Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Referee, Entertain Thyself

There is a central mystery in the Watchfires & Thrones campaign: A secret whose origins lie in the long-forgotten past and, if revealed, could answer some of the big questions that humanity and the other races ask about themselves. If the answer to the mystery was to become publically known, existence itself might change forever. However, unlike many other campaigns I’ve both ran and played in over the years, it doesn’t make a lick of difference if the players choose to never so much as glance at the clues strewn in their path. They’re simply there to amuse myself.

With our tenth game session on the horizon and the first major chapter of the campaign completed, I’ve taken the time to look back on what has occurred so far in order to judge what worked and what didn’t, to see where I can improve my referee style, and consider what kookiness I might want to try next. The result of all this navel gazing is that I’ve realized that this is the most fun I’ve had running a game in years.

As some of you might remember, I literally threw my former campaign setting and a year’s plus worth of prep work out the window at the 11th hour to run a pulp sword & sorcery-style campaign. I went from my plan to allow more than a dozen classes as player choices to restricting them to a mere five. As I mentioned just last week, even the list of monsters that will appear in the campaign has been stripped down to a specific list with albeit vague membership requirements.

The result of all this self-imposed limitation is that I’ve never felt like I’ve had more choices and the gaping holes in the rule material have led me down creative paths I would have never considered travelling if I was still trying to run the same sort of “typical” D&D campaign I’ve been running on and off for almost thirty years. I’ve come to realize that I owe a much greater debt of gratitude to the OSR community than I ever imagined. Had I not spent the last two years being exposed to the creations of almost everyone involved in whatever the hell it is we’re trying to do here, I might never have realized that the definition of “what is D&D?” and what can be shoehorned in under its auspices is so mutable that it need not be a game based around a pseudo-medieval/Tolkien-influenced worldview. In retrospect, I realize that I have no one to blame for this preconception but myself, but I’d point to TSR’s attempts to market the game and establish a brand as being very responsible for encouraging this preconception. But that’s all blood under the bridge of bone, so let’s not dwell upon it. I’ve since been rehabilitated,

To get back to my original point, all this jettisoning of expectations has put me in the position to try out some crazy schemes to see if they’re even possible to do in the context of fantasy role-playing. It’s too early to tell if they will work or not, but the mere fact that I’ve been able to play with them in an unorthodox setting has given me great joy. This enjoyment has naturally led to me maintaining a high interest in both the campaign setting and our weekly meetings. I’ve also discovered that, by letting the players call the tune, I’m usually only dancing a session or two ahead of them, which means there’s a lot of thinking on my feet and conjuring on the fly to be done—both of which really push my Wahoo! button. In short: I’m having a blast.

I’m really blessed to have the players I do at this time. They’ve been willing to go along with my harebrained scheme and to give my offbeat rule additions a try. They’ve persevered under a crushing number of PC deaths (not all of which are completely my fault) and slightly slowed level advancement to start becoming “real” characters in a world that’s still cooking on my intellectual stovetop. As a friend of mine mentioned last week, I got incredibly lucky with this lot considering it was a pickup group of people who’ve mostly never played together before—and that’s somewhat difficult to achieve in this hobby sometimes, as anyone with a “let’s recruit down at the hobby shop” horror story might tell you. I forget which blog I read it on, but someone put forward the advice to simply be the type of gamer you want to attract. So far, that’s worked out well for me. I can only hope everyone is as lucky and is having as much fun out there as I am.


Scott said...

Bravo! I have similar, too-often-repeated feelings about the wonder of a nearly blank slate of a sparse ruleset and a restricted library of primary sources, not "game lit." There's obviously a point beyond which I don't extend this tendency, but I'd be paralyzed and unfocused if I tried to use even a fraction of the resources available at the same time.

Roger G-S said...

My players and I have had the most fun the more I've been winging it.