Monday, January 11, 2021

Knowing Your Players and Their Kicks

There is a lot of advice on the technique of running role-playing games out there. Referees think a lot about how to make fun games for their players, usually their friends. Thinking about the next game and scenario and optimal rule design becomes a hobby within the hobby. I'd bet that Referees spend a lot more time thinking about and planning for the next game than they do playing.

In light of that, Referees will trade tips as part of their meta-hobby. We learn from each other and we get to enjoy that hobby within the hobby by talking to other Referees.

How to run a game that is fun for others depends, however, on what it is we think we are doing. And the debate about what the role-playing game is, and what it is supposed to be, is as old as the game itself. Long-standing disagreements continue, as witnessed by Jon Peterson's new book, The Elusive Shift (my review here).

***

People thinking about RPGs have parsed players into types representing different needs.

Already in 1977 (White Dwarf #1), Lewis Pulsipher pointed out the existence of two kinds of players:

D&D players can be divided into two groups, those who want to play the game as a game and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel, i.e. direct escapism through abandonment of oneself to the flow of  play as opposed to the gamer's indirect escapism.

He described "two D&D styles," in what must be one of the first published uses of the word "style" to refer to an approach to role-playing games. (It's normal now for people to talk about "play-styles.")

Pulsipher divided the two main types (gamers and fiction fans) into two sub-types, giving us four kinds of D&D players.

1a. Players who focus on defeating monsters.
1b. Players who focus on solving puzzles and resolving situations.
2a. Players who try to create a fiction with a story-teller referee and player character protagonists.
2b. "Silly" escapists.

It is worth noting that the first D&D players really did come, by and large, from a merger of two earlier groups: table-top wargamers and science fiction fans. His perception seems to testify to that fact.

Pulsipher believed that D&D was intended to be a wargame (types 1), but that most players did not play that way, aiming at fiction instead. For what it's worth, Pulsipher identified himself as a player who primarily liked to defeat monsters (1a). Clearly, the D&D players who were joking around really annoyed him. He wanted a serious combat challenge instead.

Pulsipher deserves credit not only for one of the first typologies of role-player interests, but also in focusing on differences in what players want from the game as the source of the discrepancy in play-styles.

Gary Gygax, who was quite interested in the international market for D&D, surely read Pulsipher's article because he followed White Dwarf. He seems to echo it in the original Dungeon Masters Guide (1979, p. 9):

Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school. AD&D is assuredly an adherent of the latter school. It does not stress any realism (in the author’s opinion an absurd effort at best considering the topic!). It does little to attempt to simulate anything either. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity.

For fun, excitement, and captivating fantasy, AD&D is unsurpassed. As a realistic simulation of things from the realm of make-believe, or even as a reflection of medieval or ancient warfare or culture or society, it can be deemed only a dismal failure. Readers who seek the latter must search elsewhere.

There is a lot to unpack in Gygax's words here. I won't finish the job in this entry. It's complex. For one thing, he insists its a game not for simulation, but he then says it's "foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of imagination and creativity," and for "captivating fantasy." How is captivating fantasy not simulation? Well, Gygax's rules were consistently criticized in the '70s for being "unrealistic" in the way hit points, armor class, Vancian magic, etc., worked. The problem was partly that the critics chose the wrong word when they said "realistic." They really meant two things. They meant that it emulated their own favorite fantasy fiction poorly and they meant that it lacked verisimilitude. Gygax consistently (deliberately?) misunderstood them and countered that elves and dragons are not realistic anyway, so there was no point in the argument. It's a poor counter-argument that one encounters to this day. Gygax's argument was also aimed at competitor games like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) that claimed explicitly to attain greater "realism" (in the guise of historical medieval accoutrements).

Anyway, Gygax's misunderstanding aside, he clearly says "this is a game and not much else," even though he argues otherwise elsewhere.

In short, Gygax's views on what players wanted were not very insightful. Instead, they were self-serving. I include him here because he's a major figure in the evolution of RPGs and his views demonstrate how little thought was necessary to create and market a role-playing game.

Glen Blacow started as a D&D gamemaster in Boston in 1975. He and Mark Swanson set up a new APA zine collection together in Boston dedicated primarily to thinking about how to be a better GM.

Blacow's efforts led to his seminal essay on the types of players and their different goals in play, published in Different Worlds #10 (October 1980). He formulated a list of these reasons and analyzed why they were different. He observed four types of RPG player, which would become "classic" distinctions in this area of thinking.

  1. Power Gamer (wants to have the feeling of powerful character)
  2. Roleplayer (wants to inhabit a role)
  3. Wargamer (wants to beat the GM's challenges)
  4. Storyteller (wants to create fiction)

This is a direct ancestor of the Forge online forum game theorists of the early 2000s, whose pundit Ron Edwards argued in 1999 (wrongly, in my view) that there were basically three incompatible aims in role-playing games. In fact, Edwards' view was borrowed immediately from an earlier Threefold Model, articulated by 1997. Edwards innovation seems to be the argument that a game can aim only at one of them; that was not part of the Threefold Model.

  1. Gamism (very similar to Blacow's Power Gamer and Wargamer types: goal is to win)
  2. Simulationism (very similar to Blacow's Storyteller type: goal is to create a world)
  3. Narrativism (very similar to Blacow's Roleplayer type: goal is to develop vivid characters)

The last two remind me of advice given to amateur novelists to choose either to write a tale about a plot that unfolds or a story about a character who changes through events. A game, by contrast, is primarily about neither, but it's about the player's victory instead.

Edwards' argument that a role-playing game is "incoherent" if it tries to fulfill more than one of these three kinds of play at once makes no sense to me. Experience shows that individual games can satisfy players with different needs and interests simultaneously, even in the same play-group. The GNS model doesn't take player enjoyment seriously.

Some of the best fundamental tips for gamemasters that I know of now are in the short treatise by experimental role-playing game designer Robin Laws, published as Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering (2002). They read almost as if they were in answer to the Forge theorists. Laws exhorts gamemasters to be concerned with "Knowing Your Players" and what they enjoy. He lists a set of gamer personality types based on the emotions that they want to feel.

As an aside, I have mixed feelings about the price that Steve Jackson Games set on Robin's Laws. $8 for a 32-page pdf seems like a lot to me. Then again, the contents of this pdf, if taken seriously, are worth many gamemastering blog entries, and people regularly pay five bucks for the download of a short adventure module, so this price is probably worth it if you want to think seriously about making your players happy.

Anyway, Laws' gamer personality types explicitly and correctly credits Blacow for some of the model. In parentheses, I include my observations about what Laws does here.

  1. Power Gamer (straight from Blacow)
  2. Butt-Kicker (a sub-type of Blacow's Power Gamer, perhaps with a dose of Wargamer)
  3. Tactician (Blacow's Wargamer)
  4. Specialist (new category but basically a catch-all for odd sub-types)
  5. Method Actor (Blacow's Roleplayer)
  6. Storyteller (straight from Blacow)
  7. Casual Gamer (new category)

What Laws has added bears comment.

(A) He divides the older category of Power Gamer into one kind that likes to get new powers and another kind that likes to demonstrate powers by beating opponents. I think this may be a useful distinction.

(B) The Casual Gamer is the friend who shows up to play just to be part of the social group, but has no special engagement with the game. Your best hope for that type of player is that he or she will discover one of the other kicks, as an way to be more engaged, without hindering the immersion of the others in the process. I have known some players like this: they just want to hang out, and if we were watching a movie instead of playing a role-playing game, they'd be just as happy.

(C) The Specialist seems to be a sub-type of player who consistently wants to inhabit a very specific role, revealing a special, idiosyncratic kick. I have known several Specialists. There was one player who insisted that he always played an honor-bound dwarf. That was his kick. Over the years, when we played games that had no dwarves in the setting, he would shoehorn the concept of honor-bound gruff craftsmanlike character into that setting. I knew a player who wanted to play a sexy girl in every game. This was a good role-player with lots of brains and who used lots of variety in character roles otherwise, but that specific vicarious kick always had to be somewhere in there. Then there was a player who always played oddballs, characters who did not fit in and were slightly freakish, every single time. I don't judge these players for their needs, and I swear they were a lot more fun to have in a game than those summaries make them sound, but experience tells me that Laws is right that the Specialist type exists and that it's not just a subtype of "Acting."

Robin's Laws is ancestor of much of a list you will find on page 6 of the Fifth Edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide (2014). There is a section headed with the words "Know Your Players," obviously echoing Laws, over a list of the different kinds of kicks that different players are seeking. These are given as

  1. Acting (Laws' Method Actor + Specialist)
  2. Exploring (new category: enjoying the wonder of the fantasy)
  3. Instigating (new category: risk-taking)
  4. Fighting (Laws' Butt-Kicker)
  5. Optimizing (Laws' Power Gamer)
  6. Problem Solving (Laws' Tactician)
  7. Storytelling (Laws' Storyteller)

The 5e DMG omits Laws' casual gamers and specialists, probably as marginal types, although I don't think they are truly marginal types.

No individual is credited for this modified and expanded version of Laws' list and Laws' Laws is not credited in the book. (Did Jeremy Crawford write this page?)

The DMG list is also remarkably the first gamer typology that I have surveyed to mention two vital kicks that players derive, mentioned by no others:

  • vicarious risk-taking (the gambling aspect of role-playing)
  • the wonder of discovery and exploration

These are indeed two of the basic joys of role-playing games. They seem to be aspects of role-playing game design that have been left nearly completely unaddressed.

Vicarious risk-taking does come up indirectly in discussions about "who rolls?" In my experience, players enjoy being the ones rolling to determine their characters' fate. It's more absorbing.

The wonder of discovery is also discussed in passing. Perhaps it is implicitly discussed whenever players invent new monsters, magic items, and settings. But it's not a phenomenon discussed directly much.

***

What if we put all these models together, making as many distinctions as possible? What if we keep ourselves from trying to lump categories together, but to tease apart the subtle distinctions in player kicks that thinkers have identified?

 


First, we see that there is not a neat distinction between game-players and role-players corresponding to the two original populations that merged to form the RPG player community.

Second, players play for many complex overlapping reasons. There is no accounting for taste. Putting all this together, we get a list of distinct kicks that players get from playing:

1. inhabiting a role
1b. that may entail idiosyncratic kinds of wish-fulfillment, per individual
2. wonder of discovery
3. rush of the risk-taking gamble
4. vicarious violent victory
5. vicarious accumulation of power
6. satisfaction in solving problems
7. enjoyment of the tale
8. satisfaction from socializing with the others in the group--around, during, and through play

Most players derive enjoyment from each of these in different degrees, but the idea throughout these lists is that if you, the Referee, know what your players enjoy most, you can make games that they enjoy best.

 ***

Here are several stray thoughts that occur to me after conducting this sketchy survey.

  • Idiosyncratic needs of individual players (the "Specialists") are not much recognized. Because they are idiosyncratic, however, I suppose it should be up to the player, not the Referee, to find a way to harness those preferences, or to control them if they become obnoxious.
  • The derided "Power Gamer" type includes several distinct impulses such as beating the foe, solving puzzles, resolving challenges, and acquiring power. These are different things that may appeal to different players differently, and they cannot be lumped together as mere "munchkinism." If you are considered to be a Power Gamer, give some thought to what it is that really gives you your kicks, and it may turn out to be more specific.
  • The wonder of discovery and exploration has been left to the designers of adventure scenarios, mostly abandoned by designers of rule sets. Most games assume that discovery of the unknown will happen, but few rule systems have rules specifically about discovery. (Investigative games like Call of Cthulhu are exceptions, but even then they seldom give much advice on how to stimulate this aspect of player enjoyment.)
  • I wonder how much of the current fad to generate every darn thing in every setting and adventure randomly by tables is related to a sense of risk-taking.
  • Everybody apart from Laws assumes that the players are motivated to be involved. Casual gamers receive little discussion. I wonder if that is because casual gamers are left to drift away, and hence seem not to be part of the group under discussion.
Most of all:
  • A single page from the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master's Guide in 2014 (page 6) has the best concentrated advice about player kicks that I have seen. If you don't already have the 5e DMG, snap a photo of that page next time you see the book to study later, regardless of the game you are running. You also might like Robin's Laws, which was the immediate antecedent. It's not a revelation, but it has some insights worth reading.

I'm sure there are other lists like the ones I've surveyed here. Let me know if you think of player kicks that have been left out, that don't fit clearly under one of the headings I compiled.

UPDATE: Immediately after posting this, I saw that Jon Peterson had just posted his own take about the same thing, with some of the same points of reference. You can see it here. His entry takes the discussion of player types back before the birth of D&D.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Repeated Attempts by Different Characters

DM David has an interesting new entry on judgment calls the Referee makes when players want to try the same action over again after the dice already said the outcome was failure.

You should read that smart discussion to make full sense of this discussion, but the issue is one that every experienced Referee will recognize: under what circumstances do you let players re-roll to succeed after their character fails through a dice roll? How do you keep rerolls from depleting excitement and raising a degree of boredom?

I'm with DM David on this. First, don't make players roll for something when failure would cause the game to stop in its tracks. If the object of the quest is behind a portal that they can't open because of a failed die roll, that's not fun.

Second, the dice rolls mean little if your solution to their failure is merely to penalize them in time spent. (DM David cites a D&D third edition rule, which I had not heard of, that failure can mean it takes 20 times as long.) I can see how that would be boring, although perhaps it would be less of a downer if the Referee had already said, "You are sure you can pick this lock, but the roll will determine how long it takes." That matters when every minute is critical in the scenario, but what's the point of a roll otherwise if the outcome is guaranteed success?

Third, and most importantly (and again with DM David), I usually interpret the individual player's roll as determining whether any character can succeed. If the player's roll fails, that determines something about the game world: whatever it was is just not going to happen by ordinary efforts.

It's not going to happen, that is, without a change in approach. If the players come up with a new way to deal with the challenge, I may let one of them try again.

But does characters' taking turns count as a change of approach? 

There's one tricky kind of repeated attempt that I've seen players requesting as a change in approach: taking turns attempting the same task in view of varying character capabilities.

This example will explain.

The best lock-picker in the party fails to pick a lock. The players now want the second-best lock-picker to try, because the lower ability score suggests there's still a small chance. If the Referee says "no, you already had your best shot, it's not opening" then next time they will have the less-skilled lock-picker try first, to justify having the better lock-picker attempt a follow-up "change of approach." Shouldn't there be a chance that the expert succeeds when the novice fails? In this situation the players are are playing the game, not telling the tale, in wanting to increase their chances with multiple dice rolls. But no party in a dangerous situation would realistically put the amateur first (unless they were deliberately training the amateur). This is an example of characters relying on game mechanics (a.k.a. metagaming), which, for many, hinders immersion, and deprives the story of sense.

Would you count this tactic as a "change in approach," granting another attempt? I wouldn't.

One response to this that I have used is to tell the players that the lock-picker who fails encounters a jammed lock, or perhaps jammed the lock in the initial attempt, making it worse, like my own amateur home-repair attempts that create new problems. "You should have let me do it!" hisses the most expert lock-picker's player in response. Next time, they send in the expert first and the amateur holds the torch; if the pro fails, I say, "It's clear that there's no way you can resolve this aging lock without different tools, maybe a lot more light, maybe a lot of time--unless there's something stuck inside, or broken, which could be the problem here... Timekeeper, tick off five minutes on the torch. Folks, what do you do now?" If they insist on trying again, I don't let them roll. More time ticks away and I tell them it's not opening. No reroll.

Instead of letting them use variation in their character's abilities as an excuse for a change in approach, they should try a real change of approach: try a crowbar (making a lot of noise), contemplate a spell, figure out another way, or move on.

I do make one exception. In my home rules, characters have a Luck stat that diminishes whenever they Test their Luck. Sometimes I say, "Well, you'd have to be really lucky to pick that lock after the expert failed! But if you want, Test your Luck, and give it a shot!" The player, who is (probably unconsciously) metagaming in this request, is confronted now by a metagame stat that is a limited resource. If the player wants to spend that resource, which is also the basis for life-preserving saving throws, I don't mind giving one more chance. Confronting a player's metagaming with a metagame system seems to work. If they miss the Luck test, or, if lucky, nevertheless miss the lock-picking attempt based on that lower ability, that was their Luck point they spent. Too bad! And if they pick the lock, well that was sheer luck!

Of course, for problems other than locks, other versions of the "decisive failure" solution are possible. The point is that sometimes the answer is just "no." That's what the dice roll was for.

Then there's the "I try too!" phenomenon. I've seen this happen many times since I began GMing in the old days, and still today: A player fails at something like a test to see whether a character has some background knowledge (lore) or notices something (perception). The roll indicates failure. Immediately every other player jumps in: "Well, can I try?" "What about me?" "Me too, maybe I know!" Sometimes they even just start rolling hopefully and shouting results. If I say no, you can't, players feel shut down. "You mean there's not even a chance I'd know that?" If I say yes, we have a bit of a circus of dice rolls after the initial dice already seemed to say "no!" Depending on what was at stake, I have sometimes ruled, "If the educated wizard doesn't know this, none of you knows it. I don't care if you got a critical success." This applies story justice to the characters' varying specialties, keeping the dumb fighter from upstaging the scholar in book learning.

Or, with an initial failed perception test, I might say, "None of the rest of you was in a position to notice whatever it was" (and I try to be sneakier in making perception tests covertly next time).

Other times, I just let them all roll. It depends on what it was for.

Come to think of it, this happened a lot when I ran Call of Cthulhu, where plenty of rolls are used to reveal clues either in the environment or in simulated background knowledge.

Sometimes we Referees paint ourselves into a corner by requiring rolls to determine certain things that don't seem quite so random on reflection. For a quantitative matter like the force needed for snapping window bars out of brick masonry, or tipping a boulder out of the way, I try to avoid making players roll, unless it's to randomize the previously undetermined durability of the bars or the position of the boulder. Instead I decide a Strength total (or equivalent) needed to accomplish that task. I can't allow a weaker character to accomplish a feat of might that a very strong one already failed at, not without a very different approach to the problem.

The same applies to background knowledge. These days I don't ask for rolls to determine background knowledge of a specialized variety. In my home rules, for example, either you have the needed rank of the Ancient Languages trait to read that particular ancient inscription, or you don't. You either know the vocabulary and the grammar or you don't. (I would let a player with an insufficient rank in Ancient Languages roll to decipher it if the character brought reference works along and took the time to work it out.)

Collaborative efforts pose another challenge, but can be used to ameliorate the chaos of "I try too!" I'm sure I'm not the only one to have had situations where I required a dice roll to see if a player could lift a small dungeon portcullis (or similar task). Upon failure, another player chimes in and says, "Oh, my character gets down there and joins in the effort!" My mistake was allowing this to be decided by a single player's dice roll in the first place. Do you give players a re-roll when they help each other out after initial failure? In a way, that's not much different from the lock-picking situation I described above.

Most RPG rule sets don't have effective rules for collaborative efforts. They focus on the heroics of individuals in the group. It is the individual player who rolls the dice. Setting a fixed strength total requirement is one solution to this kind of problem. The drawback is that the excitement of rolling dice is missing when the Referee decides by fiat a fixed amount of required effort. The dice create excitement as uncertainty in the setting is resolved at random. Player dice rolls somehow also simulate effort in the player's experience. Referee fiat takes that away. Yet maybe the setting seems more real if quantities are fixed in advance.

In the end, navigating player requests for re-rolls is a matter of judgment calls. Increasingly, I firmly say no when the dice say no the first time, but there are two main variables for which no single rule will account: the specific nature of the task and the degree of variation in the players' new approaches to challenges in which they failed. That's why we have a Referee, after all: to allow characters to attempt anything when rules can't account for everything. Someone has to make the call. The issue then becomes, what keeps challenges fun? Allowing the players to wear down a rule system by repeated attempts to overcome the same challenge in the same way is not a satisfying, fun solution. Telling the players definitively "no" when the dice say no may make it more fun for them in the end.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

When the Grognards Were Munchkins

Happy New Year to all!

The premise of this blog is still my thinking about role-playing games and getting oriented to gaming today as a reawakened gamemaster well into my middle age. Today's entry is about generation gaps.

Munchkins

I first came across the term "munchkin" in a gaming context in 1982, reading an issue of Dynamite magazine that someone had given to me because it contained an article on Dungeons & Dragons, then my new hobby. (I think it was issue #94.)

The article described a visit to a games store with tables reserved for players. This strange new kind of game (role-playing games) was featured. One group of older D&D players was observed to have a serious and mature game. Another table, full of kids, was making far too much noise, and they had to be told repeatedly, finally at a shout, to quiet down. These were described contemptuously by the older players as "munchkins," rowdy and immature kid gamers.

When I read this, I understood the reference to the annoying little people from The Wizard of Oz. As a middle-schooler, I instinctively disliked the term and the slightly pejorative way it was used. I did not want to be regarded as a munchkin. Still, as I did not play much with anybody outside of a limited circle, my schoolmates at the time, it didn't really matter.

As Jon Peterson describes it in his recent book The Elusive Shift (my review of it here), the term came into use around the end of the '70s. He cites (p. 204) a "Wargamer's Encyclopediac Dictionary" from 1981 as contrasting the munchkin, "a young wargamer, generally under 14 or 16 years of age," with the grognard, "a wargamer who has been in the hobby for a very long time." The latter term had been around among wargamers since before D&D, because, as Peterson points out, the generation gap among gamers is cyclical.

He also cites the complaint of Bill Seligman in Alarums & Excursions 58 (June 1980) about the "Munchkin Hordes (crowds of D&Ders less than 15 years old)." He feared that their youthful, unthoughtful play-style would be the future of the hobby, relegating the artful achievements of the first generation to the margins.

In Dragon #36 (April 1980), Larry DiTillio wrote about the dilemma of morality and moral instruction of youngsters in role-playing games. He noted, before advocating the use of D&D as a medium for modeling tolerance of others' sexuality and race for youngsters, that

As we all know, a large percentage of those who enjoy fantasy gaming are youngsters between the age of 12 and 16. They appear in gargantuan hordes at every con, madly seeking games in a fashion that is best described as True Chaotic. DMs in their 20s 30s and 40s often shun these kids as players, or patronize them contemptuously, attitudes I find distasteful to say the least.

The large new wave of pubescent D&D players was quite noticeable in the hobby at the time, and some game stores even instituted rules to cap the number of young players in the house at once.

The concern of the experienced D&D players then was that munchkins were not role-playing. In their view, the munchkins were missing the point of the game. They were going on juvenile ego-trips, centered on treasure and power, and treating the new kind of game as a game, rather than something more, which it clearly had the potential to be.

Munchkins were perceived to play in immature ways. As literally immature humans, they had the potential to lower the hobby. Nobody had the reach to teach so many new players otherwise. The munchkins played to rack up powers and magic items, not to develop characters or stories. It was worse than the reports of 100th-level characters at CalTech in '75, because this was not the localized threat of a single group of brainiac nerds, but a general demographic boom.

TSR notices and responds

The "hordes" of "munchkins" could not go unnoticed at game conventions. TSR saw the opportunity and profited from the new market. In my view, in doing so they boosted the hobby enormously. These kids were exactly the crowd of new players to whom Tom Moldvay's D&D Basic Set (1981) was marketed, "ages 10 and up." By virtue of my birthdate, I was a munchkin in 1981 and I did not even know it.

If you look at Moldvay's Basic with the generation gap in mind, some of its distinctive details make more sense. Although the AD&D Players Handbook (1978) mentions briefly, in tiny type, "There is no 'winner', no final objective, and the campaign grows and changes as it matures" (p. 7), Moldvay's Basic is the first D&D rules that I know that address this in a separate section with its own heading entitled "How to 'Win'," with the word win in scare quotes. It says (p. B4),

"Winning" and "losing", things important to most games, do not apply to D&D games! The DM and the players do not play against each other... The DM must not take sides... Player characters have fun by overcoming fantastic obstacles and winning treasure, but this does not end the game. Nor is the game "lost" when an unlucky player's character dies, since the player may simply "roll up" a new character and continue playing. A good D&D campaign is similar to the creation of a fantasy novel, written by the DM and the players.

This is pretty clearly a mission statement for D&D: it is a collaborative story-telling game to generate an enjoyable shared fiction. That was the explicit goal of the game, in the introductory rule book.

I think this paragraph was intended to address the phenomenon of "munchkins," the younger players at whom this set directly aimed. I can tell you that I read this section carefully and took it to heart. I remember telling some of my first players, as a young kid, "This is not a game where you win or lose!"

Gary Gygax's adventure module B2 Keep on the Borderlands was included in the box with this Basic Set, making it the gateway to adventure for many, many players at the time, including me. It is clear that the module was printed with the plan that it would be distributed this way, as the module explicitly anticipates that many players may already have a copy of it, so that the DM would have to change features of the scenario. Although Gygax's advice to players typically centered around his concept of D&D as creative problem-solving, he nevertheless directly exhorts new DMs to take on the roles they play and to act them out using funny voices and noises and gestures. He acknowledges that this may seem "too difficult" to some DMs, but basically says you should try anyway because you will get the hang of it and you will "exercise your imagination and creative ability to the fullest."

Again, I think that words like these were intended to incite young "munchkins" to experience the story-telling power of this unusual new type of game that was not just about winning or losing, getting powerful items and bashing things with them. It was about the enjoyment of creativity.

In other words, the Moldvay Basic set was designed to embrace the new "munchkin" audience while explicitly teaching them the goals and behaviors already elevated by the numerically fewer role-players of the first generation, and to avert antisocial and game-limiting munchkin-like behavior. It did this cleverly by not prescribing to munchkins what should be considered bad fun, but by telling them that there was a more lofty goal in the game than merely winning over and over.

The munchkins grew up

The munchkins who kept playing got the message one way or another and participated in vivacious role-playing, as many of my generation will attest. We never called ourselves munchkins (a term requiring an older point of view), but we had our own version of the label. We disdained "power gamers," a term I first heard in high school from a GM a few years older than me, Ben (whom I wrote about once). It was not that we thought the vicarious thrill of imaginary power was bad. It was that the power rush should not be the goal of the game, but rather merely a fun side effect.

The gamers I knew never called anybody grognards. It was a term unheard of when I was young.

As I wrote when I started this blog, I abruptly left role-playing games in the '90s as my professional life demanded all my attention and I moved away from all the players I'd known. Upon returning little by little in the last year or two, aided by my children, I found that munchkins were back, in a sense, and so were grognards. They just referred to different things.

The idea of the munchkin had gone from stereotype to brand. Steve Jackson Games, headed by an old-time genuine grognard and member of the first generation of D&D players, eventually published a popular game about this type of gamer, Munchkin, in 2001, with the tag-line "Kill the Monsters. Steal the Treasure. Stab your buddy." That certainly encapsulates the original complaint about what munchkins did: anti-social power-gaming. It does not appear that the term munchkin has really come back into use, though, as a general term. It seems mostly to refer to the game.

The flipside term returned, too: grognard, originally the term of contrast with munchkin. Quite a few aging players of role-playing games have adopted the name grognard for themselves, playfully or not. By the looks of things, though, for the most part they are the same people who were, like me, considered immature munchkins in those days: players of D&D who were 15 or younger at the end of the '70s or in the very early '80s. Some of the new self-described grognards are even younger.

People can call themselves what they want, of course, and there is no harm in this name. If grognard means just that you have been playing for a long time, everybody gets to be a grognard if they hang on long enough. But I think it's funny to notice that the original munchkins now get to be grognards. A lot of the experienced and most thoughtful DM bloggers are, in fact, of the "munchkin" generation.

And there is another funny side-effect of this. Some of the new grognards/former munchkins have wanted to revisit their earliest play experiences. I too feel the pull of nostalgia, like a tractor beam from the Death Star. But in the process, some among them have insisted, in various ways, that the game is merely a game, not a vehicle for story-telling or simulating a novel. That's exactly the kind of attitude that some of the first D&Ders lamented about them when they were munchkins. When former munchkins tried to recreate their own original play-style, as in the OSR movement, they naturally edged up against the very play-style that the first generation of D&Ders looked down on: munchkinism. Yet now, unlike then, parts of this approach (kill monsters, take treasure) are supported by a vast array of truly thoughtful justifications and rationales, a whole philosophy about why gold pieces should give power-ups and why the least coherent, original rules are the best. If you read these essays you may well be persuaded, too. Why not play it just as a problem-solving game, nothing more profound? There's no harm in that, either.

Some former munchkins also became game designers going other directions. Jonathan Tweet, lead designer for D&D 3e (2000)--but who should be best known as co-designer of Ars Magica (1987)--related in an interview how the DM of the college players he played with when he was 12 (1977 or 1978) killed him off to get the kid out of the game. This is the very generation gap that soon after came to be signaled by the term "munchkin." Yet Tweet deserves credit as one of those who did the most to develop systems that prioritize the story-telling aspect of role-playing games.

I had a similar experience of unwittingly being a munchkin. My mother noticed that I was dying to play my new D&D game more, but I needed more regular players besides my sister and schoolmates too many blocks away. In the summer of 1982 she signed me up for a "D&D club" at the local park district within walking distance. You paid a small fee, got dice and a lead figurine and access to a few sessions in a multi-purpose room with a big table. This was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and the term "Advanced" impressed me mightily. I made a gnome illusionist with the guidance of the DM, who was in his 20s. But the room was packed with players, mostly ambitious and commanding teens, and nobody heard a word I said once the dungeon adventure began. Desperate for something relevant to do, I finally acted out. I tried to steal something from the party, not even realizing that this was the munchkin stereotype, and I got neutralized somehow. I barely remember the details, but I remember not having fun, not keeping up, and not knowing what was going on. Afterwards I was playing exclusively with age-mates, for whom I ran modules as we all entered adolescence and acquired somewhat greater cognitive and reflective power.

A word to the young from the formerly young

For young players who read this (and by young, I mean younger than 35), there is an epimythium. The aspiring geezers like me who talk today about how it used to be will soon enough disappear into the megadungeon of eternity, never to return, in the TPK railroad scenario that is life. This will leave you to grow gray-haired in turn, to acquire plenty of experience (not for gold pieces, I note, but only for showing up and good role-playing), and perhaps even to level up in the course of time. One day, if you hang on, you can play the part of grognards, if you like the name. Then the younger players of the future may listen to you as you tell the tale about what it was really like in the old days, when there were people still alive who had met Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and had touched the Original Magic and who were initiated into the inner mysteries of gaming. Or maybe the younger players will sigh at you as politely as they can, ask you to stop telling them how to have fun, and play as they wish, because the Original Magic is always available, not the property of a single generation. As a former munchkin who did not even know it at the time, I hope that's what you do now.

Oh, and also: welcome younger players, give them meaningful choices to make, and listen to them.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

REVIEW: Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity (2020)

REVIEW

Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, US$35.00.

Did you think that there was an original Dungeons & Dragons style of play that can be recaptured and revived?

Did you think that D&D (or Blackmoor, or Braunstein) was the first game in which players adopted individual imaginary roles described by numerical statistics for ongoing campaigns?

Did you think that the first role-playing games were only one step away from tabletop wargames, and that storytelling and acting out a role were secondary developments in role-playing games, and possibly even untrue to the original concept?

If you have thought any of these things, you need to read this excellent book, which demonstrates in 310 pages, with a gentle, witty tone, that all of these views are false--although the book is not written as a corrective, to its merit. It nevertheless does so on the basis of irrefutable primary sources, including plenty of first-person player accounts and a bunch of obscure early role-playing games, some scarcely heard of even when published, that the author has carefully examined over years of study.

Jon Peterson presents a thoughtful, learned, well-researched study synthesizing and explaining what the first players of fantasy role-playing games thought they were doing and what it all meant. The focus of the book is on the years 1975 to 1980, the first period of wild experimentation after the appearance of D&D. This was when players went right through the gateway of D&D and created something bigger: FRP, "fantasy role-playing." Readers who want to know about the emergence of D&D itself should read Peterson's much denser book Playing at the World (2012). The Elusive Shift, by contrast, is an account rather about what the first fantasy role-players thought their games meant and the explosion of creative experimentation that ensued.

The account begins with earlier context, with wargames of the '60s that already included role-playing individual characters. The epilogue discusses games and their designers in the '80s. The focus of most of the book, however, is specifically the late '70s. That focus is the key to the book's effectiveness, combining little-known sources to reveal the exhilaration of the first players of the new form of entertainment and their divided opinions and drawn-out debates about what fantasy role-play could be and should be.

The book succeeds wonderfully in its goal. Peterson's unmatched knowledge of early RPG zines and other sources from the period is clearly based on carefully scrutinizing thousands of pages of materials from the '70s, often badly typed and faded, as well as materials from before and after. This is a lot of work but Peterson makes it look effortless, moving fluently from one gamer's personal account to another, tying together the threads of their discussions, lightly assembling for us the dramatis personae of the first RPG philosophers who wrote to each other beyond their local play-groups, noting who was responding to whom in each instance. The reader can easily follow the first evolution of debates about just what role-playing games were and players' hopes and fears for their destiny.

The book does not aim at larger historical context. It deals with English-language materials only, which makes sense of the period in question. Something similar might be done for the reception of role-playing games in other languages, though non-English receptions will probably post-date the early period in which fans and not game corporations called the shots. The world awaits such studies. Other large-scale factors such as economic considerations and broader cultural tendencies are not mentioned. The strength of the book is its close focus on the personal views of the gamers who first documented their D&D games and who created and developed house rules, variant systems, and the first fully-fledged separate games that moved beyond D&D. This was the elusive shift that players sensed underway, but could not pin-point: when D&D gave way to an entirely new field of immersive social entertainment, and when participants in that new form of entertainment found themselves stumbling on something more profound and affecting than the games they had known before. But what was it? A new form of art, a new form of performance, of collective story-telling, of psychological self-revelation? Or was it merely a problem-solving game blended with strategy played through tokens given personal names? From the start, thoughtful players acknowledged that this was something thrilling and radically new, but they could not agree on what it was. This book explains those debates, as far as players back then documented them, before role-playing games became an industry.

The Elusive Shift fills an especially significant hole in RPG hobby lore that is otherwise lost in old limited-edition zines and similar scrappy, sometimes literally crumbling materials unavailable to most today. For decades, the same philosophical issues in gaming have been debated over and over, but a fun past-time hobby like this lacks institutions of the kind needed to transmit complex theoretical and historical knowledge of early cutting-edge ideas. Combine this with the tendency for experienced players to teach their new players that their way is "the right way," and we are left stuck in hobby-wide amnesia. I would add to this another factor not discussed by Peterson: the effectiveness of TSR and the RPGA, both instruments of Gary Gygax in the early '80s, in controlling the narrative of what role-playing games were supposed to be, a narrative that newbies absorbed as foundational. With successful marketing in the first commercial boom of D&D, Gygax's concepts eclipsed the immediately prior, often brilliant and experimental independent fan-created ideas of the first players. Peterson does explicitly discuss this generation gap, showing how even in the early '80s new players were debating afresh the same issues that had been thoroughly discussed just a few years before, in the late '70s--but there was nobody to tell the newcomers how it had gone. The seasoned players of the first wave were mostly aloof from the "munchkins," their disdainful term for RPG newbies around 1980. Accordingly, they did not transmit well their realizations and arguments. Ever since, players have been reinventing the wheel with each new wave of newcomers, and they continue to do so today. The Elusive Shift should go some way toward undoing the effects of this amnesia for the present.

The book will not tell you, nor does it intend to tell you, how to play in a purported original way, but rather proves decisively that there was no single original play-style. Peterson rightly argues (p. 218) that "the radical pluralism of approaches to role-playing games demonstrates the futility of trying to define or optimize such a diverse practice," and (p. 280) "Attempts to recapture some single originalist philosophy of role-playing games... will therefore always be representative of only half the story of how these games were played by the first adopters." Read the book to find out why that is true. On the way you will encounter ideas for play once taken seriously but now forgotten, or that you thought of before but never dared to try, or that you thought meant one thing but can be used to mean another. This reviewer's sense is that role-playing game play-styles at large today are, generally, much more homogenized than they were in those first years. Has anything been lost? That depends on the individual player and player group, and matter of preferences which is at least as elusive as the shift named in the title of this book.

Anybody interested in the history of role-playing games must read this book. Anybody interested in what is happening when we play role-playing games must read this book. Peterson has done a great service to players and historians alike.

Monday, December 7, 2020