Back to the Beginning

When I first began tabletopping, it really was rather like playing in one of those linear-plot video games. It was high school, I was trying D&D for the first time, and what we were doing was pretty much a string of battles with an Excuse Plot. I gleefully toyed with the personalities of my characters, far outside the bounds of the session, but rarely inside—and it was all right, because that was The Way Things Worked.

Then I went to college, and joined a group that mostly seemed to run on characters’ decisions. Discovered what it was to be the odd one in a group; overcompensated a couple groups later and ended up taking over two major powers, in two settings, with two different PCs, mostly by accident. Went from fighting my way through things by default to slipping on a disguise and negotiating, to sabotage, to just not being belligerent in the first place. Instead of being entirely dependent on the whims of one die, and beginning every session with “Are you ready to MISS?” (yes, our dice hated us that much in the first group), I found myself boosting my rolls with good descriptions, ways to exploit facts about my character or the actions of the players around me, or just knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent’s fighting style and changes made to my own to take advantage. In short, I got used to being in what approximated the pilot’s seat.

Then I let myself get recruited into another game. The GM had sounded like my type, tendency to string a bunch of modules together notwithstanding, but he did reiterate, more times than we entirely needed to hear, that our choices mattered. (I suppose this should have been a warning sign; the rest of my groups generally took this concept for granted.) I told him about the kinds of crazy plans he could expect from my boyfriend and me given our history, and he smiled and nodded and ranted a bit about old groups of his that hadn’t had concepts like subtlety or common sense, and we in turn smiled and nodded and wrote up builds that were different on the battlefield but both variations on con artist. He gave us a choice of opening modules; we made a point of choosing one that seemed like it would give us the most chances to, well, talk. In practice, we fought things, with one brief bout of stealth, and the NPCs given to us to bring us out to a full four-flavor party hauled the game in the appropriate direction if it seemed like things were taking even remotely too long. (To be fair, we were playing in a public and therefore prone-to-closure place, but still….) There isn’t time for personality, much less for working within the character concept, just one fight after another.

Then we got to last session. For the most part, it was a Big Long Fight during which we rolled for everything (three rolls per turn seemed to be the minimum) and ended up with base rolls in the single digits about 80% of the time, with the further annoyance that, despite being the group skill monkey, I wasn’t even sure what I was rolling more than half the time and thereby couldn’t point out that my modifier was probably higher than he expected. Coming out of this, we found ourselves in what looked like the perfect position for one of my signature Cunning Plans, the kind that tend to result in the spearman disguised as someone else disguised as a troublesome wandering warrior, or in one of the PCs arranging her own arrest in order to deal with a fraudulent accusation of treason against someone else entirely and to protect the accused. Leave a message at the drop point we’d just cleared, it’d get picked up, we could lure the traitor into a place where we could (hopefully) get him to reveal his own duplicity before conking him on the head. No, the GM insisted through his fighter-NPC, no time, now said NPC and my boyfriend’s PC would sneak here and do this while mine and the cleric NPC would do that (I am sick of splitting the party this way; I may be the person first recruited, but my boyfriend gets most of the screen time). Can’t we just ditch these people and go be con artists for a while?

As we leave, I hiss to my boyfriend, “Are we playing D&D or are we playing Skyrim?” The issues are the same—expecting far more impact for our choices than we’re even remotely given—and my patience is starting to fray; if I want to know I lack this much control, I’ll go play a video game and at least have people in-world squealing over my character’s competence rather than the NPCs only saying anything at the (obnoxiously frequent) failures. This probably won’t last; I’m not sure I feel like letting it.


  1. UZ says:

    Play style differences? I won’t refer you to your own “types of fun” posts, but a person becomes a GM by the interaction of certain forces and the result is not always best suited to your play style.

    This is normal. The recent tacticization (which is totally a word) of RPGs means that if your GM presents you with a map of the room that you’re in, odds are you’re about to be attacked, even if it’s your own bedroom and you just got out of bed. Some GMs only have experiences in line with this play style. Some only have experiences in line with video games. Some are self-taught and are equally rigid on their own merits.

    I’ve probably mentioned before that my own GM style would probably best be called “storytime with Zombie”, which I’m willing to bet most players can’t stand. I happened to fall in with a group that was comfortable with campaigns consisting mostly of boxed text and that was lucky, or they were too polite to complain which was also lucky. The fact that few people actually like to GM may have something to do with that last part, they’re more willing to put up with a low-grade game from someone else than to have to run one themselves.

    Also allow that not everyone is comfortable with improvisation, even if they consider an RPG their number one hobby. The story construction in some modern RPGs is pretty strict (FFXIII was popularly called Corridors and Cutscenes, but the problem is by no means restricted to video games) and you can live in a fairly ordered universe and still be able to play comfortably through a D&D4e campaign without having to improvise a whole lot.

    So – differences in play style! The GM may just be trying to tell a story, or they may just be following the rules; it’s up to you to figure out whether this is good enough for you to continue, whether you might try to illustrate the difference by GMing yourself (assuming they want to play) or whether the whole thing is a bust and you should look for a better opportunity.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Yeah, probably. What makes it frustrating isn’t so much that it turned out the way it did as that we’d gotten the impression it was going to be much more like… well, like what we’d gotten used to. We’d already talked to the guy once about the NPCs basically declaring “this is what we’re going to do now” at the end of a scene, and he’d known several weeks in advance that he was going to be running for talky people–and the impression we’d gotten at the time was that we’d be permitted to be talky people. Different people have different forms of fun–but when you’re making it very clear what your forms of fun are, and you still aren’t getting much of any, there’s probably a problem.

    (Okay, that and the guy sets off my sexism alerts almost constantly, though not in ways I feel particularly comfortable calling him on–this is, among other things, that game I referenced a couple weeks ago in which the guy couldn’t come up with a better reason for the NPC fighter to bail out his squishy-mage teammate rather than the recently subdued into cooperation fighter who’d tried to hold us up a little while before was “oh, she’s a GIRL gnome”. I’m sure this is a good game for someone, but I’m not sure I’m going to make it to Level 5 before I lose my temper.)

    Running, though–yeah. If I weren’t already running two games, I’d be running him a pickup game of Legends of the Wulin, show him how we roll here. Problem is, I’m playing this game because I’m sick of doing almost nothing but run. Can’t win.

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