James Answers & Raises Interesting Questions for the OSR and RPGs

Chalkboard version of the flyer for the D&D installment of Ryan McGinness's 50 Parties series

Off the top of his head in the comments to my previous post, James sketches an outline of how to integrate the party game that hooks new players & the ongoing campaign that feeds the jones of experienced ones. (Other posters offered invaluable insights too, but I’m going to roll them into replying to James just for the sake of expediency; you can correctly assume I’ve thought over your individual points and am talking about them when it seems like I am, sorry for not addressing them personally!)

James wrote “this is really a design question”, although it’s really two design questions which he then proceeded to describe:

1.  Can you create an RPG that works as a party game?  What features must it have?  (Implied, because it is Tavis asking: can this be done with Dungeons & Dragons?)
* Newbie-friendly
* Drop-in / drop-out
* Satisfying resolution in, say, 30-60 minutes

James is right that doing this with D&D can be assumed if it’s me talking. This is for three reasons:

  • If you say “we’re going to play a game where you talk to the other players about what you should do in an imaginary situation, and then consult some dice and a referee to learn the consequences of your stated action”, newbies don’t know what you’re talking about. If you say “we’re playing Dungeons & Dragons”, they do.
  • This is the value of can this be done with Dungeons & Dragons we’re trying to solve for – or, if not a newbie, someone who was frozen in the year 1974 and just thawed to discover a wildly proliferated landscape of  ideas inspired by & related to Dungeons & Dragons, which are talked about in jargon like “role-playing games” that our time-traveller eventually learns to speak but secretly persists in thinking about as “variant ways to play D&D”.
  • No doubt there are people in this world whose souls do not thrill at the concept of vicariously going into a hole in the ground to confront the unknown, armed only with sword, spell, or prayer. Since I am not one of those people, I have no idea how to reach them. But I do know how to rock those three chords, so the best I can do is hope others can learn from my example how to make DIY punk out of their klezmer roots instead of my rhythm and blues.

These caveats aside, James has a great list of necessary features:

Newbie friendly. I think we have to solve for a general problem – “I don’t know what I’m doing but want to be encouraged to participate and respected for my contribution anyway” – and also a specific problem – “I am a member of a group that traditionally hasn’t well-represented in the roleplaying community.” Since I have the opposite of the latter problem (especially now that it’s my Decade of the Beard), the best I can do about it specifically is to try to get as much experience with under-represented players as possible and listen to them. Playing with kids is a big help here, as at least the 8-10 year olds don’t seem to know yet whether the game is stereotypically for them or not.

I do think that encouraging and respecting everyone’s contributions will go a long way toward making our community be more inclusive. It’s likely that there are things about the essence of D&D that intrinsically appeal more to one gender and culture. But women I’ve gamed with have told me enough about the barriers that they had to overcome to find a place for themselves (I’m told you can get a good taste of this by playing an anonymous, one-off first-person-shooter online with a female avatar) that I think we can’t begin to get a handle on how much this thing we love is attractive to other genders and cultures until we stop saying “for you, this thing also comes with an X% chance of 2d10 worth of intimidation and humiliation.”

This raises two other interesting questions:

  1. How can we get strangers to cooperate in creating the kind of super-awesome-let’s-pretend time that 8-year olds do so well (maybe this is paida, the power of improvisation and joy) and enable those who make the biggest contributions to get the most out of it, without marginalizing those who don’t feel ready to contribute as much?
  2. How can we provide the sense that the imaginary world, its dangers and consequences, is a real place and a worthy opponent  (maybe this is ludus, the taste for gratuitious difficulty) without enabling the thing that the 11-year-olds so quickly gravitate towards: D&D rocks because it gives me so many ways to quantify how I’m better than you, from my success in the imaginary situation to my mastery of the system to the attention I earn using my social/intellectual talents.

Drop-in/drop-out. Here I think we need not only “can come to one session but not others,” but also:

  • can roll in ninety minutes late like most people do at a party and still enjoy this D&D thing
  • can start playing without knowing whether it’s going to be fun & making a committment of time
  • offers frequent occasions to stop playing without losing face; it could be “my character just died, now I want to go get a beer” or “we finished this objective, now I’m going to go talk to my friends who aren’t playing” and not always “I’m disrupting everyone else’s fun when I get up and leave because I’ve had enough of this for now.”

For me, a Tower of Gygax session that’s firing on all cylinders is the archetype of this experience. I forget that others may not have experienced this & I haven’t described it well. Basically six people are sitting down with character sheets in front of them, facing a highly lethal challenge of player skill and luck. A bunch of other people are waiting in line for their turn to play. This comes when one of the characters is killed; that player gets up from the table (although they may get back in line to play again), and the person at the head of the line sits down in their still-warm seat and gives a new name to the character sheet in front of them. If y’all know of other things that are like this, let me know!

This suggests another important value for drop-in/drop-out:

  • is engaging for people that are in the audience. Funny things happen in good Tower of Gygax events, it’s fun to listen so you get the jokes.  And you’ll be in the imagined situation sooner or later; if you hope to survive longer than your predecessor when you get to the table, it pays to listen carefully. Some of the ToG events I’ve done have had audience interactions by design, like “Peanut gallery: give me something that might happen as a result of this fumble,” and there’s always the basic level of interaction: “Hey, seated player, here’s a suggestion for what to do next that might get you killed so I can take over!”

Perhaps because he finds it dismaying when he sees that Spiderman comics are still telling the same story hundreds of issues later whereasI find one of the most compelling aspects of the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness the idea that they would have been sixty volumes long, and would gladly go on reading their same story forever, James’ last feature is the only one I don’t agree with:

Satisfying resolution in, say, 30-60 minutes. If I’m at a party and I find the back room where people are smoking joints or having an orgy or exchanging juicy gossip or whatever, it’s not necessary for my enjoyment that everyone finishes doing that within the hour. Maybe I’m the kind of person who knows that’s not fun for me and closes the door right away. Maybe I’m someone who’ll get my fill and then float off to go do other things pretty quickly. But if this is the kind of party I’ve been looking to have, I want to disappear into that back room and not come out again until it’s time to go home.

Although I don’t think there needs to be an overall resolution every 30-60 minutes, I agree there need to be frequent subsidiary climaxes. In part this is just good reward theory for something we want people to get hooked on. Also, finishing one joint every so often is a good way to offer people opportunities to get up and leave before the next one gets rolled.

OK, on to James’ second design question:

2.  Can you then modify the party game so that it delivers the continuity of an on-going RPG campaign, without alienating new players?  (Again, impliedly: can this be done with Dungeons & Dragons?)

The exact design features of the game are less important than working through the life-cycle of the game, which is something like, 1.  “Hey, do you wanna play this game?” 2.  “Okay, let’s set up the game.” 3.  “All right!  Time to play!” 4.  “Ha ha, that was great, thanks for playing!” ….in a way that it takes (say) about 30 minutes to an hour at the outside.

I am thinking about a much longer lifecycle than James – not only in the context of the party, as noted above, but also because I want the party game to be as much like the campaign game as possible. If the party game is like the starter set for newbies, I want it to be one where you get lots of replay value and do the same things you’ll do once you graduate to the “real” game, not one where you make characters with a choose-your-own-adventure mechanic you’ll never use again and aren’t shown the possibilities for creating your own scenarios.

You can handle the “do you want to play?” thing by working out a really simple, catchy, fun premise that fits into one sentence.  “this is a game where you pretend to be the Ghost Busters!”  “This is a game where you pretend to wander around in a dungeon looking for treasure before the dragon eats you!”  That kind of thing.

Totally agree with this. The premise of “what are we playing” should be immediately clear and engaging, and include overall goals – “we’re trying to get treasure and become more powerful” – as well as a simple and fun premise of what needs to be done right now to reach the next sub-resolution: “we need to escape from this room with as many of these silver ingots as we can carry before the water level reaches the ceiling and we drown.”

Prep is easily handled before the game, by concocting a simple but extremely grabby situation, and if necessary, coming up with pre-gens.  If character creation involves making more than, say, 3 decisions, I would throw that into pre-gens.  As a compromise, maybe something like what Tony L-B did for “Capes,” where there are two aspects of a character that plug in together – so if you pick “angry orphan” personality and the “cosmic godling” set of super powers, you’ve got “angry orphan godling” character.

Pre-gens can certainly be a useful way to minimize the barrier to entry to coming into a game, and as in the Tower of Gygax are almost a necessity for a highly drop-in/drop-out game to work well. Jeff Rients’ D&D chargen as a party game has a lot of potential, though, and I was very glad I had people roll 3d6 in order for the descriptive stats of their otherwise pregen 4E characters at the art world party. Erol Otus also did a super-fun thing at NTRPGcon where we made characters ahead of time using 2d6 in order, and then a regular sub-climax was earning another d6 roll and then choosing which stat to assign it to; this made for a very satisfying way to make your PC a little more like you wanted them to be, while keeping a gambling element (do I put this 4 in my best stat now, or hope that one of my other later rolls is higher?).

The process of play can be EASED by moving all the mechanics behind the screen, but that time limit is a huge effin’ barrier.  The real issue for role-playing games is the loop between:

* GM presents a stimulus (players ask for clarification)

* Players propose a response (GM asks for clarification)

* The situation resolves, generating a new stimulus

That’s going on during every second of play.  It’s vital to communicate very quickly and clearly, and to identify  options at critical junctures.  There should be no more than three options, and the benefits and drawbacks of these options should be very obvious and immediate.  If the players insist on inventing a fourth option, fucking let them do it and have it be the awesomest option ever – until it goes wrong surprisingly and they’ve got to improvise a way out of it (and then let them succeed).

This description of the loop of play is pure gold. I’d quibble that, to teach players who are used to other games that D&D is open-ended and that the awesomest things will come from choices that weren’t set out for them by anyone else, the fourth choice should always be explicit. Few adults take advantage of the last option in  “you can be a human, a hobbit, a dwarf, an elf, or anything else you want to make up,” but offering up that possibility reinforces that it’s OK to color outside the lines.

But still, this is going to take a lot of time simply to explain what’s going on, what can be done, and what happens next. In the Hunter Kids Class, I found that 4-5 kids around age 9 managed to get through about three “scenes” worth of material in about an hour of play.  And we were going pretty fast, with practically no mechanics involved.  It’s critical that these scenes resolve the core situation in a way that is entertaining and unexpected.  I got reasonably good at improvising this stuff, but I think Tavis has a knack for this which I haven’t been able to match.

This may be one way that you’ll want games you play at a party to be different than the one in your campaign: the latter lets you explore situations that take longer than a few minutes to explain to outsiders.

It’s worth thinking about why you’d want to run games for strangers at a party at all. Dave Wesely told me that, early on in the development of the role of the referee with the Napoleonic wargames that led up to Braunstein, they realized that having a good judge was really important. But not everyone could do it well, so it couldn’t be a rotating collective duty like “whose week is it to bring the snacks”. What they figured out was that the unique fun of being the referee came from the fog of war; having an omniscient viewpoint meant the blind blunders of the players created an endlessly entertaining private joke.

I think the unique fun of playing in quick bursts with strangers is that you get a much broader & thus richer exposure to all the fantasies that people bring to fantasy role-playing. I am a happier person because the girl in the D&D afterschool class who decided that one of her character’s swords was magic, and the other was magic and also a cell phone, reminded me that having the things I do have as a modern adult is fulfilling a kids’ fantasy; because the woman at the art party who chose “flyer” as her character’s race, because she wanted to be able to fly, reminded me that some awesomeness needs no explanation and ought not be delayed any longer than gratuitious difficulty demands.

As to building on prior material, I think it’s like this.  The GM takes previous resolutions to problems, and creates a new stimulus.  The stimulus should be interesting and compelling in its own right, though.

The real problem here, IMO, is the “asking for clarification” part of the social layer, particularly where proposals are evaluated in light of prior adventures.  “If we do _________, Ontussa the Sphinx may never speak to us again.”  Or, “This idea is better, because it means the Ninth Menegril might owe us a favor.”

All of that stuff is richly rewarding IF you know who that is.  But if you DON’T know the backstory, it’s crippling, since everyone else is an expert and you aren’t. It also drags the process of decision-making down to a crawl, because every choice is evaluated in the context of an ever-lengthening list of past decisions.

I don’t know an easy way to handle that, short of the GM just saying, “Look, this isn’t going to matter. Don’t sweat it.”  Or, I suppose, a ruthless deadline which demands a near-immediate response.

In the White Sandbox I made a de facto decision to show new players “hey this is a game where if you invest a lot of time into it, you’ll know some stuff that you’ll find really interesting to talk about even though it’s impenetrable to outsiders,” but I’m not sure this was the best choice. James is, as always, an eloquent proponent of the problems here and I regret not having a better answer for him.

anyway, just an off-the-top-of-my-head response.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you James_Nostack; let us shower him with money so he can stop doing boring job things and give the important questions of our day his full attention.


10 Responses to “James Answers & Raises Interesting Questions for the OSR and RPGs”

  1. August 21, 2011 at 6:51 am

    Really interested in this stuff. Some thoughts:

    I think you might be bumping up against some of the bounds that make up our game. If you cut the time of play down too much and you risk losing exploration as a part of the game. 30 minutes, even an hour, is more like trying to figure out one obstacle, more a problem solving game (or tactical combat). Same goes for resource management, how many spells will you cast in 30 minutes? You might have one old school battle, use the spell, feel a sense of success, and then go have a beer– no sense of worry about traipsing around the dungeon with no spells left. This becomes a problem if you are constantly refreshing the dead, too. If manpower is the most important resource and it is essentially infinite, that are sounds like a different game to me. I’m assuming those replacement players come in with full quivers and spells?

    On a more constructive note, I think we shouldn’t underestimate what an experienced player can add to this kind of quick chaotic play, so much that you should probably even consider forming teams with a DM and an experienced “seeder” player who will stick around for the whole party. They can be models of “how to play” and also be the keeper of the night’s narrative from the player perspective: “No, don’t use fire we tried that and they just grew!”

  2. August 21, 2011 at 11:17 am

    More really interesting food for thought. In particular I think the stripped-back “process of play” is something that can be all too easy to clog up with unnecessary additions in some games.

    How to get non-gamers comfortable “playing pretend” with each other is one of the big issues I’m facing in my own attempt to tackle this challenge. I’ll be posting on that topic within the next day or so.

    Keep this series of posts up, I think it’s something well worth investigating.

  3. August 21, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    @Telecanter: “bumping up against some of the bounds that make up our game” is definitely true; ideally we’d wind up with more of the things that are essentials than the most-general sense of D&D I outline above. Exploration is something we haven’t really be able to do in the afterschool class – perhaps because the kids aren’t that interested in it – and is generally absent from the Tower of Gygax, where “what’s behind the secret door” is more like “what will happen if we open this chest?”. I note, however, that resource management is possible in the puzzle-solving sense – “there are three locked doors, should we use knock on one of them or is there another lock past these?” – and that blowing all your spells because it’s a one-shot is a learned skill. Kids in the afterschool class never got over their reluctance not to save their “daily powers” for later even after twelve weeks of eighty-minute sessions in which all their resources refreshed at the start of each one.

    I also totally agree that having a “seeder” player is wonderful and an important part of the toolkit of a professional GM. This is one of the things that can provide continuity between party-game and campaign; the presence of participants who cross over between both.

    @SuperSooga: Looking forward to it! For those who haven’t checked out these yet, read his “[Mass Appeal in 2011]” and “[Some Difficult Truths Pt 1]”.

  4. August 21, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    You basically just described how me and my friends played Risus. We were playing in a public spot in our high school, so I found it was easy to just not explain to everybody how to play, but just start playing and see if they liked it. I recruited 6 non gamers to rpgs, including one who turned out to be a power gamer, and one girl who played “the grinch”. That game only ended because the power-gamer figured out that if he put all of his skills into “shapeshifter” and “able to split into multiple parts” he suddenly became indestructible. Kinda made the game less fun for everyone.

  5. August 22, 2011 at 1:55 am

    @llama: Risus seems like a good approach, as always there is much to be learned from S. John Ross.

    SuperSooga is starting a Google+ thread that seems related to these ideas; not sure how best to refer people there but try https://plus.google.com/104927909965528500794.

  6. August 22, 2011 at 5:49 am

    Tavis, something about the party game hinted at by this post *and* the bit about esoteric, albeit useful, knowledge of what happened before screams “whiteboard” to me. Sort of like a game of pictionary, where previous players graffitti (“fire makes ’em bigger”) is both useful and tantalizingly obscure.

    Also handouts. A picture of “my guy” that communicates his abilities/strengths/weaknesses/flyer and a indie game style “all the rules you need to play” character sheet seems like a no brainer.

    I’d love to have a party with this game! But then, I’m also the dude stoned on dragons and pixie dust in the back room.

  7. August 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Ha! When I saw how long my response was getting, I thought, “Should I make this a full-blown post? Nah, it’s Tavis’s thread, that would probably be bad etiquette on my part.” But I’m glad it happened anyway.

    And it wasn’t really “off-the-cuff,” since we spent most of the last school year trying to crack these problems. But I do support people giving me money.

    Just as a parenthetical comment: what KIND of party game probably makes a difference here. On the rare occasion where I overcome my social anxiety to go to a party, I’m generally looking to spend 2-4 hours there, and it is extremely unusual for me to engage in any one conversation or activity for more than 30 minutes. To hold my attention, there either has to be a good friend, a very pretty girl, yummy snacks, extremely funny people, good drinks, or an amusing kid / pet already involved somehow (more or less in descending order of interest). And these considerations usually trump whatever the “pitch” for the activity is.

    At the same time, if someone is totally obsessing on a particular activity to the exclusion of other things, that’s kind of a turn-off to me, because I feel like I’m missing out on stuff. At a recent party in Boston, some stranger started talking about Gygax Numbers and spell-differences between B/X and BECMI! This wasn’t billed as a nerd party, so I was totally surprised and pleased . . . until the conversation would not end. Therefore, if I were to run an RPG as a party-game, I wouldn’t want to get tagged as “That guy who won’t shut up about his weird game” for the rest of the night.
    “I’m not sure [creating a rich, reactive world of continuity and rewarding those who master it] was the best choice. James is, as always, an eloquent proponent of the problems here and I regret not having a better answer for him”

    The White Sandbox is trying to do something extremely specific, and I think you hit on the right strategy to achieve that goal.

    (More substance to come later.)

  8. August 22, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Tavis, when I wrote that the game should resolve every 30-60 minutes, what I really meant was, as you phrased it, “offers frequent occasions to stop playing without losing face” combined with a feeling of (perhaps perverse) accomplishment.

    It doesn’t have to be a huge accomplishment, but something like, “Oh hell, I got killed in a preposterous way!” or “Hey, we cleared a level of the dungeon,” or “I found a treasure” or something.

    The idea being that they leave the session, even after 45 minutes or so, being able to tell a little story: I had a problem, I tried to solve it, and THIS happened. If “THIS” is entertaining, spooky, fantastical or whatever, so much the better. The reason for doing this is so that he can tell other people about the rewarding and unique aspect of RPG’s as a medium, simply by example. If you don’t get a pay-off of some kind, you’re likely going to think, “Hey, this is some weird activity where people argue about dice and weird shit for hours on end.” But if there’s a pay-off, your memory will be, “Hey, this is some weird activity about dice and arguments, but REALLY it’s about having a blast imagining things.”

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Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2011

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