Homework, Sure. At Least There’s Not a Quiz.

The dark machinery the heart of me is spinning up in preparation to do some real-ass, actual gaming. This is opposed to Encounters, which is more like a combination of job and teaching assignment; all this compounded by using a system that I’ve still not come to love. Actual-ass gaming means I get to pick the system, write the world, choose the players. That’s not about being in control, really; if anything, what I yearn for is the opposite. When I’m playing Encounters, I feel an obligation—due to its “official” nature—to tell the eleven-year-old “Sorry, but I did some reading and you can’t use your Dexterity bonus with those claws, because unarmed attacks aren’t listed as Finesse weapons.” This despite him having a huge Dex, being a rogue, and getting those claws from minute one as an Aarakocra. Also, I have been brutally mis-pronouncing that word for about 15 years. Also, I technically shouldn’t even be letting the kid play one, according to some rule I apparently missed in the official packet. Despite the fact that the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure line seems singularly designed to completely mitigate the benefits of having a fly speed of 50.

YOU say no to this face.

That’s far more limitation than I’d like to have, because what I enjoy is giving my players a ton of freedom. I also love building the adventure, and the world, around those players; this is difficult to do when I can’t know from week to week who’ll be showing up. However, that—as well as the in-depth options I try to provide during character creation—does mean that my players are provided with a significant quantity of setting information. This includes areas, kingdoms, and general history. It also involves a slate of races, since I’m always tweaking and fiddling with something, if not creating species outright. Finally, it usually involves some modifications to classes; prior to 4e this actually meant I’d write quite a few classes, but I never actually got around to building a class (not even a class option or Paragon path) in the entire edition. I suppose there’s no better way to demonstrate how much I loved that edition than the fact that I didn’t go in and make anything. Everything that I wanted to do was achieved with some reskinning, hybridization, and multi-classing.

The quantity of information I want to impart usually means either printed/typed materials for players to read or a sort of oratorical situation. I actually prefer offering both, since some questions only occur to a given player after hearing another player ask something else. However, this does mark the most-challenging element of switching over from playing on sites like Myth-Weavers to gaming around a physical table: turns out that players don’t like “homework.”

By don’t like, I mean that even my wife will generally not fiddle with an element of her character, let alone read up on something, until 48 or fewer hours before the session. The joys and challenges of gaming with a spouse would constitute a few articles on their own, but I always look at this as telling. She lives with me, and therefore she’s most closely exposed to any anxieties and frustrations I have about how a game is going; if even she generally says “Yeah, I didn’t really read that,” then someone I see once a week has far less impetus to do the work.

Because I’ve spent so much time playing in places like the aforementioned Myth-Weavers, this is insane to me. I’m used to needing to drop the absolute hammer during character creation, because a good game, with a good DM and compelling setting, was a game that easily drew 300% more applications than it had slots. If you didn’t come with your sheet correct, and something engaging in terms of how your character was created, you didn’t get in. I just went for a quick scan over some of my old games, and I averaged 20 applicants for each game—including both times I ran my Glittering Wildflower Fields/’Ware The Moloch dual campaign. Now, a core nucleus crops up in most of those games, because they were the crew I tended to play with. However, and I always maintained this even in the announcement posts for games, they made the cut on quality and skill. It’s why I never ran games with a “shadow-council” of already-accepted players, even though most of the folks who regularly made cuts were people I considered friends (even invited to my wedding in some cases). I always had them put their best effort forward, in public, so that other potential players could see the standard I was judging from. Re-reading one of the game ads, I saw a post from a friend who essentially said “Man, lot of great applications. I’m not going to get in on this one.” Then, roughly a day later, he was back with an application. The interactive nature of the process pushed everyone, and that had tremendous value.

Around the table, though, the self-selection has already occurred. There’s not the expectation that a boilerplate concept will be jettisoned in favor of something truly unique (like a decadent frog-druid or a robot filled with bees). Since I often bring new players into a game, I don’t mind folks testing the waters with something that hews close to the examples in the book: a fighter who likes his longsword and shield in DnD; a wizard who hates the White Council and wears a duster in the Dresden Files RPG; or an ugly, sewer-dwelling Nosferatu in Vampire: The Masquerade. However, I generally equate “I’m new at this and don’t know it” with “..therefore, I’d like to learn as much as possible.” I similarly struggle with the idea of players not updating their character sheets, even though I see it on the weekly at my Encounters table. For me, a player say “I don’t know how many hit points I have!” is just a single long horn bleat summoning the Beasts of the Old Ways. Again, though, that’s because I have a strong attachment to every character I’ve ever rolled. I’m a Johnny, so even off-the-cuff characters I throw out draw on some element or concept of my interest.

It’s at the point where I dread assigning homework. For the weekly, I just sacrifice a chunk of our two-hour weekly meetings to having everyone around the table level up. It generally doesn’t result in their actually getting fully-updated characters, but I am at least there to answer questions and nudge players in directions that would benefit their selected role and the overall party composition. For private games, though, I can’t really enforce even this; people reject being pushed, or feeling rushed, and the power dynamic is markedly different at a table of friends and/or spouses. I end up a skyclad Emperor, and can’t compel anything.

I was thinking about this conundrum earlier tonight, because that’s my reaction to any situation where I feel as though my perspective’s at odds with those of everyone else. The comparison I eventually settled on* involves the visions of our future we all had as children. Had you asked me what I wanted to be when I was 7, I would likely have replied either, “The President” or “A guy who makes action figures.” Teacher would not have been a blip on that radar. Teacher-Who-Currently-Writes-At-Home wouldn’t have…I wouldn’t have even been able to process that concept. My dad had been an accountant for just shy of as long as I could remember (when I was very, very young he was a tree surgeon, which is a thing you can be). He hasn’t stopped being an accountant, but his role morphed into City Treasurer and then Business Manager, and as a kid I wouldn’t have been able to winnow the concept of titles from actual roles to even conceive this. I could just as easily have aspired to “fireman” or “ninja,” because as a kid the future is all possibility.

As one ages, though, the prospect of ninja begins abutting some unfortunate realities. Does ninja come with health insurance? Will I make rent with my tanto-based salary? How do I even get my tabi-clad foot in the door of the industry? Suddenly, dental hygienist, bank teller, or teacher all start to become more realistic. You learn more about the world, and what you become reflects that.

In tabletop rpgs, though, you have the advantage of near-perfect knowledge. How close that asymptote sits to the y-axis is a matter of setting; no character in a Cthulhu game should expect to identify most of the squamous masses that she’ll encounter, while I took a moment yesterday to explain to my youngest player that even though I know he knows that the 18″ winged faerie the party just met is a sprite, his character has no reason to possess that information. It was trickier still to convey to him that, therefore, he as a player shouldn’t shout out the name of the creature, because that drops a rock of glowing, unearned knowledge in the midst of the entire party that they’d otherwise lack. I understand his struggle all too well, just as I appreciate his ravenous hunger for game knowledge.

However, even with those barriers on how well a player can express knowledge gleaned from studying the books, everyone still has the opportunity to know—and use— a lot. You know how many hit points a Fighter’s likely to possess, and much damage you can expect to do with Magic Missile. You know whether your high-dexterity character will hit more often with that longsword or the similarly-damaging rapier. In my campaigns, you also get to know whether your dwarven character is likely to be welcomed with open arms by a citizen of the Silken Kingdoms (no), a bullywug is likely to serve Lincolua (no!), or if someone who’s been Beneath the Mountain would get on well with a member of the Vulture Clan (yes!). That information can be conveyed in one of three ways:

  • First, players could read it in the provided information.
  • Second, players could ask me during character creation, “Hey, I was wondering if…”
  • Third, the player could just do whatever and then seem surprised when it doesn’t work out for them.

I genuinely want to avoid that last option. It’s not fun for me or them. However, if I’ve proffered the information in both visual and auditory formats, and barring some sort of choreography to hit those kinesthetic learners, I don’t see another option. I’m not a telepath.

Sarcasm aside, I am exploring some way of giving players pre-generated characters to start their gaming off, so that we can run through some of these questions and examples in real time. This is a struggle for me in the same way that providing a more guided sandbox is proving difficult in the Wednesday Elemental Evil campaign: I don’t like it. It’s not how I play, it’s not how I want to play, and it’s not how I think the game should be played. I don’t like to railroad, and I find pre-generated characters to be as unsettling as hand-me-down underwear being passed between two adults who I know possess the income to secure individual underweardrobes. Striking a balance between making easily-accessible characters and making the kind of characters I actually like to play (He only thinks he’s a mage! He’s actually a psion! And crazy! And that is not his wife!) feels like a much greater effor than just giving players the tools that they need to build their own characters.

However, providing those tools hasn’t proven to be enough. I need to find a way to chew for them too.

*A tremendous amount of my life is dedicated to thinking about something until I come up with an analogy for expressing my perspective on the topic.

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