This theme week (Role-Playing Games) came about from a few discussions with my friend Adam having to do with our RPG past. It occurred to me that I would like to write some thoughts I have about running games. I decided to start with a quick history of me and RPGs. It didn’t remain quick. When I had two posts worth of material, and wasn’t done, I called Nathan and said, “You want to do an RPG theme week?” He agreed and here we are. I say this to explain why it is that I seem to be leading up to talking about running a game, and probably won’t get to it this week. I will though. Without further delay, here is my first contribution to the RPG theme week.
It might be questionable whether or not I can really write an article about the dos and don’ts and the goods and bads of playing the tough role of Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM). For instance, if you just thought, “It’s not that tough,” then you’re probably better at it than me.
I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), and numerous other Role-Playing Games (RPGs) for over two decades now. I’m not even sure if I’m even all that frequent of a player in spite of the longevity of my run. I’ve played enough to have opinions though, so I have that qualification. I would say that about 30 to 40% of my time playing RPGs (pen and paper as opposed to video game) has been as a DM or GM. The other 60 to 70% has been spent as a player with a wide range of DM and GM ability on the narrative side of the table. I say table, but a large amount of my RPG time has been spent sitting on floors, and rolling dice on books. Please be aware that as you continue this article, a lot of my focus will be on D&D, but I will discuss other games as well.
Throughout all of this, I have always read the game books and various articles on the subject of running the games. I have noticed when the person in charge has done a good job of being in charge, and when they really haven’t. I think in many cases, I’ve also noticed the good and the bad in myself over the years. I ran some very uninspired game sessions in the early days of playing and I’ve run what were probably over inspired sessions in the later days.
Before I start dealing with more specific things, I want to say that I’m somewhat opposed to modules. This isn’t a full on disgust or hatred with modules as much as I’ve always been more interested in the creative side of games. In my mind, particularly when I was younger, this meant creating most aspects of the game, the setting, the characters, the situations, etc. Even with that basic feeling, if I ever got hold of modules or ideas, my brother and I usually found ourselves compelled to try it out. I think much of my better understanding of the game came from the study of the work of the professionals.
Let me start with the years of the Dungeon Crawl. A Dungeon Crawl adventure is almost the default of D&D games. It’s where the player characters (PCs) walk into a cave and go from room to room finding monsters, traps, treasures, locked doors, riddles, and all other forms of things. In some ways it can feel a little contrived, but it allows for a very easy way to plan encounters and make them somewhat linear if need be. I think as long as I play D&D, I’ll like a good Dungeon Crawl.
My parents bought the original red box set. My brother and I sat down at the kitchen table with our mom and dad, and we went through the sample adventure in the player’s guide together. Then my dad DMed the group adventure in the DM’s Guide. I guess my parents weren’t all that interested in the game, even after that session, but my brother and I were hooked for life. We started making dungeons to run each other through, and we even started building a rudimentary storyline.
I remember feeling somewhat lost back then. I was always trying to figure out how to make the adventure more adventuresome than just going room to room and slaughtering monsters. I later heard the term Monty Haul adventure. Monty Hall was a game show host (Let’s see what’s behind door number one!) and the term was meant to describe a style of play which was kill monsters for experience points (XP) and get treasure and magic items to make your character powerful. My brother and I played the game somewhat similarly to that, but luckily we did a pretty good job of following the charts, and our characters were pretty well balanced with the game play. The typical Monty Haul experience tends to create characters that are too powerful and players who are bored because there is no challenge. The effect was different for me though. I was interested in creating a continuing plot and developing characters, but I found myself often at a loss as to how to accomplish that.
By the time that my brother and I started playing the Robotech RPG, my skill at creating adventures hadn’t improved much, and we tended to play the game a little too much like Battletech, but we did try.
Strangely enough, right around the same time, I was looking through a catalog of some sort and read about a game called Paranoia (it was in its Second Edition at the time) and I had to get it. It seemed so quirky from the description. And it was. Oh boy was it. The game opened up so many possibilities to me as a GM. The problem was that the game defied many conventions of other RPGs and I couldn’t tend to keep players involved for more than a session or two. I probably needed to ease them into the craziness a little better.
In fact, I have a special tip for Paranoia. Explain to the players that they will only be playing their character for one adventure, and that next adventure, no matter how well they do; they will be playing a different character, because the likelihood of their character dying up to six times this adventure is high. Tell them that the goal is to have a good time first, entertain the other players so they can have a good time second, and then third, if they get around to it, survive.
The problem I ran into almost every time I played was that people would be in a very serious mindset about accomplishing mission objectives and killing enemies, neither of which happens very automatically in the Paranoia universe. They would also take the attacks of other characters on their characters as attacks of the player on them. It was a mess, and as a GM, I had no idea how to reel everybody in. Paranoia is still this amazing game of possibility that has never been realized for me.
This seemed like a suitable place to end the first part of this. Join me Thursday when I continue to discuss my RPG history. In the meantime, check out Nathan’s recollections.