The Seven-Sided Die

Innocence is bliss, sorta kinda

Posted Sunday September 14, 2008 at 06:18 PM

I ran a game of D&D 4th edition shortly after the books were released, and I badly mangled that abortive campaign.

I want to say that the books made me do it, and I have good reason to think so, but the blame is mine for letting them. Let me explain.

If you're a roleplayer today you probably started when you were a teenager. Not even an older teenager, but probably around 13 or 14 years old. Kids, really. That's when I started running D&D. The funny thing about ageing is that you gain experience. The thing about having experience is that you constantly use it, and understand the world through the lens of a great big pile of lessons hard-won. This, by itself, has the power to utterly destroy the imagination, if it's allowed to.

Our imaginations were on fire when we were young, and the fires are now banked, under control, and burning evenly for our adult use. As such we're much better at perceiving with accuracy, say, what's in an RPG rulebook. What we're less good at than we once were is filling in the blanks with utterly creative nonsense.

I assert that the enjoyability of D&D (in its various incarnations) is not due to it being a good system with good settings. Rather, it is just enough mechanics and evocatively-colourful setting to inspire that kind of fertile imagination that is endemic to young adulthood.

That game of 4th edition D&D I ran, I ran by the book. I believed, from previous experience, that I could just run D&D "as written" and it would be an enjoyable game. This belief set me up for a really disappointing series of games, though. 4th edition is bare mechanics with a few impurities called "flavour text" that don't really amount to a consistent assumed setting. The mechanics are all about how to vanquish obstacles and thereby get the mechanically-quantised character advancement objects (levels and magic items). There's nothing explicitly provided for creating good stories, immersive simulations, or satisfying game-type challenges. Since I was running the game "as written", none of that came out in play.

I'll say that again: RPG books are incomplete, and not nearly as full of awesome as you thought they were when you were younger.

If I'd been younger, I'd have automatically thrown in a whole bunch of things in addition, and it would have been lots of fun. I would have done it because I would have believed that "that's how the books say to play the game", but I would have been wrong. The "awesome" always did come from us, the players, not the game.

Having quantified knowledge of RPG theory makes it clearer to me when a gaming element isn't an explicit part of a rules set, but it also means that my intuition is inhibited from filling it in. Now that I know "better" as a gamer, there's all kinds of stuff I don't get for free anymore.

On the plus side this means that I have better tools to create a consistent quality of play for myself and those who game with me. When I was younger I had those sessions that "just sucked" without knowing what went wrong, which were all too frequent in among the awesome sessions. Having critical knowledge of how we create play is a tool I wouldn't trade away, but it does mean that I need to be conscious, in a way I didn't need to as a young GM, of how I develop the fictional elements that makes everything else fun.

Comments (12)

Callan S.

Monday September 15, 2008 at 02:22 AM

I think it's worth considering that when you were young, you were actually forming in terms of what you actually like.

It may not have been that the stuff was innately awesome, but rather that stuff happened, then in a room of excited friends, that thing became awesome to you as your mind formed to like it.


Monday September 15, 2008 at 05:22 AM

That's a good point about forming. What I like in play now is much more rigid than it was when I was younger, even if I have a better intellectual grasp on what that is. Having a more fluid feel for what kind of play I liked then probably contributed to the hit-and-miss nature of the sessions, as well as just plain lack of judgement.

For your second point, I don't necessarily think that the "awesome" that came from us back then was innately awesome. A lot of what I thought was cool as a 14 year old would be trite or just juvenile now. Although, there is something to be said for letting silly ideas out into the shared imaginative space, so long as everyone is playing at the same level of silly. You're right that the key is having everyone being creative and riffing off each other.

Wednesday September 17, 2008 at 02:15 AM

Hmm, thinking on it, it might be something to consider that the ability to, amongst excited and supportive friends, start liking, or trying out liking some new element or thing, is part of it, like you did at 13.

Ie, it's not just about being creative and riffing - it's also about the listening. Part of the fun of the activity would involve trying something to see if it's fun. If 'trying new things to see if their fun' is not a fun thing for someone, they really can't participate.

Not any old thing, though, anymore. As adults we know alot of stuff we like and don't like, and as adults we know that a game that gives any old thing will most likely give something we don't like. Probably sooner than latter! Perhaps that's why were seeing more focused games these days (ie, dogs in the vineyard, prime time adventures, my life with master - all of these cover a specific zone, rather than trying to give any and every old thing).


Wednesday September 17, 2008 at 01:55 PM

I hadn't thought of that. So, not only are our creative habits more "tuned" to what we like, but we're also more conservative about what we're willing to try.

That seems to match what I've read about some gaming groups: as adults, our gaming time is so restricted that many groups have players with no patience for anything that isn't focused, tried-and-true fun.

It makes me think of the "death spiral" that is part of the wound mechanics of some games, where a character gets less and less effective as they fail more, and hence fail and get wounded at an accelerated pace once they have just a little bit of bad luck. A gamer who is really resistant to trying new things—whether new genres, systems, or just trying out new fictional elements in a familiar game—are in danger of getting onto a "what I like spiral" that becomes increasingly specific and uncompromising.

I wonder what sort of choices takes a gamer farther away and closer to that spiral? Certainly a willingness to try new games would help, but I've seen so many gamers try a new game only to play it like the old one. That works fine if the genre and play paradigm of the new game is sufficiently similar, but doesn't work well when it isn't.

Thursday September 18, 2008 at 10:26 AM

True, but I think the key word is that they 'try' new things. That would mean that if they don't like any of the new things, its acceptable. It's the trying that is the fun thing of the activity - the fun thing isn't finding something fun, if you get what I mean.

I agree your spiral probably is often the case. But as much as some people will never like something new, it still needs to be acceptable if a player finds absolutey nothing fun and that they tried that was the fun thing. If it seems predictable that they will always do this - I guess you just stop playing with them.


Friday September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Thanks, I needed to be told that. I've been so invested in getting other players to "see the light" with indie games and Nar play that I've been ignoring that taste is going to be a huge factor. Some of the reluctance to play a game will be because it's different, and some will be because it's being played with a paradigm that doesn't make the game's engine run well, but even more will be liking or disliking the new elements a game uses.

And, that reminds me of something my wife mentioned about a short game I ran a while ago using Story Engine. She said that she really enjoyed it, and implied that getting back to it would be fun. I, on the other hand, remember that game as being a difficult time because I felt I was doing all the heavy lifting.

Looking at it again in the light of her comment then and yours now, I have to realise that much of my difficulty was with idealistic expectations of how the game would run. Given that we only played two sessions of that campaign and all of us were learning a new ruleset, it actually went really well.

Sunday September 21, 2008 at 11:17 PM

Yeah. I think here it comes down to just enjoying the act of trying new things, rather than whether you enjoy or don't enjoy the new things themselves. It's good if someone enjoys the new things, but the fun of the activity is the trying.


Monday September 22, 2008 at 05:01 PM

...And of course, not everyone is going to enjoy trying new things for the sake of it. I do usually, but I know it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, or at least not their most important idea of what's fun about a night of gaming.

I miss being able to say "hey, let's try this new game" and just start playing. I think that's more the fault of adult schedule though.

Tuesday September 23, 2008 at 09:42 AM

Well, now you can articulate that it's trying new things for the fun of trying, your better off because you can communicate and organise it better. I think everyone can enjoy this, if you give them say a week or two notice before the trying session, where they can think about whether they go or not, its got a good chance of sinking in during those weeks. When people mull over ideas for awhile, they often become more appealing to them, I think :)


Wednesday September 24, 2008 at 03:45 PM

Can you recommend any games that are good for introducing groups to non-trad play?

I'm currently looking at Burning Wheel and The Shadow of Yesterday (or its underlying Solar System ruleset). Not having ever run them before, I don't know how easy or hard they are to get the hang of.

I'm thinking too of supplementing our regular game night with a once-a-month "come try a one-shot of something different", just so that I can get a chance to play many of the indie games I've been reading. Are there any games that you've found work particularly well as one-shots? I'm thinking of Shadows, Trollbabe, shock:, and Hoard for those. (Though, I'm not sure how to run Trollbabe for more than one person, so I'll probably save it for when I get only one interested player.)

Thursday September 25, 2008 at 11:13 AM

Sorry, I'm in Australia, where there aren't alot of indie games on sale.

I think something slim, that you can lend them to read. If they actually read it, they are inclined to trying something new in terms of reading, atleast :)

Also, someone else might be interested in GMing trollbabe - you could have two games going at the same time or whatever :)

Sorry, I've not been very helpful in this regard. :(

Anyway, stress the 'try' - they aren't just trying, the fun of the activity is to try. If they like the game, that's a bonus. Even if they don't, the fun of the activity is to have tried. It's like trying new exotic beers - sure you might not like any of them, but the trying is the fun bit! It's not about sitting down with a beer that you love, it's about enjoying trying to find new love, hehe!


Friday September 26, 2008 at 05:06 PM

Good idea. I hadn't considered the length of the ruleset, just its complexity. I have the digital copy of Trollbabe, so I can make spiral-bound copies for players and prospective GMs.

IPR has a group-set of Solar System that I'm considering. It's $20 for five copies, enough for most groups. It's a nice short set of rules. I know it's available online, but I've found people are more likely to read a hard copy of something that I hand them than a digital one I just link them to.