Monday, August 6, 2018

"Where Do I Start...?"

I was talking to a friend about playing a traditional pen-and-paper RPG with her over Tabletop Simulator, Basic Fantasy in fact. I like Basic Fantasy for new players mainly because of the modern-style AC system, the AC of a monster is the target number, and that is what you have to roll higher than to-hit. No attack charts needed, and what you see is what you have to roll.

Now she has been out of pen-and-paper gaming for a while, and we talked about her feelings about playing. Her response was she was interested, but she had no idea where to start. I actually gave her a copy of the rules last time we met, and even a game I feel is easy to pick up as BF was still a bit much to digest for someone coming into the hobby. Yes, I asked her if I could share this, by the way, and I hope to teach her how things work very soon. A new player, I know, very exciting...

Another "hard to start" issue with pen-and-paper games is inherently their open-endedness. With a game like Monopoly, there is a set board, set pieces, and a set world in a box that a player can figure out. This makes me miss the old Dungeon board game from TSR that was sort of the same way, a set board, a set world, and an ever increasing cave of danger with keyed room colors and stacks of cards for each "level" of the dungeon.

I sit here as an experienced DM with over 40 years of experience and there is a part of me saying, "Of course it is open ended with no map! That is where the fun is!"

And then there is the new player part of me saying, "I can understand why the hesitance. I can see why someone would ask, what am I getting into?"

What Am I Getting Into?

There is no map. The rules leave a lot up to interpretation. The DM can kill my character for any reason, even a stupid mistake. The world is unforgiving, as I could wander into a dangerous part of the dungeon and it is game over. I could run out of supplies down there, or worse yet, get lost. I could roll bad and it is game over. How do I trust the DM is being fair? How do I know when the dungeon is over? What if I don't want to be a part of a story, and I just want to play combat? What if I hate combat and just want to play a story?

Halfway through that list of fears that I came up with...I started to want to play the game, because I realized no other game was like this. It is a strange thought that the bad parts that a "traditional family board gamer" can come up with are actually strong selling points of a pen-and-paper game.

But I need to work harder at this I feel, harder at "selling" that fairness part of being a DM. A lot of the hesitance I feel at getting new players excited is the inherent mistrust of the dungeon master. That a DM won't be fair. That a DM will make it up as the game goes on. That a DM will look for every chance to TPK the party. That the DM will change things secretly in the background to either make things harder or easier. That a DM has secrets and can't be trusted. That a DM will use the player's misfortune as a source of enjoyment.

Again, as a DM with over 40 years of experience I laugh at those statements, but with my friend I can see how those same fears can just make someone say, "I can't put that must trust in someone so I am going to walk away."

The Game is The DM

With traditional board games, the game board is the DM. They are inanimate objects and the interaction between the pawns on the board and the rules define the "world" and the interactions between them are physical and can be understood in a 1-to-1 relationship. Like the Dungeon board game, you have these passages and rooms, you roll dice to move, and to pull cards to see what monster is in a room and your character card gives you the information you need to succeed in that battle. If you win, you pull a treasure card.

The trust is there built into the game, except the trust is contained within the world the game's designer drew on the map and built into the interactions with the pawns and game board. I see all the game's pieces, therefore my trust is built by the interactions between them.

D&D 4 was like this for us. It was "battle chess" for our group. The game was played on dungeon tiles. You didn't really need a DM, as you could setup the scenario and go. You could round-robin the monster's turn among players and have the monsters act to the best of their abilities.

The Module is the DM

I have this feeling how I am going to solve this is hold up one of my modules and say, "we are playing this, my job is to tell you what happens depending on where you go." It sounds so simple and obvious that I wonder why I am even writing this article, because that is what you are supposed to do. It is simple, right?

But for my friend, it isn't. She has no concept of any of this. For us in the hobby, this is easy. For outsiders, it is not so easy. That is why I am writing this.

That published module becomes "the game board" in her eyes, the "story book" she will adventure through. I feel this would all be harder if I were to wing it and make things up, because, "what are we doing?" I love narrative games where the action goes wherever the players drive the story to through their actions, but another part of me loves the, "buy it and solve it" style of play with prepackaged adventures. Later on, if we ever meet people who played these adventures as well we can share stories.

This becomes an experience she can talk about to others, and they can have that same experience - and they know the game's name, the adventure, and that becomes something she can share more than, "That person played this game with me and was a really good DM and he made things up and I had fun. I don't know the name what we played but we had fun."

Winging it can come later, and more story-oriented play can come later. She may just have fun doing this and that is all we do. For now, I think I solved the problem, even if this solution was the way I was supposed to do it in the first place.

But thinking through this in a different way gives me the perspective from her viewpoint, and I find that very helpful for introducing the game to her and all it has to offer.