30 October 2014

In Which I Muse About Younger Gamers...

  I think of myself as a second-generation Grognard.  I was born when the first generation were cutting their teeth in Lake Geneva and didn't get into the hobby myself until 1986.  Thanks to friends of my mom's, I soon had a healthy library of games dating back to the 70s.  I consider the game scene from when I was growing up to be something of a Golden Age, with tons of games to choose from.  D&D Basic, the Mentzer BECMI edition, had great artwork and modules, trade dress that leapt off the shelf, and we were just about to see the Gazetteers that would fascinate me with Mystara to this day start publication.  TSR was pumping out Marvel, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Indiana Jones... FASA had Star Trek and Renegade Legion, there was GURPS and Cyberpunk and Twilight : 2000 and The Morrow Project and Aliens and... you get the point.

  When I was a middle schooler, that first year of D&D, we had a fixation on gaining levels and gold.  My first Magic-User built a tower, ruled a hex in The Known World, and climbed into the upper 20s level-wise.  I was, briefly, the creature I encountered much to my dismay this past weekend in a basic way.  What saved me was quickly moving into games where the levels and loot didn't matter all that much.  The story took center stage, and gaming for me became like reading a series of novels or watching a beloved TV series.  The levels were not the end, the end was the story and the levels were the means to reach it. 

  I have, since the late 80s, been a Game Master/Dungeon Master for whom the story was the main reason to play the game.  I have generally had players that are in agreement.  My best friend Randi is infamous among our group for doing something that would be dangerous for her own character and then saying "It's good for the story..."  Randi understood the simple truth that protagonists in the story don't always have to win for the story to be good.  As with The Empire Strikes Back, sometimes the story is even better when the protagonists get their tails kicked.  Gamers from my generation, and moreso the generation before it, understand for the most part that failure and character death are part of weaving a good narrative. 

  So, during our 24-hour Extra Life event, we managed to raise $1,192 for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.  This was good.  I also had to deal with the most frustrating situation I'd run into in gaming.  This was bad.  I said some cross words.  I had a terrible reaction to the situation.  Allow me to explain.

  Our group had decided we wanted to marathon the new 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and I had decided to bring my classic modules to run with the new D&D.  We settled into our table, with me having my own office chair from home (hours later those who laughed at me for bringing it were nodding in understanding) and my gaming equipment.  Laptop for YouTubing our updates and music, whiteboards for initiative and HP notes, a box full of old modules from the B series to the Desert of Desolation AD&D series.  Dice, pencils, everything.  I hid my notes from prying eyes with a pair of ancient DM screens.  We were ready.  I even had a brilliant retro-looking character sheet to help put the players in the old-school vibe.

  Dice started to clatter and our party took shape.  It was a particularly martial party, all rogues and fighters and a barbarian- all non-magical  save Ed's Cleric.  After some quick setup and a battle to knock the rust off, the players were on their way to Castellan Keep in the Altan Tepes mountains.  They were about to undertake the classic B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.  By now it was time to take a break, and two players who knew Eric came by, and were interested in playing.  Being a nice DM, and knowing that two of our players were delayed by work, I let them sit in.

  This was mistake number one for me.  New rule: When gaming for 24 hours with people, make damn sure you know them well enough to get along with them when the hour grows late and tempers and fatigue start to appear.

  Turns out, Eric knew this couple from D&D Encounters at Rogue's Gallery, the local game store where I used to run Encounters as well.  It was a great time.  Rogue's runs two tables on Thursdays, and the wife of the pair played at Eric's table.  Eric had no experience gaming with the husband.  This would turn out to be some important information we should have had - his play style.  To make a long story short, it was antithetical to the old school play style in every way possible.  It broke the social contract of the game, the one in which the DM is the arbiter of the game, and drove home the differences between how I grew up playing D&D and how some of these younger players grew up playing D&D.

  Before play even began, and after having it explained that we were generating new characters at the table, our new couple frustrated us by attempting to use their organized play characters, with the husband attempting to let the wife use her 3rd Level Fighter from Encounters.  We explained that no, she could not be 3rd level when everyone else was 1st, and that nothing we did here would port over to their characters in any case since we were not playing by the current organized play rules.  This was purely a home game, and no treasure or XP would be applicable to Encounters or any other organized play association.  This was met with a sigh and the word "Fine" from our new player, who favored us with a rather condescending smirk.  I would grow to loathe both that smirk and the word "fine" before the night was over.  His wife, for her part, seemed perfectly content to play any level character, and made no protests when we told her she had to be level 1.

  The first sign of in-game trouble occurred during the first expedition to the Caves of Chaos by the players.  After two combat engagements in which he told his wife every move to make with her character,  Hubby Boo Boo  announced "Let's take a long rest so we can level!"  Immediately the old schoolers at the table explained to him two issues with his suggestion that they felt he might not understand about our table- first, that the characters are not aware that they have levels or XP totals.  Second, XP and leveling would only occur at the Keep in this case because a secure place to rest would be required.  Now, I did not announce either of these facts- the players automatically knew them since they were also of the older-school tradition.  We all chalked it up to "new player" and drove on.  He insisted that perhaps the party could secure the room they were in inside the caves, and long-rest so they could level right there.  Once again, and not quite as patiently, the concepts were explained.

  Eventually, the party returned to the keep where our New School Nemesis announced to the party that I had obviously failed to properly calculate the experience points for the monsters that had been defeated, and the party should be leveling up at this time.  I started to get a little upset at this, and referred to the Excel sheet I had created to factor in XP for me.  All the monsters were ticked off, the totals looked correct, but dividing the XP by seven meant the PCs were close, but not over the XP necessary to level.  I started to explain this, but Ed had already begun to tell him that as DM I was handling the XP, and that the totals were what I said they were.  "Fine."  Smirk..

  About now I noticed he had his PHB and Monster Manual on the table, and he was keeping notes.  While we were recuperating at the Keep he asked the sage if he could get an enchanted whip.  The rest of the party was already weary of how moments before he had been arguing with me over the resale value of some weapons they had taken off some Orcs, and more than one pair of eyes was imploring me to move the game along.  The sage told him that certainly it was possible to enchant a whip, but not any regular run-of-the-mill whip, it would have to be made of an unusual leather.  This, I thought, would be the end of the discussion.  We had no such luck.  Hubby Boo Boo immediately recalled the Owlbear the party had encountered and retreated from.  He wanted the party to go help him slay the Owlbear so they could come back with the hide for his magic whip and the bit of XP they needed to level.  The party proceeded not to care about the Owlbear, since they had a commission from the Castellan to clear out the greenskin tribes in the Caves.  There was no need to kill the Owlbear, since it posed no direct threat and might even frustrate the greenskins by its proximity to their caves.  HBB looked annoyed that his fellows had no desire to help him on his quest.  He asked if he could go by himself and get it.  At that point I should have allowed him to go, get killed, and be done with him.  I shamed myself for thinking it, this young man just didn't get the game.  Maybe playing with our group would be good for him.

  Back to the Caves.  More adventure.  More repeated requests to go get that Owlbear.  More group ignoring HBB.  More HBB telling his wife how and what to do in-game.  The party engaged more Orcs, during the battle HBB was trying to tell me which Orcs could hit which players, and correcting me when he felt the Orcs had a different hit point total than I had given them.  A couple of the players reminded him who the DM was, and we kept going.  Back to the Keep for rest, and as the DM was in the bathroom, HBB and his wife were erasing things on their character sheets and writing in new stuff.  Ed asks them what they're doing.  HBB tells Ed they are selling the loot.  Ed asks how they can do that without the DM being present.  HBB tells Ed that all captured gear is worth half what the PHB says it's worth.  Ed says not without the DM being at the table, it's not.  There must be a market for it, someone in the Keep must have the money to pay for it, and the price is actually negotiable.  "Fine." Smirk.

  More fun occurs when divvying out the coin the party has collected.  The total in announced in GP.  Several of the other players look up.  One asks "Didn't we find some silver and copper?"  It had all been converted to GP.  Ed asks where the party found a moneychanger and how much his fee was.  I explain to the whole group, so as not to single anyone out, that unlike many of the computer games they might be familiar with, you can't just total things in gold when they were received in silver, or electrum, or copper.  This seemed an unnecessary complexity to our new comrade.

  The game came to a screeching halt after the next sortie.  The players, organized by Jim at my request (I was becoming too fatigued to keep up with the cross-table talk and the multiple conversations) came up with a plan.  A good one, but every DM's nightmare.  They would split the party three ways.  Hubby Boo Boo and his wife would accompany some of the Keep's horsemen on a false caravan up the King's Road.  The rest of the party would split up 3 and 3, and sweep north along each of the hills flanking the places where they had found the Gnolls and Orcs had created ambush blinds.  The hill teams would engage the ambushing enemies after they had taken the caravan under fire, thereby catching the bad guys with their attention elsewhere. The Plan included a pair of warhorns to signal the center team if the flank teams needed support.  The armored horsemen were supposed to be able to hold on their own.

  I was tired by this point.  It was 0130 Sunday morning, and we'd already had a near fistfight due to fatigue and short tempers.  The ceiling fans at DLair were shorted out.  The room was HOT.  Tension was high.  Nobody wanted to be a dick to the new guy, but his shenanigans were really getting on the nerves of all hands.  I decided to turn up the encounter intensity and added a new creature to the mix.  The left was engaged by Orcs, the right by Gnolls, and up the center I used four Orogs from the new Monster Manual.  Orogs are big and mean, but the party was by now all third level, seven of them, and they had heavy horsemen to back them up.  If they played smart, they'd be OK.

  The plan went to hell almost immediately.  When the horns were blown, Hubby Boo Boo stayed in the center, and ordered his wife to do the same.  When he did decide to move, it burned time that should have been spent during the early rounds, and then wasted that time turning and heading BACK down the hill.  He spontaneously had a horse, which the DM had not been informed he had, and I just decided not to argue to keep the game moving.  The Orc chieftain and Gnoll leader were giving the side teams fits, and the Orogs were nigh unhittable due to dice luck and an AC of 18.  HBB's wife scored two very solid arrow strikes on an Orog, and the damage slowly started to tell.

  Healing potions and magic started to be used to keep the party on their feet, and slowly the tide turned.  The Gnolls finally all fell, and the right flank headed down the hill to support the center.  The Orc chieftain almost killed Raul's barbarian outright, save for the Barbarian ability to stay on his feet with 1HP if the hit that reduced him to 0 didn't have enough damage remaining to cause an instakill.  The fight was pretty epic.

  By the time everyone regrouped in the center, the wounded Orog was attempting to fall back with his three comrades.  It was pointed out, quite reasonably, that if the party did not drop at least one, they may not think the party was a powerful enough force to deal with.  The Orog was dropped between arrows from HBB's wife and a spell from Ed's Cleric.  They players declared victory as the three remaining Orogs retreated.  Now, purely looking at numbers, had those Orogs charged instead of fallen back...  TPK city.  But, I'd decided the Cleric's display of Divine power plus the wicked accuracy of that bow had made the Orogs think again once they realized their allies were all dead.

  The party limped back to the Keep, with their dead NPC horsemen along with the wounded and some loot.  Here's where the straw broke the camel's back.

  We were negotiating the take from fencing the loot, and I began to say the Orog breastplate would fetch a decent price, when HBB stopped me.  "The Orog had an armor class of 18.  That means he wasn't wearing a breastplate, he was wearing full plate.  Full plate is worth 1,500 gold.  You said he was tall enough to look a horseman in the eye flat-footed.  That means his armor must be huge, and therefore worth more."  His attitude and eyes were all but accusing me of cheating the party.  It got quiet. 

  I got up and went on a long bathroom break.  When I came back, I attempted to get started again and the topic of the Orog armor was brought back up.  I explained  that the Orog armor could not be sold at the Keep because it was a bordertown without the kind of money he seemed to think it was worth, and even if it was worth that much money, who in the Keep would want it?  Nobody could wear Orog-sized armor.  If they could get to a larger city, maybe, but right now it was just impossible.  "Fine." Smirk.

I finally lost my temper.  I railed that in no uncertain terms that I was the authority at the table, that the DM's word is final, and that hit points, monster locations, treasure, loot, XP and when people level are all adjudicated by the individual Dungeon Master at their individual tables.  There was that damn smirk again.  "I'm just trying to learn how to DM."  God, I wanted to say how I pitied any group he ended  up in charge of.

  That was it, the game was over as far as I was concerned.  I cleaned up the D&D stuff and broke out Car Wars the Card Game so that we could actually game through the required hours until 0800.  People left.  Before long it was just Quinn, Ed, Eric and myself- and Hubby Boo Boo and his wife.  Here's where things got odd.  She had a really good conversation with our players about D&D, and asked and had answered some questions.  The whole time this was going on, and I was cleaning up, and Car Wars was being played, Hubby Boo Boo was sulking over his PHB, making notes after notes and speaking to no one.  FOR HOURS.  Like, three of them.

  So, here's the deal.

  I think that I and most of my players grew up during the TSR age of D&D.  Back when the Monster Manual listed "number appearing" as opposed to creating encounters based on the power level of the party.  Back when treasure was random, and so were some encounters.  Back when "game balance" was something that happened when the players knew enough to run away from anything they couldn't handle.

  Somewhere all of that changed.

  In 4e and 5e, it seems the default for building encounters is based on the level of the group.  The group is also more or less expected to all be the same level- unlike earlier D&D games where the XP necessary to level up was different for different classes.  The monsters present in a place were what seemed appropriate to that place, or based on the average number likely to be encountered or in a lair.

  In these later editions it was explicitly spelled out, perhaps because both are designed to be compatible with the organized play paradigm, that characters could expect X levels every Y adventures or encounters.  It wasn't as freeform as it used to be, it was more like a programming code.  This was especially true of 4e.

  The organized play paradigm adds more to this- treasure amounts being standardized and homogenized.  Rewards being calculated on an algorithm, rather that a Treasure Type table that could be quite swingy from one end to the other.

  I think this kid got his D&D feet wet in an age of player entitlement.  He fully expected his character to be rewarded with XP and treasure commensurate with the amount of time he had been spending at the table rolling dice.  If he perceived that I was withholding his character's due, then *I* was the asshole DM.  I was obviously playing wrong.  If every Orc didn't have 15 HP, I was cheating the players.  If he couldn't reverse engineer the AC of the Orog into armor and then sell it, I was cheating the players.

  This is a HUGE cultural and play style gap.  I and my fellow grognards still roll for monster HP.  We still roll for monster damage.  Yes, there is an option to standardize both in 5e, we don't use it.  In our D&D, the idea of playing as if my PC is conscious that he is 50XP away from 5th level is completely wrongheaded and breaks the immersion of the game. 

  He expected everything to run like clockwork, as 4e does.  He even made his own sketches of the battle as I explained it, theater of the mind-style, and corrected me when my mental image of where things were conflicted with his.  That, too was off-putting.  Players in my game do not quote rules to the DM.  Players do not make corrections to the DM.  The players play, the DM DMs, and we all drive on. 

  It's trust, I suppose.  My players trust me not to cheat them.  They trust me to make the story happen.  If I kill an Orc 5HP too soon or 5HP too late, I either rolled a different HP total for that Orc, or I had a story reason to do it.

  This guy was auditing me as the DM.  Watching my every move, checking my math.  Not only was this unnerving, it was bothering me on another level- like a lack of respect for the game I had crafted, and for myself as the Dungeon Master.  This is where I feel the player violated the social contract of the game.  He argued constantly with the DM, breaking the way the game must work, and he consistently put the needs of his own PC above those of the party, nearly getting other party members killed in the process.

  Is this kid just a victim of the most recent trend (that 5e is admittedly capable of bucking) of player entitlement, or is he just an asshole?  This was a topic of much discussion over the past few days.  I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he WAS just trying to learn how to DM.  Maybe that's why he was checking my math and following the action step by step.  Maybe he wanted to learn how an experienced GM does it.  Maybe his insistence that the DM owes the players something for their time, rewards for their PCs for the investment of playing.

  That's just not how it was done when I was coming up playing D&D.  The angry part of me wanted to say "Look here, son, I have dice older than you.  HOW DARE you tell me how to run my game you entitled, spoiled little snot."

  Maybe I'm the asshole.  I have it on good authority from my regular players that it's not me, it was our guest player, the inestimable Hubby Boo Boo.

  My players also said it's too bad his wife can't play in our group, because once he was otherwise occupied she was very animated and a lot of fun to talk to...

  So what is it?  Is it a play style thing, or is it this particular person?  I just don't know.

4 comments:

  1. Judging by your harrowing account, it's a play-style thing, and his play-style is "asshole". ��

    Additionally, I think he's probably an asshole away from the table, considering the way he attempted to play his wife's character sheet (and NPCs, and monsters, and the DM) as well as his own. And I use the words "character sheet" because that's all he was playing. It doesn't sound like there was any "role" to his play at all— only "roll".

    I have a VERY difficult time playing alongside gamers who play this way. Thankfully I've never GMed for one, but I promise it's just as frustrating for the other players as it is for the DM. Kudos to you for not blue-bolting his ass.

    F**king Munchkins... *grrr*

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  2. I really appreciate this write-up. Bad experiences at the gaming table happen for lots and lots of reasons, and it's good to have a chance to examine one in such detail. I agree that the guy was probably a dick off the table too.

    But like you say, too - he came to the table expecting a different game. It's not just play style but expectations about what we are all settling down to do, because they former might mesh but if we disagree on the latter things can get broken.

    But the guy handled himself poorly by any interpretation, which sucks. It's one thing to tweak the DM and ask for the full value plus of the armor, but if the call is not then you walk away. It wouldn't be unreasonable for the GM to have said "Oh yeah, I guess you're right" and give him something.

    Because it IS important to meet people half way, to see what they are interested in and give it to them sometimes. Or to figure out what they think is important and take it away, only to give them a chance to earn it back.

    But my interpretation coincides with yours: This guy goes and plays in a game where the rules are adhered to strictly because the tables all have to be the same. We can follow that up with a good guess that part of the game for this guy was playing the game by the books, it was a challenge to challenge and correct the GM.

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  3. I have been that player. Allow me to share MY motivation. It may match your situation, it may not, but I think you're 100% right it has to do with trust.

    In a lot of places, the ratio of GM to player is fairly low. This means that groups stick with GMs, bad or good because there is little other option. You guys mention that the new systems are an algorithm more than a game, and shitty GMs is why games are being designed that way. It helps make GMing easy for the new GM (raises the GM to player ratio) and helps give players concrete support when faced with a shitty GM, with whom they play or not at all.

    When you have a new GM (remember this guy didn't know you any more than you him) you're naturally a little distrustful, so you keep an eye on him. Will he be a good GM or not? Sometimes you catch a GM error that way and it's an honest mistake. Other times you catch errors and the GM attacks you with ethereal mummies. Your player that took over for you and told HBB that you assign XP and that's that instead of letting you show your math actually made this situation worse. Instead of showing HBB that you didn't make a mistake, you just took into account something HE missed, your player told him essentially "This GM is allowed to do whatever he wants. Suck it up." (Note I'm not blaming that player. He was helping and intended well, I'm just betting it ended up hurting more than helping)

    Once you know you're dealing with THAT sort of GM, you keep track of everything, because there's no telling where he'll decide to arbitrarily screw you over next and maybe you can win SOME of those fights (chances are if you can't win any of the fights, it will only take one or two questions or corrections before rocks fall and characters die, so if you get past the first couple challenges, you know you can win one now and again) so you keep track of everything and challenge everything. Maybe you just win a few, but MAYBE crappy GM notices you're on to his shit and, because you're policing the table stops trying to slip shit past everyone, or MAYBE, it's a long shot, but just MAYBE he'll realize what he's doing wrong and learn and then you don't HAVE to police him anymore. Regardless, once this fight has started you can't even quit and walk away because you're doing a service for the whole table. You're protecting all of them and any lessons the crappy GM learns benefit all of them.

    Note that you also don't help by ending the session early after you're so pissed that if you don't you'll flip the table. In his eyes that's because you can't take him being right and showing you up any more, so you're taking your ball and going home.

    And that's the mindset I've seen time and again, and done myself from time to time. So it IS a matter of trust, sometimes it's a lack of trust in your competence, sometimes a lack of trust in YOU, but in the eyes of the player, it's your random, unreliable fiat that's the problem. It helps if you think of the guy as a dog who's been kicked one time too many, so he stays in the corner far away from everyone, and growls if anyone gets too close to his food bowl.

    I think there IS hope for this kind of player beyond "Never play non algorithmic games again". I think that handled well they can see that (with SOME GMs) the loose style of play compliments the fun, not the over-inflated ego of the GM, but that's not really your job and it's not like you can accomplish it in a single session anyway.

    Anyway, like I said, YMMV. Maybe I'm reading WAY too much into it and he was just a dick and was being a dick for dick's sake.

    P.S. I know I'm what, 5 months late to the party, but you linked this on facebook so fair game in my book. :p

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