Firstly: This is required reading material.
I went to PAX East this past Saturday. I go for really only one reason, and that’s the annual Warhammer 40K Tournament, which is a lot of fun, fairly laid back, and I’ve never had an unpleasant game while there. There is, however, something inherent in gaming conventions that makes me uneasy. It’s the same thing, honestly, that makes me uneasy at sporting playoffs and rock concerts and any other event in which the combined
masses of fandom converge to worship. It’s not just the crowds (though I’m not crazy about crowds), but the presence of groupthink. I would feel the same way at PAX as I would feel at a celebrity wedding or the coronation of a new king: here is a massive group of people hopelessly enthusiastic about a thing that is (1) not of their making and (2) in existence for the purpose of purporting the illusion that it is, in fact, of their making. Everybody talks about how ‘their’ team made the playoffs, but unless you live in Green Bay, that team is in no way, shape, or form yours. There is a whole subset of people who define their worth and orient their personal emotional health upon the presence, absence, and/or disposition of entities that they, themselves, have no influence over. It weirds me out.
There is something different at a gaming convention like PAX, though, that isn’t quite as obvious at sporting events or rock concerts (though it is clearly and undoubtedly present). The naked materialism of it is on a scale that even stadium owners might envy. Well, no, maybe ‘materialism’ isn’t the right word (you’re paying $6.00 for a hotdog at either venue and lauding your collection of themed clothing in the same exact way). I think instead what I’m going for here the way in which consumptive choice interacts with evaluations of personal self-worth, as described by the blog post above.
I’m reminded of a quote from Simon Pegg:
Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.
Now, when I first heard this quote, I cheered its sentiment as a defense of geekdom. The more I thought about it, though, the less enthused I became. There are a couple things here that trouble me. Firstly, ‘not being afraid to demonstrate that affection’ is misleading. I am certainly not afraid to demonstrate my affection for, say, Warhammer or role-playing-games or science fiction. That, however, is not license in itself to harp and gush over them to a unreceptive audience or to behave like a child. More importantly, though, is the way in which geekdom often chooses to express this enthusiasm and, indeed, how society dictates our enthusiasm should be expressed in general. A geek wears costumes, has themed T-shirts, owns themed bedsheets or salt shakers, and professes their vehement allegiance to Dr. Who or The Walking Dead and will not accept their favorite franchise’s faults. This shouldn’t be necessary or even recommended for a ‘true fan’; it is, as Pegg himself says, childish. The ‘supposed adulthood’ Pegg alludes to is not really a negative thing. It’s the awareness that your enthusiasm is not necessarily mirrored by everyone else and, furthermore, that such enthusiasm is not correctly represented by spending money on frivolities that in no way reflect the aspects of your particular franchise that make it a worthwhile thing in which to indulge. If you’ve got a pokeball salt-and-pepper shaker on your table, how am I expected to react to that? Even supposing I am a fan of Pokemon, what the hell does a salt-shaker have to do with Pokemon? What is the message here?
The second thing I take some issue with is the idea of geekdom (as described by Pegg) as being ‘extremely liberating’. Maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, maybe I’m a bad geek or nerd or what have you, but I don’t really see ‘liberation’ at PAX. I see, instead, collective self-assurement. The throngs of costumed gamers at PAX assuage the collective anxiety gamers often feel in non-gamer society. They are self-identifying themselves as an entity outside of the ‘mainstream’ (whatever that is) by associating themselves with gaming franchises and, often, specific characters inside that franchise. They are, in essence, defining themselves by what they consume and gaining confirmation that their consumptive choice is positive by the presence of so many other like-minded individuals. This is the opposite of liberation – this is conformity. Now, I’m not saying that geeks and gamers shouldn’t be proud of what they do for fun, but I am saying that the decision to express this pride in such tight confines and in such prescribed ways is suspect. I am forced to ask of the sundry Batmen and Marios striding about the BCEC: Are you holding Mario up, or is Mario holding you up?
Okay, okay – I’m being unfair, and probably a bit hypocritical. There were lots and lots of people at PAX who got dressed up just for fun and that didn’t treat the weekend as some kind of ‘safe zone’ for consumptive choices they make that they feel aren’t welcome elsewhere. Indeed, there are probably a lot of folks who didn’t go to PAX to salivate over what they intend to spend their money on next and, instead, went to have fun and play games with new people, just as I did myself. However, to make the claim that so-called geek ‘culture’ isn’t predicated on the idea that consumption defines our personalities would be an error. It is, and far too many of us buy into it. A lot of geeks are having their strings pulled by other people (many of whom aren’t geeks at all), and that bothers me. When I go to PAX, I have fun and I enjoy the costumes, but I also get the same feeling I get when I’m walking to Fenway Park amid a sea of Ortiz jerseys: Are we actually our own selves, and is that a good or a bad thing? Why can’t we have the courage to be our own person and present ourselves as such, no jersey or t-shirt or funny hat required?
Does this make me a bad nerd?
A lot of what goes on in a role-playing game is world-building. You, the GM, are trying to create an environment that the players will find themselves swept up by – you want them to feel like they know the place, like they understand it. This principle is essentially the same one as applies to good science fiction or fantasy or, hell, good fiction in general: people can’t get emotionally invested in a world they don’t feel comfortable in or that they cannot understand.
In fiction, the writer has more power over how this happens compared to a role-playing game - he or she can write in a style that evokes the proper feeling, they have greater control over dialogue, description, and exposition, and so on. Even if they screw it up the first time through, they get to go back and revise and adapt and improve. GMs do not have these luxuries. A GM has to make it work on the first try, he isn’t the one talking all the time, he can’t control player dialogue and, no matter how talented an improviser he is, there is realistic limits to the mood he can effectively create. That is why it is a beautiful thing when a player meets the GM halfway and begins to flesh out the world alongside him.
One such player was my friend Josh in my Battlelords campaign from about seven or eight years back. Battlelords is a kind of space opera scifi game
with ridiculous alien species all thrown together in a kind of incredibly fatal melting pot. This game had the highest character fatality rate of any I’ve ever run, and it wasn’t just me – the system demanded such things. The combination of the silliness of the aliens and the society along with the deadliness of the gameplay made a very darkly humorous game and into this environment Josh thrust the evil space-squid, Commodian Phentari.
The Phentari are a species of violent, brutal bipedal, cartilaginous cephalopods. Standing seven feet tall and breathing methane, their favorite dish is human and their favorite activities usually involve a kind of ritual dismemberment ideally after a nasty betrayal. They approach the world with an arrogant, barbaric aggression – they are going to take what they want, kill anyone who gets in the way, and have tons of fun doing it. Commodian fit right into the mold – he was deadly, smart, and cruel. That, though, isn’t what had this character make the list.
The actual background of the Phentari, you see, is a tad bit sketchy from the game material we had. I was improvising rapidly trying to fill them out into something more than just a blatant pander to the violent urges of your average adolescent teen male. I tried to make their society something that made sense, or at least on their terms. Josh, a skilled improviser himself and an experienced gamer, hopped right on board. He created new and interesting behaviors for Commodian, attributing them to ‘Phenatari culture,’ and made controversial in-game decisions sometimes for the sake of maintaining the cultural integrity of his character. If a fellow PC died (or was dying) he would eat their corpse, claim their stuff, and refuse to share (as was proper Phentari etiquette). During the party’s in-game poker nights, Commodian introduced a variant of the game called ‘Phentari Bluff’. It was five card stud, but the point of the game wasn’t to show your cards but rather to physically intimidate the other players into folding before any hands were seen. I believe a particularly heated game resulted in him shooting another player in the hand.
Commodian brought an enormous amount of dark humor to a game that, at its structural base, is an elaborate and indulgent D&D-meets-Shadowrun knockoff. He made the world seem real, detailing everything from Phentari banking (also known as ’grave robbing’) to Phentari mating practices (don’t ask). These details led to the creation of other details about other species, and the whole thing snowballed into a vibrant and fun world in which to set a game. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible if I was doing it all myself, but with Josh’s contributions (and everyone else’s, too!) the whole thing was a lot of fun.
Been a while since I waxed philosophical about RPGs, so here we go:
You know that moment in (almost) every D&D campaign where the PCs all bump into one another in some roadside inn and then, a half hour and a tankard of ale later, they’re running off with these near-total strangers to slay dragons? Did that ever rub you the wrong way?
It’s ridiculous, right? Who does that? I mean, most people don’t run around with total strangers in real life, and we live in a world devoid of roadside trolls and murderous death cults (well, okay, mostly without the death cults). I mean, it would be one thing if they all had compatible personalities, but the dwarves never get along with the elves, the wizards are always mocked by the fighters, and the thieves are always, always dickheads. How do these folks suddenly decide to risk life-and-limb together?
I mean, we all know why: it’s metagaming, pure and simple. PCs have that ‘new PC’ smell about them that draws adventuring parties like bug-zappers draw mosquitoes. You all have to hang out together or you don’t have a party. If you don’t have a party, you don’t have a game. We just tend to close our eyes, suspend our disbelief, and roll with it.
How to Deal With It
There are, of course, a variety of ways around this; ways to justify the all-important meeting and have the PCs hang out together long enough to plausibly build actual friendships. Here is a brief (and doubtlessly incomplete) list:
Option #1: They Need Each Other
This is the easiest and most straightforward method to do things. The PCs have to stick together to survive for a certain period of time. Perhaps they find themselves in a town that is under attack by horrible (whatevers) and find themselves sticking together simply to survive. Maybe they are all prisoners in the same dungeon and have to rely on one another to escape and then, of course, find themselves stuck together as fugitives from whatever force placed them in the prison to begin with.
The options are numerous, but most of them are in medias res type beginnings. This is a bonus or a drawback, depending on the kind of campaign you’re running, since an episodic game with a rotating cast will resolve the issue that is keeping them together rather quickly and then, in the next session, you find yourself back at square one. Furthermore, even in serialized games with long plot arcs, sooner or later the thing that brought them together is going to get resolved. Then we are either left closing our eyes and assuming they stick together or watching them shoot off in various directions.
Option #2: It’s Their Job
This is an easy one and can very quickly build long-term party cohesion: all of the PCs are employed by the same (whatever) and are, essentially, coworkers. They need to put up with each other whether they want to or not. They might be mercenaries, in the military, part of the same secret society, or any number of other options – all of them can work.
I’ve used this one a lot, and I can tell you a couple things. First, this set-up leads to automatic intra-party bickering. Since the characters aren’t required in any sense to like each other, many of them don’t and your players will engage in entertaining-but-time-wasting arguments with each other just for fun. Second, this an ideal set-up for a game with a rotating cast, since you can easily have this or that PC ‘transferred’ for a session or two without straining anyone’s imagination. The primary (and only) drawback of this situation is that you are relying upon external forces to keep the players together. Some players might chafe at this and, furthermore, if the external force gets removed somehow, you are back to square one.
Option #3: They Are Already Friends
This is another easy one that requires just a little background work for each character. All you need to do is have each character start with a positive relationship with at least one, but preferably two, other characters. Your PCs are already buddies, have already been through hell together, and they should join up without squabble or reservation. Give them a collective motive and bingo – you’re on your way.
There is, however, a drawback to this set-up. It is, primarily, that it limits the kinds of characters that can be plausibly connected without straining the feasibility of the relationship. If you are playing in a campaign were Fizziks and Gurkles have been at war for centuries, and one guy wants to play a Gurkle Chieftain and another guy wants to play a Fizzik Enforcer, it’s going to be a tough sell to explain how they’re friends already. You can probably make it happen, but it’s not a natural fit and will require a lot of backflips and contortions. Now, if this doesn’t bother you, then go ahead. It might bother your players, though (after all, that guy making the Fizzik Enforcer made it specifically so he could hate Gurkles and the Gurkle Chieftain had his whole family enslaved by the Fizzik Empire…).
Option #4: Don’t Even Try
There is no law in (good) RPGs that states that parties must stick together all the time to survive. I mean, that’s the case in D&D, but that is more video game than it is RPG, in my opinion, anyway. Use Option #1 just to give them an initial stick-together period and then loosen the reins. Let them go where they will, do what they will, associate with whomever they chose. The characters that most naturally would associate with each other, will. Those who wouldn’t, won’t. No biggie. It’s their game, let them explore it.
The drawback here, though, is a fairly substantial one that has two parts. Firstly, it is pretty daunting managing 3-4 storylines at a time as a GM. It takes a lot of prep, a good head for improvisation, and a sharp memory. Second, and related to the first, you’ll wind up with long periods of playtime where some players have nothing to do. When I used to run long-run campaigns, this kind of thing would happen from time-to-time (sometimes too often), and I’d have six PCs in four locations. If you were Group A, you’d be playing only 25% of the time, and the other 75% was just sitting around and listening. I was fortunate enough in most instances to have my players really engaged in the action of the game, so they often didn’t mind listening. Some, though, got bored, and I don’t blame them. If you try to use this method, make sure to keep it under control and plan on bringing the party back together sooner rather than later.
Anyway, that’s my bit on this. I should note that I mix and match all the methods fairly liberally in my game. No matter what, though, I strive very hard to keep the artificial and the meta-gamey out of my party dynamics.
Twenty years ago or so, I was given a copy of the FASA strategy game Succession Wars. It’s basically Axis & Allies, but in the Battletech universe and with a less confusing ruleset. I think. I don’t know for sure because I have never gotten anybody to play it with me. This is not the only game I own that is in this category. I can lump in the FASA games Centurion, Leviathan, and Aerotech. I own a copy of Junta I’ve played twice and a copy of Diplomacy I’ve never actually used (the only games of Diplomacy I play occur via e-mail or online). That list isn’t even counting the RPGs I’ve bought but never actually run (including ones I wrote myself), the multiplayer video games I’ve never actually played with another human being.
I’m not actually complaining, believe it or not. Life is full of more important things than playing games and a great many of them are significantly more fulfilling and enjoyable. It is a point of regret, though, that I never have gotten around to having fun with these things. Other folks have garages full of badminton sets and cross-country skis they never use; I’ve got shelves full of games.
I’m not the only one with such a shelf, either. Many of my friends are significantly more weighed down with tons of boardgames they’ll never actually get around to playing (well, perhaps once), have shelves full of video games they’ll never really play, and have stacks of RPG stuff they’ll never have time to run. Rare is the gamer whose eyes aren’t bigger than his or her free time, particularly now that gamers my age are getting older, have more and more real-world commitments, and many more significant responsibilities to take their time and attention. Gone are the halcyon days of our late teens and early twenties, when we could devote entire 36 hour periods to orgies of nerdery the likes of which would shame Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
Well, what are a group of adult nerds to do about this? Are we to go silently into our middle age and regretfully pack up our Piles of Shame, resigning ourselves to a period our lives where the gaming is infrequent and mediocre? No! We must establish a plan to stake out our game time! We must requisition basements and attics for our use! Others have their ritual trips to the bar and inviolate Sunday sports sessions–why cannot we gamers have our time? So, to that end, my suggestions for how to address this issue:
Be Realistic: You and your friends are adults with families and jobs and responsibilities. You are not going to be able to spend six hours every single Sunday playing boardgames or RPGs and expect everybody to show up all the time. When planning out RPG campaigns or boardgaming sessions, keep this in mind. Those games that take ten hours to play and require massive amounts of time and attention are going to be difficult to schedule.
Be Specific: When you invite your buddies over to game, have a specific game in mind (e.g. “We are going to play Succession Wars”). Don’t just say ‘games’ or you’ll play either the same old stuff as usual or get caught up in everybody having different interests and never actually agreeing on what game to play (and then you wind up playing the same old game everybody can agree on).
Plan In Advance: You can’t really call up your buddies on a Friday night and expect them to be free Saturday afternoon. Plan a week or two in advance or have a fixed schedule that everybody’s aware of (‘the first Friday of every month’ or ‘every other Sunday afternoon’), and that way people are more likely to be able to make it.
Be There: If you say you’re going to go, go. Make it a priority. Yes, it comes in behind work and family, but don’t blow off one social engagement (which is what games are) for another social engagement. Barring rare exceptions, blowing off your gaming buddies to go drinking with your work buddies is pretty insulting on the one hand and takes away from the enjoyment the rest of the gamers will derive from the game on the other. Blowing people off is especially rude in the case of RPGs, where, in most cases, your presence is required to play your character and the lack of your character can derail whole adventures.
Keep Your Mate in the Loop: For those of you who are married or in long-term relationships, make certain you let your girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever know when you are gaming and where and so on. Let them know that this is important to you and your friends (even if they think it’s stupid themselves), and you’d really like to make it. Provided your spouse is a decent person who values your wishes, doing this kind of thing will prevent unfortunate double-bookings that prevent you from Being There. Also make clear that he/she has the ability to override gaming time if something obviously more important comes up (this includes things like illness, sudden familial obligations, etc., etc.). I could go on, but I’ll stop here, as we are starting to delve into me giving people relationship advice, and this blog is not the place.
There are other tricks, too–setting up RPG campaigns with rotating character rosters that don’t require the same people to be there every time, for instance, or playing board games that have short play times, and so on. Those five rules, though, ought to make it so that you can enjoy gaming well off into your golden years where, presumably, your time will free up all over again.
Retirement homes of the 2050s are going to be goddamned gamer paradises, I kid you not.