A (new) game with new gamers

This is prompted by both Sam’s “Late Night Post on New Players” and Ron’s “Back then, sonny, let me tell you”. Also everything at Adept Play since oh, November of last year, when I started seeing great stuff that made me think, but the rest of life seemed to keep me from engaging.

I am generally a happy participant in RPG play. There was a big bump – running into the (for me) brick wall that was RPGA-play made me extra-cautious post-1982ish. And starting to participate vigorously in the 90’s required dodging White Wolf auteur STs and their pet thespians*, who sometimes showed up in very NOT White Wolf games. But overall, I was lucky to find some good friends through roleplaying, move through a bunch of (often somewhat interrelated) groups, and enjoy it.

But I am also an intermittently ambitious and experimental roleplayer (that ambition being absent since shortly before lockdown, but perhaps re-awakening recently). Especially as a GM. Surely we could do this thing somewhat better? It must be possible to advance understanding, technique, the likelihood of those “that was really GOOD” games? Talislanta (2nd Edition briefly, but mostly the 1992 Jonathan Tweet 3rd Edition) was one of my big gateways back into playing, and (generalizing) the Talislanta mailing list** led to usenet Threefold and/or Gaming Outpost, which led to the Forge. And The Pool.

Which (filters off) I tried, but hated. As of right now, still hate. I concede it has educational merit, but … that doesn’t matter for my point here.

The point is that partially out of that hatred, partially out of an ambition to make a generic Story Now game for first time RPGers, my game design attempt SNAP was born. And that’s the long prologue to this Actual Play report.

For SNAP, I designed until I thought I had something usable, then ran some game sessions with my normal group(s). I also had two non-gamer couples I’d met who I ran the game with (each couple their own group). They were what I REALLY cared about here.

In SNAP there are 3-6 Traits (what characters DO, or more rigorously tags players invent to label the kinds of things their characters might do in play) and 1-3 Characteristics (who the character IS, or again more rigorously what the player says that character – consciously or unconsciously – considers of high import, in personal value). As play unfolds, Traits can get damaged/suppressed, increase in value, get dropped and maybe new ones added, etc. All that is consequential, but not deeply meaningful (if that distinction is unclear, let me know – maybe it’s NOT distinct, but it seemed so at the time). Characteristics, however, are placed (by player choice) “at risk” during play, and as they grow and shrink it’s meant to have impact and meaning for the character. Active Characteristics are valued (CV8, CV19, etc) between 2 and 19, and dropping to 1 or rising to 20 is a major life event, of which “death” and/or “fulfillment” are examples.

The player has pretty absolute control over risking (decreasing) CV in play, and over how increases are applied. My observation was (admitting to small samples of both people and length of play) that the new gamers looked at driving CV “all the way” up or down as a key point of play, while my gaming group(s) strategized to avoid doing that.

Note (in the context of “Late Night Post”) that this wasn’t just about “failing” (bringing CV to 0), it was ALSO about going to 20! “Change” seemed to be the enemy. At the time, I wasn’t too worried about what my fellow gamers thought/did with this particular design, but all these years later, it sticks with me. Keeping characters away from change? That’s, uh, problematic for … multi-participant character-driven drama (man, it’s HARD to avoid saying “story”!)
So at one level (and I expect there are many others), I submit this as evidence that not embracing change in play is a source for failure-avoidance in longer-term RPGers. Last time I GMd, I made sure players understood the expectation was “your character some months down the road WILL be different, and neither you nor I can know how until we play.” Partly this was a “don’t plan your character’s next level” instruction, but also I wanted/hoped for associated engagement-with-play enhancements from the players. I … think it did help.

EPILOGUE: Back to SNAP… The two couples both went through acrimonious splits, contested divorce with huge money upset for one, and the angriest  both-angry breakup I’ve ever seen for the other, with associated friendship circle disruptions and all four scattering across the eastern half of the US (I was, and am, in California). Actually, probably the most interpersonal upset I’ve ever seen, before or since. I lost drive to do anything with SNAP, and … I’m not sure I regret it? Still, I think I’d try running it WAY before I’d try running The Pool. Most recently, I watched the anthropomorphic frog sessions, and it didn’t change my opinion. I know there’s a BUNCH more Pool sessions here now, and I ought to give a few a listen/watch. “Ought to” vs. “will” … since I respect Ron and participants here, best I can say is “probably will”. That’s not a call to “convince” me about The Pool or anything, just trying to be honest in my dislike.

*Maybe everyone else was totally OK and having fun in those games. Not me, is all I’m saying.
**Fun fact – where I first electronically met John Harper

9 responses to “A (new) game with new gamers”

  1. Resisting Change

    I had this friend (who sadly died last year, not of covid in a cruel irony) who seemed to struggle a lot in games where it was expected the characters were going to be very dynamic over time. This one time he said something to me that I think about from time to time.  He said, "There's a difference between a Dramatic Character and an Iconic Character and I prefer to play Iconic Characters."

    I don't know if this was his concept or if he heard it from somewhere else but the idea was simple: Dramatic Characters are changed by the events that happen and Iconic Characters impose change on the situation usually through some fixed or expected (iconic) way."

    It was very obvious what he wanted out of a game. He wanted to build a character that DID A THING and for the events of play to build to a point where THE THING was needed at which point the theme music would start pumping and we'd get excited because he was about to DO THE THING and then the moment would come where HE DOES THE THING! and it would solve the problem and we would all cheer.  And then there would be a new situation and we'd do it all over again.

    It was a very 70s-80s TV way of thinking about things. Needless to say he was a megafan of that media as well as Fate because it speaks so clearly to that mentality.

    So anytime anyone mentions gamers having a character and being very protective of that character's fixed identity, I think of that conversation. I don't know if that's what's happening everytime but I often wonder.

    • It sounds a lot like “My Guy”

      It sounds a lot like "My Guy" syndrome. No one should touch "my guy" i.e. my character, with any of that weird story juice. But I do not think the basic idea of an Iconic vs Dynamic (Dramatic) character is a bad one. In shorter term play, the iconic nature can (should) be challenged, but any changes might be more reflective than actual and actionable. In longer term play, remaining truly iconic might look a lot like play avoidance or consequence avoidance, expanding on Gordon's idea of failure avoidance. 

    • Thinking about fiction

      Thinking about fiction generally, it seems like the full range of outcomes/reactions could happen with any combination of Iconic or Dramatic characters involved. By oucomes/reactions, I mean things like good/bad, enlightening/enjoyable/entertaining/boring … all that. For RPGs, I guess if you're only playing in order to be Iconic (REQUIRING that character change not only doesn't happen, it's off the table as a possibility)… that's an extreme limitation on play. Building on what Ron said in replying to Johann, trusting that he'll correct me if I distort his point too much – change SOMEWHERE is totally needed.

      I think in SNAP (and elsewhere?), I envisioned strong invitations to character change as a way (certainly NOT the only way) to make sure that "change SOMEWHERE" happens. It turned out to be less certain to do so with long-time RPGers than with new players.

      The connection to failure … for RPG characters, in the Iconic case, I guess the only failure that is ultimately unacceptable would be invalidating "THE THING". Absent that, they can endure failure without needing to change. For Dramatic characters (which I guess are all that SNAP envisioned), maybe this: the new players had fewer issues accepting failure as an opportunity for enjoyable in-fiction change than long-time players. In fact, long-time players even avoided some kinds of success if it came with a need to change. Maybe for some, that was because they actually wanted an Iconic character, and I didn't really design with that in mind.

  2. …speaking of Failure Avoidance

    I submit this as evidence that not embracing change in play is a source for failure-avoidance in longer-term RPGers. 

    My first reaction to this idea was a flat "no". But I stepped back and took a look it and while I am not sure it works by itself as a flat statement, I do think it fits into a larger idea. The kind of play where we husband resources for that big bad at the end, not risking too much along the way. I think of it more as risk-averse play, where I neither want to die before a dramatically appropriate moment, nor do I want to succeed too soon. What if I "beat" the game too soon? What happens then? Did I visit all the tourists spots and get ALL of the loot? Perhaps a wicked combination of completioniism and risk-averse play. As opposed to just being smart and not using all of your powder in the first battle. The latter I find to be quite healthy, but in my experfience players conflate being good at logistics with just wanting to win and get all the things. 

  3. re: The Pool & 4e

    I recently became a The Pool convert, but do not worry I am not going to shout it to the rooftops. Your feelings about The Pool are close to mine in regard to 4e. A great many people here and in other places will tell you its the Best D&D. I do not feel that way. My own experiences certainly color how I feel. And there is always pressure when smart people enjoy a thing, you sometimes question your own thoughts on the subject. Which is healthy.

    I would play 4e or run it under very specific circumstances, but still not convinced that it's brilliant. I say that only to commiserate and say that as someone who is a huge fan of The Pool, I do get where you are coming from. 

  4. Useful dichotomy

    This dramatic vs. iconic dichotomy makes a lot of sense to me. I remember a friend's character who seemed *made to change* (going over to the dark side) – but in a specific, pre-envisaged way (iconic, in other words).

    • I was thinking about this

      I was thinking about this because the dichotomy seemed a little off to me as stated, and your comment shows me how. It's not really about whether the character changes or not, but whether the change is left open or tracked to a "next" which is as fixed as anything currently stated. It's the difference between a question and a declarative statement. Even if the latter has two parts, "start" and "next/finish," it's still a statement.

      But I'm also wary of assigning good to change and bad to stasis, for two reasons.

      1. Absolutely wide-open potential for change about anything is potentially not very fun; the change doesn't mean much. It's stronger to nail down some things as not changeable. This can be done either as a settled thing from the start (X is immutable), or as a process to discover what things do not or cannot change as opposed to what does or can.
      2. I think the issue of change applies to situations, not necessarily to characters as such. If a character remains extremely stable in terms of identifying concepts, values, purposes, et cetera, but their activity changes the situations they're in, well, that's some good change. Even more so if the situations differ as we go along, so the stability of the character doesn't mean sameness of problems or outcomes.

      As I see it, for "iconic" to be less compelling, not only the character but the situations they're in, and the sequence of situations they encounter, would be static. This is what franchise-y content looks like and matches my own experiences with unsatisfying sameness in role-playing – regarding my own GMing or own characters as much as observing anyone else's.

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