Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why I Play (And Don't Play) Table-top Roleplaying Games

So in preparation for the starting of a new regularly playing gaming group :-) YAY! I have been pondering what I would "suggest" we play. Everyone in our group seems fairly open minded about the issue; but, as normal, I have been fretting overly much. As also typical of my thinking process, I over-analyze everything. I was discussing the issue with my brother and fellow gamer in a dedicated 5e group my dilemma based thought process:

The Dilemma As I Experience It

I have certain games I really like:
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition)
  • Adventures Dark & Deep (as my preferred 1e clone/variant)
  • Classic Dungeons & Dragons (Rules Compendium)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Hackmaster 4th Edition
  • Advanced Hackmaster "5th Edition"
However, I worry that in "convincing" people to play one of my preferred systems above they might just be doing it to appease me. I don't want that. I want everyone to really be into playing what we are playing--to really get into the spirit of it and play it like it's the best system since sliced bread. I do not like having to constantly defend a system from the attacks of haters, least of all if they are at my table playing with me. The last thing I would want to experience is casting my gaming pearls before swine. I take it personally when these systems are criticized--I mean I know they have issues, right? But they are special to me for very personal reasons and if I'm going to play them with friends I want that feeling to not only be genuinely respected, but hopefully shared.

And then there are several other systems I have played and don't think are too bad. In other words, I won't refuse to play them but they are not my favorite:
  • Pathfinder
  • 3.5 D&D
  • Straight 2e AD&D
  • D&D "Next" 5e
  • Crypts & Things
  • Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Labyrinth Lord
  • Dark Dungeons
  • Adventurer Conqueror King
  • Swords & Wizardry
  • Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game
The problem of course is that when I agree to play these I start to deconstruct the game, and I become the critical one--looking for problems, reasons I don't like the system or the play. Most other people don't seem to be bothered by this process, as I don't make an absolute pain of myself, but it certainly starts to bother me and my enjoyment of the game. I don't want to be the stick in the mud however, that holds up play simply because a system is not my favorite. You would think it doesn't matter all that much--but it does to me for some reason. 

So there I was talking to my brother about this very first world problem and he gave me some advice that seemed pretty good. He first asked me what I thought made the most sense for everyone to play. After sifting through all the variables what simply made the most sense? Well, to me this was fairly obvious. The logical choice would be Pathfinder. Everyone knows how to play and everyone has the books. Simple right? Even though it didn't make me too happy.

Then he asked me a follow up question: No laying all that aside, what do you really want to play? What's your preference?

... pause ... 

I couldn't answer. I really didn't know what game I would choose.

As I thought about this, I realized that the dilemma wasn't which game so much as it was the environment. It was what I wrote above: I want everyone to be really into the game--including me. It's become obvious to me that gaming is, for me, incredibly nostalgia laden. It is a holistic experience that transcends the ruleset we are using. I am looking to capture that "magic". And for me certain rulesets do that better than others. 

As I explained this to my brother, or tried to fumbling over my worlds and heretofore unexpressed feelings, he gave me one more challenge. Take some time, he said, and write down the five or so reasons you love to game. Why do you do it? What is most important to you? Then, when you are done with that--try to write down what you can't stand in a game, what are complete fun killers for you when you game. It may not give you the answer you are looking for, he cautioned, but it should give you some insight. 

Wow. You would think as much as I egocentrically blog I would have already figured out that reflective practice. I suppose I may have to some extent here or there, but never had I written it down in one place before. So, here I go, in as few words as I can manage ...

Why I Game
  1. To escape into a world of my imagination, most commonly a fantasy world with mystery, wonder and just enough magic to keep things, well, magical.
  2. Inside that world to be surprised with a sense of wonder with the things others say and do that are totally unexpected, as much as the things and places we encounter therein. And to experience a story live and "in person".
  3. To see and feel that this world is, while filled with wonder and occasionally miraculous magics, that it can feel as normal and real as the here and now and that the characters we play therein could just as well be me and my friends--not uber-powered alien-like superbeings I have no hope of ever understanding, let alone empathizing with--but "believable" if you will. Verisimilitude is important.
  4. To journey, to quest, to adventure as a part of my escape, whether as a player or, even more preferably, as dungeon master watching a group quest and journey through dangers almost insurmountable, experiencing profound challenge, danger, thrills and occasionally even death to eventually become heroes! Not undefeatable superbeings, but men and women who through courage and wit have accomplished great things.
  5. The above point is so important that it bears further elucidation. I believe that there should exist a healthy tension between players and GM and even at times between players exactly because the game is adversarial as well as cooperative. The challenge level should be high, but manageable by wise and savvy players who play the game with an eye to the reality of the dangers such a world presents. To a certain degree we do not cater to players, we present them with a very real and very dangerous world in which to adventure and face the challenges which eventually bring fame and the status of legend.
  6. To share in the real world camaraderie around these experiences with fellow players who become more than friends bound by our experiences and common reference of not only the game we play but a deep and imaginatively real experience within the world described above. And that this friendship transcends the bounds of the game, just as the experience of it does. And to with these people share thoughts, interests, dreams, challenges and accomplishments in the real world as well.
  7. I game to be adventure focused. I don't get off on endless jaunts through markets, negotiating to have your ideal armor built, wed bar wenches, or otherwise be silly or compensate for something you haven't been able to accomplish something that could have just as easily been done in the real world. These things inevitably happen in a campaign and can at times be fun, or even important to the ongoing nature of your character and the world they live in--but I am adventure oriented. Delving dungeons, exploring enchanted forests, recovering lost magic items, fulfilling quests, waging wars, investigating haunted ruins--these are the things we cannot do in our world--the very reason I play the game.
Not Why I Game
  1. To just "play a game". The best way to describe what this feels like is that I might as well be playing a hyped up game of chess, or that I could just as well be playing any other game and it wouldn't make a difference. I have to feel like if we didn't play this game the above reasons Why I Game couldn't be achieved. Tabletop roleplaying games are not they same thing as CCGs, board games or video games to me--not to be overly dramatic, but they mean something much more to me.
  2. To cater to over the compensation mechanism than often afflicts uber-gamers and power gamers; to create a PC so, video-gamized, so super-heroed, so powerful that no challenge can stand before him. I found no thrill and or challenge in this style of gaming. I do not game to min-max or power game. Customizing a PC is very different however, and something I am all in favor of. 
  3. Something else that greatly disturbs verisimilitude for me and becomes a different kind of game than I am interested in playing is when the characters themselves possess so many innate powers and abilities that I have no hope of ever identifying with them as real or connected to me in any way. Flinging powers left and right and executing super hero like maneuvers is for a Champions or GURPS Supers game, not for my kind of fantasy tabletop gaming. Now this kind of gaming does not have to be "power-gaming" per se--although such options are often worked into the system. This style of gaming can present similarly "powered-up" foes--but it is just not what I dream about when I dream of a fantasy world. Such types of super-magical combat should occur very, very rarely if at all in my type of fantasy world--think Gandalf in LotR--barely every cast a spell.
  4. While it's a fine line, because I innately believe in the importance of presenting serious challenges to players in games, I do not game to cater to my own ego or the ego of others. Of course there will exist a certain tension between DM and players and a level of competition even at times between players, that I wholly embrace and feel is appropriate--I am not into cocky, self absorbed know-it-alls or bullies. Which, unfortunately can exist in any sort of game regardless of rule-sets. I find that sometimes there are "jocks" and "thugs" that game that carry that attitude into their gaming. I have little use for these types--and they are often the ones that ones that conduct an elitist sort of gaming environment and exclude others simply because they look "too geeky". I have no use for that or catering to that.
  5. I do not game to "feel good". Which of course requires some explanation. Gaming is not a time to get together and get all warm and fuzzy with each other, rubbing each others backs, and giving people things to make them feel good about themselves. This is not all warm milk and pretty roses. Sure there will be those occasionally along the way--just like in real life. But also as in real life, those things are few and far between and usually come after much toil, struggle and strife. This kind of "Monty Hall" gaming was common in my youth among some players I never really expected where DMs just wanted people to like them, and so handed out +10 Holy Avengers like they were candy, artifacts like they grew on trees and god-like powers were for the asking. Character death was never permanent and anything really "bad" was just a dream. If you want to "feel good" go watch a Saturday afternoon special, don't crowd my gaming table--you're just gonna get yourself or others killed.

Is this sufficient? Probably so. What does it say about my preferred game? I'm not sure. I'll have to give it some more thought. As Pooh so often says ...