You Get What You Put In, As Long as You’re Careful Who You Let In – #RPGaDay 2017, Day 21

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

Which RPG does the most with the fewest words?

I don’t know the definitive answer to that, though I’ve said earlier in this series that I admire the simplicity and clarity of Fiasco, and that I have to give credit to Mentzer, whose two slim manuals inthe D&D Basic red box launched millions of kids into the hobby of RPGing.

I think, though, I’m going to take an alternate question, because I’m pretty far behind on how things have developed in recent years, and my answer to this would be worse than useless.

Let’s see: here’s an alternate question I dig:

What do you want out of an RPG experience?

There, that’s more like it. 

Something came up in a discussion with a gamer friend a while back. I was talking about how personally, I prefer a form of RPGing that seems to be much-derided in the OSR world: role-playing where you, you know, do voices and characters have relationships and motivations and fears and stuff. Not that that stuff needs to exactly all be spelled out in a lengthy backstory—in fact, it’s better if it isn’t—but because I enjoy that being part of an RPG experience. 

Which is to say, I find that a lot of people seem to think of the RPG world as split between the OSR and Story Gamers. This summary of that idea is pretty interesting. 

But it’s not really useful to me, because I kind of have affinities with both of those aesthetics. I mean, maybe not this far:

… but anyway that was a joke, not a serious tagline about beholders’ feelings. The image is trying to make a point—actually a few points—about how non-story gamers sometimes talk (and seemingly think) about story gamers. 

It’s just that there’s this way of playing RPGs where it boils down to essentially one thing: rolling dice in combat. I love rolling dice and combat when it’s situated in a broader context, and I can even wrap my head around tactical combat simulations, mind you. But if these games had always been and were destined to never be anything other than but dice-randomized combat (modified by buffs, magic gear, and whatever else is in the rules system), I’d never had gotten on the RPG train in the first place. I can deal with an RPG session that has little or not combat going on, as long as the characters are doing  things that they have reasons to do. Parley, politicking, scamming, planning heists, confronting enemies without resorting to pulling out weapons… all of that can make for an excellent session, even though in my last game, I found we averaged about three combats per session, one or two puzzles or traps, and two or three non-combat interactions with an NPC or NPCs. This was, note, a game run mostly using Lamentations of the Flame Princess, hacked with some house rules as well as bits and pieces of the official playtest rules sent out people last year.  

Of course, here’s where I’m going to throw in a curveball and say it really depends on the game you’re running. If I was running Trail of Cthulhu—I’ve read the core book but neither played nor run it—I imagine there’d be more NPC interactions and puzzles/traps, and much less combat overall. 

So here’s something else I’ll say: I want to have a good time with people I’d be happy not to be gaming with. This is something a friend of mine observed recently, and I realized that this was basically why I was cool with my last campaign having only two (or eventually three) players. I have zero interest in prepping a game night—which can take hours of work, by the way—only to spend the night with people I don’t like as people.

That doesn’t mean we need to be best buddies: just, there’s a litmus test. Would I be willing to hang out and play a board game with these individuals? Would I be happy drinking a beer and chatting? If so, cool: welcome on board. If not, well, I don’t care when you started playing D&D, that still won’t change my mind. You can tell when someone’s going to be that player, and usually pretty quickly. In my experience, that player is usually pushy, has a set idea of how the game should be run and will tell you so when you’re not doing it, and has a deep investment in being a longtime D&D player. I find I have more fun with people who—whether they’ve been playing a long time or just for a little while—haven’t settled into a single way of doing things, and think of themselves not just as gamers, but as people with a range of interests.

It’s hard to have fun when you’re around people you don’t really like. I’d rather read a book that play an RPG with people who’re pushy, aggressive, don’t have good social skills, or take things so seriously that they get mad when things don’t go their way.

And, I’ll just say this: I’ve known lifelong gamers who were terrible, terrible people. I’ll fold an example into a footnote, for those who’ve heard the story before… 1 We all know that gamers are often geeks or nerds, and that doesn’t mean much: some of the nicest, most fun, most wonderful people on earth are geeks, nerds, and/or lifelong RPGers; but what a lot of people don’t want to admit is that some geeks and nerds happen to be total assholes, and to use their “nerdhood” as a crutch or excuse for not doing something about that. 2 Yeah, that subset of practitioners of the hobby is not welcome at my table, thanks. 

Finally, I’ll say one more thing: most of the time, I’m a GM. What  look for in a game isn’t what I expect players are looking for. They’re looking to be challenged and entertained, and so am I, but the challenges and entertainment are different. I set up the landscape or structure in which their game surprises or entertains them: I make the hexmap, draw and populate the dungeon, lay out the city encounters, or whatever. 

They, on the other hand, surprise and entertain me by a lot of different things: by outthinking my traps and puzzles, by going in a direction I hadn’t imagined or planned for; by engaging in all kinds of surprising antics; and by getting invested in the outcome of events in the story. Combat without any real player investment is boring: combat where they’re taking risks and gutted when they fail—or elated when they overcome the enemy—is what’s enjoyable and worthwhile. 

And finally, since I like to spend a lot of energy building the worlds in which my games take place—far more often doing that than using canned settings, these days—I enjoy when players either engage with that, interfacing with the weird history or conspiracies I’ve made up, or attempting to uncover lore. If my players in a historical dark fantasy game were into it enough to start reading history books, that’d be even better; likewise if, in a postapocalyptic game, they set about trying to figure out what caused te Great Disaster. I like when players interface with the setting itself as a fictional construct. I’d love it if I were running a game set in a world like Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse and the players figured out as much as (or more than) the characters did in that novel. 

Those are a few of the things I look for in a game, and in a gaming group. I think it all boils down to fun, and enjoying ourselves together. 

  1. Someone I’d run games for for several years straight later stole hundreds and hundreds of dollars of gamebooks from me. Seriously, I had to have his mom let me into her basement so I could reclaim them while he was away. She was astonished her son could be such an asshole…. and she doesn’t know the half of it. He followed me to Korea and last I heard, was banned from an expat bar in his town for hitting a woman in the bar, something he argued was his right because she’d hit him first and feminism. Oh, no, wait, last I heard he was actually sexually harassing his university undergrads in Daegu.

  2. The surge in misogyny online among computer gamers over the past few years is unsettling, as is the geek-culture misogyny evident in labeling pretty girls who’re geeky “fake geeks” in the way only certain super-awkward lifelong geek guys  can.

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