Role-Playing Games: A Primer

Not for KnucklebonesI was very pleased in late 2007 when Knucklebones magazine commissioned me to write not one but two articles for their May 2008 issue. I was less pleased several months later when it became clear the Knucklebones had ceased publication … and positively bitter  a bit later when I started to hear rumors that these articles had been commissioned to aid in the sale of the magazine — though my editor said that wasn’t actually the case when I queried her.

One of the worst things that can happen to an author is to have a finished work sitting around, unpublished. Sure, I love to get paid for my writing, but I love even more to have my writing read by others. Unfortunately, My May 2008 Knucklebones articles sat around for a long, long time. My editor at Knucklebones convinced me to leave the articles with her for a whole year and a half, saying that the magazine was going to be relaunched and/or sold, and so the articles would eventually be published.

They never were.

Seven years after I wrote those unpublished articles, I’m collecting all the boardgame writing that I own into a single web site, and so you can now to read my primer on roleplaying for board game readers for the first time. There’s one other unpublished article, on Atlas Games, which will appear in the January 2008 archives. —SA, 1/12/15


Role-Playing Games: A Primer

In early 1974, Tactical Studies Rules — who would later become known as TSR Hobbies — published an innovative new game named Dungeons & Dragons. Authored by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, it was the earliest public release of an entirely new type of entertainment, the role-playing game (or RPG). Continue reading

Review: Winds of Plunder

Knucklebones: Final IssueThis is a reprint of an review written in October, 2007 for first publication in the March 2008 issue of Knucklebones magazine; it was the final issue. It’s the only review I ever wrote for Knucklebones, designed to connect up with an article I’d written several months earlier about pirate games. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

My pure reviews are more generally published over at RPGnet, but due to the Knucklebones connection of this one, I decided to reprint it here as well.

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Can’t We All Just Get Along: Cooperative Gaming

Knucklebones: Final IssueThis is a reprint of an article written in October, 2007 for first publication in the March 2008 issue of Knucklebones magazine; it was the final issue. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

Since I wrote this article, I’ve spent much more time extensively analyzing co-op games. A series of co-op interviews talks with designers from the genre while a partial history of the genre begins to trace its evolution. I’ve also co-authored a complete but unpublished book on cooperative design with my friend Christopher Allen, which I hope will see print in 2015.


Most games are about competition. However, in the last twenty years, a small but increasing number of games have instead focused on the opposite type of gameplay: cooperation. There’s still competition in these games, but instead of working against each other, players tend to work against the game system (sometimes embodied by a singular player). They must either achieve victory together or else fall down ignobly to defeat.

Because of this unique cooperative play style, these games allow for a degree of socialization that’s unprecedented in most strategic games. Players talk together about the best way to overcome the challenges that they face. They pool their thoughts, their strategies, and sometimes even their resources in order to try and reach a shared victory.

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He’s Z-Man: Catching Up with Zev Shlasinger and Z-Man Games

Knucklebones: November 2007This is a reprint of an article written in June 2007 for first publication in the November 2007 issue of the now-defunct Knucklebones magazine. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

November 2007 was also the first month that Knucklebones opted to accept two different articles for me; the other was an article on pirate games, which was featured on the cover. I wrote it a few weeks earlier, in May.


Z-Man Games has been publishing games for eight years, but with their early focus on collectible card games and roleplaying games, many board game players didn’t know about them. That should now be changing, because in 2005 Z-Man Games burst onto the board game scene with a collection of high-quality Eurogames and American originals.

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Yo Ho! Yo Ho! A Pirate’s Game for Me!

Knucklebones: November 2007This is a reprint of an article written in May, 2007 for first publication in the November 2007 issue of the now-defunct Knucklebones magazine. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

November 2007 was also the first month that Knucklebones opted to accept two different articles for me; the other was an article on Z-Man games, which I finished a couple of weeks later, in June.


Shiver me timbers if it ain’t September again, and you know what that means, matey! It’s time to dedicate a noggin’ o’ rum to Ol’ Chum Bucket and Cap’n Slappy — the two scurvy lads who came up with Talk Like a Pirate Day, back on September 19, 1995.

Of course we know all you mateys and wenches alike will be taking p-arrrr-t in the festivities, but don’t take it as an excuse to just drink grog and sing shanties. You can also weigh anchor, hoist the Jolly Roger, and plunder and pillage on your own with a selection of excellent pirate games.

So keep reading for my top suggestions and I won’t have to make you walk the plank!

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Worlds of Adventure

Knucklebones: September 2007This is a reprint of an article written in April, 2007 for first publication in the September, 2007 issue of the now-defunct Knucklebones magazine. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

Previously to the publication of this article, I’d written a three-part series on adventure game design for this blog proper. I invite you to take a look at them for more on the topic: I. Fantasy Flight & That Old-Time Roleplaying; II. In the Cards; III. Dungeon Delving (and to see some of my thoughts that led up to this more comprehensive article).


Character, setting, and plot. They’re the basis of literature of any sort, from a top television drama to the newest Harry Potter book. And — sometimes — they form the basis of board games too. Not all games, granted, and very few games have all of these elements. But there’s no doubt that Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan has a vague setting, while Reiner Knizia’s Beowulf definitely has a plot. Enough people feel a connection to whether they play the Scottie dog or the race car in Monopoly that you could argue that even that old classic has character.

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Competitive Fun: It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose … Or Is It?

Knucklebones: July 2007This is a reprint of an article written in February, 2007 for first publication in the July, 2007 issue of the now-defunct Knucklebones magazine. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

For the original Mechanics & Meeples article that this Knucklebones article drew inspiration (and a few quotes) from, see: It’s Not If you Win or Lose.


Games are odd creatures. On the one hand they’re about socialization. You play cards with your family at Christmas, huddled around the dining room table with a fire going nearby. Or, you play Monopoly with your kids, crouched down on the living room floor. However games aren’t just social events, they’re social sports. They’re not just about gameplay, they’re about winning and losing.

And winning and losing can be somewhat tricky and sticky subjects. People can get upset if they lose, especially if they feel like other players are being too mean (or even too nice). Figuring out how to resolve fun socialization with overt competition — and how to play games that everyone enjoys — are some of the biggest challenges in gaming, especially when you’re playing with family and friends.

Fortunately, honestly talking about the issues — about why you’re playing, how important competition is, what winning means, and how to be good winners and losers — can often clear up any misconceptions or hurt feelings.

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