Chris Miller

Brief Thoughts on Corporate RPGs and Freedom From Them

I posted an impromptu thread of my recent thoughts on RPGs and the recent WoTC brouhaha this morning, and decided to gather the thread here so I could keep it. It follows:

I’ve been reflecting on the WoTC OGL 1.1 blowup last week, and specifically my reaction to it. Even before Hasbro’s very public mistake I had been looking to step away from what I’ve internally called Corporate D&D. Truth is, I was bored with the content they were putting out, and with the comments about NFTs in D&D and the consolidation of online tools, I was uneasy.

As their best, companies putting out gaming content are giving us tools, but we fuel the game with our imaginations. I sometimes think we get in such a habit of shopping and looking for the next thing that we (I) forget that all of this started with a handful of dice, some fantasy novels to steal plots from, a pencil, and a pad of graph paper.

Any company who’s goal it is to hold you prisoner is not on your side. Luring you in and then locking you in place so you can be fleeced for more money is cynical, greedy, and perverts the nature of our gaming communities. It is, as Cory Doctorow calls it, the enshittificaion of our hobby. Isn’t the world shitty enough without these people trying to take whatever joy we have left by farming it for profit?

I’m sure all of this is blindingly obvious to most of us, but there is a whole generation of gamers who didn’t start out in their parent’s basement playing with graph paper. All they have known are the online tools, the microtransactions, the books you cannot read unless you have a subscription. My kids are among them. They need to be empowered to create, not simply purchase. They need to be able to liberate their game tables.

Old isn’t better. It’s just different. But I think it’s an important difference right now. Worth talking about at least.

So yes, #OpenDND. Absolutely. But also..know you can engage with this hobby without a subscription, without buying digital dice, without buying a module a month. Create the worlds you want to play in.

Thank you for attending my TED talk.

Two Conferences, One Couch: Narrascope and PyOhio 2022

For once I’m grateful for virtual conferences. Understand, I get the utility of them in the age of Covid, but like many others I miss seeing people in person. This weekend the virtual thing worked out well for me because two that I wanted to attend happened on the same weekend. In the Before Times, I would have had to choose. Not so in this brave new world.

And so, coffee in hand, I attended Narrascope on my iPad, and PyOhio on my TV.

Narrascope is the annual conference put on by the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation Now in its third year, it is a conference for both gamers and professional how love varying styles of interactive fiction, ranging from early Adventure/Zork-style text games to modern visual novels and rich media experiences. This was my first year attending.

PyOhio is a free conference for Python amateurs and professional who gather, usually at the Ohio Stare Unviversity, to hear talks , network, and generally converse with other enthusiasts. This was my fourth time attending.

A screenshot of the virtual lecture hall for Narrascope.
A screenshot of the virtual lecture hall for Narrascope.

Notes on Narrascope

  • Aaron Reed’s keynote on what he learned while working on his 50 Years of Text Games project was fascinating. He was an engaging speaker, and had some great takeaways for all of us.
  • The pre-conference working sessions were exactly what I was looking for. Since I am not a professional game designer, I was mainly looking for a survey of different tools and how people use them. The three talks I was able to attend covered Twine, Articy:Draft 3, and Inform. I hope to catch the talk on Ink when they release the videos. The main takeaway for me was that Twine looks to be the best for me to get in and start playing, while Inform would be good for more highly customized, deep detail text games.
  • Graham Nelson’s update on Inform was an unexpected pleasure. Not only did he cover how open-sourcing the platform was evolving it, but also introduced a feature process that reminded me a lot of Python’s PEPs. It turned into familiar ground for me, which was most welcome.

Notes on PyOhio

  • Instead of a full weekend, the program was one day of many short (10-15min) talks with several built-in breaks.
  • The diversity of presenters was refreshing. We were off to the races when the first speaker, a high school student of Indian ethnicity, led with creating an AI to play Flappy Bird. Man, I wish I were that bright hand focused in high school. The trend continued throughout the day. I was really appreciative of seeing all genders and racial background represented.
  • While I might not use much that I learned (retired, yo), I loved seeing what people were up to, what excited them, and how the community and Python language are growing. I always walk away inspired.

Both conferences have given me a lot to think about and more than a few things to tinker with. Maybe I’ll write about some of them here. :)


Game One: The Vault

It is July 1, 2001.

Our story opens with Vince Ippolito receiving an assignment from his superior in the Family. The job, he is told, should be straight forward: retrieve a bowling-ball sized artifact from the vault in the White Collection of the Cleveland Public Library and take it to a meeting in Akron. He is told to take two people on the job with him; Jared Jaworski, a mechanic with some talent that might be needed, and Ashlynn Collins, a burglar. He’s given a set of blueprints to the building and is sent on his way.

Vince hops into his red ‘75 Spitfire convertible, picks up his partners in crime, and parked in a corner of a downtown parking garage to examine the blueprints. The White Collection, located on the third floor, doesn’t seem to have anyplace to put a vault, based on the building plans. They decide to break in and take a look.

Vince, equipping his silencer, takes out the external camera over the service entrance. Ashlynn picks the lock, and swings the door outward. Standing there is a bespectacled blonde woman, standing nearly six feet tall with long blonde braids, medievalish garb, a laptop bag, and a sword.

The confrontation, though short, is heated. The woman, Tillie, forbid any of them from entering her building. She stammers at them, pushing her glasses up on her nose, but either the point of her blade resting on Ashlynn’s breastbone, no one presses the point. Until, that is Jared reveals his talent and casts a spell, praising a three inch lug nut hovering in his hand. It spins there for a moment and then launches itself at Tillie. It strikes her, but does no damage.

At that moment, all the cameras and lights short out simultaneously. The group is left standing in the dark until the red emergency lights begin to pulse. Jared takes another shot, but misses. Ashlynn and Vince calm everyone down, and convince Tillie to take them up to the vault in the White Collection. Tillie knows of no vault, and now her curiosity is piqued. They ascent the stairs to the fourth floor.

Tillie stalls for a few minutes in her office, attempting to use the phone to call security. Ashlynn shapeshiftes into a wolf and beats her to the handset, crushing it in her jaws.

Tillie has a major epiphany. She’s had a realization that magic is real, something she’s long suspected. She needs to know more…and she lets them into the collection.

The White Collection is quiet. A collection of books on folklore and the occult, a collection of chessboards, and a small display of Sumerian artifacts in a plexiglass cabinet. A portrait of John G. White looks down over the room from its perch on the eastern wall.

They group searches the room, pulling books, tapping on walls, turning chessboards, assembling them all on a single table: a board of chessboards but nothing reveals any vault within the chamber. Finally, Vince looks up at the painting and addresses it directly, “Well, Mr. White…where is your vault?”

Beneath the painting, a white ceramic bowl appears on top of the low bookshelf. Our heroes try putting things in it: water, blood, etc. All to no avail. Finally, Tillie gathers up all the white pieces from all the chessboards and places them within the bowl.

The portrait shimmers and fades, revealing a set of double doors sealed with a large pentacle. (White chess pieces…The White Collection…see what I did there?) Beneath the handles of the door is a slight rounded depression, clearly a keyhole.

The party searches the room for the key and finds it within the Sumerian Artifacts. Ashlynn picks the lock on the plexiglass case, and the door pops open…

…releasing the fire demon thing. It hovers in the center of the room, engaging with the thieves. Vince and Jared engage the creature while Ash protects Tillie, who searches for a book with and incantation that can banish the demon. Tillie’s astounding luck does not fail her: she finds the book and banishes the fire creature. They take the key, and open the vault.

Inside, on display shelves, are the following:

  • an old baseball, signed by Rocky Colativo,
  • an old football, worn and used
  • a hand-stitched basketball
  • a spear, handmade, in a Native American style
  • a newspaper, encased in lucite, named The Cleveland Advertiser,
  • a blue crystal, shaped as a dodecahedron, that is glowing slightly,
  • a deed to a property in the city limits, known only by the parcel number
  • a colonial flag, Handmade and dyed with natural dyes, with the word LIBERTY embroidered on it

Vince recognizes the basketball as the item they’ve been send to retrieve, and so grabs it. He figures out, thanks to the name on the baseball, that these must have something to do with curses on the Cleveland professional sports teams, and takes the baseball as well. Ashlynn takes the glowing blue stone, and Tillie takes the spear and the deed. And then they flee.

All that is left is to deliver the goods. Vince was given an address which turns out to be a hardware store across the street from St. Vincent’s Church. They arrive, and old man showed them to the back room where a man waits with a tall, young black student. The man gives Vince a briefcase full of cash, and takes the basketball from him. The man turns and gives the ball to the kid, “Here, LeBron. Keep this safe.”

It’s about 7am. The party heads over to Wally Waffle for some breakfast while Vince checks in. They are told they can keep half the money as payment for the job. Tillie, frankly, has no idea what to think about so much money, but the others are professionals…they keep cool.

Photo Credit: The Cleveland Public Library by Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Savage Dresden

Though I gamed through most of the pandemic, it was all online. Through Zoom, like everything was. It was fine, we had fun, but I really missed playing in-person.

When things looked like they were lightening up (just before Omicron), I brought up playing in person to my regular D&D group and was met with silence. I get why: we lived all over the Cleveland suburbs, and frankly, not having to commute to a communal table made scheduling a hell of a lot easier. Additionally, anyone with kids too young to be vaccinated were unable to join. All good reasons, and reasonable ones, for not meeting in person.


I really wanted to run an in-person game. I reached out to some friends that live within three miles of one another, have nearly grown children, and were willing to try something new.

I’ve wanted to get back to running a Savage Worlds since the new revision was released a few years back. Originally, I proposed a weird west style game, and folks were into it. The longer we talked, to more we realized that we had another setting in common that we would have fun with: the Dresden Files.

We started planning last October. While there is a Dresden Files RPG, I don’t know that system well, so I began building Savage Dresden. I also used the winter to embrace my love of Cleveland history to plan out a game we could all enjoy.

Once of the great things about Cleveland is that is is very similar to Chicago, where the Dresden Files books are based. Cleveland history is rife with mob stories, corrupt politicians, local legends, and even curses on sports franchises; fertile ground for some fun.

We based the game in July 2001. Our characters are:

  • Vince: a mob enforce with some magical talent and a enchanted gun

  • Ashlynn: an Irish-American burglar with Fae blood that can shapeshift

  • Jared: a shy, awkward but gifted mechanic who is on the path to become a rogue wizard

  • Tillie: a librarian and SCAdian who has a sneaking suspicion she is something more than human: a Valkyrie. Maybe.

Our first game (which I’ll write about in another post) went off very well. I’m really proud of the world we’ve constructed out of history and fantasy. I’m very much looking forward to the players exploring it.

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