Wednesday, January 18, 2023

I Remember My First Time

Noisms wants to hear stories about your first time playing an RPG. Unfortunately, I don't think mine is particularly interesting. 

I was onboarded to the hobby by my older brothers, one of whom is my co-writer on this blog. I was in 6th grade, making me about 11 or 12. It was 2008, the year of 4th Edition D&D's release. My brother had several years of experience with 3.5 Edition but was closely following 4E's development and was ready to make the transition like any loyal fan would. So he put a copy of the 4E PHB in my hands and told me to read it. I have a short attention span, especially when it comes to reading (ironic, I know). But I slogged through the main bits over a few days.

Then, my brothers helped me make a PC using the character builder software that WotC put out for 4E, since their game plan also involved heavy use of digital tools. We all remember how that worked out, right? I made an Eladrin Paladin who worshipped Bahamut. I think his name was Conall, since I looked up Celtic names.

My other siblings all made characters so that we'd have a party of four. My oldest sibling, who had all the experience, DMd a single session for us. I remember it being really fun, but I was a little kid who had to be coached through most of it. I never quite got a handle on the rules. I could only really approach the game with a "play pretend" mindset, which my brother translated into the rules for me. Which is, of course, still a very popular philosophy of play.

I remember that all my siblings played as various shady characters, whereas I was of course a goody two-shoes. It was a classic "here's a contrived excuse for how you all meet each other and become a team" first session. The setup was that all the other PCs were in prison but were going to be put on a release program under my supervision, a fledgling paladin. In hindsight, appointing the youngest sibling as the "leader" was doomed to failure anyway. Then our meeting was interrupted by a goblin raid on the town, so we stepped outside and had a combat encounter. I distinctly remember a crowd of goblins (who I now know were "minions," mechanically speaking) surrounded me, made a bunch of attacks, and all missed. Their blows just bounced off my armor with a pitiful tink tink tink tink sound. I remember that exact description almost 15 years later because it made me feel awesome. Then I killed all of them in a couple rounds, since I probably had some kind of cleave-like area-of-effect attack.

Shortly after this, my older brother was quickly disillusioned with 4E and decided to switch to the also-brand-new Pathfinder. He asked us all to switch to the new system before our second session. I was frustrated and disappointed because I was asked to learn a new RPG already and reading is hard and learning new rules sucks and Pathfinder didn't have Eladrin.

It didn't take long before my own RPG opinions began taking shape and I, too, became a 4E hater. I also eventually became a Pathfinder hater but I do still think it's a better option for what I want out of my gaming.

This whole story is very typical, but in hindsight I see a lot of lessons learned and trends foreshadowed. I still really like playing Superman-like Lawful Goodies, I still like being a big powerful warrior in armor, I still slog through learning rules, and I still like thinking fiction-first instead of mechanics-first.

Maintaining a campaign with my siblings proved impossible. I realized soon that the only way I'd be able to play D&D was by running my own game. So I began studying Pathfinder, got together some guy friends from school, and spent a few months planning an unbelievably ambitious campaign based on Irish mythology. I ran one session of that and quickly discovered that the immaturity of 7th grade boys would guarantee my grand artistic vision would be completely ruined. But they had a lot of fun. I kept trying to start new campaigns over the next 3 years that all fizzled after one session, so most of my early history with this hobby came in the form of reading about games and game history by myself. Oh, and Order of the Stick.

I can't blame myself for making such typical mistakes when I was just in middle school, but I do really wish I hadn't wasted so much potential back then. In hindsight, I didn't truly begin playing RPGs until years after that "first time." I have a lot of criticisms of the modern norms of D&D's design and playstyle, but one of the most important has to be that... it's so geared against developing good habits as an RPG player when you're first starting out. Their design encourages you to spend more time reading and theorycrafting than playing. More time writing lore dumps, crafting all-too-serious plots, and carefully calibrating combat encounters instead of coming up with fun stuff for your friends to play with. More time investing in a perfect little original character than getting experience throwing yourself at challenges and developing those problem-solving muscles without fear of consequence. As Justin Alexander once said, asking your friend to play D&D is like asking someone if they want to join a fucking baseball league who has mandatory practice 5 days a week as an adult, when it should be more like asking someone "you want to play catch?" If I had been introduced to the hobby through something like Maze Rats, I have a feeling it would have led to a much richer experience early on and would have shaped me into a better GM in general.

Oh well. Instead you get a guy who just can't let go of Knowledge checks because he was trained by Pathfinder.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Picture Book Gameplay

I recently had a very novel experience running a game that I think has some potential that ought to be explored. Maybe someone out there has done this sort of thing and would like to share. It's a weird one.

Not too long ago, I was flattered to be asked by W.F. Smith (of Prismatic Wasteland fame) to do some playtesting for his upcoming crowd-funded adventure "zine," Barkeep on the Borderlands. The premise is simple: 200 years after the famous Keep on the Borderlands adventure from the TSR era of D&D, long after the Caves of Chaos have been cleared out by adventurers, the keep has grown into a large, bustling, cosmopolitan community. Its present-day culture and institutions of power are colored by the long history of consequences from that legendary adventure, and now your 21st-century players are invited to partake in one of the all-time great traditions celebrating that legend: six days of non-stop carousing in the Raves of Chaos. It's a barcrawl adventure with a hand-crafted town populated with lots of fun NPCs, factions, plot hooks, and 20 fully-detailed pubs.

I playtested it with three separate groups across 4 sessions, getting about 20 hours of experience running this adventure in total. I am happy to report that it was a great success, much fun was had, and valuable feedback was gained and incorporated. I recently gave high praise to one of Smith's previous, smaller adventures, and I myself originally backed the Kickstarter for Barkeep simply as a fan, not having yet really met him. Well before moving on to the main subject of this post, I'll go ahead and give a quick two thumbs up review. This adventure is dripping with that special sauce you want. I wasn't compensated in any way, save for the privilege of getting to play this adventure before anyone else on Earth. Here's a link to pre-order a copy.

But there was one pub my players went to that was a bit different.