This post continues on from my Cyberpunk post about my early role-playing (RP) experiences. If you’ve not read that, then I recommended reading it first.
In 1987 my regular gaming group Dungeon Master (DM) was Julian, who was several years older than me. He ran a group of older lads that mostly played during our lunch breaks. We exclusively played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (AD&D); I think we changed to 2nd Edition in 1988. I think it is important to know that the following story is based upon experiences from when I was 11 years of age, whilst attending a boys-only school. The group was crazy, sometimes a bit violent, and even at times it seemed like a riot was about to occur at any moment! Even then we guessed extreme behaviour still happened in mixed gender schools, but there were rare chats about how girls would have helped the game.
These games were very chaotic and immature, but with enough fun that I kept going back. As the sessions were at lunch they were short, and that was partly why they were so combat focused. Combat was rarely for role-play reasons, it was more about killing sprees to gain loot and experience points (XP). Often sex was coarsely brought up, and the importance of earning gold to pay for a tavern wench. Thankfully nothing about rape, the games were not that disgusting. There were regular moments when players would scrawl over one another’s character sheets, such as declaring that a character had contracted an STD after visiting a tavern wench. The violence was mostly punching one another’s arms/shoulders. I can recall a few moments of wrestling, but thankfully no major violence.
Overall, a bit like role-playing with the kids from Lord of the Flies!
Julian was a good example of someone doing their best to run a game despite all the interruptions, and they were plentiful. Even though Julian was the oldest, he had to put up with a lot of blatant teasing, and even a few threats of violence from players trying to get what they wanted. He was able to weather the teasing, and keep the games mostly on track.
The players weren’t all bad, I remember moments of guidance: rules were explained with a good level of depth, spell cause and effects, and there were even rare chats about in-game culture and theology. It is odd to recall the contrast in the way they treated each other, with the way I was treated. I was teased on the odd occasion, of course, but it was minor in comparison; fortunately it was established early on that since I was younger, and tiny for my age, that teasing me was too easy, and thus pointless. I suppose teasing me was seen as a sign of weakness, which opened the person up from bullying from their peers.
Over the first year I even started receiving a few compliments, stuff like how they liked that I paid attention, focused on playing, and took advice. There was a chat one day that it was good I didn’t argue with them, and I made a good follower; I think this chat got more to the heart of the matter, that I was their sidekick, but mercifully more than a mascot. For the first year I was still paranoid, since I expected to get bullied, but it was nice that my actions to avoid being bullied resulted in praise. In hindsight I think this came down to me not trying to be funny, nor demanding the spotlight, instead I was more focused on playing, but without moaning about things when they did mess about.
Whilst I found that gaming group to be too chaotic, even irritating with its immature fixation on violence and sex, I still had a good enough time that I stuck with them. It was revealed later that I was used as a way of toning down the chaos. I recall a few arguments when I was used as a benchmark, with one player telling another player they were rubbish, since a younger kid could play the game better than them. The truth is: I was a good player due to paranoia and not causing problems, rather than having amazing insight.
The crucial lesson I took from these games is, since the players just wanted to have a laugh, and didn’t care about a lot of aspects of the game (plot, personality), thus it didn’t really matter what Julian did to get them to engage more. We had fun, and given the context of the game and in particular our age, that made the games a success. However, trying to get more out of players who’d made it clear that they were happy with what they had, and no interest in more, was a mistake. What I took from these games was the range of possibilities that I preferred to play/explore, and that it was not a style I wanted to return to.
Ever since I‘ve always checked with players about their preferences and expectations, since personally I didn’t want to return to those two years of chaos and immaturity. If a player said they just wanted to kill monsters, earn XP and collect loot, then it wasn’t for me. In part because I had been avidly playing computer games since I was very young (Vic 20), and I had already played a titanic amount of hack & slash RPG, and I found that even back then most computer games did hack & slash better than school kids.
I have played laid-back games and hack & slash sessions on many occasions since, in particular D&D Living Environment at conventions. Over time I eventually made progress in finding a good balance with respect to players’ opinions/expectations, and the ever fluctuating combination of how much chaos versus order a game benefits from.
Role-Play Timeline, article 1 https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/cyberpunk-rpg-and-crpg-style-and-substance/