Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Relative Experience

As with all things in life, experience is relative.

The person who has spent the past 30 years of his or her life hammering in nails is very likely to be better at this particular skill than someone who has been doing it for only 10.

Of course, if the latter person, with only 10 years of hammer and nail experience, also spent those 10 years screwing in screws, painting walls, laying brick with mortar and supervising a crew of workers, well, who is the more experienced individual?

Just a second...

This post was initially inspired by a comment on my Path Finder post by newcomer to the blog, Monkapotomus. It got me thinking about why I game the way I do, where I came from and how it is that I got here. Thanks Monkapotomus and the viewers at home for indulging me on this one.

OK, back to the post.

When most of us Old Schoolers started gaming, there were very few games on the market. There weren't any websites or podcasts and if you couldn't drive or take a train yourself, chances are you didn't get to the FLGS very often.

We developed our gaming approaches, preferences and over all styles in a near vacuum. The only 'outside' influences were the other players and gamemasters we knew.

Odd than, isn't it, that so many who started gaming with Dungeons & Dragons, especially in the late seventies to early eighties, played in a similar fashion. Personally, I think it's because the play style for that game (as well as many others over the years) is built right into the rulebook. It is promoted by the way the book was written as much as from the actual premise and mechanics.

Those who played D&D differently from the vast majority of their fellow gamers (be it right from the start or very early on) would seem to be those who were (A) young and didn't fully comprehend the genre, rules or both, (B) alternative thinkers who generally seen different things than most others who are looking at art, writing or even scientific problems or (C) those who completely understood what the rules were saying and simply flat-out disagreed and wanted something they perceived as 'better'.

I like to think the first gamers I played with and I had elements of all three of the above going into, and finding our way through, this hobby.

Another thought...If you start with a very different view of a game system or game subject matter than that of other gamers across the country (and even the world) , where does that place you five or ten or twenty plus years down the line?

Anyone whose being playing RPG for a very long time (more than a decade give or take) is likely to be familiar with the following dynamic, even if it didn't happen to you and your group exactly this way...

Phase 1:

You discover the game, make up your first character, and possibly your second, third, and fourth before the span of a few short months. Characters don't have personalities other than your own as they won't be around long enough to get attached to them. They have cheesy names or simple, easy to remember ones. Most people are just borrowing the names of existing characters. There is very little if anything in the way of a story to the adventures your GM is running. The objective is clear - kill bandits and monsters. Official, company published modules are likely in use.

Phase 2:

Characters are lasting longer, getting names that you remember (serious ones at that), and maybe just a bit of backstory. You might have decided who their dad was or what land they came from. Your characters die less often but you get bummed when they do 'cause you 'liked that character'. The GM is naming NPCs and you might see the same one more than once. There is a town where you set off from and it has a name (huzzah!). There is a bit more story in the campaign, reasons for stuff and nobility or royalty up to various things. While combat and theft are still the primary means of obtaining the wealth and power you desire, you sometimes talk to NPCs and get involved in non-combat activities. Adventures are largely of the pre-packaged module variety but the town is not and the GM is putting his or her own spin on things.

Phase 3:

PCs have thought out names, backstories and perhaps a subplot or two is interlaced with the dungeoneering. If your a Human for example, you know which Human kingdom you hail from as there are a few and it matters which one is which. Your character has a look in your mind's eye, relatives or a tragic origin, a favorite food perhaps. If this character dies you are going to be upset and it might take you a day or two to get over it. You care about the NPCs. The GM is putting more care into making them and they seem more three-dimensional. They become people you like, dislike, despise, envy, get a kick out of or want to marry. While there is nothing like a good fight to get the blood pumping, fighting is a means to an end and not the end goal itself. A lot more parlaying is going on as is bluffing, fooling, flat out lying, romancing, investigating and numerous other activities not directly or even indirectly related to the slay for pay model. Treasure still matter but if you play your cards right you might get into the Thieves Guild or learn the secret of the Earl's power and influence. Adventures are more flexible, modules (if still used) are interwoven with original monsters, villains and locations specific to your campaign world. And there is a world! Some world building is going on either accidentally or on purpose and the elements of it matter to you.

Now imagine for a moment, if you can, that Phase 3 is your Phase 1.

That's right, your first ever RPG experience was  approached in the style of Phase 3.

That's me.

That is how it was for me. That's why I don't completely connect with the OSR, why I am not interested in the traditional D&D mode of play and why I have trouble getting excited over certain mechanical elements is it is directly connected to the fluff and vice versa.

If Phase 3 was your Phase 1...what is your Phase 3?

Barking Alien


  1. Started with OD&D and EPT in the mid/late '70s.

    Phase I: Went through Sparrowhawks I to XXIII before changing names... Deltar, a fighter was the first character to last more than a few weeks.
    Phase II: From Deltar through the end of high school. Mostly as a DM, but of the groups I played with, only one used store-bought modules or a store-bought world (Greyhawk for D&D, and EPT which had it's own).
    Phase III: Overlapped with Phase II, except for the "backstory" thing. Since most of us created our own worlds, we didn't expect (or even want) our players to create backstories... they didn't know our world yet!

    Nowadays, I run a classic Traveller campaign (not set in the "official universe") and an OD&D game... and I still don't want my players to create a backstory. I wouldn't ask a high schooler to tell me his life story... why would I ask a brand new character for his?

    All that being said, much of what you describe as Phase III we did without a second thought, because we were creating our own worlds! I had years of science fiction and fantasy reading under my belt when I found D&D in 7th grade... why would I want to limit myself to Greyhawk?

  2. "Nowadays, I run a classic Traveller campaign (not set in the "official universe") and an OD&D game... and I still don't want my players to create a backstory. I wouldn't ask a high schooler to tell me his life story... why would I ask a brand new character for his?"

    Yeah...that I don't get. A high schooler and a starting RPG character are not the same. Even so, I know high schoolers who could tale you stories that would make you crap yer pants.

    A brand new character in Traveller is over 18. If they only went through one term of service they are at least 22. Most are a bit older. Some have had Commissions, Promotions and in MegaTraveller, Special Duties. They didn't pop out of a clone bank and than start adventuring.

    Same thing in D&D. Most first level D&D characters seem to have been born on that spot, the moment the game starts. That never made any sense to me. Are they high school age also? Most starting D&D characters in most of the campaigns I've been in (player or GM) were around 20 to 30 something. Wizards are obviously older. They somehow learned enough to get to first level, whereas those around them aren't even level and class characters.

    Want to know how much happened in my life by the time I was twenty-five. No. No you don't. Trust me. I am certain the same can be said for many people.

    Except RPG characters according to this line of thinking. Nothing interesting happens to them in their worlds of the distant future or magical medieval times.

    That gets a Vulcan eyebrow raise that does. It's a common view I've never shared.


    "All that being said, much of what you describe as Phase III we did without a second thought, because we were creating our own worlds! I had years of science fiction and fantasy reading under my belt when I found D&D in 7th grade... why would I want to limit myself to Greyhawk?"

    Ah, why indeed? Yet, is yours the typical experience. That's what this post is about you see. The difference between the typical experience, the average gamer and a specific one (yours truly in this case but it is intended to make you think of your own).

  3. I pretty much followed your progression - Phase I = Elementary/Junior High, Phase II= High School, Phase III = College. College was quite a while back now so I'm sure I've gone to plaid at this point.

    I share some of the sentiments with Dave up above - our emphasis was never so much on what kind of story you wrote up ahead of time. What mattered, what made a character a legend, was what they did in the game. It was good to know where your character was from, what they looked like, if they had family (future character hooks!) and all but the actual playing time was what made the stories we tell today.

  4. Ah, see, I think we are running into a bit of a miscommunication. That is really all I am talking about Blacksteel (and Dave).

    I don't want you to hand me the sequel to 'Roots', but if you tell me you grew up the son of a farmer and ran away to the big city to find work when a terrible drought befell the land, I'm 100% behind that.

    I am presently involved in a Pathfinder game as I've mentioned and my character's cool backstory (which doesn't really effect his stats or mechanics much at all) is pretty much the only reason I'm interested in the game.

  5. The backstory I ask for is basically where ya from, why are ya here, what are ya after?