Welcome to Tavern Talk Thursday! This is a weekly column where we chat with a member of the TTRPG (tabletop role-playing game) community to learn more about how they found themselves at the table, what they love about tabletop gaming and other fun things. Think of it as a little sneak peeks into the minds of our fellow players and DMs.
Another week, another trip to the tavern. This week we chatted with actor, teacher, writer, game designer and native Oregonian who is a quarter Scottish Canadian – Joseph Limbaugh. He runs the game company Postcard Games, where he designs games on postcards. When he isn’t acting in TV series like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Scrubs, and Desperate Housewives, playing TTRPGs with friends in castles, or chatting on his podcast, I F*ing Love Whisky, he is bringing the Blackbirds RPG to life. Keep reading to learn more about RPG and Joseph’s love of the TTRPG community.
Julia Roth: Let’s chat your TTRPG backstory! How did you find yourself at the table?
Joseph Limbaugh: I am old. So I started playing DnD in the 80s with a bunch of older dudes in Portland who were original napoleonics grognards. It’s a group that gets a lot of negative attention these days because the most outspoken people who identify as old-school players are problematic, but the club I went to was actually pretty diverse and liberal. From there, I became obsessed with everything RPG, and I pretty much have things in my collection from then until now. Also, I’m a theater kid, so it just made sense.
JR: Favorite world to adventure in?
JL: Probably 1920s Arkham. I have had a long-standing adoration of the Call of Cthulhu RPG for decades. Probably be remiss if I didn’t also mention Erebos (which is not the world, but a continent on that world) from the Blackbirds RPG.
JR: Favorite one-shot adventure?
JL: There is a scenario in Arkham Unveiled called The Condemned, which I have run on multiple occasions. It has all the good Lovecraftian tropes; possession by an undead sorcerer, Arkham historical lore, researching things in a library to succeed, a mysterious and complicated magical seal, and a book that messes you up if you read it.
JR: Backstory or class first?
JL: I’m agnostic. To me, the most important thing is who you are playing with. Always play with people who entertain you (and make sure you are entertaining them).
JR: Favorite spell and why?
JL: There’s a spell in Blackbirds (we call them Vitiations because our spells are perversions of the natural order) called Tale of Calumny. Basically, you start a magically enhanced rumor about someone, and it spreads until it gets back to them, and then you can use it when you encounter them to shit-talk them into failing. Also, there’s another one called Feast of Words, where you eat a book and can recall everything written in it. I like weird spells that do things I wish I could actually do in this world.
JR: Can you give us some background on how Blackbirds RPG came to be?
JL: It is a version of Ryan Verniere‘s campaign world that he originally based on Dark Souls and Berserk. You would have to ask him to get a more detailed answer about that, but I was brought in to create the magic system, Theurgy. We are friends, and he asked me to pitch him a magic system for the game, and I wrote up an essay about the system I had been thinking about for decades that I had hoped to one day use in something. Kind of my dream magic system. It was heavily influenced by the Stormbringer RPG from the 80s and medieval books that gave catalogs of demons, their names and powers. Internally we started calling it a demon dating simulator.
JR: Who has been your favorite character to play?
JL: There’s a character that I played in an improvised stage show that I ended up bringing to the table as an NPC called Vincent Trask. He’s a dark character from a Star Trek-type universe imprisoned for blowing up an entire solar system with a star bomb and killing trillions of sentient.
When the players meet him, he’s been released under a sort of permanent house arrest and has an electronic collar that’s supposed to prevent him from performing violence. Then there are just all these questions about if he really blew up a solar system and what his actual motivations are. I like characters with many mysterious backstories that can be discovered during the game. Really I just love story hooks.
JR: Do you have a particular race/class you enjoy?
JL: I am a fan of Jötunnkin from Blackbirds. They fulfill the fantasy of being a giant, Wookie or bigfoot type character, so they are very tough and hard to kill, but at the same time, Fate has decided that it has moved on from them, so they are destined to die and don’t have the usual safeguards preventing player death. I guess I like tragic stories or doomed characters. As far as class, I’m a big fan of wizards of all types.
JR: Is there something that you build into every character? A fun trait or a special item?
JL: I always want a mystery that can be discovered during play. I might have some ideas about what the answer might be, but I’m also happy to discover it or have someone else figure it out—a potential narrative.
JR: What is your favorite system to play within?
JL: I should say Blackbirds, and I do love it, but it would probably be Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green (which is really a flavor of Call of Cthulhu). I love horror role-play, and I like games where the characters are in actual peril and need to use their brains to solve a problem because the thing they are up against is cosmic horror in scope.
JR: Tell us about the wildest adventure you have been on?
JL: DnD in a Castle. I got paid to travel to a castle in England, live there for several days, and run a short DnD campaign. I’ll be there again in November… you should join me!
Play D&D in a Castle The ultimate D&D vacation. 4 days and nights. You, 5 players and a world-class DM. 8 hours a day of unforgettable adventuring in a private room in a real English fortress. Eat. Sleep. Roll Dice. In a Castle https://t.co/X2fH2y3Tm0 pic.twitter.com/UzBtozrbhP
— D&D in a Castle (@dndinacastle) April 24, 2023
JR: What has been your most impactful moment at a table?
JL: I was running a Cthulhu campaign called Shadows of Yog Sothoth, the antagonist of the campaign is a villain named Carl Stanford, and at the end of the campaign, he is defeated. I extended the campaign to add a bunch of my own content. At one point, the players traveled back in time to thwart a summoning of Cthulhu; they stopped the cultist from doing the ritual sacrifice but killed him with a knife, spilling the blood needed and summoning Cthulhu themselves.
As they were escaping, they saved some people who had witnessed the event, including a young boy who they discovered was named Carl Stanford. And seeing Cthulhu had driven him insane. They were responsible for creating their own antagonist. None of this was planned. I honestly didn’t know it was going to go down like that, and I was as surprised as the players.
JR: How has your history in improv affected your playstyle?
JL: I was trained by Keith Johnstone, sort of an improv guru and amazing teacher who always emphasized storytelling. He passed away recently, unfortunately. I think a lot of people in the RPG and acting spaces talk about improv, but I think you will find very few who were trained by Keith or apply his theories with the same obsession that I do. He really showed me things about narrative that I am still unpacking.
JR: Favorite dice to use?
JL: I like metal dice. They are satisfyingly clickity clackity.
JR: Would you rather face off against an entire dungeon of undead or charm your way through a royal court?
JL: Charm, baby! 100%
JR: Favorite TTRPG Monster?
JL: I mean, I wrote it, so this is going to seem a bit self-aggrandizing, but the basilisk from Blackbirds is the one. It’s based on the Roko’s Basilisk thought experiment. I won’t go into Roko’s Basilisk (if you don’t know what it is, you should look it up), but the way my basilisk works is you can’t perceive it unless you know what it looks like, but once you do know what it looks like it will stalk you to the ends of the earth. It’s a very horror movie, sort of beast.
JR: Good luck charms or rituals before a game?
JL: I like to set up the space in advance. Snacks are important. I’m not really superstitious.
JR: Who is sitting at your dream table?
JR: What are you most looking forward to within the TTRPG world?
JL: Things being made into movies and TV shows. I want to see a Call of Cthulhu TV show or movie set in Arkham in the 1920s, maybe even based on Shadows of Yog Sothoth. Other properties that I would love to watch content of – Delta Green, Blackbirds, Traveller, and Paranoia.
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