Learning to Game

Started by Judd, February 26, 2008, 03:56:01 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


I was IMing with Thor about different generations of gamers and how they learned to game and it made me think about how I learned to play RPG's.  This isn't one experience of play, as much as a kind of pattern of play during my first years of gaming.

I was the youngest in an older group.  Nowadays, two years doesn't seem like such a big deal but in junior high, a 6th grader playing with 8th graders was sort of a big deal.  And then when I was 13 and the oldest player in the group was 21, it was a huge deal.

We started off with Marvel Super-Heroes and then into AD&D 1st edition, into some Champions and into AD&D 2nd edition when it came out.

I don't think I ever read a game book from beginning to end.  I learned to play by watching my fellow players very carefully.  I learned which dice to use and when, when it was my turn to go and all that noise.  Our group was big and noisy and I think, as the youngest in the group, a scrawny kid with big ears who stuttered, I really felt that my character I had to be doing something cool in order to get time at the table.  That kind of attention seeking is probably what led to me being so pro-active in the years since.

Thinking about it, both me and Jason, the other youngster of the group, went on to game together for years and were always known as movers and shakers, people whose characters were constantly in motion and I wonder if we could attribute that to being so young in a group filled with older, loud, New Jersey teenagers.

Because there was a line, a kind of balance.  There was good pro-activity and then there was what Dragon Magazine called Chaotic Everywhere, when players stomped all over each other's scenes and that was definitely seen as bad but the lines were kind of tenuous and hard to figure out.

I didn't learn the rules by rote and kind of looked down on those who did.  Rules mastery just wasn't as important as story, was our party-line and we stuck to it.  We threw out rules we didn't like, we role-played and didn't roll-play and all that noise.

I guess what I'm getting at is that for me, I learned gaming from my peers and not from the books. It was like telephone.  For years I identified as someone who just didn't pick up rules well and wasn't a rules-person.  Only recently did I figure out that I need to read a game text, play it - knowing that we'll make some mistakes, and go back and re-read it.

Comments on this thread are fine, as well as your experience with how you learned to game back in the day.

Robert Bohl

Quote from: Paka on February 26, 2008, 03:56:01 PM
I didn't learn the rules by rote and kind of looked down on those who did.
You looked down on me, you fucker?!

My history: When I was about 10 or younger, friends of the family used to play D&D. A dad and his teenage daughter and some of their friends. They wouldn't let me play and I resented them for that (though I'd probably do the same thing myself).

At some point after that I got the D&D Basic Set, then Intermediate, Expert, and whatever the top level one was. Most of the time I played these by myself. I distinctly remember riding in the car home from my grandma's house and playing through a Basic D&D module with my Elf. It was a big deal when my grandmother and mom together got me the PHB and DMG and dice. It wasn't until around 1984 before I played with anyone else, and not until 1985 when I started to do regular games.

I was a rules monkey. I loved to know them or at least to know where to find them by heart. I totally had this arrogant "I'm a good gamer" thing going where I valued story over fighting. I still have that, to a degree, I just don't usually think I'm better. It's more often that I don't care about the things that many other gamers do.
Misspent Youth: Ocean's 11 + Avatar: The Last Airbender + Snow Crash
Oo! Let's Make a Game!: Joshua A.C. Newman and I make a transhumanist RPG


I learned to play by designing.

My first RPG experience was...2nd grade (however old that is) in our school's Gifted program...which is what they used to do with bright ADD kids before they realized drugging them into submission was cheaper.  Anyway, "Free Creative Time" was set aside which could be used for anything as long as it was social and creative.  One day some of my classmates used the Free Creative time to play D&D.

I'd never played, they'd been playing for awhile.  They're characters were already 3-5 level...I started out as a 1st level M-U.

Here's the neat twist.  The GM had totally forgotten his books and his dice.  Oh No!  How are we going to play?  Well...without missing a beat, he just started playing.  The whole session was totally old school railroaded illusionism...freeform-style.  We ended up being all captured by a high level evil Druid (?!) and out of boredom the other players killed me and did horrible things to my corpse...I was HOOKED!

Not having any money to buy this game, I went home and reengineered it.  Typing out a bunch of pages on onion skin paper on my mom's old manual typewritter.  I used dice, because they'd said you were supposed to normally, and I used stats that kinda resembled what was written on my character sheet.  And I made up stats for monsters I kinda remembered from our game.  I wound up with 4 monsters...Orcs, Skeletons, Green Dragons, and White Dragons (yeah, it was a wierd game).

Then I merged that with our lunch period practice of Mazes.  During home room we'd each draw a killer, near impossible maze on notebook paper (speed draw cuz homeroom wasn't that long) and during lunch we'd pass them around and race to see who get get through it first.

So I took those mazes, added rooms (cuz in the game we played the stuff we fought was always in a room) and drew a little picture of one my 4 monsters.  Then you had to get through the maze and if you reached a room with a monster you had to fight it using dice before you could keep going.

Then we played the hell out of that, and I had to keep changing the rules around because they didn't work.  And then we'd add different stuff like weapons...yeah weapons..and wouldn't it be neat if each weapon was an advantage against a certain monster.  But then you'd always carry around all the weapons...so wouldn't it be neat if there was a limit on the weapons you could carry so you'd have to choose.  But the the GM would just put the other monsters in the maze so you'd be hosed...so wouldn't it be neat if the monsters were random.  And so on and so on and so on.

That's how I learned to roleplay.



I think we might've discussed this before but your story reminds me of when I worked at an elementary school after-school program and a group of boys would get together and with a Monster Manual being passed between them play D&D.  It was pretty clear that one of them had seen their older brother play and was kind of imitating that but what they do was really neat.

Boy #1: You see *flips pages of Monster Manual* 500 Githyanki!

Boy #2: I send out my blahblah Pokemon to destroy them and take out my zord.

Neat stuff.


Quote from: Paka on February 26, 2008, 03:56:01 PMI don't think I ever read a game book from beginning to end.

I'm pretty sure that I did, but I don't really remember processing what I was reading until maybe college or later. I can think of plenty of RPGs from those days that I pick up today and say, "*That's* how it was supposed to work?"* Somehow this didn't prevent me from playing, though.

Most of my proto-gaming was with peers; no more than a year of age difference at most. I can definitely see that we sort of taught each other how to play; each of us understood different bits, and we slowly forged it all together.

Also, for decades I don't think I grokked the idea of reading a game, making some PCs, and then setting up a one-shot to "test" it with your friends. I'd read a game, assume it was awesome, talk it up to my friends... and then do noting when they actually asked to try it. "Uh, I don't have anything prepared." I'd literally bring piles of games over to friends' houses and just kinda stare at them.

* That's probably why I've been so impressed by recent games with explicit procedures of play in the text. They actually tell you what to do!
A.k.a., Mark Delsing

Nev the Deranged

Heh. Ralph, you guys did Mazes too, eh? We had these things we called "Pyramid Mazes", because for whatever obscure reason, we'd draw a big triangle and put the maze in that. It was sort of a cross between a pencil and paper maze and a video game like Pitfall, and an rpg-ish kind of thing. Monsters and traps and doors and items, teleporters and switches and lava and all that jazz. We actually designed our own games of all kinds long before we got into D&D at the lunchtable in grade school. "Dark Forest" was one of my friends' inventions, where he'd take a sheet of graph paper and fill in the squares with random colors, and then create a map key that told what each color was. Only, the players didn't get to see the Key, you just rolled your d6 and moved, and found out what a color meant when you landed on it. That game was pretty cool, I might actually throw one of those together again some time...

Then, of course, Steve Packard brought in his red box D&D set, and ran us through regular lunchtime games. I still remember chasing d20s across the floor, man those suckers never stopped rolling. Eventually, of course, some busybody teachers and parents got wind of it and my parents forbade me to ever play. They'd heard about James Dallas Egbert and a few others, and decided that D&D was of the devil and made people insane. I wish I'd had the words back then to explain the truth, but I didn't. Of course, their opprobrium didn't stop me from playing on the sly whenever I could, nor from finding books of my own to feverishly read through in secret. I designed adventures, whole new races of creatures, statted myself up a level 20 elvish ranger and his golden dragon companion, complete with castle and treasure horde. Man, those were the days.

Later, we found Palladium, and played a combination of TMNT and Heroes Unlimited, with some Ninjas & Superspies thrown on once someone got a hold of that book. I eventually ended up with some Robotech books but I don't recall ever actually playing.

Later still I got a copy of Werewolf from a printing house I visited for my graphic arts class, fresh off the press so to speak. I read that thing to pieces. I read a lot of WW stuff (all Werewolf, I had no interest in the others) over the years, but played maybe once or twice, and briefly.

Then there was a long stretch during which I didn't do any gaming at all.

Then I found Sorcerer somehow, I don't even remember. And then the Forge. And I went through a sort of simultaneous awakening and stupefying. I let all the jargon and Edwardsian philosophy soak into my brain and became an instant convert- despite the fact that I am now realizing I mostly have no idea what a lot of it means; and consequently shedding it off until I have a strong enough foundation of actual play to grasp the concepts.

And that leads up to the present- where I am more or less starting over. For all the reading and pining and just flat out plain wannabeeing I've done for most of my life, I'm really just learning how to roleplay now.

Which is kind of cool.


Interestingly enough, I learned to play D&D by playing by myself using the Red Box D&D set.

I would sit in my living room rolling the dice and making things up on the fly about what was happening. I don't recall much about it, it was mainly just toying around until some time later I brought it to my friends' house and convinced them to play. A short time afterwards, the older brother of the two picked up the 1st Ed. AD&D PHB and DMG and we started playing that.

But, I want to note, it was the red box that taught me how the whole thing worked, which is an incredible feat in design and presentation. I still refer back to it as a prime example of good rules presentation and game design: the book was a game in itself that taught you how to play the game. And yet, in my experience, developers since then have not picked up on or capitalized on what is a very powerful technique.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio


I learned how to play with my cousin and his high school buddies.  I was 13, my cousin was 30.  Like Judd I can remember having to scrap for my on-camera moments.  I took to that struggle well, due largely to having an older brother that made that kind of struggle an every day affair. 

We played 1st Ed. with a bit of 2nd ED. thrown in.  (Primarily Forgotten Realms hacks and the proficiency system)  My first real character was a cavalier and the Unearthed Arcana is still one of my favorite books.  I learned to hate Drow at that table and still catch myself saying "Die foul minions of Lloth!" when I squish a spider.

From there I went on to game with my own friends from school and played in an epic 2nd Ed. campaign for the last three years of high school.  I still call those friends by their character's names even today.  There was the odd session of Alternity, but if we weren't playing D+D we were usually playing L5R.  (Kakita in the house!)

When I moved to Ithaca I fell in with a new group very quickly and got into the indie scene.  I think my having gamed with older players before helped ease my transition into their table.  Riddle of Steel was the first game I played in where I was introduced to scripting.  We played Dogs, Conspiracy of Shadows, Sorcerer, PTA, SOTC and TSOY.  (Maybe a few more that I can't draw out of my mind at this hour...)  My favorite game was Burning Wheel.  In our 'Vault' campaign I played the Elf I always wanted to play.

Dogs for me was gaming survival training.  I became comfortable in the spotlight while playing dogs.  Setting stakes, scene framing, merging dice and descriptors... all came from dropping sinners in the west that never was.

Essentially: Playing with Judd and our friends helped me learn how to drive to the hoop and not just shoot threes all day.

"...By hoef, heel and wing!"


Quote from: Ilmryn on February 27, 2008, 06:51:34 AM
I learned how to play with my cousin and his high school buddies.  I was 13, my cousin was 30.  Like Judd I can remember having to scrap for my on-camera moments.  I took to that struggle well, due largely to having an older brother that made that kind of struggle an every day affair. 

How'd you learn to do what you did, Aaron?  Did you pour over the books or watch your cousin?  What did they tell you to do, either with actions or with direct instruction?


There was a lot of direction from the rest of the table.  I didn't start to really dig into the books until after I had been playing for some time.  The rules came easily enough, it was the role-playing part where I struggled for a while.  It took me a long time to get the nerve to really act the part.  I remember there being a lot of "And then my guy says:..."  I emulated the styles of the people around me, taking bits from each of their methods and trying to add my own flavor to it.  I understood it all much sooner than I had the confidence to actually do it.

My real breakthrough moment came when we needed a big roll against a hydra.  One of the guys shouted "Show up and make this roll!  Don't be such a fucking squirrel!"  My broadsword put it down that hit.  I got my confidence and my nickname (squirrel) that night.  It was one of those benchmark moments of my gaming career that I will probably remember forever.
"...By hoef, heel and wing!"

Michael S. Miller

Cool thread, Judd. I wrote this up on my LJ a couple years ago. Here's the applicable snippet:

Quote1982 I'm in 2nd grade. Sometime in the spring, my second cousin on my mom's side, Billy (who I'd never met before and never seen since) comes to stay at my grandmother's house for the weekend. He's brought his D&D stuff with him (don't ask me what edition, I never got to look at the books). He steers me through rolling up a gnome named Figtoe. He runs me through a dungeon he'd run his friends through.

Aside: At one point in describing the dungeon, he tells me that I see a door that's ajar. Remember, I'm in 2nd grade and had never heard that before, so I think he says, "The door is a jar" and I picture this giant glass pickle jar filling the hallway. I figure the only way through is to open the lid, so I say "I open it." He says: "But it's already ajar!" I say: "I know, that's why I open it." Abbott & Costello, eat your heart out!

1983-1987 I've got another cousin (first cousin, actually, on my dad's side) who plays D&D: Jason Roberts. He's 4 years older than me, so I, of course, think everything he does is the definition of cool. So I make sure I have my rumpled gnomish character sheet whenever I get to see him at Thanksgiving & Easter. He runs AD&D 1st edition and, although I get to see the books, I don't actually get to read them or understand how they work. He runs Queen of the Demonweb Pits or dungeons off-the-cuff, and I roll what he wants me to roll, and I have no real idea what I'm doing, but I'm having a great time.

Something else RP-wise goes on at this time. Since I enjoy the games that Jason runs for me so much, but I don't know the rules at all, and I have a good memory, I start redrawing the dungeon maps after the holiday, and then running my friends through them at lunchtime. We're all geeks of varying degrees, and middle school is tough on geeks (actually, middle school is tough on everybody), so it's something that keeps us together. When I run out of the dungeons that Jason made, I switch to running Star Wars stuff. We're totally free-forming, and coming up with geeky lightsabers in all kinds of colors. I even tried to design my own Star Wars role-playing game at this point. The thing was, I think, 7 maps with obstacles on them. One was about recovering a crashed starfighter on a forest planet, and the map had where the crashed ship was, where the stormtroopers were, where the forest monsters were, and like that. Looking back, I guess the map served as a mnemonic device for Bangs.

It's really interesting to see, similar to Ralph, how designing a game to capture the experience of a game I'd played by did not own also played such a big part in my early game education. Perhaps if we make clear, easier-to-learn games, we'll create fewer game designers in the next generation?

It also just occured to me that my early gaming was very intermitant. I've rarely had a regular group and today do much of my gaming at conventions. Still reenacting 25-year-old patterns, I suppose...

Kevin Smit

I learned to play when I was...  oh, 8-9?  Most of my early RP contacts I met through my older sister.  A friend of my sister's got me started on the old Star Wars d6 system.  I loved it at once and have been RPing since.  Not Star Wars, mind you, but other games.

My experience learning was also a bit different because I learned to play 1 on 1.  It was just me and my friend, no group.  Of course, being so young I wasn't really aware of what quality role playing was all about, but my friend seemed to enjoy running me through stories, so I guess I did ok. 

Later I played a few games with my sister's college friends using The Window, and absolutely loved the light rules approach.  While in college myself I found Fading Suns, which can be played with a Nar focus quite convincingly.

Nowadays I seem to be the eternal GM, although I also act as a designer in my free time.