Free RPG Day Returns Tomorrow!

Role-playing games are high on the list of my favorite pastimes, and whether you’re looking for a fun game, a puzzly experience, or a chance to tell some exciting, engrossing stories with friends, you’re bound to find something to enjoy in a role-playing session.

And if you’ve never tried out a role-playing game or dipped a toe into the fascinating world of RPGs, tomorrow is the perfect opportunity for you to do so.

Because tomorrow, Saturday June 15th, is Free RPG Day!

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Established in 2007, Free RPG Day is a collaborative event where RPG publishers team up with game shops, hobby shops, and other game retailers to celebrate role-playing games and try out brand-new and unfamiliar games.

Stores around the world will be offering free adventure modules and quick-play rulebooks for all sorts of different role-playing games — covering everything from classic D&D-style games to spacefaring campaigns — much of it created specifically for Free RPG Day!

Companies like Goodman Games, Paizo Publishing, Green Ronin, Off World Designs, and many more are participating, along with game shops all over the U.S. and across the world.

You can use this store locator to find the nearest participating location, but worry not if you can’t get out to a friendly local game shop!

There are all sorts of online resources celebrating the day as well. For instance, the team at DriveThruRPG are offering a ton of free downloads for you to sample! (Not to mention the articles we’ve written about the subject over the years.)

Will you be celebrating Free RPG Day, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Demystifying Role-Playing Games

When you hear the words “role-playing game,” what comes to mind? A bunch of nerds in a basement, hunched around a table debating weird and esoteric rules? Practitioners of the black arts, thumbing their noses at God and all that is natural? Or nothing at all?

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Some TV shows, like Community and Freaks & Geeks, have displayed role-playing games in a positive light, but for the most part, role-playing games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, have gotten a bad rap over the last few decades, maligned as (at best) a game for lonely friendless types and (at worst) a tool to corrupt children.

(This might sound ridiculous to many of you, but folks like Pat Robertson continue to talk about role-playing games as if they’re synonymous with demon worship.)

But in reality, role-playing games are simply a way for a group to tell one collaborative story.

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There are two major elements to this storytelling. The first is managed by a single person who oversees that particular game or gaming session. In Dungeons & Dragons, this person is called the Dungeon Master, or DM; in other games, this person is the Game Master, the Storyteller, or bears some other title tied to the game or setting. For the sake of simplicity, from this point on, I’ll refer to this person as the DM.

So, the DM manages the setting and sets up the adventure. In this role, the DM will describe what the player characters (or PCs) see and explain the results of their actions. The DM also plays any characters the players interact with. (These are known as NPCs, or non-player characters.) Essentially, the DM creates the sandbox in which the other players play.

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Which brings us to the second element in role-playing storytelling: the players. Each player assumes a role, a character, and plays that character for the length of the session, or the game, if there are multiple sessions. (Some games last months or years, so these characters evolve and grow; players often become quite attached to their characters.)

The PCs navigate the world created by the DM, but their actions and decisions shape the narrative. No matter how prepared a DM is or how carefully he or she has plotted out a given scene or adventure, the PCs determine much of what happens. They might follow the breadcrumbs exactly as the DM laid them out, or they might head off in an unexpected direction, forcing the DM to think on the fly in order to continue the adventure.

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That’s what makes role-playing games so amazing: you never quite know what you’re going to get. The PCs usually don’t know what the DM has in store, and no DM can predict with perfect clarity what the PCs will do. You’re all crafting a story together and none of you knows what exactly will happen or how it all ends.

For instance, I run a role-playing game for several friends that is set in the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my PCs routinely come up with solutions to problems and puzzles that I didn’t expect, but that nonetheless would work. They constantly keep me on my toes as a DM, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Oftentimes, major events and key moments are determined by dice rolls, adding an element of chance to the story. (In some games, players have replaced dice rolls with a Jenga-style block tower, and they must remove pieces from it to achieve certain goals. That adds a marvelous sense of real-world tension to the narrative tension already present!)

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And while I’ve talked quite a bit about the game aspect, some of you might be wondering where the puzzly aspect comes in.

Some of the best, most satisfying puzzle-solving experiences of my life have come from role-playing games.

These puzzles can be as simple as figuring out how to open a locked door or as complicated as unraveling a villain’s dastardly plot for world domination. It can be a poem to be parsed and understood or a trap to be escaped.

There are riddles of goblins and sphinxes, or the three questions of trolls, or even the brain teasers and logic problems concocted by devious fey hoping to snare me with clever wordplay. I’ve encountered all sorts of puzzles in role-playing games, and some of them were fiendish indeed.

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One time, during a LARP session (Live-Action Role-Playing, meaning you actually act out the adventure and storytelling), I thought I’d unraveled the meaning of a certain bit of scripture (regarding a key that would allow me to escape the room) and acquired a sword as my prize, only to realize much much later that the key I’d spent the entire session searching for was the sword itself, which unlocked the door and released me.

And designing puzzles for my players to unravel is often as much fun as solving the puzzles myself. Especially when they’re tailored to specific storytelling universes or particular player characters.

(Trust me, it doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a Jedi or a paladin; riddles stop pretty much everybody in their tracks.)

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Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, Legend of the Five Rings or Star Wars, GURPS or Ninja Burger, there’s a role-playing game out there for everyone, if you’re just willing to look.


This post was meant as a brief overview of role-playing games as a whole. If you’d like me to get more in depth on the subject, or if you have specific questions about role-playing games, please let me know! I’d be happy to revisit this topic in the future.

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

5 Questions with James Ernest of Cheapass Games

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have James Ernest as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

James Ernest represents Cheapass Games, a company with a brilliantly simple rationale: they know you have board games at home, so why jack up the price of their games by making you buy more dice, chips, or tokens? Their games contain exactly what you need to play the game, and describe precisely what you’ll need to scrounge up from other games in order to play.

As president and game designer, James is instrumental not only in maintaining the Cheapass Games legacy of great games for a fair price, but he’s also adept at utilizing Kickstarter campaigns and social media to communicate directly with the devoted board game and card game audience. In doing so, he’s helped introduce numerous hilarious and innovative games to the market, including:

  • Unexploded Cow: a card game where you try to rid the world of mad cows and unexploded ordnance.
  • U.S. Patent Number One: a game where you and your opponents build time machines and race back in time to register for the very first patent. [Glenn’s note: Currently out of print, but one of my all-time favorite board games.]
  • Veritas: a Risk-like strategy game where you try to become the predominant Truth in Dark Ages France while monasteries burn down around you. (Check out our full product review here!)

James was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for James Ernest

1.) For nearly two decades now, the Cheapass Games brand has been synonymous with affordable games with tongue-in-cheek humor and high replay value. How do you know when a game is right for your brand? What role do you play in bringing these games to market?

I’m the designer as well as the publisher for Cheapass Games, so I play nearly all the roles. I try to create products that fit into that format. When I make something that doesn’t fit the format, I often look for other ways to bring it to market, such as finding another publisher, or using a separate imprint under Cheapass Games.

For a while I used “James Ernest Games” as an imprint for my higher-priced games, though I currently release everything as Cheapass. I also used the “Hip Pocket” brand for smaller, more abstract games, and that one will be coming back next year.

2.) Many of the games in your library rely on a combination of strategy and step-by-step chain thinking, both skills most puzzle enthusiasts have in spades. Are you a puzzle fan? And what about that style of gameplay appeals to you?

The challenge in creating a strategy game is to make a puzzle with variety, so it can be replayed without getting dull. Part of that variety comes from rules that can give rise to meaningfully different game paths, and part of it comes from the interaction of players with different strategies.

As you’ve mentioned, I also like games to have stories, and that works in a similar way: the story has to be open-ended enough that it can proceed differently each time. The game is more like an environment where the players tell their own stories, rather than a way to tell a linear story. This is obvious for RPGs [roleplaying games] but I think it’s true for other games as well.

3.) You’ve created games of your own as well as helping others bring their games to life. What puzzles and board games, either in gameplay or in the experience of producing them for sale, have most influenced you?

I learned a lot about game construction from playing and working on Magic: the Gathering. A lot of my games have decks of different card types, balanced to produce the right mix of hands, based on my experience doing deck construction in Magic.

I also draw a lot of my approach to games from Pitch, which is a cutthroat trick-taking game. In a nutshell, you can choose different strategies in that game, either to play conservatively and win slowly, or to take risks and have the potential to win quickly or move backwards. Neither of those strategies is dominant and that makes the game good. Of course I also play a lot of poker, which contains similar choices.

4.) What’s next for James Ernest?

My next project is Pairs, a “New Classic Pub Game,” which I will be Kickstarting in February. After that, I have a couple of older Cheapass Games that I want to bring back into print. And I’m working on a new tabletop miniatures game called Cagway Bay, which is pirate-themed and diceless. I have a number of new game projects as well, but right now I’m not announcing any of them because I can’t be sure when they will be ready.

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring game designers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

If you want to create things, there is no substitute for practice. Don’t just read about games; don’t just play them. You have to make a lot of games.

Many thanks to James for his time. You can check out the latest news from Cheapass Games on their website — including their upcoming Kickstarter campaign for the game Pairs! — or follow James on Twitter (@cheapassjames). I cannot wait to see what he and the great folks at Cheapass Games come up with next.

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