Gaming in a pandemic – rediscovering RPGs

As I mentioned in my previous post about my gaming experience during these strange days in which we have been living for the past few months, the lack of face-to-face gaming has led us down several different avenues as we have explored alternative ways of playing games together

There is, of course, one type of gaming that seems almost tailor made for such a time as this, one with online platforms already available, as people have been playing this way for years – Role Playing Games (RPGs)

d&d redWhilst I am no stranger to RPGs  – indeed I spent several years as a Dungeon Master for a group of school friends, playing what was then then brand new D&D Basic Rules (yes, a mere 36 years ago – yikes!) – it has been many, many years since I have played anything on a regular basis.

Edge-of-the-Empire-Corerulebook_FFG_2013I dabbled for a while with a group playing D&D 3rd Edition, and spent a memorable few weeks over a summer playing Star Wars: Edge of the Empire in a scenario that has been immortalised  on a certain podcast, but it’s not until recently that I have once again caught the bug to play an RPG – and it’s almost entirely the fault of the Welsh Wizzard. Mike has himself started playing RPGs regularly over the last few years, and his enthusiastic chatter about his experiences had obviously sowed a new seed in the fertile ground of my gaming consciousness.

Mike, my ‘other mate’ Dave and myself then played a session of Call of Cthulhu at the 2019 UK Games Expo. Call of Cthulhu is a game I have always been interested in, and of course I am a huge fan of the Mansions of Madness boardgame, so the opportunity to play that session was too good to miss, and we did indeed have a great time.

At this point I was pretty sure that I wanted to get more involved in role playing again, and this feeling was reinforced at the start of the year when I played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, appearing briefly as a reporter who was attempting to write a feature on the party for his local newspaper.

That was at the end of January, and six weeks later we were plunged into the static chaos of lockdown…

…from which subsequently has arisen the opportunity to play several RPGs with a group of friends, thanks to the engine of Roll20 and several different voice chat applications -we have finally settled on Google Meet as it seems to have the best sounds quality – Roll20 is good for many things, but the voice comms is rubbish.

For those of you who may be unaware, Roll20 is an application which allows players to meet around a virtual table to play a role playing game. Each player has access to an electronic character sheet plus the ability to roll virtual dice so that all players can see the result. In addition, there is an area where the Games Master can share maps, pictures and other hand-outs with the players. I understand the interface for the DM has a decent learning curve, but it does make for a very good gaming experience (you can even play music and sound effects). Thus the majority of my interactive, real-time gaming over the past four months or so has been in the form of RPGs.

This is what we have been playing:

Shadows of EAsteran cover 2 Shadows of Esteren is described as ‘a medieval role-playing game with horrific and gothic overtones in a dark, low fantasy setting’.

It’s very different to many of the RPGs I had played before, as the game is very narrative and focuses on investigation and survival rather than a combat-heavy dungeon crawl.

The world background has a gritty, realistic feel of different cultures colliding, with a three way power struggle taking place between the church, the older pagan religion and the rise of new technology.

We played through a series of three scenarios with pre-generated characters – I was playing Urvan, a Blade Knight squire (think of him as an apprentice Knight Templar). It’s a system that promotes the role-playing aspect of the game, rather than being dice led, and so makes a stark yet pleasant contrast to many RPGs that I had previously had experience of.

alien rpg coverAlien – The Roleplaying Game is a relatively new RPG from publishers Free League, and is based in the universe of Ridley Scott’s classic horror film of 1979.

I have played in two introductory scenarios, and am currently involved in a third. 

The game is high on drama and suspense – each character usually has some form of secret agenda during the scenario. The game is big on storytelling and light on dice intervention, though it does give plenty of scope for skills.

The games I have played in so far have all included a xenomorph of some form or other – I would like to play a game where the protagonist is different in nature, and perhaps doesn’t conform to the sub-genre stereotype (surely not all employees of Weyland-Yutani are bad guys?) However, it would also be fun to play as a squad of Colonial Marines.

A very good game – I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Dungeons & Dragons is perhaps the game that many people think of when RPGs are mentioned.

We have been playing Lost Mine of Phandelver from the 5th Edition starter set as an introduction to the system in our group.

There is no doubt that of all the systems I have played this summer, D&D 5e is by far the most ‘crunchy’, by which I mean that the system is very prescriptive and rules heavy in certain situations. Whilst during ‘normal’ play, it is very similar to other RPGs, as soon as you enter into a combat situation, the game transforms – the level involved at this point is similar to a detailed miniature skirmish game, which does mean that it has a familiarity about it for players of miniature games who haven’t played an RPG before.

The changes made in 5e would seem to make it harder for characters to be killed – especially at lower levels – so the emphasis of the game is on character progression and gaining of abilities.

Given that the rules seem to concentrate much of it’s depth on combat, this game would seem to lend itself to a ‘Hack n Slash’ style game – all good fun in and of itself, but the battles are only brief highlights in any overarching story, so the role playing element still has to be strong in this game to make campaigns worth playing.

It’s a perfectly decent set of rules, but I think is more tailored to a certain style of play.

Call of Cthulhu has always been the RPG I have most wanted to play.

Within that system, the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign has always been THE campaign to play at some point in your RPG lifetime. Several of us leapt at the chance to get involved with this campaign at the start of the Pandemic.

CoC is a heavily narrative game, where the players and the games master (Keeper in CoC) work together to build a story, and the emphasis is very much on role playing rather than stats. The game is heavily weighted towards investigation and the psychological effects of horror in the characters. Combat can be very quick and deadly, just like in real life! The classic setting of the game is the 1920’s, though many other settings exist. The Masks campaign is in the classic style, and sees the players trotting the globe as they attempt to uncover a diabolical conspiracy which could bring about the end of all things…

This is the one game that I have created a character for, rather than using a pre-generated one, and the difference is almost palpable. I have felt more invested in the character that I play – although part of that is I think due to the real-world setting of the game. I have learnt some very interesting things about the world of the 1920s whilst performing varying bits of research for character background.

Mechanically, some changes in the 7th Edition of the rules allow for some really interesting storytelling opportunities. Failed a roll? Then why not push it for a second attempt, though the consequences of a second failure can be dire. Some of the biggest turning points in our stories have come from incorporating these roles into the game, along with the use of luck. At this point, let’s just say my own character has cheated death by good fortune on more than one occasion!

Whilst I have enjoyed all the games I have played, Call of Cthulhu has certainly been the highlight.

That said, any RPG that you play is heavily dependent upon the group dynamic of the players. I have been lucky to be involved with a great bunch of people in the games that I have played, and as a result have had a huge amount of fun. Playing games is my main hobby, and there is no doubt that the COVID pandemic has had a huge impact on that. However, rediscovering RPGs has been the silver lining of this whole affair, with the bonus that I have been able to play with friends on a weekly basis, whereas if we were gaming face-to-face I might only manage a game with them three or four times a year, due to the fact that we are geographically in different places.

I hope this gaming continues long after COVID has faded into the past.

2 Comments on Gaming in a pandemic – rediscovering RPGs

  1. The Aliens Adventure Game is a 1991 RPG set in the same universe, but focused on colonial marines. It fleshes out the lore, especially the explored planets. You can probably find a copy of eBay. More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliens_Adventure_Game

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