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 released...an 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 gaming...no 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 check...me 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.