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"Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win" - Beastie Boys featuring Santigold (listen )

This was supposed to be a Risk Legacy post, it’s true. Regrettably, Justin is cursed with the sort of luck one only finds in a man who has mortally offended a shaman of some sort, and so last Wednesday his afternoon was spent in an immediate care facility.

So, not having played a game I love, I have decided to talk about another type of game I enjoy but rarely get to play: the roleplaying game.

The genesis for the My Embeered Life blog series is in part in The Long Overdue Kickstarter Post, Part One, where I suddenly started shouting, “halfling!” for no discernible reason. That was because of the Reaper Bones Kickstarter project, which should start shipping out any day now, which I got as a sort of investment in my nerdy future. Now I have a few hundred minis, in case I’m ever sitting around and someone asks if I have a few d20s and a lifelong hatred of kobolds. Do I ever. The thing is, more than any other type of game or recreation, I think RPGs have many similarities to brewing.

Yes, mom, I’m way into Satan now

(My mom actually would have been fine with me playing D&D. My mom is awesome. Are you insulting my mom?)

Jack Chick, you are a national treasure
Jack Chick, you are a national treasure

I grew up hearing stories of my dad’s D&D exploits. Facing off against the warlord with an amulet that negated magic (which the party later buried behind a magic shop). The monster screaming “you shall not pass!” as it gained power (and size) from the earth beneath it. Fighting the cast of Sesame Street. It all sounded so… cool. My friends as a kid were high quality but few in number, and so the opportunity never came up. I pined for my first d20 for probably 15 years before I made it happen.

If you’re as unfamiliar with the genre as I was, a brief synopsis: you play a character, probably one of a few archetypes like “person what hits people” and “person what casts magic” and of a race like “human,” “elf” or “generic store brand hobbit.” Most of the time you roll one or more dice when you try to do something like smack someone about the head with a large axe, though the dice differ based on what game you’re playing. The most well known RPG involves both dungeons and dragons, but they aren’t all fantasy based: some take place in a post-apocalyptic setting, or a dystopian future, or an alternate reality WWII with mutant Nazis. Dice aren’t even always necessary, as RPGs can sometimes be collaborative storytelling suitable for all ages.

The main thread running through all of them, as I see it, is that roleplaying games take place primarily in your mind. At best there will be a grid with tiny figurines on it, but mostly you’re imagining what’s happening and using your creativity to decide what to do rather than a pre-set series of actions.

Now then: what does a RPG have to do with an IPA?

Similarity one: They take time

I said that I rarely get to play my roles, which is true in that it’s an average of the “never” I play them in person and the “more or less constantly” I play on RPG Geek’s play by forum Pathfinder Society guild, which is the Kix of RPGs.

I have spent exactly three nights playing RPGs in person: the first was when I handed my friends some pre-made characters and we tried out Legend, a d20 based system that smooths over some of the fiddly bits found in other systems and aims to be setting-agnostic: you could fight dragons just as easily as fight the Triad in present day. The group never found out they were exploring the ruins of Winterfell, or fought the direwolf at the end, because they were too busy extorting the townsfolk and terrifying the thieves hiding in the abandoned castle. They went off the rails immediately and it was a ton of fun.

It was also two or three hours to almost get to the good part of a short scenario. We never finished it, because it’s nigh-impossible to get a group together on a regular basis, at least when the thing you want to do depends on everyone being free.

The second night was when I decided to ditch fantasy entirely and have a good ol’ fashioned pulp adventure in the Spirit of the Century universe. We spent a solid three hours creating characters, adding backstory, deciding on traits. It was fun, but then again my idea of fun is writing blog posts about beer. Worldbuilding is kinda my jam.

The third night was the next week, when the group actually started playing the game. My wife wasn’t feeling well and two others had to leave almost immediately, so no sooner had the group escaped the psychic dinosaurs that had taken over Los Angeles than we stopped for the night.

That was about a year ago.

Just last week I was bemoaning how I never get to do anything anymore. How can I reliably devote 3-4 hours in a night to games? Last Friday I finally had a group of four together for a game of Tichu and we had to stop after three hands because we were sleepy. It’s simply not feasible right now.

There are ways to play remotely: Roll20 looks incredible, and I do have a level 2 rogue and level 1 bard that cavort around RPG Geek. But it’s not the same. They don’t use my jar full of dice. (besides, the RPGG “geekroller” random number generator has a clear and vicious vendetta against me)

No time? That sounds eerily familiar. I haven’t brewed at home since last Father’s Day. Is that this Sunday? I might not even get to it this year. An all grain batch of beer takes me a good six or so hours, start to finish. If I had time to do that once or twice a month, surely I’d have time to roll a few dice.

Similarity two: They encourage creativity

“X takes time and so does beer” is a pretty weak argument. By those standards, brewing is similar to competitive table setting or driving to Cleveland.

Here’s the meat of the issue: in brewing and in RPGs, there are rules and you are encouraged to break them as often as you feel like it.

Styles in brewing are treated somewhere between gospel and useless, depending on who you talk to. Some brewers live and die by the BJCP or Brewer’s Association guidelines; others, meanwhile, ignore them completely and toss grains and hops into a recipe with gleeful abandon. Neither are wrong, because good beer is good beer. The ends completely justify the means, except for that one time somebody submitted a milk stout to a homebrewing competition made with breast milk.

The entire point of roleplaying games, as I see it, is to do whatever you damn well please. The experience should be as ala carte as the players and GM want it to be. I’ve seen many GMs say that they don’t care about encumbrance (where your strength and size influence how much you can carry), or wealth, or exact experience points. Many RPGs simplify these systems or do away with them entirely: in Legend you gain items as part of your level progression, and the Pathfinder Society version of Pathfinder has characters level up every three scenarios.

From Penny Arcade: http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2012/01/11
From Penny Arcade: http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2012/01/11

Even if the rulebook is very specific about something, if you don’t like it you can just waive a hand and it goes away. Listen to Nerd Poker: Dungeons & Dragons With Brian Posehn and Friends to see this done essentially every five minutes: the GM has added a “botch table,” gives skill checks arbitrarily (and sometimes not even using the proper system) and ignores much of the changes since the version he’s most familiar with (2nd edition, as compared to the current 4th). In fact, it sounds like many 4e players are so frustrated with their mangling of the rules that they’re just going to go back to 2e soon. You know what? I don’t care! The podcast is a lot of fun to listen to, and makes me want to pull out my dice and roll for initiative on a regular basis.

When I was homebrewing I decided I wanted to make a pale ale that was less hoppy than usual, and had a toasty/biscuit character to it. Would this have been characterized as an “American Pale Ale” as others would understand the category? No, probably not. If I was entering it into a competition then it would have done terribly, and rightfully so: similarly, if I joined a new roleplaying group they would be under no obligation to adopt whatever house rules I was used to. In my own house, when it’s just me and mine, there is no right and wrong, only what our tastes dictate. Customization is not only encouraged, it’s nearly the end goal in itself.

Similarity three: The rabbit hole is as deep as you want to go

When I decided I wanted to make my own beer I went to Niagara Tradition and bought a starter kit. It was as complex as making macaroni and cheese from a box: heat up water, dump, stir, dump, cool, wait. Some people only make extract beers and that’s totally fine. Extract beers of mine have won gold medals in competitions.

I started out making mac & cheese. Now I own a brewery. That is… a bit of a jump.

If you only want to play pre-written scenarios with characters that were created for you, you can. That’s totally fine. You can have quite a lot of fun for quite a long time doing that.

Alternately, you can create your own world from scratch. Your character can be created from pieces plucked from a library of supplements that cost in total more than a weeklong bender at Blue Monk. There are encyclopedias, plural, worth of knowledge to be memorized in many RPGs. Or you could know what you need to and look up the rest. Or you could wing it and not care.

You do not need to know what beta amylase is to make good beer, just like you do not need to know the rules for two handed fighting to have a good time playing a RPG.

This is not the end of the conversation

My original master plan was to immediately follow Risk Legacy with a regular feature of roleplaying and beer. That is still something I want to do, even more after having written this post (and having gotten a preview copy of the Fate System Toolkit in my inbox from the Fate Core Kickstarter), but there will probably be a gap of a few months before it starts up. I don’t even know what I want to do, just that I want to do something.

It’s the customization that appeals to me, just as it did with brewing. Even if I don’t ever change anything, I could. It can be as simple or as complex as I feel like, and as standard or custom as I feel like taking it. Sometimes you want to buy a six pack from the store and sometimes you want to make a triple decoction Belgian golden strong.

I put on my robe and wizard hat.

One comment

Pat Q

“Sometimes you want to buy a six pack from the store and sometimes you want to make a triple decoction Belgian golden strong.” … Sums it up :-)

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