Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Advance and Be Recognized

When I got to USC, I discovered that there was an official Wargames Club, so I joined. I showed up the first day with my Basic Dungeons and Dragons Boxed Set, only to discover that no one there played Basic D&D. They played Advanced D&D, which was split into several hardcover rulebooks. So I ended up sponging off of other players until either my birthday or Christmas, at which time I got my own set of books. There's my Players Handbook on the right, scuffed and frayed from a few years of hard use.

My first character was a cleric. Not by choice, necessarily. In AD&D, you rolled up your stats randomly and used the stats to determine what kind of character to play. I scored highest in Wisdom, so it was Cleric for me. I don't remember anything else about him, not even his name.

Our Dungeon Master was a guy named Scott, a New Wave-y guy who introduced me to KROQ (at the time, a tiny little independent station out of Pasadena playing weird-ass songs I'd never heard before) and tried to talk me out of registering for Selective Service. He wore this bracelet out of homemade chain mail that he kept adding to until it almost covered his forearm. And because he was literally building the chain mail around his arm, he couldn't take it off. After a few months, the skin underneath the chain was black from corrosion and dirt that the shower wouldn't rinse away.

We would meet in the basement of one of the buildings on campus at around 11 a.m. every Saturday and play until we felt like stopping. When I started, Scott was the only DM, so we would quit around 6 p.m. or so. But at some point, another player named Paul (whom I hated on first sight, because he was so loud and boisterous, and I was so not) started DM'ing a game in the evenings, after Scott was done. So we would often not finish until the middle of the night, or sometimes until after the sun had come up on Sunday.

Scott and Paul ran very different games. One thing they had in common, though, was that there wasn't much actual role-playing to be had.

Which was par for the course with AD&D in those days. You have to understand, Dungeons and Dragons evolved from miniatures wargaming. In those early days, if you were playing, say, a Napoleonic miniatures game, you would use a miniature soldier painted with an authentic historical uniform. But that one figure would represent a number of soldiers: one figure representing a company or a battalion, for example.

The big innovation that Dungeons and Dragons (or actually its predecessor, Chainmail) brought to miniatures wargaming was that one figure represented one person. But functionally, characters in D&D weren't meant to be any different from the different types of units used in miniatures wargaming, which was why you had character classes. Thieves were recon units, fighters were infantry, magic-users and clerics were artillery. The emphasis of the game was on the dungeon as tactical challenge, not as some sort of fictional second life. That evolved later.

So it wasn't any surprise that the mindset in those early days was often DM versus players. Monsters and traps were deadly, and the players had to be super-sharp to keep from being killed off, because the entire game really revolved around combat and tactical challenges. I have an issue of The Dragon from 1983 that has an 8-page article about how to survive in D&D, with a ton of suggestions, both tactical and non-, about courses of action to take to keep the DM from killing you off. Because it was just assumed that that was what the DM would try to do.

And it was a pretty accurate assumption. Take, for instance, setting up camp. One of our guys, a Chinese dude named Homer (who ended up being one of my best friends, but whom I lost touch with fifteen years ago), tried to tell Scott that a series of actions we took when setting up camp would be our Standard Operating Procedure every time we set up camp. But if you didn't specifically state that you were doing it that way every time, Scott assumed the characters had gotten lazy and sloppy and blown off their precautions, because he wanted to be able to ambush us and catch us unprepared. If at least one character didn't die in every combat, the DM just wasn't trying hard enough. Wasn't giving enough challenge.

Now keep in mind, the other phrase you always heard in those days was "The DM is God." And in the sense of controlling everything in the world other than the characters, that's true. But the DM couldn't just arbitrarily kill players left and right and expect the players to stick around. So he had to kill them every chance he could, but it had to look fair.

I came to hate that mind-set. The game is meant to be fun for both players and GM. That's why they play, after all. So that was probably my second big realization in the course of playing RPG's.

ROLE-PLAYING RULE #2: The players and GM aren't opponents.

The GM may play the opposing forces, but his goal is not to beat the players. The goal should be for everyone to have a fun and satisfying gaming experience--challenging, but not necessarily adversarial. The GM doesn't lose when the players win.

Of course, there was a flip side to the killer campaign. I'll talk about that next week.

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