So why has orientation not become a common part of role-playing. There are a number of reasons, most of which brings us back to the subject of preparedness. If we research into the original writings and descriptions of game play going back the last four decades, we can see quite clearly that explaining to people "how to play the game" has lacked a distinct methodology. It was seen early on that most were learning the game through mentorship, in that participants would come to the game as players, watch the DM for a time, then feel confident enough to try their hand at DMing. All the early books of D&D, prior to the advanced set, gave less than 500 words to any sort of orientation, and usually much less. Gary Gygax's DMs Guide gave just two and a quarter pages, most of which is flavor text and distinctly lacking in concrete ideals that DMs might share with their players. No singular book of significant importance attempting to explain how to play any role-playing game appears until the 2000s, with no book of that type offering any fundamental principles on exactly how to introduce new players to the game in a manner that brings them significantly up to speed with regards to their knowledge and ability to play. Most texts effect a reassurance or promote confidence, without stipulating specific step-by-step instructions. This remains true to this day.
The matter is left entirely up to individual DMs, who remain mixed on just what should be covered, or ought to be discussed, before actual game play begins. Many DMs feel it is a waste of time, that everything can be learned in progress, with a fixed belief that good players pick it up quickly whereas bad players are not especially wanted and that it is better if they find some other thing to do. As with any comparable activity, the result is that many join the game but depart soon after, or cease playing once their experience with role-playing peaks, so that they willingly abandon the activity for something else, usually after the convenience of the activity (with school or a joined community) falls off. Most participants usually play, at most, two or three years, never fully comprehending role-playing's potential and viewing the activity as a casual something they did in their youth. There's no fault in this, as people always find something to do, but we should wonder how temporary participants might have continued to play if they'd had a better understanding of the game's potential.
With a lack of clear guidelines on how to provide a useful orientation, it is very difficult to estimate how much orientation is necessary. Given the immense amount of detail available, plus inconsistent and hard to define playing styles, the idea of a structured orientation seems beyond the ordinary DM, who must effectively design their own orientation scheme entirely from scratch. This further promotes the "in progress" ideal, as it seems the only alternative is to spend several sessions doing nothing but talking about how the game would work in theory before actually playing. Most, therefore, compensate by treating early runnings as a primer, subsidizing play by ensuring no one dies, that mistakes don't count or that do overs are fair, all recognizing that holding players to strict account to a game they don't ~ and can't ~ fully understand as yet isn't actually fair.
Planning an orientation, then, without premises or foundations, is an insurmountable obstacle. The number of details quickly addressed in the lab gives just a taste of what's actually involved ~ or could be involved ~ if we were to make a plan in any definitive or conclusive way. In many ways, our own full understanding of what a DM does, or ought to do, along with a full comprehension of rules and game play, simply isn't there. We feel distinctly at a loss, and overwhelmed, at the idea of trying to address a complete orientation on a subject when we ourselves never received such an orientation. And we worry that things we would say in such an orientation would be later held against us, because we're not fully sure of these things from the start.
What we need is a set of resources telling us how to go about the process point-by-point, and a strong educational format that we can follow, so that we feel assured that the orientation we give is something that works in our favor as DMs and not something we'll regret later. Institutionally, however, this would require that these resources had our best interests in mind and that they were designed specifically to increase our understanding of the role-playing game we had chosen. Unfortunately, no such institutional framework exists. The need for an orientation is barely, at this time, even acknowledged (with clumsy steps being made by the "session zero" concept). Much of the role-playing community and "official" structure is compromised by a spectacular fragmentation of RPGs in general, with most major genres and forms all experiencing several iterations that further serve to muddy what standards might have been imposed forty years ago. As a result, we have no material resources for readying players for our campaigns, nor any expectation of a systemic educational formula to come from any reputable source. On this count we are in the dark and we expect to remain in the dark.
Therefore, DMs do what they can. To some extent we practice at introducing the players to the game by considering for ourselves what we want to say with the start of each game session. We usually have a few things we want to specifically identify, such as adjustments in the rules or our expressed desire that the players follow a certain decorum when playing (less jokes, paying more attention, maintaining their character sheets more readably, etcetera). Without the motivation for the creation of a more involved orientation, we specifically practice how to get along without one ~ thereby establishing a mental framework that one isn't needed, because it has never been applied. This tautology, however reasonable it sounds, conveniently dispenses with any notion of improving on an awkward scattering of asked for behaviours and expectations without ever making it clear to the players which ones really matter or which need addressing more than once. As a result, many games are endlessly bogged down with disagreement, discontent, players who don't show up, DMs who display frustration and apparently unreasonable demands or campaigns that cannot sustain themselves for more than a session or two. Without communication, the motivation to dig in and commit cannot be expected from people who don't know what's expected or what they're doing.
This means that the opportunity to rehearse the process of game play never materializes. Examples of smooth coordination between the players don't occur in the short time they have together before the campaign fizzles out, or they occur spontaneously but cannot be recreated at will. This in turn has created a belief in many RPG participants that campaigns "don't work," usually ascribing lack of time or personalities as the culprits, pushing for game adventures that can be played in a single night, obfuscating any need for commitment or, indeed, for meaningful orientation. And because this works in practice, it sustains itself as an ideal among many participants, who then never see the potential of RPGs in their full flower.
So what can we do? To begin with, acknowledge the importance of orientations in every human activity, including RPGs. We train people to do jobs, to learn how to ski or kayak, to save themselves or victims in times of a medical crisis, to ready themselves for vacations, weddings or funerals, including how to write a will, how to renovate your house, how to life hack your day-to-day, etcetera, because education bestows knowledge and knowledge is power over the complex things of life that we want to do or overcome. We might ultimately learn to ski on our own, but a morning of orientation saves us a great deal of time and unpleasantness by pointing out the few simple things that everyone learns early on when they first encounter skiing. That is all that orientation is: an outline of the things of any activity that are easiest to learn and can be explained in just a few sentences, to get us on our way to more complex experiences.
We can research orientations in other activities and transcribe some of the points to our own endeavors. We can use our experience at an orientation for a job or some other activity as a guideline to estimate how much effort we want to put towards that process. We can write a list of specific things we wish every player understood clearly about our game worlds.
Having that, we can then search for consistencies across thousands of game worlds to build a guidebook that would enable other DMs to create working orientations that would suit their games specifically. Perhaps the focus of the "session zero" concept can be oriented away from character building and towards character play and participation ... but I'm not seeing that focus changing at this time.
Finally, we can practice in our minds a better ideal of what it means to introduce players to our game, as discussed in the lab. And we can rehearse the process of giving orientations over and over, until they become easy to implement and even enjoyable for the player, as they learn precisely what to expect from the campaign and their place in it.
|I've played in this game|