Cardboard Children: Being A Janitor

Hello youse.

This week I’ve been hard at it, shooting the second series of Burnistoun, a BBC TV show I do here in Scotland. Dressing up as Popes and superheroes all day and learning lines all night doesn’t leave you a great deal of time for games. Sitting around between scenes gives you plenty of time to talk about games, though, so I’ve been telling people about the games I play and encouraging them to try some out. I mentioned RPGs to someone, and got a bit of a blank look. And that got me thinking.

In the comments section last week, or maybe the week before, an interesting question popped up. “What exactly is a pen and paper RPG?” Something along those lines. And I realised that I had been referring to pen and paper RPGs in this column without ever stopping to explain exactly what one is. I had obviously assumed that everyone was just like me, and had spent their teenage years creating RPG campaigns for friends instead of sticking their tongues down the throats of young brunettes OH GOD WHAT A WASTE.

So, this week, I want to talk about the tabletop pen and paper RPG. A brief introduction and an explanation, so I don’t need to cover any of this again when I go into detail on specific games in future columns. And then some pointers on how to be a good Gamesmaster.

You good people play PC games, so you’ll be well aware of what an RPG is. It’s a Role Playing Game. An example of an RPG in the PC gaming world would be something like Return To Krondor or maybe the budget re-release of Return To Krondor. In an RPG game you “Play A Role”. (That’s where the “Role-Playing” element of RPG comes from.) And then you Play that Role in a Game. That completes the Holy Trinity of letters R, P and G, and explains why they sit together, and why they sit together in that order, and what they mean, and why they mean that.

In a PC game, the administrative element of the mechanics of your character’s statistics is taken out of your hands, allowing you to better focus on the immersive experience of moving a stiffly animated freakish-looking fucker around a half-arsed game world, having unbending pre-scripted encounters with automatons who have voices supplied by the best amateur theatre understudies in the UK.

In a tabletop pen and paper RPG, you have to create everything inside your own mind. Your imagination, which is usually only called into play when trying to squeeze some tiny drops of pleasure out of fucking your spouse*, is suddenly given the job of creating a living, breathing universe. Everything you want to do in the game, you can try to do. If the Gamesmaster tells you you’ve just wandered into the lair of a Dragon, you can choose to fight it, or fondle it, or sing to it, or cook for it, or challenge it to a game of horseshoes, or do a hundred squats in front of it, or teach it how to use the Sky+ remote control. If the Gamesmaster is happy to let you try to do any of these things, you will have the chance to do it. No PC game will allow this to happen. Ever. Unless it’s the next PC game by Peter Molyneux, and the person who is telling you that Peter Molyneux’s game will be able to do this is Peter Molyneux.

Almost all pen and paper RPGs are fundamentally the same, which is why we like to call them “pen and paper RPGs” despite many of them not needing pens or paper anymore. They have a Gamesmaster, and some players, and some created characters. They have a setting of some kind – the future, the past, a fantasy world, a sci-fi world, a zombie apocalypse. They have a ruleset that allows you to work out the success or failure of certain tasks. Usually you’ll use dice to communicate with the unruly spirits of Fate, but other methods exist (even the use of Jenga blocks).

Each player will be responsible for the upkeep of his character. They will have to keep track of abilities, knowledge, possessions, motivations, and will often be responsible for fleshing out a backstory. A bad Gamesmaster is in charge of everything else. The universe, the non-player characters, the encounters, the storyline, the goals, the friends, the enemies –

Wait, hold up… Did I just type “A bad Gamesmaster is in charge of everything else”? Yes, I did. And here’s why – a good Gamesmaster merely pretends to be in charge of everything else. In truth, he is handing the universe over to the players, to shape it as they see fit. He’s a universe wrangler, that’s all, keeping everything under control, but beautifully in flux.

The Gamesmaster is the key to the whole thing. So here’s my list of pointers for any first time GM.


  • 1. Be Prepared: Know how to play the game. Make sure you’ve read that costly core rulebook from back to front. Then make sure you’ve read the hugely expensive Gamesmaster’s Guide. Then make sure you’ve read the disgustingly extortionate Bestiary book. If you’re running an adventure from one of these books, be familiar with it. The game will die on its arse if you have to bring things to a halt to find out what should happen next if one of your players unexpectedly pushes a table leg through the throat of an important NPC.
  • 2. Don’t Be Shy: Gamesmastering always works best if the GM is someone who is happy to get in character, and try out some “acting”. It might feel odd to be staring lovingly into the eyes of one of your best friends, telling them that you love them, and that you want your death to be avenged. But if Michael Jackson’s ghost can do that to Uri Geller every night, you can do it in an RPG session. It’ll make things much more entertaining. There’s nothing worse than being in a game that has a GM who is lacking in confidence, and is visibly red-faced when delivering some saucy barmaid dialogue. It’s awful. Sexy, but awful.
  • 3. Put The Work In: All good RPGs have good adventures prepared for you, written by some of the best people in the business. But no adventure or campaign will ever be as good as one the GM has created by himself, tailored specifically for the wants and needs of his players. Let’s just imagine that in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign I GM, I have a Wood Elf player who is known to make questionable moral choices. Let’s just imagine that. I’ll try to imagine that. It’s my job, in this case, to make sure there are plenty of moral choices for that player to make. If a player likes to surprise people with his character’s nature, then the GM needs to create the opportunity for those surprises. Facilitate, facilitate, facilitate, until they call you Facilitate Kendal, and you’re all living the good life.
  • 4. Focus On Storytelling: There might be a bit of arguing over this one. For me, a good GM always focuses on the storytelling. Now, you could say that this advice doesn’t apply when you’re playing an RPG that is more combat-heavy. I would stare at you and say nothing. But I’d be thinking this next sentence so powerfully that you would feel it reverberating in your ovaries. Strong storytelling improves EVERYTHING. Without the storytelling, your players won’t care if their character dies. If they don’t care about their character, they won’t make meaningful choices. If the players aren’t making meaningful choices, you’re not playing an RPG. You’re just throwing some dice and seeing what numbers turn up.
  • 5. Use Aids: Earlier, I spoke about how the RPG demands a lot from your imagination. That doesn’t mean you can’t jazz things up a bit with some visual aids. As long as jazzing up is all you’re doing, and you’re not steering people down a creative dead end. If you have a little combat encounter outside a town, it’s often handy to quickly sketch out a layout of the area if your players ask for it. It gets everybody on the same page when discussing tactical approaches to combat. They might, of course, be fine with visualising the area and abstracting things from there. Some games, like D&D, demand that you are more specific with the positional layout of characters and enemies. That doesn’t mean you can’t go back “in-head” for all the between battle stuff. It’s also good to use handouts. Players always enjoy being given a letter to read, or an actual physical mock-up of a wanted poster. These are fun little things that enhance the experience for everybody. Put some music on too. That can often help with the atmosphere, if you have the right kind of music at hand. For fantasy games I recommend NOW 6, which features Feargal Sharkey’s “A Good Heart” and for Sci-Fi stuff it’s always nice to crank up the soundtrack to the Clooney and Pfeiffer Romantic Comedy “One Fine Day”.
  • 6. Get Over Yourself: Yeah, okay, so you’re a Gamesmaster. Big fucking deal. Anyone who has a core rulebook and some friends can be one. And in the grand scale of things, what’s so good about being a gamesmaster? Some people are rock stars. Some people are champion skateboarders. So no-one wants to see you going on a big ego trip. Yeah, okay, so you prepped an epic story for everyone. So what? Your job isn’t to tell that story, your job is just to let everyone else fuck it up or improve it. You’re there to clean up the mess. You’re a janitor. That’s all you are. A janitor. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with being a janitor.
  • I’m going to stop there, because I could talk about RPGing all day, and I’d rather see you guys talking about it. What RPGs are your favourites? Do you want to argue about D&D 4th Edition again? Feel free.

    Do you want to know which RPG I think is the best RPG of all time? It’s Call of Cthulhu. It’s not something many people will dispute, I don’t think. It’s the best because it is ALL story, ALL the time. But I’ll be getting deeper into CoC further down the line.

    Next week I’ll be back onto board games, with a cool photo story. Don’t miss it!


  1. Skippy says:

    Point #6 should be in every core book, and is possibly the only thing I would add to the GMing advice section in Spirit of the Century. In exchange, I would suggest that SOTC’s “when in doubt, send in the ninjas” be added as #7.

    • Harlander says:

      Edge of Midnight, a cool noir-heavy game bestows Raymond Chandler’s immortal advice:

      If you become stuck, have someone burst into the room holding a gun.

  2. Nick says:

    I oved Call of the Cthulhu back when I played P&P RPGs, that and Star Wars and Deadlands were our staples.

  3. Gehrschrein says:

    Ahhh, fuck D&D. Cthulhu is where it’s at!

    Also, what does the “*” after “spouse” stand for?

    • RagingLion says:

      Yeah, I scrolled down the page to see the footnote, but there wasn’t one.

    • RagingLion says:

      Update: just found it.

    • Sam says:

      uh I didn’t find the footnote either, but I’m sort of confused as to why the author thought that that was an appropriate analogy to make. that combined with the sentence about tongues and throats are sort of weird descriptions of sex/ sexy things and seem kind of out of place in a column about board games.

  4. Vinraith says:

    I always felt that creating interesting situations and problems to solve was vastly more important than story telling, personally, and still do. Then again, I think story is a very distant priority in PC RPG’s as well. Give me something with strong mechanics, a huge explorable world, and a lot of interesting stuff to find and do, and the story can take a flying leap for all I care. If you want a good story, go read a book, gaming’s an interactive medium and the emphasis should always be on that interactivity. Watching your GM act out scenes from their manuscript is vastly less appealing than trying to figure out how to get out of the no-win situation you’ve fallen into.

    • Eamo says:

      Storytelling is all about the stuff you do. Having interesting things to do is the storytelling part. The broader plot doesn’t matter. I am pretty sure when Mr. Florence mentions storytelling he is talking about the moment to moment narrative rather than the overarching campaign storyline which, generally speaking, is of little importance other than to give a sense of cohesion, the actual quality of that doesn’t really matter too much.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Yeah, Vin: you’re confusing storytelling with story.


    • Vinraith says:

      OK, then, if that’s the case then I’ve no argument with the piece and will simply relate my own personal GMing revelation, born from years of experience:

      No matter what solution/escape route/series of events you’ve planed, your players are almost always going to end up doing something you don’t expect and foul the whole thing up (ie the janitor analogy above). The best way to get interesting play out of a smart group, then, is NOT TO PLAN A WAY OUT. Give them no win situations and watch them surprise you by finding a way to win, there’s literally no greater joy in PnP RPGing for a GM than watching your players do something completely, brilliantly crazy and my sense is there’s no greater joy for them than thinking said something up.

    • Torgen says:

      Our Top Secret campaigns were the worst for things *never* going according to plan, to the point that whoever was GM that weekend just planned it out as if they were the evil mastermind, trying to think ahead of possible counters to their security, then just gave the agents the assignment and let the chips fall where they may.

      I remember one episode set in a Latin American jungle stronghold of a warlord. Sneaking along the riverbank, we found a camouflaged boat slip with a speed boat.

      We took half the distributor cables and hid them in nearby bushes, making mental note of which one went where in case we needed the speedboat for our own escape, then used the access tunnel to infiltrate the base.

    • Eamo says:

      The trick to dealing with players who always break your plans is what I call the “all roads lead to Rome” solution. You plan out the story and no matter what they do it leads inevitably to the next step of your quest. If they don’t go anywhere near that pit trap that you carefully placed a valuable NPC in then that NPC just happens to be around the next corner waiting for them anyway, if they have a sword of dragonslaying when they meet your dragon which would trivialise the encounter then the dragon smirks and points out that such swords only work once before being rendered inert and unfortunately the one the heros have has been used.

      Wherever they go, whatever they do, the GM is there to make sure that that just happened to be exactly what was supposed to happen and if you can adjust your adventure on the fly to make that seem so then it makes planning a lot easier. With experience and practice you will become better at pre-planning to cover these eventualities such that the game actually is more freeform, that what they do does matter more but generally speaking the players aren’t going to notice the difference. All they care about when they go left or right is that there is something interesting there, it doesn’t really matter that they would have gotten the same result whichever way they went.

  5. Clive dunn says:

    Back in ’84 I was DM’ing a D&D campaign with some friends. I think it was S2 or S1. Anyway, there was an archway which, when the player stepped through, would reverse their sex. My friend with his ‘brave’ fighter stepped through the glowing portal and became a woman. (naturally the sensible thing to have done would of been to throw a captured kobold through)
    He was so upset that his mighty warrior was now a warriorette that he burst out crying and ran home to his mum and dad. The next thing I knew was that his dad was battering at the front door demanding that his sons transgender character be turned back into a man. He proceeded to stand over us with his arms folded until I had reversed the sex change.
    Suffice to say there are many hidden dangers in being a DM.

    • Robert Florence says:

      That’s so funny. Thanks for posting that. Hahaha!

    • Nick says:

      One of my friends used to sulk if his character failed to have sex with an NPC.

    • Devenger says:

      Maybe I’m just easily swayed by players getting upset (I’ve had it happen), but in that case, I would have just calmly suggested the player have their character walk through the archway again. Regardless of whether I’d originally intended a character be sex changed twice, it seems a reasonable and sufficiently setting-consistent ‘fix’ to the upsetting event. Though I tend to save serious character-changing possibilities for players who are willing to accept them and move on (I know some players I’ve had would take issue with their character being the opposite sex to themselves, and I respect that even if I don’t feel the same way).

      On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d run a game for anyone who feels the need to run home to daddy and make the game work right for them.

  6. Colthor says:

    Man, I always thought Pen & Paper RPGs were like Sword & Sorcery RPGs, but for Angry from Manchester.

  7. KBKarma says:

    Very well written. The few times I’ve GMed, I’ve used premade scenarios eight times out of ten.

    Of course, since I GM Paranoia XP, the games everyone’s enjoyed the most were the ones where I had prepared nothing and just let the players loose on Alpha Complex (and each other, of course!) for five hours.

    I’ll be running an Unknown Armies one-shot soon, though, so I’ll take these to heart.

    • GrassyGnoll says:

      I can’t remember a Pre-Writen scenario that actually made it past the first encounter intact, always had to wing it after that because the players would ALWAYS do something the writers hadn’t covered for. I’d have friends buy games and the scenarios I’d run and come back shouting that they didn’t remember the scenario as written and that mine had been better!

    • KBKarma says:

      I once wrote a scenario for a gaming night, involving animatronic Care Bears that shot lasers out of their chests. I’d prepared where they’d go and a non-railroading method of keeping them on track, and what may happen if they went off in the wrong direction. To my amazement, they figured out that the dodgy RnD researcher was a ProTech spy (which, to be fair, wasn’t that hard), then annihilated him. THEN got on with the scenario. I wasn’t expecting that.

    • Artist says:

      Once Ive designed a scenario for over a month that was meant to be played for the next 4-6 weekends. Put a lot of work into the details – well designed locations, complex villains, twisted story with ends and odds.

      When the scenario finally ran my damn players found a shortcut to finish the scenario after 3hrs of playing that I havent noticed before! The killed my complex scenario by simply being clever… but I smiled….

      And in the following week Ive silently killed their characters one by one – well hidden behind accidents! (Rule to learn: Never mess with god… err, the GM…)

    • KBKarma says:

      Cheeky. :D

      I was once at a con where the guy who’d written the scenario had forgotten to take teleportation into account. The scenario was about the characters escaping a dungeon. Yeah…

    • Artist says:

      Teleportation… that reminds me of the interesting parallism to Morrowind! If you watch speedruns of Morrowind you will notice that it involves using an levitation artefact to get to places that are restricted from access till later points in the game. So players just that hole in the system as a shortcut, like you explained the problem with the teleportation in that maze. =)

    • Swanky says:

      If I don’t use this opportunity to shamelessly plug my website — the only PARANOIA website frequented by such luminaries as XP Writer Alan Varney — then The Computer would never forgive me.

    • KBKarma says:

      Well. I wasn’t expecting that. I used to visit the site, but was going through a rather academic time when I arrived, so I didn’t use jParanoia or the forums that much. Allen responded to a question I’d posted regarding Un- skills, which has since become a house-rule in my games.

      Also: heavens, Editting is back!

    • Quirk says:

      Love Unknown Armies. I’ve had a lot of fun GMing that game.

    • Snidesworth says:

      The best premade adventures are always the ones that give you a setting(a city, a country, a set of worlds), give you a bunch of details about all the stuff in it and set a series of events in motion. Then your players make contact with it and you go from there, improvising, augmenting and drawing on the prewritten material. Linear adventures make far too many assumptions about how the players will act and, worst of all, assume that events will proceed in a certain fashion.

  8. Lambchops says:

    Yay, more Burnistoun. Now I can stop posting unrelated comments wondering if it was coming back. Oh wait, kind of buggered that up already haven’t I? Ach, well.

    • phuzz says:

      Currently suffering because two mates came down from scotland last night, in amongst the random music we were playing off youtube to each other they happened to play a bit of some comedy with two scots blokes in a voice activated lift. Now, this morning, head hurting I browse a bit of RPS, hoping that it will succeed where ibuprofen has failed, and what do I find? That Robert is in some telly show, intrigued I follow the link.
      Coincidence? I THINK NOT.
      No I mean I’m literally not thinking, but still.

  9. Out Reach says:

    that skill sheet looked really awesome till I read “Make Maps”

    Seriously needs to be “Cartography”.

  10. Robert Florence says:

    *I’m not married, so that sentence doesn’t apply to my girlfriend.

  11. MarkSide says:

    Ooooh, thanks. Now I know!

    Thanks to last weeks replyants (?), too. Their literalistic approach to animal metaphors was much appreciated!

  12. Shon says:

    “Your imagination, which is usually only called into play when trying to squeeze some tiny drops of pleasure out of fucking your spouse*, is suddenly given the job of creating a living, breathing universe.”

    Just curious if that * was meant to denote a footnote. I was curious to see what additional wisdom might be shared on the pleasure out of fucking your spouse.

  13. Shon says:

    Oh, also my favorite RPG is ‘Over the Edge’ by Atlas. It is a story telling driven game about an island where weird people gravitate. Your players want to play a vampire, a secret agent, a lost son of Atlantis and a lost steam punk traveler in the same party? That’s the game for you.

    • Artist says:

      Atlas Games are my all-time heroes, cos theyve saved Ars Magica, one of the best Storyteller-RPGs of all time, from being lost in time and space! Curse you, Mark Rein-Hagen for dropping Ars Magica like a hot potato…

  14. Amarth says:

    So yeah, few days ago we had one of the best sessions in our group. We’re playing D&D 3.5.

    We were tasked by a pit fiend to destroy a village of Indians deep in the jungle. The poor guys were planning to summon a demon to defend themselves from a mighty invasion force and our friend the pit fiend couldn’t stand this. Well, we didn’t have a lot of choice in the manner so we set out.

    After a bit of mayhem in the jungle with some dinosaurs and accidentally setting the whole jungle on fire, we arrived at the village. Since the fire was going to destroy the village anyway, we tried to subtly sneak around the village, which of course failed because the Indians were running in all directions seeing the fire, and they noticed us. So we were forced to kill some of the villagers ourselves. The local protector comes down and asks us what we’re doing. The local protector being a couatl, a kind of flying magical snake, which is acting as a god towards the village. Long story short, exciting combat and we kill it.

    Then one of our party outs herself as a necromancer (we’re doing a kind of hidden backstory thing) and revives the couatl as a zombie. We now have a flying zombie snake with our party. We proceed to enter the now empty village (loot!). Only the leader remains in the central hut. He asks us why we killed his tribe, not yet knowing we even killed his god. So we explain about not wanting to have the demon summoned. And then he replies “No! That was the other village, across the river! We asked our god to protect us against them!” Oops.

    We quickly recover by making the now zombie ‘god’ break down the roof of the hut and grab the giant golden idol of himself. The plan is to drop it on some villagers in the next village. We proceed to enslave the tribe leader, planning to sell him to the next village, then murder everyone there and re-enslave the leader.

    Good times.

    • KBKarma says:

      Sounds like fun. Have you or your group considered shifting to Pathfinder? It requires very little conversion, and that conversion which is required can be carried out with the aid of the free conversion guide on the site. I’d mention 4th Edition as another alternative, but I think the two of us would probably start laughing, so I won’t. :D

      One of the most memorable sessions for me (the one I relate all the time) involved a 3.5 game using the Unofficial Planescape 3.5 Campaign Setting (available from Planewalker). We were in the Clerk’s Ward, as I recall, trying to deal with some out-of-control Xaositects (yes, I know). The party consisted of a human paladin, a bladeling fighter, an elven ranger (me), and a human rogue. Of the party, the only one who had joined a faction was the ranger. And he’d joined the Xaositects. Yeah…

      We eventually bumped into the three, by complete fluke. They were three chaond wild mages. One of them casts a spell, and a wild surge happens, resulting in summoning their greatest enemy. Who turned out to be a Harmonium officer. Who was in his bath at the time. After he left, at a remarkable speed, the rest of the party wailed into them, except for yours truly, who was feeling rather divided.

      Eventually, I worked out the ideal non-violent strategy. After one of their surges caused Dancing Lights, I challenged them. To a disco dance-off. Another cast Ghost Sound, and I and my opponent, a chaond with a three-foot-long candlestick-holder, began.

      It would have gone MUCH better if I’d had a higher Charisma. Or any ranks in Perform (dance). Anyway, I got my ass handed to me, and we were all knocked out.

      The next day, the others had been left in amusing positions, naked, and all their stuff had been stolen. Meanwhile, while I was naked, all my gear was neatly folded beside me.

      The rest of the party, needless to say, nearly killed me. But that’s another story… :D

  15. UmmonTL says:

    I like the DND4e Combat System and its the system I play the most.
    The world of Shadowrun is very cool and the system has some interesting mechanics but ultimately its too bloated.
    Call of Cthulu is really fun especially with a good GM but I sometimes wish that there would be more in the way of a combat system. We just had a game where our objective was to hunt down three zombie-children some guy had kept in his basement for 20 years before they dug their way out. We had to fight them or they would merrily murder everyone in our town and there was no information about what makes them tick so all traps we set were ultimately futile. And in a story like that it would really help to have some rules beyond “hit/evade” and “do X amount of damage”

    • MartinNr5 says:

      The entire idea with CoC is that you don’t know squat about your enemies and most of the time you either have to flee and leave the town to it’s fate or take a plunge into insanity by researching what the hell you need to do to in order to stop them.

      Zombies? That would at the most create some bad nightmares or fear of seafood when researched.

  16. Gary W says:

    Cool article.

    Don’t have time to read it though, I’m in the middle of “playing the role” of Master Chief in that well known CRPG, Halo.

  17. Artist says:

    “What exactly is a pen and paper RPG?” – OMG – I had to explain this over a thousand times in the past 20 years till my mind just popped up with “Oh, not again…” and “Doh!” a few years later…

    Finally “Lord of the Rings” came to the cinemas and the explaination was so much easier: “PnP RPG? Its something like playing “Lord of the Rings” with your friends!”
    Problem solved cos most folks instantly thought they understood. Well, at least I was of the hook, hehe!

  18. Artist says:

    Btw, that pic is taken from the character sheet of one of the best RPG-systems! Yay, RuneQuest FTW!

    • GrassyGnoll says:

      Looks more like Call of Cthulu to me. What I will add is that I agree the RuneQuest was the best RPG ever. May Issaries bless this site.

    • Chris D says:

      I think the Cthulhu Mythos skill might be a giveaway

    • GrassyGnoll says:

      And, If I’d read properly I’d have spelt Cthulhu properly,

    • Artist says:

      Actually Call of Cthulhu and also Stormbringer/Elric! and Pendragon are Systems based on RuneQuest by Sandy Peterson/Greg Stafford! So RuneQuest is the core-system!

      Btw. theres a nice story that Stafford offered RuneQuest to Gygax 1974 but he refused, cos it was a too great competition to his own crappy level-based D&D. RuneQuest was so much ahead of time…

      I wonder what would have happened to MMOs today when RuneQuest would have been the TSR system instead of D&D… no level grinding? Hm… all those questions…

    • GrassyGnoll says:

      Hmm, Stormbringer……..demon infused weapons and armour. MMO’s havn’t reached the point of RQ yet, which is somthing they may have to do so in the future because leveling and classes are getting a bit boreing.

  19. Dominic White says:

    The best DMs are the ones that can maintain a strict poker face, and resist asking players things like ‘Are you sure you want to do that? Really really sure?’ and just let the players dig themselves into a hole of spectacular proportions.

    One particularly clever DM didn’t ever tell me ‘That isn’t very clever’ when I came up with a plan to save a town from an imminent demon invasion by negotiating with a nearby green dragon, so that I could convince it that the demons would destroy the lands it hunts in. My character had only barely-above-average conversational skills, and the talks ended with the Dragon saying something along the lines of ‘My path is clear now. Thank you.’ and dissapearing.

    The party them returns to the town to find it on fire, a lot of half-eaten people in the streets, and word that a very, very well fed dragon was seen winging its way off to pastures greener, and less demon-threatened.


    • Rane2k says:

      In my (limited) pen&paper experience the answer to “Do you REALLY want to do that?” is a resounding “YES! Of course!” anyway. :-)

  20. Artist says:

    Imo the best GMs are the ones that are able to present a really open world. The best GM is able to guide players without letting them feel that they are guided. Lots of skill in improvisation is needed that many GMs cant properly provide.
    Risking that the players run past your well laid plot hooks, let them enjoy an interesting evening and then tell them that theyve technically completly missed the planned plot is a sign of great skill.

    • Devenger says:

      It is even more skilled to never let on they left the rails at all. Hell, I bet some of my players think I have a clue what they are doing to do some of the time. Which I don’t. ;)

  21. Serenegoose says:

    My favourite pen and paper RPG, without doubt, is Mage: The Ascension. There’s just something so wonderful about it that no other game I’ve even heard of can come close to. I love the background, I love the traditions, I love the technocracy, I love the philosophising – it’s brilliant.

    Plus you get to don ether goggles and gloat about your newest death ray before it blows up in your face. Delicious.

    • GrassyGnoll says:

      Mage was a game I sadly never got to play. I did play Vampire the Masquerade, 1st Ed with the rule book that fell apart in the Storytellers hands during the first session. He’s brought it as Gamesday when within days of it coming out. There was a game that was wonderful the first time, but after that you knew to much.

    • Artist says:

      Mage is no match to Ars Magica and Vampire is no match to Werewolf! (Sry, couldnt withstand but since Amiga vs. Atari is no longer among us one needs another competitive field ;)

    • Serenegoose says:

      @ Artist: Ars Magica I only read about, but it did sound really interesting. Given my love for mage, this should hardly come as a surprise :P


      @Grassygnoll – yeah, the biggest problem with the metaplot in general was that it told too much. Once it got its teeth into you, it kinda spoiled the game. Thing is, I think the NWODs approach ruins it by telling too little, so it’s a tough balancing act. I liked the vampires having this labyrinthine society that extended back eons… amnesiac vampires just didn’t hit the same spot.

      Mage the Ascension on the other hand, defiantly works under OWOD because of the idea that everything is true… subjectively. Magic works this way, but also this way, and also this way. At the same time. It was sprawling and utterly overwhelming and magnificent.

    • Artist says:

      (Well, how I miss my old Werewolf group…*sobs*)

    • Stromko says:

      I knew the NWOD Mage wouldn’t scratch the same itch when I could find no sign of technomancers like Sons of Ether and Technocrats in the setting.

  22. Artist says:

    Does anybody remember the media-witchhunt against roleplayers from the late 70s till early 90s? All those reports where roleplayers have been labled sick, satanists, victims of reality-loss and all that crap? The movie “Mazes and Monsters” with young Tom Hanks derived from that accusations.

    In the early 90s we had a dude from the local rainbow press hidden among our players on a LARP. He had the order to write an ugly article about LARPers but was discovered and assimilated! Became one of the most dedicated LARPers Ive met, hehe! =)

    • KBKarma says:

      Something similar happened to a non-gamer friend of mine. My gaming society were demonstrating the basics of Lorien Trust LARPing in the centre of the square, and he decided to have a go. After an hour or so of sparring, he gave back the weapon, saying “That was really fun, I enjoy…”

      His scream of despair echoed around the entire square. :D

  23. badvibration says:

    I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in a long time. Thank you.

  24. gryffinp says:

    I feel like my games are much improved when the DM refrains from any saucy barmaid dialogue at all.

  25. malkav11 says:

    As far as I’m concerned, RPGs exist to take pure roleplaying, and lend it structure in the form of rules and conflict resolution mechanics, and context in the form of cool concepts and setting. Some RPGs are better at one than the other, and I’m not sure I really care for Call of Cthulhu’s mechanics.

    Of course, the best RPG ever is Nobilis: A Game of Powers, a diceless game where players play individuals who have had a shard of creation embedded in their souls, making them the embodiment and protectors of some particular aspect of reality. There’s about eleventy-bajillion nifty concepts involved, the writing is incredible, and the power level is such that the game is very rarely about -whether- you accomplish something, but how you do it…because that method of approach will have consequences. Unfortunately, it’s had something of an ill-fated history. The original “little peach book” edition had a tiny print run (I picked up the last copy in my local gaming store) and the publisher, Pharos Press, folded not long thereafter. Hogshead picked it up and sprung for a rewrite in a lavish, gorgeous coffee-table book type edition that I also own….and then they folded. Guardians of Order picked it back up and reprinted it with no meaningful changes….and then they folded. At the moment it sounds like someone else has picked it back up and is commissioning a new edition with some significant rules reworking and at long last, expansion content, but it’s not out yet.

    • TCM says:

      I played some Nobilis over IRC.

      It was…interesting.

      (You’d be suprised how many situations can be solved when you are the god of explosions.)

    • disperse says:

      Polaris is the best diceless RPG I’ve played. The setting isn’t my cup of tea but the conflict resolution mechanic is solid and gets out of the way of the story telling. It’s a completely different animal than your ‘typical’ P&P RPG though. I enjoy the gambling / dice-rolling aspect of the game as well as the storytelling and don’t get that out of diceless RPG systems. This has been an ongoing source of conflict in my gaming group.

      (Polaris: link to )

    • Bob Bobson says:

      I’ve played one Nobilis campaign and it was pure awesomeness. But I think it takes a very confident and skilled GM to pull it off. As diceless RPG systems go it’s a winner.

  26. Knool says:

    Actually, one’s teenage years are best spent sticking one’s *penises* down young brunettes.

    Just thought I’d point that out.

    • Dreamhacker says:

      This is the internet. That was all in your imagination.

    • Skippy says:

      Some teenagers only have one penis, though, and some even have none at all.

    • Knool says:

      I don’t think it’s easy being them.

    • Eiriksen says:

      I actually spent my teenage years not sticking my penis into anyone.

      Sure did try, though.

  27. CaptainThark says:

    My current favorite RPG is a game called The Burning Wheel (link to A damn clever little fantasy game that’s essentially structured around the players defining things they care about in game, and the Game Master then throwing stuff at them based on that.
    It’s got neat mechanics for economic and social situations in addition to the usual combat stuff.

    It fits my preferred GMing technique of throwing a situation at the players and letting them deal with it, rather then writing a complex ‘adventure’ that the PCs will torpedo right out of the gate due to being clever.

  28. A Button says:

    Fuck yes call of cfuckingthulhu. I contend that is superior to any and all games that nerds play in dark, wet enclosures.

    Also, it’s good to see Rab doing something after the unpleasantness. We worry about you.

  29. Quine says:

    I always had fun with early-80s TSR post-apocalyptic effort Gamma World- getting to choose between interestingly-mutated animals or weedy pure-strain humans who were only really useful when the battle-droids turned up looking for orders was cool.

    Plus! It had flowcharts for learning new technology, so accidentally killing themselves while fiddling with the controls of a blender/car/death-ray gun demanded some level of creative improvisation on the GMs behalf.

  30. pakoito says:

    Just telling people that we’re trying to organize online boardgame matches ussing Vassal. Arkham, Ghost, Battlestar….

    FORUM THREAD HERE: link to

  31. Dozer says:

    Why do I feel offended by the ‘spouse’ comment? I’d thoroughly enjoy the article otherwise!

    • Stu says:

      Because the truth hurts?

      (I’m kidding! I’m sure sex with your spouse isn’t a joyless obligation at all.)

    • Stu says:

      (That comment seems more offensive in black-and-white than it sounded in my head. Soz.)

    • Dozer says:

      No worries Stu, in fact I’m single, but I respect marriage a lot. I think it’s that the “married people don’t enjoy sex” cliché/slander/propaganda is a tired old untruth, along with “all the priests are paedophiles” etc

    • Knool says:

      You can say “Pedophile”, Dozer. That one extra “a” doesn’t make you sound smarter.

    • Eiriksen says:

      You can say “Pedophile”, Dozer. That one extra “a” doesn’t make you sound smarter. ;)

      And I find it hard to unquestioningly respect marriage in and of itself. Don’t even try to convince me that stuff is natural.

    • Nick says:

      it was a joke.

    • Simon says:

      The extra “a” doesn’t make you smarter.. other than the fact that it is the correct way to spell it in the United Kingdom.

    • Dozer says:

      Exactly, I’m British don’t you know. Wotcher. Let’s all have a cup of tea. If I wanted to be really smart I’d open charmap and learn that you can write æ by holding ALT and dialling 0230 on the numpad, and then I could write it as “pædophile”.

  32. Bassism says:

    RPGs are the greatest thing ever. If only all my friends were as nerdy as I and had no lives, I wouldn’t touch a computer RPG ever again.

    I’ve been largely a 3e and slightly 4e player, but lately I’ve been playing class DnD and first edation ADnD. The old school way of doing things really seems to distill the gameplay to the basics and put role playing back into the forefront. I’d much rather decide on a whim to pick up the chair next to me and throw it at a goblin so I can run away and dive through a window than wait through every round of combat looking through my cards deciding which power to use next turn. I also find that not only combat, but everything else tends to go quicker, which means we can make more progress over the course of a night.

    Not that the later editions aren’t fun or don’t have their place, but I think anybody who hasn’t tried the older systems but finds themselves bored with DnD would do well to give them or one of the retro clones a try.

    • Josh W says:

      Dead freinds are at least as hard to play RPGs with though.

      Actually people with lives make the best rpg people, because of all the experience they can bring in and make things more full, lifelike and unpredictable. The main snag is getting them all together in the same room more frequently than once every two months.

      (The difference between most of the people coming and all of them makes the difference between a weekly gaming night and the logistic nightmare of most of my games!)

  33. Hybrid says:

    The only RPG I’ve played is D&D — a few times with the AD&D rules and a handful of sessions of v3.5. Unfortunately, and rather reluctantly, I was always the DM. The AD&D games were way back in grade school with hastily drawn maps and a poor understanding of the rules so I doubt they were any good. The v3.5 games lasted longer and I even created a successful adventure that lasted a few sessions but eventually the group and I lost interest in D&D altogether. I’ve got a pretty cool collection of old D&D stuff though, so it’s been more collecting than playing.

  34. Stu says:

    Ha, I had Now 6 on tape back in the day. I hope you’re not claiming that “A Good Fart” (as we called it at school) is the best song on the album though; not when it’s got Kate Bush, Jan Hammer and Baltimora on there.

  35. Dave says:

    WHFRP 2nd Ed. Oh god how i love thee
    ADnD for arguing about the rules
    Cyberpunk ACPA suits and magnus opum hellbringers
    Hunter 10 character deaths in the first hour of any game and being constantly terrified
    3rd Ed well nobody plays 2nd ed anymore
    Werewolf (for pure overpowered silliness)
    Mage for ruining GM’s lives
    Changeling for the daft forfeits to cast anything
    Cthulu for oh god my eyes my eyes he is coming

    • Arathain says:

      My proper introduction to RPGs was Changeling, which was an absolute blast. The group took the requirement to be chaotic and creative and daft and totally ran with it. We had as much fun chasing mysteries as we did decorating apartments in that game.

      I remember one major fight where my character was crippled early on, and only had one die left to roll. I was trying to heal myself with a cantrip, but since I couldn’t move much I was using these little verses I was writing for casting. While my companions went through their turns of combat, I sat with a pencil frantically writing doggerel poetry. Brilliant.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      @ Arathain Magnificent

  36. Temple to Tei says:

    A few recommendations:
    Mechanical Dreams for being such a wonderous creation (translation from French had to help the weirdness factor). “” as I could not even begin to describe it. Never actually played it, but I re-read it all the time

    Forget trying to get a group for Boardgames, trying to get one for RPGs is far worse -generally those who want to are the ones you dont want to play with. Here is the point for me about RPGS, if there are things that take your fancy, but you know you will never play them then buy the books anyway and read them. Each book brims with ideas and sets you free to do as you wish. I practically solo play every RPG I read through.

    WHRFP for being, well, warhammer .Good grief I loved getting some background to warhammer back in the day.
    Underground: -shell-shocked, surplus, supersoldiers who can see through walls and throw cars but cannot get a job, wait until they get flashbacks…
    Unknown Armies: every conspiracy theory is true. Be a magican that gets magical charges from alcohol or history or, or ,or … the first game I found that had ‘ideas’.
    Burning Wheel (or try Mouseguard if you want something for youngsters and that is in no way derogatory -I prefer teh MG system to BW) -what lead me back into RPGs, a lovely little system, less stat heavy and more descriptive of your skills.
    Mutant Chronicles: good grief yes, a thousand times yes.
    Exalted: dont know why, but I bought every single book of the first edition, which leads onto…
    Weapons of the Gods: my current favourite, wish I had discovered this before wasting so much money on Exalted. Wuxia done right, free flowing simplified mechanics and massively overpowered characters (the really bad bad guys are even more massively overpowered). The ability to run on water is a free skill.

  37. Domogrue says:

    My personal favorite? Unhallowed Metropolis. Simply because it is so setting and story driven, and just an inspired crazy mishmash of everything awesome. So the setting in short: 1915 Zombie Apocalypse happens. It’s now 2015. Imagine Zombies, Gothic Horror, Steampunk, Charles Dickens, Victorian Comedy of Manners, Sherlock Holmes, and Shotguns with Scythes with them all in one game.

    Also, Risus is a pretty amazing RPG system. Rules fit on 2 pages, and are just great.

  38. Harbour Master says:

    I always loved a bit of CoC. Unfortunately, I only had cocks to play with.

    • Lilliput King says:

      Cocks make poor GMs.

      They just hang there. Mocking you.

  39. nemolom says:

    I once started in a campaign where one of the players had made a shady rogue. He always played the exact same shady rogue type. This time though, for a change, he had added a blind eye with a patch over it, for personality. After the introduction of his character, what happened next was that the priest in the group used “cure blindness” on him. The look on his face when his character thanked her for the service…

  40. Richard Clayton says:

    I want to introduce my kids to pen and paper RPG. They are 9 and 7 years old.

    I did a little research but came up dry. I’d rather not have to rely on a board if possible – just a rule book / story book, some dice and some character sheets. However I’m having difficulty choosing the right starter game. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.

    • Hybrid says:

      Depends on what setting your looking for but 1st edition D&D is pretty basic.

    • Jimmy Jazz says:

      I know the perfect one, that was in fact created in mind for this.

      It’s one by Luke Crane, called “Mouse Guard” dunno if you’ve ever read the books but I think it’s a variant of “Burning wheel” but way more kid friendly. you should check it out.

      Copy and paste this into the bar at the top –> link to

      or Google “Mouse Guard RPG”

    • Chris D says:

      How about Toon? It’s a pretty simple system, setting is great for kids (and adults too), it’s a lot of fun and but can be surprisingly deep if you want to go that way.

    • Chris D says:

      …… it’s also a great game for introducing new players of any age to role playing. If you’re trying to convert your existing non gaming friends then this is the place to start. And it’s a great counter argument to anyone trying to claim that all RPG’s are demonic.

    • DarkNoghri says:

      I recently tried a game called Og: Unearthed Edition with some friends. Very simple rules and character sheets, the entire book is about 50 pages.

      You play cavemen. Very dumb cavemen. When you create a character, you get to roll for how many words you get to know. Any in-character conversation gets carried out in those words, grunts, and gestures. You get a few abilities. Certain things, you can only attempt if you know how to do them. For instance, swimming. If you fall in water, and you don’t have the swim ability, you die. Period. You start with the “run away” ability by default.

      In the setting, you have dinosaurs, mastodons, sabertoothed tigers, and rival tribes to worry about. Along with collecting food.

      Combat (without the advanced rules) is a 1D6 roll of the dice. Equal your attack value (+ their agility modifier) and you hit. Some things (dinosaurs, usually) have an armor rating.

      Anyway, I haven’t done much with it, because we basically winged it that night (a friend thought I was running it, and I thought he was). Spent two hours or so creating characters, and wandering out into a forest to get food. Ended up beating a bobcat to death, and then yanking a gorilla out of a tree because he had broken one of our player’s sticks (he was using to hit things). The gorilla managed to eat that player’s face before we finally managed to kill him.

      That was the most hilarious night I’ve participated in in some time. Everyone was talking in caveman speak (even the GM), with all of us using what few words we have. Several places in the book, the rules say something like “if you’re still unsure what to do, figure out what would be funniest.” This applies to rolling ones for abilities or attacking, where you either forget how to do it (and fail spectacularly in the most hilarious way possible), or you lose a turn (generally after missing and doing something stupid), respectively.

      Even just wandering into a forest to beat animals with rocks and sticks, I almost laughed myself hoarse. It was fun.

      Anyway, I got it here: link to
      They used to have a print copy, but I can’t find it anymore.

    • Richard Clayton says:

      There’s some superb recommendations here and many that I didn’t turn up in my brief researching.

      I’ll have a look at each and every one of them: really grateful to you, thanks fellas.

      @DarkNoghri: “Og” sounds absolutely fantastic, by the way. And naturally reminded me of: link to

    • GrassyGnoll says:

      Can’t recommend Og highly enough. Always take a
      smart Caveman, that extra word makes a world of difference. Watching my friends laughing until they cried while another tried to say “run for it, theres a dinosaur!” with only the word “Small” was a priceless evenings entertainment.

    • apa says:

      Check out Wushu: link to link to and million threads in forums. I haven’t played it but it sounds interesting and the idea behind the system might be better for kids: everything a character does happens without dicerolls. It’s more of a collaborative story telling thing than the traditional “I try to do this” approach.

    • DarkNoghri says:


      Thanks, I’d not seen that before. Funnily enough, those cavemen are probably using more words than you’re allotted in Og.

  41. Bhazor says:

    Anyone have an opinion on whether Sleep is Death is the only true PC RPG?

    Hey an edit button. Neat!

    • malkav11 says:

      It’s certainly roleplaying. I’m not convinced it’s a game.

  42. Arglebargle says:

    Very Good list of maxims. And those ideas really nail down great concepts for the GM to keep in mind. As a certified old fart, I’ve played for decades, starting with OD&D (old D&D), going on to Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Champions (Hero System), a number of hybrids, and quite a few others. Still playing. Even occasionally GMing.

    And it has permeated through society. I mean, Vin Diesel running D&D games with Helen Mirren on set! I have played RPGs with Hollywood producers, best selling authors, doctors, lawyers, indian chiefs….okay, no indian chiefs that I know of. One of my old GMs’ sons is now a bigwig at Bioware for the Kotor mmo. So it has actually travelled far, despite the clueless looks you may get sometime.

    Presently playing in an SF themed campaign using some beta testing rules, and also my new favorite, Shard. Which has art to die for! Especially for those that enjoyed Jorune. link to

    • Temple to Tei says:

      Pornstars too.
      Google ‘I hit it with my axe’
      Or don’t, obviously.
      They do have their clothes on.
      And in the game.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      And this is the dungeonmaster’s blog if you want more musings on DMing
      Apparently I had it bookmarked…

  43. MadMatty says:

    “But I’ll be getting deeper into CoC further down the line.”

    Looking forward to Bournistoun series 2 :D

  44. Jimmy Jazz says:

    I would like to play RP-
    what?… I wasn’t saying *that*. no. shut up.

    But anyway, I’m personally more of a Burning Wheel guy. love the feeling of that game. how the failure of you character drives everything, and when you do succeed it feels like you’re the biggest badass ever.
    or you managed to convince the bar owner that you did not just give his daughter Alcohol poisoning.

    …I’m hoping you’ll do Burning wheel further down the line?

  45. Artist says:

    Roses are red
    Violets are blue
    ph’nglui mglw’nafh
    wgah’nagl Cthulhu.

    Oh, and regarding RPG: Heres a nice list of


  46. Artist says:

    …famous last words… messed up the tag… =/

  47. thebigJ_A says:



  48. Jan Schwieterman says:

    A fellow ent biz buddy.

    Freakin loved the article.! :) What did I play? DnD OG rules. 2nd addition and metal miniatures too… lol!! I’ve played a few others I’ve forgotten about Im sure… There was one called Gamma World that was cool.


  49. Dick Page says:

    My absolute favorite RPG is Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker. The setting is a “west that never quite was,” a fantasy inspired by the Mormon settlement of Utah. Players are “God’s Watchdogs,” responsible for protecting the Faithful from themselves. You ride from town to town, unearthing their darkest sins and passing judgement. The system is great, too. You choose whatever skills are most interesting to you, there’s one conflict resolution system that lets you escalate from talking to fighting to gunfighting, and you gain experience when things go bad. He made a horror variation called Afraid a while back, but gave up on it. I think with some refinement, it could be a great Cthulhu system.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      Definitely agree in giving some love to Dogs in the Vineyard -another one of those new breed that dragged me back in.
      Along with:
      Bully Pulpit games have a bunch of interesting modern settings -I tend to think of them as one shots

      Evil Hat do the Dresden Files RPG based on the novels, but I have not had a look. What I did go for is the ‘Don’t Rest your Head’ and ‘Spirit of the century’ branches