Thursday, October 11, 2012

What School of Role-Playing Did You Go To?

At last week's role-playing session, during someone's bathroom break, we got to talking about why my players almost universally choose to build their characters around WEAKNESSES as opposed to STRENGTHS. Pout (I've talked about him before) said it was because of a GURPS game we played long ago, and the game's encouragement to select disadvantages and quirks. In GURPS, it's almost necessary to do so to get more points for character building, but as it turns out, it's also good at training players to gives their characters personality.

Let's look instead at most people's gateway into the hobby: Dungeons & Dragons. There have been various versions of this game over the years (and another is forthcoming), but D&D is NOT the kind of game where you pick character traits and quirks. Instead, the focus is on race and profession, frameworks that supply a variety of specific abilities. In the game itself, you are rewarded with leveling (absent in GURPS) and an increase in those abilities. Our question last Sunday was "How does that specifically train a player to approach role-playing in general?" Certainly, it creates the expectation of character evolution (perhaps as opposed to character development, which is a function of plot or subplot, not of ability growth). Classes provide definite roles for the players to fall into and encourage players to find and stick to a niche. D&D probably also promotes mathematical gaming where stats are more important than personality. But I don't want to get into hot water with D&D players just because I don't happen to like the game anymore.

Truth be told, the aforementioned Pout didn't start on GURPS - it wasn't even the first game we played together - so your "schooling" isn't limited to your first game, far from it. And just because you play a particular game doesn't mean you're limited by the way it teaches role-playing. There are plenty of D&D players who run deep, immersive games where personality and character (read: emotional) growth are at the forefront and not in the background, just as you can have running a looting-heavy game of Doctor Who RPG. It's just that each of those games doesn't MECHANICALLY pull focus to those aspects of gaming. And the mechanics of a game are very important in how they mold their respective players. By habit or necessity, you will progressively lean towards what the game asks of you, and then carry those attitudes to other, later games.

So for example, if games have some kind of Cinematic Point mechanic (Bennies, Hero Points, Karma, Star Power, etc.), it teaches players they can take an active hand in changing their environment, reverse bad dice rolls, etc. Therein lies the way to what some call "New School". Games with few stats and/or catch-all, open traits like Fate does, likewise, and put the focus on creating an original character concept. Traveler's character creation uses an unsual method, that of crafting the traveler's pre-game career, with skills emanating from that career path. That teaches players to give their characters a backstory. They weren't born on the day of the first gaming session. There are games where life is cheap and death comes all to easily, others where the characters are superhuman or protected by an aura of narrative importance. Sometimes, there's no limit to the kind of character you can create, and other times, the choices are quite limited. Each of these has something to teach, and depending on when you experience them, and whether that experience is positive or negative, it will influence you as a gamer.
There's also the lesson of GENRE, which I've found the most eye-opening, and used to "break player's molds" as it were. D&D is really its own genre, a gamist approach to sword & sorcery, and delving into other genres really makes you question your assumptions about gaming. My big mold-breaker over the years, to use an example, has been Supers. In 4-color superhero games, you do not loot, your character does not easily level up, you do not kill, you do not explore chamber after chamber of the villain's lair. Superhero games are equal parts investigation, melodramatic subplots and of course flashy battles. You don't start with a low-powered character that's a bit like all the low-powered characters of the same profession. Instead, your character concept is left up to your imagination, and much of the fun of those games comes from character creation (something that in D&D is sometimes handled with a few roles and a "get on with it" attitude). Just one example. Other genres will do the same, and even within the same genre, there will be lessons to be had by running, say, a sedentary campaign for players used to a nomadic, dungeon-delving style.

So what was MY school? Well, we didn't have D&D books available in my town, so we house-ruled everything for the first 2-3 years until we did get our hands on the real stuff. And I can see that in everything I do. I've added hundreds of options to Dream Park, created a meta-setting for GURPS, tried out a few house rules on DC Heroes, streamlined AD&D magic and XP to cut down on bookkeeping, and created new abilities for Hong Kong Action Theater. I love published games, but I can't help it, I've got to add to them, tweak them to my tastes, and indeed, to reflect everything I've learned from OTHER games.

What about you? What lessons did you take away from your most formative role-playing experiences?


Craig Oxbrow said...

I started with Fighting Fantasy - The Introductory Role-Playing Game after the gamebooks - dungeon-bashing, mostly, but with a grand total of three stats and no skills, and the players I had got bored of going room to room quickly and wanted more.

So I tried the newly-released-in-the-UK MERP. And decided this was not for me. Then I picked up TOON and so a rules-light genre-specific gamer was born...

Siskoid said...

My kid brother got into MERP, more from a love of Tolkien than table-driven crunch, but Toon, that was one of my finds as well. Another great mold-breaker!

Tori Bergquist said...

I started with Gamma World 1st, then B/X D&D and then quickly migrated to AD&D. I think I was about a year into gaming when I discovered other games, specifically Traveller, Runequest and Tunnels & Trolls and within a few years I eschewed all D&D in favor of other RPGs (especially GURPS, Dragonquest, Palladium Fantasy and RQ) until college, where AD&D 2nd ruled supreme. I think my formative experiences, running games for my sister and her friends early on led me to focus more on story and plot than conventional dungeon hacks, and that stuck with me from there on out; as a side effect I got used to building an ongoing narrative and consistency to my campaigns. These days I always de-emphasize min/max style gaming at my table in favor of plot and personality, situational adventures and open-world exploration.

Siskoid said...

That's a good point! The kind of people you game with add another layer of schooling. Lessons learned by playing with teenage boys only must be different than playing with one's family, or college students, or only adults with jobs and families.

The latter, for example, has given me an appreciation for one-shot adventures and formats where players need not come to every session.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.