The RPG experience spectrum ramble

Trundling across my social media feed in the last few days has been word that White Wolf Entertainment, hallmark of RPGs in the 1990s, has teamed up with our pals at Modiphius to release a new version of Vampire: The Masquerade. You can read more about it here – Linky! – but word on the streets is that you’ll be able to put in pre-orders later this month, for delivery as early as August. This put me in mind of the Vampire game I played back in the old country (and the Werewolf game and the D&D game) and as I pondered the roleplaying of yesteryear and thoughts blended with the D&D group I’m DM’ing for right now, I felt a little rambly.

I’ve had the discussion a few times recently about roleplaying games, why we play them and the way we play them. When I was a feckless teen (as opposed to the feckless old fart I am now) there was a degree of escapism, but over the years it’s really a source of creative expression, of developing camaraderie. Of intellectual and social dynamic experimentation. Of hypothetical problem solving.

As a player, when I sit down to play I am working together with my fellow players to overcome the challenges set by the Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Games Master, or whatever other term is in use. We have to work together with whatever limited resources we have available, with the tools and abilities our characters have, to unravel the puzzles, overcome the obstacles, defeat the villains, and together, we play a part in a much larger story.

As a DM, I have to a lot more prework, but I get to lay out the bones of a story. I get to write the beginning, I get to lay out the chapters, the dramatis personae, I get to know what’s going to happen, I get to know the secret motivations, I get to know where the traps are, I get to know what waits at the end of the dungeon… but I don’t know how. I don’t know in advance if the players are going to turn left or right, if they’re going to save the villager or leave him to his fate. I get to lay out the bones of the story, but as much as I get to drop hints and leave a trail of skittles for the players to follow, it’s in their hands whether they choose to follow, or whether they go off in the wildest of tangents.

There’s joy and reward in both sides of the game, but there’s so much more. One of the hardest things in playing an RPG, before the dice are rolled, is making sure everyone’s looking for the same game experience.

On the one hand, there’s the Munchkin playstyle, where it’s all about kicking in the door, killing the monster, and scoring loot. This type of game can be played entirely on paper, nothing more than dice and stats. For tabletop wargamers like me, this blends with games like Warmachine to the point where I enjoy my tabletop wargame the most when I’m playing out a story in my head.

On the other, there’s the Political playstyle. Don’t be misled by the term, it’s not nothing to do with politics – but more that this is the kind of game where it’s all about talking. Multiple sessions can go by without a single dice being rolled as players act out their characters and literally roleplay their way through the story and its challenges.

Every game falls somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes., and I want to make it perfectly clear that there’s no wrong way to enjoy an RPG – both extremes are 100% valid ways to enjoy the hobby. When it comes to a game experience, everyone’s personal preferences falls somewhere along the spectrum, and many can enjoy games sliding back and forth between the two extremes depending on they playgroup, as long as everyone’s on the same page. If you have a political player in a group of munchkin players though, they’re going to have a miserable time .

For me, this is where Vampire: The Masquerade came in.

Prior to Vampire I’d played a few different RPGs, but really, they all lay more on the Munchkin side. We’d have some great fun storylines, and we’d have some decent backstories, but then my university pal Damien decided to run Vampire and the game changed. Yes, you could earn XP to level up through fighting and looting, at if you wanted to earn more than 2 XP per session (out of a max 5) you had to do more. You had to play your character. You had to have your character actually roleplay, grow and develop. Not that D&D alignments are a part of Vampire, but it meant that if you had your character as Lawful Good, you had to actually play Lawful Good. No breaking-and-entering, no looting the corpse., whatever.

Thanks to Damien I learned so much more about storytelling. He would craft storylines that directly pulled from your own character’s backstory, and weave them all together. My own character, a Nosferatu, was part of a Hellfire-and-Brimstone, Spare-The-Rod-Spoil-The-Child, violently abusive household.  The word aspects of Old Testament bigotry and judgement were woven into my character’s life before be was Embraced. So sure enough, when given a mental whammy, my character hallucinated standing before God and a choir of angels, only to have his own father declare him unworthy, and then my character fell from Heaven. Another storyline had an element where we ended up fighting to save two children from their possessed foster parents. It was dark, it was at times uncomfortable, but damn if it wasn’t engaging, if it wasn’t memorable. Damien’s DM’ing introduced me to the other end of the roleplaying spectrum.

Now I find myself DM’ing a roleplaying group for the first time in almost two decades. We’ve got an Elven cleric, chosen by a storm goddess, seeking a missing gnome. We’ve got an Elven wizard  who found her mentor’s exsanguinated body in a hidden lab, and is trying to unravel the closed-room mystery of his death. We’ve got a Tiefling paladin seeking revenge against the pirates that slaughtered his friends and sank his ship. And we’ve got a possibly slightly insane Dwarf Sorcerer with a chunk if crystalized wild magic embedded in his palm.

So far they’ve followed clues into a forest where they found a possible clue for the missing gnome and some significant information about the dead mentor, but their return to the seaside village found it under attack by the same pirates who sank the Tiefling’s ship. Much of the village was destroyed, but despite the noise and violence, the local baron – whose manse is up on the hill overlooking the village – was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the manse is completely dark. Not a lamp in sight.

Guess where the players are going next…

I’ve learned over time that I really enjoy the hack-and-slash games, but it’s almost meaningless without that backstory. Similarly, the roleplaying can be amazingly rewarding, but the dice add an element of chance, a real thrill as you thwart evil and save the day. Or, mildly inconvenience evil and barely escape with my boots. Whatever.

For me the balance is somewhere between the two extremes. I can play either, but I like a mix. Perhaps, if you’re not certain where your groove is, you could take the example of the Podthralls, podcasters of years gone by with the Fell Calls podcast, who would deliberately play closed-end games with the DM pre-determining where the story will end, so that they could periodically change the entire game from one genre to another, change up who gets to DM and who gets to play, change up where the story will fit on the game experience spectrum.

Roleplaying games are a social experience and a creative outlet that I never realized how much I’d missed, until I picked up a Player’s Handbook for the first time in two decades and started teaching three coworkers how to roll up their characters. Now I look forward to crafting new ways to potentially kill the characters every fortnight, and seeing them work together to overcome the challenges before them.

Together, with the four characters Skagen, Alastor, Lea and Tarryc, we’re writing SALTty Tales. Season to taste.

Suggested reading for those wondering why backstories are so enriching for RPG characters? Rat Queens. Linky!