Why should I even bother to play a game that requires me to give up an evening and argue over rules when I could just click monsters to death on my computer?
This is a question I’ve asked myself over-and-over over the years. There are some great games out there that I’ve loved, but I’ve always felt drawn back to the tabletop. Communicating why that is requires exploring the border between them, and perhaps a vigorous defense of back stories.
Video Games and Fun
I like video games, a lot: never a better way to accidentally lose 12 hours of my life. I can’t even estimate the number of times I’ve killed diablo with who knows how many different classes, or defended the good citizens of Neverwinter from the ravages of an extra-planar plague. I’ve defended the world from aliens, America from Nazi’s, healthy cells from invasive ones, and I’ve loved it. I enjoy playing characters from overwhelming odds. Playing Medal of Honor is a different experience than watching The Dirty Dozen (or The English Patient). One doesn’t make a distinction that playing a video game is more or less enjoyable or valuable than watching a movie, they’re for different things. So why make the comparison between table top and video?
I enjoy movies because I can sink into them and lose myself in the reality they present. I enjoy video games because I can take part in that reality. I enjoy table top games for very different reasons.
Movies are an easy investment. Two hours of your life, occasionally you plop down money for the experience and you’re done. Video games are similarly easy: sit down and play, pay for the ones that aren’t free. Table tops are not the same. When I GM a game I spend more than 20 hours a week in preparation, drawing maps, populating wilderness and dungeons, considering NPC involvements and motivations, and so forth. When I GM, it’s a part time job. Why, then, would I spend all that time is also the answer to why play tabletops at all.
Tabletop games require more investment from those involved than do movies or even video games, and so the tabletop experience has to offer more than movies or video games. Luckily, that’s a pretty low bar, and here’s how I do it.
The ‘kill ‘em all’ encounter should be rare. Fighting a group of monsters in the equivalent of the middle of a football field is best left to mouse stress-test games like Diablo II. Table top games allow for a whole universe of options that don’t boil down to run / fight, and as a GM I think encouraging other options is the fun of the game.
Two giants blocking the mountain pass? Don’t roll for initiative, trick them into fighting each other.
Goblin’s being paid to hunt you down? Toss them a pack full of food to turn the tables on your antagonist.
Imagine the Big Bad’s reaction when his monologue is interrupted not by the characters rolling for initiative, but by scores of the local constabulary recently tipped off and here to enforce some law.
So, the important bits of tabletop gaming is its flexibility. You can try literally anything that the player and GM can agree upon as possible. That is just the start of the power of tabletops, though. What inspired this post was this article, and in case it’s not obvious, I couldn’t disagree more: the GM’s story is only one part of what’s happening around the table. Back story allows the GM to tell the story the players want to participate in.
The impetus behind posts like wrath’s is the idea that the GM has a story prepared ready to roll, and he needs a number of people there to witness the story unfold. I prefer an inclusive approach to gaming, where the story unfolds as an interaction between the players and the GM. It isn’t worth running a game that doesn’t take advantage of what is offered by sitting around a table.
So, in the end, tabletops are different from other ways to spend time because the form of the game is different. A rewarding experience sitting in a tabletop RPG is different than a rewarding experience playing a video game, or watching a movie.. not better, but different, and worthwhile.
What’s your favorite level to create new characters?
I’ve known people that prefer 12 to 15, because they are able to wield real power. Others I’ve played with prefer 5 to 7 because they have options to use in their current levels, and can customize to the challenges of a campaign as it unfolds. For me, I prefer level 1.
There’s nothing quite as compelling as an origin story. At level one what’s important isn’t what you can do, but what you’ve done with what you have. Your character isn’t that far from the farm, or the monastery that found and raised him, or the city gutter he crawled out of. The character has recently left a familiar life behind in favor of the unknown, and what must be perceived by the commoner as a foolhardy death wish. How can teleporting into an enemy encampment and dropping whole handfuls of d6s possibly compare with stepping into the shadowy world of adventuring for the first time?
Furthermore, starting from first level gives your character a reason to collect some.. erm.. character. A character rolled to begin at level 12 can come equipped with a backstory, but all the details are missing. Remember that time at level 3 the fighter went against the goblin king, and rolled under a 4 every time. The Mage had to finish him off with his staff because the fighter slept wrong, or something. Or at level five when the barbarian of the group hurdled a ravine and charged into the room beyond intending to throttle the four kobolds on the other side, but instead found himself alone eye-to-eye with the bugbear chieftan and his personal guard? The barbarian barely let a round pass before he turned and threw himself bodily off the cliff in an ill conceived attempt to rejoin his party.
These sort of situations come up all the time for low level characters. By the time you’re ringing double digit levels the people in the land around know your names, and are familiar with your deeds. But it is the party around you that remembers your mortality. It’s the cleric that suppresses a smile when the mage is playing the mysterious stranger to the locals because he remembers the look of abject terror on the mage’s face as he dangled from the hill giants fist with his robes gathered about his head after failing a scare spell.
Playing the low levels isn’t a chore to suffer through in order to get to the fun, it is what makes the high levels fun. High level fights echo low level combats, and that provides fodder for RP combat. High level characters have embarrassing stories or impossible moral decisions to hide, as well as unconventional tales of heroism.
So, how to get the low level experience in when you have a high level game written, but no characters with good backstory? One way is to run through the low levels without the rulebook. Run a goblin dungeon and -boom- now their level 2. Follow that up with a forest encounter and a RP session in the town, and suddenly they’re third level. Just skim through the levels, look at it as a prologue and the players are just going through the memorable parts. The players will get a sense of what the characters did right and wrong at low levels, a few enjoyable tales will be crafted, and you’re 4 week 12 level story becomes a 8 week campaign that can take on a whole extra dimension. Heck, you could even hide easter eggs in the preamble.