Friday, March 5, 2010

Down on the Corner of Rue Morgue Avenue and Fascination Street

Dungeons and Dragons, Volume One: Men & Magic, page 4 Introduction (Continued):
"...the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time.  We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first.  That way your camapign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned.  New details can be added and old "laws" altered so as to provide continually new and different situations.  In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable."

The Cure are playing in the background, Fascination Street from the Disintegration CD.  Feels very appropriate.  Fascination is the right and proper word, unless you prefer to swap it out for Obsession, which equally describes the effect of the 'game' that was set forth in those Little Brown Books that in many ways are a modern parallel to Pandoras' Box on so many levels.

Starting out a campaign slowly is good advice.  There are a lot of things to get sorted out before a campaign can really start and it can be a lot of work.  Starting out small and adding bits and pieces as things progress is one of the best ways to do things, I have found.  Allowing a setting to develop and evolve naturally and organically from the (inter)actions and choices of the player characters can be a lot of fun and an open-ended sandbox style setting can really take off with the right players, or it can fizzle into inertia and frustration for all concerned.  Communication is essential.  Some ground rules are a good thing to have in place so everyone knows what is expected of them, what they expect from each other, what the DM is setting out to provide in terms of the setting in general (scope, style of play, etc.), and how the player characters will fit into the setting.  
Some sample ground-rules we've used in the past1. Never assume anything; things are rarely what they seem and your asking questions, even what you think might be dumb questions, can make a big difference in what happens and how it happens (and to whom it happens).
2. Anything that a grubby bunch of low-level adventurers can manage to do can and will be used against them by monsters smart enough to learn and the bad guys are always on the look-out for new and effective ways of getting things done, so if you come up with a great gimmick, you can expect it to get copied by others.
3. The game is not just about your character.  Take turns, share your toys, try to cooperate amongst yourselves, it can make a big difference.
4. Things happen.  Your character may die or they might lose all their possessions.  Deal with it.  As long as we're still playing and the dice are rolling, anything can happen.  Consider obstacles and set-backs experienced by your character challenges to be overcome just like traps in a dungeon.  No one ever figured out a maze by sitting on their butt whining.  There are consequences and repercussions to every act and choice--that is part and parcel of how the game works--but remember; it rarely stops there.  You always get to react to a reaction, whether for good or for bad, things can go back and forth for as long as you're willing and able to continue making the effort required...just keep in mind that there are some things that can lead to escalation and you can only push some things so far before drastic retaliation or dire consequences erupt.
5. Get involved.  Play the game.  Don't be just another observer.  Your characters are the moving parts that get things happening, the catalysts that start chain reactions, and the irritants that cause things to change.  If you remain passive and uncommunicative, there is no game.
6. Leave the workaday BS at the door, and likewise, leave the game BS in the game.  If you are having trouble distinguishing between the game and waking reality seek help immediately.
7. Write it down.  If you don't have a written record of it, it never happened and you do not have it.  No debate, no discussion.  It is the player's responsibility to keep their own records.
Ground rules are useful.  Spelling out expectations up front is generally far less stressful than trying to sort it all out after something snaps.  Another Old School blogger I follow, Chgowiz over at The Old Guy's RPG Blog, recently had a less than wonderful experience where people's expectations didn't quite mesh resulting in some frustration that he and his players had to work through--and did so quite admirably.  The post I'm referring to can be found here.  It's well worth reading as a Lesson Learned kind of thing.  I hope that Chgowiz makes an article out of this experience, as we all run into this situation sooner or later. 

Back when I was running my Bazra campaign I had a bunch of regular players who were committed to always going anywhere that it looked like I was not prepared and would do everything they could to get away from anything that was mapped-out, detailed, or prepared in any way.  They took perverse pleasure in trying to run the game into that notorious zone of endless, flat white expanses crisscrossed at regular intervals by intersecting black lines beneath an ambiguously gray sky.  You know the place.  Its the meta-plane that all DMs dread to tread, the empty place where there are no pre-planned words, no pre-packaged scenarios, no myths/lore/legends...the spots with no ink and no real thought invested in them.  Or so they thought.  They were all AD&D-players who had not started with OD&D as I had.  They were used to modules, magazines, that sort of stuff.  I started out with ruled tablets, graph paper and my own bad self.  They were welcome to challenge me and I thrived on the improvisational aspect of the campaign.  It forced me to develop things in response to player actions/inquiries and to develop a flexible, adaptable and organic approach to the setting that worked really well.  We were able to go anywhere, have the most off-the-wall adventures, and explore things that even I did not realize where there or set up in that particular configuration--the campaign took on a life of its own and it began to play itself.  I stopped being the referee and became a fellow conspirator and mutual player.  The world practically ran itself and on more than one memorable occasion one of the other players would chastise someone for overlooking some aspect of a particular House's modus operandi, or reminded us all about the weird sigils we discovered in that tomb sixteen layers down the Well of Saomris out on the Plains of Ancient Kings.  Strange items that were discovered three months back all of a sudden made sense to someone who figured out that they belonged to so-and-so from the such-and-such group, and so it went. 

But even with that group in that setting, we ran into the occasional snag or bump in the road.  We had a player who 'liked to watch' more than participate and that annoyed the others to no end.  When the players got all passive and timid, things ground to a halt.  When they started hunting each other and became their own worst enemies...that wore thin fairly quickly as well.  So I started to add new random tables to the game based on each previous session or specific players or player-characters.  One table dealt with destructive effects of what can go wrong when smashing one gate into another or otherwise demolishing gates.  Very messy and quite spectacular, and once we had the table they went out of their way to find a way to get it used...that was quite an adventure.  Another table was 1001 things that could be found in someone's pocket.  One player liked to really push the envelope as far as possible and had a voracious hunger for details about the background and how things got to be the way they were--this was an ostensibly medium-far future setting--and his endless questions, feed-back and deviously clever tendencies of really messing with things based upon his understanding of the setting made for a very interesting form of duelling imaginations that a lot of fun.  He inspired several tables, including the random background table that kept growing and morphing until it became a section of the three-ring binder unto itself.  That was how his mighty kobold warrior Lacton acquired a vintage WWII-era luger with a box of ammuntiion.   His great grandsire had stolen it from a museum during a period of civil unrest around the time of the last gatewar.  So this 18(00) STR kobold, the very Conan of kobolds as it were, strode forth into the lands of the taller folk carrying a rusty battle axe and a luger and became notorious, greatly feared and a legend unto himself.  To this day, Lacton remains one of the all-time most fun characters I have ever had the pleasure of having to cope with in one of my settings and campaigns.  He (and his creator) challenged me more than any others before or since.  And that was, and is, a very good thing.

I like being challenged by my players and their characters.  I thrive on it in fact.  But not every DM/GM does.  Many DMs have grown up with an embarassment of riches when it comes to pre-packaged settings, modules that spell it all out for you, and tons of other people's voices telling them how to do everything so that they never get stuck having to wing it unless somehow it all goes horribly wrong.  It is an alien mindset to me.  Where everything went wrong, the rails ended and the world began...that's exactly where I preferred and still prefer to start things out.  Plots are nice, but they are for fictional characters and serve a role in the functional, dynamic background...they are not things to be forced on the players nor their characters.  I have always hated the narrativist notion that the game was to be structured around the conventions of literature.  That's sheer bullshit.  And it's not fun.  The players deserve to get a shot at taking their turn at bat, as I see it--the DM already has their carefully rendered setting, their chosen NPCs, the history, blah, blah, blah ad nauseum--they've already gotten their turn to play in the sandbox...now it's time to give the players a turn at things as well.  Forcing them to run along a railroading plot someone set-up as a flowchart in Excel is not my idea of giving them a turn, nor is it doing anyone any favors, really.  Anyone with the least imagination or creativity will start asking questions, choosing options or going off the map into places, situations or aspects of the setting/scenario that are not contained in the module, booklet or gazeteer.  Random tables are fun--once in a while and as a novelty item much akin to listening to Sheb Wooley/Ben Colder sing Hello Walls--it gets real old, real fast and cannot replace the real deal and that is DM improvisation, on-the-spot creation, and interactive adaptation.  They used to call it thinking on your feet.  Actors get trained in improvisation, comics learn it the hard way through transmuting nightmarish experiences into other people's laughter, DMs learn it by doing it, making mistakes and getting it wrong, and developing their own support tools and so on until they gain some skill with the practice and a deeper knowledge of their setting than even they imagined possible at first. 

If you go back over the OD&D booklets, you'll find a lot of support for this approach all through the guidelines.  It wasn't until things were crystallized into canonical RuLeS with AD&D that the emphasis upon a more freeform and improvisational approach dried-up and were carefully covered-up and rolled away into the back somewhere next to the carefully preserved notion of Making Your Own Setting and Making The Game Your Own.  Screw rules.  Question authority.  I'd rather play My Game than retread someone else's crapulous screed that has no relationship whatsoever to my campaign other than it might be printed in English and require a few dice rolls here and there.  But that's an Old School attitude, not one that the current crop of anime-fans, MMORPG-addicts and other demographics/marketing categories currently considered significant by the industry can identify with, if they can even understand it since they've probably never had a chance to see it, let alone experience it first-hand in a game the way we play.  Our approach was relegated to the dusty backstage storage areas as soon as the First Edition AD&D Player's Handbook fell out of the sky and obliterated the rough and tumble wild west atmosphere of the free-wheeling good old days.

(And NO, I am not some old fart railing about those damned kids.  They can still get the hell off of my lawn, but I don't blame them that they might not be familiar with the way things used to be back before most of them were born.  It's not their fault that the pursuit of filthy lucre whored OD&D into what it is today.  Nor can they be faulted for thinking that what they get served up to them as McD&D from the nice folks at WOTC is anything other than what it appears to be.  Their ignorance is more our fault than anything--the OSR needs to make itself more visible and demonstrate how things used to be, how things can be again, and give the kids a chance to make up their own minds.  Then if they don't do things our way, we beat them with pointy sticks until they get in line we keep on doing it our way until they either come around or our grandkids do.)

The original guidelines for OD&D have always been a launching pad, not a final destination, and were never meant to be authoritative let alone exhaustive.  They were always intended from the very beginning to facilitate individual creative efforts, to stimulate the imaginations of those who bought into it, and served as a beginning tool-set for DIY setting creation, world-building, and scenario crafting.  Like any creative effort,  passions can run deep and strong and the Old School DMs who have (in some instances) invested decades of the lives personally developing a particular setting will always feel a level of proprietorship that you'll never see in one-offs, delves, or corporate modules.  And that is an Old School mind-set that just might be a major hurdle to deal with in terms of making the OSR more understandable, let alone palatable to those damned kids who're back on the lawn again.  Eventually that lawn will be theirs.  So will those worlds/settings that we've been laboring over for so long.  It'd be sad to see something that wonderful relegated to a cardboard box stuffed into the back part of an attic and forgotten for twenty or more years after we're gone from this world, wouldn't it?  Like Gygax said in the Foreword to Arneson's Blackmoor:

"Handle at your own risk.  Even a brief perusal can infect the reader with the desire to do heroic deeds, cast mighty spells, and seek to wrest treasure from hideous monsters."

We need to make the OSR infectious --and Fascinating-- all over again.

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