How My Players Ended My Campaign Ten Sessions Early

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I never thought it would happen to me but my players found a way to end my campaign ten sessions early. Let me back up…
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Digital RPG – Shadowrun Games

When I was 13 I went on a camping trip with my family. I noticed that my older brother was taking a break from his usual Star Trek or Star Wars or D&D novels, and was instead making his way through a Shadowrun book titled “Never Deal with a Dragon.”

Being the inveterate, inquisitive pesterer that I am, I asked him about the book… and he begrudgingly opened my eyes to the world of Shadowrun.

Seems Shadowrun was set in a crazy, impossible near-future where megacorporations ruled the world and had their own private armies. A place where a person could log (“jack”) in to a computer terminal and digitally access remote servers located across the globe. A place where specialized pilots controlled drones that were capable of mounting deadly weapons and killing people across vast distances. A place where cybernetic limbs were a reality, and self-driven cars  ferried underpaid workers to their jobs, where they worked as virtual slaves to their employers.  A place where, following the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, magic had been awakened, which resulted in a large number of people turning into metahumans like elves and orks, right before countless governments fell following a deadly plague named VITAS, which swept across the globe and killed billions.

Okay. Maybe it didn’t get everything right… but Shadowrun did better than Star Trek. Pshhh. Eugenics Wars. That’s just silly.

Anyway, I immediately fell in love with this game world. I read the entire 2nd edition players handbook. I started reading all of the novels. And, of course, I played the video games.

Unfortunately, I barely played Shadowrun as a tabletop game, which still bums me out to this day. My brothers were D&D guys, and my friends did not share my passion for such nerdy things. The closest I ever got to playing Shadowrun was an ill-fated attempt to play by email with people I met online (in a Prodigy BBS), and a single night where my regular D&D group “tried the game out.” They didn’t like it.

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Your dial-up portal to the world…so long as you didn’t leave the Prodigy intranet.

So I had to settle for the video games. Which is what I want to talk about today.

The first eponymous video game was released for the Super Nintendo game system in 1993, by an Australian company named Beam Software. Beam Software was responsible for creating the Back to the Future trilogy on the NES, which would become eventual Angry Video Game Nerd fodder.

Shadowrun won several awards for “Best RPG of the Year.” The vaunted, completely neutral magazine Nintendo Power called it “one of the best sci-fi games ever.” In 2011 it was listed in the top 100 SNES games by IGN magazine, and in 2009 it was ranked at #125 in Game Informer’s “top 200 games of all time” list.

I think it’s fair to say that the game is considered an under-appreciated gem.

Me? I didn’t like it. Never did… even when I first played it 20 years ago. I mean, I finished it, and I even started a second game. But I never really enjoyed it.

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Oh shit. My chummer has green skin. Wonder how that happened…?

It was an interesting game, sure. There was a fairly deep film noir murder-mystery storyline that was relatively interesting. The combat was simplistic, but challenging enough. There were some role-playing elements, though character progression was quite rudimentary.

But the biggest problem with that game was that it didn’t feel like a Shadowrun game. This is because it was missing one important thing — there was no shadowrunning. There were no Mr. Johnsons, very little corporate intrigue, and no set teams of shadowrunners working together to complete an objective assigned by a morally ambiguous entity. The SNES Shadowrun was basically a point-and-click adventure with some real-time combat and RPG elements, set in the Shadowrun universe (though the story could have easily been told in any dystopian near-future setting). It used all of the jargon, it had all of the technology, and there were elves and dwarves and crap… but the heart of what made it “Shadowrun” was missing.

Pew! Pew! One! Two!

Pew! Pew! Three! Two!

It’d be like making a Star Wars game focused on city building, or a Star Trek first-person shooter game. If your game company acquires a cool license, it’d behoove you to create a game focused on the aspects of that universe that interest people. People did not play a Shadowrun game to find out who shot ya’. They played to take down THE MAN and FIGHT THE POWER, goddammit. Shadowrun without the run is just Shadow. And no one likes shadow. Case closed.

Switching consoles to the Sega Genesis brings us another eponymous Shadowrun game, this one created by BlueSky Software. The legacy of BlueSky Software is a bit rosier than that of Beam Software, having created the classics Vectorman and Starflight before going out of business in 2001 after parent company Interplay Entertainment imploded.

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Hey, Shaman Guy, maybe stand up when we’re getting shot at by unknown forces?

Rather than using a “you wake up with amnesia” trope, the Genesis Shadowrun story is a simple fratrimonial revenge quest. Following in the footsteps of your recently-murdered brother, you find work as a shadowrunner in the outskirts of Seattle to find his killers, and make a boatload of Nuyen, chummer.

The Genesis version was a good early example of an “open world” console RPG game. There was a main quest, and then there was a crapload of side quests, exploration, diversions, and straight-up grinding. For example, just be prepared to kill a million goddamn ghouls in the early game, where the strategy is the wonderfully complicated “fire, fire, fire, run away, fire, fire, fire, run away, reload, run away, et cetera.” As with all modern open world games, you were not given any time limit to complete the main quest, though progressing along the main storyline did open up new areas and contacts.

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I am a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.

Shadowrunning is the heart of the game, as it should be. When you’ve saved enough Nuyen you can hire other shadowrunners, and they join your party. With your team in place you can upgrade everyone’s stats and equipment and level up as a team. It’s what everyone wants in an RPG, but what was missing in the SNES version.

One thing lacking is memorable characters and a compelling story. Your character is pretty much a blank, the main quest is pretty forgettable, and after a while the runs start to get repetitive. But early on, making runs against huge megacorporations in randomly-generated rogue-like sequences is properly thrilling. The character progression is varied enough that multiple play-throughs are likely (I’ve probably played through the game 4 times in my life, which is a pretty high number for me).

After these two games came out there were a few decades of silence. Shadowrun seemed to be one of those awesome, futuristic late-80s-early-90s video game worlds that became less cool over time (like Battletech, Fallout, Blood Bowl, Warhammer 40k, and X-COM). But there is a point in everyone’s life where the things they liked as a kid are suddenly reintroduced, because the adults in search of a quick nostalgia fix suddenly have money to spend.

This latest 20-year nostalgia cycle brought us reboots of many iconic games from my teen years (like Battletech, Fallout, Blood Bowl, Warhammer 40k, and XCOM), as well as another Shadowrun game: Shadowrun Returns. I decided to try the game out in my iPad, because I’m a dad, I own an iPad, and I spend money on video games.

Developed by the company Harebrained Schemes, and partially funded by a kickstarter campaign, Shadowrun Returns sets out to re-introduce the Shadowrun universe to the real world. The kickstarter page mentioned the SNES game, but didn’t really say much about the Sega Genesis game.

I’m now about, oh, say, 10 hours into the iPad version of the game, which means that I’m about 3/4  of the way through the game. But in fairness, I haven’t finished it yet, meaning this is technically just a “first impression.”

And my first-first impression? Wow. There is a lot of reading. Like… a lot. Like… way more than there should be. I’m a person who loves words, as the current word count of this article can attest. But those words have to mean something. In video games (and especially RPGs), that’s rarely true. For example, here’s a screenshot from early in the game:

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Hot girl alert! Hot girl alert! I wonder if my character gets to bang her at some point?

Look, I love descriptive text as much as the next guy, but Jesus Christ this is a video game. Emphasis on the word video. Don’t tell me what the cute bartender looks like. Show me! I’ll believe anything, master!

In the kickstarter, much was made about the “deep, interactive stories” that were going to be the focal point of the game. Indeed, though I’m not quite finished, it seems a lot of love was put into the story and characters. They got the “deep” part, but I think the developers totally whiffed on the “interactive” part. The crucial difference between a video game and a book is the ability of impact and alter the world that you’re inhabiting, and to do it in a way that is unique with each play-through of the game, so you’ll want to play multiple times.

The Genesis version had a crap-load of replay value, because you could hire different runners, your character could assume different roles (shaman, decker, street samurai), and during your play-through you could be a little white knight, or a total thieving, murdering bastard. There was the feeling that you were in an enormous virtual sandbox, with places to explore, people to meet, and prestige to gain.

The SNES version did not have that same open feel. You could hire other runners, sure, but they did not stay with you permanently. Your character was also kind of a jack-of-all-trades, with spells, cyberware, and hacking skills. The story was very linear, with very little in the way of side quests. Once the game was done I didn’t really feel like going back and playing again.

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The “Hire a Runner” screen.

Shadowrun Returns is, unfortunately, more similar to the the SNES version. For example, my character is unable to hire runners permanently (they’re only available run-to-run), which is a big problem for replay value. As it stands there is a stable of runners that my character has access to, and they seem to gain skills independent, though concurrent, with my own character. This means the feeling of having a “party” of adventurers is completely lost, which is kind of a big deal in an RPG.

In the Kickstarter, there was also some love lavished on the “innovative” keyword dialogue from the SNES version. I may be alone in this, but I find systems like that supremely annoying. Inevitably I find myself just scanning the reams and reams of text to get to the one word that I’m supposed to say so the story can progress. With each conversation consists of, basically, three options for responses: the “nice guy pussy” response, the “strictly business” response, and the “I’m a total asshole” response. So far in my play-through I’ve been as much of an asshole as possible during the dialogue screens, but it has not made the slightest dent in any of my relationships. Each conversation is linear, because the game is linear. This means that screwing up a single important conversation could have  game-ending consequences, which the designers were forced to avoid, naturally.

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Basically the dialogue system is cloned from Fallout 2, except with even less interactivity.

I thought this kind of “dialogue actually affects gameplay” thing was fixed after games like Fallout 2 and Ultima VII were released in the early 90s. I guess these guys missed those titles.

But perhaps the biggest sin of this game is, again, the absence of actual “Shadowrunning.” Sure, there’s a single Mr. Johnson who gives you a single optional side quest that resembles an “extraction” shadowrun. But that’s it. I mean… that’s just terrible. The developers released level editors so fans can create their own quests, but that won’t fix the absence of a real “open world,” where various Mr. Johnson characters offer various runs against various entities as your team of Shadowrunners gains experience, prestige, and sweet sweet Nuyen. That experience was available in the 20-year-old Genesis title, but it’s not available in Shadowrun Returns.

So what does that game get right? Well, the story is interesting. The combat mechanics are fairly fun, and I love the fact that combat is turn-based. There’s a nice cover feature, though it’s not as smooth or well-executed as the system in XCOM: Enemy Unknown (likely something to do with the budget for each title, I’m guessing). I also like what they did with riggers, which is a generally underrepresented class.

I just get the feeling that Harebrained Schemes remade the wrong game. They started with a big dollop of the SNES Shadowrun, mixed in a bunch of Fallout Tactics and Fallout 2, then added a bit of Baldur’s Gate and Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind for good measure. It does not feel like a modern title. It does not feel like an open world. It is not the game I wanted.

Here are the features from the tabletop game that I really want to see in a Shadowrun video game:

  • Yes, I want a good story and interesting characters, but I also want a fully open game world (and if you think an indie developer can’t create a good open world game, check out Mount & Blade: Warband then get back to me). A true open world is absolutely required for modern RPGs, and Shadowrun Returns didn’t have it.
  • I want all of the cool gadgets and gear from the universe, but I want them to look and feel unique on the screen.
  • I want large, interesting, varied maps to explore.
  • I want to add runners to my team permanently.
  • I want to work for multiple Mr. Johnsons.
  • I want to be able to forget about the main quest entirely.
  • I want a varied skill progression, and a prestige progression that unlocks new contacts and better-paying jobs.
  • I want to be able to damage the environment.
  • I want my moral decisions to impact my character relationships, in both physical actions and verbal interactions.
  • I want a more fully-realized matrix, rather than a simple “intranet you can use to turn off cameras and turrets and stuff.”
  • I want a variety of missions, and multiple ways to complete those missions (more than “walk into office, shoot guard, shoot first responders, shoot boss, complete mission, collect Nuyen”). Not every mission has to end in a goddamn gun battle.
  • I want to sneak around… in fact, I want to be forced to be sneaky.
  • I want corporate intrigue.
  • I want street-level intrigue.
  • I want contacts, and the ability to call on favors to complete runs.
  • I want failure to be an option, rather than a time to just “load saved game.”
  • I want to have the option to save the game, rather than the game autosaving during load screens.
  • I want vehicles, and riggers to pilot those damn vehicles.
  • I want turn-based combat, and a fully realized cover system. For instance, I’d like to be able to stand in a doorway and have that count as cover, which I can not do in Shadowrun Returns.
  • I want multiplayer… not that I would ever use it because I don’t have friends, but I think other players would enjoy it.
  • I want the option of dealing with a dragon. I would never take that option, but it’d be nice to know that it was available.
  • I WANT TO BE ABLE TO BATTLE THE MYTHICAL DZOO-NOO-QUA IS THAT TOO MUCH TO FUCKING ASK OMGWTFGGWP!!!

I guess, as is the case with every video game based on a tabletop game, you’re never going to get everything you want. I’m going to have to live with that, I guess. But the Genesis Shadowrun game comes closest, even including the vaunted dzoo-noo-qua. Maybe the upcoming Shadowrun Online will have more, though I wouldn’t hold my breath… especially when the main page for the game features this typo in the opening paragraph: “And never,ever, cut a deal with a dragon.” Or use a space after a comma,apparently.

If you’re truly interested in a fun, addictive, compelling game in the Shadowrun universe, then do yourself a favor and locate a copy of the Sega Genesis game. It is the true under-appreciated gem of the Shadowrun universe.

And yes, I’m aware of the Games for Windows Shadowrun game. I have given it the exact location and amount of article space that it deserves.

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fart noise

Posted in Digital RPG

Why I Like Saving Throw – by Tyler Rhoades

Role playing games are hard. Playing any RPG requires several important things:

  • time — each session will easily take up an entire night, and a regular weekly game is required to get anything done because only a little bit can be accomplished in a few hours
  • effort — if you want to know how to play a game, you will have to read…and read…and read…and even then you’re only really going understand a fraction of what you’ve just read
  • patience — for exactly those two reasons given above; very little can be accomplished in a single night, and most of the night is spent reading what you’ve written
  • like-minded friends — you may have a lot of friends, or only a few close friends, but cobbling a group of 3 or 4 individuals to play an RPG can be tremendously difficult

I think there are a large number of people who are interested in RPGs, but there is no viewer-friendly place for them to cultivate that curiosity. Some people may just be casually wondering how RPGs work. Some might actually play the game, if they could just figure out how. Some of them might have played at one time, but are rusty. Some of them might play regularly and just want to watch someone else play for a change.

That’s why Saving Throw exists. The idea is to create a visually interesting, viewer-friendly show that will educate the casual fan, and (hopefully) entertain the hardened grognard. Learning how to play an RPG is intimidating, and complicating that is the fact that RPG players can be intimidating. What we at Saving Throw are saying is, “Hey, don’t be afraid! This is fun!”

On top of that, we’re not just a “teaching” show. In addition to our tutorial episodes we’ll be showing actual gameplay from our weekly sessions, which should be as entertaining as they are informative.

It’s a tall order, sure, but I think we’re up to the task. This Kickstarter campaign will help us immensely, and will allow us to generate the content that we want to bring you. Click this link right here. Thanks for your support.

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Oh Look! A D&D Reference!

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We’ve all seen it, and generally we all hate it. You’re sitting on your couch, sipping a frosty beverage, mindlessly staring at a television screen, when one of your beloved shows drops a Dungeons & Dragons mention.

Inevitably, two scenes later you are subjected to the horribleness of Hollywood’s perception of role-playing games. All-too-often it looks something like this, from season 6 of The Big Bang Theory:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aNUuGOUreg

Behold, the transcendent comedy billowing forth from what is currently the 3rd highest-rated show in the USA!

Anyway, I wanted to start this series to examine D&D references film and television, then grade them on the following criteria:

Accuracy — Does the reference utilize proper gameplay and use actual D&D terminology to depict the gaming session? Or are the references just inaccurate and lazy?

Originality — Does the reference say something clever or interesting about the D&D culture? Or is it just boring nerd-bashing?

Comedic Value – Did Tyler Rhoades think it was funny? Or did Tyler Rhoades think it was not funny?

First I’ll start with the cesspool that is the writing of The Big Bang Theory.

Accuracy = D- We’ll start with the terminology. I feel like the horribly overpaid writers of this show lucked into Boots of Speed, before screwing the pooch with the Helm of Lordly Might (no such thing…it’s a Rod, you assholes). Then they go right off the deep end with the sudden appearance of a satanic fungus (I imagine it’s looks something like a mushroom with goat legs) and they introduce the new prestige class, the bloodthirsty savage warrior (which gets partial credit due to the existence of the 2nd edition Savage kit in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook). The gameplay is equally awful. The DM actually chastises a player for daring to roll her own dice! Imagine playing D&D and not getting to roll a single die. Madness. Not to mention the fact that no one rolls initiative, no one rolls damage, and experience points are awarded in the middle of a goddamned combat.

Originality = F I wish I could invent a grade lower than an F, but unfortunately that’s the last letter in the alphabet, so I cannot. The Big Bang Theory is where originality goes to die, so it’s no surprise that their D&D treatment is predictable and lazy. D&D players are virgins! D&D players are nerds! Girls don’t play D&D! Every boring negative stereotype associated with Dungeons & Dragons is squirted messily into one awful little package, and those dicks providing the canned laughter are just lapping it up.

Comedic Value = F I un-laughed so hard watching this that I think I was actually frowning. I don’t mean to disparage the amazingly talented people who produce this television program, and in no way do I want to insult the comedic sensibilities of the millions of fans of the show, but this show is a steaming pile of corn-speckled dog shit, and anyone who thinks this is funny is not only an idiot, but they’re also an asshole. Dom is probably going to make me re-write this paragraph, but I’m going to leave it like this for now until I can come up with a more creative and less-offensive way of dissing this episode. [Nope, I'm leaving it in -- Dom]

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On the complete other end of the spectrum is Dungeons & Dragons & Bitches, a sketch from the comedy duo Key and Peele:

http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=01c_1353675432

Accuracy = A- Holy damn I wanted to grade this higher. The level of detail showed that this sketch was written with love, by a fan of the game. There were a few minor slip-ups, but no doubt these were done necessarily to punch up the jokes. They nailed the idea that giants are not typically played as PCs, and they riffed on alignment, which is probably one of the funniest aspects of D&D culture. There are allusions to the Inn of the Last Home, King Isildur, Gollum, and the Eye of Mordor. The gameplay was surprisingly solid, getting high marks for the DM stopping Kanye the Giant from slapping the hobbit-bartender and saying he has to roll to hit first. Also high marks for the DM trying (in vain) to regain control of his metagaming players. The only knocks are the use of hobbit in place of halfling (no doubt a casualty of the punch-up), the absence of character sheets, and the fact that they didn’t specify what race of giant Kanye was…which I think was a missed opportunity. There were also the same damage and initiative issues from TBBT, but I attribute that to the DM being flustered rather than an actual oversight.

Originality = A If you’re not watching Key and Peele regularly, then turn off your goddamn computer and start watching now. They’re the masters of the fish out of water sketch, and whereas the beats in The Big Bang theory were predictable and tired, they are delightfully fresh here. Tyrell is not mocking D&D, he’s embracing it and making it his own. The DM is not flustered because he’s socially awkward, but because his methods for asserting control are being circumvented within the restraints of the game system. He’s forced to adapt in an effort to maintain the integrity of the game, and he is stymied in those efforts as he butts heads with the unstoppable force that is Kanye the Giant. There are very few “D&D = nerd” jokes, other than Key’s nasally drone, but those sins can be forgiven. In all honestly, you’d expect a nerd dig in a sketch of this nature, especially as a contrast to Tyrell.

Comedic Value = A This sketch does everything right comedy-wise, and it’s masterfully understated. It was the most-requested repeat sketch from one of Key and Peele’s Reddit AMAs. Not sure what else to say here. These guys are hilarious.

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So there you have it. A navel-gazing look at how the world (or, at least, Hollywood) views role-playing games. With this series I’d like to delve into why such a rich, complex world has produced so many awful films and television series.

Next in the series I will tackle two sacred cows: Community and Futurama. How did those traditionally “friends to the nerd” shows handle the challenge of a Dungeons & Dragons episode? Stay tuned.

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Kickstarter progress!

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Hello friends!

As you undoubtedly know, since February 10th we’ve been running a Kickstarter campaign to create the first season of the Saving Throw webseries! Many of you have stepped forward and pledged your hard-earned dollars towards our goal. We’re now – as of this writing, at the half-way point in the campaign – $677 away from our goal. Still on the fence? Read on…

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OrcCon 2014 and more appearances this week!

Top of the mornin’ to ya! As Day 2 of the Saving Throw Kickstarter campaign gets underway I thought I’d let you know about some places you can find the Saving Throw team this week!

On Wednesday, February 12th, from 7pm-9pm, we’ll be on 1337LoungeLive to play video games (I think those are “electronic RPGs”) and chat with YOU. That’s right, you can interact with us live. We’ll be answering questions, chatting about Saving Throw, and kicking each other’s butts at Mario Kart. Tell your friends and join us! www.1337LoungeLive.com

This weekend Ivan, Mason, and I along with some other surprise friends will be at OrcCon 2014 here in Los Angeles. We’ll be hosting a couple panels as well as GMing a massive coordinated 25-player Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game! You’ve got to see this in action! Here’s a listing of the events, for more complete details head over to http://www.strategicon.net/

Saturday, February 15th
12:00pm – Character Creation panel for the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire system (1.5 hrs)
2:00pm – Star Wars: Rebel Rising – massive campaign written conceived by our very own Mason McDaniel. 5 GMs, 25 players, 6 hours!
8:00pm – Meet the cast of Saving Throw – we’ll be around to answer questions, we’ll do live commentary on the music video Just Give Me a d6 and chat about Saving Throw to your heart’s content! (1 hour)

Sunday, February 16th
12:00pm – System Neutral Character Creation – learn the in’s and out’s of making a workable character for any system. If you’ve ever built a character only to end up feeling like you’re “stuck” with it, this is the panel for you! (2 hours)

And of course, there’s always our website at www.savingthrowshow.com. Lots of articles on a variety of topics for you to peruse. Read about Tyler’s first time playing D&D, or Ivan’s first RPG experience. Check out character builds for a Tetori Monk or a space archaeologist. Lots of good stuff!

Lastly, thanks for sharing the campaign amongst your friends! Aiming to hit $2,500 before the end of the day.

LET’S DUNGEON!

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The Kickstarter Campaign Begins!

And lo, like some cheesy beginning to a 1st edition module, we come to you for help. Help producing the first season of SAVING THROW that is! Our first Kickstarter campaign is up, and like most campaigns it’s going to be arduous, risky, and someone might die via Rust Monster. OK, maybe not that last part but we could really use your support! Read on…

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Character Workshop – Dwarven Rogue Trapfinder

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Hello everyone! It’s time for another thrilling edition of The Character Workshop, the series where we detail some of our favorite builds and give you ideas for your own characters! In the last episode we discussed the Archaeologist specialization in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and before that the Tetori Monk as world-class wrestler! In this installment I’m going to talk about one of my favorite characters – the Dwarven Rogue Trapfinder using Pathfinder!

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Character Workshop: It’s Not NOT Indiana Jones

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Hey Folks,

Mason here to walk you through the creation of a Human Archaeologist not unlike Indiana Jones in the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire system. Now this is an alternate build for the Explorer class found in the newly released Enter the Unknown sourcebook from Fantasy Flight Games. We’re going to see exactly what it takes to make this character playable as well as what to do with your next 100 XP. Read more ›

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Just Give Me a d6 – A D&D Music Video

Merry Christmas from Saving Throw, and Happy Holidays to you all! Many of you have been wondering when we’d release the first video for Saving Throw. Well your wait is over. We have officially released our first ever music video based off of one of our gaming sessions. These practice sessions will eventually form the basis of our Saving Throw webseries in which we teach and explore RPGs for you!

Without further adieu, here’s “Just Give Me A d6.” Hit the “Read More” link for more info!

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