[White Box] Newbies and Grognards and how to start playing

Started by Baron, September 27, 2010, 02:31:50 AM

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Hi all.  First time poster but long-time lurker of the Forge.  I wanted to make sure I had some actual play before posting.  I won't divulge details of my history of arriving here except those that relate directly to this post. 

The point of this post is: say you were starting role-playing from nearly scratch, own some old games and have bought some new ones, you don't have a group, you've read the GNS essays and articles, and you're genuinely interested in experiencing all three creative agenda for what they're worth, how do you start?  What's your curriculum?  How do you teach and learn RPGs with a focus on Creative Agenda leading to functional and desirable play?

I'll tell you how I'm doing it.  I have a few convictions that lead to my methods: I believe RPGs, especially contemporary, independently-published RPGs, can be greatly accessible to people that have never played before; that there's no 'best' or 'correct' RPG; that people have the necessary creative potential to play; and that they are desperate to turn off the TV and make their own fun.  My initial curriculum is to play three games, each exemplary of the three Creative Agenda, each taking four to six sessions, keeping genre consistent - in this case, straight-up fantasy - and with a preference to games I already own or can get and distribute to the group for cheep.  My initial choices are OD&D in the form of OSRIC made by Knights-n-Knaves played in full Gamist mode, The Shadow of Yesterday by CRN Games as the example of Narrativist play, and 1ed Runequest picked up on eBay played for Simulationism.

I've invited friends to a standing weekly game night.  Four people showed up: my wife Carrie, my old pal Joe, my co-worker and old Grognard Ben, and his son Ben Jr., 12 years old.  Only Ben Sr. has had experience with role playing games.  The others are complete newbies.  Their initial reactions to the game night invite was generally: sounds fun, but how much do I have to know?  What's expected of me?  Nothing, just come.

I didn't start with any of my initial three games.  Since we're either rookie or rusty, I needed to go back to some basics - specifically: what's a character, GM, NPC, what is action and how does it get resolved, etc.  Since I also see this as partially a survey of historical role playing games as well, I wanted a game that made reference to the early history of RPG and has some basis in one of the Creative Agenda.  I chose to play White Box, the retroclone of the original D&D by Mythmere Games.  I read through the rules once, thought I probably remembered enough about D&D to jump in (2AD&D was my game back when) and started writing a one-shot adventure.

The adventure was simple and clichéd.  The party lives in a village in the mountains.  The local wise man (wizard) asks the green adventurers to run some errand for him which centered on robbing a grave on the other side of the mountain.  There's a pass over the mountain with a group of bandits guarding the pass.  The crypt, once they get to it, is closed by a magic door.  Inside are two levels, the first populated by skeletons that animate when disturbed, and below, spiders.  A completely re-heated, done-to-death adventure.

First error: we started with my brief lecture on "what's a RPG?" which took much longer than I thought it would.  Ben Sr. knew everything I was saying and contented himself by spinning dice, while the others were baffled and consoled themselves by stacking dice.  We finally got to character creation.  I liked how the ruleset limited the classes/races to just six IIRC, and there is no mixing-and-matching, but I didn't realize there was also no attribute minimums; in other words, roll your stats and pick whatever you like.  They picked dwarves, elves, and a halfling.  Not a cleric among them.  Second error: I didn't make the announcement that this adventure has undead, so you might like a cleric on hand.  Ben Sr. applied his remembered D&D knowledge to help the others during character creation, with such helpful bits as "you should have chain mail, it's the best" so they all had chain mail.  Carrie pondered "what weapon should a dwarf have?" in the vein of realism, or nascent simulationism, as in "what is the proper weapon for a dwarf, considering I know nothing about the culture of dwarves except from what I've seen in LOTR?"  She picked a warhammer.  White Box makes weapons flavorless but easy to manage by making all damage the same.

The PCs got the standard briefing from the wizard ("go to this secret crypt, find the skeletons, scrape the bones, and bring me back the powder!").  I had the presence of mind to have the wiz give them a Detect Magic scroll since they were going to have to open a magic door.  We moved to the mountain pass guarded by the bandits and I described their sight of a lone silhouette standing at the top with a spear.  Ben Jr.'s reaction was "It might be a trap so let's run up and kill him!".  His attitude of "stab first and ask questions later" was typical of him for the night.  I was interested in it because I couldn't imagine the source: is this how it's done in video games?  Joe suggested caution and an open hand, and they passed by.

At the crypt, I presented the magic door: a featureless, smooth-polished rock face.  Now I had made my third error: an essential plot point that the characters must pass through, apparently unpassable, with absolutely no clues to opening it.  The only way to find the door was to Detect Magic, then the outline of the door would appear, with three "knobs" that three persons have to press simultaneously.  Its one of those "puzzles" that only appear in D&D and should not be attempted on rookies unaccustomed to stumbling on inscrutable puzzles.  We had a face-off, them and I, for a few minutes, when I suggested the door might be magical and the scroll might help.  Ben Sr. gave the response: we might need the scroll later.  He's played this before, he knows you keep your resources tight, you fill your quiver, you rest your wizards, you potion-up before diving into the battle.  Well, we met that impasse with me breaking the DM/player barrier, saying "just play the scroll, there's no other way in." 

Now, inside, they all got the cautious bug.  I described a wooden altar in the entry room, and they decided to walk over the altar because the floor around it might be trapped.  I described three corridors branching off this entry and they decided to hold hands to check out the one on the right.  I broke the barrier again, saying "look, there's nothing that's going to jump out at you.  Here's the layout..."  They found the skeletons.  They found an empty crypt.  They found a cave-in at the end of the crypt with a weak wind whistling though it.  They found another altar with thirty unmarked pots filled with diverse liquids.  Etc.  Ben Jr.'s frustration lurched into action: "Let's mix all thirty pots together and have someone drink it!"  I liked his creativity on that one.  Joe said, "No, that's not smart.  I pick one up and smash it."  Sulfurous smoke billowed out.

Joe had enough of the tomfoolery.  "Aren't we supposed to be scraping some bones?"  They got to the barely-remembered task, woke up the skeletons, and jumped into fighting.  I immediately forgot everything I ever knew about D&D combat.  Ben Sr. quickly assisted and got the dice rolling.  I tried to describe the sense of each blow: "You swing, but you miss" "Yes, the skeleton's bony fingers are quite sharp" "Roll initiative again - no, I don't really know what initiative is" "It's a randomizer...".  Carrie went down with a lump on the head.  With no way to revive her, the party decided the night had gone on long enough, and the poor wizard never got his bone powder.

I was personally caught unprepared, largely on purpose.  I thought I remembered elements of the system that were either changed in later editions or just lost from my mind.  I was so focused on writing the adventure - the maps, the secret cult that owned the crypt, the second level that proved the cult was using their crypt as a temporary military staging point, the adversarial relationship between the village wizard and this cult, all items that never came out - that I forgot to know the rules.

Ben Sr.'s reaction was a warm reminiscence of a pleasure long forgotten.  He wanted to apply the old gamist tactics at each turn, because that's how the game is played.  He knew and made important the concepts of armor class, party diversity, check for traps, etc.  He knew the old relationship between the DM and the players - secretive and wary.  The DM will trap you, so have your ten-foot-pole handy.

Ben Jr. reacted to the situation with total creativity.  He didn't know what he couldn't do, so he tried anything that jumped to mind.  His reactions, though, tended toward unprovoked violence as a defensive measure.  He had the idea this was a game and that there were elements planned to destroy him.  When the skeletons woke up, his response was "of course the skeletons woke up!  I knew they would!"

Joe had the most open perspective.  His observations were immediate: "remember we have a task to complete".  He had little interest in the crunchy bits of the system and instead seemed interested in the situation, and more interested in his manipulating and reacting to the situation with in-character remarks.  He made three remarks in play that were both IC and OOC simultaneously, that were both funny and important to the situation, and that showed the kind of character he wanted to play.  When we got to the dice, he waited until someone told him to roll, and was emotionally unconnected to the outcome.

I think I was most impressed by my wife.  She came to the situation through the "that makes sense/that doesn't make sense" lens.  She wanted the situation to be realistic, her dwarf's weapon to be realistic, the atmosphere in the crypt to be realistic.  After, she asked some poignant questions, like "if we continued, and the party split up, how would that be handled?  How would two simultaneous but separate story lines be handled?"  She seemed to be leaning toward a simulationist's perspective, judging the play against a consistent or logical reality.

Personally, I enjoyed letting the field be open at the start, so each player's reactions to play would happen organically.  Its kind of the "the baby will gravitate toward what it wants to learn" method of teaching.  The other way, of course, is atomic: start with restricted sets and build up: "you're all fighters, you have a spear and you have a bow..."  Because of the adults' reactions to this game, I decided to continue with The Shadow of Yesterday.  The idea of self-motivation through the Keys will encourage Joe and Carrie, who can approach this from a similar-media perspective (TV, movies, etc.); and will break Ben Sr. out of the singular motivation of OD&D.  Ben Jr?  He's an exciting unknown right now.

So, how would you start?  How would you refresh old-timers while teaching rookies?  What's your curriculum?  How would you introduce and play the heart out of the Creative Agenda?  I'll tell you my story over a series of posts, if it's of interest.



Hi Matt, I don't have a whole lot of time to reply this week because work is crazy, but Tavis and I are teaching an afterschool program about RPG's to elementary school children, using D&D 4e as a (less than ideal) point of reference.

Creating stuff

But this is material that's explicitly aimed at getting children to do "Exploration" in Forge-jargon, showing them that this type of activity (a) exists, and (b) can be very entertaining.

Even at ages 8-12, these kids totally understand Step On Up as a creative agenda.  The older kids, who are already familiar with D&D 4e, aren't really playing "Super Awesome Let's Pretend Time."  They're playing, "Super Awesome Let's Pretend I'm Better Than You OH NO YOU'RE NOT Time," using builds, feats, powers, and mastery of the canon as proxies for real-world status battles.  The younger kids seem to be perplexed or dismayed by these behaviors, and were visibly relieved by the idea that their characters would be on the same team rather than competing directly.

I'd love to post more but gotta work in the salt mines right now.



Congrats on starting such an ambitious project! I'm sorry to hear that you had trouble staying on top of the rules, but I'm glad you managed to handle problems as they came up.
I was curious, though, about why you decided to say, "Nothing will jump out at you!" This is totally fine to me, of course; I'm just curious about what you were thinking specifically - - were they taking a long time? Were they hesitating to the point of putting the scenario on hold?
On another note, it's pretty cool to see the players' creativity, their different takes on the puzzles and problems, and Ben Sr.'s assistance when things lagged - glad to see he took ownership of the situation!

What about this:
QuoteMatt said,
With no way to revive her, the party decided the night had gone on long enough, and the poor wizard never got his bone powder.
Would you consider this a bad thing? Did it feel like the players felt bad about this outcome? Did they call it a night out of despair, or did they decide they'd gotten their fill? Basically, did this give the session a black mark?

I also wanted to suggest that it might be too early to guess what kind of gaming your wife prefers. She might not necessarily be Sim-friendly; all RP is underpinned by Exploration, and it's important for all players involved to feel like what's going on makes sense, or has some frame of reference it can offer. What is Carrie's gaming background? What is her fantasy background?
I know my girlfriend really enjoyed the LotR films, but she's much more comfortable with "realistic fic" RPing, as she has clearer expectations of the setting and genre there than in fantasy.

I'm excited to see what happens with Ben Sr. - - since a true Gamist responds strongly to motivation via game mechanics, he might really get into exploring the ins and outs of the Keys' reward system.

As for your questions, I am working on something similar to this project of yours, but in two different groups. On the one hand, I am trying to shove some Story Now into Swords & Wizardry, White Box's cousin, such that my very very mainstream RP friend can grok Story Now (based on our discussion tonight, I think all she needs/needed was me adding a mechanic to establish a Premise in an otherwise familiar game). On the other hand, I started my girlfriend on Fiasco and my therapist buddy (personal, not professional relationship there, if yer curious) on Polaris.
Basically, I have zero interest in demonstrating Right to Dream play right now, on the basis that new RPers can very easily get their fill of that CA through mainstream RPGs (without my intervention, that is). I don't really know any newbies who are interested in Step On Up, although I am running a play-it-straight Swords & Wizardry game for a minicon near DC next month.
I think it's pretty crucial to discern the prior interests of your players (genre, content, etc.) to make them as comfortable as possible. Smaller groups are probably better too, to make sure each person gets more of your time and attention during the new experience.

One question I'm not quite sure on -
How would you introduce and play the heart out of the Creative Agenda?
So, I dunno how much I'd really tell players, to avoid burdening them with theory they have no stake in learning about. I would try to make the case for the CA in as simple, clear terms as possible, though: we're here to compete and have fun, we're here to explore THIS moral quandary, we're here to explore what's it's like to do/be XYZ.
Those wouldn't be my exact phrasings, but I think making competition/no competition clear would be important. Other than that, I think the reward cycles should make the rest of how it "works" clear enough as we play. It became clear through a few scenes of Polaris (with two semi-beginners, not Therapy Guy) how "heavy" play could be, how resonant and emotionally powerful it was. It might make sense, depending on the game, to frame Story Now play as "heavy" or "drama" play, even if the subject matter for a Step On Up game the group has played was also dark or intense.
If it's about whether you win or not, there's (for me) more of a fun ick-factor in dark or disturbing subject matter; if it's about exploring dark and troubling thematic content, it's going to hit you in the gut a lot harder than competition play will, at least more frequently and more reliably.
Honestly, I don't know how to frame Right to Dream play; it's so easy, mechanically, to move an S game into G or N territory that I'm at a loss as to express what it's "about". That's my own bias, of course, and not intended as a slur against Sim design or play.

On a semi-related note, here's how I'm Nar-ing up Swords & Wizardry: if gaining gp gives you xp, then *losing* gp makes you lose xp. The caveat is this: you don't get to definitely keep this xp for treasure until you spend it (with conditions), donate it, bury it, throw it away, or otherwise get it out of your hands, making it "inactive" and taking the xp from it, for yourself.
If you invest it, spend it on useful things (aside from necessities), or otherwise benefit from it directly and concretely, then it's still "active" wealth and, if taken from you, will result in a loss of the xp tied to it.
Getting it back means you get the xp back, though.
Basically, I wanted to give a much more sharp-edged, compelling motivation to things like theft, adventuring, and becoming powerful - it directly, unmistakably benefits you. The dynamic of making your wealth "active" or "inactive" could lead to some very interesting decisions and situations. Paladins might not mind tithing now, so much.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/