Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How to grow the hobby, and compete against the MMORPG: Great DM's.

Kids want to be cool. With D&D, one big problem is in overcoming a long-held bias---that D&D is for geeks. Computer games, MMORPG's etc, may be cool because of the blood, violence, sex, special effects, etc. But the underlying game mechanics of an MMORPG, if reduced to pen and paper and played with dice, is not inherently cool. You're missing the mind-blowing presentation of the blood, sex, and violence, and miniatures simply don't compare to special effects. The medium makes it cool more than the game mechanics. And it's also fun to play, and addictive, because more power/magic/treasure/cool drops are right around the corner, so just one more MOB before bed...

What does pen and paper have that CRPG's don't? Good DM's. To a great extent it's up to the DM to provide the sensory stimulation that a CRPG gives. It's up the the DM's descriptive capabilities to paint the same dramatic scenes with words, that a CPRG does with pixels.

One thing that a DM has in spades over the CRPG is the ability to challenge the players imaginations in ways a CRPG simply cannot do. A good DM can set up complicated plot twists, and change-up the game on the fly based on what the characters do. He can create interesting people, places, and things to interact with on the spot. Besides painting a vivid picture, a good DM can set up obstacles for the players that no CRPG can match, challenging the creativity of players to solve problems.

Good DM's can also gain such a reputation that they have players who ask to be in their games. In essence, they get followers upon gaining Name Level---"Dungeon Master." Word tends to spread about good DM's, and other players want to try their games. Also, the best way I've seen to recruit new people long term to P&P RPG's is you play with them, they leave having had a great time, and can't wait to come back for more. A good DM can make that happen.

No matter system you play---from OD&D to 4e, GURPS to M&M, I think the best way to get new players who stay and play long-term is to DM a memorable game that makes them want to come back for more, week after week.

To the extent the companies that produce the most popular RPG's can help make people better DM's, they ensure the long-term survival of the hobby, and more importantly their long-term revenue streams. To the extent they produce the standard splat book, with more PrC's, races, feats, skills, powers, spells, magic items, and other stuff designed for the player, they may increase the bottom line revenue short term, but they aren't helping to make better DM's. In fact, I would argue that they are making it harder for DM's by marketing the bulk of their product lines to players. It just makes the DM's job more difficult when they have to continually say no, they won't allow all the new Uber Splat Book changes in their campaign. Rather than go away excited, the players go away partly disappointed after the game session feeling like they wasted 30 bucks on a book they will never use. From what I've read, DM's make up the bulk of the people who buy new products anyway, even if they never use most of them. If they are going to buy the material, I think it would be good for the companies to produce material that makes them better at their craft, as well as aids them in their campaigns.

DM'ing is an art form. It's not a science, it's not something you can put down in a formula. There are as many ways to be good DM's are there are good DM's. To the extent that they have certain traits or characteristics in common, these need to be looked at, and ways need to be found to impart that knowledge to others. Anyone who has read this story of being a player in a game Rob Kuntz recently DM'd knows what I mean:


To quote: "This is one of the all time great module experiences that I have ever seen. The party was psychological goaded into combat by the DM. I couldn't talk anyone into standing down or even thinking about it for a moment. I may not have understood the power RJK was wielding over them though as he seemed to push the right buttons to make them act each time. My character slunk away and was a non factor, unable to even act. This irritated me until all was understood as to what happened and why. I kept trying to get an action in or find a party member to not fall for Rob's trap. When all was done we past this experience where Gary had previously fallen. There was a lot of pride at the table when we heard this information from Rob and I must admit the characters played by John January, the Invincible Overlord and Paul J. seemed to have conquered it."

That's a great DM.

I remember seeing a vid on YouTube a while back of another guy I thought was a great DM--Nick Logue. Found it:


After reading the blog, and viewing the vid, who wouldn't want to play games with these DM's?

Besides finding ways to help DM's grow at their craft, I think work can be done within the game systems themselves to help this process along. Latter-day systems moved the balance of power at the game table from the DM to the player, mostly via rules for everything. The 3.x era empowered a whole new generation of rules lawyers. One great thing to come out of the Old School thing is that DM's are getting back to basics, and even using what they learned in older game systems and applying it to newer ones. Rules are being hacked and slashed as much as monsters. I understand the need for more rules, and why it came about. The old tale of the killer DM. Sort of like an evil overlord, his word was law, and woe be to the player who got out of line. The player had no recourse. Rules give that recourse, and help to keep in line the out of control DM.

Oddly enough, I find myself around the same age as Gygax was back when D&D was in its prime in the mid-80's, and I was 14, just learning the game. The game I started with was far simpler that what we play today, and I was one of those out of control asshole DM's. I had no clue, and no one to learn from other than my friends who were out of control asshole DM's. Death and Monty Haul was what I learned, and what I thought was the right way to play. Now I look back with a lot more knowledge and experience, not just with D&D but in all other spects of life, and I think I can finally start to learn how to be a decent DM. Oh, I'm still an asshole in a lot of ways, as many of you have pointed out on various boards and blogs. But I just don't want to be considered an asshole in the games I DM.

I guess what I'm saying in these last couple paragraphs is that DM's need to find ways to take back power at the table, and not be scared to simplify and hack and slash the rules to create the game system that allows them to run a truly great game. The good ones do it already. The new ones need to be taught this. They need to be taught how to get out of their own way and be a great DM, not be dragged down by the rules, and run the game they want to run, without being a great big asshole at the same time.

Getting back to where I began this rant, if what makes CRPG's great is mostly the medium, then the only way to compete with this medium is via the medium of the P&P RPG---the DM. Build a better DM, and the world will beat a path to your game table---and the RPG manufacturers wallets.

A couple of suggestions on how to do this? Here's what I'd pay a $9.99 monthly subscription for---I'd pay to watch that game Rob Kuntz DM'd. Either live, or via podcast. Even if its 4 hours a week. Hook me up with Rob DM'ing some of his old school games with new players, or even talking about some of the memorable games he's played with Gary and friends, and I'll shell out the cash. He could even have guest players, and guest DM's once in a while.

I'd also pay to see streaming vid or podcasts of convention seminars, speeches, and games. A small fraction of gamers get to conventions, but I bet most of us who don't make them would love to go. A virtual convention would be fantastic. All the benefits of being there, without leaving the house because the lawn has to be mowed, groceries bought, the kid's game needs to be attended, etc. Hell, a truly virtual convention can take place entirely in cyberspace, and no one, not even the speakers or DM and players, have to leave their houses. Who's to say the convention even has to ever end?

Anyhow, that's my rant o' the week, which started out as a 2 line response 2 hours ago to a post at theRPGSite. Go figure. :)