Monday, August 29, 2016

First Night of the Campaign

The first day of any new campaign is always tough; sometimes its a lot of mumbling around and disjointed details that have to be delivered to the players and sometimes just the process of getting the characters rolled and set up with equipment takes all night.  The more complex the system is, the more likely it is that the latter will be the case . . . and it is easy to focus on that, particularly after the session, because everyone wants to run and make things happen right from the start.  If we're not killing goblins in half an hour, we're doing something wrong.  That's what a lot of DMs are taught to think.

Truth is, DMs are not the only ones who need time to get their feet wet.  The argument about the goblins works if all the players are genre-savvy and have played plenty of games before.  It is particularly true if we're speaking about players who don't care about character, who see every generation as fundamentally the same character, "John the Axe XXVII" and such.  Everyone else has a legitimate stake in the character creation and the buying of materials - and on the whole, it doesn't matter if that takes all night because the players are having a good time.  It's easy for a DM to lose focus about that, largely because there's a lot of pressure to perform at the beginning of a campaign, there are a lot of rules/ideas that feel like they're being put on trial and virtually nothing about the process is new, since the DM has been working on the process for a long time, likely months, sometimes more than a year.

Compare the perspective of the film-maker at the opening of a film versus the audience.  The audience wants to be pleased with the film, they want to have a good time.  The film-maker wants that too - but the stakes for the film-maker are so much higher than they are for the audience.  The film-maker desperately needs the film to go well, the film-maker's whole career and reputation rests on the audience's reaction . . . and because of that, every tiny, minute detail is desperately felt and, afterwards, in failure or not, is put under a microscope and painfully, exhaustively examined.  A moment that may make an audience member shrug is a lightning strike to the film-maker . . . and it is this lack of perspective that drives people in the performing arts to crash and burn.

One casual remark from a player, said casually and then forgotten, can ricochet in a DM's head for days or even weeks; it can cause a DM to abandon a world or a feature of that world, convinced that the player's comment is solid, irrefutable evidence that the world or the feature is BAD.  It takes so little because the stakes are comparably so high.

But it serves us to remember that players almost never like anything new the first time, even the second or third times.  New things, new systems, new games take time to settle into a person's consciousness.  The brain works by first acknowledging a piece of data, then beginning to build pathways that enable the consciousness to access that data when  it is needed.  With time, the pathway gets shorter or wide or better travelled (whatever metaphor satisfies your need to translate what the brain does into familiar visual cues), until we become so adapted to something that we cannot live without it.

It takes longer than one session for something as unfamiliar as a character generation system, a trade system, a DM's personal style or any other part of a new campaign to achieve this kind of familiarity and, inevitably for those who keep coming back, the desired love for its presence.  For the noobies, who have seen nothing, everything is goofy and weird and takes time.  For the savvy, everything that isn't what they've been used to is goofy and weird and takes time.  And when people are asked for their initial opinions about something that is goofy or weird, their impressions are unreliable.

This is why some films are better the second time than the first.  This is why sometimes we become addicted to films that we initially hated.  The first time through, they were too challenging, or we spent too much time focused on the wrong things, or knowing how it ended meant we could be better relaxed about the positive, well-fabricated scenes that we first saw with trepidation and distrust.  It is why some "bad" films become "cult" films - not because they speak to a particular type of person but because the film actually has great parts that could only be understood by people prepared to see the film two or three times.  Things grow on us.  We can't ever be sure that something is "bad" until we've given enough time to prove that it isn't going to grow.

Most times, when we plant in May, the first shoots don't appear until June.  Even then, we have to weed the plants, yes?  So have faith, give it some weeks, three or four instances of the system being tried and experienced, with knee-pads ready for picking weeds and pruning shears for long after that.  A first session isn't an opening night, it's planting season.