Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gaming Learning Curve

So I almost forced the students at my gaming club to play a rules lite game. And not even for the right reasons necessarily. I've been contemplating making the switch based on the fact that I play rules lite regardless of the version/edition I play. And truthfully I feel that a quick and flexible game is probably best for younger players. Not to mention it would be easier to learn. But none of these reasons were the motivation for almost forcing them to change games.
No--it was due to their sheer stupidity. OK, maybe that's a bit too strong, they are really young players (most are 14 to 15 years old). But I am so fed up with their dilly dallying over feats, skills, racial abilities, class features and the like that I almost can't stand it anymore. And truthfully it isn't because I think these things are bad; but rather because they think these things are the key to playing a really good character. And this of course extends to cheating on ability scores, hit points and any other randomly generated number contained in the game. I literally had a 1 guy with a 1st level PF Druid with four 18's and 15 HP! I mean even if he maxed his HP roll and added 4 for Con he was above max. Even with the toughness feat--which he didn't have.

The problem is that they can't see that basic smart playing is what is going to help them survive, not munchkinizing their play. And yes, I can see that they probably think they have to do this because so many of them have died. But no matter how simple I make the challenge they can't quite get it through their heads that they have to be careful, play smart and think a little bit. Things like checking for traps, not pissing off the town guard one too many times, not trying to cast charm person spells on the every passing acquaintance, not insulting the massively muscled scar laden guy with the axe at the bar, not rushing in when you are overwhelmingly outnumbered, not throwing molotov cocktails in the middle of the party, not gulping down every strange looking flask with bubbly liquid that you pick up, and the list goes on and on and on.
So yeah, I thought, you guys are just not getting it. You need to focus on good roleplay and problem solving skills. Not skills, feats, or maxed out ability scores. In short you need a good introduction to the game that will allow you to focus on actually playing well, instead of playing rules, tricks, doo dads and add ons. So I got out my photocopies of Swords and Wizardry and was ready to baptize them into the true order of old school gaming.

I've forced my young players before. Mandated by GM fiat from on high. Bent their will to mine gamewise--and it usually never went well. So at the last minute I couldn't go through it. I gave them the speech (once again) about teamwork, thinking things through, roleplaying etc. etc. I told them my thoughts, gave them my recommendations and asked what they wanted to do. I of course knew what to expect. Pathfinder all the way. They knew it, they loved it, and they weren't ready to give up their doo dads. But what one player said helped me to see a bit what their perspective might be.

This young lad who had lost only one player in his gaming career looked at me and said,

"You could go easier on us. Not be so tough. Lighten things up and help us survive."

There was a pregnant pause around the table, and I think everyone could see me thinking about what he had said. He actually had caught me a bit off guard. I do run tough campaigns. What I mean by that is I'm a Fourthcore style GM. I challenge my players. I often have save or die situations in my games. And there are always encounters where running away allows you to live to fight another day. My monsters are mean and crafty. Even my goblins, especially my goblins. Traps are commonplace and the environment is as much of a challenge as the monsters you may meet. This is the way I've always run things. But do I set out to kill the players in my games?

I certainly don't think so. My response was leveled and measured.

"Look, I know my adventures are tough. When you get through my adventures alive you know you've accomplished something worth celebrating. I don't hand out treasure, gold or easy wins. You have work for these things, and for the experience and levels you attain. My job is not to kill you, my job is to challenge you. If you end up dead alot of the fault lies in your own laps. As to "lightening things up"; You're not likely to fight a group of 6 goblins, when you guys are a party a dozen strong. Those 6 goblins aren't gonna chance it. They are going to run home and get their big brothers. That's why the monster groups almost always match you man for man or slightly outnumber you. As to helping you, I give plenty of hints--too many really. But you have to hear and heed them. And one thing I'm not gonna do is cheat. If my monsters roll a 20 I'm not gonna fudge it. I also won't fudge it if they roll a 1. The dice fall where they may, and the world is not going to open a path to greatness and victory for you. You are gonna have to search for it and fight for it. This is the life of an adventurer, the path of a hero. If you don't want it, maybe you should reconsider what you are doing."
Harsh? Maybe. But it's how I roll, and how I always have rolled. When I have crossed the line--and I do occasionally--I have no problem rolling back a bad ruling or fiasco on my part. But those don;t really happen too often.

So what happened? Well, I let them decide and they wanted to charge ahead with Pathfinder, vowing to do better and work together more. So I started Barrow of the Forgotten King, a 3.5 1st level adventure. They made it inside the town, to the inn, and promptly started a fight with the captain of the guard, intimidated the mayor, and after a short battle with a quickly growing number of town guards were subdued and run out of town on the chain gang. There were a few--about four players--who were actively trying to get everyone else to calm down and play more sensibly, but they still can't seem to hold sway over those who just can't seem to learn.

What happens next? Who knows. There's a path that's leads into the woods where the town guard dropped them off--about 3 miles outside of Kingsholm. So they may still find the ccemetery and barrow. But without the benefit of the inside information the mayor and Captain of the Guard could have provided. Maybe the two smart players who slipped out of the fight and hid to remain unnoticed can glean that info. Who knows? One thing I can tell you is that if they keep it up like this, they aren't gonna get very far, once again.


Marshall Smith said...

You have a dozen players? I think that might be part of your problem right there. Not only is it tough to rein that many people in, you run into issues with competition for spotlight time.

Maybe you should see if it's time to split the group, and let one of the kids take GM duties for 4 or 5 others for a while. See if you can split the group between the "smart and careful" and "chaotic stupid" factions.

Among other things, I don't think you're running the game that they want to play. Nothing wrong with either side. (I think we all went through our teenage power fantasy years.) It just might be time to hand off the reins rather than simply loosen up on them.

Chris said...

Yeah, 12 players regularly attending. But we have been up to 24 before *argh*.

That's definitely a part of the problem, but turning over the games to student GMs has proven unsuccesful in the past. Lots of people quit coming when student's GM.

I have kind of wondered if they want a high powered superhero campaign and have considered trying to convince them to try 4e. But frankly I GM the way I GM. If they need a different GM--one that is more interested in helping players soar to superpowerdom, then somebody else is going to have to do it.

I was running two groups of about 10 each for a couple of weeks in two separate campaigns, but one group was constantly being cancelled due to school meetings and such. So we combined so that everyone could at least play once a week.

But at this point, there is so much chaos I'm thinking about splitting again no matter what.

Thanks Marshall

Brendan said...

Your players seem to have a tendency to make trouble in town. That seems like a bad sign to me, antisocial behavior. Maybe they would do better in media res? That is, start them directly in the adventurous situation rather than letting them find adventures, sandbox style. They may not be mature enough for the second type of play.

Another thought: true challenge and power gaming are not mutually exclusive. You might consider being more generous with treasure without decreasing the difficulty. In other words, just as many PCs are likely to die, but the ones that remain standing will have more stuff. I have found that this works well with loot seeking players. Also, consumable magic items are great for this (potions, wands with charges, magic arrows, etc) because they don't affect your campaign forever and introduce resource management decisions.

How did that player explain the mathematically impossible cheating?

Brendan said...

Another option to work with the tendencies of your players: turn the town into the dungeon. This could be a Resident Evil style zombie plague, or maybe a new strict magistrate is sent to the town and turns in into a police state. Or maybe it's run by corrupt slavers.

Anonymous said...

Don't go easy on them. I'm with you on that.

But I'm not seeing the crazy crap they do as a problem. Crazy crap, highly lethal...sounds like a fun time.

Chris said...

Thanks for ideas Brendan! I actually have been poring over the encounter balance sections of the Core book and am thinking maybe I've unbalanced things a bit.

Based on the numbers I've been throwing at them my encounters have been about 4 or 5 encoutners levels above what they should be getting. If I'm reading the PF book right.

Normally I don't worry much about this stuff (encounter balance) but these guys seem to need things a little less challenging if they are going to have their stupid decision mitigated. I mean I've had three TPKs this year so far. That's high even for me.

I don't really plan on going easy on them, but I don't want to be unfair. This group just seems a little slower on the uptake than most.

Thanks again everybody!

NeoFax said...

I would suggest stepping away from DM duties. It is clear in the posts I have read you do not enjoy DMing Pathfinder and they do not enjoy playing or entertaining the though of playing Swords & Wizardry. Nothing good will come out of you being frustrated. I know as I had a player that continuously munchkined. I had to quit the game as it was no longer fun for me and as soon as I realized it was breaking Rule 1 in gaming I left.

Chris said...

Thanks NeoFax. I actually had sort a "come to Gary" moment yesterday as I thought these things through. I think I'm going to turn over the reigns of PF to some of my more experienced PF players and let them DM for awhile. And I'll start my own game for those who want to try something different. Not sure that's the right thing to do just yet, but it's sort of where I'm headed.

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