Monday, July 13, 2009

D&D analogies

I hate coming up with titles; it's like coming up with character names. No matter what I eventually settle on, most of the time I'm unsatisfied with the end result. This post deals with something I was thinking about the past week, unrelated to D&D and rpgs in general: AC/DC is a pretty good band. This may be obvious to some, or completely false to others, but objectively it's true. For around 35 years, they've been making music, using the same three chords over and over again. Say what you want about the repetitive nature of the music, the lack of diverse subject matter or the contrived guitar solos...their fans are legion, they've sold hundreds of millions of records, and when you see them live it's a religious experience. Plus, they REALLY like their fans. A lot. I heard an interview they did with Howard Stern last year when Black Ice was released. Apparently, they sold several million albums to Walmart to decrease the cost and assure that everyone would have access to purchasing it. Completely unpretentious, they really seem to enjoy playing music and interacting with people.

When I listen to AC/DC, I know exactly what I'm going to get. I don't put on an AC/DC album and expect something ground-breaking. They're not going to take any artistic chances or move into an avant-garde direction. Angus won't suddenly be playing sitar solos, back by Malcolm on harpsichord. There won't be whiny lyrics, schadenfreude, depression or self-loathing. Sure, the song might be about something bad that happened, but the overall impression is that life is pretty kickass because we have rock 'n' roll. And it is. Life IS pretty kickass because we have rock 'n' roll. AC/DC is extremely positive; the music is about having a good time.

It took me a while to appreciate AC/DC. While I always liked Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Rolling Stones, whatever, AC/DC always seemed a bit too pedestrian. They're not dynamic; rock solid rhythm with precision, cutting guitar is the musical equivalent of vanilla ice cream. But, there's a reason vanilla is still around, even after other more flamboyant flavors have made the rounds then disappeared into obscurity: vanilla is familiar, and really, it's great. "Plain" isn't always bad, and a lot of times it suits the situation perfectly. Even when another flavor would be better, you can get by on vanilla if you have to. No one would complain about vanilla ice cream over no ice cream at all, not unless they were a whiny idiot.

Alright, now to make the D&D analogy: D&D is just like AC/DC. It's been around forever and defines the genre that it resides in. Oft overlooked for being too boring, it still persists in the public consciousness, likened to a radioactive cockroach. It was even attacked for being Satanic. D&D campaigns are AC/DC albums: each is different, but most of the same recognizable elements crop up time and time again. When I play in a D&D game, I know exactly what I'm going to get. Roll 3D6 for this, d20 for that, etc. D&D is shorthand for rpgs, just like AC/DC is shorthand for rock music. And it's fun. D&D is about having a good time, enjoying hanging out with your buddies, bitching about work and then killing some orcs. There isn't some grand, over-arcing "plot", just like AC/DC would never make a rock opera.

Some people prefer more elaborate gaming. Sometimes I want to listen to more elaborate music. But AC/DC, and D&D, will always be there, waiting for me. A comfort food that I know will bring enjoyment into my life. I tried to think of bands that other rpgs would be related to, but the only thing I could come up with was SenZar and Britney Spears.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Rules are for amateurs

My last post was basically a rant about how being a DM has morphed over time from referee to computer program. This is directly related to the number of rules present in the game; the less rules, the more opportunity for judgment based on situation. I suppose I could say something about how the rules should simply be a framework, but that should be self-evident, at least as far as D&D is concerned. A thought: any meaningful game or sport requires a referee. Sometimes the referee can be a player as well, but they must demonstrate impartiality during rulings. For example, I bought Heroscape a few months ago and played a couple games with my buddy. Neither of us had any experience with the game, but I had read all the rules. During the process of learning the game, I referred to the rules several times to adjudicate situations, but tried to apply them fairly. There were a few instances that I came to the conclusion that, by the rules, my buddy was at an advantage. It was more important to me that the game be run fairly and I win through sound strategy than by lying or misinterpreting rules. We even discussed certain situations and gave each other help in moving our pieces. Later games had no "friendly" help, and there was less need to refer to the rulebook as we knew how the game operated. Still, the groundwork was laid and there was an understanding that rules questions would be refereed fairly. As competition becomes more intense, the need for a third-party ref is more important.

Something I was thinking about last night: it seems that after a certain point, ad hoc mechanics are better than explict mechanics, at least for D&D. Perhaps any game, actually. Baseball has a lot of rules, for instance, but there isn't ANY rule that tells a player how fast he must run to first base, how to throw a ball, where he can hit the ball with the bat, etc. To include such rules seems absolutely meaningless and would make the game impossible to play. "Three strikes is an out" is probably equivalent to "Roll over 18 to hit this monster" in D&D. These are concrete rules that define how the games are to be played. But really, both rules simply provide the framework for their respective games. What constitutes a strike is for the umpire to decide. What constitutes a hit is for the DM to decide. As every pitch differs in speed and trajectory, and every batter is of a different size and holds his bat in a unique style, the umpire must make a decision for each and every pitch to determine if it is a strike or not. The "strike zone" isn't arbitrary, but it obviously cannot be applied the same in every single instance. The DM must decide if an 18 will hit a monster given the situation. It is entirely possible the monster is shielded by a table, or that the ground is slippery and it's not as agile, thus there might be a modifier to the 18.

In my own experience, rules directly impede play. I am not talking about "framework mechanics", but specific rules. T0-hit charts constitute the framework of D&D as far as I'm concerned. They are mechanical constructions that are applied to situations, namely combat in this instance. The DM applies those charts to combat, and thus determines if a monster or character got hit. Sometimes he might apply those charts to see if a character can grasp a scroll (specific example from the AD&D DMG...) or perhaps to grab a ledge to keep from plummeting into a pit. Maybe he could use them for gambling (higher level characters are more lucky?) or as a quick-n-dirty skill chart. In reality, the to-hit chart is merely a framework that shows the relationship between character level and effectiveness in combat, but it can be interpreted in any way that seems appropriate. The rules that impede play tell the DM how to apply those charts. Extensive lists of modifiers slow down combat, for instance. Certainly, slowing down play isn't always a bad thing in a game. Instant replay in the NFL is a good thing when applied to the proper situations (game winning TD catch in the endzone). Having a long, tactical combat with a major villain using all the appropriate modifiers might actually be good as it will make a victory more satisfying. Instant reply for every single catch, or using all the combat modifiers for a lowly kobold...waste of time.

However, rules about application, for the most part, are bad. Yes, I am using a normative statement. Guidelines are good, rules are bad. Guidelines allow a referee to use his own judgment and enable the game to flow at an even pace and fairly apply those guidelines to every situation that arises, even if completely new. Specific rules are inherently unable to apply mechanical frameworks to every situation; as I stated in the last post, this implies that certain things are "impossible" to do. Well, they really are because the rules won't allow them to occur. By extension, sometimes even guidelines get in the way; mechanics can cause problems if too rigid. Ad hoc mechanics or guidelines, proposed and used on the spot, are extremely useful for a game such as D&D.

My own campaign moved to Castles & Crusades for a bit. One of the mechanics is the Prime Attribute which is tied to skill use. Rogues (thieves!) for instance have Dex as a Prime which influences their ability to Sneak or Hide. Other classes can Hide, but they aren't as good. Or something like that; I'm sure all the C&C advocates will school me on how it works. The problem I had with the mechanic isn't that it sucks or is hard to use or doesn't make any sense. In reality, it's a great idea. No, what happens is that, in play, sometimes it slows down the action unnecessarily. An ad hoc mechanic, such as determining if a wizard knows anything about a thoul, might suffice. Why do I need to know that there's a skill called "monster knowledge" and tied to Int and that wizards roll a Prime and other classes don't? Further, I must apply a modifier that is dependent on how difficult knowing what abilities a thoul has. As a DM acting as referee, I find it easier to simply determine that a 4th level wizard has probably heard of a thoul before, and I let them roll a d20, compare that to Int and go from there. Fundamentally, these two are the same. The second case is a lot quicker, though. "Monster knowledge" doesn't even exist in C&C, I just made it up. How does C&C handle such a thing? Well, it says you roll against a Prime or something like that. Why do I need a mechanism that is simply an explicit description of how I'd handle the situation anyway? Ad hoc mechanics are much more flexible and in fact more applicable to any ruling a DM has to make. C&C is a good game, but I noticed that a lot of the time I was more worried about fairly assiging a level to the Prime check than simply using my own judgment. The paradigm implied by the rules and mechanics actually was a limiting factor simply because they led me to believe that certain things had to be handled in specific ways as opposed to simply approaching them from a logical way.

The best games I ever ran where when I was a kid, knowing jack about the rules, determining what happened by being fair and fast. The worst games were always those that got bogged down in mechanics. Something about rules creates rules lawyers, and not having any explicit rules means arguments cannot exist. Again, this goes back to the social contract between DM and Player. It is my estimation that the only real reason a DM needs to exist when playing D&D is to keep the game somewhat of a mystery. It is difficult to pose challenges if you already know the answers, but this has nothing to do with fairly handling combats or whatever.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dungeon Master: Referee vs. Idiot

I have a bad habit about not posting to blogs unless I'm really pissed off about something. It's a lot easier to rant about a topic that annoys me than speak positively; blogging is certainly cathartic in that regard. It's been a while since my last post, so I purposefully thought of something annoying and stupid that would spurn me to write: Dungeon Mastering like an idiot.

What exactly do I mean by this...back in ye olde dayes, being the DM meant quite a bit. The DM was the final authority, tthe man with the power who described the world and told you whether or not you hit the orc or you didn't. If you hit AC 5 and the DM said the orc wasn't damaged, there wasn't any arguing. Well, okay, there might be a little bit of annoyance, but God knows you didn't complain more than half a second. Perhaps there was a reason this orc had better armor than every other orc in existence. Maybe he had a magic ring or something. Who cares, as a player you trusted the DM to not screw you over. The DM had signed an implied social contract with the players to collectively seek a common goal which was fun. If the DM arbitrated situations that were obvious hose jobs, people usually never played with that guy ever again. In every sense of the word, the DM was a referee. He applied the rules fairly, not favoring any particular side or outcome and created ad hoc rulings whenever situations came up not covered by the book. The best DMs would give clues and hints but would allow the players to succeed or fail on their own merit or stupidity. Deus ex machina wasn't in the vocabulary of a good DM. If there was a TPK, the players were to blame for being dumbasses. The DM didn't "set out" to kill them. The attitude that the DM was a referee allowed meaningful gaming to take place. Obstacles were overcome through guile and strategy, not because they had any meaning in some over-arching plot. Certainly, most DMs would tend to favor the players over the monsters in situations that were unclear, but NBA refs tend to favor superstars when calling fouls; the players are definitely the most important aspect of the game and thus are often given the benefit of the doubt.

The referee model for DMs really succeeded because it is impossible for a game, any game, to take into account every single variable unless it isn't realistic or is extremely simplistic. Chess has a rule for every situation, and bears no resemblance to real life. Some might go so far as to call chess a mathematical exercise instead of a game; I wouldn't, but that is a logical conclusion. D&D is supposed to model fantasy reality. It is ludicrous to think any set of rules would be able to take into account all aspects of such a world. No book exists that tells me how every single thing operates HERE, much less in a fictional reality. Such rules do not need to exist when a DM acting as referee is present. If a player says his character wants to get drunk, does the DM need to refer to "drinking rules"? I've seen such rules, but are they necessary? A good DM might think, well, it takes me 5 beers to get a buzz and I'm average size, the character has an 18 CON and is pretty big, so he'll be drunk after 12. Easy and reasonable. Being a referee means deciding outcomes based on reason and logical extension of known facts.

Modern versions of D&D seem to completely throw out the referee notion and treat the DM like some sort of proxy to a computer program. There are countless rules for every single task a character might take. If a rule doesn't exist that describes how to do something, the assumption is that it cannot be done. Even if the action makes perfect sense, if it's not in the rules you can't do it. Further, these same rules layout "necessities" that must be present in the game for it to operate correctly. Parties of characters must meet specific levels of challenges, gain a certain amount of treasure, level up at a linear rate based upon session length, etc. The DM's only job is to apply (if possible) the rules, not interpret them. Creating a new rule is out of the question, and ad hoc judgments are an impossibility. The DM is nothing more than an impediment, with the players having some sense of entitlement to succeeding, regardless of how they approach the game or play their characters. If they show up and roll dice, they'll be level 10 in 6 months. If a PC dies, the DM must make amends for killing him off. Magic weapon destroyed? It is the DM's responsibilty to replace it so the character can be made whole again.

Fuck that. DMs are not computers, nor are they required to coddle lazy players who need a carrot dangling over their face to have any motivation to even roll dice. Treating D&D as a contest between DM and Player is truly the worst thing that has ever happened to rpgs. The DM isn't against the players any more than he's with them; his job is to be a referee. By acting like a complete idiot, goals and accomplishments in-game are made trivial and marginalized to the point of being completely meaningless. The DM is no longer respected and is simply an impediment to getting more treasure and power. Instead of running the show, the DM is really a second class citizen in the game, with the players calling all the shots.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Archetypes in D&D

A thread over on Dragonsfoot sparked this post. First of all, don't ever try to use logic on the internet; it's a complete waste of time. Further, no matter how valid your point, someone will figure out a way to call you stupid. I tried to be civil at first, but the incessant insistence (nice) that I was wrong was getting on my nerves. I really don't know why some of those guys were trying to "prove me wrong" anyway. I was fairly explicit that idealism and reality are two separate things, but they wanted to ignore that and stretch out the conversation so they could be right. Whatever. Sometimes I troll message boards, sometimes I don't. Might be a good time to go back to trolling on DF as it's fairly obvious most of the people there just have too much time on their hands (see earlier post on this blog).

WHATEVER. Done with that diatribe. My point in the thread was that the character classes in D&D are peripherally related to their literary counterparts, archetypes prevalent throughout heroic fantasy. The classes themselves do not directly model any specific character, but are amalgams of many different character-types. Thieves, for instance, are a combination of Cugel, The Grey Mouser, maybe a bit of Bilbo thrown in. Magic-users are Gandalf, Merlin, Rhialto and a bunch of other guys. I don't see how you can really argue this point as Gygax explicitly states his sources of inspiration. That said, D&D cannot really replicate any of these characters in-game. It sorta does, but to accurately reproduce Gandalf, for instance, is nigh impossible. You can make a MU called Gandalf, but he really won't be like Gandalf in LotR. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does demonstrate that D&D itself is its own genre of fantasy. MUs in D&D behave uniquely and have no analogous literary figure that is the archetypal definition of a D&D wizard.

Given that, D&D character classes replicate D&D archetypes, not literary archetypes. Again, nothing wrong with that. The game is fun. However, a problem crops up when people try to justify certain behaviors in-game by using the literal descriptions of the character classes. That doesn't work, mostly because the character classes, as written, really don't work properly within the context of the game. The classic example is the paladin. Literary references to paladins would not permit them to operate in a generic, dungeon crawling game. I highly doubt Charlemagne would go traipsing about in some dank cave, looking for a coffer of copper pieces, nor would he ask one of his knights to do the same. When you read the description of the paladin character class, the assumptions inherent to that description lead one to believe you're a knight of Charlemagne. But you're really not, you're a D&D paladin. It doesn't take much thought to figure this out. "Hey, D&D dungeon adventuring really wouldn't be something a paladin would do." The step that must be taken is to simply put the character class into the D&D context. The D&D paladin isn't really a knight of Charlemagne, he's a combination of characteristics that resemble those knights, but lives in a different universe with different assumptions. D&D = Greyhawk, which both resembles and differs from every other fantasy world out there. In Greyhawk, paladins go into dungeons to kill goblins. I can live with that, and it makes the class playable in the D&D context. Paladins praying, proselytizing and looking for grails is closer to the literature but don't make for a good game. Thus, for the game part, we need to hand-wave those "realistic" goals and have our paladins go into caves to look for lost treasure. Any sort of flimsy excuse works, even one so lame as "it's a game". In fact, this is the best excuse we can possibly come up with because it IS a game, nothing more. Trying to find some magical justification as to why paladins are killing orcs in caves as opposed to managing their money and trying to figure out a way to feed all their peasants this year is pretty boring. Sure, we can maybe say, "well the peasants are hungry, we need money", and thus the paladin goes to look for gold coins. That's still basically a hand-wave. Again, I have no problem with this, but it seems like a lot of people do. The classes, AS WRITTEN, have no legitimate reason to go out and adventure. Within the context of the D&D game, however, we must simply accept that they do adventure and in fact do it all the time. What's wrong with that? Nothing as far as I'm concerned. I can accept that the classes perform illogical actions on the basis of comparison, i.e. class write-ups vis-a-vis fantasy literature vs. D&D adventuring, because who really gives a fuck in the end? It's fun to have paladins go into wizard's towers and combat kobolds. I don't need any more justification than "fun".

Monday, June 1, 2009

Yeah, right...

I Am A: Lawful Good Human (5th Level)

Ability Scores:

Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment because it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Monks are versatile warriors skilled at fighting without weapons or armor. Good-aligned monks serve as protectors of the people, while evil monks make ideal spies and assassins. Though they don't cast spells, monks channel a subtle energy, called ki. This energy allows them to perform amazing feats, such as healing themselves, catching arrows in flight, and dodging blows with lightning speed. Their mundane and ki-based abilities grow with experience, granting them more power over themselves and their environment. Monks suffer unique penalties to their abilities if they wear armor, as doing so violates their rigid oath. A monk wearing armor loses their Wisdom and level based armor class bonuses, their movement speed, and their additional unarmed attacks per round.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Player choices: impediment to fun

I decided to forego the Lakers-Nuggets game last night due to an opportunity I had to participate in a new D&D campaign that Chris Kutalik had advertised over on Dragonsfoot. Good thing, too; no need to destroy my 50" plasma with a thrown boot due to Kobe going off. Apparently, Chauncey didn't show up yet again which makes me happy that I keep my sports gambling focused on college football. Anyway, I made the right choice regardless.

Chris had told us to roll 4D6-drop-1 down the line for stats, which he later clarified was due to everyone in his other game using Charisma as a dump stat. I understand the sentiment completely as I'm dealing with similar issues in my own game...the gamist part of me hates this sort of thing, but the kid in me doesn't understand the problem. I'll get back to that in a bit. 17 Strength, 16 Dex, 18 Con, I was on a roll. 10 Intelligence, well he's not that bright but not stupid, either; then the 7 Wisdom comes up. Dammit. Rolled 15 for Charisma. The obvious choice, to me, was a thief, mostly because it would allow me to play up the impulsive idiot part and get into the thick of things. Typically I tend to be a very Machiavellian player and manipulate everyone else in the gaming group to a degree that can be quite frightening. Not this time. Treasure hunter idiot thief it would be. When I showed up for the game, I still did not have a name. Actually, I find picking a good name to be the hardest part of rolling up a character, and I don't think I'm alone in that. I vocally expressed my difficulty, and Chris suggested I use a book he had for ideas. Fate dictated that the book was of course Jack Vance, and upon seeing the cover I laughed and wrote down Cugel on the character sheet. The stats dictated the class which dictated the personality; the name was extremely fitting. In the Modern Age of rpgs, where players should be able to play whatever makes them happy, I was actually surprised at how interesting the completely random character generation worked in my favor.

Yes, I take a very gamist approach to D&D, as I stated earlier. I never really thought this was a bad thing, but in reality it is. That's not how I learned to play D&D, nor the way I ever had any fun playing. When I was a kid, we used 3D6 down the line and played whatever we rolled. That is, if the DM was watching. If he had his head turned, well, all 18s of course. Still, there was the idea that the characters were expendable (because you could roll one up in mere moments) and thus having crappy rolls wasn't a bad thing. If he died, make another. At the same time however, we never tried to get our characters killed. Far from it. The characters with low stats tended to live a lot longer simply because we had to play more intelligently. Further, if the character had a 4 INT, we played him like a complete dumbass. The gamist part of me would play 4 INT characters in the same manner I'd play an 18 INT character and not give one crap that Forest Gump was rivaling Sherlock Holmes for deductive reasoning. Not so when I was younger. As I was stuck with a low wisdom and marginal intellect by random chance, I wasn't going to let it bother me, nor blame anyone for not getting to play the character I wanted to play, which was typically the most powerful character I could possibly make. In the context of rolling up my character for last night's gaming session, gamism is the worst approach to rpgs. It was quite the epiphany.

Impulsive, not too bright but extremely physically capable and charming with the perfect name. My character's first task was to gain transport for the party. The party had little money, so Cugel convinced a townie to loan him a cart and horse for the day. After giving the townie the money up front, he quickly left town, the party in tow, citing the massive numbers of others who would be going after the same goal (treasure map). Screwing people over, subterfuge and fast talking came so naturally to the character it was extremely easy to play him. This impulsive behavior continued, convincing the other party members to explore an abandoned tower, brashly entering rooms, setting off traps, touching contact poison (yeah, I personally knew it was poison; Cugel did not), and generally acting like a dumbass when it came to the end-of-the-night battle between the party and a bunch of zombie guards. Cugel pressed forward and the other party members were forced to follow, the allure of "treasure" being the only real motivating factor. Every so often Cugel would be a bit reluctant to explore, but this was quickly alleviated with a quick word from the mage or cleric about the "treasure" being close.

Cugel should have died; in fact, his stupidity almost caused a TPK. Not once did I think that his death would be anything other than deserved, not to mention fun. If in fact Cugel survived, purely by chance, I'd be happy with that. I wasn't about to play him any differently because it would be inappropriate. I had more fun dictating actions that the character would legitimately take as opposed to trying to not get my character killed. In reality, it was far closer to "roleplaying" than anything I've done recently, with the exception of Travis' Fallout game where I was playing what was essentially Mad Max. I thought about it at length and I honestly think that too many player choices make rpgs closer to wargames than anything else. Don't get me wrong: I love wargames. But they're not rpgs, regardless of where rpgs came from. Rock 'n' Roll isn't Blues, even though it's a logical extension. I understand that no one wants to play a complete loser, but what exactly IS a loser in D&D? In Basic D&D, or Labyrinth Lord (which is by far my favorite "clone"), I don't think such a thing exists. If you have 9s straight down the line, you CAN create an extremely viable character. In 3rd Edition, this isn't really possible, and I doubt anyone (including me) would ever play such a character in a 3.5 campaign. Ever. Not even as a "roleplaying challenge". Where's the challenge in sucking? 3.5 specifically dictates that low attributes are bad. BD&D simply says that you're a bit worse off, but you can still be a decent adventurer. While I don't think the system matters nearly as much as others do, I can see how a simpler system lends itself to better play by virtue of limiting player choice in the realm of character creation.

Sure, I can spend an hour designing a kickass GURPS fantasy character who can cast spells and is an expert lockpicker but has a difficult time with the ladies. I'll even have a specific point value for every single thing that tells me exactly how the character would act in situations. Or I can call him Cugel and look at his 7 Wisdom. For the gamist in me, GURPS is awesome. For the kid in me who likes playing rpgs because it's fun, D&D or LL is better. Fun is not a bad word, nor is it a nebulous quality, regardless of what all the other bloggers out there think. I can definitely say I have fun going to the movies, and I also have fun hooking up with hot girls. The sex part can be rated "more fun" than the movies, but not always, depending on the girl. It's not apples and oranges, some things are just more fun than others. Playing GURPS is fun in the gamist sense, the same sense that I have fun playing wargames. Playing Cugel in a simple D&D game is fun in the way I had fun playing with Star Wars action figures or waiting for the new episode of GI Joe. It's a much more natural, simple and primal fun that appeals to the kid in me.

Basically, the more complex the rpg the less fun it is, but only to a certain degree. There must be SOME complexity, or it's truly not a game at all. Every kid's game has rules of play that are adhered to. It's only when these rules can't be understood immediately and applied unambiguously that the complexity creeps in and limits fun. Rolling a d20 over a certain number is about as complex as combat in an rpg can really be without overstepping this magic limit. My feeling is that unless a 10 year old kid can grasp the rule, it is too complex and probably should be thrown out. Roll this die to hit, this one for damage, after a certain about the monster dies...that's easy, concise and understandable. The less choices the player has upfront, the more choices they have LATER. That really doesn't make much sense at first reading, and I'm still trying to understand what it even means, but it certainly appeals to me. Meticulously designing a character involves so many upfront assumptions, adaption is much more difficult. I don't think I'll have any problems with Cugel adapting to anything that comes his way because I had no real investment initially. Lack of initial investment means that Cugel's accomplishments are actually more meaningful as they are the very real product of roleplaying instead of gamist goals. That is pretty kickass and it reminds me why I played this damn game so much every since I was introduced to it back in junior high.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Nerd vs. Nerd: the battle rages

You'd think that a small, insulated group of individuals who share an unpopular (and at times downright lame as hell) hobby would be a bit more supportive of each other and advocate the free exchange of ideas, but, alas, that is not the case within the rpg "community". I write community in the sarcastic sense as there is no unified, central gathering area for roleplayers, especially not on the internet. I'm not naïve enough to think that a large group of people could never become segmented or polarized, but the obsession with certain mindsets amongst roleplayers is taken to a ludicrous level. Take, for instance, the notion that WotC has somehow damaged D&D by turning it into a World of Warcraft boardgame. Yes, I agree that 4th edition D&D pretty much sucks (and I cannot for the life of me even figure out how to make a character), but honestly who cares? My 1st edition AD&D books didn't suddenly vanish when 4th edition was released, nor did they vanish when 3rd edition or 3.5 were released, either. The roleplaying police won't confiscate my books nor keep me from playing my game as I see fit. Why, then, should I give one crap about how a company treats their intellectual property? WotC bought TSR and owns D&D; they should be able to do with it what they will. Granted, I took major exception with a similar case when Indy 4 was abomination to be sure, but movie sequels are a little different in that they are accepted as canon and thus must be integrated into the whole. Not one person would ever think that you MUST accept D&D 4th edition in order to play 1st, or even acknowledge the new game as remotely relevant. Hence, I don't care about 4th edition. I even own the books because I'm always up for something new, but I feel like I seriously wasted my money. I didn't feel that way when I bought 3rd edition, however. For whatever reason, I felt like the new game breathed life into the hobby, even if I still prefered the older game. But, again, 4th edition doesn't matter to me and it shouldn't matter to anyone else, either. You can think it sucks and think the mechanics are terrible and that it's not TRUE ROLEPLAYING but that doesn't take away from the fact that it is introducing a whole new crowd into rpgs, and I'm really happy about that.

Why then do all the grumpy rpg grognards on their blogs and message boards rant endlessly about these fancy pants newcomers and their idiotic notions about how to play rpgs? Why do the 4th edition zealots refuse to acknowledge any shortcomings of the new game, going so far as to say the old games were essentially "nice tries" but no one was really having fun, they were simply delusional. I really don't get it at all, ESPECIALLY considering that both camps are nothing but a bunch of humorless nerds with way too much time to bitch about the dumbest crap. Why don't they focus their energies on making this hobby more appealing to the masses? WotC, for all their Evil Deeds, is attempting to do just that via the juggernaut that is Hasbro. If Hasbro wants D&D in all the major bookstores and toy stores, well, it's going to happen. And there's not a goddamn thing wrong with that whatsoever. If Walmart starts selling D&D, that would be the best fucking thing to happen to this hobby in 20 years. The paucity of rpg books "in public" is so alarming that I find it hard to believe the hobby exists at all. Word of mouth works great for a lot of things, but when half the population of roleplayers are spending all their time telling each other to fuck off and die, not to mention lacking any social skills, no one is going to know about this game.

Pretty much everyone you'll meet on the street knows what D&D is, and I do mean everyone. Ask a random stranger if they've ever heard of the game and I can bet they'll say something like, "Oh yeah, that nerd game." D&D, and by extension rpgs in general, are known but dismissed. All the effort arguing over the dumbest crap (ascending AC vs. descending for example) is wasted breath. Stop battling the nerds and start bringing rpgs back into popular culture. There is certainly a major market for gaming: just look at professional poker. While rpgs cannot be judged in a manner that would lend itself to tournaments akin to pro poker, wargames certainly could be. What about a D&D minatures tournament on tv? They're paying kids to play fucking Guitar Hero, I'm sure there is a group of people who wouldn't mind watching fantasy battles for money.

This is nothing more than a pipe dream, I am sure, but whatever. The point remains that nerd vs. nerd battles have got to stop. Engaging in polite discussions about rules is good. Hammering out reasons why one rule is better than another is fine. Outright hatred and personal attacks make this hobby even more inaccessible to the casual gamer than it already is. Open disgust for the only company that can possibly market rpgs to a wider audience is idiotic.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Roleplayers: the true impediment?

What is it about this hobby that attracts the biggest losers I've ever seen in my life? Well, a few of those emo/goth/artsy kids are worse, but that's debatable. At least some of the girls are hot. There aren't any hot chicks who play rpgs and 90% of the guys look like they rolled out of Revenge of the Nerds, but without any of the drive and intelligence. Living in their mom's basement, working at Wal-mart at 35, no car, endless internet porn, Canadian girlfriend they've never met but talk to on IM every night and abysmal hygiene. Personality type: horrid. Shouting at you, never talking. Interactions are impossible unless you have limitless patience and/or an iPod cranked to 11. Consumed with other hobbies, aspirations, goals or intent other than to get their half-orc barbarian to 9th level and rape the princess. Or perhaps have their elf maiden with a 20 charisma raped. Whichever.

Are you a roleplayer? Do my statements piss you off? I surely hope they do because, while hyperbole to some degree, they accurately reflect the perception others have of this hobby. I don't think I've ever actually told anyone directly what it is I do every other Saturday afternoon. Usually I say it's a poker game or something. The stigma attached to to playing rpgs is a very real thing. The breaking point for me in any relationship with a girl is when I decide to let them in on my secret. Some of my ex-girlfriends have never known about my rpg obsession, but a few have, and while it didn't cause any major issues, there were a few times that I felt seriously embarassed given their reaction. Talking about the game in public is a no-no, and even in semi-private situations the make up of the group determines if rpgs are discussed.

Some of you might say that I shouldn't sucumb to society's views on what is acceptable. I've thought about this at length, and it's not so much the hobby itself as the people who engage in it that causes the problem. I do not want to be associated with the most visual and vocal members of the rpg community, mostly because they're losers. Even though all the members of my gaming group have jobs, went to college, take showers, have girlfriends/are married, etc., the perception on the outside is that somehow we are all flawed individuals by virtue of playing the same game as the people I described earlier.

We play at a gaming store, sometimes at an individual's house, depending on circumstances. At the store, I would estimate that 90% of the people playing outside of my group fit the profile of "loser". Striking up a conversation with any of these guys is a wasted effort, as their social skills are non-existent. Fat, ugly, smelly, stupid and a laundry list of other unacceptable traits come to mind. Definitely not the kind of people I'd want to make friends with. As the rooms are first-come, frequently we are at odds with other groups. Invariably, they are rude and obnoxious, rarely allowing us to take a couple chairs (not in use) or even acknowledge our existence with more than a distracted, haughty glance. The females, when even present (I'd estimate maybe one-in-twenty, if that), are hideous excuses for women. Seriously. I've read on the internet how some guys have met their wives playing rpgs, but I can say in all the years I've gamed, I've met exactly two attractive girls and they were both weirdo goth chicks who played Vampire and are probably in a methadone clinic right now.

The perception is greater than the reality in this case. The gaming store houses the finest of the dregs, but I am friends with plenty of well adjusted people who enjoy playing rpgs. Half of them I did not even know played except by chance when they came to my apartment and saw a bookshelf with AD&D books. The comment was usually something like, "Hey, I used to play that." I'd invite them to a game and their interest would be renewed. Would any of these people ever want to play an rpg after entering a gaming store and seeing the loud, boisterous crowd, reeking of BO? No way in hell, and who would expect them to? If I wanted to play rpgs, went to a gaming store and only saw Neo-Nazis playing, I'd probably think the hobby was verboten for anyone who wasn't a radical racist. In the same sense, normal people probably think the hobby is only for smelly nerds. Couple this with the idea that games are for kids and anyone over 25 with a job, a mortgage and a wife will find something else to do like hang out at Hooters and watch football.

The whole point of this post is merely to point out that roleplayers themselves are killing the hobby. The perception is that roleplayers are losers with no lives, and no matter how many blog posts anyone makes that perception is not going to change until someone "normal" goes out in public and has a gaming session. We all need to start making our games public, decrying the losers for what they really are, how they've hurt the hobby, and make a serious effort to stress that the game is fun. It wouldn't hurt to have a bunch of hot chicks playing, either. Everything I've read leads me to believe that D&D was taking off and becoming a serious contender against the likes of board games and card games, but the whole "D&D is evil!" crusade in the early 80s pretty much nipped that in the bud. The hobby has a few million players, probably, and while new people start playing all the time, there is never any real push to bring it into the mainstream. Just like indie music idiots want exclusivity, so too do I think that the majority of roleplayers want rpgs to be exclusive. That doesn't make any sense to me at all. The hobby is dying and it needs reviving. All the in-fighting between fragmented groups, the "old school vs. new school" debates, the pure hate toward 4th edition D&D and WotC...all these things do nothing more than segment the hobby further and push people away who might otherwise enjoy the game. It's really pissing me off.

Intro Post

It's not like this is my first blog; in fact, I have at least five I regularly post on. Anonymously. There's no need to attach my real name to any of that stuff. I do have a gaming blog, though, which supposedly tracks a D&D game I run on the weekends. Mostly it's about how sadistic people are in general. It's the "homepage" in my Blogger account. No clue why I'm even starting with this minutiae, but it seemed appropriate.

Anyway, the premise of this blog is mostly to talk about the hobby of roleplaying games from an inside-out sort of view, and to analyze it the best I can as both a member and a critical observer. I don't know if that makes any sense, as I'm not a Licensed Social Anthropologist, but after reading Shared Fantasy by Dr. Gary Alan Fine several times, I have some idea how to approach the subject. I plan to be as cruel, crude, direct and honest as possible, mostly because there's really no point in pulling any punches ON THE INTERNET, right? A lot of people in this hobby are delusional anyway, and some of them need a reality included. Call this cathartic if you wish, but as much as I love playing rpgs, there's a lot of bullshit that goes on in the "community" that is extremely annoying and hard to swallow given the people involved. Now, on to the next post.