Getting it out of my system…

This one’s really just for me.  While it’s true that all of my posting is primarily, for me, in that I post as a way of getting ideas out of my head and into words that I can then go back to, think about, and get feedback from others on – this one is really for me.  I’m writing today (a Monday, a new week, and my first day really on my new job – so lot’s of beginning) as a way of just clearing out a lot of the STUFF that’s been building up in my gamer system for a while.  You might find something in this for you, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride and really – it’s mostly for me.

First, I want to apologize to all of my gamer friends for the last year or so.  I’ve been grumpy.  I’ve managed to run a campaign in Pathfinder up to 11th level, but then became so frustrated that I bailed.  We started a new one that had some promise but I was so “bad taste in my mouth right now” that I bailed.  You guys were nice enough to come with me to Barbarians of Lemuria (great game) but we tried to bring in some old friends via the internet and technology was not on our side – and I just called it.  I bailed.  And the thing is, somewhere along the way in the last few years I think my lens got too narrow and well, things got weird.

It’s like this.  Sometimes I actually think blogging is bad for my gaming.  Not just writing but reading.  I abandoned all the forums out there a long time ago because they are horrible places filled with spite.  But blogging is great – and I read a lot of great blogs.  But sometimes it seems too easy to get caught up in whatever “thing there is to yell about” at any given time and being someone who reads a lot of those blogs I find that it fills me with the urge to yell and be bitter about my gaming life… which is the exact opposite of good.  I also find that there is a tension in my blog writing that comes from a desire to actually be read, be interesting, and be relevant that often has little to nothing to do with what I actually want to say.  I’d say more but someone already did it for me.

And you know the old saying, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Well, you know, I’ve been running (and my little bit of playing) D&D4E and Pathfinder almost exclusively for the last three years or so.  I scammed a few sessions of other stuff in there but really, it’s been all D&D (or D&D-like) for that time and the fact is, it’s easy to start to think of everything in terms of D&D.  There are other games out there.  There are a LOT of other games out there and you know what?  Most of those other games don’t give two flying mumbles about action economy, DPR, tactical combat grids, magic item rarity, encounter balance or party make-up.  And thank all that’s holy for that.  I’m weary to my bones of those things.  If I ever have to have another conversation in my lifetime about optimal combat tactics in an RPG I’ll probably claw out my own eyes and stuff them in my ears so that I can’t hear anymore.  And of course, the horror of watching me do that will hopefully drive the person talking to me to run away… but considering how fervent some character optimization/play optimization folks are – I doubt they’d even notice me do it… they’d just go on talking.

It’s still sorta D&D but I played some Castles and Crusades recently and can I just say how refreshing it was to play a game where your attributes didn’t have to be hyperinflated?  Since the bonuses are smaller and less tied to your class abilities, it doesn’t really matter if you are a fighter with a STR of “only 14.”  That’s just fine.  I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that until I had it again.  It was like a breath of fresh air.  And that’s just one example.


And let’s talk for a minute about party make-up.  Who are we, the Fantastic Four?  Does every group need a brain, a beauty, a blaster and a brick?  I’m almost sure they don’t.  This may come as a surprise to some but it can actually be fun to play a game where not everyone is forced to take on a different role for “niche protection.”  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying everyone has to be the exact same – nobody wants that – but you know, it’s actually fun to run a game where everyone might play the same class or have the same background.  Some of the best stories are about characters who are fundamentally all the same but just have some targeted differences which make them people, not just a collection of class powers.  Think about the musketeers, for example.  Yes, a range of skills is still important for dealing with a variety of situations but realistically, it can be fun to play a game where the situations are actually suited to your skills.

I won’t say much about balance because I’ll probably explode if I start writing about it…  the idea that roleplaying games should be “balanced” is probably one of the worst things to happen to our little corner of entertainment since the satanic panic.  Ugh, with a double helping of ew thrown on top.  I’ve mentioned before (probably too often) that my favorite game of all time is Amber Diceless.  And you know, in Amber, everyone (every. single. encounter.) could be someone who is so much more powerful than you that your character (demigod that he or she is) might as well be an ant beneath the boot of the “other.”  By the same token, many of your encounters will be with beings so beneath you it’s hard to even really consider them “real.”  And parties are not balanced either.  Just being a little careful in the auction and choosing powers wisely can give you an edge that the other players might never catch up to…  And the simple truth (for me) is that it actually makes the game better.  Players have to actually think – not just roll dice.  That may seem harsh – hell, it’s probably overly critical because I do know players of games like 4E who are deeply thoughtful people who love to roleplay and be involved – but 4E does a damn good job of telling players that they don’t have to be – just let the rules take care of you…  My point, classes and races and powers and characters don’t need to be balanced…  and I’m sure some of you will claim that having your character feel “balanced” against other characters will improve your play experience.  To you, I say, great, enjoy that, I’m not going to agree but I’m not going to tell you how to play.  Just leave me out of it, thanks.  Balance is a blight on gaming.  Like all things, some level of balance, some modicum of similarity is important to just make the rules work – but that, for me, is as far as it goes.  The extent to which some gamers talk about balance and party roles, and all that “STUFF” gives me the heebie-jeebies.  Ugh.

I could ramble on.  I’ve got a lot more to say about this but I think I’ve gotten it out of my system.  These feelings have been infecting my work and my life a lot for the last year or so.  It’s been a wild year.  I changed jobs, started a PhD program, lost one of my best friends (not dead, just gone), and felt generally unsatisfied with just about everything I’ve been doing.  I couldn’t write, got cranky with all my gaming, and totally lost focus on my projects.  And before my little hiatus I realized that it had been affecting my posting here on the blog as well.  Well I’m done with that now.  This is my last post about “stuff that is wrong.”

I’m ready to start writing again.  I’m ready for the good stuff.  I hope you’ll forgive me these last few months and come along.

As always, Thanks for reading.


16 responses

  1. Thanks for this post. I agree with you about hyper-inflated stats.

  2. It is a shame you don’t read forums because there you can see the shape of gaming by adjusting the kaleidoscopic a bit. I am thinking of forums that are not dedicated to one type of game style, like Dragonsfoot’s Old School for example. Sometimes I like to read the munchkin’s post on the general forums when he (predominantly munchkins are men) feels something is wrong with his perfect game. I get a self-satisfied laugh, the same way Iget a kick out of the villain getting his comeuppance at the end of a film. Some honest person will comment with suggestions or a different point of view that never gets a call for clarification to understand and then it’s clobbering time on the hero. I do not feel the need to defend but the myopic munchkin and crew validate everything I see right in old school and remind me of everything beautiful about not playing with them. Even if that means I do not game and I just need to do something different and productive with my time.

    Of course, you need to be discriminating about the boards you read, same as the players need to play the game to avoid a TPK.

    Right now there is a struggle at Happy Jacks about attracting new gamers, I will put the link below because it is worth lurking on. Few people are jerks so it’s not a seat at a coliseum blood sport but more like the blind defining the elephant’s tail as a rope.

    It brings me peace to know that while the Titanic is sinking, I can paddle away on my life boat and write.

    For my part I returned to RPGs a little over 2 years ago to get inspiration for my creative writing. I am in a foreign country so I am quite isolated by anyone’s standards. I did find players and, man, was I ever happy about that. But they were munchkins and broke apart the group with their power-ups and outrageous behaviour at the game table. And they ran off new players I would find, with their incessant lawyering, and they never contributed one person to expanding the group. And the people who leave have tasted RPGs and find it more competitive than board gaming and that’s all thank you but no thank you very much. By the way, did you know the RPG market is shrinking….?

    So I have wasted 2 years, including TPKs, trying to get a group of 1st level players through a 17-room dungeon filled with Kobolds and Goblins and one mystery. And there is no seed of story from any of them and no interaction with the characters I create. No reaction but shop and kill but mostly be killed.

    So then I read a forum like Happy Jacks and I see I am that hammer looking for nails instead of the carpenter I should be. And I realize the trouble is not me, or my friends, or my lack of friends. Or all the bloggers on their islands blogging to all their friends in trackbacks and circle jerks. I see the problem is bigger than me and I am at peace.

    Because I have somewhere else to go. The RPG market is shrinking but my lifeboat has lots of space to accommodate everyone.

  3. “And the people who leave have tasted RPGs and find it more competitive than board gaming and that’s all thank you but no thank you very much. ”

    That’s nuts. I got back into rpg’s a couple of years ago specifically for their cooperative nature and rules-light interactivity. (I think some of the things that pushed me over the edge was seeing extremely high-level Dominion play by Magic type dudes, epic level play in Puerto Rico by championship level guys, and then the downright wussy run-up-the-clock-for-a-particular-card-thingy victory in Twilight Imperium.)

    That’s the thing I miss about the eighties– there was just so many types of games and a dozen companies had their own take on how to approach role playing. Today… Magic, Warhammer 40k, and World of Warcraft not only dominate the game stores, but their fans refashion what little variety that’s live into a rehash of the top tier shticks!

    1. I think you just validated my “nutty” comment.

      That’s not to say there are no good RPGs as the Rhetorical Gamer has mentioned a few. But newbs to RPGs do not generally find their way to an Amber Diceless or an AD&D 1e typically. They go to the flagship or popular games as you mentioned a few titles in your area. And the programming of players via rulebooks, according to WotC’s target market those often straight from the foreign ideology environments of MMO, do not encourage what has become known as Old School – a direct reaction to New School.

      This leaves RPG newbs saying: what the hell is this? If I wanted an MMO I would play an MMO! Or, I thought this was going to be a fun collaborative story around a social table and not:

      And the min-mxers mumble their advice: you’re doing it wrong. So newbs to RPG leave with that taste in their mouth rather than the love we found for our hobby which the industry, sadly, refers to as back in the day now.

      1. I think this is why I favor convention games with complete strangers. The game master lays down the law in the first five minutes and then you go crazy for four hours. The end. No search for compatible partners. No game group drama…. Just a nice discrete session….

        Of course, most “real role players” I know would consider a four hour session a paltry warm up. But I’d never expect some kind of serious commitment from a newb…!

  4. jeffro : But I’d never expect some kind of serious commitment from a newb…!

    Just so I am clear, the 98 lbs newbs leave after the muscle bound munchkins kick sand into their game. They clear off. The munchkins complain when they force a frontal WoW attack ala Leroy Jenkins. And cannot crack a 17 room dungeon over two years. That’s when the GM bails out on them and wonders if he will ever play an RPG again.

    So I mention the market is shrinking… but not because it is saturated. Because it is disfunctional. Edition wars are not a healthy relationship between hobby enthusiasts; MMO players encouraged to play alongside RPers because the GM is not a good GM unless he practices inclusivity in every game; the Sword of Damocles called railroading; and the list is long. And now the munchkins groan begin to groan and the next iteration is laboured. When the munchkins go back to their MMOs, you’ll hear an echo on the convention floor. (Except for the laughing at the old school tables where the social aspect of collaborative game play never left.)

    Newbs are the future MMO players never were.

    1. This gets back to why Moldvay Basic and Keep on the Borderlands is so well designed:

      3d6 in order, choose class, roll hit points: there is almost no room for munchkinry here. The difficulty level is so high… everyone has to cooperate or die. Carrying a torch is a legitimate contribution to the party. (You’re the guy that can light the oil….) Making it to second level is a massive accomplishment.

      That’s the power of suck. A bunch of wimpy loser characters facing impossible odds. It’s pure suck. But it’s a level playing field. Chaotic, random, and often stupid– a newb has as much chance of achieving level 2 as anyone, but player skill still matters. There’s very few rules to learn. There are no rules for 80% of the play– the GM just describes, listens, and makes rulings based on the situation.

      And the best feature: that campaign is always ready to roll. Zero prep. A random group of players can be up and running in thirty minutes.

      1. +1 to this! All this separation of player from character is pure bullshit. I mean that’s what it is by any other name or euphemism. I don’t throw such words around because they have a specific purpose: to be vivid and salient. Well there you go.

        When we used to “meta game” it was called reading the back of the module and agreeing to play it. We never said: “Gee, what would my character do?” When did players start doing that? When they buffed up to max stats, maybe? When Encounter Level Class programming entered the RPG lexicon alongside “good DM” certainly. When player engrossment went out the window finally.

        Rolling characters was a nuisance to get past to play. Now, it’s practically an activity on its own – the pet rock of our intellectual time. A modern Tamagotchi. And the RPG, the interrelationship between DM and player and players is the nuisance. The threat of an unbalanced game by an unread bad DM. That’s very MMO right there – when everyone is a self-monitoring neurotic rules lawyer.

        Weren’t those the guys Gary Gygax wrote on page 110 of the AD&D 1e DMG as deserving “Blue Bolts from Heaven?” My god how far this industry standard has devolved!

  5. It comes back to its all about the group synergy. Game with people you would otherwise enjoy spending time with.

    1. That’s what Gary Gygax was saying at the same page as cited above. Kill the character and evict the player. Or just don’t game with them. I won’t necessarily play with an RPGer today because that term does not necessarily mean a role-player. I will play with an RPer any time.

      If only I did not have to filter subgroups from my subgroup!

  6. Well, I gotta say, this is an exciting conversation… and one I’d not expected from my very personal post.

    I agree with Dominic — game with people you actually enjoy gaming with and that goes a long way to making your game (any game) better. I mean, there are some people I know that I just won’t play board games with because I know that I’m thinking, “friendly fun” and they’re thinking, “crush my enemies and hear the lamentations…”

    I think Jeffro hits on some important stuff when talking about ease of play and player skill. I’m a big cheerleader for player skill.

    And I think Cowboy’s on to something that maybe the audience for a lot of “new” games isn’t what the designers think it is. I could be wrong — I have no data. But I do think that trying to convert WoW players into table-toppers is a poor strategy (if it’s your only one — I presume that there are other strategies. But if D&D next is any indication, I feel like the old saying applies, “you can’t go home again.”)

    Keep it up. Good stuff.

    1. I think that the last person to understand the flagship RPG game, Dungeons and Dragons (for pete’s sake the game that appealed to everyone across the board) was Gary Gygax. It certainly was not TSR under Lorraine “no gaming on company time” Williams. WotC was a card company and D&D had this shiny brand cachet (thank you Gary Gygax). Hasbro looks at MMOs and RPGs as one and the same market – which what has been said by WotC, the Strategic Business Unit of Hasbro Toys. Oh my god. Brian at RPG Circus said this is like Call of Cthulhu and you know what? He is right! Madness.

  7. Your mileage may vary, but here’s my opinion:

    About a year ago I came to what I think was a grand epiphany – for me.

    “Too many rules are a gilded cage.”

    The more rules you have, and the more strictly they’re enforced and referenced by other rules, the more complex and intricate the bars on the cage.

    That said, the real beauty of the RPG culture is that there are as many games to be played as ways to play them. Some will find one system beneficial and reinforcing of their play-style while others will find that system and style lacking or crushing (depending on point of view.)

    As a result, I too would echo Dominic – play with those with whom you enjoy spending time, and play those games with which you find enjoyable.


    When the rules become a cage, as a group, bend the bars.
    When the lack of rules becomes an impediment, as a group, codify and enforce them.

    1. Kevin :When the rules become a cage, as a group, bend the bars.When the lack of rules becomes an impediment, as a group, codify and enforce them.

      But you understand this is a group activity, like most of us reading this blog. RPGs are an ensemble cast of players playing together. The MMOer thinks it is an ensemble cast of characters (tank, DPS, healer) and players play, essentially, alone. So they like rules heavy the same way some players did not trust those old automatic resolve buttons in the early days or people did not give out their credit card information to third parties like Paypal. And they will devote more to rules than to being part of the fun making stuff up at the table together.

      That’s where a problem starts – the core of the philosophy. Now as far as I have seen it from where I sit.

      1. No doubt you’re right about what is a key component to exacerbate the issue. And I’ll concede that the flagship of RPGs has done little to distinguish itself from a MMO.

        In point of fact, I’ll be the first to agree that 4E probably more closely aligned itself with that camp than anything in my estimation. But that’s probably why I don’t play 4E.

        My final straw actually occurred about a year ago when I came to the realization that the rules were getting in the way of my gaming. Unlike me, the group I was a member of was actually never going to make that quantum leap to finding the same level of enjoyment in a rules-light system. In many ways the falling out that occurred was a blessing that allowed me to free myself from the cage.

        But I can recall far enough back to remember people writing in to the Sorcerer’s Scroll asking for rule interpretations and begging the Dragon to provide them more and more rules way back in the AD&D days. So the more rules-heavy desire has been deeply seated in our collective makeup for longer than MMOs existed.

        Some people prefer murder mysteries, others prefer action adventures, while others like romantic comedies – doesn’t make one better than the other, just more preferential to the viewer.

        I prefer rules-light because it opens up the vista, others hate it because they prefer to work within the framework of a tight ruleset and don’t like the vista because it is broad in scope. In like fashion it doesn’t make either approach better.

        My ultimate point is that there are more of us out here who probably enjoy the same style of game than you realize.

        I know that because D&D is the flagship, it dictates the nature and direction of most introductory gaming to new players, but for those who aren’t new, we’re blessed with the ability to game with players from across timezones and even oceans far easier than ever before.

        Wow, this it turning long as a simple response and I don’t want to monologue you all to death, so I’m going to just end it there.

  8. Amen. Of course, I say that as someone who couldn’t get “gaming across time zones (well, at least over the internet) to work out so well… Seriously though, you have to play what you love. I know some people I respect very much who are really “the freakin’ rules are important man!” I may not want to play that way but I’m certainly not going to tell them they are wrong — as long as they are having fun. It happened later but I’ve had the same — I’m sick of all these freakin’ rules moment that Kevin had. I really like rules light. I really like DM fiat (and player freedom). I don’t mind being railroaded (a little bit if the payoff is worth it). I believe that the players should always be pushing for AWESOME but that the DM should always have the right to say no if necessary. I believe in fudging dice, telling stories, and hamming it up on play night.

    I’m also sick to death of people turning D&D into an exercise in CharOp and Tactical Combat — but what I’ve had to realize is this… if I want to keep playing, I can. I just don’t play D&D anymore. I can play Castles and Crusades, or Warhammer Fantasy 2E, or Barbarians of Lemuria, or even Wrath of Zombie’s Frankengame hack of all three (and more). Heck, I can play AGE system and cobble together a fantasy game from some seriously bare bones in like, 15 minutes. I barely have to explain anything.

    Gaming is meant to be fun. No matter how you play, it’s meant to be fun. Do I think that encyclopedic rule books are fun? Not anymore. But I did at one time. Or thought I did. Now I don’t. It’s cool… I don’t like New World of Darkness Mage either — but thanks to the glory of the internet (Yay, RPGNow) I can buy practically any old Mage product I might want and keep on trucking.

    I love gaming. I’ve devoted a ridiculous amount of my life so far into gaming and I hope to keep gaming until I get old and feeble and can’t remember how to game anymore (and then I hope I have really good fantasies in my dementia). I realized that certain things were making gaming NOT FUN anymore (for me) and I needed to blow off some steam.

    I’m pleased as punch that others had something to say about it. But in the end — I just want people to game.

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