Ian: Most of the time when you see a collaborative article here on Adventure Rules, it’s the result of me reaching out to another blogger about a potential project. Whether it’s in the form of a structured community event or just me getting in touch with somebody to say “hey there, it’d be cool if we talked about X,” collabs generally appear on Adventure Rules because I was inspired to create them. Recently, though, a friend reached out to me having been struck with inspiration to discuss a specific topic. I of course would never say no to that guy off of my favorite philosophy podcast, particularly when the topic he wanted to share about was his experience playing a tabletop roleplaying game! So today, Chris from the gaming and philosophy podcast Philosophiraga will be sharing with us his very cool recent experience from the world of tabletops: playing in a lunchtime game with a group of coworkers! I for one am very excited to hear about both a new (to me) TTRPG as well as hearing about the steps that Chris and his friends have taken to make the game work in such a unique setting. Take it away, Chris!
Chris: You know what’s hard sometimes? Being a nerd.
Like, don’t get me wrong: I love being someone who gets super into things that some people might think are a bit odd, but sometimes the things I’d like to be even more super-into-er are hard to access, or you don’t know where to start, or they require Other People (gasp).
Recently I’ve been trying to embrace a few more things that I think I’d enjoyed in my heart all along but just not actually spent time experiencing in reality: comic books, puzzle cubes, hot squash. (It’s a revelation.) One thing I’ve been interested in for a long time, and sort of revolved around the periphery of, is tabletop gaming and/or role-playing games. There might be a difference; I don’t know enough to know.
Anyway, I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last few years experiencing role-playing vicariously. There are a lot of podcasts, video series, written accounts, and other sorts of Thing whereby people who have the time and skills and friends to play lots of different kinds of games put their stories out into the world for others to experience, which is very cool. (Critical Role is of course the biggest, and it was the first of this type of thing I was exposed to; while I think it’s very good, I haven’t kept up with it very well because I’ve found it more interesting to use that eye-opening realisation that These Things Exist as a jumping-board to find lots of other ‘actual play’ material in a wider variety of systems and settings.) Through all this, I’ve been able to experience a lot of cool stories. Sometimes I understand the rules the players are adhering to, sometimes not so much, but I always enjoy following the characters and the players on their separate but intertwined journeys.
Ian: So what brought you from “this is a cool thing to watch” to “I really want to do this myself?”
Chris: Well, I figured that at its best, role-playing takes some of my favourite elements of gaming and makes it possible to expand even further, removing any limitations of pre-programming on the kind of narrative that can unfold or actions that the characters can take.
Naturally, the thought eventually arose that this might be something I’d quite like to actually have a go at, but I think it’s fair to say that it can feel like there’s a bit of a barrier to entry when it comes to role-playing and/or tabletopping. It’s something that requires a fair investment of time, plus you really need to have at least a couple of other people who are willing and able to also play, and between you there needs to be at least one person who understands the system well enough and is good enough at telling stories to be able to run the thing, and then sometimes there’s the financial element of having to buy materials and that, and you might not know how many sessions you’ll have to commit to, and basically it can all seem like a bit much if you’re new to it.
Ian: I think that’s a relatable experience for a lot of folks interested in RPGs. What finally connected you to a group?
Chris: I got lucky, as it turns out. I’m fortunate enough to work for a company where several, if not most of us, are giant nerds, and a few of my colleagues have quite extensive tabletop histories. There was still the problem of scheduling, though; trying to get several people together at once was a bit of a challenge.
One day, a couple of us were in the break room talking about RPGs and how cool they could be and all that fun stuff.
‘What if,’ I said, ‘and stop me if this is a stupid idea, but what if we just ran a game… here?’
After a fair bit of logistical pondering, we realised that actually it might not be a stupid idea at all. I really wanted a go at playing, and my colleague and friend Lauren was in a similar position to me in that she liked the sound of role-playing but hadn’t had a chance to have a go; our colleague and friend Tom, one of the keen and regular gamey peoples, wanted to help us to have the opportunity to do this cool thing, so… we put our heads together and worked it out.
Chris: Lauren and I would play, and Tom would run the game. We’d do it on our lunch breaks a couple of times a week – that meant slots of around half an hour to three quarters of an hour in a little shared room, so we needed something that didn’t require too much in the way of physical pieces or accessories and something that could be done in brief bursts.
We also needed a system that would be easy enough for both Lauren and I to pick up, something that would help us to have an enjoyable and interesting game without presenting too much complexity that could end up taking up the whole of our sessions. We wanted to be able to have an adventure within some rules, because otherwise it’d be too freeform and that would probably go to pot pretty fast, but knew that a system with too many rules would probably bog us down and the rules would be all we’d end up talking about in our short time.
Ian: A system that has some degree of structure to guide play but also is easy enough to pick up and play in a short amount of time – sounds like a unicorn! What did you all end up settling on?
Chris: Legend of the Five Rings (‘L5R’) is… a franchise, I think? I’m not 100%, to be honest. There’s definitely a CCG (or a TCG? – another case where I’m not sure whether there’s a difference!), and I believe there have also been some D&D modules using Rokugan, the setting in which L5R materials tend to take place.
For our purposes, we’re concerned with the L5R role-playing game, or ‘L5RPG’. I don’t know whether anyone else calls it that, but I’m gonna. For fun.
L5RPG gives each player the opportunity to play as a member of one of several clans in Rokugan, a fantasy world with heavy trappings of samurai-era Japan. Different clans have different personalities and priorities, from the manipulative and tight-knit families of the Scorpion to the reclusive, enlightenment-seeking Dragon. (I think you can also be a ronin with no clan, but that’s beyond the scope of my knowledge!) Players can create their own samurai – an umbrella term for non-peasants, samurai in L5R could include monks, magistrates, priests, or of course your classic katana-wielders – or pick from a selection of precreated characters with various stories and strengths.
The real appeal of L5RPG for our specific purposes, though, was how its storytelling works. At least in the starter adventure, the narrative is divided into ‘scenes’ which just happen to take around half an hour each: given that the main problem we had was the brevity of our available sessions, this felt like a stroke of genius. Whatever our story was going to look like, it’d have to be divided into these short scenes so that we could make progress a little bit at a time.
Ian: That all makes sense to me! I’m not particularly familiar with Legend of the Five Rings myself, so do you want to tell us a bit about how the starter adventure works?
Chris: So Lauren and I each picked a pregenerated character with whom we could jump into the game, and off we went. Lauren chose Isawa Aki, a sort of wizard-priest from the mystical Phoenix Clan, while I decided on Togashi Yoshi, a tattooed monk from the meditative Dragon Clan. The concept for our starter adventure was simple enough: each of us has travelled from our homelands to the village of Tsuma, where the Topaz Championship is taking place. Suffice to say that the Championship is kind of a big deal, and it’s also an opportunity to undergo a gempukku, which is sort of like a rite of passage that confirms a person is ready to officially become an adult.
So Aki and Yoshi, who didn’t know each other beforehand, found themselves meeting up along the road to Tsuma, where they were both headed in order to prove themselves mature adults and also maybe become awesome champion of the world.
Lauren and I have been learning as we’ve gone along, I think, but both of us made a conscious effort to make the decisions we thought our characters would make rather than the decisions we ourselves might have made in the situation; as newbies to role-playing, and neither of us used to acting as far as I know, I think the thing that both of us have continued to struggle with is inhabiting the character and speaking as them. Occasionally one of us will come out with something that sounds like our character would say it, but more often it’ll be something like ‘Yoshi says something like “everybody chill, there’s no point fighting, just calm it down” but in a really calming way that makes sense based on how he would say it given that he knows about the culture and etiquette and that’. We tend to tell rather than show, in other words. I think we’re both gradually improving at that, but it takes some work!
Part of this is probably because the world of Rokugan can get quite complicated quite fast. There are a lot of families and individuals and factions and people with similar names and that sort of thing, plus Lauren and I didn’t go in with any pre-existing knowledge of what Rokugani culture and traditions in general involve. For this reason, it’s just been simpler for us in a lot of cases to express a vague thing we’d like to do and specify that we’d like to do it in a way that coheres with the world – which we don’t know, but Yoshi and Aki do.
We’re nearly at the end of our starter campaign now, having played probably about eight or nine sessions of half an hour each over the last month or so. The Championship’s nearly over and we’re both adults now, which is cool, so we’ve just got a few loose ends to wrap up relating to a ghost, a bunch of mercenaries, an illegitimate child, Aki’s accidental arch-enemy, and the spirit of some rice water with which we managed to make friends (Lauren realised that Aki could ‘communicate with the spirits of things’, which apparently does not allow her to talk to animals but does let her speak with a field of rice). We’re not sure what we’re going to do next: Tom might create more stories for the continued adventures of Yoshi and Aki, or we might take a break and think about it, or we might do something else entirely!
Ian: That all sounds really neat. For me, a big appeal of the tabletop experience is digging into the mechanical aspects of the game. The clatter of rolling dice, figuring out which strategies are most likely to lead to success, and understanding the unique options that my character brings to the table. What is the mechanical experience like with L5R?
Chris: It’s interesting that you say that, as someone with a bit more experience – the idea of digging into mechanics was a bit daunting for us, although I was excited to see what kind of stories the rules would make possible.
Of course, Lauren and I have been doing our best to play Aki and Yoshi, getting into the story and acting as we think our characters would, but how we can play them is constrained by the mechanics of L5RPG. We knew this would be the case, of course, and in fact if there were no constraints whatsoever we wouldn’t really have a clue what to do, but it’s been an interesting journey working out how to balance Being Characters and Playing The Game.
L5RPG offers a reasonably simple set of mechanics, or at least a range of mechanics which can be adapted to play in a reasonably simple way. What I mean by that is that I don’t think we’ve actually made use of all the systems that exist within the game; I think there’s a lot more mechanical intricacy that we could be exploring, but only a few components come up in every session and so it doesn’t feel like we’re having to keep track of too much complexity.
The basic properties each player character has include a score of one to three in each of five Rings, which are basically ways of doing things. Fire is direct and aggressive; Earth is grounded and thorough; Void is mystical and abstracted; Water is flexible and adaptable; Air is.. airy? I don’t use Air much. Each character also has a distribution of points in a bunch of skills, starting with no points in most things but one to three points in perhaps four or five. (Skills include knowledge of culture or religion, courtesy, martial arts, games, fitness, and all sorts of things.)
The bulk of our interaction with the mechanics of L5RPG involves rolling dice to see whether we succeed at completing particular actions. The interesting thing about this is that we roll a number of dice based on our value in the Ring we’re using – the manner in which we’re performing the action – in addition to the skill dice we’ll roll if we have any points in that skill. Because you have at least one point in every Ring, you’ll always be able to at least attempt to do any action however you like, even if you’ve not got any points in the relevant skill. At best, I would do something Earth-ily (the Ring in which Yoshi had three points) and be really good at it (three skill points) for a maximum of about six dice available for my best check.
The dice themselves get a bit complicated, so I won’t bother going too far in depth, but basically you’re looking to get enough ‘success’ icons showing on your dice to meet the ‘Target Number’ of the thing you’re trying to do. You might also get ‘strife’, which I’ll come to in a sec, or ‘opportunities’ which can be used to accomplish things tangential to the strict parameters of the check.
So the main thing that Lauren and I had to get to grips with was very simple: working out which dice were appropriate, what the results of a roll meant, and how many dice we could use. We’ve just about got there now, I think, although perhaps because of the short sessions (and occasional long gaps between, since it does still depend on three people being at work and up for playing) we still sometimes have to ask for a bit of help from Tom. Having Tom has been extremely helpful because he understands how the system works well enough to guide us through both the narrative and the mechanics without spending too long putting emphasis on rules or things not within the game’s universe. I’m not sure our little lunchtime experiment could have worked if we hadn’t had a game master of Tom’s calibre; we’d have spent every half-hour game for months just trying to work out which dice we were supposed to be rolling.
Back to some mechanics beyond the skill checks, Yoshi and Aki each have a bunch of other stats. Honestly, I’m not sure what some of them are for because we’ve simply not needed to use them, and I actually think that this has helped. Streamlining the game to focus just on the bits we actually use has meant we can get stuff done rather than getting held up in a quagmire of numbers that we don’t really need. One that we do keep track of, however, is strife.
It’s fair to say that staying composed and in accordance with etiquette is important in Rokugani society, but we’re on an adventure where things aren’t always going to go perfectly our way. That’d be boring. Each player character has a ‘composure’ score – I think Yoshi’s is 10 and Aki’s a bit lower – and, as mentioned, every time we roll dice for anything we run the risk of accumulating a small quantity of strife. If our strife score exceeds our composure, we’re ‘unmasked’, which basically means we lose control of our temperament in some character-specific way. Yoshi, for example, becomes mocking and impulsively inappropriate, which isn’t very like him.
We can ameliorate accumulated strife by using rolled ‘opportunities’ to remove two strife points, and I’m sure there are other mechanics around it that we’ve just not got into.
And I think that just about sums up how it works!
Ian: Damn it, now I have another game to add to my already-too-long list of games I want to play. So you’ve almost finished one campaign using this workplace play method – reflecting back on that experience, how has the game helped you? And what do you think might be next for your adventures in the world of roleplaying?
Chris: L5RPG has been a really fantastic way for a few office friends to get into role-playing in a way that suits the annoying specificities of adult life. The fact that we’ve been able to streamline each game into half-hour slots is something that I wasn’t expecting could actually work as well as it has – we’ve also kept up a message thread to sum up what happened in each game so that we don’t forget what’s gone on – and the balance of engaging with actual numbers, dice, and mechanics versus simply making decisions as a character has felt just about right for our first foray into this new hobby.
I’ve been surprised by how successful it’s seemed to be, and I hope that anyone else who’s considering trying out this kind of bite-sized RPG life might feel inspired to… just give it a go and see what happens!
Whatever happens next, whether Yoshi and Aki’s adventures continue or something else entirely starts up or, just as likely, we just sort of take a break for a bit, I feel very lucky that the odd little suggestion of running a role-playing game over lunch breaks has somehow actually worked.
Ian: This has been awesome to read about! It sounds like your group has really found a flow that works for them and a system that supports the type of game you all have time to play. I’ve mostly focused on asking you questions today but I have two things I want to add to this discussion, one based on something specific that you mentioned earlier and the other building off of the general theme of our article. You mentioned that both you and Lauren don’t really have any acting experience and that you struggle to inhabit the characters in the sense that you don’t necessarily roleplay exactly what they say. I just wanted to take a second to affirm both for you and for anyone reading who might play the same way that this is 100% fine and you don’t have to change unless you want to. Watching actual plays online can give the impression that every roleplayer in the world does funny voices and physical gestures to become their character, but it’s a totally valid approach to do exactly what you’ve described: “my character says something like ‘come on, now, you know you can trust me’ to convince the guard to let me through the gate.” After all, in most systems you’re going to roll dice to decide how convincing you were – the player’s charisma does not translate to the character’s charisma any more than the player’s strength translates to the character’s strength. So if you want to become more comfortable acting, so to speak, that’s great, but don’t feel like you have to in order to continue playing roleplaying games. It sounds like you all are doing just fine!
Ian: Your description of Legend of the Five Rings and the way its starter set is structured definitely shows why it works for this type of play. But for you or for anyone else who might be interested in experiencing other RPGs at the table as well, there are plenty out there that I think can work in this format. I want to touch on two specifically. The first is my personal least favorite game, Dungeons and Dragons – as much as I don’t care for it, it’s quite popular and a lot of folks want to play it, so I think it is worthwhile saying that you can make it work in a lunchtime game. I’m gonna recommend anyone interested check out The Alexandrian’s discussion of the open gaming table, which he used as a kid to play games much like the one we’ve discussed today in a school setting rather than a workplace setting. This is a series of articles rather than a single post so it’s a bit of a read, but it is powerful guidance on both the open table perspective as well as D&D game structures which support the open table.
Chris: To be honest, I imagine (from my limited knowledge) that most systems could be adapted to this quick-and-irregular style of play, but I think D&D might require a slightly higher degree of familiarity with the system in order to be playable in short bursts without most of the time getting lost to sifting through rules. The strength of L5R for us specifically as a group new to roleplaying has been that it’s allowed us to mostly just do what we want to do intuitively and without getting bogged down in mechanics; for a group who already knew a bit about a particular game, that wouldn’t be as much of a problem and it’d probably take less work to adapt to lunchtimery! The main obstacle then is just dividing up events into bite-sized chunks, which L5R’s ‘scenes’ do quite nicely.
Ian: Oh I’m totally with you on concerns of system familiarity when it comes to D&D – I highly recommend starting with a narrative-based system to anyone who will listen to me talk about it, and I do agree that will D&D is possible to run in this sort of environment, familiarity is a big part of what would make that possible. The other game I want to recommend is Blades in the Dark. Blades has a very different setting compared to the other fantasy games we’ve discussed. The city is a mashup of Victorian London, Venice, and Prague. It’s haunted by ghosts, the technology is powered by demons, and the sun lies shattered in the sky, casting the city in eternal darkness. You play criminals working their way up the criminal underworld. From a structural perspective, Blades has clear divisions between scenes where you prepare for a job, execute the job, and then experience the payout and fallout from a job. These can easily be broken apart into separate, smaller sessions for a game table like the one you’ve described, making it really approachable for a group that can only play in short bursts. It also has a great dice system that only uses six-sided dice, so it may be a little more accessible for folks who don’t have easy access to special dice for roleplaying. If you want to read more about Blades, I recommend checking out Evil Hat to see more about the game.
Chris: Ooooooooh. That sounds rather good – and I have heard of Blades thanks to friends who are more roleplayerish than I am. Perhaps that’ll have to be the next system we try together! We don’t really know what the future of the group is; we might carry on with Yoshi and Aki’s adventures, try something different, or just take a break for a bit. Either way, it’s been a fun experience for all of us!
Ian: It sounds like a great time, and I’m glad you’ve been able to find a group that enabled you to enjoy tabletop RPGs as a player for the first time! It’s awesome to see new folks getting involved in the hobby and I hope it leads to many more fulfilling roleplaying experiences for you. You want to wrap things up for us by telling our readers where they can find you?
Chris: Sure! I used to be best-known (albeit still only by a very small number of people) as the guy at overthinkeryblog.com, but these days I think I’m kind of just Chris who sometimes makes stuff. I’m on Twitter @overthinkery1, and you can find my podcast about video games and Philosophy by searching for Philosophiraga wherever podcasts are available – or for some links to the most recent episode as we’re writing this, check this out. I would ask you where people can find you, too, but… maybe that’s a bit redundant given where we’re posting this.
Thanks for having me, anyway! Always a pleasure chatting to you.
Ian: Thank you Chris for sharing your experience. And thank YOU, adventurers, for reading! We’d love to hear about your own experiences playing tabletops at lunchtime, playing Legend of the Five Rings, or both in the comments below.