Brave New Worlds – Intermission – System Choice and the Newbie Factor

A couple of my new housemates have expressed an interest in trying D&D at some point. One is trying to achieve the Complete Nerd Experience, engaging with as many forms of game as are available, one is… umm, well, one has been volunteered for trying D&D out and hasn’t yet made any particularly strong objections. And Hark’s in, because Hark’s always in unless she wants out.

What presents an interesting quandry for me, here, is the explicit interest in trying D&D, as opposed to RPGs. This may of course be simple shorthand and anything might be possible, but since I’ve had a hankering to run something within that framework for a while now, let’s take it as a request – a compatible but potentially problematic one.

I don’t own anything that actually bears that name, besides a few single-player PC games. I have no interest in owning anything that presently exists and bears that name, either because I don’t like it or can’t afford it. What I do own is a welter, a positive torrent, of variations, having the same essential shape as D&D – polyhedral dice, taxonomies of character by race, class and level, armour classes, hit points and saving throws, spells classified by level and memorised by slot.

Just rummaging my folder of PDFs – a wonderland of congealing resources – I find Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords and Wizardry, Greg Christopher’s Errant, Backswords and Bucklers… there’s a lot of it about and while it’s all close to being the same thing, this is an experience for new players who are, perhaps, not embedded in the same discourses of System (which Matters) as the likes of me are.

The distinction between these is more how they go about doing things than the things they go about doing. It’s all D&D in the end, and D&D is not a game that is About anything in the same way that, say, Mage is about the tensions between different ways of telling the laws of physics to sit down and shut up. This, of course, we know. We also know that people who generally like each other will find a way to make things work.

But, if we’re interested in doing this thing again, and this is their first time and they might conceivably never do this specific thing again if they don’t enjoy it…*

… and if these aren’t people who are invested in the whole question of how rather than what, of old school and new school, of whether rolling a skill check or poking the floor is better for them, and have no experience of doing those things in order to form a valid judgement…

… and if these are people who come from a culture where pre-discussion of content is a big damn thing, and drama regularly results from failing to do this properly, a culture of Martins if you like…

… then you need some way of deciding which variant is appropriate.

And so we’re having the Conversation. It starts with Their Thoughts On The Fantasy Genre – what they read/watch/listen to/play, what they avoid doing those things to, what they hate, what fails to move them in any meaningful sense – because any heads up I can get makes it less likely that I sink my time (limited) into developing something which does not appeal to them, and that’s a good thing when I have to be appealing (for a change).

The short answer was “Well, we all watch Doctor Who and you know which bits we like, so do something like that.” Picaresque, wide-ranging adventure with a mercurial central cast and a generally anti-authoritarian streak? I can dig that.

The long answer started “more politics, less grimdark”. We also had a brief chat about sword and sorcery as a genre, and the appeal of the rags-to-riches thing but the lack of appeal of “oh hey it’s a vampire”. Vampires are, apparently, not interesting unless they’re doing something interesting. Then there was a checklist of authors the prospective liked, all of whose names I have forgotten. I’m going to ask that question again, with a pen in my hand this time.

It occurs to me, now, with the benefit of hindsight, that a better question to ask is not “what do you like in the fantasy genre”, as once you have a set of Likes there’s a feeling that the game can be About those and not About other things. A better question would be “what do you hate in the fantasy genre”, which actually achieves what I want to achieve; it puts off-limits the things which will absolutely kill the game stone dead but leaves “everything else” as things the game could potentially be About at any given moment. That feels instinctively less reductive.

However, I did get a few strong dislikes. No grimdark means Lamentations of the Flame Princess is out; yeah, you don’t have to run a game the way its flavour text is written, but first impressions count and I’d rather not be pulling against the tone of the rulebook from the very start. Nothing for its own sake means Labryinth Lord is probably out; it’s embedded in roleplaying archaeology, dungeons-for-the-sake-of-dungeons stuff (also, on a purely practical note, I don’t like the layout of the free version).

That leaves me with a choice between Errant or some manifestation of Swords and Wizardry… and I just can’t quite make the call, so I’m going to make the players do it instead. I’ve a copy of the Old School Primer that I’m going to show them the examples of play from (with the note about how the game with skill rolls becomes interesting through how you describe the results of the rolls – the skill there is making the numbers come to life, rather than creative problem-solving/tactics/what-have-you) and that’ll make the call for me.

I do think we need to have that conversation about whether anyone has an intrinsic dislike of having/not having systems in place for stuff that player cleverness can (but doesn’t always) do, though. Again, it’s not about limiting people to a particular style or agenda, putting people in boxes, it’s about finding out if anyone has an instinctive reaction of LOATHING to either creative problem solving players-have-to-be-clever stuff or pretending-to-have-capacities-we-don’t-so-we-need-rules-for-that stuff so we can avoid going one way or the other.

Then, of course, it’ll be time to hack the generic balls off whichever one we end up running with. I am not going to be lazy on this one. I am going to build/facilitate the building of this bloody world and not just phone it in and use the Iron Kingdoms again or whatever.

* – which I totally have coming from one prospective player after the fuss I kicked up over Race for the Galaxy; it was late, I was tired, and I probably shouldn’t have been trying to master a complex game, but that still doesn’t excuse my being a graceless oaf about the whole business. Payback is probably warranted.

4 thoughts on “Brave New Worlds – Intermission – System Choice and the Newbie Factor

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  1. Hey Von that was a really interesting read and an odd problem you’re facing. Introducing new players is daunting I think for people like us who are just so immersed in the history and politics of gaming, and come to any game with an enormous amount of personal baggage and opinions.

    It’s not my place to tell you what to do, but I would like to say something. And that’s that I completely understand why they (or at least the one who wants the Complete Nerd Experience) want to play D&D specifically. Our culture at the moment is saturated with 1) nostalgia and 2) the demand for authenticity of experience. People want to be able to say they’ve done or seen something that other people can recognize. I have a gamer friend who plays things (mostly console games) out of almost a sense of duty. He struggles through old games, many from before his time so that, as far as I can tell, he can honestly say that he’s played them. It’s important to him in his on-going quest to be an authentic Gamer.

    And that’s the thing you’re facing here. People want to be recognized as having authentic knowledge. D&D was the first major RPG, it’s the one that everyone recognizes. I can easily understand how someone could find it difficult to believe that they could gain entry to the true RP gamer experience without ever playing D&D. You’ve played it I assume?

    It’s like if you were a martian who travelled to earth on a visit. Everyone on Mars knows about how Earthlings drink Coke. You wouldn’t want to go back to Mars and tell the other Martians you drank Dr. Pepper unless you were some kind of hipster Martian who wanted to intimidate the other Martians with your boutique Earth cola tastes. You would want to at least try Coke, so that you can say you love it or hated it, but at least you’ve had it.

    D&D could easily be like Coke to a Martian tourist to someone with less RPG experience than you or I. And you’re offering Dr. Pepper. Even though I think you’re very experienced and you’ve talked it out with them and you are in fact correct that they would prefer Dr. Pepper. People usually need to take baby steps when they are acquiring a new taste, moving from the better known products until eventually they have a refined palate. Skipping straight to the hip lesser known versions lacks authenticity in many people’s eyes I think.

    Still, that said, you are an expert local guide in this territory for these people to have, and they are lucky. If anyone can turn them in to Real RPGers without ever playing D&D it’s you :)

    1. I see what you’re saying in re. nostalgia and authenticity. I suspect that’s where the drive for the whole Old School Ramadamadingdong (whatever you’re going to call it) comes from, and I’m pretty sure it’s why I’m replaying ten-year-old computer games too.

      Honestly? I have never once in my life sat down at a tabletop and played something which had ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ on the cover. The two third edition games we tried both stalled before they started. I owned the third edition core books for several years without doing anything with them. Closest I’ve come was Pathfinder, Star Wars d20, and playing a whole lot of the late-second-edition PC games.

      As far as the cola analogy goes… I like it, and I see your point, but can’t quite work out if you’re seriously suggesting I should go down the shops and buy the currently available edition of D&D, which is… well, to use your analogy, fourth edition is New Coke. Yes, it’s ‘authentic’, but it’s not ‘the real thing’ and it has something of a bad rep for that.

      Maybe buying into that reprinting of first edition AD&D isn’t such a bad idea? Either way, I think we’ve arrived at a place where I have to know, one way or the other, if it has to have D&D on the front…

  2. Hmmm. The thing about authenticity I suppose is that you have to be authentic to yourself too (aargh that sounds cheesy). The last time I introduced some new players to RPing it was to D&D 3x because it was the current edition and I’d played it a fair bit and enjoyed it. I wouldn’t intro anyone to D&D 4 because I haven’t played it and I don’t think it gives what I consider a true D&D experience! And that’s the tricky thing, what’s authentic when it comes to D&D is controversial within the community. It’s only outsiders who think that there’s “just D&D” and it’s as simple as that.

    If I were you I’d do what you’re doing, which is explain to them that you haven’t actually played D&D and there are a lot of other similar games you have played which you can show them. If they think that sounds dubious maybe explain to them about the whole edition war with D&D and they’ll probably just think it’s all too hard and take your advice!

    I’d only buy the re-packaged 1st eds if you yourself are keen to play it. You’ll have to explain about the edition wars anyway if you play that, because it’s not what they’ll see in the shops labelled D&D.

    Anyway I’m really curious to see how it pans out!

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