Sunday, June 19, 2016

Tim's 13



Tim contacted me about this. We were going to do a video thing and I admit I bailed on him. I was too busy and cranky and tired and - unlike him - I simply suck on camera. Instead I did a typed entry. Boring, I know....

But Tim did have his vengeance! He released his query on an unsuspecting public and the public has responded in droves. So here I am a bit late to the party bringing bean dip that was whipped up a couple of days ago (lemme scrape the mold off the top). And, oh well, here you go.  My answers to Tim's 13 questions, admittedly slightly cleaned up and trimmed down from what I actually sent him.

I also almost totally rewrote the last answer.
Just now.

And yes, it's not actually a full 13. A few of my answers addressed a few of the other questions without realizing it so I skipped them as redundant. And yes, I'm sorry my mood is not better. Summer always brings out the worst in me.

Oh, and btw, the J in JD stands for Jeremiah although everyone calls me Jerry.

1.) Can you please describe in detail the praying that you will never play D&D story? I'm really curious about that?

That was my introduction to D&D. I think it was always there looming in the background. I must have seen the ads in Boys Life but I never gave it any thought until this moment.

It was 1981. I was ten years old and living in Liberty, NY. I was over at a friend's house and we were playing with some action figures while his mom sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and watching the news. A TV report came on about some crazy new game centered around kids worshiping Satan. I remember seeing footage of some religious group gathered around a bonfire and throwing copies of B/X D&D into the blazes while singing songs and such.

The idea of a children's game encouraging Satanism greatly disturbed his mother to the point where she gathered us together in the living room to pray about it. We all held hands and I don't remember what exactly she said, but I do remember her looking up at the ceiling and saying “Lord Jesus Christ” and “evil evil game” and I doubt she was asking Jesus to come be our DM.

BTW. Never play with Jesus as your DM.
The guy rolls nothing but natural 20's.

"Oh look? I rolled another 20. Truly, I must be the Son of God."
"Rub it in Jesus! Rub it in!!!"

In her defense, my friend and I then went out to play in the yard and he admitted that his parents had been acting weird lately and later I would find out that her husband had been cheating on her and they would soon file for divorce, so there was probably a lot of pressure under that roof. Many reasons to find Satan hiding behind every corner.

I wouldn't be there for the fireworks. In the summer of '82 my family moved to Red Hook, NY. A quaint little town on the Hudson River. On the very first day of school in what I am thinking was also the first period of day. I took my assigned seat and ended up sitting across the aisle from a kid named Jerry (actually Jerome) who basically introduced himself by saying, “My name is also Jerry, we should be friends.” And I was like...
“Ahh. Okay!”

And so it came to be.

During lunch I sat with Jerry and his friends – all of whom were soon to be my friends (another of whom was also a Jerry although actually a Gerald) – and they were all psyched about some game they were getting together to play in the Social Studies room after school. I asked them what it was. They said Dungeons & Dragons and I blurted out, “isn't that that Satan worshiping game?”

They cringed and dismissed it. They promised me that it wasn't anything like that and that I could even be the party cleric if I wanted to.
“What's a cleric?”
“It's like a priest but with a war hammer, and you get to cast spells and heal people and turn the undead.”
“AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!”

And I was hooked from that very first adventure. Sorry Jesus, but at least I still have not worshiped Satan. Yet. Muwhahahahahhahha! Many of the friendships I made during that first game are still with me and probably will be until the end.

2.) What skills do you think you have personally improved upon by playing RPGs?
Around 85/86 the golden age of TRPGs collapsed. No one wanted to play them or even admit that they ever had. All my friends wanted to do was sit around watching video rentals.

Yes, that kinda pissed me off.

I never realized it but it wasn't until the collapse forced me to stop gaming that I became serious about writing fiction. I think it surprised my teachers that someone who was so often on the verge of failing English and had as much control over grammar as a hamster on acid could write long involved stories with developed characters and realistic dialog. All of which came from TRPGs.

Granted, deciding to become a novelist proved to be an astoundingly bad idea which I wouldn't recommend to anyone. But it could have been worse. I could have become a kangaroo rancher. Have you ever tried to milk a kangaroo? They don't appreciate cold hands reaching into their pouches.

3.) What was your first experience like running a game?
I was a little bit nervous but it wasn't that bad. I ran the module C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness which is probably one of the dorkiest D&D modules ever written, but it was also a riot to play. We had an amazing amount of fun, and on top of it all it actually felt as if we had accomplished something, conquered something. I was probably beaming all week.

4.) What was it like designing your own system?
Not as bad as trying to milk a kangaroo, but not by much.

Designing the Red EFT kicks my ass on a regular basis. This past weekend I went on a rules bender and totally redesigned the hit point system. And here is the diabolical nature of designing your own TRPG. You can very easily come up with multiple ways of handling the same thing and have each way be just as good as and yet totally different from all the others. In truth, I loved the old hp system and yet I knew that it was a little too byzantine for its own good. The new system doesn't have as much character but it is quicker, more realistic and more easily understood.

I have done this sort of thing so many times over the last few years, that I am probably the last person you would want to try to play it. I am just as likely to recall some rules alternative that I whipped up and tossed out years ago as I am to recall what is actually there.

5.) Why do you think tabletop RPGs are not known about by a good many people in the public?
It's because we all live in a whirlwind of big media, fraught with advertisers desperate to grab our attention and sell us not necessarily what we need but whatever stands to produce the biggest profit for whoever is producing it. Joe and Jane Average are so caught up in this whirlwind that they often are incapable of seeing anything which isn't a part of it.

TRPGs caught on because they were fun, not because fortunes could be made from them (with the exception of that one time in the early 80's). This is why everyone seems to know about Geiko car insurance and so few of us know about Gamma World or Numenera. This could change, but someone would have to figure out some way of making a ton of money off of it, something that would probably do nothing but corrupt the matter of TRPGs and shorten its lifespan. Perhaps the financial ineptitude of the TRPGs is a blessing in disguise.

6.) What is an RPG and why are these types of games fun?
It is the chance to go on a bold amazing adventure with your friends without ever going anywhere or actually risking anything aside from a couple of hours on a weeknight.

7.) If you were going to teach a new player how to play RPGs how would you go about doing that?
Start simple and stay there for as long as possible - because that is where the fun is. I would concentrate on getting players to imagine their characters as actual people before seeing them as a constructs of measurements and resources.

On the whole I like the idea of the GM as game console and a character sheet as game controller. In the game I am designing the Players Handbook is very thin and centered around a basic understanding of your character sheet. Rules for things like Body Slams, Grappling, Surprise Attacks, and Persuasion are all in the Game Master's Guide and for the GM's eyes only. I want players to feel like their characters can do anything they can imagine within reason and leave it up to the GM to handle the nitty gritty of making the action fit into the framework of the system.

On the whole I'm not a fan of systems which say, “here are the core rules go figure it out.” I think different books should be written with the players or the GM specifically in mind, and that they should be written to entice players into the system before dumping on them a truck-load of tables and caveats.

8.) What age group do you think plays these games more than other age groups?
At this point I have no idea. It's good to see players of all ages and sexes and ethnicities. The more diverse the audience the better TRPG's chances are of surviving into the future.

9.) What overall benefits do you think a person that plays RPGs has that perhaps a non-gamer wouldn't have, or would have less of.
Empathy. The ability to step outside of the narrow cocoon of oneself and understand how different people may see the world.

10.) Have you ever seen a RPG session break out in any violence, or have you ever seen with your own eyes people becoming more violent after playing RPGs?
Depends on what you mean by violent. I've been to parties where couches have been thrown through windows, but that was done by drunken teenagers and had no RPG's involved.

With RPGs I have seen popcorn fights, dice throwing, people getting pissed and swearing they will never play again, shouting matches, parents threatening to call the police because of the shouting matches. I have never seen anyone actually throw a fist at another player, but I have seen games come close. Of course it needs to be said that all of this happened in the early 80's and 90's when we were quite young, self-absorbed and hard to control.

Later on in the 00's there was none of that. We were all in our late 20's and early 30's and in those rare cases when someone got mad they simply stopped showing up.

I've never seen anyone become more violent after playing an RPG, but I do think that people use these games as a sort of cathartic release which may make them less violent outside of the game.

11.) Do you think RPGs are still seen as much of a negative thing as they once were?
Well, with movies like Zero Charisma what could possibly go wrong?

Damn right I'm still pissed about that.

TRPGs are unique in that their greatest asset is also their achilles heel. They rely on their players to provide a satisfying experience. Write whatever you want into the rule books, but it is the people who play the game who will make or break the game.

Computer operating systems, range ovens, refrigerators, smart phones, video games and more - a quintessential part of design lies in figuring out ways to protect the product from the people who use it. Even automobiles. We are now designing cars that will brake for us just in case we happen to be texting behind the wheel. TRPGs cannot be idiot-proofed. Attempting to do so creates a board game, something like Sorry with swords.

I honestly think that TSR tried this using text boxes to control what the DM says, or AD&D having rules for everything under the sun. If they could I suspect they would have put a miniature Gary Gygax in ever D&D boxed set just so the game wouldn't have to rely on some mere mortal taking up the reigns of DM and accidentally crashing their product. Ultimately, this is what the video game would accomplish.

I take it back. The CRPG is an idiot proof TRPG.

And yet, it's not just nostalgia which keeps me gravitating back to the tabletop. I, like many people, would much rather play against another person than a computer's AI. TRPGs are the most fun when they have been messed with, when it feels as if you are adventuring inside a world created by you and your friends and not tailored for mass consumption by Corporation XYZ. But to get to that place you need to create a game that allows for it. You have to risk creating a system that people like Scott from Zero Charisma can use to leave a bad taste in everybody's mouth.

So it does pain me to see - over and over and over and fucking over again - what I have developed my own bad habit of calling a minstrel show done in geek face. Sure it's funny when it shows up on Community, but it also leaves a bad impression on those who have never played such a game and now probably never will because they don't identify with the people depicted as playing TRPGs.

And this is why I think one of the best things to happen to the hobby is the online youTube game. Granted they are the pinnacle of boring things to watch, but they show us the true faces of the people who play these games. They look a lot like you and they look a lot like me, and - yes - a few of them even look like Scott from Zero Charisma, but they are the exception and not the norm.

So there is hope.

In the past gaming was frowned on because it wasn't understood, it consumed too much time, and it mattered way too much to people who liked to shout about rules. Now, it is easily understood. It doesn't consume nearly as much time as computer games, and its audience - of all ages - has matured. If we can just get past this reputation of being the sole domain of basement dwelling anti-social miscreants table-top gaming's best days may actually lie in the future rather than the past.