Friday, August 30, 2013

By the Numbers

Picture GMing as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the "gaming" end, where all the dice-rolling, rules-following, and adventure-prepping is. On the other end is the "storytelling" end, where the improvising, player interaction, and collaborative world-building is.

Following this blog's emergin motif of balance, I believe the best GMs lay right in the mid-point of that spectrum. I think a good GM knows when to crack the book open, and knows when to slam it shut.

As a GM, I find myself a little too far on the "storytelling" end of the spectrum. I seek to correct that.

This weekend, I am playing D&D, 4th edition. I'm starting a campaign that will take players from 1st to 30th level. My personal goal is I want to try hard and follow the rules and the text of the adventure as much as I can. I think it will make me a better GM in the long run if I can learn to embrace that "gaming" end of the spectrum.

Now, before a bunch of people start telling me "it's not ALL about following the rules", let me remind you all that I consider myself on the STORYTELLING end of the spectrum. Knowing when NOT to follow the rules is something I have down cold.

Looking back on this past year of gaming, I can think of multiple instances where I simply chucked the rules in a drawer and just went with it. The most notable time I did this was at the "Taste of Fate Core" mini-con event a month or two ago. My players were vampire hunters chasing down vampires who hid inside of a Wal-Mart during its annual Black Friday sale. I could have busted out all kinds of Aspects, invoked and compelled shit like mad, drew up a map of the store and ran a conflict on getting these guys...but I didn't. The "vibe" felt like I should just let the players tell ME what was going on, and I simply acted as the vampires. Every once and awhile, I'd have the players roll the Fate Dice, and I'd base what happened next on how good or bad the roll was.

Though the players had a blast, I was really upset with myself. I barely even rolled the dice that afternoon. In a game as rules-lite as Fate Core, I still couldn't be bothered to run by any but the most basic of the rules.  I felt like the whole point of the event was to put the game in the spotlight, not myself and my free-wheeling storytelling. In that, I failed.

So I'm putting myself back into the "development league." I want to treat this Sunday's game of D&D as a traditional, orthodox RPG experience, where the dice are hot, the soda is cold, and I read that narrative flavor text with as much suspensful melodrama as I can muster!

The D20 Dynasty

Ah, the d20 System. First introduced in 2000 in the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the d20 System marked the beginning of a new era...the age of unity, the age of universal mechanics. Yes, universal mechanics (like GURPS, or the Storyteller/World of Darkness d10 system) were not uncommon at all, but it wasn't until the 800-lb. gorilla called D&D started using the d20 that the idea caught on with "mainstream" role-playing.

It wasn't just the "brand" though, that made the d20 catch on. It was also the OGL, or "Open Gaming License." Basically, the rules for the d20 System were free to obtain and use in anything you wanted. That was a far rarer phenomenon (though again not the first; see the FUDGE system). This meant any Tom, Dick, & Harry Game Company could make a roleplaying game, use the d20 system, and make money. The players won, because they got fresh new content using a familiar mechanic, and the designers won because they didn't have to design, playtest, and analyze a whole new game system.

Flash-forward 13 years later. The d20 System is still around, and still powering some of the biggest names in the industry. D&D, now on its 4th edition, continues to use the d20 System, albeit in a slightly different form. Every other day, it seems DriveThruRPG.com has some new products that some garage designer made for d20. The market is flooded with d20 OGL stuff. And the fatigue has set in.

Nowadays, d20 has become a bit of a polarizing entity. Mention the system, and people will either think it's the best thing to ever happen to the hobby or the worst. Crazy thing is, they're both right. The hobby as it exists today was practically built on the back of the d20 System. It's led to stagnation in some, content to just keep cranking out books using the same old material, and innovation in others, looking to make a name for themselves as "Not That Other Game!"

I tend to find the best of all worlds within the middle of the two extremes. Systems that build on that solid d20 foundation, but verge off in meaningful ways carry a lot of appeal for me. They're familiar, but fresh and baggage-free. Notably, 13th Age and Numenera have both just come out, and they both have done this to a remarkable degree. Both systems are solidly d20-based, but both diverge towards a more free-flowing, narrative-oriented style that traditional d20 never catered all that much to.

Hardcore fans of narrative-heavy systems like FATE may scoff at the "innovations" that these two games bring to the table, but the subtle shift in design in these games should not be underestimated. Just the other day, a player in the D&D 4th edition game I'm running this Sunday sent me a 600 word write-up of her character's backstory. It was really great stuff, and the player definitely put some real thought into it. My first thought as I read it was "Whoa! This would gel beautifully with 13th Age's One Unique Thing concept!" As it is, though, we're playing D&D, and I'll be hard-pressed to make any of this backstory fit in anywhere meaningfully with the adventure as written.

Anyways, I don't mean to condemn D&D, or the traditional d20 System. Far from it. I just think the dynasty created by this system is extraordinary, and though it's easy to look at wild alternatives for change, I think it's the subtle changes that, in time, may be the most significant influence on the hobby's evolution.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Can a Game Be Too Awesome?

Yesterday, I ran a first adventure for Dungeon World. The idea was, as is the case with typical DW first adventures, to get a whole pile of ideas from the players and turn them into a campaign, with fronts and adventure seeds and all of that, while explaining the system and trying out a bunch of moves.

I started the adventure with the PCs on a magical, floating barge headed to a lost city floating in the clouds. I then besieged the barge with attacking gargoyles.

An interesting thing happened. The players had a blast describing the melee and "finding out what happens" as the GM's agenda dictates. But during the down-tempo moments, when I would ask them questions about the world like "What are you hoping to find in this forgotten city?" the players were all blank slates. Eventually, with some poking and prodding from me, we came up with a backstory involving the Thief finding a lost map to the city in his parent's library, causing him to con the Ranger into helping him follow it, and stealing something from the Paladin, who stayed her wrath when she found out his destination happens to be where her order originated from, and so on.

The players had fun, but it required a lot of effort, and it didn't really flow. I don't blame the game, or myself. I think the players just weren't the "collaborative storytelling" type. In fact, one of the players even admitted that openly!

At the lunch break, I declared the adventure over so that I could stew on the material we had gathered and make up some fronts. In the interim, another player brought an introductory adventure for Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition, and was really pumped to play it, so we set that up for the rest of the afternoon.

The adventure had us, elite soldiers in a U.N.-backed "Stop Bad Guys" organization, heading into a forest compound looking for kidnapped scientists. The entire scenario from there was tactical combat...out came the miniatures, the map grid; the GM handed us four-page character sheets full of feats, numbers, and stats; up went the GM's laptop with spreadsheets on NPC stats, and out came the rulebook to remember various situational modifiers. You couldn't possibly find a game further from Dungeon World than this.

An interesting thing happened. The players loved it. In just under three hours, we managed to fight off about eight terrorists before giant killer robots fell from the sky and literally killed all of us (the GM hastily explained that we were supposed to lose to advance the story, to which I replied "Well why didn't we just start after we lost, then?") But the players had a blast. One was quick to add that they had fun with both games.

I found it crazy that these players (two of whom were brand new to RPGs) found equal amounts of fun in two extreme examples of the hobby. It's typically been my experience that people tend to like one exclusively, often disliking (or even actively hating) the other one. But these players liked both, and that gave me pause for thought. All this time, I kept thinking that DW was clearly the current Flagship RPG; the latest evolution of the hobby. But here we were, playing a venerable old d20 system game, complete with a bar graph that needed to be consulted whenever we took damage...and we were having a blast.

So, coming back to the title...it's no secret that I have been madly in love with Dungeon World for the past year or so. But this marks the first time when it dawned on me that perhaps even this game isn't quite for everybody. As a GM who focuses himself on bringing new players into the hobby, I'm always looking for the perfect "everyone RPG." I know logically that no such game exists, and, like many things in life, RPGs are what you make them...but yesterday was an interesting reminder of that.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Hearts & Minds

I'm running a game on Sunday. So far, I've changed the game three times. I do this very, very often.

I don't try and beat myself up for it too much. I love RPGs. I want to play all of them, all the time, as much as possible. Some people express their passion for their pursuits by specializing in them, getting highly proficient in a relatively-narrow focus. I tend to do the opposite; I like to generalize. I show my passion by having as broad and generalized knowledge as possible. While many RPG enthusiasts pick one game and have a long-running campaign with it, developing characters and learning the system inside and out, I spread myself out over every system that catches my eye, typically staying with it only long enough to get the broad view of it, then moving on.

I want to change this. I want to change this not because I think there's anything wrong with it, but because I am now finding this tendency of mine counter-productive to my long-term goal as a GM.

What is my long-term goal? I want to run a game that reaches off the table and moves all of us, in a very real way.

I think of some movies that really moved me; books that engaged my mind; music that touched my soul. I think that's possible with role-playing games, and I want to do it. I want to run a game that's more than a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I want to say something about the human condition with my game, and I want that game to be remembered long after the table is clear.

I can't do that whilst jumping from game to game. I want to focus on one game, to get into the spirit and tone of that game, and then deliver a story that can touch minds, and move hearts.

Some may say it's impossible. These nay-sayers, the ones who believe that art can't be interacted with in a meaningful way...well, I just think they're wrong. And I hope to prove it.

Now I just got to find the game. More on that later.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

(Roleplaying) Games & Art

One common hot-button topic in the RPG community are rules: specifically, how important they are to the overall "fun factor" of a given game. Should you follow every rule to the letter? Or should you just do whatever the hell you want?

What makes this discussion so tricky when it comes to RPGs is that the "big picture" end goal of an RPG is very ambigous. When you're playing just about any other game...basketball, for example...the rules define the game. If you're not dribbling the ball, you're not playing basketball. If you're not shooting at a basket, you're not playing basketball. Many games are defined by their rules.

It's natural, then, for people to believe that that mentality applies to RPGs, too. If you're not rolling dice to see if you successfully punched out a bad guy, you're not playing a role-playing game. If you're supposed to die when you lose all your hit points and you don't, you're not playing a role-playing game.

Where the confusion comes in, though, is that not everyone defines a role-playing game the same way. Some people describe role-playing games as "collaborative storytelling." These people likely wouldn't give a damn if you roll the dice or not, because what they care about isn't the game, it's the story. The rules of the game are merely the engine, or medium, for which that story is delivered. If the player or the game-master can't figure out if the story would be better served by punching the bad guy out or not, then they let the dice decide for them. To these people, that's what the rules are for.

RPGs have been and always will be a child of two worlds: stories and gaming. There are people on either extreme who will argue one way or the other. However, as with most things in life, the actual truth is a murky, hard-to-define spot in the middle.

What this means in relation to me in my games is that I try to honor that middle-spot, whenever I can. If I'm playing a game where the players and myself are more concerned with the story than the rules, then I'll throw out the rules in a heartbeat. On the other hand, if we're playing through an intense, tactical battle and everyone's having a great time trying to puzzle it out, then I'll stick close to the rules as written. It's that flexibility that's the thing.

What's this got to do with the title of this post? Well, I believe RPGs are an artform. And like any artform, both the artist and the patron of the art have different says about what constitutes that art. A painter can throw a bucket of paint on a blank canvas and call it art, and the exhibit-goers can either agree or disagree. A musician can compose a song using a rigid, pre-determined formula and it may be beautiful to some, and not even qualify as music to another. Part of what makes art "art" is that it's open to interpretation. The important thing is that people are talking. So it is with RPGs.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Summer of Geekdom

In the three months since my last blog post, I've played tons of D&D, but also Fate, various "Powered by the Apocalypse" games (including my own zombie apocalypse hack), and, just recently, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

The D&Dsis appears to be changing into a general thesis on roleplaying games. I'm not sure what direction I'm going to take it in for sure, but I know that writing just about D&D, as was my general intention, would not be fair to my hobby. I play a lot more than D&D, these days. I love D&D, but I love a lot of other roleplaying games, too. If I am going to fulfill the intention I laid out in the last post, of writing a thesis based on my hobby, then I need to encompass ALL of that hobby, including every game I play, not just "the one everyone knows."

So this weekend, I'll be playing Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is my second session. The first one was fun, but didn't exactly go the way I planned. About halfway into the adventure, I decided I didn't want to play by the rules and I just started freestyling everything. The group was fine with it, but it wasn't what I actually wanted to do. What I wanted to do was give the game a fair try, running a structured adventure and seeing how the rules worked: instead, I was basically just freestyling some Star Wars fan fiction for four hours!

I decided to run a second session in an attempt to actually do what I wanted to do the first time. After thinking about that session, I think what happened is I didn't have my prep down cold. I got frustrated with trying to run the game off the page, so I just started making things up. So this time, I'm going to study the book, study the adventure, and make sure I understand what I'm doing clearly before the game starts. 

There is the possibility, of course, that I just don't like rules, and really just enjoy screwing around with the storytelling parts of an RPG. That may just be the case. I'll find out soon enough, though...