#RPGaDAY2023, Day 6: Favorite game you NEVER get to play 

[I plan to post days 1-5 together here, soon.]

Wow. This is a tough one decision. Ever since I got lured into this hobby in 1979, I’ve been reading RPGs the way other people read novels. Some I’ve had the chance to play; mostly I’ve had to GM; some bring up deep, wistful feelings; and winnowing down the list for today’s prompt has been difficult. All things considered, here’s what survived that winnowing.

#1 Lost Souls: If my feet were held to the fire to pick a single one, this would be it.

Normally I’m unimpressed with d100 games: pure percentile strikes me as sorta lazy on the one hand, and unnecessary on the other. I mean, come on, there’s pretty much never a time when any of them change things by 1%, nor 2%, and once you get to 3% or 4%, you might as well be doing 5%, i.e., a d20. Lost Souls is probably one of only two RPG I’ve seen where a d20 won’t quite do the job.

Okay, mechanics aside, Lost Souls casts players as spirits of the dead, trying to increase their karma, so as to work their way up the reincarnation ladder from literal pond scum to higher being. But forget that backstory. Game play is about playing a random spirit type from a list of 24, each with its own set of 5 powers. Which are the only way you can interact with the mortal world, a realm itself hazardous to spirits. (Stay out of sunlight! And try not to get hit by physical objects.) Want to open a physical door, you probably can’t directly, and will need to motivate or trick some hapless human into doing it, so you can slip through.

This is where the game really shines. No two groups of ghostly characters are likely to have the same set of powers, so they have to be creative about combining them. (I once had a group exit a hotel lobby by levitating a cat, using its tail to dial 911, and escaping when the police came through the door!)

Everything about your character’s mortal background and physical appearance, including ghostly objects they might be carrying, is random, leading to lots of laughter as the group is created. But that laughter changes to chills and even outright terror, once you arrive on earth and start investigating the mystery of your death, or your companion’s, etc.

I think I’m going to have to convince a friend or two to try this GM-less, if I’m to have any chance at all of ever playing again.

Nowadays the PDF is free, with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license, at hauntedattic.org.

Runners Up, in alphabetical order:

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Teases my nostalgia for AD&D, with the addition of random accretion of physical corruption for spell failures. I’m a sucker for mages, and backlash for excessive spell use adds flavor.

Feast of Legends: Yes, Wendy’s fast food themed fantasy RPG. The game is well designed, and I believe the challenge of actual role-play in this world could freshen up adventure.

High Fantasy: I loved AD&D until I finished reading all three core books and felt like the mystery was over. Sort of a similar feeling to finishing the Lord of the Rings. Then I loved TFT for its skill-based system and tactical combat. In both cases I got started by filling in for our regular GM. High Fantasy was the first RPG I found and introduced the group to afresh, it kept a 2-year campaign running (and would have lasted longer if I hadn’t pushed the characters out of the Free City of Carse—Midkemia Press). A percentile system, but one in which damage directly impacted ability, applying to the ability’s percentage itself. Also a game that got me started noodling with game mechanics. Also, a game with probably the best solo adventures I’ve ever seen published.

Lord of the Rings (Iron Crown Enterprises): Unlike RoleMaster, its demandingly intricate older sibling, the LotR game seemed to be based on the 5-page system in Middle-earth Quest paperback solos (which pages I pressed into service as GM for a mini campaign).

Magicians: If the publisher ever finishes a Japanese version, this’ll top my list. In a nutshell, imagine if Hogwarts were in Korea, and you cast spells in Korean instead of Latin. As in, as a player, you literally learn Korean language, and your pronunciation is graded by an app on your phone. The better your pronunciation and longer your sentences, the more powerful your character’s spells. Also, you’re introduced to Korean mythology. (This another one I may have to try to solo with a GMA deck.)

Star Wars, West End Games: IMO, absolutely the best game mechanics for the Star Wars property. Perfectly captures the high action of that galaxy long, long ago and far, far away. (IIRC, the mechanics actually showed up first in WEG’s Ghostbuster’s game, but in Star Wars it really shone.)

Throwing Stones Fantasy: Technically the first collectible dice game ever published. (TSR’s Dragon Dice—designed by yours truly—was announced first but took longer to manufacture.) Mainly I love TSF for its multifunctional dice faces, and that your character advances by gaining new abilities through new dice. Partly because its mechanics remind me of TFT’s in terms of tactical battles. Its main problem is that the silkscreened images wear off the dice faces too easily. Nonetheless, I have scads of these dice and would love to have had a chance to use them.

Underworld: I yearn to play one of the many character types in this wonderfully inventive mythologies of the world beneath our streets! (One thing that hurt publication, I suspect, is that the title font is literally unreadable.)

The Devil’s Music

Watching this performance for the first time today, I’m literally choked up about how much amazing, powerful music I missed out on as a teenager simply because my mom and stepdad thought rock was the Devil’s music.

It wasn’t until my stepdad forbade me to listen to the Carpenter’s, because “Goodbye to Love” ends with an “edgy” guitar solo, that I simply stopped letting them hear anything I enjoyed. You’ve likely heard me praise my stepdad for the patience he showed in teaching me electrical and mechanical repair, instilling and encouraging common sense. But in this regard, he had none.

That may have been the beginning of the end of Evangelical Christianity for me. But the damage to my musical innocence had been done. As much as I loved the music of Seals & Crofts for example, there was always a squirm factor I had to work through because their religion wasn’t Christian. A shadow across the beauty of Cat Steven’s work, because of what I perceived as Buddhist imagery.

Rock in the 1970’s was a voice of protest, a tide of social rebellion carrying on from the Civil Rights struggle of the previous decade, now with youth’s unwillingness to be caught up in the Vietnam War. You can still find its bitter skepticism in nearly all of Trent Reznor’s work, in much of Maynard Keenan’s, in Zack de la Rocha’s and Tom Morello’s, among others. But nothing matches the widespread vocality of the 1970’s.

I think the rushing power of that social protest was ultimately diluted into the swamp of status quo. And I wonder how much of that was because youth like me, on the tail end of that decade, were indoctrinated to distrust that rebelliousness.

I’m no Satanist. But I’m of the Devil’s party, as William Blake described Milton, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

It took awhile for me to recognize the jail cell of Evangelical Christianity not as a place of safety but of timorousness. I resent being taught hymns of blind faith while denied music of much-needed change.

“Did you think I wouldn’t recognize this compromise? / Am I just too stupid to realize? / Stale incense, old sweat and lies, lies, lies.”

The trickster gods get a bad rap in every mythology. Lucifer maybe the worst of all. But he definitely has the best music.

Funnel Focus

In a previous post, I mentioned trying to shift away from a purely Facebook presence, to concentrate more on this blog/site. For my final pre-retirement employer, one hat I was handed, back when the Web was first launching, was “Internet guy.” And what with the company being a business, “Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) became a significant part of that job. How to snag a highly visible spot on the first page of a search engine.

Some of SEO was simply a matter of early entry into a field: Look up the phrase “Write Source” on Google and on the first page you’ll find only a single entry that isn’t my old employer. The Edge browser is only slightly less dominated, as is the case with Yahoo! (the most popular search engine back then) and Ask Jeeves (another old one).

Short of that early dominance, there’s “long tail” (I like to call it “chasing the long tail,” because sarcasm), a practice of focusing the META description in a page’s <head></head> code on such specific phrasing that you dominate searches for that combination of words.

And tied to SEO is the idea of funneling searches and other Web presences—social media, posts on other blogs, whatever other diverse locations you can occupy—back to a single location, where you can focus your own time and attention, rather than having to keep up with and provide content to a zillion other places.

That funnel concept is as true for personal blogs as for businesses. A desire to be visible in a sea of other content. And for a “retired” game designer like myself, seeking to remain relevant in a hobby more and more dominated by Hasbro and Eurogame companies, my posting to disparate places is time I better spent on writing and self-publishing.

Which focus is why the occasional publication announcement or game related content here.

Not just about my own stuff. On Facebook I often promote somebody else’s, whether in my own feed or on a Group page. Because I’m a gamer first and foremost. Self-publishing is just one outlet of that hobby. Playing other people’s games is just as much a part, though unlike for many players my mind may be doing more than simply play: evaluating the design itself, musing on some aspect of it, learning something, envying some feature I wish I’d have thought of. Just as I do with fiction, non-fiction, movies, poetry, etc. The storytelling, the use of language, the philosophy and history.

True fact, the only reason I know much of anything about historical things like the Napoleonic Wars is from reading War and Peace and The Count of Monte Cristo. (Historical details I was supposed to learn in school just wouldn’t stick, until I took a Humanities course in college, which dealt with history and philosophy from the viewpoint of famous artists and writers.) And once the Napoleonic Wars were introduced in those two novels, suddenly the interconnectedness of the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, and suchlike came into focus.

So, forgive me if I’ve said it before, but this website is me. And though you’ll find quite a bit of stuff about my own works, that’s only a significant fraction of who I am and what I’d like to accomplish here. Most likely I’ll be changing the site’s banner sometime soon to reflect that fact for anyone who lands here by mistake. So they don’t immediately think I’m trying to sell something.

Because people do land here by mistake. I accidentally snagged the front page of search engines way back when, by getting the “lestersmith.com” URL and keeping it. So, though the dead Texas millionaire has been crowding me out of late, I’m still there. And one not unwelcome side effect of my paying more attention to this blog is likely to be crowding him out again simply by outliving the newsworthiness of his passing. I may be old, but I can still make news.

(Mis)Adventures in Social Media

Earlier this week, I wrote a few posts about wrangling with social media options, and shared them on social media, and got smacked down on CounterSocial for, to paraphrase, “dropping into the neighborhood and trying to sell something.” The first of those comments ended with an angry “This ain’t Twitter, pal.”

That kind of thing weighs on me. It’s not that I’m averse to confrontation when it seems needed. It’s the thought of offending someone unintentionally. A knee-jerk, heart pounding, stomach-churning jolt of adrenaline that only now occurs to me as the flight of “fight or flight.”

Not one of those three aforementioned posts sell anything. There’s not a product pitch in any of them. Just musings about wrangling with social media as both a person and publisher.

Yes, my website banner is covers of things I’ve designed. Yes, the sidebar advertises things I’ve self published. Yes, there’s a Shop tab in the site menu.

On the other hand, the website lands you on my blog, where at least three quarters of the posts are opinions and reviews that have nothing to do with sales. (Paradoxically, I’ve been criticized for that by people who like my games but not my politics.) The first thing atop the sidebar is a random quotation, almost always something philosophical, political, or snarky. And the “Shop” tab is fourth of five, evident but not front-and-center.

This whole topic brings me back to wrangling with social media, and with a Web presence overall.

On the one hand, I’m a person, with opinions, many on issues of social justice. I’m a writer, which means saying things, many in the vein of Salman Rushdie’s words, “To name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” And sometimes I post personal confessions like this one, partly just to think things out, partly maybe so other people with similar problems don’t feel alone.

On the other hand, I’m a bucket-list self-publisher, a retiree trying to maintain a presence in the hobby where I’ve spent most of my career. As a one-person operation, I have to market myself. It always makes me feel uncomfortable, but somehow it has to be done.

Which brings me back to the conundrum of navigating social media. On Facebook it’s been easiest, though even there I’m cringy about making product announcements. But some folks I know hate Facebook and have asked me to post elsewhere as well. Which got me back on Twitter just in time for Musk and an explosion of alternatives.

I get it. Online posting can’t be all “push,” it’s a back-and-forth conversation, which again I find easiest on Facebook. There’s no way to include on this blog the exchange of memes and short posts that show up there, the comment threads, the group pages of shared interests. Mastodon does it well, but the Fediverse is more of an archipelago than a continent, and specifically in the case of product posts I feel the need for a broader reach.

Fortunately, as I’ve wrestled with depression from the CounterSocial lashback over the past week, our second daughter reminded me of the easy engagement I used to have with TikTok, and to some extent with YouTube. The following of other people and favorite-ing their videos, my own one-minute “play-throughs” of solo games I’ve purchased, and GMless role-play with my own.

Unfortunately there’s more time and work involved in making a video than in crafting a paragraph, but then again, videos live longer. And play-throughs are more fun. I’ll just have to shave more often and maybe wear something other than pajamas.