Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Grognard and the Gamer

I was standing in my favorite bookstore/gaming store/record store in Colorado, a place known as Black & Read.  At first impression when you enter this store, it looks like a tornado struck the store inside and tossed everything about into controlled piles, but it does not take you long walking around to see that there are treasures to be found everywhere.  As a gamer for 32 years of tabletop genre, this is the kind of place that would have probably preserved my virginity for another few years had I found it in my youth.  In short shelf after shelf of every forgotten and current roleplaying title you can ever imagine.  The only regret I ever have in entering this place is that I know somehow, despite my fervent searches, I will miss some treasure I have been looking for.  I also love the conversations that occur there.

To put it all in perspective, I was in a store that is a little more mainstream, 2nd and Charles, which kind of does the used trade in system as well.  I was standing by their well organized (and dismally small) RPG collection killing time, and saw another younger 30 something approach the games section.  I thought hey, here is a fellow gamer, wonder what they are looking for.  The gamer looked at me like a scared deer caught in headlights and bolted they were busted looking at the forbidden RPG's or something.  I am not a particularly scary looking guy (Yes I am sleeved with Tattoos but they are all movie or Star Wars related..okay there is the Ash and the Evil Dead Tattoo and the zombies in the background...but cmon its Ash, the bloody chainsaw means love right?)  but other then that I am a somewhat overweight balding guy who uses a cane crutch and is clean and showered at all times thanks to OCD and the military.  I was bummed, as well, these conversations about gaming are part of how I enjoy the hobby now that I cannot play as much as I would like.

So I begged my way into a Black and Read trip a few weeks later from my wife, and was happily rolling my 1d6 to search for secret games and hidden treasures, when I heard an awesome conversation.  This gamer, probably 20 something, was as he put it "Looking for the best game system for his group"  Kari the stores Gaming Goddess, was making a few recommendations but the gamer was just shooting her down with every suggestion.  I listened for a few minutes longer as she finally gave him the soft push to just look down the game aisle.  Like a nosey neighbor, when the customer moved on to look at all the games on the shelves, I launched into old fart gamer mode and decided to try to help this young tuck, whom was obviously newer to our hobby from the comments he had made.

I walk over and start looking in a section close to his, pick up palladium fantasy roleplay and begin flipping through it.  The guy looks at the book and says "Hey is that any good?"

Me: "I said well its an older gaming system not quite as old as dungeons and dragons but its been around awhile and its pretty solid mechanics wise I guess.  Palladium in general has a way of one upping itself with every publication, raising the power level higher and higher, but some gamers like that, particularly the crowd that comes to tabletop from MMORPG's"

Gamer: "Well its like every system I try to do with my group they always make me the DM, but like it always ends up sucking.  I toss creatures at them and they get lots of loot but they get bored and I need an exciting system to make them want to play"

Of course as he says this in my head I am thinking, ya here is where MMO's do no justice to the roleplaying industry, as everything becomes stats and how to make them better and quickly lose the point of the fact that there is a story attached.  Love or hate it,in World of Warcraft, there is a story there and it is a fun one, but the reality is most players never see it, instead focusing on min-maxing, skipping reading quest text and space barring through storyline to just grind it out.  His players want to skip from point A to point Z without stopping along the way to smell the roses.

So I ask him what system he is currently using to run his game.  He tells me he has been running 5th edition but prior to that he had run 4th edition.  He says they start games but never finish them out because his friends get bored with just constant fighting.

Me: "So what I am hearing is you have a lot of encounters and lots of loot, but WHY are the going out killing?  What motivation are you giving them? Why are they compelled to go out there and fight the forces of darkness instead of sitting around the tavern in comfort drinking ale?"

Gamer: "Well I had them meet in a tavern and they stepped outside and I like rolled random encounters till they got to the dungeon? They had a tough time so I gave them a chest filled with +2 weapons and armor from the goblins and then they went into dungeon, but they started killing everything right away and got bored cuz the monsters were not dropping anything good and they were not getting levels very fast"

Me: "Wait wait, did you say levels very fast (my head is spinning at this point as I listened to this poor newbie DM rattling off what just sounds like a large load of bad decisions)  and +2 weapons from a goblin encounter?

Gamer: "Ya I should have just given them +2 weapons I know..."

Me: "Okay look, lets discuss a few things.  The most important is this.  A system is a system, while some can be written poorly or have design flaws or issues, ultimately most RPG's that make it to print have something noteworthy about them, but in the end the system is a small factor to a point on the overall fun of a game.  You want to find a system that has what your looking for in terms of pace.  Games like Rolemaster and Runequest have complex rule systems that give lots of crunchy tables for critical hits etc but, ultimately to a new GM or DM can be way to cumbersome to teach new players, leaving them confused and you bogged down trying to do lots of math just to figure out not just if they hit but the quality of the hit.  Ultimately the system is a tool for the true part of roleplaying..the story."

Gamer: "But I do use story I bought a module for 5th that I am running and I use random encounter tables I pulled up on the internet to make it more dangerous.  But they do not like the story they said the parts I read are taking too long, so I want a system that is gonna give me better stories so they like it"

Me: "Well understand that no system is gonna write your story for you and no module is meant to be ran as is.  Do you take the module read through it and write down notes to add things in?  Oh and do you have a session where you just have them make characters so you can kind of tailor the module and story more to what they are playing?"

Gamer: "Umm I make characters that I think are cool and let them pick from them when they show up.  I just read the flavor text and stuff and I look things over an hour or so before we start gaming and then kind of read ahead while they are rolling combat and stuff."

Good lord this kid needs some serious help I am thinking

Me: "Pre-gens are okay if your at a tournament or a convention or even for encounter sessions where you expect to be running things for complete strangers but if it is your group part of what endears a character is to personalize it.  You should have a session before you start a campaign or even adventure module where players make up their characters and have a choice.  It get them invested in what is going on because that character is now theirs"

Gamer: "cool okay I will try that"

Me:"Secondly, look modules are usually pretty good about giving you a background story in the beginning but the flavor text inside is left fairly simple because the intent is for you to put things in your words,  (I reached for Temple of Elemental Evil as it is fresh in my mind and flip it open to the moathouse dungeon area) "Okay look here"(Pointing to the section about room 22 the cells the zombies had come from) "Now it gives little to no detail on the rooms in terms of flavor text, so as my players were making noise in room 18 trying to get the slimes off that had dropped on the barbarians head, I told them "The sounds of conflict echo through out the chamber resonating down halls unseen.  You wipe the last remnants of the slime off your armor, noting the rancid smell in your nostrils, but suddenly a new scent of decay wafts in and the moaning sounds of the undead cause a cold shiver to go down your spine"

Gamer: "Wait, where was that last bit at, I don't see it?"

Me: "I just made it up, its pretty standard fluff but it sets the tone and reinforces the danger, I talk about the slime and remind me that they just got in a fight with half done Jello and oh great here is I did not throw all the zombies at once, instead had them trickle in all at once, I also used one of them for a plot device...since this is my kids first old school adventure I had one zombie dressed in a little bit more upscale clothing stuck in the first cell.  My players when they got done fighting the zombies and seeing to their fallen comrade and healing him just in time.  It taught them about death's door and the importance of stopping the damage if a character falls to 0. "

Gamer: "Okay so why was the zombie dressed up different and not fighting them?"

Me: "Because of what you just asked.  I made him stick out, so you WOULD ask that exact question and keep it in the back of your head.  You see a couple rooms over there are some trapped merchants and a gnome terrified they are about to be eaten by a rather ill tempered Ogre named Lubash.  The merchants are in fancy attire similiar quality to the zombies, and once they are saved will comment how they are looking for their lost partner who had a rather decent Gem they were transporting as payment for goods they had delivered to Hommlet.  They had heard him screaming, a few days before and thought the Ogre had eaten them.  In my version Lubash had locked him in the cell after tying him to the cell wall where he was bitten by the Zombies in the other cell when he finally passed out from lack of food .  Before all that he had hidden the gem inside a loose brick in the cell well."

Gamer: "Okay but where did all this come from,  I don't see that why go through all that explanation."

Me: "Well, sometimes with new players you need to hone the sword a bit, teach them through subtle clues without giving the whole caboose.  My son and daughter are very logic minded in the thought patterns.  So it took all of two secondsfor them to go, fancy zombie, merchants that are fancy, lost partner with big gem....gem is either with the ogre...which they did not find, or on the the Ranger escorted the merchants outside at the the now cleared top section of the moat house, where the Bounty Hunters hunting dogs were guarding the injured druid while he rested with their horses and cart.  As soon as they were out of earshot sniggles the rogue picked the lock and the group killed the zombie, and searched and found the loose brick and the gem."

Gamer: "That's cool, wait ...sniggles? but you made that up?"

Me: "Yup I read and take notes as I go through, I have a cheat sheet with my own notes or twists or story devices tied to each room if I want to modify it.  I use to write out flavor text too but now I just put footnotes and years of experience help me BS my way through the description.  It is all about being prepared, but again all that happens regardless of what system I am running.  I read the module, or I write out my notes if its a self made thing, I look through all the NPC's and give them names and small personality quirks.  Most NPC's that are background follow an environmental alignment based on the area..usually some form of Neutral.  But this is possible no matter what kind of system you use.  I prefer 1st Edition AD&D and the BRP system. The work pays off you get a real good EASY session which lends more energy to playing nefarious villains and monsters.  An engaged DM grows engaged players.  Its contagious, no one finds it fun to have someone sit there and read off sterilely."

Sadly, I had to hurry my wife and daughter were leaving to go to another store and I hate feeling like I am hogging all the time out we have.  I left feeling pretty positive though, and when I left he was reading the WoTC 1st Ed reprint of the PHB.  I told him if he had mmorpg players they actually respond to 1st Edition better or 5th Ed because of its speed in combat resolution.  Also told him I could fit 3-4 encounters of the 1st Edition kind with 9 players in the space 1 encounter in 4th edition would take.  So I think I might have brought him to the Dark Side.  Sometimes. I think it is important to have these conversations with other gamers.  Normally, I steer clear of younger gamers because frankly I like trying to stick within my own peer range, I guess I have reached that point in life,   But I also realized that if I want my hobby to continue, I need to help in bringing in new blood.  After all, I cannot support a company with just my money alone, and there are sooooooo many good games out there worthy of support. One of them should always be the game that started it all, D&D.

To conclude, I would encourage you all, next time your in favorite hobby spot and hear that awkward question asked, or see that troubled tween trying to find the "Perfect system", take the time to expunge some wisdom.  I mean the Grand ol' Sorceror himself spent time every day doing just that on message boards, books, and conventions himself.  The man passed away entrenched in the hobby he loved in some form, We should all be so lucky, I know my dice are getting buried with me....(I keep telling my family that) just in case.

Later Folks

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