Gnome Stew

Subscribe to Gnome Stew feed Gnome Stew
The Gaming Blog
Updated: 5 hours 38 min ago

Level Up Your Classroom With Tabletop RPGs

10 December 2018 - 3:00am

In an unpublished dissertation, Alice Pitt (1995 – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) noted that “learning about content is not the same thing as learning from it.  In other words…learning is something more than a series of encounters with knowledge; learning entails, rather, the messier and less predictable process of becoming implicated in knowledge” (p.298). As such, gaming tables are undoubtedly places where informal learning happens. The growing variety and accessibility of tabletop roleplaying games present educators with powerful tools to provide students with the agency to shape the trajectory of their learning within and outside traditional classroom settings. From traditional subjects such as mathematics, science, history, and art, to social skills and resiliency, RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons can serve as powerful tools with which to collaboratively interact with curriculum materials and the world beyond the gaming table.

“RPG Math”

Whether you realize it or not, gaming tables are informal spaces to practice math. The variable interplay between rolling dice and mathematical formulas to determine narrative outcomes results in opportunities to make math feel real and beneficial. I’ve never been good at math, but I’ve always been good at what I call RPG math. By that, I’m referring to any math that would involve dice rolling or using a character sheet (aka player spreadsheet). From the shape recognition and geometry associated with using polyhedral dice to the basic operations of arithmetic required during character creation and turn taking, there’s no denying that many popular RPGs, particularly the dice-heavy D20 or Year Zero engines, are exercises in mathematics. Let’s not forget that character sheets are essentially spreadsheets.

A few of my favourite RPGs for practicing math:

  • Dungeons & Dragons
  • Pathfinder
  • Coriolis
“The History & Science Books You Always Wanted”

Photo by Kiron Mukherjee

Whether it be indirectly or directly, analog games draw on the collective experiences of humanity to inform their worlds. Just take a look at the genre staple Dungeons & Dragons. From the multitude of fantastical creatures to the arms and armour players use, almost everything has a parallel in the cultural or natural history of the earth. Even the Magic: The Gathering crossover world of Amonkhet (a fantasy Egypt) demonstrates the lengths to which the most popular RPG in the world takes inspiration from reality. Some games take it even further by encouraging players to develop culturally relative perspectives of history. Two of these games immediately stand out, both for their attention to historical detail and educational intentions. Night Witches by Jason Morningstar draws players into the fictional lives of real-life WWII aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment – known to the Germans as Nachthexen or Night Witches. This Powered by the Apocalypse game is particularly popular with my students at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), who enjoy continuing their education of WWII through gaming…all while playing in the museum’s galleries! The second is Thousand Arrows by James Mendez Hodes and Brennan Taylor, another Powered by the Apocalypse title which takes place during Japan’s Warring States period (the Sengoku Jidai). I myself have also endeavoured to author an RPG for educational purposes – Ross Rifles. As an educator, few roleplaying games have helped me teach science like The Warren by Marshall Miller. In this indie RPG, players assume the role of intelligent rabbits navigating the natural world and the dangers of being at the bottom of the food chain. The Warren is an excellent example of how science can come to life in the form of a story game. From the stellar art by Shel Kahn to the text, it so perfectly captures and communicates one aspect of the natural world. I took this a step further and co-created a rules-light RPG called Zany Zoo. In Zany Zoo, players take on the roles of animals escaping captivity. Think Madagascar meets Finding Nemo/Finding Dory.

A few of my favourite games for engaging with history & science:

  • Night Witches
  • The Warren
  • Thousand Arrows
  • TimeWatch
“Level Up” Your Social Skills

Despite all of the above, playing RPGs are first and foremost opportunities for human connection and community. Aside from the amazing human beings I’ve met playing and designing RPGs, these games have personally provided me with the opportunity to internalize and communicate my feelings, develop self-confidence, and flex my creative muscles. With both the Royal Ontario Museum and Level Up Gaming, I have nearly 7 years of experience using tabletop RPGs to facilitate opportunities of people with autism and other disabilities to develop their social skills. During this time, outlined on episode 3 of the Asians Represent! Podcast, I came to appreciate perhaps the most powerful educational aspect of the RPG hobby. The seemingly intuitive “unwritten rules of social behaviour” are naturally codified by games. A session of any tabletop RPG is a highly structured and safe social environment. There are rules of engagement, objectives, and moderation. While gaming, everyone at the table is tasked with recognizing and defining problems, exploring options, considering strategies, putting their plan into action, and reflecting on the process and outcome. Unlike multiplayer video games, those of the tabletop variety provide uniquely democratic spaces for exploration. Everyone at the table is involved to a degree that they are comfortable with, and analog games have the narrative and mechanical freedom to be tailor-made to the needs of the players. Story games provide impactful and structured opportunity for social connections where you can learn how to exchange space in conversation, communicate needs, and provide help to others when asked.

A few of my favourite RPGs to practice social skills:

  • Emberwind
  • Tales from the Loop
  • The Veil
  • Urban Shadows

From both a professional and personal perspective, games that encourage meaningful and engaging connection to the world never cease to amaze me. They enrich our lives beyond simple entertainment and make each us of better with every playthrough.

Stay curious and game on!

Daniel Kwan is an educator, media professional, and game designer based in Toronto, Canada. He is one of the co-founders of Level Up Gaming, an organization that provides individuals with autism and other disabilities opportunities to develop their social skills through group gaming experiences. His first educational RPG, Zany Zoo, was released in 2018. He is currently working on Ross Rifles, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG about the lives and experiences of Canadian soldiers stationed on the Western Front during the First World War. Daniel has over a decade of experience using tabletop RPGs in educational contexts at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Works cited:

Pitt, A. (1995) “Subjects in tension: engaged resistance in the feminist classroom’, Unpublished Dissertation, OISE/UofT, Toronto, ON.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Whose Game Is It Anyway?

7 December 2018 - 12:00am

It’s the tug of war between whose fun is most important.

Where’s the line between the game the players want to play and the game the GM wants to run? Is the GM bad if they’re getting upset that the players are completely ignoring their setting and plot? Are the players bad if they’re bored and uninterested in what the GM is presenting and they’re trying to pursue things that would be interesting to their character? Who does the game belong to — the GM or the players?

Think back on the favorite games that you’ve ever played or run. I know mine have always been a beautiful mix of the best of a GM’s prep and skill combined with players elevating the game in exciting and unexpected ways. 

Of course, the answer is ‘both’. If everyone at the table isn’t having fun, then something is wrong with the game. Now, the specifics of what’s wrong could be any number of things. Yes, it is possible the GM is being inflexible and railroading their players through a game that isn’t nearly as engaging or interesting as they thought it would be. And yes, it’s equally possible the players are being deliberately obtuse and disregarding the time and effort the GM put into prepping the game they’re playing. Over the years, I’ve seen both of these extremes happen but usually most examples fall somewhere in the middle.

As with most things, it’s not a black and white situation and the middle ground is super broad and very fuzzy. Think back on the favorite games that you’ve ever played or run. I know mine have always been a beautiful mix of the best of a GM’s prep and skill combined with players elevating the game in exciting and unexpected ways. Unless you’re one of those GM’s that craves absolute control or one of those players that craves pure chaos, your favorite games are probably also a similar mix of what both sides bring to the table.

On the GM’s Side…

A friend complained not too long ago that he was seeing a lot of advice in various RPG communities that was essentially telling GMs they should always just roll with whatever the players want to do, even if that completely disregards the setting or plot the GM had prepped for the game. Having talked to a fair number of GMs, I know how absolutely frustrating that advice is when you’re no longer having fun running games. While we are there to bring an entertaining game to the table, our fun shouldn’t be completely disregarded in favor of the players.

At the same time, if we’re not cognizant of the players’ expectations and running a game without their engagement in mind, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. No matter how awesome our ideas as GMs are, if they’re not offering the players an opportunity to add their own flavor and change the game world, we’re essentially asking them to just sit there and be an audience to our greatness. In addition, no matter how excited you are about a game or campaign idea, if the players you’re presenting it to are lukewarm on the idea you’re unlikely to get a very good game out of it. Not every game is meant for every group of players. If you want a high intrigue game of politics and mystery and your players just want to blow off some steam by cracking jokes and punching evil in the face, you’re both going to end up frustrated.

On the Player’s Side…

Tug-of-war might be fun, but fighting between the players and GM isn’t.

Players aren’t completely innocent in this equation. I’ve seen plenty of players who think messing around with the GM’s plan is the height of entertainment, so they go out of their way to screw up any perceived plot. This is always a little sad but funny when I run a Powered by the Apocalypse style game and mostly run improv style. There are also players who get wrapped up in their own ideas to the point that they’re trying to slam the square peg of their character into the round hole of the GM’s planned game. Players absolutely can make or break a game by their willingness to engage with what the GM is presenting.

Now, this isn’t to say players should just lay down and take it when a GM is running a bad game, and no one should feel forced to play a game they’re not interested in. There are times when a game is just bad and any fun you get out of it as a player is going to be what you make of it for yourself with the other players. Or, sometimes a GM’s logic behind their scenario fails and the players make the game go sideways through no ill intent on their part. If I am completely honest with myself, I’m a horrible player to have at the table when I’m not enjoying a game. My impatience is obvious and I don’t hesitate to call out things that are making the game less fun for everyone at the table. Diplomacy isn’t always my best skill.

It’s OUR Table…

What can we do to avoid this tug-of-war between GM’s and players? Neither the players nor the GM have a game if the other half of the equation isn’t there, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to figure this balance out.


  • Be clear with your players about what your expectations for the game are. Explaining the tone and principles of the game up front, regardless of whether you’re starting a campaign or running a one-shot, is going to help get everyone on the same page right at the beginning.
  • Give your players very explicit character creation guidelines and stick by them. Allow them the flexibility to create someone they’re going to enjoy playing, but don’t feel pressured to let a player build a character that won’t fit the game. You’ll regret it from the moment play starts.
  • Be flexible and learn how to think on your feet when your players aren’t engaging with things the way you expected. You can lead your players to a plot hook, but you can’t make them bite. Every GM makes an occasional misjudgment on what is interesting for the players, so we all learn to adjust when needed.


  • Don’t agree to play games you know aren’t your cup of tea. While I encourage everyone to stretch their horizons with new games, you know yourself best and will know when you’re not going to have fun with a game.
  • When you do agree to play a game, play the game the GM is bringing to the table. Find a way to balance a character you’ll enjoy with the setting and tone of the game. Talk with the GM and work out what you’re hoping to get out of the game with what they’re bringing to the table.
  • Remember that your fun at the table is dependent on the fun of everyone else at the table, including the GM. Figure out how to facilitate your own fun while drawing in the other players and even with the plot the GM is dangling in front of you. Do that and it will make you a player any GM wants at their table.

Ultimately, roleplaying games are a collaborative hobby.  Bring out the best in both the players and the GM and your game will be an amazing thing you and everyone else at the table will be talking about for a very long time.

What are your experiences with finding the balance between the GM’s fun and the player’s fun? I’d love to hear your stories.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Don’t forget the unicorns

5 December 2018 - 12:01am

So, both as a designer and as a player I prefer fantasy roleplaying games that have a slightly darker backdrop than, say, the Forgotten Realms, which retains its hopeful outlook at all times.

(Not that FR isn’t awesome — I spend a lot of time there — though I usually turn the dial on the darkness setting higher than what appears on the page).

The pseudo-European backdrop of my homebrew setting Steffenhold is a dark fantasy reflection of the pre-Renaissance period.

And Kobold Press’ Midgard, which is steeped in Slavic legends and folklore, filled with imposing ghoul-stocked forests and tricksy gods who never reveal their motivations nor true selves, fits in my wheelhouse.

I’m also up for most Gothic-inspired horror. Baron von Strahd and Count Dracula are fearsome adversaries — plenty of room for heroics in an otherwise ink- and blood-stained milieu.

With that out of the way, however, I’d suggest that gamemasters not forgot that they should always make room for unicorns — or some other symbol of hope — in their fantasy adventures. Let a little sparkling light pierce the darkness.

I use unicorns as an example simply because in film and literature, unicorns were used to good effect in both The Last Unicorn and Legend. In war-torn lands troll- and goblin-filled, the mythical equine beast represents chastity and fidelity, an enduring quality that gives hope to good-hearted folk that they may yet triumph over oppression and tyranny.

But, of course, the maiden’s lure need not be the only bright light in your setting. Consider salting your universe with any of these options if you feel unicorns are a tad to cliche.

Dog. The “master’s hound” has represented fidelity and obedience for centuries, but was a powerful symbol during the middle ages. Dogs of great heroes have been recorded in many legends, King Arthur’s favorite hound was Cavall, and Ulysses’s dog was Argos — who recognized his master from his return from Troy and then died of joy. In fantasy gaming, a hound archon is one of the great celestials.

Elephant. A Danish order of knighthood that once consisted of 30 knights. Although a “white elephant” carries the connotation of a burden, the King of the White Elephant was a title born by the great king of Ava (Myanmar).

Griffin. The offspring of two creatures said to be of noble heritage, the lion and the eagle, the griffin represents valor and magnanimity. The griffin also guards sacred treasures.

Phoenix. This magical beast represents resurrection, a powerful symbol in both ancient times and in the middle ages. The creature also has an association with alchemy.

Serpent. Turning the Semitic/Christian connotation of the tempter on its head, adopt the other characteristics of the serpent — eternal, healing, wise and spiritual guardian — instead. Probably best represented as a coatl, symbol of the Aztec winged serpent Quetzalcoatl.




Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide Review

4 December 2018 - 5:00am

I really enjoy books about roleplaying games. Not just products that are rulebooks, supplements, or adventures, but products that discuss the process of roleplaying. I enjoy products that discuss how to run games, and how to play them. Even in a single game system, the value added to long-term play by looking at the game from multiple directions is tremendous.

There is no shortage of books that look at roleplaying games from the perspective of game moderators. In fact, some of the other gnomes have been involved in some amazing books on the topics of preparing, managing, and executing various games at the table. What is less common is a book about roleplaying that isn’t designed for a particular system that is aimed squarely at players instead of moderators.

There is an increasing number of games that give players an opportunity to flesh out their player characters in deep and interesting ways. Traveller was one of the earliest RPGs to address detailed backstory with its lifepath system, which some modern games such as Modiphius’ Conan and Star Trek also use. Pathfinder includes Character Background rules in Ultimate Campaign. Shadow of the Demon Lord has some detailed character background tables in the core rules, which are expanded in the Victims of the Demon Lord line of supplements. The Dungeons and Dragons supplement Xanathar’s Guide to Everything also includes a detailed This is Your Life section that can be used to generate a more detailed backstory.

System specific backstory rules can be useful but are often created as a means of narrowing mechanically defined character options. In other words, these backstory elements often explain why a character picks the game elements they have for a character or narrows the options to help eliminate option paralysis. That doesn’t mean that those backstory systems are deficient, it just means that even the depth that is added in those systems may not touch on important backstory elements or motivations that a character might have.

The next natural extension of this would be for a player to have a guide that isn’t tied to a specific game system or setting. A guide aimed at getting a player to get inside their character’s head in a way that isn’t just a means of determining if they should specialize in using a sword or an axe. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide is a book that aims to add details to a character’s life story that aren’t just a means of justifying what game elements went into mechanically building that character.

The Chronicle of Chronicles

This review is based both on the paperback version of the book, and on the Kindle version.

The book is 272 pages long. It contains no illustrations, but does have solid formatting throughout, with headers, bullet points, lists, and call out boxes. The colors present in the book are black and orange-red. The formatting for the various bullet points and lists remains consistent in the Kindle version of the book. Because so much of the book is comprised of lists and questions, the formatting makes it very easy to follow from one exercise to another.

Introduction and What Can We Accomplish?

The first three pages of the book establish the goal of this work. There are numerous exercises in the book to help a player find the perspective of their character. These exercises are largely written with a game like Dungeons and Dragons in mind, but the What Can We Accomplish section helps to define the power level and experience of a player for which an exercise is written.

Humble Beginnings

As you might expect from the title, these exercises are for low-level characters to help determine how they got into adventuring in the first place, and how they determine party dynamics as they first begin to work with one another. The suggested character range is levels 1-7, but that’s essentially short hand for adventurers that are still relatively new to adventuring.

The following exercises exist in this section:

  • Idioms
  • Save the Cat
  • Holidays
  • What Gets Left Behind
  • Beanstalk
  • Five Lessons
  • Ventur
  • My Associates
  • Across a Crowded Tavern
  • Orphan Details
  • What Can You Do For Me?
  • A Matter of Status
  • What Drives You Forward?
  • Where I’m From
  • Finders Keepers
  • Well Worn
  • Five Things You Packed but Shouldn’t Have
  • Of the Cloth
  • Five Fears
  • What Does It Mean to Be . . . ?
  • Private Mysteries
  • Prophesy Half-Remembered
  • On the Line
  • Red Flags
  • Damn Merlinials
  • Rival
  • The Taming of the Wolverine
  • My Grimoire
  • Familiar, but Not Too Familiar
  • A Touch of Home
  • Vision of the Future
  • Mentor
  • Magic Mirrors
  • Visualizing Intellect

Some of these exercises cover the basics you would expect when discussing a character’s backstory, like the very basics of where they were from, and the people that they knew. Other exercises go a bit deeper, examining how a member of the party would petition another to gain their help for a goal, as well as examining what it means to have interactions with characters that have a different status (higher or lower) than the player character.

Some of the exercises are relatively straightforward, while others are multi-step procedures that build on the answers provided in previous steps.

Veteran Heroes 

These are questions geared towards characters that have been adventuring for a while. The level range provided for a more traditional D&D style game is 8-14, but it’s easy enough to use this for characters that have been working as adventurers for a significant amount of time in non-level-based systems.

The exercises in this section include the following:

  • Five Scars
  • Wed, Bed, or Behead
  • The One that Got Away
  • Never Have I Ever . . .
  • Last Will
  • My Friends
  • I Know You From Somewhere
  • Five Things You Can’t Throw Away
  • These Things Rarely Work Out
  • A Traveler’s Taste
  • I’ve Heard Stories About These
  • Cursed
  • We Clean Up Well
  • Song of Folly
  • Old Haunts
  • Atonement
  • Wanted
  • It’s More Than Personal
  • Movements of a Master
  • Campfire
  • Hero’s Best Friend
  • Unheard Confession
  • A Taste of Death
  • Conquered Fear
  • Getting to Know You
  • A Show of Force
  • Five Times Your Name Was Cursed
  • Mountains and Molehills
  • Life Goes On
  • In the Eye of My Enemy
  • Irrational Taste
  • Fish Story
  • You Have No Idea
  • The Gauntlet
  • Honey Pot
  • Trusty Steed

The exercises in this section are designed to add details that characters may not have thought to stop and add as they began to advance in levels or get more adventures under their belts. Many of them examine how the appearance of a character may have changed, or how they might describe their fighting style or abilities differently now.

Instead of having exercises about how the group deals with sudden adversity, there are exercises that look at how the group would plan for events that they know are coming. Additionally, there are exercises that ask about what supporting characters and areas look like now that the PCs have left their mark.

Some of my personal favorites are “I’ve Heard Stories About These,” which is a generator for coming up with wildly inaccurate things a character might believe about a monster they still haven’t run into at this point in their career, and “Fish Stories,” which is a guide to determining how exaggerated an exploit from your past has become. I couldn’t help but think of the Hero of Canton from Firefly.

Myths and Legends

The final section of exercises is recommended for characters of levels 15-20, or at least those adventurers that have become larger than life in the campaign.

The exercises for this section include:

  • Tower of Terror
  • Monuments
  • Classifying Villains
  • Home Heraldry
  • “It Is My Distinct Please to Announce . . . “
  • God, No
  • Five Commandments
  • Pocket Dimension
  • For the Myth that Has Everything
  • Inventory
  • Art of Facts
  • Terror of Wisdom
  • A Cutlass Carol
  • Private Secrets
  • It Sounds Good on Paper
  • I Knew Them Well
  • Alive Only in Memory
  • Collecting Dust
  • Sign of a Legend
  • Hobby
  • Five Lives
  • You Made It Weird
  • In the Eyes of Mortals
  • Hangover
  • Apprentice
  • Five Enemies
  • Impossible Trial
  • Not Looking to Get Merlined
  • Crisis of Faith
  • Your Kind of King

The exercises in this section deal with campaign elements such as how a character may have made a major change in the setting without contemplating the ramifications, as well as looking forward to how the character’s actions will be viewed in a historical context. There are also exercises that look at how many enemies a character has vanquished and what that means, people and places that are long gone, and how supporting characters in the service of the player character operate or act.

Some of my favorites in the section are “God, No,” which is an exercise that details how the player character would deal with a visit from a deity, and “For the Myth That Has Everything,” which is about trying to determine what you could provide your fellow epic player characters as a gift.

Ultimate Ups The book does a wonderful job of bringing up motivations and off-screen events that neither a player nor a game moderator would commonly think to add to a game. 

The book is a great resource for thought exercises. Just reading through the exercises without doing them is entertaining, but there are some deep character examinations that can evolve by following several of the multi-step procedures.

Wandering Guide

It’s not really a downside, but because there are so many exercises, it may be easy to get lost in them if you really want to specifically narrow down some details about your character. Being written through the lens of games with similar conventions to Dungeons and Dragons means that some exercises will either not be as useful to non-fantasy gamers or may take a little bit of adaptation to be useful. Some of the exercises, by default, give the player a little more world-building authority than a game moderator may be willing to hand out, especially if they are playing in an established setting. While entertaining, some of the exercises exist just to be humorous, and don’t do much to flesh out the backstory or history of a character.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

Anyone that has been a player in an RPG is likely to get some enjoyment from this product, even if it is geared towards fantasy gaming. Even without using it to flesh out a specific character, the various exercises are both entertaining and instructive about the kinds of elements players may want to add to a character. Reading the exercises is also likely to give a game moderator some ideas about what questions they want to answer over the long term in established campaigns.

What are your favorite system agnostic, player-facing products? How often do you read products about roleplaying games that aren’t about a specific system or genre? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Three Things I Learned From My Last Campaign

3 December 2018 - 6:32am

Sometimes you play one of those games that’s just so good, you can’t stop talking about it. I’ve already written several articles inspired by the Tales from the Loop game I played, and so has my fellow gnome Wen — and here, at the end of the campaign, is one more. A tribute to the intensity, the feels, the fun, and the amazing experience we all had, if you will: here are three important lessons I learned (or relearned) from the end of that campaign. To preface these lessons — Tales from the Loop is a wonderful game! If you have played it in setting, you will probably notice my stories from this campaign bear little resemblance to the book. We riffed a lot and for this return to our characters didn’t wait for Things from the Flood. We just fast forwarded everything 10 years, played a round of Microscope to fill in the timeline, and jumped back into a world with aliens, cloning, and time travel technology.

1. You shouldn’t always have a sequel.

That game was good. It was the kind of good you never want to end. I could have played that game into eternity, but…by the time we got to eternity, it wouldn’t have been the same game anymore. Despite my desire to continue playing out Stacie and her terribly messy love and life situation, there is a point where it would become boring. Routine. No longer shocking, fascinating, and surrounded with questions. The end of this campaign was bittersweet to be sure — some lived, some died, relationships ended — but we know how their stories will go. All the major questions have been answered (yes, Stacie ends up with Harrison, yes, she will eventually have to kill him). I want more…but I shouldn’t have more. This story is complete, and like any good story, it has an end point. I want more…but I shouldn’t have more. This story is complete, and like any good story, it has an end point. 

Ending on wanting more is a lesson we learn again and again in this age of sequels and trilogies that were only intended to ever have one movie or one season — the sequels are rarely as good. So I’m happy to leave our wayward band of time travelers in their alternate past. The world is an absolute disaster, but the questions we started with about all our characters are answered brilliantly. It’s time to bid them goodbye.

2. Just because it’s crazy doesn’t mean it’s not deathly serious.

I run crazy games all the time, and I love them! My games hit a level of crazy that’s very silly because they aren’t serious. (See: The Art of the Off the Wall Con Game) The thing with games that go a bit crazy like that is that they are frequently unsustainable, because you can’t keep raising the levels forever. The thing with this game was that while the level of crazy started…well, pretty off the wall, the emotional intensity started lower and built beautifully over the course of our sessions. The plot twisted into a roiling mass of time travel and time loop events, but the true drama was ours, our kids from part one, ten years later, just trying to figure out how to be themselves and grow up in a world that couldn’t let them be normal. And sure, things were seriously all over the place — but we were absolutely and completely committed to the emotional play of our PCs. Sometimes we laughed a lot, but those meta moments were interspersed with scenes worthy of Oscars dealing with difficult decisions and trust. Trying to describe the events of this game is definitely one of those narratives that gives gaming stories a bad name (you simply had to be there), but there wasn’t an in game moment that wasn’t worthy of the kind of apocalyptic time travel epic it became.

 Knowing that there is a safe space to revoke your consent in play if something goes too far means we can be much more willing as a group to see just how far we can go. Having a culture of safety and trust with the people that you play with is storytelling magic. Games with anything goes kinds of plots can be functionally covered in knives from a safety perspective because everyone can drive the story and we are always reaching for the next level, to go further. Knowing that there is a safe space to revoke your consent in play if something goes too far means we can be much more willing as a group to see just how far we can go. I feel unbelievably privileged to play with these folks and have that space, where we can just keep pushing things harder and see what happens.

3. Music is not the enemy.

I am not always a fan of background music in games. Frequently I find it distracting and often not on the right tone for whatever is happening in game right now. It can be technically challenging and slightly disjointed as a GM to try to manage keeping up with music and making it match the current mood — it’s like improvisational sound design, which is a lot of extra cognitive load.

In this game, our GM Quincy used music so brilliantly I don’t even have words.

The songs that we each selected as representative of our characters when we recreated their 90s selves came back to haunt our much wiser, much worse for wear selves as we concluded the campaign, creating a brilliant circle and a reminder of where we’d started before our timeline went to hell in a handbasket. Halfway through a scene of me telling my fiance that I didn’t want to marry him after all, quiet in the background comes up the song I chose so many weeks before: Don’t Speak (No Doubt). Perfection incarnate. I am rethinking my feelings about using music in my games, because intentional, specific music for those moments is truly magical.

It was truly a pleasure, Tales from the Loop. Perhaps someday we’ll visit you again.

Do you have those games that left strong memories for you? Did they end at the right time, or go on too long? Did you learn anything from the way they ended?


Categories: Game Theory & Design