Friday, June 16, 2017

Meditating on How I Play the Game

Having read JB’s thoughts on the matter and some of the rants that inspired his post, I want to share some of my thoughts, but not in a philosophical, ranty kind of way. Like others, I find the video that started off this whole series of posts to be rather a waste of time and largely mistaken. To explain how, I want to tell the stories of several seminal moments in my experience as someone who plays RPGs:

Moment the First

When I was a wee high-school baby, I was introduced through some of my older friends to a cigarette smoking college student who wanted to start running a D&D campaign. The premise was simple. He showed us a map of where our characters were and asked us what we wanted to do. I remember how eye-opening it was to be at the steering wheel of the campaign: “You mean this whole campaign can be about us trying to hunt down and kill that blue dragon you told us about!? YES!” And, indeed that was the entirety of the campaign.

It was also the first and last time I played a Chaotic Evil character. While I remember the campaign fondly, I do not remember my fellow players that way. Since all the players knew my character was Chaotic Evil (and therefore a threat, although what kind of danger they expected out of a 1st level Illusionist, I don’t know) and therefore they were always trying to kill my character. The DM, however, always had my back. Even when I blatantly explained how my actions were rather Chaotic and Evil, he always made the players explain to him how their characters would know. When they failed (because I was VERY careful that my actions could be interpreted as helpful) the DM would disallow every attempt to kill me off.

In other words, the DM did a really good job of being a DM. He gave us a bunch of freedom to do whatever we wanted within his world, but very strictly enforced parameters around that freedom. There were certain things that were just not going to happen (like using player knowledge to screw with other players at the table). This actually made the freedom we had as players more valuable. For example, I knew I could get away with certain CE-like acts because the DM made sure that players couldn’t abuse their player knowledge and, in a way, I think he enjoyed how much I toed the line so that being CE never actually overtly hurt the party.

Moment the Second

Like many players in the 90s I played a lot of White Wolf products, and believe it or not I really appreciated these games. They actually taught me a lot about how to play a game. When my friends approached me about playing Vampire for the first time, for some odd reason they wanted me to be the…was it Storyteller? is that what they called the Referee/DM/GM? The reason I say odd, is because I rarely sat in the DM’s chair when we played. In retrospect, it might have been the few times I ran Call of Cthulhu one-shots that inspired them to ask me to take the reigns of a horror-themed RPG.

If I am honest, I rather didn’t waste a lot of time reading up on “how to play” essays littered throughout the industry. I learned by doing and this was the first real opportunity I had to put into practice what I had learned from my experience in Moment the First. I presented my players with a world: Boston. I informed them of that world through their various clans and then dropped a McGuffin into the whole mess where everybody wanted the McGuffin for different reasons. I then allowed my players to do what they wanted to do (within the parameters set by the game and by the setting).

In many ways, it was one of the more thoroughly satisfying campaigns I have ever been a part of, because I was surprised every time we played. My players refused to be predictable and as a consequence, my world had to react in ways I never imagined. It all culminated in a rousing three-way battle in the middle of Cambridge which left the players catching their breath in disbelief that they had actually survived. The best part: one of the players decided that it was in the best interest of everybody that the McGuffin be destroyed. I remember the player asking me if he could talk to me in private, because he wasn’t really sure that what he wanted to do was allowed. When I said, “Sure, why not?” I saw in him myself when that cigarette smoking DM asked our party what we wanted do to. He suddenly realized how much power he had over his own character and the campaign. The reaction around the table when the McGuffin shattered to pieces was one of the best moments I have ever had at an RPG table. I wasn’t responsible for that reaction, but I set up the freedom and the parameters for its possibility. I have been trying to duplicate this atmosphere for my players ever since and every campaign has a moment just like this, where my world interacts with a group of players that have taken the reigns of the campaign to create something that I could never manufacture on my own, even if I tried.

Moment the Third

In another White Wolf campaign, the group I played with decided to give Mage a try. We all toiled over character creation and painstakingly crafted the characters we all thought we wanted to play. Then our Storyteller? Referee? did something rather surprising that we all found shockingly fun: once he had introduced the fundamentals of the campaign, he handed us our characters’ counter-parts in the Technocracy. I ended up with a chick in a wheelchair. At first we all were not very happy, but then as we started to play we all realized that playing these characters that we had nothing to do with the creation of was actually more fun than playing our actual characters. I had no time invested in this character at all so I seized upon some of the things I saw on the character sheet and began playing her personality to the hilt without any fear of having this character die or be harmed or of even being liked. Other players followed suit and we soon found ourselves clicking as party, playing off of each other and outdoing ourselves when we had those carefully crafted characters we spent so much time creating. We were actually disappointed when we had to go back to our own characters.

Playing wheelchair chick made me realize that unfettered creativity isn’t all that creative. Left to our own devices, we human beings are kind of boring. When we start putting limiters on where we start with our creativity, whether those limits are playing a character we had nothing to do with creating, using random tables, rolling attributes in order, using only the Fiend Folio or Monster Manual II, using B/X or the original three LBBs as a starting point or whatever, the choices we make are going to surprise us and lead down paths we would never have thought of otherwise. This was yet another example of complete freedom within a set of strict parameters that just exploded with creativity and good fun. I have used random tables ever since.

Moment the Fourth

I will end with a bad experience. It was the first time I played D&D 3.5 with a DM that pretty much resembled the fellow in the video that started this mass spilling of virtual ink. Our party found ourselves in a time-crunch. We couldn’t retreat for fear of the evil we had uncovered getting away and becoming more powerful. So we pressed forward through the dungeon we were in despite not being prepared in the way 3.5 expects its players to be. When we got to the boss fight, it should have been a TPK. We couldn’t afford to retreat, but we couldn’t do damage at a rate that would allow us to survive the encounter. In fact, my character was completely incapable of doing any damage. I was out of spells and was only good as a meat shield. When the DM realized the situation, he started fudging die rolls and inexplicably changed tactics so that our party could actually start doing the kind of damage we needed to do in order to survive.

I actually felt cheated. My character should have died and I was robbed of a(n in)glorious death. We missed an opportunity as a group to re-think our party make-up and the way in which we approached the campaign to start anew and having to deal with all of the consequences of our previous party’s failure. Instead, we were all slaves of the story. The campaign never really recovered for me, but the upside is that it created an opening for me to introduce this group of players to Labyrinth Lord and the Lost Colonies were born. Although I have been sore tempted to fudge a die roll now and then, I have done my best to keep myself honest by rolling all my dice in the open ever since. As a consequence, even when those die rolls have resulted in the death of a beloved character, I have never felt cheated.

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