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View From The Big Chair

IV: "The Old, The New and the Ugly "

by Matthew Webber
Nov 18,2004

 

Editor's Note: These were posted out of order, so the material may sound a little outdated in retrospect. My bad.

View from the Big Chair

IV: "The Old, The New and the Ugly "

The Democrats bored the hell out of Boston, the Republicans are swarming like WASPS on the Big Apple, and your gaming group is on its way over. Bush and Kerry are at the table for a long game of Greed and Government, so what are you going to play?

This might not be as simple a question as it first appears. Sure weve all got our stable of favourite game-worlds, preferred rules systems and the characters we just love to play. The problem is, they dont always come together in the same game. And then there are that inevitable night when someone comes over with a new book, eager to blurt out "we have just got to try this!" So what do you, stick with what you know or roll the dice on some brave, hopefully fun, new world.

There is something about picking up a book by a favourite author. The reassurance of knowing that you are probably going to enjoy the experience even before you crack the spine most certainly applies to roleplaying games just as well. Both GMs and players can get all misty and swap war stories while they blow the dust off an old campaign or resurrect some demi-retired party of PCs.

For the GM, old and long-running campaigns take some of the pressure off. The leg work has already been done and you have an instant access to a full tool kit complete with a world, history, NPCs, villains and places to draw on, while the players get to play characters with some depth and history. Like with the favourite author, even if the plot turned out to be a bit weak, at least it was a style you understand and enjoyed.

The problem of any long running campaigns is simple malaise. Like a fantasy series that is three books past its prime, or the movie franchise that started out great then rapidly deteriorated into pointless robot battles, weird nipple-twisting freak bars and endless speeches of meaningless pop-psychobabble, a RP campaign can simply jump the shark. Plotlines get stretched too thin, players start getting bored with their characters and there comes a point when the thrill is gone baby, and you are left at the table with nothing more than a handful of sweaty dice. It is time to put it on the shelf and wait for some real inspiration to strike, or at least a decent patina of nostalgia to build up.

There is also the much rarer problem of a campaign being too successful. One of those rare games where everything synced, the plot came together, the encounters were memorable, the resolution was exciting and plausible and most importantly, everyone had a lot of fun. So now it is time to prep the next campaign and there is always the temptation to try and outdo yourself. The danger here is coming down with a case of sequalitis, to go bigger and louder just for the sake of going bigger and louder. While the idea of continuing the streak has its appeal for both GMs and players, you have to be very careful how you plan things out, since even a decent follow-up campaign wont meet expectations, and much like a Disney direct to video, a flawed effort could even damage fond memories of the original.

So now it might be time to shake things up. A brand new game means new characters and a new world to explore and if it works, a whole new experience and a brand new set of stories to tell. But new games are tough to sell. You are the one who paid for the book, read through it, skimmed the rules and worked up a little enthusiasm to play it. What the players see is just some lunatic waving another book in their faces.

Even with a rules-set the players are familiar with, you are going to have to teach them the basics of a whole new game-world. I like to photocopy a few crucial pages and leave them out during the game. Point it out, but don't force them to read it or take it home (unless they ask). Nothing turns players off like homework...

But inevitably it's the rules that are going to make or break you. Even the girl who comes only because she is dating the GM will learn the basics if she plays often enough. Nothing flows quite as easy as a game where everyone knows how to roll the dice without being coached through every skill check and to-hit. The first few nights with a new system are usually bogged down with many questions like "how do I do that again" and long periods of inactivity while the GM flips through the book looking for the rules that cover whatever unplanned mess the PCs have landed in this time. If the rules aren't intuitive enough, and/or the game world isn't exciting enough to warrant the effort in learning a bunch of new rules, then the game is going to die a real quick death.

The deciding factor in any game, old or new, is enthusiasm. If the GM is there to play, it will spill over onto the players to carry them through the rough patches. If the excitement is starting to wane, don't be afraid to bring it to a natural stop (not a conclusion, more like the end of a chapter) and try something different for a while. Cuz you are the GM and do don't have the luxury of just playing the game once a week. You have to take it home and find the time to prep and plan for the weeks ahead and if you ain't having fun, nobody is going to have any fun.

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What do you think?

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