Sunday, July 8, 2018

Tee Ball

From an interview with Bryce Lynch, from 2016, that I only found this morning:
Patrick Stuart: "Why are most adventures so bad? Why do people want the wrong things?"
Lynch: "I'm not sure that's a good question. No one wants the wrong thing. I would say that it's easy to go with the flow. Adventurer's League, show up on Wednesday night and play. WOTC pushes an adventure to the DM every week, almost no prep. And if you try and run something NOT Adventurers League, or D&D, or the most current version of D&D, then you face additional hurdles. I'm not sure that 'Apathy' is the right word, but a lot (a majority?) of folks are happy enough. I'm guessing that just enough of their sessions have just enough fun to keep them strung along, as they chase the high. It takes effort to seek out something different. It takes effort to get out of your comfort zone. When I'm at my best I want every thing in every day to always be awesome, and everything else isn't worth my time."

Yes.  It takes an effort.  The Adventurer's League, as Lynch says, is board-game night D&D.  And not running the board game version, you do face additional hurdles.  I want to ask, what hurdles?

I've read through the interview and it is hard to tell.  Lynch wants to "always be awesome," but his self-described "perfect" version of the Dragon Magazine, further down in the interview, is a list of the same schlock we've read since 1980.  He describes his "beauty of interest" as "The wonder of childlike imagination."  He disparages the WOTC for producing lame, poor quality, inexcusable content that "sucks donkey balls," but then proceeds to gush exhaustively on indie games and especially Fiasco, only to pause mid-orgasm to remind us that he really hates indie games.  Though Lynch is obstensibly a game reviewer, I must admit that my eyes glazed over as the began to describe Fiasco.  I can't say I understand anything about the game from his description ... which seems a problem where a review is concerned.

In any case, what hurdles does a DM face if the goal is not to run sessions that are "just enough fun to keep them strung along," enabling the players to get their high.  What is something different?  What is the comfort zone?  At one point, Stuart refers to "tight writing, usability or clear layout."  What does that mean?

Frankly, I have no idea.  These phrases are so generalized as to be meaningless.  Which begs the question, if we can't describe RPG quality in concrete terms, then what good is a review?

[I was going to waste a bunch of time here comparing rpg module reviews with movie reviews, to explain how movies have an indentifiable logos, but I thought better of it]

Before I can discuss something that is "different" from an Adventurer's League game, I have to start with what a League game is.  Here's a fairly straight-up explanation from
"Local stores host games (often with volunteer DMs, sometimes with paid ones). Players play point-build or array-build characters in whatever adventure is being run. Character's experience total is tracked, and players can drop-in/drop-out on a session by session basis."
"From the DM perspective, the DM gets his marching orders from the store. The store either gives him the download password or gives him the adventure to run. The DM then runs the adventure at the store in the allotted time for the first 7 players who sit down for it."

Hm.  Y'know, if we take out the marching orders, the point or array builds, the tracking, the pre-generated adventure and the store, this is exactly the game I run.  Give or take.

And regardless of the disgust I feel, all that junk that the League adds is primarily for the benefit of players who, a) have no one else to play with; b) are total strangers and therefore must be contained from displaying highly aberrant behavior; c) enable the mass management of many strangers by a few coordinators; and d) exist to sell the game as a positive rather than a negative experience.

While my argument about booting assholes from the game table is rational where it comes to my table and my friends, that doesn't work very well when the goal is to service strangers who buy products.  If I were running a game store, my personal feelings would absolutely not enter into the equation; paying the rent, the property taxes and the stock costs come first.  For a lot of game store owners, who have no ethical opinion of D&D or, for the most part, of customers who may also be assholes, the Adventurer's League concept is manna from heaven.

But aside from the "official" structure, is D&D at a League event a different game?  Okay, it works off 5th Edition; and, no doubt, I would consider the actual game material to suck donkey balls.  Yet I'd have to argue that, aside from the rules, and the quality, that no, it is not fundamentally different.

It doesn't get cuter than this.
It's Tee Ball.  Structurally, it can teach players just enough to enable them to learn a game that can be far better, far more functional, than what's offered at the game store.  It will also teach them a lot of bad habits ... but bad habits can be gotten over.

Playing the game at a higher level would certainly challenge the "comfort zone" for many an Adventurer's League player.  Some children resist the leap to baseball.  Some children quit because baseball is too hard.  But from a DM's perspective, the comfort zone problem is largely made up of the following "hurdles":

  • You must provide your own space (though that might still be at the game store, but on a different night)
  • You will have to establish the ground rules of the system you're playing, without the benefit of a community of others to help you police or enforce those rules.
  • You will have to find players without the benefit of a preset community game night.
  • You will have to choose, obtain or self-write your own adventure.
  • You will have to designate, yourself, when the game starts and when the game ends.

That's not much.  I suppose for someone who has played their first three years of gaming in the League, at the game store, going it on your own will seem daunting.  Perhaps enough that some will never find the courage.  Which is a little sad, since all of the above is the equivalent of organizing people for a game of scrub baseball, or to play Monopoly.  Things I was doing at age 8.

How about "tight writing"?  I think its clear that means a good adventure, one where the various elements of the setting mesh together logically and effectively to create a good campaign.  I don't have a problem with the language here.  I do have an issue with what IS considered quality work in the role-playing market.

In the interview, Lynch refers to "coming off a pretty damn good game of Call of Cthulhu."  I have no doubts that it was; but the system of Cthulhu is, was and probably always will be a clusterfuck of shoggothian proportions.  To DM Cthulhu you have to really want it ... and you have to get a group of players together who are prepared ~ nay, duty oriented ~ to be deliberately mind-fucked while the game master scrambles to pull threads together in order to make shit make sense.  This is something that all Cthulhu players painstakingly overlook ~ because the creep factor and the concept is too fetching to ignore.  Let's be honest, however.  Call of Cthulhu is never an example of "tight writing."  It's father figure, Lovecraft, was never much of an example of tight writing either, though I say this understanding that I'm speaking heresy.  Not that I'm concerned.  I've done enough service to the old ones that I'm sure to be in the first million that's gobbled up.

This is the principle issue of describing any game ~ or written adventure ~ as "good."  How is good defined.  Looking over the internet, I find two basic written reviews of the game Fiasco:
"I like the game"
"I don't like the game"

Neither means much.  Until we can identify meaningfully what tight writing is, and not only how to define it, but how to reproduce it, we're not going to get much of anywhere.  And for the record, regarding the far larger Literary Community, nothing that has ever been written and published about RPG gaming would qualify as better than pulp: cheap, run-of-the-mill, low-quality, exploitative writing.  The sort of publications that did not, on the whole, consider Lovecraft's work as good enough.

Not that I agree.  I definitely think that Lovecraft was good enough for pulp magazines.  I'm just saying that where it comes to any of our ilk describing "tight writing" in reference to RPGs, that is one big belly-laugh for 113 billion dollar publishing industry.

As for "usability" ... well ... that really depends on what rule set you've chosen to employ.  And what sort of DM you are.  We all start by playing Tee Ball.  The usability of the tools of the game climb just as high as you're prepared to go, once you install a pitcher and three bases.  Your "usability" rating of a bat when playing in the major leagues is somewhat different than, say, that of Mookie Betts.  The game is the same.  Betts simply plays it on a higher level.

That is my issue with those who are calling for a "clear layout" where it comes to this game and the way that it is played.  We've been pursuing this unicorn for 40+ years now; this idea that, somehow, if someone could just make it clear and simple and better (with no real effort to explain how that would be), this game would "always be awesome."

Sure.  With the right unicorn, it probably would be.

But as long as no unicorn is coming along, how about we stop pretending that reviewing an endless deluge of RPG games that: a) most people will never play; and b) when they are played, will be entirely different games depending on the will, skill and experience of the DM; is pretty much a waste of time.

Reviewing the latest game is a way to fill a blog post.  For most blog writers, this is ALL they do.  They rely on the fetish quality of the player or the DM who can't play a game right now, who yet wants to feel that "wonder of childlike imagination" that only requires that you, Dear Reader, be easily duped by something that, surely, you ought to be jaded about by now.

Perhaps it's time for you to put the Tee away.


James said...

So I guess I shouldn't be expecting a review of 5e from you anytime soon?

I really like the tee ball analogy. No one thinks Adventurer's League is the best way to play a RPG, but it certainly functions as a way to get one's feet wet.

When I first played, I tried to go to something similar once, but it was a bunch of kids screeching in funny voices and I got bored and left.

JB said...

: )

Vlad Malkav said...

Ok, great post. Although I can only see all this from a totally theoretical point of view, as there is nothing like the Adventurer's League here, in France. Or it is so limited everywhere I look that it could as well be.
Still, the points you make are sound as always.

By the way, I'm a sucker for Lovecraft's work (and its myriad of inspirated works), so I'm very curious about what makes it bad (or not "good enough) in your eyes (and you won't speak heresy to me, I'm open minded ^^).

I'd also be curious about how the Call of Cthulhu system is "a clusterfuck of shoggothian proportions" (and I chuckle while reading that again).

Both of those inquiries are for my personal, egoistical enlightenment, but as I hold your views in high regard, I had to ask :D .

Be well !

Alexis Smolensk said...

Entice me into a review, eh?

Very well, a few points regarding Lovecraft, remembering that I come from a literary background that includes heavyweights like Tolstoy, Dickens, Maugham and Thucydides. When lovers of Lovecraft wax on about his themes, his imaginative passages, his long descriptive imagery or his turns of phrase, I choke on my beer. Please, sit down and read some Dostoevsky, or Hugo, with understanding.

Lovecraft's descriptive paragraphs are long lists of disconnected store items sitting on an imaginary shelf, painted with purple food coloring. He uses a sentence to describe this thing, then a sentence to describe the next thing, and a sentence to describe the thing after than, and the thing after that, then another thing, until my mind wanders and I see the writer sitting at his table looking at a list of words connected with cities, or mountains, or scientific biology, or whatever else he needs to compose yet another empty sentence about. This doesn't create a setting for me. It is an exposition dump.

Literature is about showing, not telling. But Lovecraft always painstakingly describes exactly what the reader is supposed to think, or feel, or know. Nothing is left to doubt. Kadesh is AMAZING; but it is because Lovecraft says it is, not because we see anything actually happening there that gives us our own reasons for thinking so. Everything is horrifying, because we are told the scientist is horrified; the monsters found at the Mountains of Madness are bizarre and incomprehensible, but because we are told they are, not because the descriptions elicit that reaction unbidden. Without the heavy hand of the author, it is nothing more than a tiresome biology lesson, no more interesting that the painstaking dissection of any animal with which we're not familiar. Puzzling, perhaps, but not scary. Not horrifying. We need the writer to tell us to be horrified, so that we know what reaction we are expected to have.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Notes are always being taken; journals are filled with documentation by the narrator; letters are copiously written; images are drawn ... but these things, these "proofs," are always conveniently lost at the end of the story, leaving only the narrator to attest to the veracity of anything. Many readers LIKE this; it tempts their imagination; it suggests that perhaps Kadesh really does exist.

To me, however, this reads like a confidence artist's scam. It reads like the Nigerian Prince email. It reads like someone who wants me to fund his return to the fleshpots of Bangkok, while I believe he's really poking about Laosian jungles. I know I'm supposed to believe, because the narrator repeats the mantra endlessly, but I'm just too damn jaded. I'm not a child. I don't find myself fascinated with childish things that I hope are real. I want to read about actual real things, that affect my real life, that I must manage personally, concretely, with grace and skill. I want writers who will address these things, to give me wisdom.

There is no wisdom in Kadesh. There is only the writer imploring that I have faith in his made-up bullshit. This is the reason I dumped Christianity, another tell-don't-show fantasy that demands I have "faith" so that I can believe. Thank you, no.

I have more interesting things to read.

Vlad Malkav said...

Many thanks, Alexis. You explained quite clearly the "method" of Lovecraft. I see both why I liked his work, and why it is so lacking.

I'll read those again, soon, with that in mind. My childish wonder put aside, and looking at the writings, not my dreams.

Should be interesting :)