Saturday, October 8, 2011

Games I'm Playing: D&D

I got into gaming because I wanted to play. Unfortunately, most GMs (when they're 11 to 14) sucked, so I ended up grabbing the books and doing it myself, and because I sucked less than everyone else, I became the go-to guy to GM.  At first, I did so with some resentment (everyone else got to have "fun" while I had to do the work) but eventually I began to enjoy the unique beauty of GMing for its own sake.  Then something unique happened: I met other GMs that didn't suck.  Slowly, I found myself unclenching things I hadn't even realized I had held clenched for years, and I began to trust that other GMs could actually be competent... and I gave a few a try.  The next few blog posts will be about those games, and why they're great.

I've never really been a fan of D&D.  Most gamers grew up with it as their first game and, frankly, I think they view it through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.  Compared to the other games of my generation AD&D was just out of date and behind the times.  When 3e came out, I gave it a shot and found it much improved, but it still didn't set right with me.  In fact, I never enjoyed a D&D game at all, ever, until I played in a 4e game run by Xavier Wolfs at an open evening.  To my amazement, I wasn't only having fun, but I wanted more.  And so I pestered him for two years to let me into his campaign, and when one of his players finally crossed a line and got kicked out, I got let in.

I haven't been disappointed since.

Xavier is running a D&D game set in a shard world, a world that was once whole, but now shattered into vast mountains of rock floating in a great void.  We fly from shard to shard in skyships, battling evil and trying to save the day and what have you.  I play as an Unaligned (would be Lawful Neutral on the old chart if they hadn't "improved" the game by removing it) Human Fighter named Havard Grey, a Skyguard (sort of a fantasy INTERPOL agent), beloved by Avandra (much to his consternation).  I've played for 3 sessions... which might seem awfully short to make judgment calls and call something "great," but I've ditched games far faster than that, so I feel justified in my knee-jerk assessment.

Xavier's game is not the sort that I would like "on paper."  Essentially, it consists of a string of fight scenes with a sliver of RP in between them to justify moving from one scene to the next.  In principle, I should hate that sort of game, and most of the time, I would, but how Xavier handles it makes all the difference in the world.

First, the fights are never "just fights."  He creates these intricate, free-wheeling battles where every battle is not just a measure of your die rolls, but also a measure of your ability to solve the tactical problem he's laid out before you.  I'm quite a skilled gamemaster, of that fact I've never been shy, but I will tell you this: I can't hold a candle to the ease with which Xavier conjures fascinating tactical scenarios.

That, in and of itself, wouldn't be enough to hold my interest.  I'm a big fan of stories (the more intricate the better), and so simply beating the hell out of stuff, even in an interesting way, won't keep me happy, but Xavier does have a story, and what's terribly unique about him is how he tells it.  In Newton, I saw a D&D DM who would stop in between fights and do what he called "cut scenes," which amounted to him explaining how awesome his NPCs were to the players and monologuing for 15 minutes while they stared at him in rapt fascination (why they found that so fascinating, I never understood).  Xavier is the polar opposite. He doesn't explain anything to you.  He shows you through the battles.

Let me show you what I mean.  In my first battle, I was sent to investigate a minor vampire incursion, only to have my team (of low-level NPCs) nearly wiped and to have my bacon saved by the rest of the party, wherein we discover that there's a major vampiric conspiracy within the city.  In the second and third battle, we discover the vampires nest beneath an inn, and in the final battle, we faced down the head vampire himself and the woman who supposedly loved Raoul's character and defeated them.  Each of these fights had broader implications, particularly the first and the last (the third also resulted in us finding a book of vampiric/elven death-love poetry).  In the first: Why would the skyguard send such an inexperienced team to die?  Was the intel so bad, or did they know they were sending us to die (the implications I've discovered since then is that it was the latter).  In the final battle, we uncover the truth about who was really behind the conspiracy (hint: not the vampire.  He was raised back from the dead by a necromancer) and how Minestra truly felt about Raoul (she had been using him).  Note that Xavier didn't spend thirty minutes outlining this stuff to us: the design of his scenarios, or a few throwaway lines by the NPCs, made these implications patently obvious.  If that Newton DM was "GM as Final Fantasy," Xavier is "GM as Half Life."

Which isn't to say that Xavier's games lack role-play, it just tends to be subtle, and it reflects the needs of the player.  Most of the people at the table are more interested in getting to the next fight than in a dynamic and nuanced RP, and so that's what they get.  Whenever I have a scene, of course, I have to describe how my character strolls in, how he scowls, and what he wants... and Xavier reflects that back by stepping up to my RP with RP of his own.  In some scenes, the RP is subtle and quick, a drop of hints, a few clues that there's more going on, enough characterization to get an idea of what's going on, and sometimes it's more intense, wrapping up what's happened and where the story is going next.

But what matters, what's important here, is that Xavier puts everything in the game for a reason.  I often argue that NPCs should not simply be placed into a game for no (or a singular) reason, such as the girl whose sole purpose in life is to fall in love with a PC.  Instead, everything should tie together, and into the grander scheme of things.  Xavier does the same thing, but with fight scenes.  All of them are uniquely interesting, geared towards the players, tied into the current subplot, and tied into the grander arc.

As a gamemaster, Xavier has a few other qualities that I like.  First, he doesn't take his game or himself too seriously.  If I find something amusing and crack a joke about it, he tops my joke with one of his own and the table will burst into laughter (and he'll often bring the jokes into the game, appropriate as it's inspired by the somewhat slapstick One Piece).  I love being able to stop and laugh and spend time with friends, and his game has that in spades.  More importantly, though, Xavier is simply competent.  I find it difficult to explain some of the finer points of proper GMing to people because much of it simply comes with experience, things like knowing what your players want, rolling with the punches, guiding confused players through the rules, knowing when to break the rules or the story for the sake of the game, and so on.  Xavier has this quality.  When I pestered him about what I wanted for my character (for like the third time) he just smiled patiently and made sure I had it (actually, he already had it ready, and was simply too polite to tell me that I was being a nag ^_^).  He helped me choose the right abilities and avoid some of the pitfalls of character creation, and makes the game easy to play even for someone as inexperienced with it as myself.  As a result, I feel like my character is totally awesome, and I owe a lot of that to him.

The group is... interesting, and highlights what people mean by the "Culture of D&D."  For most of the PCs, I have a hard time picturing them as anything other than tokens on a board.  William, playing a half-orc fighter with a specialty in high mobility and pole-arm combat that works surprisingly well with my slow-but-sure tank-tactics.  He plays his character as a little dopey, simple, and straightforward, and I find myself warming to William far more than I expected.  Raoul plays as a human cleric, and though he complains that he doesn't roleplay enough, I can see the ground glowing beneath his feet or the marks of his Astral Seal or the light of his beacon of hope, and I get a sense for his understated wisdom and his leadership qualities.  Rene plays as a  Tiefling Warlock, but I haven't played with him enough to get an idea of what he's like (he just seems to teleport a lot and skulk in a cloak).  Sonder plays as a halfling vampire (who was apparantly a noble) who tends to run into people a lot (his favorite move is weirdly titled "Vampire Slam.").  Finally, Pim plays as a dwarven invoker who... uh... gives me really great bonuses.  That's all I can tell about his character, and that seems to be what Pim wants: to be useful on a mechanical level.  If you pin him down on social traits, he just gets nervous and stares at you, god bless him.

So I don't get much of a sense of who these fellow characters are, outside of Raoul and William (and even there, not much when compared to, say, Cherry Blossom Rain or Jimmy's 7th Sea game), but I can live with that.  What they are is a surprisingly fun and very helpful bunch who combine well with Xavier's understated "show, don't tell" style of storytelling, and they appreciate it too.

I think I could learn a lot from Xavier's approach.  In some ways, it couldn't be more different from how I run games, but in some ways, I can see that we both walk a similar path of "fun first," and "show, don't tell."  He's just managed to do it without being nearly as wordy as I am.  That's what I call "elegant."
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