Whenever I try to describe pen&paper RPGs to someone, it turns out to be a bit difficult. How can you describe it so that the other person is not weirded out but interested? When I roped my co-workers into playing Pathfinder with me, I had the advantage of them being extreme nerds in the first place, and having seen RPGs in action in The Big Bang Theory. But others? To get more people interested in the hobby, it’d be great to have a great example to show them. Titansgrave might just be this.
So what is Titansgrave? It’s a show on Geek&Sundry, Felicia Day’s web channel for nerdy shows. It’s hosted by Wil Wheaton, who’s already been doing a boardgame show called Tabletop there, where he plays boardgames with various nerd celebrities. There’ve been a couple episodes there in which he GM’d the Dragon Age RPG by Green Ronin. Titansgrave is taking this a couple step further, by running a pen&paper campaign in a story arc of 10 episodes at 45 minutes each. Now, that’s not a lot of time, considering my average RPG session is 6-7 hours, but for a produced show it’s great.
The used RPG system is Fantasy AGE which is a generic version of the Dragon Age rules that can be used with any fantasy setting. The campaign setting for Titansgrave was developed by Wil Wheaton and his son, and is a blend of the currently very popular Science Fantasy style. Think Thundarr the Barbarian, John Carter, technology meets magic. A bunch of RPGs use Science Fantasy now, aside from Titansgrave, e.g. Numenera (which I am going to write about soon) but also Pathfinder, with their bizarre Iron Gods Adventure Path (which I am also going to write about, honestly). There’s some technology on this world, but also magic.
Wil Wheaton is running the campaign with four nerd celebrities, though I have to admit I didn’t know most of them before I started watching the show. There’s Hank Green, apparently a popular vlogger, as Aankia, a saurian rogue. Alison Haislip, actress and hostess, plays Kiliel, a half-dwarf rogue, who is the thieving ranger type. There’s Yuri Lowenthal, a voice actor with tons of anime credits but most importantly Sandal’s ENCHANTMENT! voice from Dragon Age. He plays an orcish mage called S’Lethkk. Last but not least we have Laura Bailey, a famous voice actress, and MMO fans will mostly know her as /the/ voice of Jaina Proudmoore since Warcraft III. She plays a human warrior with a cyborg arm.
As far as pen&paper goes, the campaign so far has been what you call a railroad. The characters have zero freedom to explore as they want to because the GM is pretty adamantly setting them on a course. This is understandable, because in such a short format and a planned story arc, the characters have to play along. As much as it’s more fun with more freedom, just as in video games, I am not a huge fan of the sandbox style, and do not mind that it’s so very railroad-y. I have to say that so far I have been impressed by Wil Wheaton as a GM. In general, I find him a bit overhyped, and he clearly believes his own hype, but as GM, he’s good. He’s a big advocate of role-playing, and I am shamelessly stealing a couple ideas for my own campaign. For example, every character has a secret only they know. We got to see those secrets in episode 0. Also, every character has a short- and a long-term goal. I really dig that, because it’s an easy way to add depth to the characters. I offered these two systems to the players in my campaign as optional rule, with a small XP reward if they participate, and some really dug into it. Especially our rogue surprised me, as his secret really offers great character motivation and layers to his character.
Titansgrave is produced well, and so the GM has lots of assistance, with roll tools on the screen, voice enhancement when needed for big booming voice moments, and lots of customized art to visualize the campaign. There’s also a battle overlay but that’s not working for me. It’s not your usual grid, and it didn’t help me with visualizing the combat at all. Of course, Wheaton has an advantage as GM. As professional actor, he really is quite outstanding at performing NPCs. I am just a bit jealous. But as I said above, he’s good, and he’s got experience. He’s running a series of tips on The Mary Sue now as well, to improve your GM game, and I’ll enjoy watching those.
As far as the player characters go, the first episode was a bit stiff, everyone still getting their bearings, but it is a lot of fun watching them getting really into it. Laura Bailey is my favorite, because she’s really getting into it. Wheaton tosses stuff at them that requires impromptu roleplaying and storytelling, and she’s been outstanding at it. Hank Green is a bit annoying, and maybe a bit pushy. Yet, that mirrors my pen&paper experience, because you will always have one of those players in every group. 😉
If you are interested in pen&paper, but aren’t sure what it’s about, Titansgrave is a great intro. If you’re already an avid RPer and don’t mind a railroad, this is probably the most high-profile and well-produced RPG session you’ll ever find. Certainly beats all the other YouTube game sessions that I have ever watched. They’re currently at the midway point of the show, with episode 6 out today. I wish my players spoke English a little better, because I’d totally make them watch the series. I am considering buying the Titansgrave campaign book when it comes out, to steal more ideas for a Numenera campaign I am hoping to run one fine day.
If you want to check out the introduction episode 0, you can find it below.