Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When Rule #1 Gets Left Behind

If you have been involved in the gaming community for a while, you've probably come across the "First Rule in Gaming"; Whatever happens, remember that the goal of the game is to have fun.

This is a rule carried down from the olden days of D&D, and it's a rule that needs to be remembered, because at the end of the day, no matter how well-designed an adventure is, no matter how clever the puzzles or well developed the NPCs, no matter how evocative the setting or balanced the rules system is, if the game isn't fun, then really, what's the point? Granted, all those things help in achieving that goal, but like Frankenstein's Monster, a game without fun is a game without a life, and a game without a life is just a interconnected pile of parts - PCs, NPCs, Setting, Rules, Props - each adds to the whole, but without the spark of excitement and adventure connecting it all, you don't have a game, you have an exercise in world-building.

I've recently been put in a position to comment on this phenomenon from first-hand experience. I've been involved in a game now for about six months that, sadly, doesn't have much of a soul. Granted, we are all friendly with each other and as a social function, we have a good time. And to be fair, there are moments during the game when things are actually fun, at least for a couple of the party members at a time. But the problem is, the game has no sense of adventure, no sense of excitement or daring. Every challenge or problem is approached with several hours of debate amongst all the party members, where every risk is weighed carefully against every advantage, and the safest path is always the one agreed on. If this party was laying siege to a keep, I have a feeling the method of taking the place they would agree on would be just waiting them out and letting them starve.

In six day-long sessions so far, the most exciting thing my Dwarven warrior has done is to excavate what turned out to be a "Treasure Pit" , only when we did get to the treasure...yeah you guessed it...the chests were filled with lead ballast. Now I'll give you this, every so often letting your PCs run after a bit of a lark can be fun - it helps break up the expectations a little - but seriously, in six months (the group meets all day, once a month), my Dwarf has yet to raise his axe in anger even once. Digging that stupid hole in the ground was literally the most activity I've had in this game, and that's only because it took about six hours of real time to role-play it all out.

Now, how does this happen? The GM has been running this campaign off and on for 20+ years, and two of the players have been in it since the beginning. Some of the others range from being in the game from 2-4 years - people have cycled in and out of the game for a long time, and I'm just the latest addition, drawn in from another game run by another player. I get the feeling that this lack of "adventure" has more to do with the lethal effects of falling into a "gaming rut" than actually being a bad game. The GM put a lot of time and effort into designing his adventures, and certainly knows the setting and the rules very well. However, it's all for nothing if, at the end of the day, most of the PCs had little or nothing to do - there have been sessions where my PC (and / or a couple of the others) have literally just followed everyone else around all game, doing nothing and saying nothing the entire time. I even occasionally time how long I go without offering or being asked to offer any input - it can be hours.

Another thing I've noticed is that most of the players are also not what you'd call "typical gamers". For almost all of them, this is either the only game they've been in, or the only game they have played for a long, long time. Most also don't pay much attention to or read about other game systems (I've got about 40 different RPG systems sitting on my bookshelves right now...). So the other players, I feel, haven't really had much exposure (at least lately) to any other kind of gaming. To make matters worse, the "Old Guard" of the group are all in their mid to late 40's, and I feel they consider more "reckless" gaming ideas to be the purview of younger, more immature gamers.

In the end, I'm left in a bit of a quandry. On the one hand I don't really want to drop out of the game because I feel that there may be some way I can steer things in the direction of "fun", but on the other hand, I don't like flushing one Saturday a month down the toilet of crappy gaming (pun definitely intended). I have begun a campaign of passive resistance on the group's message board in the hopes that my dissatisfaction will become evident, but only time will tell if the GM gets the hint, and is willing to do anything about it.

Until then, I think I'm going to work on a game with pirates. And evil cults. And giant bugs.

There might even be ninjas...


The Evil DM said...

maybe this game works for the majority of the players. It seems after these many years it would have ended if everyone was displeased with it.
Have you thought about asking the GM if you could take the reigns for a side adventure? Use the same world, same characters, same rules, but you run it and show them your idea of a good time. Take them to a distant or unused area of the campign map and then run them through an adventure with all the stuff you crave (Big bugs, Pirates, ninjas, etc.). and then see what the reaction is. you may find they dont care for the same things you care for, or you may manage to shake things up and breathe some vim and vigor into the campaign.

Badelaire said...

Well, I know that one of them (the GM of the game I came in from) is bored out of her mind and frustrated as well, and she's only been gaming for perhaps two years. Another player, the youngest of our group, has other games that he plays in, and I can tell he is bored a lot of the time, but he's also a pretty laid back guy. I'm sure he'd like more action (he was particularly frustrated last session) but I don't think he'd make any moves to change that. Of the other three players, one web-conferences in from NC, and another drives a considerable distance to get to the game (and is in somewhat poor health to boot), and would probably not want to "waste his time" with a side-stepped adventure (which would also be difficult, since the game runs in a very straight narrative - what you suggest would have to be a sort of parallel universe/reality sort of experiment). The sixth player has never played anything else and is the live-in girlfriend of the GM, however I imagine I could get her to try something else (I waved the Savage World of Solomon Kane under her nose and she thought it was cool).

So in the end, I might be able to convince the younger players (the girl who GMs the other game has tried Castles & Crusades and likes it with me at the helm) to try new styles of gaming, but the Old Guard, I think, have to be written off. For them, I may have to just work with some subtle nudging.

Jeff Rients said...

in six months (the group meets all day, once a month), my Dwarf has yet to raise his axe in anger even once.

Man, I couldn't do that. I'll follow whatever cockamamie plot the GM wants to spin, but I best be crackin' orc skulls along the way.

Badelaire said...

That's just the problem - the GM, from what I have observed, seems to feel that "random encounters" or what have you do not belong in his master narrative. And the Old Guard in the group seem to be perfectly fine with all this - they LOVE to plot, and plan, and talk endlessly about everything they do, but when it comes to fighting, it's always "how can we do this with as little attention and risk as possible".

In the six months that I've been playing, there have been precisely three deaths. One was a crazy old hermit that the assassin knifed because he had some idea as to what we were doing. Another was a knight sent to arrest one of the party members on trumped-up charges in order to slow down our search (his brain was fried by a PC's psychic abilities to create an "accidental death"). The third death was a fight between an "evil" (haha) death cult assassin and our assassin (as well as the elven archer/slut, but that wasn't really a fight so much as it was her surviving getting the crap kicked out of her until our assassin could get into the fight). The death cult assassin was incapacitated, and then the psychic fried his brain after looting it for the information we wanted.

And, this world (I'll give beaucoup kudos to whoever guesses the published game world/system I'm playing in...) has very little in terms of "monsters" or bad guys to fight in general. There are baddies, but it sounds like running into them is a very rare occasion.

And the worst part is, I know they have gotten into some big fights in the past, but I wasn't there for it, and have no clue when we'll be there again. Supposedly we're looking to steal some stuff from a remote temple of death cult assassin types, but everyone's knees are a-knockin' over how dangerous it will be. My little Dwarven dude will charge the place single-handedly if it means getting some head-bashing in, suicidal or not.