In recent days I’ve been force to think about my approach to gaming. My good friend of many years JM had put a lot of work into a campaign setting of his own creation. It was a rich and imaginative world that held a lot of potential. My friend filled many pages with background, rules and great character classes and a whole lot of options. Along with another life-long friend of ours (we’ll call him AH) we began playing in that world, and having fun. But, I must admit, I was less engaged in that campaign than I had been in others I’d played in the past.
I enjoyed hanging out with my friends and rolled dice, but the campaign itself never “grabbed” me. I was just going through the motions. I didn’t understand why at the time and neither did my friends. The campaign world was great, my friend is a great DM who is skilled at eloquently describing the scenes and action our characters engaged in, and he was always well prepared. However, I just couldn’t produce any characters that I cared about.
After a time, my two friends decided to revive an old group of characters and start a new campaign rooted in a Forgotten Realms campaign that we played twenty years ago. We re-rolled the characters and started a new campaign run by AH. I was on fire for that campaign and threw myself into it with great enthusiasm. Unknown to me, that enthusiasm caused some vexation to JM, who saw it as an indictment of his campaign and skills as a GM, and was contemplating abandoning the campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fault, if there was fault, it was mine.
It bothered me greatly that JM felt slighted, and started me thinking about how I could have done more to embrace his campaign. After a few days of such introspection, I came to the conclusion that, as a player, I’m hard to please.
The accumulation of imaginary treasure and experience points weren’t enough for me. I wanted to get involved in JM’s narrative, and have some effect on it. It’s just the way my brain works. All the treasure and experience levels in creation didn’t mean anything if the characters had no goal. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the campaign JM had created; I liked it so much I really wanted to be part of it.
I wanted to be involved in the complicated politics of the city state of Northwind. I wanted to participate in the subtle machinations of North wind’s all seeing church. I wanted to smell the pipe smoke and beer in the taverns. Being in the world was different from being part of it. The thing is, at the time, I didn’t realize that I wanted any of those things. I thought that the setting was so detailed and imaginative, that my characters would naturally slide into the world. I didn’t tell JM what I wanted to do, so he had no way letting me do it; the quintessential failure to communicate. This resulted in frustration for both of us.
The point is that, even if you’re not running a campaign, you still have to do some work if you’re going to play in it. Look for ways you’re characters can enrich the campaign. Weave them in to the setting by working with your DM to help him tell his story. JM will likely read this entry, and I hope he will take heart and keep his campaign alive.
A curious thing happened during tonight's gaming session. We were playing a band of eight elves daring the danger-saturated depths of Undermaountain, when I was compelled to answer nature's call. Upon returning, I found that my fellow Foaming Flagons had been comparing a group of characters that we had played two decades ago, two the newly rolled band of elves, and had come to the conclusion that the newer group lacked style and spontaneity when compared to the older characters.
Reflecting on those years,I see that my fellow Flagons are right. In tailor-making a group of characters to conquer Undermountain, we had become too concerned with winning the game, and less concerned with playing the game. In the old days, action often came before thought, avarice overcame caution, and glory was more valuable than treasure for our characters. This old, well-tried group of characters were called the Fellowship of Blood, for they were bound together by blood; the spilled blood of enemies, and the blood shed fighting shoulder to shoulder and back to back. (We could not find a name for the Elvin band, and that in its self is telling)
Hours would sometimes pass with the Fellowship of Blood simply finding diversions in taverns before a single die was bounced across the table. My friends and I would change our voices, and speech to match our characters and have them share heartfelt sentiments, argue, and otherwise interact with each other. Because of this, when at last dice clattered on the table, the outcome mattered more than it otherwise would have, because the characters live in our imaginations: they were characters, not just character sheets
After some more discussion, we suspend the campaign with our elven characters, and re-rolled the Fellowship of Blood; resolving to recapture what we had lost. The days of of old are again new, the adventure begins again, and I do believe I feel a little younger.
There is just something about the sound of dice as they bounce across the table, and decide the fate of you characters. It just plain cool to open your dice-bag and see the multi-colored pieces of plastic (although the Flagons have lately acquired metal dice too) spill randomly out on the table as you and your buddies prepare to embark on the night's adventure. In fact, the process of preparing to game is damn near as much fun as the actual gaming.
If you are running the game that evening you are setting up your GMs screen, putting markers in all the right pages of the books your are using, taking down adventuring parties marching order and other vital statistics, and getting ready to put on a good show. As you are doing all of this, you set the tone for the gaming session and, hopefully, getting your brain ready to immerse itself in whatever gaming world you are playing in that night.
If you are one of the players, you are making sure your character sheets are up to date, going over your lists of spells, equipment, and special abilities in order to get the most of out you characters. If you are artistically inclined, you may be perfecting those character drawings that help make your character come alive in your mind and, if possible in the minds of the GM and the other players.
Then the session gets started. The GM sets the scene, perhaps giving a brief recounting the events of the last session, and then unleashes his fiendish imagination on you characters. In your mind's eye, steel clashes against steel, arrows fly, and killing magic crackles through their air leaving ruin in its wake. When it is over, some of your characters may be dead; some will be better than they were before, and some will be laden with hard won, but precious imaginary treasure. It is imaginary adventure yes, but also quite real.
Imaginary events become great memories in real life. Things like getting just the right die-roll at just the right time, the stupid idea that actually worked, or one that failed in spectacularly hilarious fashion and caused an equally spectacular death of a character. All of these occurrences make memories that can be relived and enjoyed for many years.
What I am saying here sometimes the experience of gaming is worth more than the experience points earned by the characters. Like my point in last week's post, gaming is about people, and an experience shared by people. This thought struck me over the holidays because I realized that most of my most treasured memories stem from gaming with the Foaming Flagons, not the "It’s a Wonderful life" type memories that are supposed to stem from the holidays. I have a few of those, and they a great, but the memories that make me smile over the years involve gaming; imaginary adventures; real memories.