Σάββατο, 13 Οκτωβρίου 2012

What I Think About Stuff-Human Slaves Of An Insect Nation

Human slaves of an insect nation by VDen

Role Playing Games Or Human Slaves of an Insect Nation

DISCLAIMER: This is a rant article, presenting highly subjective opinions. That is all.
I’m a role playing nerd. No, I do not mean console or computer rpgs and I hate MMOs

Why yes, I am perfectly aware I’m just one guy versus 10 million players. No, I do not give a shit.

I did not like Skyrim (found it impossibly droll and boring in comparison to New Vegas) I cannot make myself give a shit about Baldur’s Gate 2 and don’t get me started on Diablo.

But I would get down on my knees and propose to Fallouts 1&2 every day if I could only get the chance.

To me, computer rpgs are linear, stifling games that lead you on with the promise of greater challenge, promising bigger numbers in exchange for a narrative that doesn’t exactly take you into consideration. With very few notable exceptions (again, New Vegas) I didn’t see myself making a difference in the world I was adventuring in

With the exception of getting me much more bitchin’ weapons.

Which is why, when I was told of Dungeons and Dragons and of the intricate narratives you can weave YOURSELF and the interactive experience of playing with your friends and the boatloads of fun that everyone was having with it, I immediately ran for it, screaming “SIGN ME UP FOR THAT SHIT” the entire way.

I started off at the age of 17, a clueless young boy with three core books chock-full of rules, numbers definitions I had to learn by heart and made the grave mistake of offering to run that very first epic game by myself.

Only problem was that the edition of Dungeons and Dragons I started with was 3.5

Ominous Music! Latin! Latin! Ominous Music!

Now I was young back then, had just gone through school and was in my University freshman year, which meant that I had a shitload of time on my hands and hardly any grasping of the rules, so the game seemed absolutely awesome to me. In fact, it was the pinnacle of entertainment, the absolute awesomest thing anyone could ever have fun doing ever.

And then I grew up, opened my books and went:


No, I had not forgotten what any of this meant. In fact, I could read the stats better than ever, but I just kept looking at all the numbers and shit and going, “Holy shit! Why did they put all this crap here in the first place?”

It was the moment I realized that the game I had been playing for almost seven years of my life was an overburdened behemoth, held up by the collective folly of hundreds of thousands of players worldwide.

It was not a matter of systemic error. It was not about what class works best with what feats or what things you need to put together so your character can pull of 6 attacks in 6 seconds underwater with a lungful of ocean. Hell, it was not even about hit points (and that’s a matter that for some reason keeps plaguing the role playing community as if it’s the very nature of afterlife or some shit).

It was about the sheer volume of rules upon rules upon rules, the titanic blocks of text that occupied all the source books and supplements of that edition alone, all the crap that everyone obsessed over and used as leverage in their games the entire goddamn time. 

I called it “The Rules Lawyer Infestation”

The scales were lifted from my eyes and suddenly my very good and well-versed in D&D friend’s face seemed so damn punchable. The long debates I held with my good gaming buddies suddenly rang like the din of the world’s most annoying school bell. I spent some time trying to convince everyone else to see things my way, but kept failing at it. Then I tried to get myself back into liking the game and couldn’t.

Was it my fault? Or was everyone else crazy but me?

“Oh well, guess I need to kill them all now…” you, reading this in Dr. Farnsworth’s voice.

I didn’t ponder over it too long. In fact, it took me a month before I realized that what busted my balls was how I saw the rules overwhelming the story. How I saw everyone playing as wizards, dwarves, elves 

And in one case, as a priest whose brain we transplanted into a golem because it sounded like a great idea at the time

And instead of reveling in it, they kept bitching about their gold-piece-to-challenge-rating-ratio, their standard-experience-point-rewards and their magic-items-by-level.

For fuck’s sake people! You’re playing as swashbuckling sociopaths that chug spells at impossible creatures so you can steal their shit, get more powerful and kill even more impossible creatures! You’re trying to save the world! Your cleric wants to be the next Pope! You met alien beings from another reality! What the fuck will it take for you to stop looking at goddamn numbers?

No, tits don’t work, in case you were wondering.
My rules-lawyery friend with the punchable face (in a sudden fit of clarity, possibly brought about due to divine intervention) once told me:

“Tabletop rpgs are the games where you can pick the fourth option out of the available three”

That quote blew my fucking mind.
It was the very essence of role playing games, distilled in a few words and I was hearing that from a man who had spent nearly half a campaign cock-fencing with a rules-lawyer over which prestige classes they could pick.

So it got me thinking: how could I shift attention to the narrative? How could I turn my players into actual human beings, instead of termites clad in human skin, interpreting the rules in an inhuman, literal fashion?

Long story short, I found that I could not. Not because of my lack of trying or because of our consumerists’ society pressure generating a desire for escapism through the generation of imaginary strongmen, but because people just plain old like making invincible (or near-invincible) characters and thinking that steamrolling over every challenge equals fun. Unless you’re just as psychotic and nitpicky as they are and you’re willing to cock-fence, you’ll never win and end up having your heart broken. So what you need to do, instead, is change your approach entirely.

So put on your Storytelling Capes and wear your DM screens as helmets, cause here come my


That’s you, just brimming with excitement.

Find a system that suits you:

This is the simplest, most sound piece of advice ever given from one DM to another. It’s so effective, in fact, that everyone gives it to everybody else and they’re all thankful for either giving or receiving such wonderful, effective advice.

It is also the single balls-hardest thing ever to actually pull off with any degree of success.

The internet is just chock-full of free, alternative gaming systems (a lot of which are really damn good). You’ve got rules-heavy, rules-light, freeform and narrative-based token systems (don’t get me started on those) and they’re all there for the taking.

In order to pick the proper system, you need to know what it is you want from your games. What kind of stories do you want to tell? Are you looking for socio-political intrigue? Super-powered adventures through the universe? Grim and gritty tales of survival in a dystopian alternate reality? Cosmic or existential horror?

Balls-to the wall insanity?

There’s a system for every one of the flavors you’re looking for. You need to know what kind of story you want to run and then pick the system that fits you. Then comes the toughest part: how can you tell if the system you picked will actually work for you?

There’s no surefire way to tell. Sure, you can read online reviews and you can ask the nerd on the street, but what you’ll get are highly subjective opinions. You might pick up a system that everyone tells you is the absolute best in its genre and still turn out to be shit when you put it to the test.

The key ingredient here is experimenting. Try to get into games using this system or run some mock games with friends just to see if it fits you. Yes, this will take a while. No, there’s no way around it.

But when you find it, man oh man did you just flick the shit hose on and sprayed yourself in the mouth, because now you’ve got to…

Know exactly what kind of story you want to tell:

Here’s one of my old campaign notes from way back when I got into this rpg deal:

“The characters are transported through the Omni-Torn device through the multiverse and into Lodoss, where they fight the Grand Warlord, a mysterious man set to take over the world with his Seven Warchief henchmen.”

This is shit. It’s a shitty note, it was a shitty idea and it turned out to be a shitty campaign, primarily because I wanted to set it in an anime setting

“Hey, screw you man, this idea is awesome!” 17-year old me, asking for a slap in the mouth.

But mostly because I wanted everything to turn out the way I wanted them to turn out and experienced a severe amount of butt-hurt when they did not, thus ending the campaign.

Now, here’s a much better note, 10 years later:

“A group of adventurers find themselves tangled in a war that is to shape the destiny of an entire continent, their powers and abilities the only thing that can stem the tide of coming darkness. They will fail.”

This note turned into a 3-year campaign that went way better than I expected.

Yes, yes…exactly as planned…
Why? Because I did not exactly plan this out. I set the basis, the conflict, the opposing sides, the factions and the tone (as well as a couple adventures) and let my players roll all over the map, stirring shit up and generally being awesome.

Sure, they did mess up some of my plans, but you know what? The end result was way better than I could have ever imagined. The reason was that I made the story, but let them have their way with the characters, which made everything better.

Thus allowing me to get to my next point…

 The players will affect the story in every way you CAN’T imagine:

Pfft. Fucking amateur.

Out of the 100% of your awesome narrative, you’ll only get to run 50% of it, tops. There’s going to be a shitload of things that your players will miss, won’t get or plain old fuck up in every way unimaginable.

You need to understand this: when narrating a story in an rpg, you should not think like a writer, whose purpose is to attempt to grab the interest or tug at the heartstrings of an audience that he’s never met in an attempt to get his grubby creative hands on their money.

Your audience will comprise of friends or gaming buddies, whom you’ve known for a while and might know exactly how to manipulate their reactions and how they can mess with your plans. What you’re doing instead is giving them a world and a suggested purpose, with a more or less specific goal in mind then sitting back and arbitrating the fireworks, while simultaneously controlling the damage.

You are, after all, one man. You’re not an entertainment monkey, you’re not a composer of epic sagas and you sure as hell aren’t God.

You’re a glorified kindergarten teacher, trying to stop his players from sticking dice up their nose.
You need to know that at any point in the game, your players can derail it or fuck it up. You need to come to terms with the fact that yes, maybe they will stab the archbishop in the face (the one you spent hours researching so you could make him as realistic as possible) and just shrug your shoulders and go: meh, it’s okay. I’ll just replace him.

Take any and all adversity like a man and work around it. Who knows? Maybe it will turn out to be a good thing in the end. But you should always, ALWAYS tell yourself that…

This is not a group effort. It is also not something you should dwell on:

Gaming’s wonderful way of getting you down.

A lot of gaming articles will tell you stuff like the campaign being “a joint narrative effort” and that “this is not your story”. This is bullshit, plain and simple as that.

Some seasoned DMs and Storytellers will brag about how they keep their players on a tight leash and how nothing ever gets out of their control. Know this: these people are assholes.

The kind that need a Total Party Kill just to get it up.
You cannot hope to keep your story completely under your control and that’s a good thing: your idea, no matter how complex or beautifully presented, is still your idea and therefore something you have completely and utterly anticipated that will bore you to tears in the telling. This also means that your audience consists of cabbage-headed biological automatons instead of people.

Beep boop! What an engaging story! Please tell us more [OH GIFTED MASTER]

People will fuck up, but they will also add color and complexity to your story. But they’re not included in the narrative, not in any way that matters. Because you built the world, the setting, the characters and they just star in it, but that is all there is to it. This story was set up and outlined by you and you alone. They just live in it.

That’s not to say that they won’t do crazy shit. After all, that’s what Earth Monkeys do. To fight against it would be a catastrophic miscalculation of the highest magnitude. Instead, what you should do is let them, but first ask them:


I’ve found that this is the most efficient approach to any oddball player idea. “My character wants to infiltrate the mob boss’ compound and kill him in his sleep.” Okay, but why? “Our super-powered characters have decided to kill the UN Security Council and take over the world!” Sure, go ahead! But why?

There’s no way you’ll stop them. But you can make them question the soundness of their plan.

And if they rip off Stalin’s head and force it down Truman’s throat, causing an incident of such magnitude that ends in the complete annihilation of mankind in nuclear fire, then all you have to do is roll with the blow.

Because this is a story and this is a game and shit happens. You can’t let it get you down, because you know what? You’ve got better things to do. You’ve got a job, a significant other, kids and drugs and the disaster of a narrative shouldn’t ever be allowed to become a focus.

Unless you’ve spent a shitload of time making it. Which brings is to the matter of…

Prep Time:

He was ripped to pieces, three panels later.
In order to run something as time-consuming and entertaining as an rpg campaign, you need to plan ahead. You cannot consider the whims of players, but you need to have everything in order and remember shit like how magic works or if your world has gravity as you near its rim, etc.

You also need to plan ahead on your antagonists and the plot’s progression. ‘Cause this stuff is kinda important, too.

But how much time should you put into it, considering the fickleness of human endeavor and the overall cruelty of the uncaring universe we inhabit? Well, experts set the minimum effort at 4 hours a week’s worth of prep time, which is a load of horseshit if you’ve got a job.

I own my own business, which means I have to work upwards of 50 hours a week, not counting anything else that might come up or business-related emergencies. By the time I’m done with work, I’m too pooped to actually sit down and consider what Padishah Qadi of Usul, the Great and Mighty Pale Claw, will do should the players see through his diplomatic ruse.

Now I could wing it, but that won’t get me through the campaign. I can’t count on working with stuff off the top of my head and I sure as hell don’t have time to deal with fucking statblocks, strategies and logistics.

If I wanted to do my goddamn taxes, I’d just wait 3 months.

What you should do instead is this: give each part of the game the maximum of effort you can put, tops. But always come prepared. Do not count on planning way ahead, unless you have absolutely nothing better to do. If something does not work as planned, then have a backup, but do not waste too much time dwelling on it. If the back-up fails, wing it.

Your story preparation should be done way before you begin the campaign (an outline made before you even announce you’re going to run a game, when you’re not pressed for time). Your mechanics, rules and combat preparation should take up 2 hours of your week, tops. Remember: you’re with friends and you’re narrating a story to an audience you know. Work with them and what they give you. This is not theater, where a performance needs to be stellar and flawless. This is amateur improv, with the sketch planned ahead of time and some audience participation.

You’re busy people. You don’t have the time to shoulder yourselves with another responsibility, especially a trivial and made-up one like this.

But what should always keep in mind is that you should…

Have Fun:

It’s a hobby. It’s a pastime. It’s entertainment. Running a roleplaying game (or participating in one) is not an honest-to-God, useful social skill. If you run a good game, then you should enjoy it and make sure your players enjoy it as well (after all, what’s a story without an audience to share it with?). If you end up making pop culture references and burning down villages or wearing eviscerated dogs as hats, then do it.

You’re going to misinterpret the rules and you’re going to mess up a battle at least once or you’re going to find yourself one-upped by your players. That’s to be expected. Just shrug, admit you were wrong and keep on trucking.

But above all, have a laugh and enjoy yourself.

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