Thursday, February 5, 2009

Running the Game You Want to Run

Hmmm. One step forward, two steps back.

The ideas for D&D games based on wild, imaginative concepts are springing up all over the place. Some of them have blogs.

Two such ideas seemed to have a lot of care, effort, and enthusiasm put into them. And now it seems the people that were going to run these games have backed off to run more traditional "vanilla fantasy" D&D.

I am speaking specifically of James Mishler and his Realm of Lohsem, and The World of Thool.

Go look at that Thool blog, from the beginning. Look at the Lohsem posts.

Then, the kills:

Thool: I'm getting the itch to run a game again. I'd like to use Thool. However, I'm not confident I can find compatible gamers in my area for a regular OD&D tabletop game. I do think I could probably scramble a few people for a traditional AD&D game using the Wilderlands or some other traditional setting.

Lohsem: After much consideration, I came to the conclusion that the stray thought wasn't just out to get me, but was indeed a revelation of unfortunate truth. If I'm to put together a group of local folks to play D&D, I have to make the game appealing to what might fit local ideals of fantasy gaming, not the fantasy-core concepts that percolated through Gygax, Arneson, Holmes, and the gaming crowd 35 years ago.

Concepts dead without even attempting to get them off the ground, if I'm reading these posts correctly. I wonder how many other original and personal visions have been conceived like this and then dashed without even discovering if they can work.

We know our activities are niche activities. Our version of D&D is not what is in the public consciousness, and our personal views of fantasy aren't what the general role-player would think of when he thinks fantasy.

So how do we convince people to play in our whacked out personal little visions?

Short answer: We don't.

Medium Answer: We don't convince them of anything.

Long Answer: Pitch the idea, not the particulars.

I made this point as a response to the Thool announcement:

It's like the little kid who won't eat some new (to him) food because he KNOWS it tastes bad, even though he has never had it before in his life. Half the time when he finally puts some in his mouth, it's not so bad after all. In fact, it's kind of tasty.

People keep doing that all their lives. Invite them over for lunch without mentioning you're cooking something with a weird foreign name. They'll say "no thanks" if you ask them ahead of time but if they're already at your house when you serve it, they'll eat it, if you take my meaning.

What people want, and what they think they want, are often different things. Each layer that you shave off of the accepted and the familiar is going to become a barrier to acceptance.

Stop shaving!

"Old D&D" is often enough. Someone savvy enough to know the difference between OD&D and B/X and Mentzer and all that jazz is probably not going to need a lot of convincing anyway. People who came in with 2nd edition or later, or who haven't played in 20 years anyway, don't care about the difference. Just tell them "old D&D" and leave the details about your cool world and your awesome house rules out of the sales pitch altogether!

When you've gathered a group of people together that expect to walk around a dungeon and encounter orcs with pies in 10' square rooms, start softening them up. Make small talk before the "official" start of the first session. Make "casual" conversation about certain books or movies that could give hints to what you'll be presenting. Prime them. Since they're there for gaming, this sort of talk won't even be a social faux pas.

When it comes to the rules... again, someone that's familiar and on-board with the whole traditional thing will be expecting house rules and everything that goes with that I Fixed It All Up Perfect excitement. Someone not familiar with the whole thing won't recognize the difference anyway. If you're at all worried about being "too much," then do not present your house rules as house rules.

They're just the rules. Between Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry and BFRPG, all downloadable for free and all with PDFs that you can capture text from (not to mention that scanning actual old D&D books is possible for this purpose as well), you can put together your own rulebook of cut-and-pasted material. All they need to know is Character Creation, Spells (if a spellcaster), Equipment, and Rules of Play (combat, movement, encumbrance, finding traps and doors and stuff, whatever it is people will do in your game).

Or forget about all that. It's old D&D for crying out loud. They can put all their character information on a friggin index card. They don't need to know the rules beyond character creation and maybe their combat options. At least not up front. That will certainly get them in the "old school" mentality of player action, not character stat, as the most important part of play.

And then there's the setting.

Once again, players don't care about your grand plans and huge maps and blah blah blah. You have the ideas and you want to show it to them. Fine. I can relate. Start small. Start in as normal a place as possible, and just work outward from there. Don't dump a huge document about your setting onto your players. Don't go on and on about how awesome it is and proceed to portray a slightly-off-the-beaten-track idea (which is all these ideas really are) as something resembling some incomprehensible Jorune/Nobilis crossbreed.

Stop it!

Just present "a place." The details aren't important until a player asks, or they run into the detail. And you don't have to introduce everything at once. Go slow. They're going to be first level useless shits who are lucky to get their fingers up their nostrils when they want a snack, let alone have encyclopedic knowledge of a world's history and wildlife. If you have naked flying rhino men that use laser dildos and acidic feces as weapons in your campaign, maybe you can wait a few sessions before introducing it. Introduce a weird thing here, a weird thing there, and before you know it, you've acclimated some bog-standard fantasy players to the weirdest thing they've ever seen, and they won't even think it's all that weird anymore.

Here's another trick that lets you run a gonzo setting without making your players feel they're studying for a social studies test: When an element of the local culture pops up in a game, be it a strange religion, a common plant that has weird properties, anything, have a card ready with the details to give to the players in addition to your quick explanation. They're not going to remember it anyway! But with the reference card handy, you don't have to explain it all the time. "Check card #5, it's one of those again."

The same thing with your game world map. If you're worried that you're going to overwhelm someone with weirdness, don't show them the whole damn world. Just give them a small regional map. They don't need to know about the Flying Furnaces Containing Silver Squid Gods And Their Many Teddy Bears on the coast there. Not yet. If you're worried about freaking them out, HOLD IT BACK a little!

By doing these things, you can present the game you want, as wildly changed and bizarrely concepted as you like, without chasing away everyone with your AWESOME AND ORIGINAL new ideas that nobody really gives a crap about when they show up to game. That's what scares people away from bizarre gaming ideas - the fear that they'll be doing something they can't relate to. You're the one that cares about setting and tone; the players just want to show up and roll some dice and socialize and game. The actual game experience of house-ruled-to-hell old Dungeons and Dragons isn't any different than by-the-book old D&D, so don't scare people away by trying to highlight how different your game is.

Come up with your ideas, advertise it as "Old D&D," (or whatever game it is you're running), and run the game you're dreaming about running. There is no need to get freaked out and go to what you assume is the common gaming denominator if your ambitions lie elsewhere.

Or how about at least making the attempt to get players before pulling the plug on everything you've prepared for?


  1. When I invite a new person to play in my Carcosa campaign, I pretty much just say, "It's old-school D&D rules and a dark setting."

    That's how I describe Carcosa in 10 seconds or less.

    When rolling-up a character, the new player encounters two odd things about Carcosa:

    1. Humans have weird skin colors.

    2. Only two character classes: fighting men and sorcerers (a new class).

    Then they start fighting spawn, Deep Ones, etc. and garnering loot. They explore ruins, decipher ancient hieroglyphs, etc. In other words: D&D.

  2. I’m so often baffled by this kind of thing I read online. Of all the gamers I’ve gamed with, I’ve had one player refused to play a specific system and one player who refused to play any but a small set of systems. All the rest have been up for whatever.

    I see two possibilities.

    1. I’ve been incredibly lucky.

    2. People build up a misperception that their idea is going to get shot down so strong that they preƫmptively kibosh it.

    Most gamers I’ve known have enjoyed a bit of hyperbolic bashing. They might say, “I’d never play X”, but as soon as someone offers to run it, they’re the first ones creating their PC. I suspect that mistaking this kind of bark for a bite plays into #2.

  3. Robert:
    I'd say you're incredibly lucky, or perhaps I am incredibly unlucky. Many of my players are picky as all hell and flat-out refuse to play many systems, settings, and genres. Some of them eventually wear down and try something, but I find it's actually pretty difficult to get my core group to agree to try anything off their typical beaten path. (Well to get enough of them to agree, anyway)

    I think I'm going to be taking Jim's "stealth" advice to heart for all games I run in the future. Don't tell them until they show up. This will come in handy for the campaign I'm going to be starting soonish...

  4. Another damn fine post! I totally agree with everything you said.

    I have the opposite problem when I want to run some D&D: I fear that my game will be a really boring, bog-standard fantasy world with no "creativity" involved at all.

    And I ran the damned thing anyway, at a con, and I got players. They looked and sounded like they were having a good time, so screw the nay-sayers.

    But I have seen examples of people who won't play outside their comfort zone, and I still don't get it. I'll play anything once.

  5. Caveat: I have not digested the whole column.

    I feel pretty lucky to have gotten a few fellows together for an OD&D campaign. They have expressed a strong lack of interest in exotica, including some I like dearly.

    The flip side is that it's pretty novel for me to run what they seem to consider a "normal, but old-style" D&D situation.

  6. After reading some more:

    Getting together to play for the first time with guys I'd mostly never met before, I pretty much came right out and said of the setting (and really the whole nine yards), "It's not set in stone yet." Looking over the equipment list in Vol. 1, I threw out some proposed changes on the fly along with my rationales. Everyone had his say, and we reached a consensus.

    It's all at this point (after two sessions) subject to mid-course correction. At the start of the second session, I led off a discussion of assumptions and expectations. That revealed (among other things) that the players unanimously professed ignorance of Howard's Conan saga. Whodathunk?

    Anyhow, I guess where I'm at now is a bit removed from the "DM as visionary autocrat" theory. Because I like it, I'll toss in bits of the Orientalism and science-fantasy they've said they don't like -- but I won't waste my energy trying to force it on them.

  7. I agree strongly; well said. As long as the starting locale is comprehensible, players will accept all kinds of strangeness in the wider campaign world. All they need is a simple hook into the setting to get them started. Like you say 1st level nobodies in a podunk village is rarely hard to grok.

    Some players won't want to play OD&D - at my games club my solution was to run OD&D (well, BECM) on my side of the screen, while my players play 3.5e on their side. That works fine.

  8. My experience has been like Robert's: only one time in decades of gaming have I run into a situation where I couldn't find players for what I wanted to run (and I was living in Japan at the time).

  9. I'm the author of the World of Thool blog. It's 4:45 a.m. and I have to drive to a federal prison a couple hours away, but short version: I've taken some of the advice I've received over at my blog to heart and decided if I still can't find players to play the game I want, I'll just play online.

    I'll check back in when I get home this evening.

  10. Play the freaky campaigns and do sneak it onto the players as much as possible. too much weirdness up front and it does scare folks away, expose it to them in a paced means and they get to discover it and since a big chunk of the game is about discovery a DM can't help but win.

  11. Personally, I think Mishler was right to look at a Middle Earth game for the kids in his neck o' the woods.

    That being said, I totally agree on your prescribed method. I pretty much have been telling my players no particulars prior to play. They get to discover for themselves what is and isn't vanilla in my setting.

  12. Good advice...Unfortunately I'm one of the guys who has a few people in his group that are absolutely dead-set against certain game systems and genres. They're the uber-geeks who are so firmly entrenched in their biases that it would take a miracle to move them. No amount of obfuscation or vagueness would suffice.

    You know what though, I'm going to try it anyway. If they walk, they walk, no harm, no foul.

  13. >Once again, players don't care about your grand plans and huge maps and blah blah blah. You have the ideas and you want to show it to them<

    In my groups in the last couple of decades, I didn't go to conventions or what not, and most of my players were culled from people I knew who were not gamers, but wanted to play D&D (or had played a little many years before).

    They were not realy true gamers, and didn't DM, so they generally could not give a damn about the effort I put into visuals and set-up (outside of basic descriptions). They loved playing, and just wanted to experience it. Most didn't want to philosophize(sp) about the game.

    My one lone exception was a buddy who loved to sit for hours and talk about game world concepts, and the meaning behind things that occured in game sessions. We drank beer and yacked (like those slags on The View) about everything in the games. It really helped keep my world lit for me in between sessions.

    I don't have that buddy anymore, and most of my new players are seasoned, "seen it all" D&D'ers. Nowadays, it's just "Awww, shaddup and run the game."

    Thank God I found these blogs (*sniff*), so I can actually talk to somebody about cool gaming concepts.

    As far as running new genres/game types, I had a lot of success back in the 90's with long running groups. I said "Let's try some Cthulhu as a break from our D&D Campaign, or maybe break out my Champions world from the 80's and have a go at it..."

    After lots of hemming and hawing, they finally tried the other games, and loved it. I started getting more requests to run CoC than D&D (especially from the girls, believe it or not). I dared to dream of having regular CoC and Champs campaigns, and damn it I did.

    My current group, with a couple of exceptions, are saying they want to stick with D&D cause they are loving the games - but let me tell you, 1920's cowering adventurers and mighty futuristic superheroes and sci fi dudes are in their future! Fear me!

  14. Well shit, this is a great post. I stopped reading this blog for awhile but this posts title caught my eye. Great advice. You're right that bite size chunks of your game with no expectations is the best route. I've tried to condense setting overviews onto two pages about the immediate area and people and even that is a lot for most new players to digest.

    Ego is probably the biggest danger to running a good campaign. Wanting to reveal all the cool stuff ahead of time, over hyping the awesome shit that's right around the corner, falling into the trap of leading the PCs into the "correct" path so that your master plan comes into fruition.

    Thanks for the post.

  15. I have definitely developed a fairly minimalist "pre-game infodump" philosophy. Someone -- it might have been James -- posted a quote recommending no more than 500 words of pre-game background, and that sounds about right to me.

    I've posted at World of Thool about my crisis of weirdo faith, but again, thanks for the input and kick in the ass.

  16. Y'know, it's fairly rare that I'm in total agreement with a column over here, but this time I gotta say, 100% total and complete "I hear that".

    Back in the day, I used to generate whole volumes of crap to hand my players. 90% of it never got read, and I actually had a player quit when I kept getting annoyed at having to say "You should already know that - it's in the handout I gave you!" and he blew off the game "because I don't play RPGs to read - I do that at my job".

    That was sorta when the lightbulb went off. Now, over a decade later, I keep the pre-game stuff to a Bare Ass Minimum. A map with a few cool places on it, a sheet with some gear, and maybe a paragraph or two about what your characters might have been up to getting them to this point. That's pretty much it - everything else I keep to the sidelines because my players tend towards the extremely casual, and they just don't give a shit about my pantheon of elder gods or which city is the mercantile center of the realm blah blah blah blah.

    So yeah. Good advice!