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Author Topic: Avoiding the Mechanics for Functional Play  (Read 4020 times)
Chris_Chinn
Member

Posts: 280


« on: October 14, 2010, 10:02:17 AM »

Over at this thread ( http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=30561 ), Abkajud mentioned:

Quote
Oddly, I've noticed a parallel conceit regarding "traditional" design - there's a crowd that thinks game mechanics should be brutal and unmerciful, and there's a (perhaps younger) crowd that thinks it actually kind of sucks to have to go outside the rules to increase your chance of surviving the session. Y'know, that strategy of asking for enough details and plugging away with logic to avoid having to roll a save or enter combat.

I want to talk about that as being a "victim" of that sort of design.

My first experience with roleplaying was picking up the classic "Red Box" D&D when I was 12.  Being 12, and seeing the cover depicting this guy taking on a sky-scraper sized dragon, I was completely saying, "AWESOME" and proceeded to devour the rules.

Now, in trying to run the game, from the book, for my friends, everyone kept getting killed by rats.   I was certain there had to be something we were doing wrong, since the game is (as I perceived it) about awesome sword and sorcery heroics.   We tried a lot of times and ultimately, my friends and family decided roleplaying was boring and not worth trying - "We spent 20 minutes picking out equipment and died in 5 minutes, what the fuck?"

See, the rules mention "ignore the rules" which, by itself without any guidance is useless for most people to translate into functional play.   There also wasn't really anything about how "referee'ing" should trump rules except in "Be fair, but be tough" and similar useless pithy sayings.

It really wasn't until I saw the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming ( http://www.lulu.com/product/file-download/quick-primer-for-old-school-gaming/3159558 ) that it really became clear to me that this was effectively the "missing text" or oral tradition a lot of people were playing by.

Games that push for players to avoid combat (or other mechanics) is fine, though for it to functionally work, it needs to be clearly stated HOW it works for both the GM and the players.  Without an understanding of what your options are and how play is to work, people naturally fall back on the clear procedures- after all, that's how all -other- games work.

I don't think it's so much that people are "against" doing free-form solutions as much as that the expectation of doing free-form/Referee'd solutions is so rarely well communicated, and has led to so much history of snags in play, or, in my case, no play at all.

Has anyone else taught themselves roleplaying from a book or spoke with people who have and seen similar concerns?

Chris
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Filip Luszczyk
Member

Posts: 771

roll-player


« Reply #1 on: October 14, 2010, 11:32:24 AM »

My first game was the old introductory Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. The text was pretty much the condensed essence of 90s bullshit. The only other reference I had were a few issues of a Polish rpg magazine, which was more confusing than useful. There was nobody to teach me gaming, I was the first kid in the village who got interested in this sort of stuff.

The first time I tried to run the game, upon encountering GM's determination issues, my cousin said it's dumb.

It took several years of stumbling before I finally realized that it was dumb indeed.
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Abkajud
Member

Posts: 285


« Reply #2 on: October 14, 2010, 01:11:47 PM »

My earliest RP experience was actually (to be generous) a home-brew - but the system was entirely derived from GM fiat. Entirely. We had character sheets with HP, MP, levels, spells, all that, but the entire game was like a sort of crystal ball experience: players say what they do, maybe ask questions and things, and the GM decides everything that happens.
We played at recess, and we were in middle school, so it's probably normal that we didn't spontaneously derive some kind of diceless, flat-surface-less randomizer or whatever.
The game itself was called Quest: play consisted of over-the-top, anime-inspired battles, with lots of jumping around and throwing spheres of energy at each other. Character options, in 5th grade, were limited to knight, wizard, or swordsman (a mix of the two others). I was the first person to play it with Alex, the GM, and as other kids grew interested in it, Alex let them take over as various NPCs on the fly.
By 8th grade, we had a suite of character classes, lots of stolen/cribbed setting material from Warcraft 2, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 3, etc.

And yet, the system always consisted of GM-fiat only, and mean-spirited fiat at that - the GM would twist anything we said, if the mood struck, such that our characters were horribly mangled and disfigured, but managed to survive our unintentional injuries. A ninja p.c. once attempted to backflip off the back of an airship (upon landing, mind you), but "neglected" to be 100% clear that he was waiting until the ship had touched down. The GM "let" him go from free-falling to using a midair drill-attack, but then ruled that he didn't burrow safely into the landing strip - it was adamantium-enriched soil, and killed him on impact.

I think we somehow got the middle school D&D experience without even playing D&D until we were almost in high school - a malevolent, word-twisting GM; random, gruesome character death, etc. The plot was actually not too bad, and very player-driven (with a focus on traveling to new lands). I also recall that when we started AD&D 2nd Edition, we had no one to teach us the rules; I made the error of buying the DMG before the PHB, thinking "This first one here says you need it to run the game. Maybe that's all I need!"
Tips from InQuest magazine helped a lot, but this was before we used/were allowed to use the internet for much more than AOL-hosted online games, so whatever wealth of how-to-play info that may have been on the web at that point was beyond our reach.

White Wolf games were better-explained, but the opinion pieces (how to set theme in a game, what World of Darkness games are about, etc.) in the books seemed to flatly contradict the way combat rules were laid out, the huge charts of firearm info, etc. The dice pool system seemed fine, but there were, to us, "extra" rules - ones we had little intention of following or bothering to know. Given that I gamed with the same five or six people, mostly, from 4th grade til 12th, we had all cut our teeth on propless "freeform" RPing, and had little interest in mastering crunch once we realized how much *work* it was.

I'm finally making my way into the Old School Revolution, and I really, really enjoyed the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. It revealed a lot to me about the play-culture centered on D&D that came (and largely went, imo) before my time, and revealed a TON about the mindset of many designers since - basically, take the Primer, play the telephone game for 20 years, and see what you get. Fillip's phrasing "the condensed essence of 90s bullshit" is pain I can share all too easily, and I think a lot of folks in the indie scene can too - indie gaming by way of really bad, unfulfilling experiences.
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Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/
Mathew E. Reuther
Member

Posts: 114

I came, I saw, I ordered the burrito . . .


« Reply #3 on: October 14, 2010, 01:31:41 PM »

I learned when I was in 2nd grade in '81. "You just killed a god, so you become a god . . ." Yeah, that happened. :)  Now for the record, I know a lot of people love the original D&D red box, and I did own it, . . . but I learned on the 1977 blue box one weekend at a sleepover. My halfling died so very quickly . . . I was hooked. ;)

Nearly three decades on, I'd say that my learning was never hampered by not having anyone to pass the rules down (to be fair, in the early 80's there was not this massive tradition yet anyway in my opinion) mainly perhaps because the people I played with were also young and very flexible. Characters died when we played, but we just accepted that it could happen and we moved on. We didn't waste a lot of time on "that's not fair" and instead moved on because of how many cool things were happening.

As an aside, it irritates me that you linked a product on Lulu that is listed as a free download and won't resolve . . . Lulu says "no access!" . . . I wanted to see what Matthew had to say. LOL. *rawr!*

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Chris_Chinn
Member

Posts: 280


« Reply #4 on: October 14, 2010, 03:00:15 PM »

Hi Mathew,

Quote
but I learned on the 1977 blue box one weekend at a sleepover.

I'm not clear - did your initial experience come from playing the game or from reading the books?

Chris
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Filip Luszczyk
Member

Posts: 771

roll-player


« Reply #5 on: October 14, 2010, 03:27:19 PM »

Quote
My earliest RP experience was actually (to be generous) a home-brew - but the system was entirely derived from GM fiat. Entirely. We had character sheets with HP, MP, levels, spells, all that, but the entire game was like a sort of crystal ball experience: players say what they do, maybe ask questions and things, and the GM decides everything that happens.

Ah, scratch my previous post. A few months before I put my hands on LoTR adventure game, I tried my home-brew based on what I gleaned from a single issue of the rpg magazine and some crpg stuff. I recall it had a board and a few stats rated with adjectives (I used to play Nahlakh a lot at the time). However, it didn't even occur to me I could write some mechanics to process player's decisions and all that stuff into concrete results. Or maybe I was just to lazy to design any? Either way, five minutes into the session, it was pure GM-fiat.

It was pretty fun when my cousin called the power of Greyskull to use his ninja magic. It wasn't really a game, though. We never tried this again, and I figured out I needed a commercial game. Then, I spent the next decade trying commercial product after commercial product hoping the next one would work better :)
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Callan S.
Member

Posts: 4268


WWW
« Reply #6 on: October 14, 2010, 03:42:47 PM »

Hi,

Quote
Games that push for players to avoid combat (or other mechanics) is fine, though for it to functionally work, it needs to be clearly stated HOW it works for both the GM and the players.  Without an understanding of what your options are and how play is to work, people naturally fall back on the clear procedures- after all, that's how all -other- games work.

I don't think it's so much that people are "against" doing free-form solutions as much as that the expectation of doing free-form/Referee'd solutions is so rarely well communicated, and has led to so much history of snags in play, or, in my case, no play at all.

I've got this chilling sense that rather than you becoming able to overcome a problem in playing (like being killed by rats when the dude fights a dragon on the cover), you've instead simply become able to perpetuate the problem onto the next generation. Because now, as much as the guy who wrote the game where your killed by rats knew how to play that game, now you know how to play the game. And yet because he knew how to play it, you were left in the lurch for a large amount of time. And now you know, how many others will be left in the lurch for lengthy periods of time?

You have to realise the these books were smothered with the impression, the feeling, that it worked for someone. Quoting the hard look at D&D essay, in the cargo cults section
Quote
How did you know it worked? What did you do it for? All of it, from Social Contract right down to Stance, had to be created in the faith that it worked "out there" somewhere, and somehow, some way, it was supposed to work here
What if it like...didn't work? That even the original guy who wrote the book - really hadn't gotten the group activities he organised, to work. Perhaps just had a very strong social control of the group (if I remember a quote of Gygax, it's that he thought 3rd edition onward the GM had become an entertainer, not a master of the game)?

Assuming it works first, and then trying to figure out how - well, that can be a font of creativity. But it can also be a font of madness if the original activity did not actually work at all. You obviously cannot understand how to make something work, which never did work, ever. You can see that if someone really, strongly believes something works first, they could spend years trying to find out the how. Because they never question their base belief.

Blasphemy, I know, to suggest Gygax's activity might not have actually worked. But blasphemy aside, what if that were actually true? And what then of that text on lulu, that wont download for me either, that says it knows how play old D&D?

Or at the very least, what if the text on lulu actually left you no more informed than you were before reading it? And it just transmitted an enthusiasm to you?
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Chris_Chinn
Member

Posts: 280


« Reply #7 on: October 14, 2010, 04:44:03 PM »

Hi Callan,

That seems like a worthwhile thread on it's own, especially if you have, or have spoken with people whom it never worked.  That seems a little beyond the scope what I'm looking for in this thread, though.

I'm really interested in people who have had personal experience with learning from game texts especially with regard to games where not engaging the mechanics is an expected aspect of play.

Chris
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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #8 on: October 14, 2010, 05:41:00 PM »

So, Chris, when I was 8 years old my mother bought Red Box D&D at Toys 'R' Us.  She did this for two reasons.  She'd heard all the horrible occult rumors about the game and thought that was just about the dumbest thing she'd ever heard. (This is the woman who used to "summon" fire and water spirits with her nieces and nephews as a kind of make-believe game much to her sister's ire).  The second reason was because she had this odd philosophy that you kept an 8 year old boy happy by giving him monsters to play with.  We had ZERO connection to the hobby as a wider cultural phenomenon. 

I didn't have a lot of friends my age at the time so to play the game she roped all HER friends together.  So from about 8 to 12 or so my D&D gaming was with my mother as GM and her 30-year oldish friends as my party members.  We went through Blue Box and then on to AD&D and AD&D2e.

Here's the thing: My mother totally got it.  I don't know HOW she got it but somehow she figured out that the GM was there to "make up the rules."  We didn't really avoid or ignore the rules so much as she altered them to "make sense" for situations the rules didn't explicitly cover.  We HAD a lot of just straight up combats.  Pretty cool ones too.

Memorable Quirks of Our Game.

My mother LOVED maps.  Man, she spent most of her day drawing maps and populating them with stuff.  I'm pretty sure she had note books of adventures we never actually got around to playing.  Charts as well, she made a lot of her own charts and tables and stuff or random stuff.  If there was an Inn she had a unique list of what was sold there.  She drew a city map that spanned *5* whole sheets of graph paper and there was an adventure hook in each every individual HOUSE.

A few times near the beginning we'd start adventures with her handing out scripts  (no more than about 10 pages) that we'd read.  Railroading?  Probably but she had enough of a handle on what was fun about our characters that everybody got really into it.  We only did that for a little while.

We had a special toast to open the game, she'd say, "To The Game!"  And we'd all reply, "To The DEATH!"  (Note on the rare occasions I play D&D, I still observe this ritual).

One time she got kind of fed up with not being able to wrangle the group for regular play.  So what she did was make a rather large collection of random charts so that she and I could play together just the two of us, both as PCs with no real DM.

I guess my point is two fold.  With regard to Callan's point, what we did worked in so much as we engaged in a successful social leisure activity we called D&D.  But to the point of the thread my mother somehow figured it out.  There must have been ENOUGH in that text for her to work it out because she more or less ran games right in the spirit of the OSR today.

Jesse

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jburneko
Member

Posts: 1429


« Reply #9 on: October 14, 2010, 06:00:21 PM »

It occurred to me that what I posted above may not seem compatible with some of the posts where I give a some what more pain ridden account of my experiences with D&D.  Those stories are about what happened when I started trying to read the rules and play the game by myself.  I started trying to read the rules when I was 8 but real frustration set in around Jr. High/High School when I started trying to play and run the game for my friends all on my own.

Unlike, my mother, I didn't get it.  I was convinced that what my mother was doing was fun and all but there must be a more accurate, correct, and consistent way to play.  This was partially in response to me playing with teenagers who were fond of playing "gotcha" games with me as a GM.

Jesse
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Callan S.
Member

Posts: 4268


WWW
« Reply #10 on: October 14, 2010, 07:23:00 PM »

I hope it's not way off topic, but Jesse, you mentioned your mother having "summoned" fire and water spirits with her nieces and nephews. To me it sounds like she already had skills along the lines of running an activity centered around fiction, also skills at dramatic build up and human management skills. Perhaps alot more skills. She played the summoning game before any contact with a D&D text?
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C. Edwards
Member

Posts: 589

savage / sublime


« Reply #11 on: October 14, 2010, 07:59:04 PM »

I taught myself (and my friends) to play using the Moldvay Basic Set (pink box). It came with module B2 "The Keep on the Borderlands". We played it "by the rules", with the result that there was lots of PC death and mayhem. We loved it. I was 13 at the time.

We were also hardcore video game platformer players (these were the prime years for the NES), so I think that regularly having to have "do overs" just wasn't something that bothered us much. In basic D&D one character was much like the next and we were approaching the game from mostly a challenge mindset anyway. D&D was something unique and distinctly different from the video games we played and we enjoyed it for the freedom of action and cause/effect it allowed in contrast to video and board games.

The first difficulties I encountered in D&D play were entirely social. Maybe a year later I discovered that some other people I knew had an AD&D 1st Ed. game going (by this time I had purchased and devoured the 2nd Ed. core books). I tried playing with them a handful of times but there were some serious social games going on (passive aggressive PC behavior, as an example) that I just wanted nothing to do with. So I after a few attempts I didn't play with them again. I don't recall this effecting our relationships outside the game at all.

As far as the play itself and "free-form solutions", I think that if you don't grasp (intuitively or by extrapolation from the text) that the bulk of D&D play (at least of everything before 1e probably) has little to no intersection with rules or mechanics then you're going to be at a loss for figuring out how to actually play the game. As far as I can tell from snippets I've read from Gygax and Arneson, this open space is basically by design. Old School D&D is very much a game of "If this then that", narrative cause and effect where escalation in danger is synonomous with engaging the mechanics.
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Mathew E. Reuther
Member

Posts: 114

I came, I saw, I ordered the burrito . . .


« Reply #12 on: October 15, 2010, 08:41:40 AM »

Hi Mathew,

Quote
but I learned on the 1977 blue box one weekend at a sleepover.

I'm not clear - did your initial experience come from playing the game or from reading the books?

Chris


My initial experience came from playing the game, but at the time the people I played with were not experienced. (Second grade, wasn't much experience to be had given we were about 6-7 years old.) I'm not 100% clear on who was involved even, it was so very long ago. It's possible that an older individual was in charge, but that could have been a sibling for all I know. I do know that another friend had gotten a hold of books from an older brother, and by the time I was 8 or 9 I was regularly getting my hands on the SJG mini boxes and TSR boxed sets.

By 11 or so my first experiences in heavy rules modification came about with a 0e clone called "Warball & Chain" that drew extremely heavily from LotR. (Our artifacts were almost all items of power from Tolkien's universe.)

The guys I gamed with throughout my childhood and adolescence moved on for the most part, but I do still have contact with some of my high school gaming buddies. With most of them up in Seattle, and me down here in San Diego we don't get a huge amount of time to game together. But every so often a game happens when I'm up north. :)

Plan is to eventually move back up (my partner in life and crime went to school up there as well and we both admitted to missing the city when we were up getting married a couple of months back) but that'll depend partly on how life unfolds . . . doesn't it always?

Hopefully that's a bit clearer on the how I kind of grew up with the evolving traditions in the earlier days of RPG gaming. I'm not first wave, that's the guys who were active in the mid 70's when I was born (I'm 36, but I am proud to share a birth year with D&D) but I came into the hobby before the time it had received any real major attention. Pre Saturday-Morning D&D, around the time the guys in ET say around gaming while an alien lurked in the fields outside. :)

Most of what I developed came from a combination of first-hand growth with other gamers, some liberal fantasy novel infusion, and as much fantasy in visual media possible.
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Caldis
Member

Posts: 392


« Reply #13 on: October 18, 2010, 11:27:51 AM »


I played once (for about 2 hours) with an older group, friends of a friend, after that we learned the rules from the books and it was a hodge podge of books.  The early D&D box sets mixed with the 1st edition rules as they came out.  We didnt run into the problem of characters dieing all the time but I think I was pretty good at pulling punches right off the bat and one player in our group was very good at coming up with those excuses/playing the game beyond the mechanics to survive.  I think we had the AD&D DMG guide fairly quickly and we used the your not dead until you hit -10 hit points rule quite often.  Plus rarely ever using the wandering monster rules when resting in a dungeon and being generous with magic items made the game easily survivable.  I dont think we cheated the rules too much but it definitely wasnt the game that people talk about like in the old school primer.  We played entirely differently and we had fun.
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David Berg
Member

Posts: 997


« Reply #14 on: October 18, 2010, 12:30:12 PM »

Chris,

My friend Dan read an old D&D book and ran my first game for me when I was 9.  My current take is that he subconsciously modeled the adventure after action stories from comics and TV, just using dungeons & monsters for color.  We played by the rules, and occasionally something happened that wouldn't have made a good action story, and we'd argue and eventually rationalize a fudge ("Oh, but you're taller, so the rat gets a -1, so that killing stroke actually missed you.").

When I started GMing 2 years later, I avoided these moments by always fudging everything to produce good action scenes. 

All my rule use derived from combat and from class- and level-based character abilities. 

I think the book design of the AD&D2 PHB (which I bought just before running my first game) played a role in this.  My 11-year-old attention span went straight to the cool pictures of monsters and weapons, and then to the clear tables of character stats.  The rest of the book was long passages of bland text, so I skipped it.

Ps,
-David
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