Wednesday, August 8, 2012

PnP RPG Confession: I have a lot of theory, not much experience

All of the art in today's post is by the insanely talented Jason Chan
I love to write about Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying Games, but there is something you may want to keep in mind when you're reading what I write: I may be full of ideas and opinions about PnP RPGs, but when it comes down to it, the majority of the campaigns I have played in have fizzled out after only a handful of meetings. This has led me to a couple of realizations: first, PnP RPGs have a lot of amazing qualities, but not every player is interested in the same qualities; and, perhaps more importantly, it is very difficult to put together and continue a campaign over the weeks and months that it takes to tell a satisfying story.

My brothers and I were in junior high when we first got into Dungeons and Dragons. We were deeply enthralled with the sword-and-sorcery genre at the time. We loved movies like Willow, video games like Might and Magic, and had valiantly read through the Lord of the Rings. Dungeons and Dragons offered us the opportunity to play as knights and wizards, thieves and barbarians, and to come up with limitless stories. So we read (some of) the rules, rolled up some characters, drew out some maps, and gave it a shot.

Of course, there was a problem: while I was lucky that I had two brothers my age to play with, that still only left us with two players and a GM. It was difficult to create a satisfying RPG campaign with so few players. Add to that the short attention span of a junior high kid, and what you end up with is a few half-started, half-hearted campaigns. We would play perhaps a game or two, usually revolving around killing some goblins, orcs, and a small dragon. Then we would wander off to other fantasy games that were better suited to our small number, like HeroQuest or a computer game.

When we made it to high school, we found a few other players to game with, and suddenly the opportunity lay before us to put together a real gaming group and get a campaign going. As it turned out, we all got to be pretty good at creating characters but not as good at the rest of the rules. We would get people together, play maybe a game or two, and then people would get bored, we would decide to meet back again eventually, and then the game would quietly wither on the vine.

Looking back, this is when I began to learn a valuable lesson about PnP RPGs: each system gives opportunities to create memorable characters, to tell epic stories, to have climactic fights, and to have a great time with your friends, but not every player is interested in all of those elements equally. Some people (especially teenagers) just want to eat snacks, quote TV shows and movies, and hang out with their buddies. An RPG gives them a good opportunity to do that. Others want to engage their friends in shared storytelling, joining together to craft intricate plots on a grand scale, and an RPG can be a good opportunity for that, too. So both types of players may want to play the same RPG, but their reasons for playing are not only different, but are often at cross-purposes, and they may not even realize it!

I remember most of my high school campaigns going like this: the party arrives at a town and learns that goblins and/or wolves are threatening it. They are hired to either attack the goblin lair or defend a wagon as it goes to the next town. At least one character spends an inordinate amount of time haggling with the quest-giver, trying to get more money for the mission, and a little up front as well. Then the group sets off and travels until evening. That night, the party's thief tries to rob his companions. A little later, the person sitting sentry either succeeds or fails to detect that there are goblins and/or wolves sneaking up on the party. A fight ensues. Then, if I am lucky, we meet again in a week or two to play through the attack on the enemy lair... but probably not.

A large part of the blame lies with me. I was so eager to play that I would jump on every friend who admitted to having familiarity with D&D: "Oh, you play D&D, too? What version do you play? Do you want to try to set up a game next Saturday? I've been thinking about playing a druid..." With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that I was putting my friends in a difficult position. They could tell that I was enthusiastic about the game, and they wanted to play too, but their level of enthusiasm did not match mine. They were good enough sports to go through a session or two, but then they would want to play some Nintendo 64 or some Risk. And who can blame them?

So far, I have only played one campaign to completion: the Star Wars campaign my brother ran a few years ago. Our characters grew and developed over a series of sessions, and the GM was able to tell a story and bring it to a satisfying resolution. I had recently graduated from college and was truly living on my own for the first time, giving me the free time to play on any evening I wanted. It also helped that all of the players were already fans of the Star Wars universe, and the GM did a good job of telling a story that engaged the players. As this post is about confessing, I should admit that I did not even get to sit around a table and roll dice with a gaming group: most of the players were in another state, and we were playing over Skype.

That leads me to the second reason I have only had one successful RPG campaign: it can be extremely difficult to gather four or five people together a few times a month for several hours at a time. People have schoolwork, jobs, significant others, family obligations, community obligations, and perhaps most tellingly of all, excellent video games they could be playing. I now believe that time and enthusiasm are the two most important ingredients for a successful PnP RPG campaign, because these are the two elements that seem to have been missing the most often from my campaigns.

As my brothers and I are considering a sort of sequel to our Star Wars campaign, we are trying to avoid some of the pitfalls our other campaigns have fallen into. There are several questions I think we should ask ourselves and the other players before we decide to proceed with the game. Is the story going to be elaborate or classically straightforward? Do the players have time to create backstories for their characters? Will the players engage with the game between play sessions? The hardest question of all is: even if the players really want to play, do they have the time and energy for it?

If not, there's always video games.


  1. I feel bad about Eman son of Heman. I wish I had been a bit more serious about things.

    "The hardest question of all is: even if the players really want to play, do they have the time and energy for it?"

    Yes, this is a difficult question. Think about your favorite books, movies, and video games. What is it about them that makes you continue reading/watching (more importantly re-reading) and playing? I love Fallout 3, but there is only so long I can play it before I get bored and move on to other things. ßkyrim started off really well, but I got bored after finishing guild quests (fighter and thief) and exploring a lot of areas.

    There are some subjective things you have to deal with. Someone who hates Star Wars would probably never play a Star Wars RPG even though he might actually have a good time and enjoy the story. There are some universal elements, though, that somehow you have to tap into. Unfortunately, even the universal elements have a shelf life, so the trick seems to be that you wrap up the campaign fairly quickly.

    As odd as this sounds, you may have to develop a formula. Some pulp writers actually had a formula for their stories which allowed them to mix and match various plot elements, and the rest was just words. I think time is the most important factor in a RPG, so the story always has to be kept short unless you can pump some good characters, interesting side quests, and amazing encounters into the experience. All of these things will affect the formula differently. If you give someone powerful loot too quickly he may become bored. How do you deal with it? More difficult encounters? Does he lose his precious loot? Will he feel cheated?

    I have not played a real RPG in a long time; arguably I have never actually played one... These are things that I think about in regards to video games, and it seems like they should apply here. I mentioned earlier that I love Fallout 3, but why did I get bored? There were lots of interesting stories, items and areas. There was even extra fluff added in, like being able to play a text adventure game on a computer. Ultimately, it felt like the special loot you could get were really not all that different, there was not enough interaction with the NPCs (especially the traders wandering around the wastes), the world never really changed, and the very actions of the game were repetitive. Yes, there were traps, pants exploding, stealth boys, and some special situations, but basically I was running around killing people and the game world just carried on as if nothing really happened. The "stranger danger" factor was too high, you pretty much knew that anyone you met was going to attack you. At least that was understandable given the premise of the game, but it was still repetitive and made it feel just like every other FPS.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Those are some really good points! Some of them could be expanded into full posts of their own.

    The idea of giving out cool loot without breaking the game is one I have speculated about before. I think the trick is to give loot that's cool in the story without necessarily having game-breaking stats. For instance, Andúril was great not just because it was a really good sword, but because of what it represented. Also, you can give out loot that's cool but not even a weapon, like a token of office or a sign of mastery.

    As for why so many computer RPGs fail to be engaging, I think it's because the world tries to be so immersive and alive while maintaining a silent protagonist. It feels like there may be a living world, but the player character is kept at arm's length. The player can occasionally choose from some conversation options, but those are usually restricted to "What quests are there?" and "Tell me the backstory of this place/you." Mass Effect overcame this by making Shepard a part of the world and letting her engage in conversations as opposed to just picking talk options that advance the plot.

    I think you're totally right about how RPGs have more in common with pulp stories than with epic fantasy novels. I tend to compare RPGs with Lord of the Rings (see the Andúril reference above), or Dune, or (so help me) A Song of Ice and Fire. If a GM tried to run a game that complex, though, I suspect the players would get confused, bored, and frustrated. (The webcomic DM of the Rings is, of course, a humorous look at this idea.) A pulp plot is much easier to follow, with a clear enemy (Daggerwelt the Necromancer), clear motivations (Daggerwelt the Necromancer is turning everyone into zombie minions) and a clear goal (kill Daggerwelt the Necromancer). This makes the game more satisfying for players as they can gauge their progress and plan for what comes next. That's not to say that a pulp plot can't be interesting or long. Daggerwelt the Necromancer may have weaknesses that need uncovering or exploiting, or lieutenants to overcome, or he may turn out to be in the service of a skeletal dragon god of death.

    But the thing to remember is that, in a novel, all of the complexity and twists are up to the writer. In an RPG, the players also have a part in the story, and they are naturally going to make it more complex by doing unexpected things. If the GM has prepared a carefully crafted, epic tale right from the start, then the players are going to have very little room to riff on the story. If the story is more straightforward, the players can make it their own.

  3. Speaking of formulas for writing pulp fiction:

    But let me weigh in on what is, to me, a fascinating conversation. I'm setting out to start a new campaign right now, so this is giving me a lot to think about. On the subject of boredom, I have to say that this, to me, is a function of story and opportunities to do interesting things. If the game has you doing the same basic thing over and over again, it's going to get old. Although most games come down to stabbing (or blasting) bad guys, elements in the story, the characters, and the settings can keep things interesting. A fight over a lake of fire or in zero gravity or in a crowded street can force players to think in new and creative ways, while genuinely caring about NPCs (or, for that matter, their own and each other's PCs) can help draw players into the game. In one of my campaigns, the players feuded over the fate of a goblin NPC who was supposed to be a throwaway villain in a room but ended up becoming a major player in the story just because of how much they invested in that character. Along the same lines, I've found that some villains I intended to be multi-plot antagonists just left my players shrugging and not really caring.

    The depth of interaction with characters and the world is what immersion really comes down to. Games have the illusion of immersion, but really you only have a few pre-scripted ways of interacting, which leave you feeling like you're not really in the world. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about why Skyrim feels less immersive than Mass Effect, even though Skyrim is much more open-world and much bigger. Because Skyrim gives you the feeling that you SHOULD be able to do more, it becomes that much more apparent that you can't. You can't really have a conversation with people, you can't convince people to do things, you can't become a merchant or a politician or anything you dream of. Because it has the illusion of no limits, the limits become that much more apparent. Meanwhile, Mass Effect is heavily scripted and railroaded, which means it anticipates much more what you'll be doing and gives you the sense that you're involved.

    Baron, you have a great point about players getting involved and making a story their own. Often, players bring whole new plot arcs and ideas to a world. But at the same time, it's up to the GM to give them a world rich and detailed enough to feel like a) there's something to do, and b) what they do matters. I've played in campaigns in which characters sit around a town all day being bored because there's nothing to do, and they're just waiting for the GM to get the ball rolling. If there isn't a crisis or something to go out and get, there's no call to adventure. If Daggerwelt is just sitting in his dungeon rubbing his hands and cackling while his zombie minions sit around playing cards, there's no good reason to kick in the door and stab faces. The perfect combination might be a world rich enough to draw the players in and give them the feeling that they can add to it and bring it alive.

    And maybe that ability to craft the story and to develop a character is the crucial difference between a PnP game and a computer game. In a computer game, your character will be limited and static, while in a PnP game the world is completely malleable and you can take your character through all sorts of exciting arcs and developments.

  4. One of the questions I anticipated from my initial post was, "Hey BVC, if you have so many great ideas for games, why don't you run your own?" And, though I've tried, none of my games have made it past the second session. That's why I'm glad you shared your GMing experience, bluefish.

    I think getting players invested in a setting is very important. It's easy to create a fantasy game set in medieval England with goblins and magic and dragons. It's a sort of shorthand, letting the players know what to expect. The downside is that soon every kingdom is the same: a castle with a bearded king, some knights, and an army, surrounded by farms and fields and forests, and peasants wearing earth tones and earth. You might tell the players that their characters are from Kingdom A and they are lifelong enemies of Kingdom B, but if there's not much to differentiate the two kingdoms, it's hard to care.

    A lot of GMs are nervous about giving the players lands, castles, titles, starships, etc, because it can break the game, but that means your player characters are essentially wandering mercenaries. Small wonder, then, that the players are not invested in the setting and are only playing for gold and loot! I suspect that, if the players were allowed to create characters who have ties to the setting, they would pay a lot more attention. Suddenly the dragon isn't just torching villages, he's torching your villages.

  5. I have a couple of ideas about why PCs don't usually get titles or property in RPGs. The first is that it would require the players to want to have that level of connection with the story. Many people just want to kill monsters. A character named DeathSlayerNinja66 probably won't be willing to check with his village's reeve come harvest time to make sure there is enough put away in the storehouses for winter before taking what's left to market. Many players will just say, "Oh, I'm a lord now? Thanks, I guess" and go marching on to kick in the front door of the next dungeon like nothing happened, a bit like when characters in Skyrim say, "Do you want to be my Thane?" and I say, "Sure, I guess" and completely forgot it happened until someone refers to me as, "Thane."

    The other is that settings can be pretty paper-thin, so thin they're little more than string connecting dungeons together. This makes it difficult to spend any time in or care about the rest of the world. Also, many prefab campaigns take place in vastly different locations, meaning players have to travel a lot, and that is much more difficult if the players have ties to any place. It carries with it the risk that the players will be more interested in staying in one location and building up their local power base instead of roaming freely, and it can be tiring to try to come up with new and interesting adventure hooks that involve the same title or land.

    On the other hand, some of the best characters in fantasy have strong ties to location. Elric, for example, might range far and wide, but his ancestral ties to the royal family of Melnibone make that island always paramount in importance to him, for good or ill. When he returns to Melnibone or meets Melniboneans, those incidents resound with meaning. Likewise, Conan's very first story features him as king of Aquilonia. That he's fighting to keep a crown he won by killing the last king makes the conflict that much more important to him.

    The last thing I can think of to mention that the group dynamic of an RPG does make it more difficult to balance player ties to a place. Not every character gets to be king and not every character comes from the same location. Therefore, although the GM can give everyone comparable titles and backstories and try to juggle them so everyone can stand in the sun at some point during the campaign, there's sure to be some dissatisfaction as yet again the player who got to be Grand Poobah gets the limelight and someone else has to wait his or her turn. It's important to not make anyone feel they're less important or can have fewer moments to shine than the other characters, so this can become a headache of a balancing act that just gives the GM one more thing to think about: "Oh, and don't forget that I have to give Pat something to do as court astrologer again before we go after the goblin kidnappers."

  6. I hadn't considered that titles and lands would tie players down and maybe even distract from the campaign's goals, but I think there's a way around that.

    One topic I've been considering writing about--and in fact, one of the reasons I felt I had to first admit to having little RPG experience--is using downtime between sessions to allow players to delve more into their individual characters' stories and engage with the setting outside of the campaign's plot. This would give a chance to explore their titles and duties without distracting from the main story when it's time to sit around and roll some dice.

    As for giving everyone equivalent titles, I admit that's a delicate balancing act. If the players are all familiar with each other and invested in the story, then they will probably be more okay with having some of them "above" others in terms of station. If the players don't know each other and if they're just trying to get ahead, then maybe titles and lands aren't such a good idea.

    When it comes to determining which character is going to have the best titles, it may be interesting to keep some characters from having any titles at all. Monks, paladins, druids, and Jedi are all characters who should remain humble in the service of their calling. Instead of giving these characters worldly power, maybe they could advance within the ranks of their groups, gaining respect and influence instead.

    And maybe, if one of the players is up for it, one of the characters could have no station at all. While the other characters gain more and more ties to the kingdom, this character remains an outsider, a wanderer whose only loyalties are to himself/herself and the party.

    Or we could take yet another page from Tolkien's book and make the characters princes of a far-off land, or descendants of an exiled king. That way the characters are tied into the setting, but there is little practical value to their title.

    And as to your point about players not caring about their titles, well, if that's the case, then you all meet in a tavern. You've known each other for years. An old man in a robe approaches you. Pass the Mountain Dew!

  7. "On the subject of boredom, I have to say that this, to me, is a function of story and opportunities to do interesting things."

    How do you deal with this though? Sandbox games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are indeed illusions of freedom, but it seems like RPGs have a relatd problem. Theoretically they can offer complete freedom, but they may not be fun. Of course, it all depends on the DM.

    It seems like some plot rails are required for a fun story but you have to balance this with the goals of the players. Perhaps the formula I was burbling about could be combined with Lovecraft's ideas about atmosphere and mood: "...all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood."

    The locations in Fallout 3 are essentially "mood creators". I still remember the first time I entered the Super Duper Mart, and of course there are the various vaults. Can't you do the same thing for a RPG? Have a formula, but a formula that focuses more on atmosphere than events; that is you don't focus on the events themselves but on the atmosphere they create in the gaming group. The formula would not really apply to the entire campaign, but each session. If you see people are getting bored, insert x element from the formula which evokes a certain mood that helps motivate players.

    I'm not sure any of this makes sense.

    I intended to respond earlier, but was swamped with work and too tired to write anything. If I wait much longer I may not write anything at all. I started thinking about this subject when I read the post about cool loot, but never got around to commenting on that. I don't want to miss my opportunity this time around.

  8. Great comment about mood, Doomfinger. I agree completely. Maybe part of what's missing from games that take place in generic English countrysides is a unique and interesting mood. A well-done mood can make me forgive a setting that's otherwise problematic, such as Ravenloft. When you think about it, the world of Ravenloft doesn't make sense, but it has a cool deep forest, Old World, cursed atmosphere. One of the reasons Eberron doesn't work for me is I don't connect with the mood. Steampunk dwarves make me throw up a little in the back of my throat.

    And, of course, a rich setting can have several different moods even in a fairly small space, creating contrasts. It can be great to spend an evening in a torchlit mead hall surrounded by doughty warriors and boasting about glorious deeds, all while trying to forget the clinging chill of the haunted barrows you just returned from where you saw things that make you fear the night....

  9. If you don't mind me asking, what do you think made your campaigns successful/unsuccessful? I've never run a campaign, and doubt I have the ability to do it. I'm just curious.

  10. Hi Doomfinger,

    I'm not sure if you'll see this, but I asked bluefish why he hasn't responded, and he said he thought that your question was for me. I was fairly certain your question was for bluefish, so I was hoping you would clarify for us.

  11. I've thought a lot about what makes campaigns successful, considering things like depth of world, level of player interaction, creativity of content, unity of theme, etc., but last night I came to a conclusion. It's a contract.

    That contract exists between all of the people involved, players and GMs alike (although the GMs themselves, of course, are players, so that's a strange dichotomy). The players all have an idea of the kind of game they're playing and the kind of game they want to play, and the success of the game is in how well those match both each other and the beliefs of everyone involved.

    What this means is a question whether we're all involved in trying to create a similar experience, and whether we're all actually getting that experience.

    For example, if everyone wants a really deep and immersive world where everyone's choices matter and there is a detailed, constantly changing world, then that works out. If they want to be able to guide the course of their characters and solve problems creatively, then that works out. But if not all players want that, or if the experience doesn't actually give them that, then there's a problem.

    Think about it in terms of a sport. If everyone shows up to play basketball, and there's an understanding that everyone wants to play casually and not really care who wins, it all works out if people actually do that. But if one guy starts playing hard and getting aggressive, then there's a problem, because the experience he's creating is a different one than everyone wanted. In that case, it comes down to a player. Conversely, if the score gets very lopsided, some people might feel frustrated even though it's meant to be noncompetitive, which would mean it comes down to the game.

  12. The question was for both of you. Thanks for the response, I appreciate it. I had and will have very limited time online. Sorry for the delay.

  13. I think that the only way to determine whether a campaign is successful is to see whether the players can get together regularly and tell a complete story. That depends on two types of factors: factors inside the game and outside the game. If the game itself isn't working out for everyone involved, as bluefish explained above, then the campaign isn't going to be successful. At the same time, a campaign could fail because of scheduling problems, other commitments, or personal issues among the players.