“What’s a Grognard?”

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Feb 142018

gameplay-grognardI’ve recently just turned 47, which means I’m into my 35th year of gaming. Just thinking about that is mind-boggling really as some of the memories I have about those early games are as fresh and vivid as the ones I have about my Symbaroum game last night. I remember our epic ‘Summer of WFRP’, my first ever game of Runequest and that sodding 18% language skill, and complex games of DC Heroes, Golden Heroes and Superworld; we loved our superhero games! I also remember some of the less great moments – the persecution of one player with character death over and over again in the same scenario, people dd-adventure-001acharacter suiciding to get a re-roll of poor stats, Cthulhu games that were all about shotguns and dynamite and, of course, many many great games that crashed and burned after one session.

I remember the magic of going to the games shop in town and seeing those amazing books and boxes that I had only seen in the back pages of Imagine or White Dwarf. I remember going to the model shop every other week to buy one solitary Citadel miniature – the one I could afford – and having to make a ridiculous choice each time. Ages spent deciding between a cool orc or a brutal looking fighter. I recall spending hours and hours talking with my friend about plots for my DC Heroes game and making reams of details about my D&D game world that was simply a mash-up of whatever influence happened to be on my radar at the time. Those were wonderful times.

s-l225In my previous post I mentioned the Twitch phenomenon that has been sweeping through gaming of late and my resistance to the burgeoning arms race in games presentation. There is a flip-side to all of this and that is the current ‘golden age’ of gaming participation we are seeing. It has been bubbling under for a while now as ‘geek culture’ and mainstream culture begin to converge. However the rise of board games was the true herald and now the coolness of D&D5e has brought a slew of new players to the table (or digital interface, as it may be). Sales are strong and virtually every gamer has a story of new players coming on the radar; a lot of them young people.

I wonder, therefore, what their years of gaming will hold? What will be their abiding memories of games when they are my age? I’m not naive enough to imagine that they will all still be playing in 2053, but some of them might. One thing is definite though – their initial experiences will be very different indeed. These gamers may have been attracted by fantasy but it was probably Game of Thrones rather than Lord of the Rings. If they came through superheroes it was probably Marvel Cinematic Universe than Crisis on Infinite Earths. Discovering H.P. Lovecraft is an infinitely more mainstream activity now than it was in the 80s. It is so very different.

s-l300The gaming landscape has changed too – never have gamers been so easily in contact with other gamers; their thoughts, their opinions and their prejudices. Whereas my gaming thoughts were formed by my peers, a few ‘veterans’ at a club and the letters page of Dragon magazine, nowadays our new breed of gamers have the full force of of our connected online world to contend with! Even considering that ‘second difficult game’ is mind-boggling now. When I moved on from D&D the choices were minimal. Nowadays they are myriad and in many ways, controversial. Make a choice and inadvertently you may have nailed your colours to one of the many factions or belief systems. Are you trad or indie? Story gamer or OSR?

Seriously, how will these neophyte gamers react when they are faced with the news that there have been [insert your favourite number] of editions of D&D prior to 5e and well, some people are quite adamant that their newly chosen game is a bit pants. Or that there is an entire parallel hobby going on with Pathfinder borne from a rules split a decade ago? Or that a slither of the gaming world thinks they are simpletons for not embracing the old magnetic fish? What happens when they hear the words ‘power gamer’, ‘grognard’, ‘munchkin’ and ‘trindie’? I shudder to think…?

This new crop of gamers are, possibly, the holy grail that we have been looking for in the gaming community for so long. How we let them grow and experience the wider world of gaming will go a long way to answering my initial question of what their gaming years will hold because if we get it wrong, their gaming years will be very short indeed.

 Posted by at 11:07 pm

Enough with the Awesome!

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Jan 142018

In our gaming group, like so many gaming groups, we have a number of in-jokes. One of which involves the players turning to the GM just before the game starts and telling them to ‘bring the awesome’ followed by cries of ‘yes, entertain me!’ etc – with tongue firmly rammed into cheek, may I add. My oft-stated credo that the GM is a player too and that the state of the game is as much the responsibility of the players as it is the GM was borne from the highly egalitarian nature of my own home gaming environment. However, it is not always so – especially in the world of convention gaming, and this time of year convention gaming comes into mind a lot!

I am often concerned that there is a bleed between campaign play and convention play.  The analogy I usually use is that a convention game is like a blockbuster movie – short run time, quick bangs and scenes, pretty shallow character development and  a tasty conclusion at the end. Campaign play is more like a TV series – longer run time, deeper character development, established and changing background and more room for pacing the game.  I have been playing a lot of convention campaigns over the last few years; linked sessions that feel more like a TV mini-series rather than a movie or a serial.

Convention play almost demands a degree of performance from the GM that allows little chance of failure. Even with the hardest of lines in terms of player-GM balance of responsibility, there has to be an onus to provide some degree of value to the players in terms of a decent session. A decade into running convention games, I still sometimes feel it is a bit like an Olympics of Gaming (as Baz of the Smart Party calls it so often) where the GM is being weighed and measured by the players, to indeed, ‘bring the awesome’. I think this has become manifest in the tendency for people to enhance their sessions with ‘bling’ – jazzy character sheets, load of cool maps, models, handouts, posters … even hats! I quite like this and I have to admit I like to indulge the bling. I have had players using torches in the dark, a massive printed map of Tatooine for a Star Wars game, custom character sheets are a norm and video trailers for convention campaigns have become a tradition.

However, I have noticed that this is bleeding into my home gaming as well. In my Aetherguard game I made a load of character image cards to help with the slew of NPCs the game held. In our current Dresden Files Accelerated game I have indulged my inner artist and created a load of bespoke character sheets for the PCs and some of the NPCs too. Once again, I really enjoy this and I feel like its taking on a little of that shared responsibility from the GM.


And then I discovered this new fangled Twitch stuff and people recording themselves playing games. Roleplaying games as entertainment is now a thing, apparently. Thousands of people tuning into Critical Role as a fandom movement? My eyebrows were raised and my mind immediately jumped to ‘Hey, should we…’

And then reality slapped me around the face hard. No, no we should not. Maybe in the midst of the bling, the maps, the sheets, the figures and all the rest of the paraphernalia, we have forgotten about the core purpose of these things – actually playing a roleplaying game with your friends. I worry that if we become so fixated on the extras, we forget the basics and thus the balance of the game is broken. I think it is crucial to remember that the extra bits are just that – extra – and they add to an already great game, but they will not turn a poor game into an average one. What that means in practice is a little bit of restraint. It is far more important to get the game right than the bling. Working with, and reflecting upon, those basics of good games mastery – good plot, solid NPCs, good characterisation, evocative descriptions, pacing and flow etc. – will contribute more to the game than a short movie about the backstory or a bespoke soundtrack.

That’s the attitude I have taken with my Symbaroum campaign at the moment; minimal bling and maximum thought and execution. The hardest part was the character sheets – I love a good character sheet with art and flourish. However, this time around the players have B&W print outs which they doodle all over themselves. Working documents not pieces of art.

Back to basics.

 Posted by at 11:03 am

The Joy of the Unknown

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Jan 062018


[Note: As well as posting about Duty & Honour development here, I’m also going to be writing about gaming matters in general.]

“Nothing is more frightening than a fear you cannot name.”
― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

In my home group, we have been playing through the introductory campaign – the Copper Crown – for Symbaroum, and having a very good time with it. This is the first time we have played the system and we have settled into it well enough but the real take away has been the joy that we have taken from playing a game, and a setting, within which we have almost no frame of reference. The monsters are wholly alien, the spells are totally unexpected, the abilities are still unpredictable and the setting throws up a real sense of mistrust and shifting alliances.

This has made me question some of the standard operations of game play that I have settled into over the years. One of the things that I have wholeheartedly adopted is the practice of shared world creation; players and GM riffing the world together prior to the game, developing the factions and major players involved. As a result, the game starts in a sort of setting in media res with the players and plots almost predefined. Now, I am not rejecting this as a whole, but it does give a very different game experience; a collective story-telling that is exploring a situation that has already been established. I am left wondering whether there is value in maybe scaling back some of the participation in favour of some mystery and wonder in terms of story?

There is a similar tale to tell when it comes to system, especially in more granular traditional games. We love to play D&D in our group, but we do also tend to devour it and the result is that we could be accused of being quite mechanistic in our approach. This, in turn, can take some of the wonder out of the game as we ‘know’ which are the better spells and feats, which are the optimal tactics and we have a fair idea what each monster ‘does’. In many ways this is why I prefer 13th Age, because the threats are simply more diverse and less predictable, but on the flip-side the variables that you have for a character are less. Again, don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a symptom of rabid munchkinism on our part – rather, I think, quite a competitive streak in some of us and an almost academic level of reading and understanding of systems and settings.

What is required, of course, is a combination of trust and discipline. With regard to trust, I am reminded here of the rationale behind some of the earlier indie games designs; systems to regulate the actions of unruly God GMs by placing checks and balances in place. Transparency is one of the upshots of these design choices but transparency puts information in the hands of players that would better be experienced in the game, possibly? The realisation that Symbaroum has abilities that ignore armour, combined with some quite challenging levels of damage, was one of the more gratifying moments of the early games. A moment of true player based terror as their characters became truly mortal. However, trust is required in the way the GM applies these tools.

This is allowed by player discipline. The player might have the book but do they need to read and absorb every single part of it? Could some of it remain unread? Could we not memorise the minutae of every single spell and ability to keep some sort of mystique in place? And could we trust the GM that when stuff happens that you don’t understand, they are doing it within the confines of the game and not bending things to prosecute you? Yeah, of course it could but it takes restraint.

And sadly, the mystery does fade. Already, after a few sessions, I noticed our table reverting to form. One of the antagonists has an ability to ‘mind control’ a player. As I usually do, I openly tell the player they are mind controlled, what their objectives should be and let them get on with it. I mentioned that they could take one action per round and another player chirped in with ‘That’ll be Bend Will at Adept’ and just a little bit of the magic faded…

The entire experience of running Symbaroum has been excellent so far and I have learned a lot from it. It has made me question some of my basic learned assumptions around world-building and how you can actually get a sense of wonder and yes, horror, into a game. That’s been missing for me for many years and I’m thrilled.

 Posted by at 6:39 pm