How the NSA Saved Modern Role-Playing Games

It is the 21st Century, and over half the population is hooked on portable technology. Digital communications networks have become a necessity of life. But a clandestine government agency monitors all of its citizens in secret: what they read, who they talk to, and even their location. The Agency infiltrates powerful corporations, hacks private networks and plants backdoors in computer security standards. The citizens know, but they’re powerless to do anything about it.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s now literally the world we live in.

This is bad news for privacy, but it finally solves the biggest problem in modern-era roleplaying: characters fearlessly solving all their problems with computers and the Internet.

Set your D20 Modern scenario in the current day, and any character with a $100 smartphone has the sum total of the world’s knowledge at his fingertips. This forces the GM to come up with a lot more answers than a mediaeval Dungeons & Dragons game, and that gets tiring.

It’s for this reason that many D20 Modern GMs set their game in the 1990s, before computer use was ubiquitous. But what if you want to explore the current day? Isn’t up-to-date realism kind of the point of a modern-era RPG?

Solution: throw in ubiquitous surveillance as a plot tool, and make your protagonists people who the government are going to have a problem with: hackers, private investigators, foreign secret agents, UFO truth-seekers, journalists or the like.

Now, every computer, smartphone and internet connection the protagonists use is a liability, because you never know when someone’s watching. That creates interesting decisions. For example, dare you use Google to find the suspect’s address, knowing that investigators could use that to link you to the case? Can you risk switching on your phone to use its GPS, when any agents following you could use it to pinpoint your location?

21st Century technology becomes a superpower that you can’t use without risking detection. Old-fashioned skills, knowledge and detective work become relevant again. You have to do everything personally, because you can never fully trust the machines. For the first time since 2007 you can actually play D20 Modern set in the current year without overpowering the original core gameplay, and that’s amazing.

Not only that, but it gives a new and different landscape for authors and roleplayers to explore. The 2010s are defined by pervasive advanced technology, and government surveillance of that technology. What makes this different from near-future RPGs like Shadowrun is that it’s more than just realistic, it’s real.

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Tabletop Gaming at Chicago’s Biggest Anime Convention

There aren’t many places where you can see girls dressed as Fili and Kili, two of the dwarves from The Hobbit, facing off against a man dressed as Spike, the baby dragon from My Little Pony. But one such place is Anime Central, the colossal three-day Japanese animation convention held in Chicago each May.

The scale of this event is such that even unrelated nerd hobbies like tabletop gaming and sci-fi/fantasy are extremely well represented. “ACen” this year hosted over forty tabletop gaming sessions from Pathfinder to mahjong, booking out a half-dozen conference rooms for the entire weekend.

The dedicated games area hosted several Hackmaster sessions, along with a whole series of Pathfinder Society adventures. I’ve never thought the four-hour gaming session a good fit for a big anime con where there’s so much else to do in one weekend, but the Pathfinder rooms were always busy so it looks lke there’s plenty of demand.

What surprises me is that none of the Japanese tabletop RPGs appear on the gaming schedule. A gaming section at an anime convention, and nobody’s running Maid RPG? I passed at least a hundred maid cosplayers over the weekend; are none of them gamers?

But then, as most of the attendees were checking out of the hotels on the final morning, we stumbled upon a maid cafe event hosted by the D20 Girls. Convention rules prohibited panels from serving food or drink or charging for services, so the girls instead ran tabletop board/card game sessions. I had enough time before my plane to squeeze in a round of a fun and utterly unbalanced card game called We Didn’t Playtest This At All.

Like a fighter who dips one level in a spellcasting class, Anime Central is certainly a Japanese animation convention first, and gaming is secondary. Still, a gamer and anime fan will find plenty to do here.

Tabletop RPG retailers are well represented too at ACen. Thankfully, I passed my Will save and managed to spend only $10 on dice this year.

Photo credit: brownsaru (Fili) and thespookydoctor (Kili). (More photos)

Even though D&D treats the longsword and rapier as similar weapons, they behave quite differently in practice. What would happen if a longsword wielder faced off against a fighter with a rapier? Would the longsword be out-manoevered by the rapier? Or would the rapier wielder be at a disadvantage, unable to effectively parry the heavier longsword?

There’s only one way to know for sure.

This video really impressed me. It’s an iPhone app called Mach Dice, it pulls off the simple task of dice simulation with some serious style.

The author is selling it for a mere $1, making it cheaper than real dice. That’s assuming you own an iPhone already, although if you want to buy one for this app, it’s still cheaper than 750 dice. Recommended for iPhone-owning gamers.