Sunday, May 31, 2009

Learning to Play

I suppose I shouldn't be, but I'm kinda surprised at how the Old School Renaissance is reaching folks outside the hobby. I don't mean just folks who played years ago and are rediscovering RPGs. I mean folks who have never played before. But even the lapsed players are a pleasant surprise. Mr. Raggi and Oddysey have both discussed bringing brand new gamers into the hobby, and the perils and pitfalls that await both the newcomer and those who introduce them to RPGs.

With that in mind, I read this article by John Wick. It's mostly about his disappointment that 4e doesn't strive to revolutionize RPGs. What really struck me, however, was his discussion of how he learned to “write games the way I ran them.”

One of the things I love about the older games is how little editorial direction they come with. So little, in fact, that I had no idea the focus of the mechanics was on exploration more than combat until decades after I'd started playing them. While this really leaves the games wide open for us to tinker with, it can be exceptionally difficult for newcomers to get their brains around just how these things are supposed to work. How many times have we read about the very first games of today's grognards, and how they tried to play D&D like a board game, literally laying out the map of the Caves of Chaos on the table and having their buddies move pieces across it as if it were a Tarantino version of Candyland.

My own gaming history is punctuated by moments of sudden revelation. The first came in '81 when, reading Moldvay's Basic D&D, where he discusses how to “choose a scenario.” This is on page 51 of the book, and reading the whole thing up to that point, it had never occurred to me that the PCs would need a reason for being in the dungeon.

It would be nearly another two years of playing before I'd have my next revelation. In the summer of '83, my brother bought me my first issue of Dragon magazine, #74 with it's excellent article by Ed Greenwood on seven magical swords from his Forgotten Realms campaign. The Realms wasn't an official or professionally published setting yet, so all we knew about it were hints and scraps that showed up in the pages of Dragon. The detailed histories of the swords, how they had passed from hero to hero (or villain), the wars they'd been seen in and the monsters they'd slain, showed me I could take something of that wonderfully rich history hinted at in Lord of the Rings and sprinkle it into my games. The next sudden insight wasn't until the spring of '86 when I finally played with a DM I hadn't taught the game to, which brought with it a real understanding of how subtle changes in style could really transform how the game played. And then the summer of '91 saw the formation of my college group, and the truly evolutionary revelations that came with a far more diverse set of players.

Here's the point: it probably took me six or so years of tooling and playing and arguing and frustration before I got to the point where I'd today call my young self a competent DM. And that's with all the time and insanity and boredom and daydreams of youth fueling my gaming. If I'd started that self-same journey today, I can't say I'd have kept up with it. Today's newcomers to the hobby have it a bit easier than I did, with being able to network with grognards and professionals via the intrawebs. But we can still see some of the same mistakes we made way back when, as new DMs slalom between campaigns that are deathtraps, or Monty Haul, or railroaded story time.

I wrote that article about tactics in old school D&D because there are lots of things that are not immediately obvious to folks reading those rules for the first time that lots of us who've been playing for years take for granted. And I've hardly scratched the surface on issues that probably need to be dragged into the light of day, (like what it means that magic-users roll d4 for hit points and d6 for the damage their spells cause).

Now that we've flooded the 'net with our infectious enthusiasm for these games, I think we need to give these newcomers a hand-up when it comes to playing. We can't show everyone who wants to play how to do it through personal example, especially with such a broad range of styles available. And I think we can teach people how to avoid the common pitfalls without ourselves falling into one-true-wayism.

I think it's true that most of the popularity of D&D during its heyday was due to it being a fad. But with so many returning and finding again the fun they used to have, I think a lot of people left the hobby not because they couldn't enjoy it, but because they never really figured out how. I'd hate to see that happen again.

Photo credits: Metaphox, BotheredByBees.


Alex Schroeder said...

These days I'm taking the long view and teaching my best friend's kids how to play Labyrinth Lord. I just can't convince myself to present a bunch of kids around ten years old with D&D 3 or 4.

Santiago Oría said...

Right! I had a player yesterday that, though he had been a Call of Cthulhu player for a couple of years, he had never played D&D of any kind.

trollsmyth said...

Santiago: In spite of folks like Mr. Schroeder using games like LL to introduce kids to gaming, the old assumptions that everybody gets into these games via D&D just don't hold true anymore.

I can't imagine what sort of head trip D&D must be to someone whose default assumptions about RPGs is based on CoC. O.o

Natalie said...

At least from where I'm standing, old school bloggers are already doing a pretty good job of explaining how the games are meant to be played. More focus on new gamers would be good, but reading you, Sham, Jeff Rients, James Maliszweski, and others has gone a long way towards helping me figure out the exploration emphasis, why combat is supposed to be so deadly, and how to put together a decent if not spectacular dungeon.

But then, I've already had 6 years of DMing experience. I can translate "combat is supposed to be deadly because it encourages players to think rather than just stab everything they see" into something that's gameable at the table, rather than just taking it as a suggestion to start ambushing them with dragons all the time. If you'd gotten to me when I first started out -- or, worse, one of my early DMs -- things wouldn't have worked out so well. More discussion of what this all means at the table would go a long way.

AndreasDavour said...

I think it was Ken St Andre who said that OD&D was confusing because it didn't even contain an explanation of how to play the game!

OD&D costs more than I can afford so I can't confirm that statement. But, some games (older and newer) really suck at telling you how to play them. I sure hope we have come a long way since 1974, but sometimes I'm not so sure.

Santiago Oría said...

Trollsmyth: In Argentina many games won initiative over D&D because they where the first ones to arrive to the country translated to spanish.

That's why there are lots of gamers where who started with Call of Cthulhu and Vampire.

D&D only began here with AD&D2E, the first D&D edition to get translated to spanish.

Santiago Oría said...

MERP, Rolemaster and Paranoia where also the starting games of many.

word verification: truie