Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Every Time You Run

Strange as it may seem, this post seems to have developed some legs.  It is the second-highest rated post on this blog, even though I wrote it only this Friday.

It probably surprises some readers that I do feel extremely positive about the game and the way people want to play it - without the infighting and squabbling over who gets how much treasure and who's character is most powerful.  For all the carping that mires down the bulletin boards, I have grown to believe that the backbone of the community has little or nothing to do with the internet, the release of new editions or the WOTC.  The community has always grown and sustained itself by word of mouth between friends.

Last week-end I had a new player, a late-twenties something fellow who came to help me fill up my wood supply (it always seems to run out mid-winter, no matter how much I get) and stayed to play.  He's heard about my campaign for years and the word finally got under his skin.  I'm happy to say he dove right in, began innovating almost immediately, became very expressive throughout the session and ended by saying that he had been legitimately 'scared' for his character's survival - though to be honest, from my perspective, he was in relatively little real danger.  I was glad to learn I had made his skin crawl.

For every kid who stumbles across role-play online or at the store, then buys it to see what it is, I believe there are thousands who are introduced by we who have gone before.  Most of us did not discover the game from the store shelf but from friends.  Most of us can tell the story of how we sat down at the table for the first time and how we were 'baptized.'  Some of those stories are bad, but even the worst have a soft, creamy centre of goodness in them, as we learned at the bare minimum that we secretly loved the game.

This speaks to whatever that first game was - what genre, what edition, what the spirit of the campaign was, what the other players believed and so on - being the 'default' for our experience in every other game and with every other group we'll ever meet. The longer we played in that first campaign, the more effect it has on us now - as we either try to scour it out of our consciousness or we embrace those first principles among the people we play with today.

It is why I could never comfortably embrace a later edition than the one I play.  Hell, just consider that I had thousands of hours invested in AD&D before 2nd Edition was released; and many more by the time 3rd Edition came along.  Of course I'm prejudiced.  I've rebuilt the interior structure of my campaign continuously all this time to produce the effect that I want, to make new players feel their hair prickle as I describe the canyon where there are three caves, then the interiors of each, adding phrases and descriptions to produce an emotional response.

How is a new edition going to improve that?  Is it going to give me a different way to describe a dry, deserted monastery, where the sun blazing into the canyon glistens upon the insects darting or drifting upwards from the canyon floor?  Will a new edition help describe the stone-carved furniture or the rubble where the ceiling has given way from an earthquake decades ago, or the cold, fish-like smell emerging from this single dank hole where stairs lead down?  Will it help if I have to toss aside millions of times I've rolled a single die to determine if a character is surprised in order to look up another die or system or method to determine if a character is surprised?  Is that the sort of thing that really matters in the moment the character's torch flickers and goes out?

For someone who has come to the game last week, it does not matter what system I play.  For the noob, any system will do because it will be the first system they know.  Once they play that system, they'll grow comfortable with it and pursue it - and perhaps if they become engrossed in role-play, they'll seek out other games that will play with other systems.

If you've played for only a few years, changing a system is no big deal; it's no worse than changing your brand of smart phone or moving to another climate or culture.  You adapt.  You grow familiar with the change and you may even adopt it as your preferred change . . . but you'll always be able to go back and be comfortable where you started.

Should the day come when you start to run your own campaign - and you stick with it - you'll find yourself introducing new players to your preferred system.  You'll be the DM they remember first playing with; yours will be the idiosyncracies they'll carry forward to other campaigns.  It won't matter to them for some time what system you play - because for them, your system will be THE system.  Like apprentices, they'll treat you as the master they will forever embrace or who they will someday have to overcome in order to grow.

It never has mattered that I play my system, even today.  DMs are rare, that's true enough - so that probably has something to do with players putting aside their scruples if it means being able to play. But as hard as it has sometimes been to explain or win over readers about my game or my philosophy, it has been surprisingly easy to build campaigns my way.  I start with two people, who talk about the world to their friends, who express a desire to play and so it goes.

I read posts all the time about people who are starting a new campaign with a new system or a new world that will behave in such and such a fashion, but I see very few forensic discussions of the old campaign and why it failed.  Those that I do see blame the players, the system, the idea or the ever-annoying realities of time and space.  An explanation will usually go, "The world wasn't good enough."

Very, very rarely does a DM say, "I wasn't good enough."

Let me pass along a secret.  Imagine that every player at your table is playing the game for the first time.  And you want to make a good impression.  You want them to carry that first experience with them all their lives.  You want that experience to be so positive that it rocks them to their core.

If you expect this to happen, you will have to be special.  You will have to dig down into your bag of tricks and pull out something good.  If you haven't got anything good, you will have to pull out whatever you have and polish it with all the imagination and intensity you can muster.  You'll have to be at your best.  You'll have to be in great form.

Every time you run.


  1. I feel that as I am in the process of thinking about changing systems, maybe I can offer a perspective that isn't blaming anyone or anything?

    I've been playing 2nd edition since I was 11, I joined D&D club at school and that was what they played. Before that I played D&D Basic, expert and master - remember the original red box, with the blue and black supplements, since I was about 8 or 9 - that may be wrong but it feels about right! I dabbled in 3rd edition, didn't bother with 3.5 or 4th, in fact I dabbled more with things like Dungeonworld and other systems in recent times because I became very disillusioned with WotC during those years. 5e really impressed me, I ran a few sessions where we all agreed to test the new rules within the campaign and my players build some 5e characters in a region of my world that they wanted to explore more but that their characters would have to be suicidal to return too. The sessions went well enough all things considered and a week ago, I picked up a set of the books in a store, and have been pouring over them ever since. I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of what I like and what I don't like here but suffice to say, it needs work to bring it to the standard to get onto my table (though in fairness, I would say the same about 2nd ed and likely all other editions too).

    What I hope you and your readers will find interesting though is why I decided to switch systems some ten years into a campaign. There is nothing wrong with 2nd ed, nothing that a choice houserule here or there can't correct anyway, nor is there anything wrong with my players, my world, my campaign or anything else. For me, something just clicked when we did those diversions for the beta tests, I found myself enjoying the game more than I had done previously. Maybe it was because I was running a group of 1st level characters for the first time in years, maybe it was the change of location in the world. Sure I play other RPG's, but not seriously - I like to run a dungeon world campaign but I use it, well one of our players has a very poorly child and he often gets emergency calls from our sessions and has to dash out. He's a great friend and when that happens, none of us much feel like continuing without him so we switch over to dungeonworld instead to give us a little lift and to distract us from worrying.

    The best explanation I can really give is simply that I, and my players found it so much fun because the rules don't fight you when you try to roleplay, but they seem to support you far more. I'm not talking about the mechanics, the roll d20 to hit, d whatever to damage, I mean those background rules that are so easily overlooked or forgotten - a prime example being the paladin. 2nd edition straightjackets a paladin, punishing him for arbitrary, yet hardcoded into the rules, deeds. 5e simply points out that your neutral evil paladin may aspire to be a lawful good hero but hasn't attained the standards expected of him by his God. One system punishes the imagination, the other prompts it and myself and all my players have leafed through the books and found stuff that has sent our minds racing!

    It needs some work, as mentioned though before I will bring it to the table permanently - and I don't mean this to be a sales pitch for that edition, this is obviously very personal decision for me and my group, with human nature being what it is, I would be very surprised if any other group have quite the same reaction to it as we did, but that is our reason for planning to change system and as of right now, it remains true, though as we dig deeper, it may prove un-viable, it may lose it's shine, its novelty or whatever and we may then return to 2nd edition. It may be the best thing our group does in a long time or the worst, only time will tell.

  2. I don't fault you for changing systems, William.

    In the end, however, that alone will not solve your troubles as a DM. Someday you will have to look at an arbitrary rule, like the one you quoted about the paladin, and recognize that you don't need a set of rules to tell you what's right and what's wrong about that. It doesn't MATTER what the new rule-set says about the paladin . . . ALL rule sets have these silly straight-jackets. Where D&D is concerned, the potential is astronomical for this.

    If you are ever going to be in charge of your campaign, you're going to have to recognize that these rules are secondary to YOU, your campaign and your players, the last most particularly.

    Don't just tell me that a choice houserule will fix it. FIX IT! And anything else that shows up, today or ten years from now.

  3. ... and that's why I am studying your book!

  4. Hey Alexis
    Just wanted to say.
    I've run some games.
    *I* wasn't good enough.

    True story. I could have done more, or less, or just simplified the whole thing and focused on a different aspect. But I didn't and some campaigns failed.

    I have good friend though, some day they'll let me try again, when I think *I'm* ready.

    Just thought I'd throw that out there.

    After all, when the moment came that I realized it. It was a rough realization. If I hadn't been doing just voice, well... I would have had to leave the room instead of just mute the mic.

    Took a few minutes to compose myself.

    Maybe some day I'll write more in depth on it, I think I already have, but. Yah. Just thought I'd tally one on there for ya.

  5. Changing systems for us mostly is due to the new campaign that is starting being a complete genre change, usually a second game running parallel to the older still continuing campaign. There is no point running or adapting D&D to a science fiction space opera or gritting hard sci-fi game when we have Traveler or a number of other good engines already available for our storytelling needs just like there is no real point in adapting Legend of the Five Rings into a cyberpunk game (unless you really really like the engine), it comes to a matter of convenience. So when ever we want to return to western style high fantasy, we pull out D&D and are quite content with the focus.

    As to heavy analysis as to why campaigns fail, that really is something that only time and lots of discussions with different players isolated from each other can so they can't cross contaminate their opinions can uncover. True, it is the GM's fault and on many occasions, I know it was my fault.

    I let certain players run wild with little control because I was having too much fun watching them scheme and plan and manipulate the world. I grew too tired of running combat so would actively avoid running it, removing the challenge and threat of fighting and reducing it only major encounters, allowing players to specialize in tactics to take down major foes only... at the expense of players who did want to cut through hordes of foes in a vain hope to stay focused on grand plotlines. I know I handed out too much treasure or power when I thought the situation justified it as a reward for their plotting and scheming. I know I let myself get frustrated at awkward mechanics in the game engine that prevented certain events from transpiring as desired to the point where I stopped caring about refining it during that particular campaign.

    I didn't engage them as properly as I should have, I didn't inform them of my expectations of them, and I didn't take their expectations properly into account. It was a lack of communication.

    But that is not the answer I hear from players when I discuss this with them about previous games. I hear from them that they felt they had made the mistakes, they didn't try hard enough. That sense of 'GMs are rare, good GMs like gold' meant they knew they had a good GM and that me killing those long running (usually in the length of 2-3 year runs per story arc) games meant that they screwed up. Others blamed it on their fellow players for being screw ups and that their infighting is responsible for my disillusionment.

    In essence, players rarely see the problems that may be actually plaguing a GM until you are able to sit them down and discuss it, not on a GM to player level but as two friends sharing a drink or a long car ride.

    In the end though, it helps them realize just how big a bag of tricks you do have to be and how often you have to look at and address your own shortcomings as a GM to constantly improve as a storyteller. This talks with your players help you get better and for them to get better as well.

  6. I realized I was a bad GM when my games started to fail. I was young, naive, and inexperienced. That was a part of the problem. I realized *how* bad I was when I started reading you.

    Now I know that I will never be good enough. So now I have a possibility of someday becoming a decent GM. Someday.


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