RPGs I’ve Played: An Oral History

In 5th grade, my first year of middle school, I joined the Dungeons & Dragons club. My first GM was my art teacher, Mr. Bennett. We played some odd hybrid of 3e and 3.5e, running through what I discovered only recently was, I think, an adventure by Harley Stroh—Tower of the Black Pearl. It lasted about three sessions.

In the months after, I tried playing some loose games with my friends and our Star Wars Legos, one on one, where I was a kind of undefined GM and they guided a single character through Lego maps and fought bad guys. I don’t remember if dice were involved, but they told me what their Lego Jedi did, and I said what happened, more or less. These only lasted one session” apiece, but I did this several times.

A year later, I tried playing in another after-school 3.5e game, which also fell apart in two to three sessions.

A year or two after that, I convinced my friends to try playing the 2002 Iron Crown Lord of the Rings game, which I ran. The book was a duct-taped together borrowed copy of a friend’s older brother’s manual. Here was where I quickly started realizing how fast genres can bend and how convenient that could be—this campaign featured black slimes and teleportation crates, none of which fit the Tolkien vibe super well, but did make for very fun, goofy dungeons.

It was around this time, about 12 or 13, that I started getting into Warhammer, with those same friends. For many, many Friday and Saturday nights after that, four or five of us would gather in my parents’ basement, eat pizza, argue about terrain sight lines, self-importantly check the special rules section to win arguments, and occasionally play the actual game. I played Tau, then Orks, then eventually Orcs & Goblins. We played through the edition change from 5th to 6th in 40K and WHFB during the last days of 8th edition, just before the switch to Age of Sigmar. We played regularly through the end of high school. I tried more than once to convince my friends to try a narrative campaign”—explained only briefly across 4 pages buried in the middle of the 5th edition rulebook—to little avail.

In early high school, at about 15, I was introduced to Shadowrun 4e at summer camp. We played only a session or two, but our GM sent me the PDF—the first RPG PDF I remember really scrolling through and studying in detail.

Later in high school, I ran a few short campaigns of Shadowrun for some vague friends I’d made doing theater and improv. For the longest one, there were only three of us, so they played two characters each. That game was set in a cyberpunk version of San Francisco—a city I’d never been to, and still haven’t.

It was also in high school that I (surprise surprise) ended up doing both improv theater and Model UN. Neither is quite the same as an RPG (jury’s still out on which of the three is most cringe), but both remain hugely influential in my style, especially as a GM.

When I got to college, I ran Shadowrun again for my roommate and his two friends, which lasted about five or six sessions. (It turns out that you when you go to a school full of dorks, saying yeah I’ll run RPGs for you” is a great way to insert yourself wholesale into existing friend groups.) Then, I went to the campus tabletop game club and played 5e for the first time; this was after not playing anything officially called Dungeons & Dragons for six or seven years. Our GM was a little raw, clearly improvising things on the fly and basing his stuff heavily on anime none of us but him had seen, but it was a reintroduction.

After a half-dozen sessions in the loud, messy club game, I decided to put together my own 5e game with four players—one from my orientation group, one from the club game, one person I randomly met on campus, and one person I knew vaguely from my one summer of summer camp who’d happened to go to the same school for undergrad. This campaign ran for the next two semesters, playing 8+ hour sessions on Saturday afternoons. It too was a bit of a mess—a lot of homebrew monsters that had to be adjusted on the fly, retcon’ing the odd accidental TPK, and NPCs that suddenly jumped in to the rescue—but I learned a ton, and we all got far more acclimated to 5e. Most of us were also watching Critical Role at this point, the midpoint through the tail end of Campaign 1, and were heavily inspired by Mercer and company.

In the background, the irregular game with my roommates swapped from Shadowrun to 5e, which was vastly easier to run and at this point significantly more familiar. I set this campaign in the same world as my other game, on the other side of the continent—I’d hoped the players would run into each other, but this never happened.

The next year, my sophomore year, I ran another campaign for my same long-term players, set in the same world. One player dropped out, but we picked up a couple more over the year. This was also the campaign where my style started to clash more heavily with some of my players—I was interested in complicated factions and dangerous wildernesses, they wanted big huge action setpieces. This was before I knew what the OSR was (we were all deep in the heyday of 5e, right as Volo’s and Xanathar’s released), but my tastes were changing.

Home from school for Christmas, I ran a few sessions of 5e for my old Shadowrun and theater friends, many of whom had started playing together.

Come spring, as now second-year game development students, we all started studying and making tabletop games in more detail. I talked my way into an RPG class meant for upperclassmen, and for the final project released my first ever RPG project on the DMs Guild, a 5e set of exploration and survival rules expanding on the stuff in the DMG. Late my sophomore year, I started running test sessions to see how these all worked. They were quite rough and crunchy at first, but moved forward slowly.

It was also at this point, in part due to the RPG course, that I started breaking away from 5e. For the class, we ran several games of Star Wars Genesys (my first time co-GMing), and my professor recommended Dogs in the Vineyard as an old favorite of his. After reading through Dogs and googling Vincent Baker, I discovered Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse books. This was the late 2010s, long after PbtA had been well-established, but it was all still totally fresh to me. Two semesters later, Avery Alder came to my school and ran an RPG workshop—the first time I really noticed myself starting to grate against some of the more cutting-edge storygame design.

Home from school that summer, I ran my first West Marches-style open-table campaign for my old Shadowrun friends and our expanding circle of 5e players. It was a bit rough—I learned many hard lessons in what we called the Test Marches”—but I discovered my love of more old school play, even if I didn’t quite know to call it that at the time: big sandboxes, competing factions, player-drawn maps, weather and travel systems, random encounters, all that jazz. A much more rough-and-tumble, unplanned, dangerous mode of play compared to the Critical Role-inspired neotrad we’d all been absorbing.

That fall, I began a new 5e West Marches game for all of my college friends—my regular players, my roommates, some classmates, a couple of (un)lucky randos—about a dozen of them in total. We played 2–3 sessions per week, usually 4–6 hours. We also had occasional raid” sessions, where I’d let them surpass the normal limit of six players to bring eight, ten, twelve players to defeat some big bad boss monster. After two years of playing, this was where I really honed my 5e expertise: we could have complicated exploration, run four or five combats, delve into roleplaying and investigation, and do it all inside four hours. I made dungeons every week, even if they were hasty, and I learned to prep quickly. This West Marches game ran for almost two years, with the highest-leveled PCs going all the way from 1 to 20.

At the same time, I started to get more into storygames. I got a copy of Apocalypse World and read it cover to cover multiple times, and started delving deeper. For another class, I and some other people released a messy, clunky system of our own—a multigenerational mythic Viking game—and that spring I ran my first Kickstarter, a lighter-weight almost-retroclone of Shadowrun, for the first ZineQuest.

That spring, my junior year, after some finagling, I ended up landing an independent study with two professors—in game design and creative writing—to run regular games of Apocalypse World for students writing game-based fiction. This was about 20 sessions total across the semester, usually one or two per week. I admit at this point I didn’t really understand anything the Bakers were talking about: I ran AW too adventurously, too close to D&D, too focused on problem-solving instead of letting players get into drama with each other. The class was a bit of mess.

Here, for various reasons, my West Marches group decided to start streaming our games on Twitch: my roommates and I built an incredibly jank set in our living room, bought a couple hundred dollars’ worth of podcast microphones and webcams to mount on beer bottles, and tried it out. We averaged about 4 viewers, at least a couple of which were our own laptops in the background.

From the spring of my junior year to the fall of my senior year, I bought, read, and ran a session or three of many PbtA systems and storygames—Blades in the Dark, Monsterhearts, For the Queen, Cartel, Scum & Villainy, Night Witches, Dread, Dogs in the Vineyard, Poison’d!, Bluebeard’s Bride, Urban Shadows, and others besides.

After a lot of tactical kicking and screaming, I also convinced my department to give me summer co-op credit for running another Kickstarter campaign and making an RPG instead of doing a regular internship. I ran many playtest sessions of the game that spring and summer, a PbtA hack about grungy sci fi space truckers, mostly oneshots. The first draft of that game was submitted as a final project for another game design course; at the same time, one of my oldest players submitted a draft of a West Marches guide she’d been writing based on our game, the one she played in and I ran as GM.

Home again that summer and writing my PbtA hack, a friend from my original Test Marches game began running his own West Marches game, which I played in. It was the first time I’d played more than a session or two as a player-character in years. I enjoyed it a lot—my characters tended to die often—but I also grated against how slow and mechanistic 5e could be. I played about 20 sessions that summer, churning through a half-dozen PCs or more.

I also went to Gen Con for the first time, in August, running sessions for Magpie Games.

The fall of my senior year, as these storygame oneshots and streamed West Marches sessions still ran, I scored the same deal as the previous semester: I’d run sessions, meet with my professors regularly, and do some writeups, all in exchange for independent study credit (this time in creative writing rather than game design). That fall, I was running Scum & Villainy; the students based their writing on Star Wars—fanfiction, more or less, set in our semi-canonical campaign. These sessions went far better than Apocalypse World, and included multiple combo” sessions in which different teams from different player groups would collide, including one final showdown that involved a dozen players, requiring” (lol) me to run it during class time. It was this fall, my senior year, that—between Scum, the West Marches, my own playtests, and other games—sometimes the number of sessions I’d run in a week would outnumber the days in that week. Most of these Scum and other PbtA sessions were heavily improvised—such is the style they advise.

This was also when I finally discovered the OSR, starting with Knave (not through the Questing Beast channel, oddly, but rather just by happening upon it on DriveThru), and branching out from there. We only played oneshots, but it kept gnawing at me. This was just after G+ had died, so I started trawling the blogs, following Twitter users, and trying to piece together what the OSR actually was.

I’d also started playing in a game run by one of my professors: four faculty, one as GM, and two students. I loved this campaign, despite its occasional issues, and got very into the characters and world.

At the end of the semester, I ran the biggest and greatest session of the West Marches campaign, a boss fight against a super-tarrasque. Ten players piled into my living room, and we managed to pick up about 15 Twitch viewers—our most ever. The session lasted some four and half hours, almost all of which was pure combat, careening towards catastrophe and evading it at the last second many times. This, tragically, turned out to be one of our very last sessions.

That spring, my senior year, I got the same creative writing independent study deal, this time running Blades in the Dark rather than Scum. My friend and I also managed to secure another independent study to work on our West Marches guide and run a Kickstarter for it, too. We also, naturally, each did ZineQuest again, and convinced many of our friends to run their own projects, too—a kind of seat-of-our-pants game jam with questionable funding.

Of course, that spring led to March 2020. My West Marches campaign died, the Blades independent study died, the professor game died, our sense of the future as seniors in college died.

But I did get into grad school, and my friend’s and my Kickstarter, for the 5e West Marches guide, did fund.

That summer, in the midst of the pandemic, I started running the first playtest campaigns for Seas of Sand—one with my roommates and the others online, three or four in total. These ranged usually between 3 and 7 sessions, iterating and expanding each time. It was in these campaigns that I truly got into the OSR, running Knave, GLOG hacks, and others. I played in an online half-PbP GLOG campaign for a few months before classes began.

That fall, 2020, as I was taking grad school classes online, I ran an open-table Blades campaign for the fellow grad students, which quickly fell apart. It’s difficult to run an open table where you as the GM don’t have a core of reliable players you already know at least a bit.

Instead, I started two longer-term Seas of Sand playtest campaigns as I kept working on the project through grad school: one with four of my undergrad friends, another with four of my grad school friends. These both ran weekly, online, until summer 2021.

Come summer, as one of my Seas campaigns wrapped up, I ran Band of Blades for some grad friends. We finished a whole campaign, about a dozen sessions, the last final battle played in our new apartment in New York (many of my new roommates being formerly-online players of the campaign). Band of Blades kind of works, but straddles an uncomfortable line between the improv of Scum or Blades and the more focused prep of an adventure. I changed a lot to make it work.

That fall, my online undergrad group swapped through a dozen hacks and new systems as I experimented with new ideas: storygames, PbtA stuff, ultraminimalist post-OSR shenanigans, weird systemic videogame-y ideas, aborted exploration projects, and others. I also played many newer storygames and itch projects for a class, some of which I’d already played and some I hadn’t—Lasers & Feelings, Dream Askew, Star-Crossed, Thousand Year Old Vampire, Fall of Magic, the Quiet Year, Ex Novo, You Will Be Liquid, Alone Among the Stars, Wanderhome, Beak Feather & Bone, and others. It was this fall, as I started reading game studies more deeply and exploring the limits of RPGs, that I found my favorite kinds of games, in the post-OSR” space. Most of my current fringe ideas started here, after playing many storygames and others.

In the winter, I started running a heavily-modified Blades in the Dark campaign, shifted into a much more OSR-ish street crawl” faction-y mindset, which ran for about 15-20 sessions in-person with three of my friends from grad school.

In the spring, as the end of grad school approached and my work ramped up, my online undergrad friends requested more familiar territory, something they didn’t need to learn all over again and could just play. (There’s an odd problem that comes from playing with game designers: as soon as someone makes a suggestion or critique, whole sessions can devolve into just doing game design instead of actually playing—fun, sometimes, but inertia-killing.) After discovering E5 and hacking it further, we went back to a now-almost-unrecognizable 5e, which we’d all played so many hours of back in the West Marches. This campaign, the Heresy campaign, still runs every week—we’ll hit our two-year anniversary in a couple months.

That summer, I tried to run an open table megadungeon campaign for my grad school friends, which faltered—I didn’t prep enough and was doing too much improv, I made some poor structural choices with regards to a castle and a dragon, and other issues. After a dozen-odd sessions, it died at the end of summer.

That fall, I started running games at a local-ish game store, mostly Mothership. I ran bits and pieces of Dead Planet, Pound of Flesh, Gradient Descent, Ypsilon-14, and others of my own making. Truth be told, this was among the first times I really ran an adventure entirely out of a book; I’d read plenty of adventures before, and stolen things out of them, but almost never was I running as-written from a book. (This deserves a longer post, but I think Mothership adventures have the somewhat-unique quality of being actually pretty good, and thus more pleasant to read than, say, a technical manual of 5e jargon.) I ran probably a dozen sessions of Mothership total.

Periodically throughout this period and to this day, about once a season, my roommates and I get stoned and play UVG. This game is messy, only half-remembered from the previous session, almost totally improvised, very off the wall, and extremely fun. In the fall of 2023, I started running what we called the Mean Game:” a vicious OSR hack using my own Lowlife, set in a fictionalized turn-of-the-century Appalachia, where players fought coal barons’ gun thugs and explored haunted mines. This ran for about a dozen sessions off and on, online, before ending.

This spring, 2024, I rebooted the megadungeon campaign from the summer before last, which is still running—Pandemonium.

There are other short-lived campaigns in here I’m forgetting, too: a drunken late-night college Gestalt 5e campaign, a PbtA summer playtest, a Lowlife test dungeon crawl, a gothic horror Victorian Mosh-hack, a 90s-trad style monster game, probably more I can’t remember.

I’ve been playing RPGs regularly since about 2016, and releasing my own work since 2018. I estimate I’ve spent about 2,500 hours playing RPGs, some 500-600 sessions, the overwhelming majority of which were as GM. I feel old.

May 10, 2024