Welcome back to Postgame, Sidequest’s monthly Patreon-exclusive podcast, where the editors lay down hot takes on cold games. This month, Naseem, Zora, and Melissa talk about the tabletop games they’ve been playing recently (or, you know, had been in August of 2021).
All three of us come from fairly different tabletop backgrounds—Missy’s first was, inexplicably, the Supernatural TTRPG (she has since moved on to Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons); Zora started with bog-standard D&D 3.5e, which they have abandoned for fiction-first indie games like Monsterhearts and Apocalypse World; and Naseem’s played some extremely limited Dungeon World and a whole bunch of Gloomhaven. This, and the fact that we’re different people with different brains, mean that we have vastly different preferences and desires for what tabletop RPGs do—where some of us find D&D overly mechanical and limiting, others find freedom in the structure. Join us as we get into the weeds about why things work for us and, ultimately, why it’s pretty neat that these are all just ways to tell fun stories with your friends.
Naseem Jamnia: So the few things I’ve played—like, Gabe has run some Dungeon World camp—oh, I don’t want to call them campaigns—like a game. And I think once he and I did—it’s very hard to do with like, you know, ostensibly, a GM and ostensibly a single player, but I think he did one Torchbearer thing with me. But no, he’s—I mean, Dungeon World is like—that’s his preferred. Like, he’s just like, “Ah, yes,” like your character creation takes maybe half an hour or something. And then we can just put a story together. But he pulls stuff up on the spot. And I’m like, I don’t know how—like, I don’t think this is how running a game usually works. But I don’t know anything.
Zora: So that is—in games that I play, that is how it works. Often—
Zora: Often people I play with have like a sketch of a world or a concept, but it’s that sketch of a world or a concept is based on—so in the game traditions that I engage with, there’s a concept of a session zero, where everybody comes together and like, comes with their character concepts. Not necessarily like a character sheet, but a concept. And we all sit around and we create our characters together. And we have a conversation about what we want the story to look like. And so using that information—so it’s questions like what do we want this to be rated? Right, like PG-13, R, et cetera? What do we want to deal with? In my Monsterhearts campaign, I wanted to deal with, with, like, the idea of self-hatred and failure. Because I’m fun at parties.
But also, Monsterhearts is a game that’s meant to be about high schoolers. And I can’t think of two things that scared me more as a high schooler than the idea of failure, and the self-hatred imbued therein. Like, those are very teen things. I mean, they’re also adult things, but they were like—what’s a word for spicy? That is more olfactory, because I can’t think of the word that I wanted. Um, but they were like, in focus in my high school years in a way that their focus has changed as I’ve grown. And so that’s what I wanted to deal with with that character. Another person played a Sasquatch, I think is actually what the class was called.
Zora: Which is a character that deals with fading into the background. They’re not noticed. They’re a little bit wild, right, this idea of being an outsider, and not being seen. And so we came up with these characters, and we had conversations about what we wanted to deal with with the characters. And using that information, Mike, our GM, sort of sketched out some antagonists, and then sort of threw them at us. And when I say sketched out some antagonists, I mean, Mike went, “You know, I bet a shitty racist substitute teacher would cause some chaos in this group.” And boy, did she. And so it’s like, really loose sketching of concepts, and sort of—we’re people. And we’re pretty creative people, me and my friends, even though none of us are novelists in any way. But we’re able to work with each other and encourage each other’s ideas in such a way that a story builds. And I think that it’s something that a lot of people can do. But it takes practice to—not necessarily to do it, but to be comfortable being seen doing it.
Naseem: Oh, uh-huh.
Zora: Does that make sense?
Naseem: That makes a lot of sense. Sorry, go ahead, Missy.
Melissa: Oh, I was just gonna say it’s hard to get over that bridge of volunteering a creative idea. Which, again, for me, is something that I actually find is facilitated really well by D&D’s rules. Because, like, the amount of rolls it takes to accomplish something like hitting somebody with a sword, there’s a lot of—it goes in two directions, right? On the one hand, you can just base it off the roll, okay, you hit him with a sword, whatever. That’s not interesting. But the space that’s opened up by potential failure, and even like great successes. For me, when I was first starting to play tabletop RPGs—which was 3.5 in college—the prompt of a dice roll helped me loosen up a bit because it gave me something to work with. Whereas if I was just—now, I’ve played story games before that don’t have any, like rolls that whatsoever. And I struggle with that. I struggle with having to volunteer or play or act without—
Melissa:—something forcing me to do it.
Melissa: I clam right up.
Zora: The beauty of like roll-based systems, I guess—chance based systems—is that all you have to do is swing the sword. What happens after is externally determined. It’s determined by the roll of the die. And depending on how the die rolls, the outcome is determined either by the player or the GM. And so it takes some of the cognitive load off of the player. And then for the GM, the players responding to the prompts that they give takes the narrative load off the GM, right, because they can just be like, “Okay, there’s a bad guy, what do you do?” And then then it’s in the player’s hands.
Theme music is Bass Thee by Alexander Nakarada, used under Creative Commons 0.
Zora Gilbert cares a whole lot about words, kids, and comics. Find them at @zhgilbert on twitter, and find the comics they edit at datesanthology.com.