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    4 Hours w/ RSD - Let's Have a Flamewar!

    Lets Have a Flamewar!

    I have, from time to time, been accused of making comments designed to inflame passions and ignite debate. That may be true to some degree, but when it comes to the art of driving people crazy with terminology, I tip my hat to the people at Global Underwater Explorers.

    In the 1980s this group became the stewards of a project designed to map the underground water filled caves of the northern Florida watershed. Cave diving has been called the most dangerous sport in the world – people die doing it every year. Yet something draws divers into those dark underground caverns, and challenges them to go deeper, further, and through more and more hazardous territory as they explore.

    As a deep-sea diver myself, I fully understand the lure of this segment of the sport. Something about the attention to detail and precise skills needed to conduct this kind of dive appeals to me (and many others).

    As the sport of cave diving matured and took on additional responsibilities like that pioneered by GUE’s Woodville Karst Project in Florida it became increasingly obvious that something needed to be done about the safety factor. To that end, the GUE pioneers and a close circle of associates developed a system of training, gear, dive planning, team diving, and technical gas mixtures they called “Doing It Right”, or DIR for short.

    If you would like to see a community of folks combust like a phosphorous flare, tell a bunch of cave divers that by definition they are “Doing It Wrong”. To say the resulting conversations were “heated” would be the understatement of the millennium. As a marketing strategy designed to raise awareness, DIR was brilliant. As a way to bring a community together in pursuit of safer diving, well, it had a mixed result, at best. Echoes of this debate still resonate wherever divers gather to discuss their sport. Because in part the DIR philosophy suggested that safer diving wasn’t something that should be just limited to cave divers but should be a primary goal of divers in every condition.

    The Core of Doing It Right

    The DIR philosophy focuses on a couple of simple principles:
    • Take only as much gear with you as necessary for your safety and the safety of your dive team
    • Reduce or eliminate anything on your gear that can create an entanglement hazard
    • Plan your dive so that you and your dive team have enough breathing gas to overcome a gear failure at the point of maximum danger – then dive that plan exactly.

    Books have been written (and thousands of message board posts exchanged) on elaborating this concept. DIR divers have developed very specific requirements for how they rig every bit of gear they take on a dive – to the extent that such specifications have become almost Talmudic in their detail.

    DIR has a lot of benefits to average divers, even those who will never exceed recreational dive limits or enter overhead environments like caves or wrecks.

    One side effect of the DIR philosophy is streamlining. DIR divers are very streamlined. In the water they present a very small cross section to the water and thus use much less energy as they swim. Lowered energy consumption means a reduced breathing rate, and that translates into longer dives on the same amount of gas.

    Another is an improved safety margin for everyone in the dive team. Recreational divers don’t have a very high fatality rate, but they do have a disturbingly high accident rate. Getting “bent” as an effect of returning to the surface too quickly for the metabolized gas in your body to be naturally released is no fun, and can be very expensive. Adopting DIR style procedures makes it much more likely that even in the case of a catastrophic gear failure (or a catastrophic mental failure like not monitoring your breathing gas consumption) you’ll be able to recover with the aid of your dive team and surface safely. That keeps you in the sport and reduces the negative press the sport gets when a diver gets hurt.

    OK Ryan, Get to the Point

    You may be asking yourself what this has to do with adding more fun to your 4 hours of roleplaying. At the risk of igniting a miniature version of the cave diving wars, I’ll say that I think that our hobby is pretty universally Doing It Wrong.

    What’s Broken

    There are basically 3 ways people engage in tabletop roleplaying in the current era.

    The Standard Game

    This is the typical concept that most of us have when we talk about a “gaming group”. The same people gather on a regular basis and play a campaign game where their characters and their adventures are persistent across many sessions.

    The One Shot

    Sometimes the group wants to try something different, or a player wants to try their hand at being a GM, or an ad hoc gathering of gamers spontaneously decides to break out the dice with no expectation that the session will be persistent. Some games, especially those from the small press / independent gaming community are explicitly designed to be played in single sessions.

    The Massively Multiplayer Tabletop Game

    Pioneered by the RPGA in the form of its Living Campaigns, and echoed by many successful tabletop RPG publishers (and several independent groups). This format is designed to be played at conventions and in game stores as an “organized play” event. Characters are persistent across sessions but the groups are usually ad hoc.

    There are inherent problems with all of these play styles, but I’ll focus specifically on the Standard Game. That’s the format that most people would like to be playing in, and the format that many players have the fondest memories of. It’s also the format that has become the most broken over time.

    Pathologies of the Standard Game

    The Game Itself Is Too Complex: After just a small number of sessions, most games become extremely complex. Character powers and abilities proliferate. As character power increases, the abilities of their foes also escalate to maintain effective challenges. The net effect is that players and GMs rapidly find themselves in a spiral of decreasing “fun time” as the amount of “work time” grows larger and larger.

    Parties Become Interdependent: The more sessions a group of characters play together, the more tightly dependent on one another they become. A wide variety of specialization options allows players to narrowly craft their characters to achieve maximum impact, while relying on other characters to make up for the deficiencies this specialization creates. Rules that enhance and reward these kinds of tactics have also become increasingly common, which further reinforces this interdependency. Of course, the problem is that when (not if) one or more of these characters becomes unavailable, the entire party may find itself seriously compromised. The more interdependent the characters become, the more likely it is that the absence of just a single player can severely limit the actions of the whole group.

    Short-timers are discouraged: It is very hard for a player to just “sit in” in a Standard Game. Beyond the beginning power levels a one-shot character may be so complicated to create that the drop in player might spend the entire session just trying to complete a character sheet. Being able to master the abilities and options available in a short time is also hard for many players to do – especially new and inexperienced players of the type that the hobby needs to encourage to replenish itself as older experienced gamers lapse.

    GM aspirations exceed their abilities: Time after time, GMs invest massive amounts of time in creating backstories, plots, characters, monsters, and environments for their players to encounter, only to find only a small amount of that content is ever used in actual play. Worse, a GM may induce the players to similarly invest a lot of time in character development and attention to detail, only to let everyone down as real-life pressures make it impossible to deliver the full vision that the campaign began with. GMs are subtly pressured into this situation by the actions of the publishers who present massive tomes of richly detailed campaign settings and establish a mental bar for what people think is expected of anyone who creates their own world.

    Plot replaces Story: A related trap that many GMs (and some players) fall into is trying to develop a plot – that is, a pre-determined framework around which the players are supposed to build a story. This creates the feeling of being railroaded which players hate. It creates frustration for GMs when clues aren’t followed, events are encountered out of order, or characters wander off into the wilds. GMs feel a subtle pressure to deliver this kind of experience from the plethora of novels featuring their favorite game worlds, and the computerized RPGs which seem to deliver this kind of game effortlessly.

    Doing It Right on the Tabletop

    Here’s some general rules of thumb on how to improve the way we play the Standard Game:

    • Bring only as much material as necessary to play the game session
    • Encourage characters to be generalists
    • Welcome players who can only drop in for one session
    • Make the game about the basic story of the genre

    Limiting the Game Material

    How many of you have a bag (or box) filled with books that you lug to every game session? How many regularly take more than 5 books with you even when you’re just a player and have no GM responsibilities?

    This is crazy. There’s no way to actually use all that content in a single 4 hour session. Finding anything in that mass of documentation requires one to have a near perfect memory for where desired information is transcribed.

    I happened to pick up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Compendium at the bookstore out of curiosity. This is a 320 page book. It is aimed at new players.

    For comparison, I got out my copy of the Dungeons & Dragons blue book from the old beginner boxed set. 48 pages. Has the game really been improved in the past 30 years by adding 272 pages of content to the material we expect a new player to use?

    I say no. I say that the first step we have to do is prune the tree of the game system and get back to something reasonable in terms of the rules as written.

    EN World spontaneously generated a clever way to address this problem: E6. You can read about it here: http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/206323-e6-game-inside-d-d.html

    E6, in brief, puts a cap on characters of 6th level. That cap has significant ramifications that reflect the goal of limiting the game material. It smashes the number of spells that need to be referenced. It minimizes the ability trees of the monsters the party encounters which helps the GM stay effective.

    Encourage Characters to be Generalists

    If your party consists of one character who does all the healing, one character who deals with all the traps, one character who fights the toughest opponent, and one character who uses area of effect damage to deal with lots of grunt enemies, you probably play in a Standard Game.

    Like a well-oiled machine, this party has mastered the art of adventuring. They proceed from encounter to encounter with vigor – knocking out any challenge they’re capable of defeating and taking the resulting phat loot and XP with aplomb.

    What happens when any one of those characters doesn’t show up? Total party kill, in my experience. Or total party shopping expedition, as the players recognize they’re not going to prevail in the adventure and instead spend the time dealing with their gear, their training, and interviewing townspeople for rumors.

    Here’s an interesting bit of nostalgia. Remember the old 1st and 2nd Edition system for demihumans? They could be multiclassed characters and humans could only be single (or dual) classed. The advantages of demihumans were strong, and lots of people played them despite the limits built into the system on their power (mostly ignored in the breach, of course). All those multi-classed demihumans gave the game a resiliency that the modern game can lack. D20 multiclassing was designed to encourage this kind of character development but in practice what players use it for is to become ultra-specialized rather than broadly competent. In making multiclassing more flexible, we inadvertently created a feedback loop of character interdependency.

    As GMs there are ways to address this. Even in the E6 system the general idea that characters should be less specialized can be implemented. Bring back demihuman multiclassing – just require demihumans to alternate levels between two or three pre-selected classes. That’s a good balance with the benefits that demihumans get in the E6 system vs the humans. Let the human characters multiclass at will, and suddenly you’ll have many more broadly competent characters and groups that are far less fragile.

    We’d Love To Have You Join Us!

    Make your game as welcoming to one-shot players as possible. As a GM, always have a couple of good characters ready to give people who want to drop in on your game. It’s easiest to give them characters that do simple things like fight or heal. Discourage drop in players from taking more complicated roles like arcane spellcasters.

    Give Them That Character When They Leave! It seems obvious, but it's easy to forget: you’re far more likely to come back and play again if you have some connection to the game. Worst case, you’ve given away a character that could be cloned instantly and put back into your file of drop-in PCs. Best case, you may have planted a seed that will blossom into a new tabletop roleplaying gamer!

    I’ll write more in a future column about experienced players with pre-existing characters who want to drop in on your game, but for now I’ll just say that it’s far more likely to be beneficial to your group to allow it than to make it a hassle.

    The Power Of The Core Story

    If you have a Dungeons & Dragons game, make it about dungeons, exploration, small battles against monstrous foes, getting cool magic items, and leveling up.

    If you have a Vampire: The Masquerade game, make it about the struggle to retain a shred of humanity as a monstrous creature of darkness living in a society of predators obsessed with station and power.

    If you have a Star Wars game, make it about the struggle of the good Rebels against the vastly overpowered evil Empire, as seen through the eyes of a group of galactic adventurers.

    If you’re running a Champions game, make it about exciting superhero fights and dramatic life & death decisions against a background of wonder and amazement.

    In other words, figure out what the “core story” is of the game you’re playing, and stick as closely to that story as you can. There are games out there for virtually any core story you want to play. Rather than trying to bend a game to fit a story of your choosing, choose a game that embodies that story intrinsically. Both you, and your players, will find the experience greatly enhanced.

    Core stories also help the Power Gamers and the Thinkers get quickly involved in the game. They are less interested in the elaborate world you’ve built than the immediate challenges you’re presenting. These games have achieved multi-decade success because the core stories they embody are intrinsically popular with huge populations of players. Take advantage of that vested wisdom.

    Coming Soon!

    Next month I’m going to talk about a holistic approach to integrating these principles into your gaming hobby. I’m also interested in hearing about ways you’ve streamlined your own games – especially non-D20 game systems – in the mode of the E6 system.

    --RSD / Atlanta, April 2011

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    Last edited by Morrus; Thursday, 26th May, 2011 at 07:19 PM.
    Ryan S. Dancey

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