This post is not primarily about games. It is about life, creativity, peace, and what follows from there. It may be of interest to you—I do go on at some length about how I see games and my work— but if it is not, I thank you for your forebearance.
We'll be back to our regular programming soon, specifically:
- finally completing the UVG referee screen (and wallpapers from the art thereof),
- Longwinter 3, at long long last,
- and then Red Sky ... which I'm splitting into several digital volumes for easier reference at the table: a book of locations, a book for all the appendices and reference content, and a third, derived book of locations and content for players. It took me a while to realize, but digital content doesn't require the exact same format as a physical book.
Now, to the letters.
Letters to the Heroes, 19:11
* * *
I hope you have had a lovely weekend.
I did, I certainly did. My wife and I spent a couple of days in a revamped traditional Korean hanok. Since I am a creature of comforts, it had amenities like hot water, hot floors, and hot electric wires. However, we left our smartphones and any semblance of the internet at home.
There was a short period of disorientation.
When I had a quiet moment, fear gripped me.
“What if I get bored?” whispered my mind.
And I did, for a bit, and nothing happened, and then I found things to do.
Thinking, walking, writing, reading, eating, talking, drawing, listening, sleeping.
I found I could quite easily spend a few hours quietly drawing with no audiobook to fill my ears.
I found music in the birdsong, the sound of people, somebody practicing a piano in the evening, two houses over.
I found myself relaxing and unwinding.
Yes, I could not share the dazzling red-and-yellow plumage of the maple tree with anyone, since I had neither camera nor internet, but by the same token, I did not need to share it. I could keep that bird-of-tree to myself, an experience to greedily hoard and store and treasure sans the world.
And soon the world of social media also receded, first to a distant rumble, then a mere shadow of anxiety, then dissolving and becoming insubstantial as the phantom of a shadow.
In the quiet time I realized I had been living and breathing with anxiety and worry for a very long time. My private life had been roiling turmoil. The chronic upset of a malicious bully taking control of my workplace had segued into the dismal pain of job-hunting in a foreign land. The trouble of uprooting myself across half-a-world had transitioned into the toil building a small business. The terrified exhilaration of a kickstarter had collapsed into the despair of my father’s death and all that followed. My wife had more struggles all her own, and all these we had also shared over this time.
In the quiet time I realized that, surprisingly, shockingly, things were quiet now. Without the internet of constant news and upset to drown out the world, I realized that, after a long time, I was at peace.
A couple of weeks before the last of the major legal work following my father’s death was completed. A week before the file of the UVG headed of to the printers, with a little bit of unexpected bonus art. A few days before, I had completed the first handbook and iteration of seacat for players.
These two days were the first completely relaxed holiday my wife and I had enjoyed since a visit to Burgundy more than four years ago.
And quietly, like a thief in the night, a semblance of perspective crept back into my mind.
* * *
I realized, as I chased cruel bats of irrelevance from the attic of my skull, that I had indeed made a grand mistake in the UVG and in my other works.
I had been clear about my goals, but not clear enough.
Some of this was natural.
Goals are organic things, the fruits of growing experience, expanding narratives, changing circumstances.
Some of it was blindness.
Within a growing jungle of works, the narrow paths were clear to me, the hidden beaches and springs easy to find.
But to one without the experience and the time spent in that jungle of creation? They might expect a cruise liner holiday to tropical paradise and instead find themselves sudden participants to the ritual awakening of Fire Mountain.
Now, the time has come to clarify goals once more, to build anew the information centre, to broaden the paths and hack away the growth of cross-purpose.
I do not make tools or modules, mechanics or expeditions.
I create toys for roleplaying.
* * *
In a rush of malformed sentences, returned into the discord chatroom one full-stop at a time, I turned my frustration into words last Saturday.
Now, obviously, what follows are my thoughts, not the pronouncement of some authority on high. I am convinced mistaking words for truths is the root of many mistakes. I hope to avoid as many of those as possible.
There is a reason the cover page of the UVG carries the line “psychedelic metal roleplaying” rather than “psychedelic metal roleplaying games.”
It is because calling the accoutrements of our delightful hobby ”games” sows the seeds of profound error. It conflates the time we spend together with friends, playing, with the games we play and the toys we play with.
It mixes (role)playtime with roleplaying games. Further, it mixes up roleplaying games with games that have no roleplay - games of tactics and strategy and chance.
Roleplay as playtime is a link in an ancient chain of human social play. It is of a part with spinning yarns round a campfire, gathered around the glow, voices against the dark, a chain of humanity stretching back to the first pre-humans harnessing fire, telling and embellishing stories of terror and courage, of heroism and villainy.
When we roleplay with friends, we partake of that tradition of humanity, we are brought together by our tales and our games, knitted together by our imaginations.
And it absolutely requires friends, or at least behaving as friends, with respect and kindness. Without that, there is no social play.
During roleplaytime we use toys to play games. And there is an abundance of toys and an abundance of games.
We have toys like character sheets and pencils and erasers and dice and cards and miniatures and maps.
And we have games, so many games to play with our toys. We have games with words, when we crack jokes, and games with roles, when we put on funny voices and pretend to be other creatures. We have drawing games, when we make pictures of our heroes and detail the maps of imaginary places. We have games of chance, when we roll dice to see what happens, when we pull cards from decks of many things. We have games of tactics, when we throw our protagonists into battle against morcs and drolls. We have games of strategy, when we plot how our caravan traverses a wilderness. We have games of storytelling, when we weave chance and dice and whimsy into narratives. We have games of writing, when we invent the backstories of our characters. We have games of dress-up with our protagonists, when we carefully choose their arms and armor, spikes and poles. We have games of games, where we invent new rules and change the way we use our games.
And more. We meet and say hello, we forge memories, we drink together and we eat together, we listen to music and to each other, we say goodbye and we part.
It is this way that during roleplaytime we become friends, we reaffirm our friendships, we make our lives human lives, we make our gaming tables symbolic campfires in that chain of human campfires, linking our tales with the uncounted tales of days long past and days long to come.
So what of all the roleplaying games? All the rulebooks? The gamebooks?
Most miss the mark, because they jumble together toys and games as though they were one single game. They are not. Most of them can be unbundled and remixed to taste.
Many miss another mark, because they are written for players, not for friends playing together. If you play a game like basketball professionally, you may play with people you dislike. After all, it’s your job. But if you play basketball to unwind after a day at the office, would you choose someone you dislike as your team mate? Likewise, leisure roleplay is a time for friends to play together, or at the very least for people to play together like friends and someday perhaps become friends.
And the thing with friends playing together is that they will inevitably begin playing their own way. Fitting games and toys and activities to preference and circumstance.
So here’s my clarion.
Let’s be open and clear about what we’re doing and who we’re doing it for.
Let’s embrace that roleplaytime is playtime and that one roleplay group will never have the same roleplaytime as another. That it is wonderful that different groups of friends will love different games, and love to play them in different ways.
And yes, I acknowledge, there is also a space for games and rules made for groups of people who just want to play games, without being friends first and foremost. And yes, there are people who like, or even prefer to play that way. I think it’s great that these are their preferences.
But these are not games and rules and groups that I am interested in, so I will proceed with making toys for roleplaytimes for friends and families.
As for how they will be used, well, it is the nature of toys that the toymaker cannot tell if it will star in a daring adventure or a slice-of-life sit com re-enactment.
One of my favorite roleplaytimes I had planned a fine adventure for my friends, where they would all be dwarves off to kill a dragon. I had an overland trek. I had a dangerous mountain climb. I had an echoing cave. I had a dragon fight planned with jets of flashing fire and cascades if glittering gold. My friends came together, each with a 3rd Edition, 6th level dwarf detailed to the nines. I started them off in a tavern, preparing to set off, and asked them to introduce their characters first.
The first friend began, and recounted how they were Murin son of Matchkin. How their forebear Matchkin once cut down twenty trees in a single hour and with those built the shrine that still stands to the woodland spirits of his homeland.
And all the friends nodded and toasted the spirit and name of Murin’s ancestor.
And the second friend dove into the story of one of their hero’s imaginary ancestors.
And everyone nodded and toasted and drank.
And instead of setting off on their quest, the dwarves settled into the tavern, boasting of the deeds of their forebears, and the friends toasting the fanciful stories.
After an hour, I shelved the adventure and the varied games I had prepared, rolled up my own dwarf, and sat down to play with them.
It was one of the most fantastic roleplaytimes I ever had as a master of games, and it was a game invented on the spot, collaboratively, nearly without my help, by my friends as they played.
And this is what I love.
And this is what I promote.
And it is fine.
* * *
Thank you for staying as we battle windmills, oh heroes.