all to bits. She’s stopped writing fanfic. Mine has dwindled to a trickle. We discussed this, and she said her reason for stopping is that all the shows she loves these days have no “gaps” to fit the possibilities and world-building and what-ifs of fanfic into. The shows have become too sophisticated. There is little (her words):

chance to explore events and themes that you just know the source material is never going to go near

For instance, I loved the Battlestar Galactica reboot, but never felt an urge to write BSG fanfic. Though I did GM a BSG RPG. I wonder if that was subconscious thinking that any fanfic I wrote about character X would be rendered obsolete if it was later revealed they were a Cylon? (And I was never into writing PWP.) But in an RPG you invent a new ship and a new crew, so the canon characters are tangential to the main RPG plot.

So these days perhaps RPGs can emulate a genre, because there is an expectation that character development and soap opera is part of what you are emulating, not just crash bang action and the physics of hyperdrive?

Heh, funny you should mention that; the latest Grognard Files has a partial session of the (unofficial) Blake’s 7 RPG, in which the GM is definitely making the point that, yes, this planet looks like a gravel pit. Not sure how sustainable that would be in a longer campaign, though.

I’ve never been much of a fanficcer but when I contemplate it it’s about series that have definitively ended. I want to continue the story of Marjorie Phelps, the sculptor who turns up in a couple of the Peter Wimsey books, rather than to speculate on the characters from The Good Place and risk being pushed aside by the actual final season.