Friday, February 4, 2011

Diversifying Your Character Portfolio

Different games teach different skills to different degrees. This is not because some games are bad and others are good, it's because games are different. They reward certain things and make little use of others. And more, they do this in a very obvious way. When you go to a convention, it is REALLY easy to spot the person at the table who has never left the nest, and has only ever played variants on D&D or Storyteller.

The heartbreaking part is that you most often encounter these folks when they've decided to stray off the reservation and try some new game. Sometimes this goes well, but most often, it just ends up reaffirming their suspicion that other games suck. This is not necessarily because the new game is bad, but rather because the new game is, at least in part, effectively in a different language of play than the player is used to, and they find themselves put on the spot. Unless the GM is very sensitive to these blind spots in new players (something that's rarer than it should be), the players will end up frustrated and feeling foolish, even if they're perfectly capable.

To put it more concretely, if you've only ever played D&D and you're dropped into a game with, say, strong scene framing, you may not be ready to frame a scene. Not because you're not smart or not creative, but because this is a new idea. Your frustration will be roughly akin to trying to cook a microwave meal where all the instructions are in Russian, all in front of an audience. Even if you manage it, you'll be self-conscious and feeling foolish the whole time. This is not the kind of fun experience that bring someone back to a game.

That is a problem, because the simple reality is that after a certain point, nothing is going to be as useful at improving the games you love as learning other games. Even games you don't like.

I don't like Burning Wheel much, but despite this I own every damn book that Luke & company put out. This may seem contradictory, or like some kind of reflexive indie purchasing streak, but there's something more to it, something that I consider very important.

See, not liking Burning Wheel as a matter of taste - I play it, and it doesn't really get my motor going - but at the same time it is a really good game. Just a small amount of time spent reviewing the products (especially self-contained marvels like Mouseguard) makes the quality of the work obvious. What's more, even if you can't see that, Luke's passion is clear both in and out of the game, and I can point to no shortage of people who have had really excellent experiences with the game. Any one of those things would speak well for Burning Wheel - all three of them together more or less shout.

There are two reasons this is important. By decoupling my dislike from my judgement of the game, I'm able to appreciate it's strengths and discuss it with people without pissing all over it. This is such an obvious benefit that I would not even feel it worth mentioning in any context but the internet. Second, it leaves me in a position to learn from Burning Wheel. This last is the reason I consider my position to be something other than hippie or zen - it's _greedy_. The world is full of games, and even the ones I wouldn't want to play are full of things I can learn.

Now, I can learn a lot just by reading the text, but there's a bit of chicken and egg to this because the more different games you play, the better able you will be to create a picture of a new game from its text. So I guess that means I've had to play a lot of games to not need to play some games.

But as nice as that is, it's still not a substitute for playing these games, or at least giving them a go. This means that it's worth your time to spend some time playing games you can see the virtues in but which may not be to your taste. By doing so with open ears and an open mind, you can learn a lot of things that can make the games you like better. You don't need to keep playing them - just take what you like and see if it an work back in the game you know you like.

That's a pretty simple proposition, isn't it? Playing other RPGs than the ones your comfortable with can teach you new things. You wouldn't think it would invite as much opposition as it does, but there it is.

I'm not proposing that you rush out and grab a copy of Everway or Posion'd just because they're obscure or indie. Look at the books. Read the backs. Find something that makes you think "Oh, hey, that sounds cool", then give it a try.


  1. Its one of the reasons why we try different games in our Minnesota "Indiegamers" group--to try different things, to experiment and grow.

  2. Great post. That's why I intend to make one weekend a month "Unfamiliar Game Day" :)

  3. I think you can see this on a smaller scale as well. The "edition wars" from the release of D&D 4e sometimes seem to have at their base a misunderstanding of different languages of the systems, and mistaking that for something inherently bad. I don't want to start the debate - I have fond memories of all editions of D&D (although my memories of 1st are pretty foggy at this point). There are valid reasons to dislike a system, but like you note, I worry that for some people it's the result of a poor introduction or difficulty seeing past the newness or differences.

    More on-topic, would you be willing to create a sort of flow chart of different systems to help people try new games? By that I mean, recommendations of systems to try that are less abrupt shifts. My group has always been D&D, but I'd love to try (and get them to try) some different systems. I'm just afraid of choosing a system which, while fantastic, is too much of a "different language" and ruining the experimentation.

    I guess I'm looking for your recommendation on gateway drugs away from D&D. Not because I don't love D&D, but because I am itching to just TRY new things.

  4. Great post. The only thing I'd add is that some GMs often miss the opportunity to teach a new game to outsiders because they've fallen into the same pit as the gamer exploring outside his depths. I'd say that's why GMs often don't pick up on a new player's concerns and help the player get over them.

    The player is familiar only with Storyteller, but the GM is a hardcore BW fan. They're speaking two different languages, but they both have to realize it to get the most out of the game.

  5. I am not sure that Flowchart is even possible, but it's such an intriguing idea that I'm absolutely going to have to think about it.

  6. But, Rob... I don't have time to learn a whole new system! And I can't find players if it's not D&D! And I don't want to play any of that gay hippie shit!

    I'm with you, Rob, but these are the typical reactions I get. :)

  7. Great post, as usual. I'm always trying to encourage people to try new games. Indie designers have really great new ideas.

    After years of D&D, I'm focused on Dead of Night by Steampower Publishing now. If you like B movies or horror cliches etc, it's worth trying with its sense of humour. And it's very good for people who are new to indie games as it's not very far from the traditional systems, but it gives a strong feel of indieness with its light and fast conflict resolution mechanics.

    And a flowchart or any way to recommend interesting new products would be really great. But until sth like that appears, exploring recommendaitons of PDF sale systems Drivethrurpg and IPR is the way to go.


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