Posts Tagged With: role playing games

Top Secret – An RPG in Three Systems

Today, I’m going to have a look at one of the most famous espionage role-playing games ever made: Top Secret. While there have been others on the market (James Bond and Spycraft, for example), Top Secret is arguably the most famous, and the one for which I’ve seen the most nostalgia (though James Bond comes close).

What many players may not be aware of is that there have been three versions of Top Secret. The first one, published by TSR in 1980, was written and developed by Merle Rasmussen. The second version, Top Secret S/I, was developed by Douglas Niles and used a radically different system. The third version, developed by the new TSR’s staff in collaboration with Merle Rasmussen came out this past year and is known as Top Secret: New World Order.

While these three games share a genre, the systems are very different from one another and they each reflect what players of their eras think of when they think “spies.”

The original Top Secret seeks to emulate a more-or-less grounded-in-reality Cold War-era play style. To a modern player, reading the rules is a walk back through time, as it explains how to use a d20 that’s labeled 0-9 twice (which predate when I started playing in 1982). It basically uses a percentile system and character abilities are rated from 1-100, though due to modifiers applied at character creation, no starting PC will have a score of less than 26 in any given attribute. Secondary Traits are calculated using relatively simple algebra ((X+Y)/Z), and players roll for height, age, and glasses, though character handedness is determined by the player’s own handedness.

The game includes lots and lots of charts. A LOT of charts. Many many charts. The amount of charts isn’t really uncommon for complex games of that era, though they tend to make games like Top Secret and Cyborg Commando appear more complicated than they actually are (and the number of charts in both of those games makes AD&D look simple by comparison).

There are even charts for the types of missions and suggested experience point and rewards for those missions (which is actually pretty useful). Top Secret takes its role as an espionage RPG seriously and includes a listing of real world espionage organizations and a glossary of the lingo, which aging gamers nostalgic for this game may need magnifiers to read.

Top Secret rewards player savvy and genre literacy. I played it a couple of times as a kid when my only exposure to the spy genre was a couple of Sean Connery and Roger Moore James Bond films. I’m sure we played it wrong. I played it again with Merle Rasmussen at Gary Con several years ago. It still holds up, probably due to the timeless nature of the percentile-based play system.

Fast forward to the end of the decade. Roger Moore’s James Bond films had practically descended to self-parody, and while the Cold War still endured, technology had made huge leaps. Enter Top Secret S/I. While I have my suspicious why the system was so radically altered (it probably had something to do with paying royalties to Merle Rasmussen if they built upon his system without a certain percentage of changes), the game seems more willing to experiment with the system (though I’m not expert of the history of role-playing game system developments).

Top Secret S/I eschews the straight percentile roles for attributes, instead using d60 +10 (a d6 & d10 + 10), adds Advantages and Disadvantages and Lucky/Bad Breaks. The system sped combat up by utilizing only one roll to determine whether or not an attack was successful, damage dealt, and hit location. Players were able to modify the hit location depending on how skilled they were with the weapon they were using. Anecdotes available on the Internet suggest that this system could create strange, nonsensical results, but when I played it in the late ‘80s, I don’t recall that actually happened in practice.

Top Secret S/I was not nearly as chart happy as the original game and felt more like a high-stakes superspy game featuring supercar chases in exotic locations like Monaco (in fact, TSR release a Monaco-based boxed set: High Stakes Gambles). The PCs worked for a fictional (as far as a we know) agency called The Orion Foundation, and agents could use technology that existed just off in the near future. If Top Secret emulated films like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, then Top Secret S/I would be more suited to Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Super Agent Super Dragon, and the modern Mission Impossible films. You could, of course, dial down the action quotient for a more classic espionage feel in Top Secret S/I, but dialing up the system of the original Top Secret to support a high-octane super agent genre might require more work. Like its predecessor, it has an extensive glossary of genre terms and was well-supported by TSR at the time.

Finally, in 2018, a new TSR, collaborating with Merle Rasmussen, released Top Secret: New World Order. Using modern RPG design philosophies, the system (Lucky 13) was updated to resemble a cross between that used in Savage Worlds, and a dice pool system. Players assemble their pool of dice by taking the die assigned to their attribute, relevant skill, and relevant asset to beat 13. The Target Number is adjusted based on a marker moving along the Tension Track. PCs also have access to between one and six fortune points each session (generated and kept secret by the Administrator so they never know exactly when their luck will run out) which can adjust the outcome.

In Top Secret:  New World Order, PCs work for ICON, another fictional (as far as we know) espionage organization. The game acknowledges that the genre works well with a single agent, and supports 1 Player/1 GM game play, in addition to larger groups.

Top Secret: NWO does well to emulate both classic espionage scenarios and more high-octane adventures (think the Daniel Craig James Bond films). My experience playing this game is limited to play-test session at Gary Con, where I saw the game develop over the course of several years. The system is my favorite of the three, though players nostalgic for old-school espionage game play will likely prefer the original Top Secret. I prefer RPGs with modern layouts (yay for the numbered list summarizing character creation!) and modern mechanics. Top Secret: New World Order has the advantage of being currently available and published by a company working towards supporting it. If you want an older version of the game, you’ll be forced to the second-hand market and some materials are rare and pricey.


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Metamorphosis Alpha

Today, I’m looking at Goodman Games’s Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition reprint. This book collects a scan of the original printing of the first edition of TSR’s first sci-fi RPG (indeed, THE first sci-fi RPG) along with supporting magazine articles, essays and interviews, and an all-new adventure written by the creator of MA, James M. Ward. Through the Kickstarter, consumers could also receive all manner of supplements and adventures, but for the purposes of this post, I’m just looking at the core game book itself.

The game takes place on a generation ship, the starship Warden, centuries after a cataclysm rendered the original mission moot. The ship now continues on its way, cruising/drifting aimlessly, while factions within the ship, from humans, to mutants, to robots, androids, and other odd creatures, all struggle for survival, many of whom having forgotten long ago that the environs in which they live are a ship, rather than the known universe.

Metamorphosis Alpha was the first of Goodman Games’s nostalgia-driven reprints of classic TSR gaming material. Whether or not its success (and subsequent success of the Epsilon City expansion for this 40+ year-old game) was the catalyst for Into the Borderlands and The Isle of Dread is a question you’ll have to ask someone who works for Goodman Games. It seems logical to me.

The book is essentially a coffee table book containing a cleaned-up scan of the original Metamorphosis Alpha game. I believe it’s reproduced at 100% size, even still, the text is quite small. The included essays and interviews shed some light on the game’s history and the magazine articles flesh out MA in ways that expansions would have, had any ever been printed. Back in those days, Dragon magazine was considered official expansion material for TSR’s games, anyway.

Younger readers (i.e. people who weren’t gaming in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s) may be taken aback by the inclusion of rules for Physical and Mental Defects (the game’s terminology, not mine). They make sense in context and once you read it, you know what the author was going for. These days, different terminology would be used, perhaps Advantages and Disadvantages. Just be aware that games this old are a product of their time and people weren’t as “woke” as they are now.

In addition to the magazine articles, we also get official errata and supplemental material, much of which is written by James M. Ward himself, like the new creatures and NPCs, intended to be the “monster manual” of MA that was never published during the game’s heyday. Michael Curtis contributes a section of modern advice for running an MA game. Clearly, they’re aware that these early RPGs suffered from editors’ and companies’ learning curves as far as organization went. It took me three passes to find the single sentence buried in a paragraph that described how to generate ability scores. Nowhere that I could find offered a breakdown of the character creation process. It’s definitely a substantial barrier to entry for these games, though. Granted, someone buying this book from Goodman Games is probably not a neophyte player looking to get started with role-playing games.

As far as the Metamorphosis Alpha gameplay goes, I don’t think I’ve ever actually played the game as written. When I played in an MA game at Gary Con with James M. Ward, I got the sense he was playing very fast and loose with the rules. That’s not uncommon for games at conventions, especially if the GM is providing an “experience” more than a demonstration of a particular game. That’s fine. Based on that, playing MA is like Land of the Lost, only you find out you’re on a spaceship instead of some forgotten prehistoric valley. I suppose, in that sense, it’s not dissimilar from the Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (which is explicitly called out as an inspiration for MA).

Having said that, I think the premise for the game is solid. A GM certainly wouldn’t have to stick with primitives vs. robots/mutants. A few forgotten supply caches later and your stone tool-wielding PCs could have lasers and grenades (whether or not they know how to use them safely is a different matter entirely). MA’s premise reminded me of another game, West End Games’s Paranoia. In that, PCs live in a domed city, Alpha Complex) with no solid information of what lies beyond, being so ignorant they can’t even identify trees and common animals (and if they can, such knowledge marks them as a traitor, because how else would they have information so far above what their security clearance has access to?). I used this in the last Paranoia adventure I ran at Gary Con. In it, the PCs discover what is essentially a giant spaceship buried underneath the city. The intelligent roaches working on the ship provide the PCs with a choice: help them launch the ship and escape Alpha Complex or sabotage the ship, destroying it and a substantial portion of the city with it. If they launch the ship, it is revealed that it is, indeed, the Warden. The idea was, I would hang up my Paranoia GM’s hat for a bit and move on to running MA. That was two years ago and life has conspired to keep me from returning to that convention and adding another connection to the loosely-connected series of Paranoia adventures I’d been running for almost seven years.

MA influenced several other TSR products of the day. Gamma World (the first edition, anyway) is basically “MA on a planet,” and S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, an AD&D adventure from the early ‘80s, featured a crashed spaceship in a fantasy world that greatly resembled a scaled-down Warden. TSR clearly had no compunctions about mixing genres. The early days of roleplaying games was a gonzo, anything-goes experience at times and the game was not nearly as “pure” as some players blinded by nostalgia would have you believe. The only wrong way to play is the way in which you and your friends are not having fun.

If you want a more in-depth look at this product, there is currently a “Where-I-Read” thread on covering this product.

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The Isle of Dread

X1: The Isle of Dread… not quite as iconic as B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, but most players who started playing with B/X or BECMI are familiar with it. Like The Keep on the Borderlands, it was included in the Expert set boxes and was intended to show DMs how to run wilderness adventures.

As a sandbox, it doesn’t have much of a plot, per se. It’s an environment. Oh, there are hooks to get the PCs there, and most PCs, especially back in the days when treasure gave you XP, didn’t need much of a reason beyond “There’s treasure over there!” to go adventuring. Rory Barbarosa’s letter speaking of a great black pearl was all most groups needed to explore the Isle of Dread.

Goodman Games has re-printed this classic wilderness adventure in a hardbound tome containing three versions of the adventure: the first printing, the fourth printing, and a 5E update.

The differences between the 1st and 4th printings are less subtle than those in The Keep on the Borderlands. Mostly, some encounters have been replaced to make them more sensible. When I read that, the first thing I did was flip to the most infamous encounter to my home group: the flooded temple on Taboo Island. In it, several members fell prey to albino mako sharks. Saltwater fish, in a flooded temple on top of a mile-high plateau several hundred miles from the coast. That encounter has been changed (I had no idea there were multiple versions I ran it; I don’t think I have a first printing, but my copy is from the first three printings before the encounters were updated). Losing two characters to WTF sharks?? so demoralized the party, they retreated back to a village where one of the surviving PCs retired completely and it more-or-less rang the death knell for that campaign.

The meat of the module is unchanged between the three copies. There are still several unique tribes of creatures on the isle, from the arachnid Aranea, to the monkey-raccoon Phanatons, to the Lovecraftian Kopru, and more. Whether or not these tribes are friendly, hostile, or indifferent is up to the PCs’ approach and the DM (except the Kopru, those dudes are evil… but don’t let that stop you from joining the cult of an Elder God and taking over the world). There are dinosaurs, random encounters of the “OH CRAP, RUN!” variety (which kills many PCs because running is anathema to many players), environmental hazards, and mysteries.

Goodman’s 5E update preserves all of these, and provides more guidelines for use of the random encounters. For many groups back in the day (especially us young, self-taught groups), a random encounter was synonymous with random combat. So, if that die roll indicated a Wild Black Dragon appeared, then you were fighting a black dragon, even if you were woefully under leveled. If the DM was nice, they might let you run away. A lot of DMs weren’t nice (hence the reputation of Old School play for being adversarial Player vs. DM).

One thing I should point out, and this holds true for Into the Borderlands, too, is that while the original versions of these adventures printed in these books are cleaned up scans of the original (nicely cleaned up, in fact–that’s a lot of work), the 5E updates have good-sized print and are easy to read. My aging eyes really appreciate that.

Next month, at Gary Con, it’s expected Goodman Games will announce the next volume in their Original Adventures Reincarnated line. I’m having trouble thinking of any more BECMI adventures that are as iconic as B1, B2, and X1, but I look forward to the announcement (even though I won’t be there myself to hear it). Personally, I would LOVE to see an update of the AD&D adventures EX1: Dungeonland and EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (actually, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to work on that, because adore the Alice in Wonderland stories and wrote several papers on them in school, and I LOVE those adventures; I’ve worked one or both of them into campaigns I’ve run for just about every group of my adult life; and yes, that’s a hint if anyone from Goodman Games reads this :p).

I have one more Goodman Game’s reprint to showcase here: Metamorphosis Alpha. I’ll be reading that next, then… who knows? Something fun, something classic, something cool.

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I’m still here

My Tomb of Annihilation game didn’t fade away; we missed a couple of sessions due to illness running around the group. Then, my wife’s sinus infection didn’t get better (my wife plays Baersora). The fevers didn’t subside.

They drew blood. They did MRIs, more blood, CAT scans, more blood, a bone survey, more blood (over 50 vials in all). For four months, a fever of 102°F+ every day. Just before Christmas, we got the dreaded diagnosis: diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (non-Hodgkins). It was confirmed by a biopsy and a PET scan  that lit up her lymph nodes like a Christmas tree.

She got her infusion port implanted (she’s a cyborg now!) and on Dec. 21st my wife endured her first chemotherapy. Merry Christmas. They were still waiting on the results of a FISH test to determine whether or not she had a double-hit or triple-hit lymphoma which would change her one-day every three weeks chemotherapy (using the R-CHOP regimen) to a five-day in-patient every three weeks (EPOCH). Yesterday, the result of that test came back: NEGATIVE.

So, with a MASSIVE load off our shoulders, we prepare for her second out-patient chemotherapy in two days. Due to a variety of factors, the game is on hiatus until she’s past this (or she tells me she feels well enough to continue, which, I suspect, won’t happen until after her chemotherapy is finished.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading Goodman Games’s Into the Borderlands and posting my thoughts about it on Twitter. Once I’ve finished that, I’ll compile them into a blog post for this site and then move on to The Isle of Dread.

Look for my Into the Borderlands post this weekend or early next week.

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Tomb of Annihilation – Session 10

After a week of travel or so, the group finally made their way across the marshy basin, finally arrived at the Heart of Ubtao. At first glance, there did not appear to be a way to ascend and explore the floating earthmote. A elf woman called down to them from above, inquiring as to their identities and purpose, then invited them up with an arcane doorway. She introduced herself as Valindra Shadowmantle. Sobek’s superior sense immediately identified her as undead and he was able to detect several others behind a closed door, as well. Valindra was interested only in talking, however, and told the group she, at the behest of her master, sought a relic in the jungle called the Soulmonger. Even now, she had minions searching for it, though she suspected it might be someone in the vicinity of Omu. Our heroes confirmed that they were headed for Omu and she seemed pleased as her minions had not yet investigated the lost city.

Sobek relayed to Baersora in Draconic that the woman was, in fact, undead disguised to appear living, and Baersora shared the information with her brother and Nali in Dwarven. At this, Valindra revealed that she spoke both Draconic and Dwarven and suggested they take this opportunity to part way peacefully, unless they intended to attack her. Despite Sobek’s misgivings about leaving undead undestroyed, they decided she was likely very powerful, perhaps a lich, and took advantage of her offer to part ways peacefully. She opened another arcane doorway for them to reach the jungle floor and bid them good fortune in their travels.

A few days after leaving the Heart of Ubtao, they veered of course from Omu to investigate something else they spotted while on top of M’bala. Lodged in the trees, about halfway between the Heart of Ubtao and Omu was a ship. A voice called down to them, asking for help, then shouted a warning as a corrupting ooze, a purple slime, and a mold zombie emerged from the surrounded muck. They fought off the oozes and undead to the gratitude of the marooned crew in the branches above. Their ship had crashed in the tree tops and they were injured, unable to descend and now, without food for four days. Sobek and Herrick worked to get everyone up into the ship where the captain, a cat-man (perhaps a Tabaxi) introduced himself as Captain Ra-Jareez*.

Their ship was a Spelljammer. He explained, in brief, how it flew and that their helmsman caught a tree branch through his face. Sobek shared some of his food with the remaining crew and they discussed how best to get down and back to civilization. Ra-Jareez was not keen on hiking through the jungle for weeks to reach Sasserine and eventually came up with an idea to build a raft out of the wreckage and attach the spelljamming helm to that. Unfortunately, they had no one to pilot the vessel. Ri-Tikki Stargazer perked up and suggested perhaps HE could learn to fly it. Ra-Jareez thought this was an excellent idea and gladly accepted the Kenku’s offer of aid.

After saying farewell to Ri-Tiki Stargazer, they proceeded uneventfully for another week or so, losing track of time as the days ran into one another until at long last, they approached the Lost City of Omu.

* The Wreck of the Star Goddess was originally a Halruaan sky ship. However, since I set Tomb of Annihilation in the World of Greyhawk instead of the Forgotten Realms, that really didn’t work for me. Personally, I think it should’ve been a crashed Spelljammer all along, so I just changed it. How did Ra-Jareez get another ship of his own and part ways with Captain Straxius and Sea of Stars, and how did he crash it in the Amedio Jungle? Well, that’s a story for another time. If you didn’t keep up with my Spelljammer game here, Ra-Jareez is not a Tabaxi, but is, in fact, a Nkosi from Midgard. He’s still an unlucky scoundrel, however.

Switching jungle travel to narrative mode was something I should have done several sessions ago, particularly when it became clear that the Gloomwalker Ranger Sobek’s class/racial abilities made overland travel in the jungle trivial (they cannot become lost and he automatically finds food and clean water). Moving, cat death, Gen Con, and new cat** provided enough of a distraction that I didn’t think of it until just last week. Things should progress much more meaningfully now. Plus, next session, they’ll be in Omu. Won’t that be exciting? (No spoilers if you’ve played/read it!)

** Yes, new cat. We adopted a kitten three weeks ago. He was born on May 4th (Star Wars Day!) so we renamed him Bendu. Our little Bendu bears little resemblance to the Tom Baker-voiced character in Star Wars Rebels, however. He spends our game nights going from person to person, wanting snuggles.

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Tomb of Annihilation – Session 9

The hiatus lasted longer than we intended due to player absences, but at long last, we have returned to the Tomb of Annihilation! When we last left our heroes, they had just discovered a secret passage leading out of a large chamber full of cat imagery (cat statues, cat murals, etc. etc.). Down they go…

The cramped passageway lead into a hallway containing multiple doors, after find a false door hiding a trap, they tried the double doors at the center. Beyond those lay a city in miniature, with rivers of molten silver. Despite the liquid metal flowing through the room, the air was chilled. Herrick stepped in and was immediately engulfed in flame, the victim of a trap. After tending to Herrick’s wounds, the group figured out the best way to explore the room and took the opportunity to claim some loot and recover from their trials so far.

After that, they tried the last door in the hallway and stumbled into a trap that teleported them back into the deep passages they already explored, they spent an hour or so retracing their steps to the cat room, where they chose a different door. This led them to a collapsing room with a great number of agitated baboons and a hole in the ceiling leading outside. Sobek calmed the primates and with the aid of Herrick’s slippers of spider climbing, they escaped the hidden shrine, choosing the jungle above over further exploration of the buried temple.

Unfortunately, the partially devoured carcass of their triceratops rotted as evidence of an undead hoard having passed over them while they were in the shrine. They gathered what supplies they could and proceeded into the jungle on foot.

So, I skipped an encounter with a doppelganger that would have totally killed Herrick (he was down to 1 HP after the fire trap). Mostly, because I did not want to adjudicate a combat by notes or by having everyone else leave the room (the layout of the upstairs where the game room is makes that impractical). Plus, I didn’t want to introduce an element of one of the PCs being replaced by a shapeshifter at this point.

They were specifically supposed to be unable to exit the underground complex via that room with the collapsed ceiling and baboons, but when they have the tools to make it work and there’s no non-arbitrary reason to allow it, then you have to go with it. Frankly, I don’t even mind, despite all the really interested stuff being skipped, because they earned the gear that they used to get out and it was a good use of their abilities (abilities most PCs did NOT have when that particular adventure was written).

It’s pretty clear at this point that no one (even me) is interested in sandbox jungle exploration, particular with the time limit imposed by the adventure (I’ve spoken about this problem at length in previous posts), so I think I’m going to switch the weeks of jungle hiking to narrative mode.

Hopefully, we’ll get back on track now and be able to have many consecutive sessions of adventures.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Five: SHARE… something you learned about playing your character

I usually GM for my group, but over the last several years of playing, I have learned a valuable lesson: don’t play talky, charismatic characters. I’m not a good improvisor and I feel neither comfortable nor convincing playing a smooth-talking character. Sauve, slick-talk coming from me sounds about as natural as an oral bowel movement.

From now on, I’m sticking to techs, pilots, and fighters (whether they fight with swords, magic, fists, or guns). No smooth-talking con men, slick politicians, or diplomatic leaders.

I mean, have you heard about the plight of the Duros people?

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RPG-a-Day – Week Five: SHARE… a friendship you have because of RPGs

I could handle this like a Follow Friday on Twitter and just list the social media handles of my friends I met because of RPGs, but that would be a gargantuan list. Since I’ve been playing RPGs since I was eight years old, they’ve been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember and the vast majority of my friendships can be attributed to RPGs. It would be easier for me to list friends I have that I met because of some other reason. Chief among this non-RPG attributed friendship would be the one I share with my wife. But, she plays RPGs now, too, so there’s hardly a corner of my social life that isn’t touched by RPGs in some way.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Five: SHARE… whose inspiring gaming excellence you’re grateful for

My answer for this ties in with yesterday’s post. Ironically… paradoxically… strangely? I’m thankful for Critical Role, Wil Wheaton, and others like them who serve as such great ambassadors of the hobby. I may not listen to, watch, or even like actual plays and livestreams of games, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize how important they are to helping millions of people understand this hobby I’ve enjoyed most of my life.

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RPG-a-Day 2018 – Week Five: SHARE… a great stream/actual play

I don’t feel comfortable making recommendations about this, because I don’t watching RPG livestreams or actual plays. Why? Because I don’t particularly like them.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’re not good; it just means they’re not for me. I, personally, don’t find it particularly enjoyable to watch other people play a game. I enjoyed Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series. I thought it did a good job explaining how the featured board games worked. Critical Role is hugely popular and has made RPG fans of people who don’t actual play the games themselves. They’ve done a great job of bringing awareness of the hobby mainstream. Obviously, a lot of people enjoy watching livestreams or RPG actual plays and/or find something of value in them.

I suppose they could be good at figuring out how a system works, but I think you’d have to either watch a lot of them or you’d have to scour the feeds to find one that actually sets out to explain the system. Maybe that’s easier than I think; I’ve never looked because thus far, it’s not something I’ve needed to do. Perhaps the next time I decide to run a game that I’m not all that familiar with, I’ll look up some actual plays/livestreams of the system and see if I can answer that question for myself.

I still don’t think I’m going to enjoy watching other people play a game as much as many other people do, though. It’s just not my jam.

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