My history with tabletop roleplaying games
This started out as a Facebook comment about my history with story/plot in RPGs, in response to a discussion between Ben and Kel in comments on a post of Mary Anne’s; but it got long and sort of morphed into a broad overview of my history with RPGs. (In this post, I’m using the term RPG to refer only to tabletop/pen-and-paper RPGs, not computer ones.) So I decided to make it a blog post.
1978–1979 (5th grade)
A friend tells me about a new game called Dungeons & Dragons. I haven’t ever heard of roleplaying games (though I have played let’s-pretend superhero games), and so I’m envisioning a boardgame. My friend describes a scene from D&D that involves killing a guard in a particularly bizarre way, and I’m trying to figure out why a boardgame would have a card that you could draw that would describe killing a guard in that particular way.
Later that school year, my friend and a couple other friends and I play D&D. (I think we started with the blue box, but soon graduated to AD&D and Player’s Handbook and DM’s Guide and Monster Manual.) We’re confused about the overloading of the word “level”—we end up deciding that it means that a “level 1” monster appears on the first underground level of a dungeon, and a “level 2” monster on the next level down, etc. We generate random dungeons using the methods given in the manuals. Our characters have names and character classes and equipment, but they have no character as such—they’re just a mechanism by which we can kill monsters and take their treasure. There is not a whole lot of story going on.
1982 or so (8th or 9th grade)
I try DMing for the first time, and more or less like it. (I end up DMing a fair bit over the next couple years because I’m more willing to do it than my friends are.) I’m using published D&D modules, so the story that we’re experiencing is more or less the story provided by the module-writers.
Around the same time: I read Poul Anderson’s “The Saturn Game,” and instantly fall in love with “psychodrama,” the story’s term for what I would now call freeform diceless roleplaying. Characters! Stories! No dice or annoying game mechanics! I become an advocate of Real Roleplaying.
Around the same time: I read an article in Different Worlds magazine titled “Godwar: How to Run a Multiverse Campaign,” by Mike Sweeney. It describes a campaign setting in which characters go through portals into different universes, using a device called a “Tao watch.” (For a brief excerpt of the article, see this character gear page; search in the page for Tao.) I mention this article because it was hugely influential on my later gaming.
1984 or so (10th or 11th grade)
I play in a D&D game run by a friend’s older sister, in which the entire point of the game is to solve complicated puzzles, like a chessboard-like floor where you had to step on the tiles in certain patterns. Neither the players nor the DM of this game are interested in roleplaying as such; the characters are once again only tools in the service of what the players want to do, which in this case involves finding and solving puzzles. (There’s no attempt to solve the puzzles in character; the players are solving the puzzles as themselves.)
Around the same time: I read part of the GM’s guide for Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes (which I never played), and learn a new paradigm. That book suggests that there are three types of gamers, each interested in a different thing: (A) combat; (B) puzzle-solving; or (C) roleplaying. It suggests (iIrc, which I may not) that if you’re playing an RPG with people who are interested in a different one of those things than you are, then everyone’s likely to find it frustrating.
Also around the same time: I start playing games other than D&D, and learn that some games seem to lend themselves to roleplaying. In particular, I find that an obscure multiverse-travel game called Fringeworthy somehow seems to get players to focus heavily on the roleplaying, and it becomes my favorite game.
(I also play Call of Cthulhu, and find out that RPGs can produce genuinely scary situations.)
I also encounter what I start to call the “gamer’s monologue,” in which two people attempt to tell each other what happened in their respective recent RPGs, but neither one is listening to the other, they’re only waiting impatiently for the other to pause so that they can tell their own story. :)
1988 or so (mid-college)
I still love Fringeworthy, but I start to get impatient with some of the mechanics. And I encounter cantrips in D&D, and start to figure out what I want a magic system to be like. And those things combine into my homebrewed multiverse game setting: Shadow Walking, a multiverse fantasy game with not much mechanics, focused on roleplaying and collaborative storytelling.
I also play in a friend’s D&D campaign. My character is a young wizard who doesn’t fit into society very well. After several months of the game, which I’m enjoying, one of the other players expresses dissatisfaction with the game, and mentions in passing that I’m obviously bored because I just sit there through most of the sessions. I’m taken aback by this, because I’ve been doing intense roleplaying in my head all along, but apparently I haven’t been saying much of it aloud.
1990 or so (late- and post-college)
My friend Rob runs a D&D game that starts out in a village that was founded by retired adventurers—our characters’ parents. In the opening session, the village is attacked by orcs, and for the first time in my roleplaying life, I think about how bewildering and painful combat must be for someone who’s never experienced it before. My character still has hit points left, but instead of continuing to fight, I decide that he’s incapacitated by pain and distress.
…At the end of that campaign, we discover that the story of the game was really the story of my characters’ parents (both NPCs) reuniting. Our PCs were essentially just minor characters in that story. We felt like the protagonists through the whole game, but the ending gave us (or at least me) a different perspective, in which my characters’ parents were the protagonists.
Around this time, I also learn that I am perfectly happy to spend an entire gaming session with the characters sitting and chatting (in character) in a bar—no plot, just roleplaying.
At some point, a couple of years and a couple of games later, Rob tells me that he likes giving my characters near-infinite power, because he knows that I’ll never use it, due to some character trait or other. He notes that in Champions terms, he gives my characters a 20-point disad: “Played by Jed.”
Two high school friends and I play in a game run by another high school friend. (The game is Stalking the Night Fantastic, in which a high-tech government agency tries to cover up evidence of supernatural monsters.) The game is extremely tightly scripted; it’s so much on rails that it’s essentially the GM telling us a story. But it’s a fun story, well told, and we get to participate, and I learn that I don’t really mind stories on rails if they’re well done.
Incidentally, this was also the game where all three of us players were playing queer characters (I think that was the first time I played a queer character; I had only recently come out to myself as bi in real life) but we were all too embarrassed about it to have our characters come out to the GM.
Also around this time: I encounter the Over the Edge player’s guide, which gives me another new paradigm: It gently suggests that if your reaction to most of what’s going on in a game is to say “My character wouldn’t do that,” then you may be playing the wrong character. Instead, you should create/choose a character who would actively participate in the game/story.
That idea is particularly relevant to the Shadow-Walking game that I run sometime around here (set in a world derived from Mary Rosenblum’s Drylands stories), in which there is one character who absolutely does not want to be out adventuring. I have to keep finding ways to keep him in the game, but those ways get more and more contrived. I don’t know how the player feels about it, but I find these contrivances frustrating.
Meanwhile, the players are frustrated about a different thing: I had created a sandbox world (well, a sandbox multiverse), and more or less told them “okay, you’re on your own, decide what you want to do.” They flail for months before telling me they feel cut adrift; we eventually do some major revamping and give them some training in their magic use, and focus the game on a single small city, and things get much better.
I play in a D&D game run by Rob’s brother Jamie. My character is a prince whose father has just been killed. (Jamie had just seen Hamlet.) My character and his companions have a clear-cut Quest/goal; in my head, the story of the game is that he’s going to avenge his father, oust his evil uncle, and become king and live happily ever after.
…But first we have to escape on foot across the mountains. Then we run into some bad guys trying to steal a silver dragon's egg (I think that was a randomly generated encounter), which puts us on another Quest. And when we’re halfway to resolving that situation, we have another random encounter that sets us on yet another Quest. After maybe four or five of these total changes in direction, with no significant progress toward resolving any of them, I finally ask Jamie what the plot of the game is. Jamie tells me that he doesn’t have any big-picture story in mind; plot is just whatever happens. He has a fair amount of backstory in mind, but he doesn’t care if we never resolve any of the myriad plots.
From this experience, I learn that I want games to have coherent stories. I really really like closure, and open-ended D&D games don’t tend toward closure unless someone pushes them.
I also spend a lot of time reading discussions of RPG theory on rec.games.frp, especially in posts by Mary Kuhner. (I thought this was much earlier, but that Wikipedia entry suggests that Kuhner was writing this stuff in 1997.)
I revisit Space: 1889, a Victorian-science-fiction game that I had played briefly in college; basically roleplaying in a Wells/Verne/Haggard kind of milieu, with a heavy focus on genre tropes. (I find the mechanics so unwieldy as to be almost useless, but I enjoy the setting and tone.) I run a game that consists of four pretty heavily plotted sessions; I’m putting the characters on rails for the overall storyline, but I leave a lot of room for the characters to do stuff within the constraints of those rails. (By this point, my general GMing philosophy is to heavily overprepare—to decide as much as I can about the setting and NPCs, and to prepare in advance for as many PC choices as I can think of, so that I’m providing a sort of sandbox-on-rails—giving the characters lots of room to act, but having a fairly good idea of what I’m going to do in response. Of course, players being players, the characters will inevitably end up doing something that I hadn’t thought of; but my overpreparation lets me flexibly improvise when that happens.)
(In this particular game, it helps that I arrange from the start with one of the players that his character has a secret goal, for which he’s manipulating and lying to the other characters, so he’s helping me keep the other characters on the rails. In the climax of the game, his character sails off in a hot-air balloon, having stolen the treasure that the characters had spent the whole game finding; I was worried about how the other players would react, but it turned out that the traitor character had left their characters with all sorts of other stuff relevant to their own goals, so they weren’t upset at all.)
In that game and in a couple of other heavily plotted four-episode (non-Space: 1889) games that follow, I explicitly give the players meta-guidance upfront. For example, I ask them to come up with a character who wants to be there doing what they’re doing, and who has connections to other PCs; and I ask them to be willing to occasionally go along with nudges/hints from me; and I tell them the general tone/flavor that I’m aiming for.
I also run a Babylon 5 campaign in Portland, OR. I don’t live in Portland; I run sessions when I visit there, and a couple of sessions in primitive online realtime-chat systems. This game is not nearly as brief or as heavily plotted as those four-session games, but I do know from the start what the big-picture storyline is (the creation of the Psi Corps; the game is set about a hundred years before the show) and roughly how I want things to play out. We talk about the game in terms of “seasons,” as if it were a TV show, and I write up copious notes on what happens over the course of the game. We throw out most of the published RPG’s mechanics, and rely mostly on my usual “roll some dice and I’ll tell you what happens” quasi-system.
After years in which I did very little RPGing, Mary Anne suggests that I could run a game. I initially say that I don’t have time, but then I have some ideas for a Shadow Walking game that I could also use as the basis for a fantasy story. So I run the game—another fairly heavily plotted game (maybe six sessions instead of four?)—and although it doesn’t always go as smoothly as I would’ve hoped (my GMing skills are pretty rusty at this point), overall I’m pretty happy with it. And I eventually write it up as a short story, which turns into a novella, and then turns into a novel, the only novel I’ve written. (I never get it quite polished enough to try to seek a publisher for it.)
Ben introduces me to Fiasco and to the entire world of modern indie GMless RPGs. I am intrigued by the concept, but I also find that it doesn’t entirely fit my head. That’s partly because there’s still too much system mechanics for my tastes (and those mechanics feel arbitrary to me), and partly because I miss having a GM. But I’m intrigued by the idea of the game setting and flavor providing a lot of what a GM would traditionally provide.
I talk with various people about various RPGs that they’re involved in, and I gradually realize that I’m kind of tense about the idea of playing in an RPG at this point; it feels like an unmanageable amount of on-the-spot creativity. This is kind of a disturbing feeling for me; RPGs have at various times been a big part of my life, and the roleplaying used to be my favorite part. But at the moment, the thought of being required to come up with dialogue on the fly makes me too anxious to find it enjoyable.
I hope that at some point that’ll change again. I think it’s partly a pandemic thing and partly an anxiety thing, and I imagine that at some point I’ll get back to enjoying roleplaying. But at the moment, it’s not appealing to me. Though I still love talking about it.
Appendix: Two major games
This post is by no means a comprehensive list of all the games I’ve played in or run; but even so, it feels weird to me that I haven’t mentioned at all my two favorite games that I’ve played in. They didn’t really fit the narrative here about what I’ve learned about what I want from RPGs and how that’s changed over time, but even so, I want to briefly mention them:
- Rob’s cyberpunk game. Late college. A nifty structure, in which each game session starts with a disembodied voice asking us questions; it’s not until the end of the campaign that we discover that the whole game was our memories of what happened, and that the disembodied voice is St. Peter, and that we’ve all died, and that St. Peter is readying us to return to Earth to fight the hordes of demons that have just been unleashed. End of game. It was a magnificent ending to a great game.
- My friend Ananda’s La Tierra campaign. 1993. A multiverse game about family and religion and universal archetypes, featuring childhood-friend characters who were humanoids evolved from other animals and who set out to rescue my character’s sister. (For a bit more info and some art, follow the link.) Intense and far-reaching and spectacular.