Upping Your Game: Fallout With Friends

Fallout Wasteland Warfare RPG

Welcome to Upping Your Game – a source for tips and tricks to telling better stories at the table. With this series of articles, we will be exploring different ways to experience the wastelands of Fallout with friends. This was a suggestion from a friend so I’ll start with a short explanation.

A few months ago, I was picking some brains for ideas for this series. I told my friends I was going to be writing about story-telling through gaming and asked what topics I should discuss. One of them gave me this little gem: “You should figure out how to make Fallout 76 good!”

Clipart Sad Fallout Vault Boy
Shots fired!

Now, I don’t want to go and disparage Fallout 76. A good portion of the world has already done that and I’m not really into beating dead, irradiated horses. Besides, I haven’t played it. I looked at it and recognized it wasn’t for me. However, the idea stuck in my craw. Lots of people were disappointing in Fallout 76 because they wanted to explore the wasteland with friends. There is definitely a desire to make something like this work, so why didn’t it?

Well, again, I didn’t play it. Though the general consensus, beyond technical and game-play issues, was that the storytelling was not engaging. Most players blamed the lack of NPCs, but I think the issues lies deeper than that. I think it is the same issue holding back Fallout 4. There are tons of options, customization, stats and perks, but none of them impact the story. A character with a low intelligence has all the same dialogue options as a character with high intelligence, the branching narrative is simple at best, and the character’s over all impact on the world is minor. Agency is at the heart of storytelling in Fallout and the way missions and choice has been implemented in the new games is surprisingly linear.

This is not to say these games don’t have their moments. There are some surprisingly effective horror set-pieces in Fallout 4 and I have heard that some of the log-based quests in Fallout 76 are very engaging. However, these are all examples of linear storytelling. Linearity isn’t bad, it’s just not what many people are looking for in a game like this. The excitement surrounding the announcement and release of The Outerworlds shows how rabid gamers are for narrative choice in their RPGs.

So, how do we solve this problem? Beyond getting Obsidian to make the next Fallout game, I think the answer is to change mediums. Moving to a tabletop RPG would solve both the desire to play with a group and give the players far more agency in the wasteland. But this opens up a new question; what system do we use? In my next article we will start with the most obvious option: licensed products.

Fallout Wasteland Warfare Tabletop RPG book
I hope you brought your wallet…

Upping Your Game: RPG Characters as Writing Prompts Part 2

Part 1 can be found here: Upping Your Game: RPG Characters as Writing Prompts Part 1

I want start off by reminding you that for the purpose of this prompt, I will be building a fantasy RPG character that could be used in D&D, Pathfinder, or any system that uses the same core ability stats: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.

I chose to do this to make it easier to get the point across with a familiar system. I also randomly chose a familiar fantasy race. In this case: a Goblin. His name is Clot.

Clot, King among vermin

Clot’s Stats were rolled randomly and placed in the order they were rolled. After racial modifiers (D&D 5th ed) they are:

  • Str: 14
  • Dex: 12
  • Con: 15
  • Int: 10
  • Wis: 10
  • Cha: 11

Weird stats for a goblin. He could make a good thief, like most goblins, but that doesn’t lean into our prompt. We want to explore weaknesses, hardship and formative experiences. The strength and con are very high, so that is where we will start. Sometimes standing out is a weakness.

When Clot was born, he was nearly twice the size of the average goblin infant. When his mother bore no further children, the tribe determined Clot must have eaten his siblings to grow so big. His size was a strange omen, one that filled the small with awe, but drew the worried gaze of other.

We have now established a myth or rumor for our character. It is unlikely to be true, but its existence can create conflict which is what drives plots.

I don’t want to make Clot into a fighter and I want to lean into his weaknesses. So how do we make his strengths into a weakness to overcome? And what do we do with those middling metal attributes?

As Clot grew older, he soon towered over his kin. His physical prowess was feared, but did not inspire respect. In a fully goblin tribe, Clot would have been a king, but his people were a lesser caste. Those who ruled his class were Orc, and they saw in Clot a rival to be put down.

While Clot has incredible physical attributes for a goblin, he is average by Orc standards. Moreover, the fact that he could potentially overpower one of the upper caste means he was not only feared, he was disdained.

How could he hope to thrive, jeered and beaten by all those around him? The Orcs hated him for rivaling their power. The goblins attacked and spit on him to impress their betters. Clot was relegated to the lowest position in his clan. He slept each night, bleeding in the gutter among the filth and the other vermin.

This harsh treatment can help to explain his high constitution. His skin is scarred and thick. He has been hardened by his life.

But we want to make use of his mental stats too. They have room to grow. Clot’s life is a prison he cannot escape through strength of body. 

Among the refuse, Clot found peers. The rats were like him: dirty, despised, discarded. But they were also strong. He saw in them the fire of survivors. That was something worth embracing.

Among the rot, Clot found friends. As he treated the rats with respect, they returned it. Food and warmth was shared. What started as respect grew to kinship. The rats grew to anticipate Clot’s needs, as if they could understand him.

Among the swarm, Clot found power. He was not imagining it, the rats listened to him. Clot soon realized he could hear them too. They started as many trembling voices. They shrieked in a chaotic choir. But they soon became one voice. His voice.

Clot found his way out. 

One night, the orcs returned from a raid with a stockpile of food and keg after keg of ale. Clot was never invited to feast, but this was his opportunity. He waited until the leaders and their favorite sycophants were drunk, and then unleashed the rage of his swarm upon them.

This is another opportunity to build a lingering myth or rumor for Clot. We know a low level character and a rat swarm couldn’t wipe out a whole clan. But that doesn’t mean this story can’t be exaggerated. 

The rats tore into the unsuspecting clan, aided by the strong hand of their king. In the low light, all the tribe could see was the glint of a thousand eyes and one bloody dagger. By morning, their bones were picked clean. The swarm was satiated – they had eaten well. So had Clot.

A grisly tale to inspire fear and respect. Whether it is true or not can be explored in the campaign.

As for his power, there are multiple ways to explain this. My choice is that Clot is a fledgling Druid. I know his wisdom is low, so his spell-casting potential is going to start off pretty weak, but this is another opportunity for good storytelling.

As Clot escaped to the wilderness, he found himself conflicted. The ways of nature were those of balance. But in his heart, he found little room for such thoughts. Peace was a concept beaten out of him. A cold flame burned in his chest. If he could tame it, he could build a kingdom. If he could not, he would burn his new kingdom to the ground.

If Clot can tame his hatred and anger, we can showcase this by putting all his ability modifiers into Wisdom as he levels. He may even go from being an objectively evil character to one with more of a neutral alignment. From a certain point of view, he could even become a hero.

If Clot gives into his rage, we will distribute his improvements more broadly. We can also express his inner turmoil through multi-classing. Maybe he adds some points to Charisma or Intelligence and takes a level or two of sorcerer or wizard to gain access to actual fire. Or maybe he dips into rogue or fighter and leans into the traits nature gave him. This would be followed by further improvements to his physical stats. In this way, he could augment his shape-shifting and relying on brute strength over spells.

Regardless of the direction we go in, Clot has a solid foundation. Moreover, we built it using the numbers we rolled for more than bonuses to hit rolls.

I hope this article inspires some awesome characters. If you use it and like the results, please leave a comment. I would love to see what you can come up with!

An Introduction to “Upping Your Game”

Why write about tabletop gaming?

You might be wondering: Jacob, you’re a writer trying to promote his craft, so why write about games? The answer to that is actually pretty simple: I write about them because they inspire me.

I used to write a lot of critical content. I have written reviews for movies, books and video-games professionally. But that isn’t what I want to work on here. The goal for my gaming series, “Upping your Game”, is to explore ways to tell better stories in games and the lessons a writer can learn from them.

When I play games (tabletop or otherwise), I can’t help but analyse them. It’s a sad habit I picked up in school and an inevitable outcome of consuming media now. Much like reading a book, watching a movie, or enjoying a great painting, I like to break down why games work and learn from them. Good game design is just another form of storytelling and you can learn from it, even if you don’t work in that medium.

Tabletop gaming is a great example of this because a lot of the storytelling is collaborative. A good game system provides a framework to inspire players to create and express themselves. While this is most evident in role-playing games, it can also be seen in card games, war games, and even board games.

As this series progresses, I hope to deal with some really strange topics. I want to create interesting meta-games and writing opportunities in well known games, but I also want to highlight some hidden gems that I find really get the creative juices flowing. But for our first article I’m going to start simple: we’re going to turn RPG character creation into a writing prompt. Stay tuned.