Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Role-Playing 101


So in the perhaps over-optimistic belief that I'll have the time to do this, I'm launching a new regular feature: Big Game Wednesday, in which I take an Out of the Vault approach to role-playing games. Every Wednesday, I'll feature a different game (or related publication or object) from my collection and speak about it both on its own terms and how it relates to gaming history or my own philosophy of role-playing. I'll try to go easy on the war-stories, although I'm sure there'll be quite a few.

I'll try to keep it interesting.

So as I've said before, my introduction to role-playing games was the Basic Dungeons and Dragons Boxed Set, which I bought in late 1980 (could it really be almost 30 years ago? am I really that old?)

But the story actually started before that, in high school. I vaguely remember reading an article in Time or something that referred to Dungeons and Dragons as a new game that was a new favorite of geniuses. Sometime later, I saw some friends in school with the books and wondered why they had them, cause D&D was a game for geniuses, which these guys surely weren't.

And I'm sure it's just my low self-esteem talking, but that article actually intimidated me away from the game. I had been exposed to some traditional wargames at that point. Another classmate had told me he thought I'd be good at them, so I bought Starship Troopers, an Avalon Hill game adapting the Bug War from the Heinlein novel.

And it looked cool, but fuck, it was overwhelmingly complex. And this wasn't even a "genius" game. So I didn't even consider trying Dungeons and Dragons.

Until the summer of 1980, when I visited Europe with a choral group made up of high school and college students from Oklahoma and Kansas. As we were riding on the bus one day, I heard some guys having a very odd conversation narrating how they were entering a graveyard following some tracks or something. And one of the other guys was telling them what they saw. I asked them what they were doing and they said they were playing Dungeons and Dragons.

And it was like the clouds parted and heavenly choirs sang and a single glowing ray of light shone down on my head. This wasn't some weird, hyper-complicated genius game. This was like pretending to be in a movie or something, and not one of those boring ones. This was a movie with monsters and swordfights and shit, and it was actually you doing it.

Holy crap, I was hooked. I desperately wanted to play with them, but it didn't happen.

I did learn one interesting thing, though. They weren't actually playing Dungeons and Dragons. The DM was using Dungeons and Dragons for monsters and settings and encounters, but was actually using the Chivalry and Sorcery rules for combat and stuff.

Which was how I learned my first lesson about role-playing.

ROLE-PLAYING RULE #1: Nobody plays the game straight.

Every GM worth his salt customizes, house-rules or Franken-games to some extent. The only time you were likely to encounter straight by-the-book gaming in those days was in a tournament. And even today, the Happy Jack's gang have recently talked about how they adopted house rules to alter hit points and damage to speed combat in D&D 4th Edition, and how they will have to fix the broken money rules in the Savage Worlds pulp-era game they've just started playing.

Even though some games have been around for decades and have accumulated hundreds of pounds of support materials, they will never be so complete or so perfect that the GM won't have to adapt or improvise something, or change a system that just doesn't suit their group's style of play. Over the next few years, I would see hundreds of examples of that, and do quite a bit of it myself.

But first, I had to buy the game myself, which I did once I returned home. I bought the Basic set with dice included, read through the 48-page rulebooks and tried running my step-brother and nephew through the included sample dungeon, "In Search of the Unknown."

And it was kind of fun, but not at all what I thought it would be like from what I had watched the other guys doing. I needed to learn the game from other guys who had been playing a while. And I got that opportunity when summer ended and I went away to college.

Next week: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

4 comments:

anachred said...

To be honest, this was useful information to me.

...hate to admit, but anyway.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

I'm not sure which part was useful, but there's a lot more where that came from.

Health Affairs said...

"Sometime later, I saw some friends in school with the books and wondered why they had them, cause D&D was a game for geniuses, which these guys surely weren't"

I take offense at this! :)

I was most likely the one that you saw carrying the books around as Joe Weldon and I along with my brother Jason and a friend of Joe's had a regular game going on during our Junior and Senior years at Heritage Hall. It is too bad that you didn't know, but then for some reason we never really the same friends after we came over from GL. Why was that?

Erich Brueschke
erich@erich.us

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

I couldn't even remember who it was, but now that you mention it, it's Jason I'm thinking of. I think.

As far as the move from GL, I can't say what happened for sure. I know I hated those first couple of years in debate; I sucked at it, and we got picked on a lot.

I was so much happier when I moved to Chorus. I didn't have to pretend to be interested in subjects I knew nothing about, and there were girls.