Thursday, September 8, 2016

Learning Games: Trials and Tribulations

I’ve started running Thursday night sessions for the Gauntlet community. I’m in the middle of three sessions for Legacy: Life Among the Ruins and next I’m trying City of Mist. I haven’t run these before but I want to figure them out. Inspired by Rich Rogers’ Gauntlet City Limits and its cavalcade of new oddball games, I plan to learn via GMing. That’s worked for me before. But it’s also crashed and burned for me before (The Dying Earth, Fading Suns). Inspired by this, our latest episode of Play on Target covers how you learn games. What options do you have? What works? What obstacles come up? How do you teach an oddball game to an existing group? We answer address some of these and more in our show.


As always I have a few extra thoughts about this…

NEW HERO IN TOWN: I don’t think I can overstate how hard our local gaming community fell for Champions. South Bend’s a moderately-sized Midwestern city. In the early ‘80’s we had a population of about 110K (10K higher than now). But we had a large and active gaming community across all ages: miniatures, board games, rpgs. Grognards played D&D like a tactical simulation and kids played miniatures like playground tag. A large rpg bookstore and two local gaming conventions anchored all that. I remember the year Hero Games bought a dealer table to show off Champions 1st edition. Until then it’d been a Villains & Vigilantes town, players having dropped Superhero 2044 when the found a game with actual rules. But the V&V’ers threw down their books and took up Champions in a heartbeat. You could build your own characters. You could track things second-by-second. You could Min-Max in a way hitherto unknown. Learning the rules meant power.

I DON’T THINK IT WORKS LIKE THAT: But for a long time I don’t think people actually knew the rules. I saw readings and interpretations of Champions flourish and fade out. More importantly I know I had things completely wrong. For the first several years I created characters but used twisted the modifier system around. I botched the way power frameworks worked. I even got wrong how you rolled damage. But we played like that in our smaller, much younger, niche group for years. To learn I had to be humiliated at a table with veterans who’d worked through the system. Huzzah for the early days.

VECTORS? WHAT’S A VECTOR?: While I learned later I’d gotten Champions wrong, I knew right away I didn’t get Traveller. To many of my generation Traveller offered the first polished non-TSR alternative. It looked sharp and serious, and kept the small tech-style book format long after others had dropped it. We spent many sessions rolling up characters, usually using them to play out shipboard combats with Mayday. But we never played an actual Traveller campaign. Why? Everything spaceside. Space combat, spaceship design, planetary trade, etc. My grade school brain wasn’t fully prepared. This willful ignorance became a curse. My eyes glazed over for that stuff in every subsequent edition or version of Traveller I’ve ever read.

YOUR CRIT CHART MAY VARY: I still remember the first session of Rolemaster I played. Prior to that I only knew it as the Super Advanced and Elite fantasy rpg all the cool kids played. I’d looked at Spell Law and gone WHAAAAAT? But my first character was a Magician. I had one spell: Boil Liquid. It did nothing. I couldn’t even use it to make someone uncomfortable (“It’s not an attack spell…”). But I stuck with it and played on. Rolemaster became the main high fantasy RPG for our group. I played it pretty continuously in one form or another from ’84 through the early 2000’s. Each year, I’d discover some way I’d played something wrong- some modifier, system, or mechanics we’d botched. Usually, almost always, we stuck with our old interpretation rather than re-learning the game. Our version of Rolemaster became a Frankenstein. That worked as long as I played with folks I knew or those I taught. When I played with other GMs, especially at conventions, I looked like an idiot. This didn’t feel like humiliation. I didn’t care- my games ran fast and we had a good time.

ONLINE COURSE: In the episode we talk about watching online sessions to learn about games. I have done a couple of video teaching sessions for Fate Core you can check out. I need to do more of those. I have a couple of other systems I feel comfortable enough with to provide a reasonable overview.

IT’S A FEAT, NOT A BUG: Sometimes just one element of a system proves hard to pick up. I loved 13th Age when I sat down to read it. It’s one of the handful of rpg I tore through cover to cover. I got how it worked. Even the mechanics for Icons rolls, something which confused others, clicked for me. But I butted my head against the way 13th Age handles feats. Different classes have different types of add-ons they can pick- features, talents, powers, spells. And you can enhance those with feat picks, at three different levels of power. It might sound simple in my explanation there, but in practice players lost exactly what they needed to choose- confusing those features with feats. Sometimes they still didn’t get it deep into the campaign. It’s the one opaque moment in an otherwise clear game.

BLISSFUL IGNORANCE: Today’s the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek. I wouldn’t consider myself a Trekkie, but it’s a great show from my youth. I did love FASA’s Star Trek RPG. I dug the way it ripped off Traveller’s character creation system to simulate your time in Starfleet Academy. I played in both a Federation and Klingon game, with several sessions for each. Then and now I have absolutely no clue how that game worked. When we played, I said what I wanted to do and someone told me to roll dice. When I look back at my Klingon character sheet, I’m still not sure. I think it was roll under, maybe, but there was more to it than that. I can’t remember how the stats fit in and I’m not sure I ever knew. Why is there an unlabeled number track on the side? Is that for hit points? experience? initiative? For all that I remember having fun despite my ignorance.



If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.