#RPGaDAY2020 day 31 ~ Experience

But uh, have you ever been experienced? Well, I have… Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful….

RPGs are all about the experience. We don’t get to take anything home with us. Maybe we buy memorabilia of a sort, kind of like buying a t shirt at a rock concert. But all of the art and books and dice aren’t going to give us the experience of actually playing.

Just like a concert, those RPG experiences are ephemeral. Yes, we can record both, but listening to the tape I made of the Grateful Dead at Saratoga Springs in the summer of 1985 and watching our uploads of All for One Regime Diabolique aren’t the same as being there in that moment.

Everything we bring to the table contributes to that experience. The particular game, our knowledge of the game and our skill using it, our expectations, baggage from other games, the people, how we are feeling that day, how we play, how we interact with each other, our engagement, and so on and so forth ~ all of this contributes to the experience we have in the moment.

In a very real sense, the end product or experience that we have is not only created by the process we use to play, it is the process in its entirety. The RPG experience is where cause and effect merge, and trying to grab ahold of it can be like clutching smoke.

Being a fan of Sisyphean tasks, I am fascinated by the unraveling and analysis of the RPG experience. Not only can we understand how it comes about, but also how to mold into the shapes we want. There’s always a certain amount of the process that’s hidden in the black box, but my goal is always to shrink the size of that hidden area so we can change the parts to improve the whole.

It’s been fun sharing my experience, I hope that you will share yours.

#RPGaDAY2020 day 30 ~ Portal

There’s something about a door or a gateway. Portals represent choices that must be made, promises of discovery, and obstacles that must be overcome.

Very often a portal is a one way trip. Once we’ve made a choice we can’t go back. The door shuts behind us. Some of these doors are literal, but many are metaphorical. Even if a door is two way, we still must choose to open it or not. Once we open it, we can’t go back to the condition of never having crossed that gateway.

Portals offer a way to discovery and revelation while obscuring them at the same time. We can never be sure if a given door leads to adventure, rewards, peril, or a dead end. The only way to find out is to cross the threshold.

Sometimes a portal is held, and it seems to be impossible to overcome that barrier. Often we get wrapped up in thinking that we must get to the other side, and we forget that we have other choices. If w decide that we must get through, then the gateway becomes a challenge.

I like portals, literal and metaphorical. Without them RPG sessions would be boring. No one likes boring. Don’t forget to knock.

#RPGaDAY2020 day 29 ~ Ride

Wanna go for a ride?

A big part of the allure of RPGs is that we can make decisions that we normally would not be able to, often in situations that we would never find ourselves in. For me, it’s important to make these choices with commitment. Of course it can be tempting to change our mind or want to make a course correction when confronted with new or unconsidered information once the character is mid stride. However, I find the choices carry more weight when we “let it ride”.

We aren’t the only one making decisions at the table. In addition to all of the players, (of which the GM is one) decisions are also made by impartial hand of fate through her muses – the dice. Many games allow for changes to be made post roll, and sometimes we can be tempted to “fudge”, but for me that negates the role that the dice play in our sessions. I find it much more satisfying to “let it ride”.

Decisions are important. We make them & the dice make them. Honor them and see where they take us. Everything’s riding on it.

#RPGaDAY2020 day 28 ~ Close

And as the curtain closes upon our heroes, there is a wailing in the distance…

Closing an RPG session is part art, part science, and part plain old intuition informed by experience.

Back in the day, we closed out a session if the dungeon was cleared, or if everyone’s characters were dead, or if was time for Andy to go home. Maybe it was bedtime or time to do homework, maybe we got to the part where the GM had no idea what was south, but that’s where we were headed, and they wanted to prepare rather than improvise.

All of these prompts to close out a session of gaming are still valid. Adults have bedtimes and responsibilities, and some of us are dreadfully uncomfortable improvising. Life & external considerations have a nasty habit of interrupting our fun.

However, just because there’s time left o we feel up to continuing doesn’t mean it’s not better to bring an RPG session to a close. In our The Sky is no Limit campaign of Leagues of Adventure, we nominally have a 4 hour window in which to play. We never use up all of that time. Inevitably the game will close on a cliffhanger. Heck, it’s pulp heroics – it’s supposed to end on cliffhangers. Anthony always seems to find a good spot in the middle of the action to bring the curtain down “until next time”. I’ve actually gotten pretty good predicting when he will do it. Being in synch like this is a good sign, as it means we are reading the genre similarly.

That said, games that aren’t pulp benefit from ending on moments of tension as well. I’ve often made the mistake of ending on a point of resolution, and the effect isn’t the same. It’s like exhaling, pushing your empty plate away, and laying down on the couch for a nap.

Instead, closing the session on a natural moment of drama or tension or uncertainty is like holding your breath, leaning forward in anticipation, hearing that sudden noise behind you, and having time stop as you release the ball all at once.

Makes you want to come to the nest session, doesn’t it?

#RPGaDAY2020 day 27 ~ Flavour

Raspberry, boysenberry, strawberry, & lemon-lime. We are lucky indeed, for in the world of RPGs, there are a multitude of flavors to savor.

Few things are as sad as someone who stops or never starts playing RPGs because they “don’t like fantasy” or because they “don’t see the point in killing everything”, or what have you. In an ice cream shoppe with a million flavors, all they can see is chocolate. Too often, they have no idea that there other flavors to choose from.

Fortunately there are countless flavors of RPG experiences to choose from. For every genre like “fantasy” or “sci fi” or “horror”, there are seemingly endless sub genres represented by different games and supported by different systems and procedures.

Further nuances in flavor are found in the culture of play of groups and in play styles supported by different games. One can play many different ways in the same sub genre, focusing on different parts of the experience. This will of course affect the genre, but that is another discussion for another time.

The bottom line is that if we get tired of one flavor we can switch to another. If we were to try to explore all of the flavors, we could never get to the end of the metaphorical ice cream case. The possibilities are endless.

Whipped cream on top?

#RPGaDAY2020 day 26 ~ Strange

For each of us, there was a time when RPGs were strange. Weird dice, alien concepts, unfamiliar terms. When we tried to compare RPGs to other games, or improv, or theatre, or storytelling, or writing, or just about anything else we found the comparisons lacking.

Over time we became accustomed to the dice, the terms, and wha we thought RPGs were based upon our experiences. Maybe we were adventurous, but perhaps we limited our activities to what we knew. Maybe we got a really “strange” picture of the hobby by playing just one game, or only playing at conventions, or by watching a professional “actual play” and thinking that that was the “correct” way to play. Whatever the particulars, anything outside of our experiences became “strange”.

I like playing with new people sometimes. They haven’t had time to form opinions or habits. I just have to remind myself that the entire thing is strange to them, and that I suffer from the curse of knowledge. I have to take time to make sure they understand me, and that they understand what’s happening. I have to make sure that I listen.

Likewise, I have to remember to push myself out of my comfort zone from time to time. Play that weird game, experiment with that other trope of character, try an unfamiliar genre, embrace the strange.

Don’t be a stranger.

#RPGaDAY2020 day 25 ~ Lever

It pays to know what you are doing. Ergo, it pays to study it. Ladies & Gentlemen, it pays to read the freaking manual.

RPGs don’t just have settings and premises, they have systems. Hopefully a game will have a genre or idea that it is supposed to emulate or create, and hopefully the moving parts assist you in doing just that.

It’s not enough just to study the scenario and setting of a new RPG. One must also become familiar with the game system, the procedures, and the mechanics of the RPG in question. Sometimes when we aren’t sure, we fall back on role play and fly by the seat of our pants when it comes to engaging with the system.

However, if we are diligent, we begin to internalize the nuts and bolts of the game, and then w start to see how it really works. We begin to develop system mastery, and we learn how to leverage the system.

Sometimes we start to see how things work during character creation, and we are able to leverage the information in order to create a character capable of doing the things we envision within the parameters of the system. (My musketeer uses a deadly combination of Parry & Riposte talents to cut his opponents to ribbons…unless they happen to be vampires). Other times we learn that the system limits the concept in our head, so we make adjustments. In this case we have leveraged our system mastery to prevent character poisoning.

A player who has learned how to leverage the system to enforce genre and display competence can be a sight to behold. I’ll never forget playing Star Trek Adventures with the Complex Games Apologist and watching CGA effortlessly use the 2D20 system to have his character take control of the situation as a good commanding officer should.

So get cracking. Read that new RPG. Learn how it works, learn how it really works. Show up prepared to play and to leverage your knowledge to make the experience fuller via the system. And Bring donuts. Everyone likes those.

#RPGaDAY2020 day 24 ~ Humour

Way back when people were smart enough to deduce the nature of things without evidence, some of these smart folks believed that the body was made up of 4 humours which caused no end of troubles when they were unbalanced.

I’m pretty sure neither gamers nor RPGs are composed of black bile, yellow bile, blood, & phlegm. However, games have various ingredients and have areas where play naturally winds up focusing. Likewise, RPG participants have a mixture of interests, motivations, and intentions which bring them to the table, and that have them behaving in certain ways.

It may be possible for all of these ingredients and motivations to be in “balance” within a person or within a game, but it seems unlikely and drab. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen balanced humours in a gamer or an RPG.

Just like those crafty ancients divided unbalanced folk into sanguine, choleric, melancholy, & phlegmatic, so we can begin to identify games, systems, & procedures which emphasize some “humours” over others. We can start to see which motivations and intentions within us focus on particular feels, game experiences, and “humours”. We can see what actions and cultures of play naturally emphasize different humours and foster different experiences.

The RPG phenomenon is multifaceted. Humor me, take a look.

#RPGaDAY2020 day 23 ~ Edge

I remember when U2’s “The Edge” was interviewed in Guitar Player magazine back after their first album, and they asked him how he came up with his unusual style. He answered that he really didn’t know how to play all that well so he just made it up and it seemed to work.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that when you are involved in the RPG hobby, it takes some work to develop and maintain your edge. Some will disagree, but in my experience it’s not something you can practice without actually playing.

Way back in the day, they used to try to teach people with disabilities to tie their shoes by setting up a shoe on a wooden foot attached to a board. At some point very day they would plunk this contraption down in front of the person and have them practice tying the laces.

One day a visionary said “Hey, why don’t we have them tie their shoes when they are putting them on?” It seemed like madness, but that’s how they do it now.

I have found that the more I play RPGs and the more I observe and talk to the people I am playing with, the more I am able to maintain and sharpen my edge. Very often I know what I intend, but when I’m not playing enough, my execution is a bit dull. However, the more I play, the more I hone that edge and I’m able to translate my intentions into actions.

I hear that “The Edge” leaned how to plat guitar eventually. I preferred his original style.

#RPGaDAY2020 day 22 ~ Rare

“Yes, it is rare and wonderful indeed.”

“A point in every direction is the same as no point at all.”

The unusual and extraordinary are tropes woven into the fabric of RPGs. It is rare indeed to find an RPG that doesn’t have something just a bit unusual involved. For many gamers, certainly for most my age, playing in games with magic around every corner was an experience we had often. While this was exciting for a time, for many of us the sheen on the plethora of magic swords and potions began to dull.

If we aren’t careful, playing RPGs can turn into season after season of the show “House”. That show is great fun, but rare diseases are…..rare. Yet somehow that one hospital manages to attract patients with the most obscure maladies so frequently that they become commonplace. We can end up painting ourselves into the same corner while running an RPG, no matte what genre.

Sure, some genres are all about weird stuff and excitement at every turn. But many are not. The really freaky and exciting stuff shines and hits you in the gut because it is so rare. However, if you hardly ever pull the crazy switch, then the sessions run the risk of becoming a bit bland. Leaning just how much of a twist to add takes time, but its worth it when you get the feel for it.

As a sign used to say at one of my first jobs, “Anything well done in this kitchen is very rare!”