Saturday 16 June 2018

My rather disappointing Free RPG Day (that turned out not to be so disappointing after all).

Ready to play Star Trek Adventures: Biological Clock

Today was international Free RPG Day and our local friendly game store, Rules of Play hosted a sort of ‘play-on-demand’ event at ‘The Gate’ community and arts centre in Roath, Cardiff.
Five days ago in a fit of reckless abandon I volunteered to run Star Trek Adventures, specifically the fabulous, Biological Clock scenario by Fred Love. I’d attended the event last year but as a player in Andy Jones’ Runequest Quickstart game. This year I thought I would try my hand at GMing. It is, after all, a laid back event and it would be a good dry run for my stint at the Owlbear and Wizard Staff in Leamington in September.
Five days of furious map-making, paper model making, trips to the printers, reading of the rules and scenario and copious note-taking ensued and by 11:30 this morning I was ready.

It didn’t start well. I got to the venue by 11:55 but couldn’t find anywhere to park. I drove round and around but it was a hellscape of resident permit holder parking as far as the eye could see. I eventually found unrestricted parking at Roath Field just over half a mile from the venue and walked it.
By the time I got there it was 1pm and everybody was already well into their games with every table pretty full as far as I could see. There was only one table left. A long one with two women sat at the far end drinking coffee and clearly not part of the event. At the other end I set out my bits and pieces, dice, pencils, character sheets, phaser, tricorder, space ship etc and sat there, waiting, looking at Twitter. I was fully prepared to have no players if I’m honest. The event, as I’ve said, is very laid back with no real GM registration and no booking system. All one has to do to run a game is declare that you will on Rules of Play’s Facebook page, show up on the day, set out your stall and see if anyone’s interested. I was fully prepared for nobody to be interested at all.
What I wasn’t prepared for was for my players to be a dad with two four-year old kids.
‘Is this Star Trek?’, he asked, having clearly been sent over by the game coordinator. My heart sank. However, he’d clearly brought his kids along to play games and by volunteering to run a game at a promotional event, I feel I’d essentially declared myself an ambassador for the hobby. The very worst thing I could possibly do at this point would be to turn him away claiming that it’s too complicated for his kids. Without batting an eyelid, I said, ‘Yes. take a seat.’ It wasn’t a problem, I decided. I’ll simply dump about 80% of the rules and keep it mostly to talking with some very simple dice rolls and that should make it kid friendly. I explained to the dad that that was what I’d do and we got into it and to be honest, they were as engaged with it as I think four-years olds could be expected to be and things were going okay. However, about half way through a couple of twenty somethings sidled up to the table and asked if there were any spaces. Now what was I to do? My task was to try and balance the game now so that it was simple enough for four-year olds but gamey enough for twenty-somethings. I was juggling a bowling ball and an egg and I can’t honestly say that I managed it very well.
They all stuck it out until the end of the scenario and succeeded in brokering a truce between the Opterans and the Kavians. The scenario couldn’t have played out better, really but because of the simplicity of it we barreled through the whole thing in about an hour and a half. I was disappointed at the way it had gone and decided to call it a day but then, realising that there were still two and a half hours left of the event, I figured I could reasonably run it again. I reluctantly reset the table and sat there for ten minutes but it became apparent that no-one was looking to join a game and I was starving so I decided that I would chalk it up to experience, clear away and go home.

Running the game for the dad and his kids was great. I did have to throw most of the rules out of the window but it was fun describing the various situations to them and seeing how they reacted. Despite my initial disappointment, that part was actually very positive. If I have any real regrets it’s partly that I still haven’t got to really run a game of Star Trek Adventures properly, but the issue that is troubling me more than anything else, was that the couple who joined us half way through had not played a roleplaying game before and I’d hate to think that they were in any way put off the hobby or, indeed, Star Trek Adventures by participating in a  pretty ‘bleh’ example of it.

Anyway, I must point out that none of this reflects badly on Rules of Play or The Gate who put on a really successful event, I think. I will definitely do this again next year but I think I need to run something that is not only an open-ended pick-up game that folk can dip in and out of (as opposed to a story based game where you really need to be in it from start to finish) and something that can be nice and simple for kids but at the same time, crunchy for adults. I think a straight forward D&D5 mega-dungeon crawl might be the way forward. I’ll give it some thought. I have a year.

On a much more positive note, however I got to meet Andy again and as I was packing up, one of the event organisers commandeered my table to lay out all the freebies and I got first dibs, acquiring a pretty decent haul, I have to say. I tried not to be greedy and only nabbed stuff that I thought I might actually play or be very interested in reading.

Overall I got Kids on Bikes, Wrath and Glory: Blessings Unheralded - the new WH40K rpg quickstart, Starfinder Skittershot (I know it’s Space-Pathfinder but I’m strangely attracted to it), Tunnels and Trolls Adventures Japan, and Call of Cthulhu - Scritch Scratch by Lynne Hardy (and friends). That’ll keep me occupied for a while :D

A pretty decent haul.

Supplemental: After writing this and linking to it on Twitter, the Dad of the two kids (one of which was eight, not four - oops) got in touch to say how much they'd really enjoyed it and that his son was now wanting to watch Star Trek. I was totally blown away by this and it made me realise that far from failing, I'd actually done something really positive. It made me re-read this post and wonder what exactly what it was that I found disappointing about the event and I have to confess that really, it's just that my pre-concieved expectations of what my players would be wasn't met and that's absurd. The fault is entirely with me. I really enjoyed running the game for the little ones and I'd do it again in heartbeat (but with a much simpler rule set). I still feel bad for the couple that joined us later and I hope that they weren't put off but knowing that the kids really enjoyed it, balances things out, I think.

Sunday 10 June 2018

The Blagger’s Guide to DMing or ‘Just have a go and don't worry about it’

Bradley Clopton (c) 2014 2014
I saw a link on Twitter the other day to an article asking why many new players were reluctant to take up the mantle of DM (I can’t remember where it was now, sadly). To me the answer was obvious and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a while.
Youtube shows like ‘Critical Role’, ‘Shield of Tomorrow’ and ‘Acquisitions Incorporated’ have done more to invigorate and recruit new blood to the roleplaying hobby than anything else in the last forty plus years and I’m very grateful for that. The hobby, I think has never been healthier in popularity and diversity. However I’ve also sensed a creeping idolisation of their DMs. Alongside this, I’ve noticed a great many blog pages given over to articles on how to be an ‘awesome’ DM. These factors have, I fear contributed to the romanticised myth of the role of Games Master or Dungeon Master as some form of high art. It’s easy to see how many newcomers to the game might look at Critical Role and say, ‘Well, I’m no Matt Mercer.’ and leave it there.
Watching Matt Colville on Youtube once, he read out a comment from his chat channel, ‘How long do I need to play D&D before I should consider being a DM?’ He was quite rightly flabberghasted and said without hesitation, ‘No time at all. Jump in and have a go.’ And this is, really the essence of this post.

DMing is a skill that we learn by doing. I’ve reached a stage after thirty-four years of playing roleplaying games, where I’m reasonably comfortable with what I am doing as a DM and that’s only happened very recently. Am I a great DM? I don’t know. Is there a measurable scale? All I know is that my players enjoy themselves and, in my experience it’s hard for folk not to enjoy themselves when you’re sat around a table with friends laughing your socks off regardless of the DM’s ability.

I did go through a period of doubting myself and in retrospect it wasn’t entirely my fault. I DM’ed for my friends when we were teenagers partly because I loved the idea of creating the world, creating the situations and the story and being the only player at the table who knew what was really going on. Also because my friends were lazy buggers who couldn’t be bothered with the prep. Was I a good DM? No. And that’s not false modesty, of course I wasn’t. I barely understood what I was doing but my friends and I had an absolute riot and kept going for years. At some point, during those years,  they were working their way methodically through a nonsensical generic dungeon, room by room when suddenly they encountered a creature of my own making, the humanoid, flaming ‘Combustians!’
‘Combustians?’ Sneered one of my players, rolling his eyes. That was it. That was the exact moment where I realised that I could no longer just throw any old thing in and it’d be okay. That was the moment I realised it was possible to be a bad DM and I found myself riddled with pre-game stage fright for years after that. What if this game was another ‘Combustians!?’ I would ask myself, nervously.
Looking back however, ‘Combustians’ weren’t the issue. I was young, I was trying to come up with something unique that they hadn’t encountered before. I thought it was a cool idea. My players disagreed and ridiculed me for it. That didn’t make me a bad DM. It was a mistake. That was all. They were still having fun and, honestly if they didn’t like it, they could bloody DM for a change. No? Didn’t think so.
Quite simply we’d reached an age where my games, my dungeons and my plots, would need to be a little more sophisticated and that’s fine. I learned by doing. I wish I’d realised that back then and just moved on (I’d also have just glared at them across the table like it was their fault).

Okay, so you’re willing to give it a go but the rules and the campaign sourcebooks are daunting and overwhelming. Here’s the big secret: You don’t need to know all the rules. As a DM of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition I don’t know all of the rules. In fact I know very few of them and that works fine. Let me see...I know how a combat turn works. How to roll for initiative and what needs to be rolled to hit. I know how to fairly decide on a difficulty number for a skill check. I probably know a handful of more rules but that’s about it. I don’t know all the race and class rules or how every spell works. As far as I am concerned, that’s my players’ responsibility and they can tell me when I need to know. Sometimes there’s a rule that nobody at the table knows. Then we pause for a second and look it up. No problem. Now we know it for next time (and if it’s going to take too long, I ask one of the players to look it up whilst I continue). You might think that that would break the immersion and spoil the atmosphere but honestly, alongside the table chatter, TV, movie and games console discussion, play theorising, Monty Python quotes and general goofing around, it really doesn’t.
It is fair to say at this point, however that whilst you don’t need to know all the rules, you should really have a solid handle on the core rules or the players will find the goalposts moving on them and that will confuse and frustrate them. That’s a big no-no.

Campaign settings can be daunting too and, again, you don’t need to know it all. In fact my advice, particularly for Dungeons and Dragons is don’t bother.
As a new D&D DM I wouldn’t do anything other than mini-dungeons until you’ve got the hang of it and then worry about the outside world later and even then, start with a simple village and work your way out. Even then you can start with the ubiquitous equipment store and fill in the village later.
I started off the Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign in the Forgotten Realms but then wanted to run the old Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, The Enemy Within. Trying to fit the rivers and towns of the Empire into the Sword Coast was challenging (I managed it, though. I changed Bogenhafen into Daggerford and went from there) and if I’d kept the setting more vague then I’d just be able to make it up as the characters expand outwards. Let the scenarios dictate the geography rather than vice versa.
So, start small and work your way out and don’t overwhelm your players, and more importantly yourself with a myriad setting details. They can come later, if at all.

Another thing that I feel is important is that it’s not just on the DM to provide a great game. The DM is just another player at the table and you all have a responsibility not to spoil it for everyone else.
As a DM, if I feel that I have screwed up, then I will fess up, talk it over with the players, give them a ‘bennie’ if necessary and try not to do it again.
However, I also have a personal rule when I sit down to play (as opposed to DM) and that is that I always try to make the game as fun for the DM as they are trying to make it for us. The DM is playing too so why shouldn’t they have fun as well? So, what does that mean? Well, quite simply forgive them occasional rules discrepancies. They’re only human. Play along with their plot a little and don’t roll your eyes if it’s predictable. Allow yourself to be railroaded sometimes. Don’t try and scupper the campaign deliberately just to prove a point. In the immortal words of Wil Wheaton, ‘Don’t be a dick.’

So, in summing up:

    DMing should be fun, not a nightmare. Roll your sleeves up, jump in and have a go.

    You’ll definitely screw up a few times but that’s okay and you’ll learn from it.

    You don’t need to know all the rules, just the core ones.

    You don’t need to know the entire setting, start with a mini dungeon and work out.

    Players have a responsibility to make the game fun as much as the DM does.

    As a player or a DM, don’t be a dick.

    There’s nothing wrong with ‘Combustians’, Adrian. F**k you.

Ultimately, it’s a game. It’s meant to be fun. Nobody should be expecting you to be Matt Mercer. Just have a go and enjoy it.

The Big Adventure by Zazb