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Tabletop RPGs

The ripperbox: Rippers Resurrected as a sandbox campaign

My booty from the Rippers Resurrected Kickstarter came in on Tuesday, and I’ve had a chance to spend a bit of time with all three books. As is so often the case, my first thought was, “How well would Rippers work as a sandbox?

All of the ingredients are there, and the hook is so damned sexy — I suspect the answer is “really, really well.”

From lodges to social status mechanics to calling in favors, the setting deftly hooks into the system to add mechanical weight to fun things the PCs would be likely to do anyway. And the setting itself, with rippertech (bits of monsters you extract and graft onto yourself) and a delightful “kitchen sink” approach to Victorian-era monster hunting, is just fantastic.

The books

The Rippers Resurrected line kicks off with three books and a screen. The books are the Player’s Guide, Game Master’s Handbook, and Frightful Expeditions.

If this sandbox — “ripperbox” — were a hearty meal, the meat would be in the Player’s Guide, the potatoes would be in the Game Master’s Guide, and the gravy would be in Frightful Expeditions.

All three books are gorgeous: full-color, great artwork, clean layout and design, lovely graphic novel format, and available in hardcover (limited) and softcover (unlimited). Like most SW settings, the core rules are also needed to play.[1]

For context

I’ve played two city-based, sandbox, supernatural horror campaigns in the past few years:

  • A Dresden Files RPG (paid link) campaign in which the PCs came together to clean up Dresdenverse Boston, which was dominated by witches and snake-people. (This one also involved round-robin GMing and used Microscope (paid link) to gin up our version of Boston.)
  • A Hunter: The Reckoning (paid link)game where the PCs were mortal monster hunters in the World of Darkness version of San Francisco, wildly outclassed by all of its myriad horrors. This one was dark, and mixed “here’s tonight’s adventure hook” sessions with pure sandbox “we, the players, are going to do This Thing That Interests Us” sessions.

Both of those experiences inform how I’m thinking about a possible ripperbox, as does the setup for Rippers itself: proactive PCs, a home base, and a world full of evil that needs smiting — plus many, many ways for the PCs to get themselves in trouble.

Ripperbox ingredients

Rippers Resurrected assumes you want plotted adventures, and offers a wealth of support — including a complete Plot Point campaign — for that mode of play. I don’t want that, so for me most of that support exists as imagination fuel and ready-made resources for sandbox play. Which is great! I’m happy to have it; that’s why I bought all three books.

(There’s no artist credit accompanying the image, but I love this illustration of a Ripper lodge.)

In terms of ripperbox ingredients, here’s what jumps straight out at me (with each element’s book, or books, of origin in parentheses):

  • That sexy, sexy hook (Player’s Guide): In Rippers, the PCs are monster hunters in the late 19th century, balancing their role as fighters of evil with their place in Victorian society. There are different factions of Rippers, and pretty much any classic monster you can think of is out there somewhere, doing evil.
  • Lodges (Player’s Guide): Each group of Rippers, including the PCs, once they’re Seasoned, has a lodge — their home base. Whenever the PCs earn an Advance, they each also earn a Lodge Point; those are spent upgrade the lodge with labs, workshops, etc. A home base with a base-building mechanic is pure gold in a sandbox game, and the lodge system is clever. There are sample lodges in this book, plus more in the other two books.
  • Status and favors (Player’s Guide): What do PCs do? Get themselves into trouble, often while helping people. Both of those things involve one’s status in Victorian society, and that in turn brings favors into play. Help someone (particularly if they’re all fancy), and you earn Favors; do something scandalous, and you have to spend Favors to smooth things over. You can also call in Favors to get help from others. Tying things that will already happen in a sandbox into a fun mechanic which presents further hooks for adventure is a fantastic way to glue things together.
  • Lots of monsters (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): If it’s found in classical literature (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Jekyll and Hyde), the real world (Jack the Ripper), a pulp yarn (mummies, evil wizards), or a Hammer Horror film (skeletons!), it’d fit right into the Rippers setting — and the stats are probably in one of these two books. That makes it dead simple to populate the world with threats. SW is on the outer edge of my personal sweet spot for mechanical complexity, so having monsters already created for me is a big plus.
  • Adventure generators (Game Master’s Handbook): The GMH includes a chart for random encounters during travel (for example: “Fortuitous Find: Someone on the trip has something the heroes want. How they get it is up to them; just decide how they learn of the object.“), and there’s a whole section on rolling up different kinds of adventures. In a ripperbox, I’d recast these as adventure hooks, give the PCs lots of ways to learn about them, and too many of them to possibly follow up on them all — and not plot any outcomes, of course.
  • Lots of world info (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): There’s an assumption of globe-trotting built into Rippers (although I think it’d work great as a city-based game with only occasional travel, too), and that generates a need for concise, gameable setting material — but not too much of it. Day After Ragnarok (paid link) nails this a bit better than Rippers Resurrected, providing so very much in so few pages, but the looser approach here works quite well. If there’s an iconic pulp location, it’s likely to be covered here through the Rippers “lens.”
  • Rippertech and chances to get in trouble (Player’s Guide, a bit in the Game Master’s Handbook): The titular setting element, rippertech, is the thing that originally drew me to the setting: The PCs can literally harvest the monsters they kill and impant those bits in themselves. Want improved poison resistance? Replace some of your organs with preserved organs from a mummy. Want tentacles that can burst from your chest to attack your foes? Rip ’em out of a demon and stick ’em on in there. There are costs, of course, both social and mechanical — and that’s what makes it work. Giving the players plenty of tempting opportunities to get themselves into trouble, which have a variety of meaningful consequences in the game mechanics, is sandbox gold.[2]

It’d be fun to play other ways, too — the setting is just so good! — but for me, Rippers Resurrected cries out for the ripperbox treatment. All three main books (Player’s Guide, Game Master’s Handbook, and Frightful Expeditions) would be useful for making it into a ripperbox, although in a pinch you could get by with just the Player’s Guide and some old-fashioned research into locations and monsters.

However you use it, Rippers Resurrected is awesome. It’s a quirky setting that nicely balances existing material with new elements, giving you lots to work with, and it does so in a way that leverages the crunchiness of Savage Worlds to give player agency meaningful mechanical consequences.

[1] And at a mere $10, it would be a crime not to coil-bind that sucker, making it one of the best deals in gaming.

[2] It’s also a big part of why, despite preferring lighter rules, I’d probably run a ripperbox with Savage Worlds: SW has enough mechanical complexity to give grafting demon organs some mechanical heft, and connects that heft to other parts of the rules — without bogging itself down in the process.

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Story games Tabletop RPGs

What’s one unit of play for an RPG?

With RPGs, what counts as one unit of play? Or, basically, what is a single session of a roleplaying game?

Lately I’ve been playing The Beast, a single-player epistolary RPG that takes place over the course of sessions, each lasting 5-15 minutes, and it’s gotten me thinking more closely about units of play and the nature of RPGs in general.

On a concrete level, I log all my plays on RPGGeek, so I have to think frequently about whether some gaming thing I did counts for those purposes. But it’s also fun to think about in the abstract — and my thinking has changed over the years.

Contents: one play

To count as a session of play, my current thinking is that it must:

  1. Be discrete
  2. Not be crazy-short
  3. Involve roleplaying

So if I play a session of Savage Worlds that lasts four hours, and then play again a day later, but only for two hours, that’s two sessions. Even though the first session was twice as long as the second, the unit is the discrete time spent playing, regardless of length — provided it’s not crazy-short (which these sessions are not). And obviously Savage Worlds is a roleplaying game, so there we go.

Wibbly wobbly

Where things get interesting is on the fringes and in the liminal spaces. #1 isn’t too fuzzy, and really has no fringe: When the session ends, so does the unit of play.

Number two is a bit fuzzier, since “crazy-short” is obviously a subjective measure. Number three is fuzzier still, since any given roomful of gamers is reasonably unlikely to agree on a single definition of “roleplaying.” So let’s poke those two a bit.

Number two

Most of my gaming over the past few years has fallen into six broad time slots, session-wise:

  • 9 hours[1], when the weekly game ran really long
  • 6 hours, which was about normal back in Utah
  • 4 hours, like most Gen Con slots
  • 3 hours, my new normal in Seattle
  • 90 minutes, how long my online group plays
  • 5-15 minutes, for short-form games

I’d probably describe anything under 3 hours as a short session in conversation, and anything over 4 hours as a long session, but they’re all fundamentally sessions.

For me, only the last entry — the shortest — pushes up against the boundary of what I’d consider a play. My sessions of The Beast are short, but not the shortest I’ve played: My free RPG The Thief can be played to its conclusion in under 5 minutes. And at some point in my gaming career I’m going to play a game that takes 30 seconds, and I suspect I’d still consider that to be one play.

At any point on the time spectrum, the key is that meaningful gaming happens during the session. If I sat at my desk and made a character, that’s not a session. If we sat down to play D&D and, 10 minutes in, had to call it a night, that’s not a session.

The Beast and The Thief both define the unit of play in the rules — and that’s important, too: If the game designer says “This is a session,” I give them the benefit of the doubt.[2]

Number three

My initial list of criteria for what counts as a play is missing a few things — intentionally so:

  • A game master
  • More than one player
  • Any reference to the format of the game

Despite GM-less solitaire RPGs going back as far as the second-ever fantasy RPG, 1975’s Tunnels & Trolls, I’d be willing to bet there are gamers out there who don’t consider GM-less games, let alone solitaire games, “real” RPGs.

Throw in format, and the waters get even murkier. Is an epistolary game like The Beast an RPG? I think so, absolutely. How about a map game like The Quiet Year, where no one does any in-character roleplaying, or the fractal history RPG Microscope, where in-character play is optional and no one owns any elements of the game (in the sense of owning a PC, for example)? Ditto and ditto — but I’ve seen folks contend that those aren’t RPGs at all.

Like units of play, I place a lot of weight on what the game’s designer says about it. If she calls it an RPG, it’s an RPG.

But it doesn’t rhyme

Back in high school, one of my English teachers wrote this on the board:

Stay off the grass

He then asked us if that was a poem.

Duh, right? Of course not! It’s a lawn sign.

But what if a poet writes it and calls it a poem? Then yeah, it’s a poem. That was the closest we got to a definition of “poem” that the whole class could agree on.

Everything is personal

Alongside the designer’s intent, though, is the personal component: Do I think it’s an RPG? Because at the end of the day, I’m the one playing it and I get to decide what it is — for me. So do you, for you — so does everyone. (I’m not sure one trumps the other, intent or experience; RPGs are weird.)

That’s why, for example, I count collaborative setting creation as play: When we sit down to create a Dresden Files city, we’re making roleplaying choices and collaborating in ways that feel like play to me. There the collaborative element matters — whereas The Beast, defined as a solo RPG, necessarily doesn’t take that into account.

I have zero stake in what anyone else considers a play (or thinks about what I count as play), save as a philosophical question — it’s just an interesting question to think about. But it’s also a question that’s broadened my gaming horizons — and that I do care about.

[1] Somewhere in the past 30 years of gaming, I may have played a session that ran longer than 9 hours. Let’s just take “9 hours” to mean “a really long time.”

[2] Especially when it’s me.