RPPR Episode 134: High Falutin’ Fantasy

rppr-banner-7Sponsor: Upwind the fantasy RPG is now on Kickstarter! Back it today and help us reach a stretch goal so Ross can write a full campaign for Upwind.

News: Two new Base Raiders PDF supplements are out: Exemplar is a new villain and Glitched Reality adds new powers usable by any character.

Synopsis: Caleb and I discuss the lack of fantasy elements in many fantasy RPGs. It is very common for games like Dungeons and Dragons to gate truly fantastical elements like floating castles and alternate dimensions to higher level characters, as a kind of reward for playing the same character for so long. However, fantasy should not always be separated by player character power level. Why can’t relatively mundane characters meet ancient dragons or explore castles floating in the sky? We discuss why this happens and how it can be changed. Also, an anecdote from our Base Raiders campaign.

Shout Outs

  • Big Machine: A novel with a very Unknown Armies vibe. Explore the secret voices heard only by a conspiracy of occult researchers.
  • Killzone 2: A Hong Kong/Thai action film with Shakespearian coincidences and insane martial arts fighting. On Netflix!
  • Mutant Year Zero: A post-apocalyptic sci-fi RPG with good rules, art, and unique settlement building mechanics.
  • Cthulhu Wars: An excellent alternate history book about the US military fighting the Cthulhu mythos. Written by Ken Hite so you know it’s good!
  • Sword and Scale podcast: A true crime podcast that covers that is not for the weak of heart.
  • Last Days of the Incas: A history of the fall of the Inca Empire and the rediscovery of ancient Inca ruins in the early 20th century.
  • Chapo Trap House: a liberal political comedy podcast. Very NSFW.
  • Nightmare Stacks: The latest entry in the Laundry series of novels. Dark elves invade the UK and only a nerdy vampire sorcerer can stop them.

Songs: Chant of the Night Blades and the Price of Valour by Kai Engel

Liked it? Take a second to support RPPR on Patreon!


  1. Official Hebanon Games announcement: “Party in Frog City” is the title for my next games project.*

    *may not be an official announcement

  2. @Caleb I would totally back/support/listen to that

    ALSO, Killzone 1 and Killzone 2 are called SPL:Sha Po Lang 1 & 2 outside of the US, named after 3 stars of Chinese fortune telling: Qi Sha (Power), Po Jun (Destruction), and Tan Lang (Lust). If you haven’t seen SPL 1 you really should; Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Wu Jing are fucking awesome.

  3. Also Caleb, the whole Luke Cage/Iron Fist talk in the ep was neat and I think it’d work as apart of the possible spin-off podcast.

  4. I’ve been having an idea for a D&D 5e wizard who’s a sewer technician. Just because I want to play with some of the weird spells. The actual People who have to do maintenance in Fantasy cities get ignored a lot.

    Mieville’s New Crobuzon books are one of the reasons is why I’m looking forward to my copy of Blades in the Dark to show up.

    @Caleb: Have you read Richard Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes trilogy it shares some similarities with the Witcher because it’s fantasy through a noir lens (as you’d expect from the author of the Takeshi Kovachs books). The key difference is that none of protagonists want to be heroes any more because of the first book they are all retired to one degree or another and it’s interesting to see the treatment of soldiers and PTSD through that frame.

    I’ve still only consumed the first 2 Laundry books because Audible uk hasn’t caught up yet weirdly.

    I need to re-read the Iron-Fist comic run that Matt Fraction/ Ed Brubaker/ David Aja did where they introduce the other hidden cities and their martial arts champions and have them go all Enter the Dragon. I was reminded it because the other Immortal Weapons think Danny Rand is a tool.

  5. Alaso: “My superpower is lying” should go on the pile of T-shirt ideas.

  6. Man am I looking forward to base raiders.

  7. Nice discussion about the tension between “fantasy” and traditional gaming ideals with D&D/Pathfinder/etc..

    Part of the appeal and resistance to change with D&D is that it does hit on one of fantasy’s appeals: exploration. Part of what makes the dungeon grind fun is seeing a map (or imagining one) of secret caverns and what have you being revealed while you slog your way through combat. The reward becomes getting to explore new areas, and once an area is complete, the prospect of a new area to explore awaits.

    While this has become a habit over time, this sense of exploration can (and should) be taken out of the dungeon and into the world. Ross mentioned the “high level” campaigns of 3E D&D, which were not dungeon delves, but typically high-concept conflicts exploring the realms of gods. There is absolutely no reason why these need to be withheld to players; the stakes can remain high, while the players’ potential actions can be scaled, even in D20 systems.

    I think Numenera does a very nice job of finding a nice middle ground to the familiar and the new. XP is rewarded for discovery, not combat. Cyphers are basically one-use power items that can really tip the scales in favor of the players; high-powered enemies CAN be taken down at lower levels, it is just that the stakes are much higher and the risk of failure increase (but a character can basically exert themselves into unconsciousness to succeed on a nigh-impossible task). And the world to explore is weird as fuck and offers many surprising new discoveries.

    Exploration and discovery are the key elements of a fantasy game, from low to high, familiar to weird. The anticipation of what comes next and WHERE the next challenge will be is not controlled by numbers and mechanics, which might be a bit of a mindset shift for those comfortable with D&D. Maybe treating each location as a character (similar to using environment aspects) from Fate is a tool to help shift this mindset?

    Also Upwind is kewl, Laundry sux, and Sword & Scale is 2 disturb 4 me (fucking 911 calls that go on FOREVER)

  8. Caleb, read the nightmare stacks. It doesn’t look like it to begin with, but at about the half way point, it suddenly becomes clear it is a strossian ‘big idea book’, when it starts dealing with the workings of occult warfare.

    It also pays off a whole bunch of elements from earlier in the series, like what a horrendously bad idea scorpian stare is.

  9. Sooooo. I know its been said, but would love to hear one shots of 40k RPGs lol.

  10. I was thinking about how it would be nice to have bonus shoutouts that were more in depth. Once again Ross and Team RPPR are one step ahead.

  11. Sword and Scale is pretty decent, but I got to a point where I felt like he was just reading the Wikipedia page (which he literally does a few times) and playing audio. I don’t really like his editorializing either, at least not in the tone he’s presenting. And I gotta say…he totally sounds like a kid in his 20s trying his best to be John Walsh, while only sounding like a kid in his 20s doing a John Walsh impersonation.

    If you’re looking for something similar, I’ve been a huge fan of Last Podcast on the Left. It’s geared more as a comedy podcast (One of the guys is an Adult Swim actor, and another is a Fox News commentator – no joke) but they cover the same heinous stuff, plus they go into stuff like MKULTRA, the Secret Space Program, and a whole bunch of other Delta Green-esque conspiracy theories. It’s super raunchy comedy, but I kinda like having the laughs to balance out the dark stuff they talk about. They also make it a point to never insult the victims, which I appreciate.

    Also, I just want to say I literally played in a campaign last year with French dwarves. It started as a Pathfinder campaign, moved into Fate, then into GURPS, and then I moved. I had a Grippli Gunslinger who, through interdimensional adventures, carried a WWI-era Winchester Model M1987 trench gun. He did not have hallucinogenic skin, however.

    PS: “I burnt all of my Fate points trying to keep that dog alive…” -The Moment when Caleb Truly Went Full Aaron.

  12. Definitely can see a more in-depth look and discussion of a piece of media as being fun. I’d also be behind Caleb doing a critical analysis style look at RPG things or related lit in general.

    I’d give the Nightmare Stacks most of a thumbs up as well. Lot more engaging than Rhesus Chart and Annihilation Score, more focused with less bureaucratic puttering about. There’s still a few odd things but not difficult to get through like the last two, and the elves stuff makes sense in the Laundryverse much more so than ‘So, superheroes.’ did, which in my opinion did little more than move the Nightmare Green plot along and cement that Mo and Bob need serious couples therapy or just a fucking divorce already jesus.

    On the main topic, I think the overabundance of tolkienesque and D&D kitchensink approaches to fantasy where part of what drove me away from that segment of the hobby. I haven’t played fantasy in something like five years. It doesn’t help that the games that don’t do that tend to have issues mechanically and/or their setting isn’t terribly attractive.

  13. I think I have found some sort of solution to Ross’s “I want to give players a few weird magic items for them to play with” problem. The idea is that the players are given the Great Adventurers of Mythical Proportion’s dirty laundry, and have to go around and find some weird way to fix it. Then to help them, they’re given a Bag of Holding full of… werid stuff that the Great Adventurers of Mythical Proportion’s leftover crap (Wand of Stone to Flesh (4 charges), a bag that holds infinite rats, and so on). Of course the dirty laundry is standard murderhobo stuff so it will have protection spells all over it, have to be cleaned in a weird way, and so on.

    I have had the “Clean the Adventurer’s Laundry” idea floating around for a while, and I think this would be a fun fit.

  14. I have heard Caleb’s, err, shall we say aversion to World of Darkness. I am curious if he has mentioned why? I could just be one of those things, though.

  15. Honestly, I just like listening to you guys talk about stuff. Ross’s weird tastes in architecture and music are cool, and I find that Caleb’s grumbling about miscellaneously depressing vice, politics, and economics [which, I suppose, can all fall under the definition of vice] weirdly gratifying.

    I’d listen to you guys talk about mostly anything because everyone on RPPR seems like an intelligent and interesting person–which is a big part of the appeal of the podcast. Considering the restrictions of time and content, it might be nice to do micro-podcasts that you could release daily. Little 10 minute slices of whatever that you could record in bulk in advance [a week of episodes in a a little over an hour]. Though, that said, I imagine high quality short content is probably harder to produce.

    I also really enjoy [and miss] Game Designer’s Workshop. I know Ross has written a novel that’s on Amazon–it might be interesting to do a Book Designer’s Workshop, or a Campaign Designer’s Workshop–something based in the writing and preparation of something you guys [or anyone at RPPR] are working on now.

  16. So Ross is totally coming back from Peru with Inca super powers he will use to liberate the Americas from the conquistador oppressors and score with the ladies. Right ?

  17. @Noah, Caleb and of course Ross
    >Also Caleb, the whole Luke Cage/Iron Fist talk in the ep was neat and I think it’d work as apart of the possible spin-off podcast.

    I want to second this idea. If you need more material for the Patreon, then I would love a “Caleb and Ross have a good hard educated literature look at modern media” podcast. You could take one show, comic, movie and do a show about what the references are, what the story is at it’s core how, how it relates to other literature. Then talk about how they are, or are not, doing it right and how you want to alter it.

  18. Caleb had a bad first impression (see the Fun Factory anecdote in Episode 82: Back That Story Up) along with the overall sex offender vibe he got off a lot of the Vampire stuff, from what I gather at least

  19. Lots of interesting ideas here. I’m planning to use a fantasy milieu to write a Red Markets hack eventually, using the ridiculous power differentials in typical D&D as a metaphor for wealth disparity and urban poverty. So a lot of the extremely fantastic elements will be strongly gated away from the characters, but as a deliberate and meaningful part of the setting.

    And I plan to use the typical fantasy races to explore alternative economic systems: Dwarves have a very strict magically-enforced system of entail, meaning that it’s impossible for them to ever sell any of their possessions. They only own what they’ve either inherited or made themselves. And Elves, being immortal, don’t have the need for physical sustenance that others have, so they’ve developed a quasi-post-scarcity reputation-based sharing economy where high-status elves can legally demand the use of anything currently in the possession of a lower-status person.

  20. Excellent recommendation for Sword and Scale Podcast. Caleb isn’t lying when he says it’s not for sensitive folk. I already have several Delta Green scenario seeds from just a few episodes.

  21. Holy moley. Caleb, could stop hemming and hawing and let us know how you feel about the fantasy genre – and D&D in particular? Sheesh.

    I’ve listened to every episode on this side of the podcast and I have to thank Ringmaster Ross and Grand Moff Caleb for an outstanding show. Really. You made me remember what makes fantasy “Fantasy”.

    Waaaaay back in the day (’82) I ran games just like the “mind-trip” kind of games Caleb runs with dragons and devils bumping into low-level D&D PCs. It was great fun and the players loved it. A few years ago I introduced a vampire to a group of low-level Pathfinder players and it really raised their immersion in the game. I don’t know why, but (some) players just relish facing powerful “monsters”/NPCs early on.

    You guys nailed it.

    But at the same time, I run games for the “power-gaming segment” of our hobby (because I love it) and the tactical nature of D&D/PF is a huge appeal for them. And me. Caleb called it limitation but it’s that limitation within the rules that gives a certain foundation that leads to system mastery for certain players and GMs. I mean G. Gygax was very verbose about what AD&D was and what it wasn’t early on, so if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing, but please try to respect the (massive numbers of) players who enjoy it.

    Finally, Caleb you’re not as open-minded as you think until you try the kool-aid: we need an AP of you in WoD and/or D&D. I didn’t like FATE or Marvel Heroic Roleplaying until I played them. Plus playing different games informs your inner designer.

    Thanks for the great show guys!

  22. Ross’ idea for a campaign with characters that only have access to one powerful spell sounds like a cool way to do a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure game about Stand Users in a fantasy setting. (Explanation of Stands: http://jojo.wikia.com/wiki/Stand)

    For example, Flesh To Stone would be a Stand called Stone Temple Pilots, Feeblemind would be a Stand called Dazed And Confused, Cloudkill would be Smoke On The Water, etc.

  23. I disagree with this podcast’s main Premise!

    Essentially the problem is ‘Progression/Escalation’, but I (egotistically) don’t think Ross & Caleb are too conscious of this, because it isn’t applicable to (what I assume to be) their playstyle.

    If you’re running a one/two/three shot then you’re fine, but in an ongoing game world the first few games/levels are implicitly used to give the players a baseline of what to expect as ‘normal’ in the setting – If the players start off storming the Storm Giant Cloud Castle, then that is (tautologically) something that is done by beginning characters.
    You then have to come up with something more fantastic for them to do, and then again, and so on until the campaign/setting ends.
    Gating fantastic elements provides a sense of scale to how the players/charcters should react, whilst additionally providing a sense of…

    This is something that is common in High Fantasy, and D&D in particular, that I get the feeling that’s getting missed – in D&D the game is all about the Character.

    Yes, I know that sounds like madness.

    You mentioned that D&D came from a tactical combat game, but the element that they ‘wanted’ was persistant characters. The game is developed around the idea of the Character’s growth from Newbie into a Hero of Legend, and the setting provides a backdrop to that.
    This is a direct contrast to games like Delta Green, CoC, ToC and EP where the Scenario details (environment, antagonist) are the Focus, which the players then explore.
    This is where the whole Shopping/XP grind comes from – it’s not just that Bigger Numbers Are Better, but the pleasure derived from improvement and growth – “My character has done [Heroic Thing] and is now [Harder/Better/Faster/Stronger].”

    The City Of The HypnoToads sounds like a hilarious idea but in a D&D game it has to be built as a way to forward the character’s story, and not just be a thing the GM thinks is neat.
    Otherwise the players will revolt and attempt to refocus the game on the Characters.

    Typically this involves burning the place to the ground.

  24. Also thanks, Caleb, for the (unlisted) Luke Cage shoutout. I’ve been enjoying the heck out of it so far, especially the “musical guests” that they seem to have in every episode. Of course, Caleb, we know you really like the series because every time someone calls the main villain “Mr. Stokes” it gives you a vicarious thrill.

  25. Great ep. With D&D I used to run an Eberron game in Sharn that was pretty gritty noir fantasy from the beginning. Quite a few aerial chase scenes flying around urban towers and high fantasy elements from level 1. Also has inherent themes of racism, poverty and religious persecution built into the setting.

    “Belly of the Beast” from Sigil Stone Publishing looks to be pretty crazy fantasy from start.

  26. Let it be said, I will listen to pretty much anything by you guys, what would this Caleb podcast be about?

  27. This was one of the best regular, non-panel, non-actual play episodes in a long time! It really got me to rethink fantasy and all gaming with progression. Why are we waiting for the cool stuff? Give it to us now! Also, I want to re-skin my entire world now – if I were running fantasy.

  28. I would be interested in whatever spin-offs you are thinking about. Like Copper’s comment, I don’t have specific requests for topics, because I like how RPPR brings new things to my radar (economics, architecture, and so on) that I didn’t know much about before.

    An extended/separate Shout Outs would be cool for sure; the more in depth discussions of the Laundry and Luke Cage were great.

    On fantasy:

    I feel like some people become nostalgic for their old campaigns. This can make oddly non-fantastic fantasy RPGs fun for them if they’re reliving happy memories. But, as you noted, those people are happy with what they’re doing and don’t need advice from anyone else. They may actually avoid the more weird elements, because they are outside that comfort zone, though.

    New Crobuzon is some of my favorite recent fantasy as well. The sheer weirdness of Perdido Street Station and The Scar were a breath of fresh air, plus the grittiness of the real world aspects (handlinger secret police, man) that Mieville brings in.

    I love the idea of trying fantasy combat with a looser system like Feng Shui 2. I think that many D&Disms restrict fantastic narratives, particularly that detail-oriented chunky combat.

    I’d guess that many people who try out Dungeon World (from D&D or other F20 games) have a blast because it breaks down the rigid progression that starts with rat-killing. The levels are less stratified and the game encourages you to throw more ridiculous things at the characters from the start. My first Dungeon World game involved the players fighting a kraken and its mutant minions on a sinking ship and the game just went from there.

    For Ross’ idea of giving the players a handful of magic items so they can come up with clever uses: the PCs could be the bomb squad/cleanup crew, essentially, of a magical college. Old wizards are terrible about labeling their items* before they retire or die, so it falls to the crew to take these items, determine what they do, and if they are useful. It could be kind of a fantasy take on Base Raiders when I think of it that way. Because what’s safer than testing the unlabeled wand in a dungeon?

    * not at all based on experiences in graduate school labs

    @Caleb: Party in Frog City sounds fantastic.

    Despite the running joke, Caleb has played World of Darkness …
    WoD: http://actualplay.roleplayingpublicradio.com/2013/08/genre/horror/world-of-darkness-inherit/
    And Dungeons and Dragons:
    Not to mention a whole campaign of Iron Heroes and some 13th Age.

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