Skip to main content

The More You Know...

Back in olden times (okay, it was just the '80s, but that seems forever ago), when there was such a thing as Saturday morning cartoons, every show seemed to have a message. The show’s message for that week might have been teamwork, safety, honesty or whatever important thing they wanted to jam into our skulls while they brainwashed us into demanding toys. Besides serving as the legally mandated "educational" content to keep these shows from technically being commercials, these messages might have given them some credibility with parents or allowed shows to run mildly violent content as long as the message played well with the censors. No matter the reason, you'll see examples throughout those cartoon televisions blocks, from Jem and The Holograms and G.I. Joe to The Adventures of the Gummi Bears and Snorks. Some were more obvious about it (I’m looking at you Chief Warrant Officer Flint!) while others may have weaved it more into the story. What if we took that same concept and used it when planning gaming sessions? - A

A: Before you can get that "More You Know" message in, you need to decide what it's going to be. As you're considering that, also think about your audience. Unless you are running a game for kids (or people playing as kids) the message probably won't be “don’t go with strangers”, “drugs are bad”, or “fire is hot.” However, those ideas might be perfect if you’re running a game for kids and trying to teach them a lesson, too. The tabletop certainly provides a safe space for them to learn those kinds of messages. Running for adults, however, could be a different matter. Your message to adults might be something as simple as "power can corrupt even your best allies" or as complicated as the evils of gaslighting. Before including a message to your players, think about how it may go over with them and with their characters. Not everyone, nor their character, is going to react the same way. Again, the key is to know your audience.

Once you’ve picked a message to include in your tabletop story, the difficulty lies in guiding them to it, which is always a demanding task without seeming like a “railroad.” Even when you bring something, you should still consider how those around your tables find their own messages and morals. As we all know, the answers players find are likely blowing in some twisty whipping winds (except for in New Jersey where whatever's blowing in the wind smells funny). If you do plan to lean in the direction of “railroading,” you might give your players a heads-up so they can an expectation that it's coming. In the end, all you can really do is let the players take what they want to take from the game and hope for the best. Bugsy, what do you think of the choice to include a message and the perils of leading the players there?

B: This is one area where the indie RPG landscape differs greatly from that of larger titles. If one were to ask what a "mainstream" (to use the term loosely) TTRPG was "about," the reply would probably reference the setting ("it's a cyberpunk future, except with magic and fantasy creatures"), the role the players' characters will have ("you play as a group of elite thieves, planning and executing daring heists"), or the structure and tone ("it's a crunch-heavy dark fantasy, with an emphasis on tactical combat"). But if you take a look at the "physical games" on, you'll notice "about" is often used in a very different sense. A game might sell itself as being "about" toxic masculinity, consent, or the magical disaster of trans young adulthood. For these games' creators and players, the "message" is an inherent part of the game, just as much as the setting or mechanics.

Of course, everything is "about" something, games included, and there's a lot to unpack within the worlds and stories of existing larger properties. The difference is that, in these sorts of games, the creators have worked backwards, taking a message or concept they want to explore and centering their game around that. It makes sense that most of these games originate online, they're an extension of the kind of social media analysis and discussion that thrives in certain internet communities, similar to trends in young adult fiction, web comics, and indie electronic games... albeit belatedly. But that delay itself suggests that these trends in other media were themselves an influence, and that these games are made by creators who came of age (artistically, if not literally) in an age of "conscious media." (Once upon a time, the term "woke" might have been used here, but that's yet another phrase that's been redefined and perverted by the manufactured outrage industry.) As with the aforementioned comics and indie games, the reduced barrier allows the line between creator and audience to blur - people are making the games they want to play, and saying the things they want to say.

Which, itself, does make the idea of a "message" questionable, outside of a "preaching to the choir" aspect, which is certainly an accusation one might levy against these sorts of games. "Message" here, as Andy alluded to earlier, is more a process of exploration and discussion, using the format of roleplaying game to diffuse the awkwardness, self-consciousness, and vulnerability of talking about one's self and real life family and social group. It's no coincidence that many of these games are about relationships and identity, particularly the queer identities that might not safely afford the kind of public self-discovery others can get taken for granted. Nor does it need to be solely about a player's own self-discovery - having experiences as the character in a game can help someone understand the people around them and people in general a little better. And the improvisational, collaborative nature of the medium means that the takeaway will be at least the sum of what everyone brings to the table.

Ultimately, there will be a message built into any game, whether it's intended or not.. or whether it's clear from the outset or not - Dogs in the Vineyard, for instance has players operating on behalf of a cruel and oppressive religion, but doesn't specifically declare this as bad, leaving it as a conclusion players might reach as the game progresses. Sometimes, making the "message" our own is a matter of asking "what is this game already saying before I even start working with it?" and thinking about that through the process of writing and running game sessions. Do we agree with the built-in messaging? Does it contradict what you (or the players) believe in real life? If there's a conflict, how does it manifest, both in-game and at the table? These questions can seem broad, but they lie beneath all games, all settings, all systems... all stories. Not that these questions need to be presented directly to your players (unless they're all humanities majors who would love doing their own  the debate scenes from Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex). Rather, that they need to inform the decisions you make in presenting a world, its peoples, and its events.

You don't need to run a game with a specific built-in message to explore those kinds of issues, and I doubt even the creators of those games are looking to limit a game's themes to the "official" ones in its description. But if you're thoughtful about it, and try to keep what you're saying (which may not be what you intend to say) in mind, the process of narrative play becomes deeper overall. There are times it can get too deep for players to be comfortable, but that's part of a larger discussion the RPG world has been having for years. We'll probably cover it ourselves at some point, but for now... keep thinking, keep playing, keep dreaming, and keep in mind what you might be sharing along the way.

Send comments and questions to or Tweet them @neversaydice2, unless Twitter's sparking like downed power lines in a GI Joe PSA

Popular posts from this blog

Be a Grinch! (in a Tabletop RPG)

The Holidays may be almost over (for a while), and we hope you’ve all enjoyed your seasonal music and movies/specials. We here at Never Say Dice have covered the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special and the new LEGO edition a few posts ago. A common thing many of us into tabletop RPGS like to do is incorporate media into our games. After all, many of us have grown up with the blending of media and the holidays as a given. It provides us a framework to build on and a common touchpoint to the people at our tables, virtual or otherwise. One classic character featured in holiday specials and commemorated in his own song is the Grinch, the avocado-green villain with strange cardiac growth problems apparently linked to his personality. The Grinch, villain though he may be, has a slew of characteristics that would make the character an excellent one at the gaming table. Those of you not familiar with Suess-lore may really only know the Grinch from the How the Grinch Stole Christmas animated

An Introduction to Risus

While roaming the internet in the late nineties/early noughties, I came across a TTRPG that was rules-lite and called itself “the anything RPG.” Want to play a high school cheerleader/samurai-in-training part-time goth enthusiast fast food cashier? The hot pink stick figure art glared back at me. Nah, not interested. But I was wrong. The stick figures were actually purple, and Risus is a surprisingly versatile, handy and down right fun TTRPG. I wouldn’t figure that out though till I discovered it again several years later. Even though it was written as a comedy system (and somewhat lighthearted response to GURPS) you really can use it for just about anything: space opera, high fantasy, pulp, vampires,western, any movie setting you could think of...seriously anything. You can read a far more detailed and interesting history in a number of other places should it strike your fancy. It is time for your Risus indoctrination introduction. Risus really is versatile and fairly easy to learn

Devouring "Roll for Sandwich"

Good timezone to Never Say Dice fans, adventures in Aardia, TikTok and beyond. No, I’m not the Roll for Sandwich guy (neither of us is), but if you haven’t heard of him already (or especially if you have), this week I wanted to talk about the TikTok/YouTube show Roll for Sandwich hosted by Jacob Pauwels. The premise is exactly what it sounds like: every episode, the host rolls dice to determine the various items that comprise a sandwich (except when the episode is about s’mores). He assembles the sandwich, then actually eats and critiques his random creation. If it sounds pretty niche to you... it is. You should  probably be both a bit of a foodie and a TTRPG fan in order to truly appreciate both the strange layered creations and the roleplaying references. My eldest son has been so interested in the web series that he decided he wanted to try doing it for himself. So, for the last week of summer this year, we took stock of our cupboards, made our own charts, and proceeded to consume

Willy Wonka - Cartoonish Supervillian or Time Lord?

Every spring, in at least some of the religions practiced in the States, brings yet another holiday full of varied confections: Easter. For some reason, perhaps it’s the candy content or the garish colors associated with the holiday here, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory seems to be the movie that most often comes to my mind. While there are other pieces of media that are more “classically Easter” entries, Willy Wonka just seems to belong here. Perhaps there’s something to those giant eggs, as well. Whatever the reason, it’s in our common consciousness around this time of year, and that has had me thinking about a couple of common internet theories. One common thought is that the titular character Willy Wonka is an incarnation of Doctor Who ’s (only semi-titular) protagonist, the Doctor. The other would have you believe that Willy Wonka is a cartoonish supervillian originating in the DC universe, most likely one of Batman’s adversaries. For this post, let’s go over the arg