RPG Lessons From Watching Games 3

Part one can be read here, and then part 2 here.

This is the continuation of the story from part 2 about the time I watched a Vampire the Masquerade game in the 90s. Over the course of the gaming session my friend asked me several questions, some were rules queries, and some were requests for feedback on ideas he was pondering. I politely reminded him that it was not my game, nor did I know the house rules, so even if I quoted the rule-book it wouldn’t matter. My friend explained that he’d only asked me questions so he could bounce ideas around; he only did this when the Storyteller was busy with other players.

The person running the game did not complain, instead choosing to focus on running the game. I am sure my friend’s actions were a bit distracting, but my friend was not trying to ruin the game, and had been considerate in regards to quietly chatting with me whilst he was waiting for his turn.

The game was good, and thankfully nobody seemed annoyed by my attendance. I thanked the Storyteller, and apologised if my presence had been disruptive, he said it was fine; I had sensibly turned my Presence discipline off. To my friend he then said:

“Next time, leave your pet Storyteller at home.”

On the walk back to my friends we had a good laugh about me being his pet Storyteller. He expanded his previous explanation, to help explain why he did not view his actions as being disruptive. He thought by bouncing ideas off me, he was helping to keep the game flow, so he could speed up his interactions with the Storyteller, since besides not having to check rules he could additionally have his ideas developed. I appreciated that his goal was to be more efficient, and to take up less Storyteller time, which was in theory commendable.

The lessons of note:

1) Ask about deviating from the group’s normal playstyle

I think my friend should have asked the Storyteller before the game started, if it was okay to discuss ideas with me whilst the Storyteller was busy with other player. It could be distracting to some, especially since the person running the game obviously has an opinion on rules queries, and it could be viewed that having an external person agreeing about how things could work is a form of ganging up.

One of my common answers to questions about how best to handle things in a group is whatever the group’s preference is. Despite what some may think, there is no perfect playing style, so therefore the opinions of the members of a gaming group are what matter, not those of an evangelising article written by somebody that is not involved.

Upon reflection, after the initial query by my friend I think I should have added “It is not my game, maybe ask the ref if they are okay with you involving me.” I guess I didn’t to minimise my impact on the game, I thought what I had said would have deterred my friend earlier.

Batjutsu Pet DM close
Batjutsu Pet DM/GM

2) Perception of fairness still matters, even in co-operative games

This may initially seem like a strange thing to mention, since role-playing games, especially tabletop, are co-operative not competitive. In a game part of what is always involved are the feelings and reputations of the participants, since nobody likes to be seen as foolish, or less important.

Consider that if one player is receiving a private peer review before they discuss ideas with the Storyteller, then their ideas might be better on average than others, leading to all sorts of potential gains for them in game, such as resources or implementing clever plans over enemies. Over time another player might become resentful at this sort of special treatment. The point is to be aware that even something as small as this can have an impact, and thus it can affect others; after all if it was not worth doing, then the player asking wouldn’t be doing it. This issue is likely avoided if a group regularly discusses ideas, and even an individual player’s action, thus everyone’s ideas gets a chance to be discussed.

3) When to tackle concerns

I think the Storyteller handled the whole thing well. They did not become emotional at what could have been deemed as disrespectful. I appreciate that whether the incident counts as disrespectful is subjective, my friend certainly didn’t mean to be, and saw an opportunity to help the game. A DM/GM/ST will consider whether something is going to escalate, and thus some things may be deemed as needing sorting out as soon as possible. Although often patience and respect for others will reveal that there was not going to be an escalation, and confronting a tiny problem could make it become major.

Batjutsu Pet DM dice
Batjutsu Pet DM/GM

An extra bit of the anecdote is that once we got back to my friend’s place, we continued a solo Vampire Elder game we had been playing for the last week. Elysium: the Elder Wars had not long been out, and as long-time Vampire players it was interesting to explore the mind of a much older Vampire. The relevance of this is that week of playing an Elder vampire lead to my massive Methuselah campaign roughly a year later, and from that to my 16 player Night City campaign.

Due to this being a busy month, #CampNanoWriMo and I am also getting ready to play-test a boardgame I have been working on. So I will write about the big games next month.

RPG Lessons From Watching Games

At 16 I spent a lot of time visiting my local gaming shop. Due to this I got to regularly chat with the staff about gaming, often helping boxing up train or tram kits; it was a rite of passage. Being at the shop also gave me access to lots of other role-players, and particularly GMs. Thus I gained exposure to a wide range of opinions, about all sorts of games; in the early 90s it was rare for people to go online, so this was the best local place to go.

Occasionally a group would leave an open invite at the shop for a new player, or an individual seeking a group. So I made use of the invites and tried out several groups. It was a great way to try out different games, as well to hopefully become a regular in yet another great group. One of the groups I joined suggested that I just watch, which I initially thought was odd, since it’s normal to join start playing immediately. Why watch a game when you can play? This particular GM said it was a chance for me to see if would enjoy being in the group, without disrupting the existing game.

Being an observer at a game was surprising. Despite all chats I’d had with different people, playing with different groups, as well as reading articles, I hadn’t considered what watching a game could teach me. Nowadays with some groups filming their gaming sessions, and in particular popular celebrity groups, it has become easy to watch games, but back then it seemed alien. Whilst the celebrity gaming videos are focused on entertainment, not on education, they could still prove useful to someone wanting to analyse them.


As an observer I had a chance to perceive things in a different way, since the situation was impersonal I was able to strive to be more analytical. One of the first things that struck me was that since I didn’t know any of the group, and thus their anecdotes, I found it extra annoying when a player disrupted the game to mention random things. Doing so is generally referred to as going Out Of Character (OOC), although I think OOC is a misleading way to phrase the issue; my opinion likely requires some clarification, so I’ll write about that another time.

I got to see how the group handled focusing everyone back on the game. It was surprising, to my young perception, how often individual players helped the group to refocus on the game. Even though I knew that my players sometimes helped my games out, I had thought I was predominately the one refocusing the group back to the game.

Confirmation bias is funny like that.

Since I was not invested as either a player or GM, I got to watch a bunch of strangers energetically chatting and unwinding. Because I did not have to think about running a game, or how I’d play my character based upon some new stimuli, this allowed me to track their levels of fun. Even when a player was going OOC for quite a while, the group didn’t complain; likely due to the difference between school kids and adults. Whilst I am sure my presence influenced the players and the GM at least a little bit (Hawthorne Effect), I don’t think it was overall an issue. Mainly because I kept quiet, but also because the GM had done this with their group before. Finding that balance of how to prioritise the game whilst hanging out and relaxing friends was something this group seemed to have found, they were not pretending for my benefit.

During my first few years of GMing, at 11 and 12, I had it often felt that I needed to quickly get the game back on track. The idea was driven by concern that the actions of one or two players would become too disrupting for others, and thus risks annoying the others. A major reason for my thought was due to trying to cram as much role-playing as possible in to my lunch break whist at school; I wrote about those sessions here: Role-Play meets Lord of the Flies. At 14 I was running Warhammer with a different group of players in the school library. Later in 1990 we changed to Cyberpunk, and I started running day long sessions. Whilst we had long periods of keeping IC during the 10+ hour sessions, we did have OOC tangents, but they were uncommon.

This links to another lesson about not being as self-conscious when running games, as well as to stay relaxed when being observed by others. This would prove helpful when later running games, be it tabletop, LARP or PBM, as well as talking to customers. As well for games when I’ve had a player observing.

For the next blog post I’ll write about another lesson I learned whilst at another group I watched. Part 2.

RPG Lessons From Watching Games by Batjutsu

Your RPG is Yours, Not Mine

As I started writing about the two role-playing campaigns that helped me get a job as a Games Master (GM), I realised that some readers might take exception to me claiming I ran a complete, or united, World of Darkness games. The old World of Darkness was not designed to fit neatly together, and for years crossover rules were non-existent. I don’t recall when the first official guide was released, possibly The Chaos Factor in 1993; it could be argued a guide was needed since Samuel Haight had caught the attention of so many different supernatural types. I don’t count the 1993 release of Under a Blood Red Moon, as it was Vampire and Werewolf focused. These guides were quite lacking, being more suggestions of things to think about, but at least it was something. I found my own path in fitting things together, and things worked well enough for me in some complex games.

With Paradox Interactive’s purchase of White Wolf IP, the World of Darkness (WoD) labels have been changed. The old(oWoD) is now called classic (cWoD), and the new(nWoD) from 2004 is now called Chronicles of Darkness (CofD).

My article’s title is to emphasise that I do not claim to represent the ‘only way to play the World of Darkness’, nor how crossover rules have-to-be done.  To some readers it may feel redundant for me to clarify my reasoning, but from personal experience I’ve met enough players that fixate on this, as well as reading numerous posts on the Net, to really impress upon me that a clarification is important for many gamers. Although this issue particularly applies to the cWoD, it also applies to every other RPG when we get past the gaming group level.


I have had a lot of experience with this topic, whether locally, at game conventions, or Live Action Role-Play(LARP), so I appreciate why it is an important subject for a lot of role-players. In my late teenage years I changed my phrasing to emphasise “I prefer”, or “in my games, I feel”, since I appreciated that it was a subjective topic, never mind that some people want to win the chat. Add to this that it’s all too easy to end up talking at cross-purposes as people fail to mention they are not emphasising an interpretation, but they have ventured in to house-rules, or changes to the setting; it’s understandable if you consider how over time it is easy to forget the list of tweaks carried out. I am reminded of common role-play encounters, which I’ll write about and link here later.

Obviously people having different opinions should not be a surprise, since it happens with practically everything. Crucially the old White Wolf company repeated the point that each game belonged to the players playing the game in each of the core rulebooks, as well as elsewhere. This covered everything, whether it was an opinion about the mechanics to the game’s setting, covering everything from cosmology to theme emphasis. So it could be argued, that between the game lines being designed without a focus on connectedness, and the rules promoted debates because of The Golden Rule:

“This game should be whatever you need it to be…”

I appreciate the Golden Rule is abhorrent to some role-players, but that is too big a topic for this post. I go in to detail on this topic in my role-playing guide.

I do appreciate why standardisation matters, and I am all for it for specific situations, since talking at cross purposes is a time sink and can balloon up in to bad blood. It can be bad enough when a new player joins a group, but this is a much bigger problem when at conventions, or large LARP. Years ago I used to play continuing convention campaigns like the Dungeons & Dragons Living Greyhawk, D&D Sarbrenar (Forgotten Realms) and later Living Force (Star Wars). Roughly: you played the same character at each game, earning XP, being part of loose collection of connected stories with other PCs that over the years you may play with on multiple occasions.  Those games were quite accessible, in large part towards having an emphasis on clear rules interpretations. There were a lot of players that had been playing together for years, and overall I found there were a friendly community; the opposite of the anti-social label role-players are often labelled. Directly related to the point of this blog is that at conventions I found players only really cared about games they are involved in, they are rarely interested (if ever) in the anecdotes of another random player.

There has already been plenty of debate about how the new One World of Darkness could work, as well as how some people think it should work. Since very little is known, it is understandable that people are passionately debating. After all so many players already have invested years in to the official three different versions: old, new, Monte Cook’s WoD. Also we should keep in mind the experience of so many WoD LARPers, they have been a major part of the WoD scene going back to Mind’s Eye Theatre in 1993; an important point when you consider Martin Ericson’s LARP passion and experience.

Returning to the article’s title, no matter what happens with the oWoD make it ‘Your World of Darkness (yWoD)’. Personally I am not worried about the future of the World of Darkness, and whilst I am somewhat impatient to get specific information about the One World of Darkness (WoD), I am not panicking.


Humanity has been repeating and altering stories since the dawn of civilisation, from simple tales to epic myths. In addition to retelling the ancient classics, consider the countless versions of Shakespeare’s work alone, or the comics-industry’s obsession with reboots and alternate realities. So it is normal human behaviour for role-playing to be receiving the same treatment via new editions, and even complete cosmology redesigns. Since there are already different versions of the World of Darkness, I have no issue with having something new to explore, again. Following on from this is an often cited opinion about the importance of legacy. Personally, I find debating the legacy of things to be odd, more so when the logic involves highlighting different predictions as part of any rationale. I don’t feel that my past experiences are invalidated, and certainly not by alterations to a product after the fact.

Even if you don’t like a version, tweak it, borrow from it, and let your passion guide you to new inspiration. After all creativity is a key aspect of role-playing, welcome the freedom.

5 Positive Role-Play Lessons

Continuing on from the previous articles that started at https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/cyberpunk-rpg-and-crpg-style-and-substance/

Julian, the Dungeon Master from the high school lunch group I was in, introduced me to Pete I think in 1989. I’d been buying Skaven figures off Julian, painted by Pete; even whilst at high school Pete was a great model painter.  I don’t recall specifics about my initial conversations with Pete, but I do recall that they were relaxed and that it was easy to have a dialogue with him, as opposed to him dictating at me like the other older lads did.

Cyberpunk 2013

1 Explain what something is, not its competitors

Pete explained the Cyberpunk setting well, and I don’t recall him saying bad things about other gaming systems. I grew to appreciate how important that is, focus on what a product is, not on differentiating between its rivals.

Over the years, I’ve been regularly asked questions by experienced role-players about a new game, and they would often ask for comparisons to systems that they already knew. Since I was being explicitly asked to compare, I did so. Whilst comparisons can work well, speeding up the learning curve, but deviating in to negative critiques of other products, all too often results in a time sink that needs further clarifications. If only because it requires people to know other systems, but also to understand what comparative point you are making.

I have grown to understand that people are inclined towards defending how they’ve spent their time, it’s natural for people to feel they are being criticised for their choice of game system and setting. This is particularly magnified if they love said system. This topic can have the additional obstacle as it is common for gamers to discuss their idea of ‘the perfect system’. Perfection is something to aspire towards, whilst being an illusion, and even getting close to such an ideal would be at best just personal preferences. Thus, conversation points are all too easily mixed together. Additionally, I often found that as more points are raised, eventually the original question can get lost amidst overwhelming information.

The above reasons are why I have found focusing on comparisons to be a poor approach. Of course it can still prove to be an effective way of explaining things, but I’d suggest mentioning as few as points as possible. These days I try to focus on more positive aspects, and to stay on target: explaining what a setting and system’s focus is, and its pros and cons.

2 Give things a try

Until 1989 I had mostly played 2nd Ed AD&D, it had been overall great fun, but the games were focused on clearing a dungeon room by room, stat development, without much thought about the setting. One of the fascinating things about playing Cyberpunk 2013, was the emphasis on characters talking and stand-offs, trying to navigate prolific corruption, in a game world full of people in bad situations. With no clear indication of who was good or evil, the fact that so many people were armed and dangerous, added to the finality of combat, it was great to have a reason to talk first, but with the pressure of talking fast.

After the chaotic experience I’d had with my old AD&D lunch group, were choice and repercussions were often disconnected, this game was well run. This was down to the combination of being in a good group as well as having a good referee. This is a lesson I have appreciated ever since, play in games you really enjoy, I had the luxury of trying out so many different groups. Years later I played great D&D games that also focused on more mature plots, it helped not being kids at school, which once again highlights that the group is the big factor in what makes a game.

Don’t be afraid to chat to the group about their play-styles. Try things out, and negotiate about balancing your goals with the other players. If you don’t reach a satisfactory compromise then consider moving on. Since fun is the heart of gaming, don’t torture yourself, or others.

3 Walking through the rules

Pete ran the games well, we enjoyed ourselves, and I can recall some great moments even now. We were not required to become experts of the rules, and certainly not within a single gaming session. Yet despite not being rule experts, the initial several sessions still went well. The lesson I took from this links back to mentoring, which I’ve written about previously. Even if you are playing a simple gaming system, try to introduce the rules in parts, reveal the complexity at a rate the players can cope with. Determining how much is too much is a subtle skill; I’ll explain my opinion another time.

Generally I think it is better to introduce things a bit slower, than to overwhelm players. Context is a key part of understanding, and it is hard to provide any depth during an introductory rules overview. Look at how come board or card games introduce rules over time, for example Dominion ignores curses at the start.


Night City 2013

4 Letting Go

My first character was a Solo called Thermo, a cool streetwise mercenary with a minimalistic appearance, cliché but fun. Since I knew practically nothing about the setting, never mind the fact that I was just 14 years old, I went with the idea of the character being the strong silent type. Thankfully it worked well enough, and also helped me learn the game system, whilst helping me to role-play what I had designed.

Similarly, my friends played interesting characters, a few I can still recall even to this day: Black Rain, Jack Deth, along with an NPC Netrunner whose handle was The Idol. Unfortunately I forget the name of the Fixer played by Michael. This is odd since after playing for a while, Pete proposed Michael and I swap characters, since Michael had been playing his character more like a psychopath; not sure the reason Pete didn’t have Michael make a new character, I think it was simply it was quicker to swap.

Within a single gaming session Thermo, my old character had undergone a massive change. The character now had a red Mohawk, painted the back of his leather jacket to show a nuclear explosion surround by lot of flames, with ‘Thermo’ painted across the jacket top. The character was also now quick to resort to gun diplomacy. It was odd seeing my character played this way, but Michael was enjoying himself, so I didn’t tease or correct him. After all I had agreed to the swap, Pete was okay with Michael making the character his own, and I found playing something different to be fun. Crucially Thermo was his character now, I learned to let go.

5 PC Allies can help, just don’t let NPCs take over

Early on the party went to a gun shop, but things quickly got out of hand. Black Rain and Thermo decided to chat with the person behind the security door. I’ve forgotten the specifics, but somehow the confrontational chat quickly escalated. Finally a demand was made for bullets, so a gun was pointed through the security slit at Black Rain, who quickly used his poison dart in his cybernetic eye. Then attempts were made to shoot through the door; this went on for a several seconds, as gun fire was exchanged between someone in the shop and the party, but then this stopped.

Thermo then decided to try breach the door with a fragmentation grenade. The thing was that Black Rain was still near to the door, and not wearing armour; besides a frag would likely do nothing to an armoured door. Luckily Black Rain was warned of the grenade, and passed his dodge roll. The party members took a moment to look at each other and contemplate killing Thermo, but we didn’t. Time passed, nothing was happening, the shock at the escalation oddly hit everyone, and the party become unsure of how to proceed, some still wanted to break through the security door, others wanted to leave before in the CyberPsycho squad had been called.

Finally Pete suggested we could call The Idol, since he was one of the party’s allies, and was close by. Once he arrived he operated as a cleaner, and so momentum was returned to the game. This was handled as calling in a favour. Crucially The Idol didn’t take over the situation, instead aided, and then as we all high-tailed it, he returned to his own plans. We owed a favour, but the party got a bit of mentoring in game without being made to feel like they were the sidekicks to an awesome NPC.

There is another lesson that I took from this game, but I will save that for a longer piece.

Over many sessions the group somehow managed to get things done without drawing the ire of the Megacorporations. But I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve forgotten a lot of what else occurred in the game, it was just too long ago.

I mentioned that Pete was great at model painting even at high school, so it was no surprise that he went on to become a professional artist and teacher. He runs Egg Head Miniatures, check out his work at https://www.facebook.com/eggheadminiatures/ and his shop is at http://stores.ebay.co.uk/eggheadminiatures.

Role-Play meets Lord of the Flies

This post continues on from my Cyberpunk post about my early role-playing (RP) experiences, if you’ve not read that a 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 played during most 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, even aspects of 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. I was teased on the odd occasion, of course, but it was minor; 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 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 events the chaos, even as a benchmark, that 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 our age, that makes 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 talked to 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 preferred to kill monsters, earn XP and collect loot, then it wasn’t for me, and thus maybe our interests were not compatible. In part because I had been playing computer games since I was very young, and I had already played a titanic amount of hack and slash, and I found most computer games did it better than school kids.

I have played laid-back games, hack and slash sessions on many occasions since, in particular at conventions and D&D Living Environment. For my many gaming groups I compromised, as have my players, since it is rare for everyone to agree about every tiny aspect. Over time I eventually made progress in finding a good balance with respect to players’ opinions, and the ever fluctuating combination of how much chaos versus order a game benefits from.

This was not an anecdote that I’d previously written for my role-playing guide; the ten years in the making monstrosity. I knew that those ancient games had been a big part of me preferences, but it was only recently that I realised how much. This has resulted in me wanting to make further tweaks to my guide.

Role-Play Timeline, article 1 https://batjutsu.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/cyberpunk-rpg-and-crpg-style-and-substance/

Update and NoobGrind GTX 1080 article

I am now fortunate to have occasional hours without any pain, but then excruciating pain in my left shoulder, neck and even arm, can return for seemingly no reason; likely my pathetic amount of activity was too much. Due to this the new role-playing article I have been tinkering with just feels like a low priority. I decided not to force myself to write something, but thankfully something came along and grabbed my attention.

I have been putting off upgrading my PC for about a year. Since my current system does what I need it to do, I have been able to get by. Amusingly I don’t want to upgrade for gaming reasons, but due to how resource demanding Dragon NaturallySpeaking is. Though the software works incredibly accurately the vast majority of the time, there are occasional moments when it struggles.

Last week I finalised a list of parts and sent an email to a company to price up for me. Thankfully they have been slow in responding, which is handy since NVIDIA have announced their new video card range. So at the weekend I watched the presentation and got quite excited due to how impressive the cards are. After a lot of research I ended up writing an article for NoobGrind about them: http://www.noobgrind.com/next-gen-graphics-cards/

The GTX 1080 is certainly more than I need currently. Buying one would be a bit like buying a sports car but then never driving it more than 30mph. However, in the future I do have plans; I will ponder more.

I hope to have a role-playing related article finished in the next few days. I’ve had a few really interesting ideas recently about my decade long unfinished guide, motivation to do something without that is growing.

5 Lessons from my first Role-Playing Session

Oddly I’ve not role-played for nearly a year; it’s quite odd considering how much I have played every years since I was eleven; amusingly my speech recognition thought I said “since I was elven”. Whilst I have been resting, trying to heal, I have been rereading my unfinished role-playing guide, as well as some old anecdotes. This article follows up on my role-playing introduction that I wrote about in role-playing and cyberpunk, I recommend reading that first.

I have written the following about my origin in role-playing to help explain why I emphasis certain aspects. My intent is not to be preachy about what people should do or prioritise; I long since stopped viewing role-playing as a competition.  Whilst I have my preferences, I strive to adapt to different situations, other players’ preferences, and of course moods.

Mr Knowles ran the Warwick High School role-playing games (RPG) club. In 1987 most of the club members played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, and that is the system I spent the first few years playing. I was aware of other games being played at the club, such as: Traveller, Palladium, as well as board games such as Chainsaw Warrior or Star Warriors. Coincidentally, about 5 years later I got to know several of the older lads I had seen at the club, one became a close friend, and another became my boss when I worked at KJC Games.

DnD extra

During the first week of joining the club, several of us were allowed to play during our lunch breaks. We got to try out tiny scenarios, to learn mechanics with context. I got a bit more explanation about the concept of in-character (IC) and out-of-character (OOC) from Mr Knowles, as the concept seemed paradoxically easy and confusing to my eleven-year-old mind. That week I also met the older players in the group run by Julian that led me to Pete, which I had mentioned in my cyberpunk article.

My 1st Campaign Session

On Friday the RPG club had its weekly official sessions. For my first Friday I took part in a game that was a big leap for a novice, I was given a level 7 Illusionist! I had barely learnt the core mechanics, yet I was being given an experienced character, and I was expected to know what my spell list was, what the character should memorise, never mind crucial campaign information like monsters and social knowledge.

In a busy science class room, a small group of eleven-year-olds were crowded round a long lab table; I wish I had a picture. We were being mentored by sixteen-year-olds, well more like tolerated. I vaguely remember later talking to a few of the players, trying to figure out why these older lads had agreed to be mentors when they clearly seemed disinterested in more than teasing our inexperience. Playing was more like being dragged along a semi-interactive cut scene, with random dice rolls being called out for the strangest of incidents, like an archaic set of quick time events.

dnd screen

Looking back now this first session had the typically bad introduction, the Dungeon Master (DM) listed off a bunch of made up nouns in quick succession, and no context was given. Even if we had been playing first level characters that we have made ourselves, we would have still struggled to grasp what was going on. I don’t recall there being a discussion about backstory, plot arc, personality traits, how this existing party dynamic worked. After all, we were given level 7 characters that had allegedly been played for years in the same group.

After a few random encounters the game resulted in our characters being stranded in the wilderness, in winter, on foot, whilst a blizzard was raging. The characters kept travelling, and soon they were days from anyway, they had run out of provisions for fire, and had no shelter. The mentors or DM didn’t have much of an explanation as to why we had been led into this blatantly bad situation; we had just been told that we had to move quickly to catch up with our target (insert random noun).

The phrase “Winter is Coming”, reminds me of this gaming session. A weak quirky association.

So, each IC day a party member took turns begging for divine intervention. A percentile role of 1, was needed, except the cleric needed a 2 or less. Obviously given the statistical chances required, the rolls failed.

A single 1% is hard enough, requiring several rolls?

Eventually after days of failing, and with the party members near death my character, I enquired as to whether my character should be praying to the pantheon as opposed to an Illusion God. The DM made a secret role and declared my character’s thoughts were perceived as blasphemy, a lightning bolt struck my character destroying all clothing, equipment and leaving on 1 hit point. My character then sacrificed themselves in an act of  penance, to have a bonfire lit to save the rest of the party; I had been told my character would die in moments from exposure. The older lads were in hysterics, and apparently I had made a classic mistake?

“HAHA you died due the DM rolling a dice for suspect reasoning!”

Afterwards I spoke with some other players, a few thought it was hysterically funny, which given the maturity level of eleven-year-olds wasn’t surprising. Thankfully a few other players were not mean, and in fact they thought the whole thing was ridiculous. It was highlighted that since my character was good and worshipped a good god, it was very odd that a good god would kill a character for a thought, never mind the fact that worshipping different gods in a pantheon should be normal.

Importantly this incident raises a key query: why was regularly pleading for divine intervention required? If it was common, then surely the population would have an idea of the types of results, and a level 7 character with high intelligence would have some understanding of their own culture, an every-person knowledge.

I’ll save my opinions about a DM having cognitive dissonance in regards to requiring a skill roll for a scenario that they made and are running, whilst claiming they are not involved in decision making. Never mind my thoughts about fudging results.

This incident helped me learn about role-playing, both good and point. I will focus on the  few key lessons that became a big part of my role-playing opinions.

1. The importance of IC and OOC knowledge.

I have been obsessed with this ever since, including working on my own program to aid in tracking it. Whilst working at KJC Games, a core part of the mechanics I made for Quest GME was about tracking the vast information in the different Quest game worlds. With paying customers to consider I prioritised this aspect of the game, since information is power in any scenario, with play by mail (PBM) games it tends to more so due to the heavier focus on strategy. However, I am lenient with myself and others in less professional games, without the tools to track things it’s no wonder that even amazing players can slip up.

2. Mocking players about character death.

Understandable a player that has lost a character is going to be upset, they really could do without the teasing/bullying on top of it. I appreciate that a character death is a big deal, and thus it is often discussed with a high level of emotional energy, but even in PvP at a big live action role play (LARP) game, a bit of respect should be considered.

3. Mentoring new players.

I think it is important to give a new player a good introduction to a game, a chance to immerse themselves in something new. At a small tabletop group level, letting someone join a game is not required and generally a rare event, so it is odd when DM/GMs don’t assist new people. At a large level, like a big LARP, well veteran players stopping a new player from joining is not possible, so why not help make a new friend and at least not make an enemy.

4. Being forgiving of ideas and actions.

This has served me well in all scenarios, from one of my local groups, running games at conventions, to receiving compliments from paying customers at KJC Games. One of my favourite incidents was helping to prevent a civil war due to a player using the wrong ID code on their ships targeting list, but I checked with the customer to make sure instead of assuming it was wrong, after all it could have been intentional. It is much harder to do this at LARP, but even in large LARPs there can be windows of opportunity to check things.

5. Plot Centered Around Multiple Fake Difficult Rolls

Not understanding statistics is a common human problem, the subject is counter-intuitive. I have come across a lot of role-players who do not appreciate the impact of dice rolls, or other random mechanics. Whilst a lot of gamers are good with numbers, statistics is subtly different. Thankfully I have met many gamers who are good with statistics, like with everything else, the population can be represented as a bell curve.

In hindsight I think the whole scenario of spending days in a deadly blizzard praying for constant divine intervention to be not just forcing deus ex machina, but doing so repeatedly? That’s some outrageous odds, and it turns out the whole scenario was fake, since the party was rescued by NPcs, more deus ex machina, and not very player-centric or heroic.