Friday, September 2, 2011

Rethinking

I had never intended to wait two weeks before speaking about the poll, though I think I'll leave it up until it's done.  Probably there won't be much movement on it after today.  I think its funny that there are more people who would be willing to answer a questionaire in order to play than there are actually people interested in playing.  A strict sociologist would have set up a number of questions, so I have no one to blame but myself.  At the same time the poll answers some questions I've been curious about the last couple of months.

There were a number of problems with the last online campaign, which time and distance have helped me sort out in my head.  I'll talk about them below:

1)  Pace.  The campaign moved very slowly.  A single small event could take three to five days, while anything that was bigger in scope would take a month to play out.  This was especially poor when nothing really was happening, such as when the party was travelling from place to place.  Parties in my experience have a tendency to treat travel in the game as a sort of 'time out,' allowing for random encounters to get in the way and provide a little interest, but not particularly enjoying the whole "go here see this" kind of gaming.  Online, this tended to sink into a state of great dullness, with a great deal of work for me as I described this thing, then the next thing, then the thing after that, without much value in it.

2)  Missed Opportunities.  As a tactic I like to provide a lot of description of things in order to make them seem more real, but if I press hard on this it can slow even an offline game down.  I notice that my style of gaming requires players who can recognize clues in the description and act upon them.  Such as, if I mention a cliff overlooking the town, it is an opportunity for exploring.  If I mention an extended dockside, there are opportunities for smuggling.  If the party runs into four of the king's soldiers in a casual situation, at an inn, say, it is an opportunity for doing them some kind of favor in exchange for access.  But if the party only sees a cliff, a dockside or four soldiers, and never makes any connection of how they can be turned to the benefit, nothing happens.  If players sit on the edge of the box and just look at the sand, or swirl the dry surface with their feet, nothing happens.  A player has to dig into the soft, moist sand underneath ... and this often didn't happen in the online campaign.

3)  Exhaustion.  Between (1) and (2) I felt exhausted before the end of the campaign.  I was tired of writing exposition, and I felt like I was going to have to plunk monsters right in front of the party to get others engaged.  Problem was, even when I did this, the low level parties would simply move away to avoid getting killed.  Which brings us to -

4)  Lack of Engagement.  I'm not clear why, but it seems too much emphasis was put on survival at first level than upon achievement.  I am not opposed to caution, or care, but as I wrote at the time, there seemed to be a great deal of sheer cowardice on the part of many of the players in the campaign.  They tended to see their imminent death in every potential action, as though I would simply step up and kill them without warning, on the slightest, silliest provocation.

This may have been the ominous quality I have as DM of presenting things in their harshest, least trustworthy appearance.  If I describe a rock face, I'm almost certain to pick words that would suggest that rock face is upon the verge of collapsing any moment.  By nature I tend to describe nature in its coldest possible form, since I firmly believe that beauty in nature is a deception we practice in order to hide all the death going on there.  Right now, as the leaves begin to turn, people will get into their cars and drive hither and yon about the country to view the spectacular colors death yields ... and very few will remark or even consider it is due to a mass withering.  For D&D, I like describing the world as a deadly place.  Unfortunately, for the online campaign this seemed to convince people to treat their characters as though they themselves were about to be killed by said rock face.

While it would be interesting to play an online game that included my having Russian hitmen on a payroll who would show up at your house and off you permanently if your online character died, I haven't quite obtained the necessary diplomatic immunity this would entail.  So I am, and was at the time, baffled by the degree of irrational cowardice I saw many of the players embrace rather than take a real risk with their character.  Playing is a proactive sport.

5)  Timing.  Without question the more successful campaign was very much aided by the main players having access to their computers between noon and 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.  The campaign tended to die after 6 p.m., and players who could not get access to their computers except in the evening were hard put to stay 'in the beat' of the campaign's activity.  To do so would have required a very rigorous effort to write their actions every day at a set time (say 8 p.m.) so they could be predicted ... but when this wasn't done it proved very inconvenient.  For myself, I found that by 9 or 10 p.m. EST I no longer had any interest in the campaign at all that day, and did not want to sit down and write out more description or answers to questions that wouldn't have bothered me to do so earlier in the morning.  When I knew that no answer would be immediately forthcoming - as it often was with events during the day, when I could answer a question and expect to get a response within 30 minutes - I just didn't care.  And if I left the answer to the next morning, then I wouldn't hear from the evening person until 9 or 10 that night, if at all that day.  This was absolutely brutal in the Greek campaign, and was certainly the reason for its death.

6)  Lack of Purpose.  I made the error at the beginning of all the campaigns in thinking that if I offered the new players an opportunity to pick their point of origin in my world, they would pick places they knew very well, and for which they would have specific goals in mind.  For example, if I were asked what part of my existing world I would like to start in, I think I would ask to begin in Dalmatia, on the east shore of the Adriatic Sea.  I would venture into the mountains there to kill or slaughter whatever beasts presented themselves, and probably the Turkish overlords as well, in order to raise the capital to purchase a ship in Ragusa; I would take steps to be recognized by Ragusa, Venice or Genoa as a trader, with merchant access to one of those cities, and then turn pirate to plunder whatever Ottoman shipping I could.  I'd choose an island in Greece as a haven, slowly raising capital until I had enough to purchase a immense collection of books, which I would steadily have moved to Oslo or Sweden, with the intent to begin a great university there and to become a player in the government there.  Why those places?  I don't know, exactly.  It just sounds like fun.

I wouldn't expect anyone to live out my fantasies.  But I presumed that if a player wanted to start in any particular place, they would know the place well and begin moving towards improving their lot in life with their knowledge.  This did not prove to be the case.  Players tended to remain very passive, waiting for something to happen, which I then created in order to showcase some of my running styles.  I showed how first levels could be pulled into a huge magical conflagration without killing them; I presented enemies which were not insurmountable foes; I created a quest that did not require entering a dungeon and getting a bauble; I set up factions and put the players in the middle.  Most of the time this was a dismal failure.

Of course I blame myself, but only because I yielded and attempted to set up circumstances in which the players would play.  I should have let them sit there at the Inn for months.  The more I pampered them, the more they failed to create their own scenarios or move after their own dreams.  It is hard not to railroad when the players sit and wait for you to build the tracks.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

These, then, where the worst problems.  Personality conflicts occurred, but these are inevitable.  The principle missing element was ambition.  Offline, this can be accepted for awhile, and handled more easily.  Online, with the game experiencing a necessary isolation, it was absolutely intolerable.  Eventually it destroyed my interest in playing.

I wouldn't be interested in playing with a group of people who wanted to try things for a few weeks and then quit.  The problem here IS the slowness of the campaign.  It takes six weeks to accomplish which might be covered in one three hour session.  If you see yourself playing four 6-hour sessions to get a good idea of what a person's world is, that's a year online.

Now, who wants to change their mind?

21 comments:

Joseph said...

I'd love to get back into one of your online games! I only quit the last time because work was overwhelming me, and like you said, the optimum posting hours were at around mid-afternoon.

James C. said...

I'm still in. I felt, by the way, that I took many calculated risks with my character Andrej. Do you want to change your mind about me?

When I joined the Dachau campaign a quest was already in progress and I felt trying to turn others aside from it would be in bad form. I really wanted to hunt for Lombard gold and build a monastery somewhere... perhaps in the holy land as part of a new Crusade. Achieving that goal in such a slowly-developing environment with players having other designs would have taken forever if it were even possible, but I was still in. Your world and style interested meand still do.

The travelogues I found to be very entertaining, but I understand the work involved. Truthfully, once we nabbed Herr What's-his-name's bride-to-be I wanted to be back in Dachau ASAP and working my way toward fame and fortune, perhaps now with an influential patron. at that point I was paying less attention to the trip itself and more to the destimation, all to our detriment when it came time to solve the puzzle at the inn.

As yours and Chicagowiz's interest waned, I couldn't help but to feel mine slip as well. But I was sad... the idea of the game was still very exciting to me.

Losing the Friar to an assasin's knife hit me like no other loss of an imaginary person in a game.

Andrew said...

Wow... A quick scan shows your list of issues to be very similar to those I encountered in my PBEM as well. Especially 4) in some regards as the PCs would rest and recover at every opportunity (which eventually lead to an almost TPK as they were being pursued... ). Interesting.

Alexis said...

Not to hurt anyone else's feelings, James, but you and 'Delfig' are the only persons I'm absolutely not in doubt about. I wouldn't hesitate having both of you in a new campaign. You've put in the groundwork, you're both excellent players. It might surprise Chgowiz for me to say that, but you're both pretty much a shoe-in.

That is not a slur, Joseph ... but you must admit your actions at that time do not inspire confidence.

Alexis said...

Andrew,

That's a post right there. I should write about that next week.

Joseph said...

I still want to be in one of your games, if you start one up again. But if you don't think that's possible, I'll understand.

Arduin said...

I too, remain in.

The only possible point of contention would be that, since I am an hourly earner, I may not always have noon to six available.

This is a rare (very rare) thing though, and obviously something I'd leave notification for.

I'd very much love to muck around in Great Britain, maybe take advantage of some of the hostility between the Catholics and Protestants, maybe help Charles II reclaim the crown...or try and swipe it.

Heck, there's still time to meet up with Descartes before he keels!

James C. said...

Thank you Alexis.

As for locale, while the political climate in China would be different I'd love to retrace Marco Polo's steps. We might be turned away at the Great Wall but THAT would be one helluva travelogue. And think about the maps!

Alexis said...

No Great Wall. You start in Kefe in Crimea and make your way east until you reach the Dzungarian Gate, and from thence you descend into China.

Oddbit said...

All those problems are extremely common in any internet game I've seen and played that isn't 'live'. I've gone through at least 10 games that just died one month in when it ended with either me and the GM posting back and forth or the other players trying to find out if the GM will ever come back...

Alexis said...

Fair enough, Oddbit, but they are not universal. You can see from the other blog that I ran more or less five months without counting breaks, and that not all the players displayed the characteristics I describe here. I believe that a greater selection of players is what is needed - I have already proved that I am tougher than your one month death expection.

I'm not demonizing the idea with this post so much as I feel I was far too casual in my selection and acceptance of certain players, whom I should have booted far more quickly than I did. The numbers on the poll show that its generally accepted that if someone misses 1 day in 4 or 1 day in 3, it would be okay for me to be a rude bastard.

So I stand on my record in terms of my commitment. I can do it again, regardless of the extreme commonality of other person's online campaigns.

Anthony said...

I'm down to play. My only restriction is that I am one of those evening players, being unable to access websites from work during the day. If that is not a deal breaker, I'd like to give it a shot.

Oddbit said...

Very true, it's not universal. If it weren't for the three ongoing games I am in, I wouldn't have kept trying on the other ten.

There are some really good games numbering in more than one thousand posts and still going strong. Still I might stab someone in the throat if I could somehow teleport to get into a live game... (I would not really harm someone, though I might hit them really hard for teleportation.)

Alexis said...

Well, I'm running tonight Oddbit. If you catch a plane for Calgary in the next hour, you'll land about 4:46 p.m and you'll clear customs by 5:30. Then its just a quick cab ride - about thirty five minutes - and you'll be five minutes late.

Get moving boy.

Butch said...

I'd love to play, but while daytime access to a computer wouldn't be a problem (even if I couldn't access the blog while at work, I could follow the blog so the posts would go to my gmail account), but what about accessing rulebooks, etc.? Or maybe you prefer it that way... more improv, less rulemongering!

Alexis said...

Butch,

Last time I played this rule books didn't seem to be a problem. A healthy familiarity with AD&D would be good, but most of the die rolling and decision making is straight OD&D. Rule problems could be edjudicated over a 24 hour period, giving you time to look things up.

Son of a Butch said...

I think everyone (Alexis, players, observers) would benefit from a contract of sorts.

Prospective players are expected to answer a questionaire, and if selected, post once every 24 hours, own this or that edition of a particular rulebook, be civil, understand they will get booted from the game (or perhaps even replaced by another player) if they can't keep up, etc.

That way it's all spelled out ahead of time, and if someone must be booted, no hard feelings.

Alexis said...

Son of a Butch,

As DM though, you don't mind if I am the one to establish the minimums, right?

Eric said...

I think point 6 is the crucial issue. To make a decision here, you need a healthy working knowledge of 17th century geography and politics.

Also, a given group of *characters*, once a location is selected, aren't necessarily going to know a lot more geography than their *players* unless the characters are scholars, traders, mercenaries, etc. Their knowledge of politics won't generally extend much beyond who's taxing them, oppresing their faith, or invading them.

I think a collection of say half-a-dozen suggested starting points - with a little bibliography attached to each- would be a really useful tool for selecting the initial location in the sandbox.

@Butch:

In addition to the player-DM contract, agreeing on an inter-player contract beforehand could keep a group moving in one direction:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_code#Captain_John_Phillips.27s_articles

Alexis said...

Eric,

Characters can allow themselves to be ignorant if they want to be, but I prefer to think that any knowledge your 20th century self has about the 17th helps compensate for the facts that A) your leveled character is unusually gifted where it comes to knowledge above the average peasant; and B) your leveled character has spent 20 years in the 17th century, or thereabouts, and therefore would probably have a lot closer hardnosed knowledge about the century than your 20th century self ever could.

I've been running the Earth for 27 years and I've never found this to be a problem.

That said, you are right. The lack of knowledge the previous party had about the 17th century did kick them quite a bit in the butt, not because they didn't understand the 17th century as because they didn't seem to understand that people in my world don't react like players in a fantasy role-playing game.

For instance, in MMORGs when a player starts to cast a fireball, the NPCs all sit around waiting to get hit. But in my world, everyone knows what magic is, and when someone starts speaking in tongues for no apparent reason, they are casting a spell, and every person knows what you do then is THROW A CHAIR at them to disrupt their concentration. When a mage tried to throw a spell while standing in conversation distance from another person, that person simply shoved them, wrecked the spell, and immediately called help to have the mage thrown into jail for attempted murder. (no one can possibly know what spell the mage was throwing, so the crime is usually considered to be murder or mass destruction).

This kind of thing kicked the players again and again, but that was because as a DM I insist players don't count on everyone being an idiot.

Butch said...

Alexis,

I believe the only way for a game to work is that the DM is a dictator. So yes, the DM sets the minimums -- we are agreeing to play by your rules because it is your game.

Eric,

Avast! I like it.