Thursday, June 2, 2016

New RPG Players

New Players in Games Today

Living in a Golden Age?

It seems like since I heard about David Ewalt’s Of Dice & Men, I—and everyone else—decided it was time to pick our dice back up and start rolling again.  I stopped playing when 2nd Edition was a big thing (the Dragon magazine 5 CD compilation was my last major purchase—and one I’m thrilled I held on to, if only out of chance).

Lately, it seems like everywhere I turn, there’s another article about how roleplaying games are becoming all the rage again.  The most recent was published in today’s Washington Post as a short comic (guessing online only!).  Some of the reasons listed are that the stigma’s been lifted, people never really knew what roleplaying games were before, among other things.
Although none of the major producers I know of release detailed sales figures, anecdotal sources tell us that the state of the hobby is strong.  ICv2’s most recent Internal Correspondence estimates that games sales are up 20% overall.  Internal Correspondence notes that RPG sales as a whole are increasing, led (unsurprisingly) by 5th Edition, with Pathfinder sales flat or declining—at least in retail stores. 
And yet, something must be going right for the kids over at Paizo.  Even if the industry insider is telling tales of their woes, Paizo’s gone and broken three of their oldest taboos.  First, they’ve consistently said no new edition for Pathfinder, at least not anytime soon.  Second, they’ve repeatedly resisted advancing their timeline, something popular with RPGs in both the domestic and international markets.  Finally, citing concerns that it was the creation of too many campaign settings that ultimately sunk TSR into Wizards of the Coast’s arms, they’ve refused to publish anything but their Golarion products—in house at least.  Instead, they’ve squared the circle, developing a new game mixing magic and technology and adding in a little interstellar travel.  Before this post devolves into a post on the merits of Starfinder (future topic!), I’ll leave it to say that Lisa Stevens at Paizo strikes me as a shrewd businesswoman.  If she didn’t believe there was space (double enténdres?) in the industry for a successful new product, it would not be happening.
Finally, we’ve seen a bevy of other games and game companies sprout up over the last few years.  This includes Monte Cook Games with their Numenera, the Strange, and Cypher System games; Fire Opal Media’s partnership with Pelgrane Press to publish 13th Age; Robert Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord (with a number of support products that are, frankly, mind boggling for a product with less than one year on the market); Green Ronin’s Fantasy AGE; and a new edition of Shadowrun, just to name a few.

What Does This Have to Do With New Players?

New players are how we keep growing our hobby!  And, because I need to write a blog post.  Because I want to see the less-well supported products succeed, I like to run 13th Age games at GenCon and other local cons I attend.  So, before GenCon 2015, I invited some friends over to my house for a little roleplaying session.  I planned on using four hours to run the first two-hour scenario in the Shadowport Shuffle series: Deep in the Red.  I felt like Deep in the Red would be a strong scenario because it offered a lot of roleplaying opportunities.  I provided pre-gen characters, but wanted to give people wholly ignorant of game mechanics quite some time to learn them.
I ended up with 7 players, only one of which had experience playing any RPG.  6 were heterosexual women, one was a bisexual woman, and 1 was a homosexual male.  That’s right our table had no heterosexual males (not that there’s anything wrong with playing with heterosexual males, but our group was NOT the norm)!  Here’s a quick rundown, all working professionals in the Washington, DC area:
·      Attorney for a large corporate firm
·      Property manager for an apartment building with 100+ units
·      Congressman’s scheduler
·      Charter school principal
·      Special events director of a museum
·      Office manager for a judicial advocacy organization
·      Partner of a real estate management and sales firm
One look at this list does not scream: members of the creative class!  There were no writers, no artists, no singers or songwriters, no architects, etc.  All in all, I was actually excited about this.  Of course, there were no engineers either, so we were killing the stereotypes on multiple fronts. 

What Actually Happened?

[MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE 13TH AGE SCENARIO “SHADOWPORT SHUFFLE” FOLLOW]
We sat down and everyone but me opened their first drinks (did I mention this was a heavy drinking group?).  I gave a quick runthrough of the system’s rules: covering ability scores, races, classes, using d20 and other weird dice, and other information on their character sheets.  Then, we talked about backgrounds and how they interact with skill checks.  We talked one unique things and icon relationships.  Finally, we jumped into play.  Here are my quick takeaways:

Roleplay Attracts No Specific Type of Person

When I’d first put out the call for GenCon guinea pigs players, the call was wide and to a large group of people (about 25), because I thought that no one would be interested.  I found that quite a lot of people were.  Some were curious because they’d never heard of them.  Others were curious because they’d heard of them, but didn’t know what they were.  A surprising number did know what they were, and had played before. 
Three of my players are from another group that frequently discusses attempting to organize a book club dedicated to cheap wine and trashy, smutty fantasy novels.  I was not surprised when they signed up.  However, I was surprised that one of them was not a fan of the RPG experience.  Another participant, who was a last minute, day of, addition, has been hassling me to organize another home game.  (Don’t worry, law school’s over!  It’s happening!) 
Fortunately, at least one of them had some rpg experience.  This was useful from a numbers management perspective.  Having two people to help six new people wasn’t an optimal ratio, but we’ll discuss that later in the post.

Roleplay Can Be Intimidating for Newcomers

One of my players had initially emailed me saying that she’d love to help out a friend, but she just didn’t feel like she was creative enough to participate in something like an afternoon of roleplay.  I assured her that she was and that if she was uncomfortable, she should by no means feel required to do anything that would upset her.  I was thrilled when she showed up that day though.
This is an area where system choices can have a real effect on new players’ experiences.  Two of 13th Age system tools quickly came into play here.  First, its montage scene feature is a system-neutral tool (it’s not even mentioned in the Core book, just in the adventures and later products) that’s useful for helping players get into their characters. 
·      GM (to Player 1): It took you two weeks to make the journey from Alepha to Betatown.  On the way, there was a great challenge that threatened all of your lives.  What was it?
·      Player 1: A man-hunting bear trained in the art of the shuriken stalked us through the forest of Beasties.
·      GM (nodding): Yes, it was a terrifying time.  But, Jord the Crazed Sword Mute saved all of your skins.  How did he do it?
·      Player 2 (playing Jord): Well, you see, it went something like this…
Montage scenes involve no rolling of dice, merely storytelling.  They are a great way to invest players in the story without needing a single mechanic.  It’s also exteremely useful for helping those players who are concerned that they’re “not creative enough” to get involved.  It’s loads easier to ask a player to give a minor detail (or set up a problem) than it is to say, “You’ve got this sheet full of stats, tell me its story.”
Deep in the Red makes use of this in other ways two.  At one point, the players meet an NPC.  After the GM gives a very brief initial sketch, each player is invited to give a detail about that NPC’s appearance and/or mannerisms (which resulted in my having to act like a physically big man with a small boy’s voice).  That’s a great way to let players develop the world: it takes work of my shoulders while investing them in the experience at the same time.  Sure, it was a pain keeping my voice high and occasionally cracking it, but my players were invested and actively listened to what the NPC had to tell them.
Deep in the Red also assumes that each of the characters owes one of the Icons, major NPC organizations in the game system, a favor.  That Icon is the Prince of Shadows, an archetypical master thief figure.  The scenario begins with the Game Master informing the players of this debt.  Each player then has an opportunity to explain what, exactly they needed and how, exactly, the Prince helped them.  This was very useful for getting players in character.
And that player who thought she wasn’t creative enough?  Well, after the party recovered the MacGuffin they were sent to find, she had a really sneaky idea.  Since the party was working for a master thief, why didn’t they just have a copy of the statue made and sneak off with the real one themselves?  Not to spoil a major reveal at the end of the scenario, but what’s supposed to be a big surprise for the PCs turned into a much bigger surprise for the NPC questgiver.  And the PCs were thrilled to see that happen (not to mention paid double for stealing only once!).

Newer Players Preferred Story over Context

I provided the info map above as a flip map in the center of the table.  My goal was to quickly convey system information (yellow) and setting information (pink) with a visually appealing backdrop.  To some degree, it worked.  To other degrees it didn’t.

What Worked

Pelgrane Press provides a beautiful, hi-res, image file of the map of the Dragon Empire.  Gaming companies put these things out and as a Gamemaster, you should run with them.  Obviously, don’t abuse their intellectual property (most companies detail how you can use these materials for your home games somewhere in their core rulebook or attached to each product).  Remember, many gaming companies are small and thrilled to have you interacting with their materials and the authors themselves will love seeing what you did.  So, get out there and do it.  Focus on what you’re best at, but don’t be afraid to stretch out—graphic design isn’t my field of expertise, but I think I did a pretty good job throwing out a 24x30 inch flip map that got everyone’s attention.
The bare bones information was helpful here.  Being able to point to the gazetteer information on Shadowport (which paraphrases the 13th Age Core entry on the city with a bare-bones explanation) and then tell them, “And that’s ALL anyone…you or I…really knows about it right now,” helped cement the setting’s malleability in their heady.  Similarly, defining the Icons enough to give them flavor but without setting them in stone was helpful.  If I run a similar campaign, I’ll consider using the 7 Icon Campaign aid.  13 Icons are great if you’re a voracious reader or a regular gamer, but if you don’t have a wide breadth of fantasy they can get a little tough.  Additionally, at least for a one shot, I wouldn’t be afraid to cut down on Icons in the future.  I don’t remember if any of my players had a relationship with the High Druid, but I do know it likely didn’t come into play in a highly urban setting (though, who’s to say it couldn’t?).

What Didn’t

A wise man once said that the rent in New York was just “too damn high.”  Mechanics information is just too damned complicated.  I wanted a simple reference guide that my players could refer to while moving through the story.  What I realized is that mechanics information is something that really has to build upon a strong foundation.  Most of the yellow space on my map could easily be replaced with more pink content or (even better), freeing up some of the underlying map to be seen.

Newer Players Preferred Roleplay Over Combat – BUT mechanics matter!

Remember when I said that mechanics needed to be built over time?  I was blown away by this.  In fact, my last blog post of last summer posited that system mastery would be the least important factor for any new player—that was why I chose a rules-light game like 13th Age over something like Pathfinder.  But, without the concepts attached and a strong explanation of those rules, sometimes things felt a little bit arbitrary.
This was especially true in combat situations.  My characters did not like combat.  But, they loved skills challenges.  They even loved how ridiculous situations got when they failed forward and more and more off-the-wall ideas were required to get them out of a jam they’d just created.
One player commented that she wished that we’d had more time to go through the character creation process.  This has helped me a lot—I’ve realized that a session 0 and a Microscoping session for worldbuilding are essential for a longer-term campaign.  Similarly, for a one shot (especially one where the play is only supposed to last two hours), offering those who want to make their own characters an opportunity to drop by a couple hours early and do so will only enhance the experience.

Go Forth and Play!

So, those were my lessons:
·      Create situations where your players can ease into roleplay and they won’t even notice how deep they get – cook your players frogs slowly;
·      Make sure you’ve got a story everyone can relate to.  It doesn’t have to be plain vanilla European fantasy (Deep in the Red is a pretty obvious Maltese Falcon knockoff), but it does need to be relateable; and
·      Ensure that players get a good grasp of the underlying mechanics and they’ll come up with ways to employ them destined to drive you crazy.
Good gaming!