On the Occasion of My 1st D&D Game

On a writing retreat in the Misty Mountains, I mean the Cloudlands, I mean the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I had an opportunity to play my first game of D&D.

Oh, the EXCITEMENT this incited in my Facebook Flist! I haven’t gotten so many approving like-emoticons since getting married!

Many people asked me, “What took you so long?”

My answers varied from, “My native reluctance,” to “An instinctive wide-eyed wariness of anything new,” to “Because I pretty much SCARPER every time someone MENTIONS RPGs!”

I’m not necessarily proud of any of those answers; I feel a bit cagey about them, but also honest.

Other people asked me, “What did you like best about D&D?”

My answer? “The limitations.”

Several friends invited me to expand on this, so I’ve been thinking about it.

I find it really interesting that people think I’d be a “natural” at D&D because I’m an actor with improv training, and a writer with storytelling training. The reality was that those aspects of D&D were the least interesting to me as a player, partially because D&D, mechanically, seemed to be more about decision-making through dice and combat protocol through dice.

There I was, with a heap of dice in front of me I didn’t understand, and a character sheet (pre-made, as this was a one-off game) that had so much information on it it was hard to absorb it all, and suddenly the game had started. It was a simple storyline, and our characters were fairly stock. Still, I could tell there was a lot of room to explore within those cut-outs–sort of like Commedia dell’arte, eh?

But even though I had the dice, and a heap of information at hand, I did not know how to use them, or what it all meant. It was a learn-as-I-go sort of situation.

A game, to me, is most enjoyable when I understand the limits–or maybe I should say “the structure.” In my brain, there is a kind of pleasurable click, as when I learn a new formal poetry structure. Until I understood about stresses and syllables and rhymes and lines, a sonnet was just sort of a neat little maybe kind of boring and occasionally incomprehensible slag pile of words. A sonnet became much more interesting, however, as I grew older and started studying the ARCHITECTURE of it, word by word, line by line.

(Sort of like, come to think of it, when a building becomes much more than just an antiquated heap of bricks belonging to a political celebrity when you think, “Gosh, to build Monticello, Jefferson first had dozens of enslaved people level a frikkin mountaintop and then make the bricks of his house OUT OF THAT DIRT.” That house becomes more interesting, certainly–and more awful, more endowed, more worthy of study, of a lasting emotional connection–which is as much rage as it is awe. . . Can you tell I was just in Virginia?)

Right, back to games.

So, as a first time player, thrown into a game that was pretty short by D&D standards (2-4 hours?) but long by my standards (games longer than 40 minutes with no visible count-down mechanic–as in Mysterium or Fiasco, where you are watching the game end even as you play it–make me, still kind of n00b to games, a trifle anxious), the most interesting things about D&D for me were not, in fact, the improv or the storytelling.

With the first, I was not familiar enough with the game, or comfortable enough in my character, to improv with ease. Individual turns were short, my understanding of the decision-making process still fairly muddled. With the second, plot-wise, the storytelling was mostly in the hands of the Dungeon Master–and those of the players who really knew how to use their dice. I contributed some, but not enough to be wholly invested in the outcome of the story.

What I did enjoy:

  1. Watching other people–the expert players–sink their teeth into the game. The way they consulted their dice verged on the oracular, and they seemed to take such a distinctive, unholy glee is rattling the bones and casting them down. Very sensual!
  2. Learning on my feet: that each individual die has its own distinct function and meaning; that the Dungeon Master has all kinds of secret stats on NPCs that effected game-play in unpredictable ways; that I could use what I found on my character sheet to influence my decisions–that the function of the sheet was to both impose limits on improvisation and to act as prompts for improvisation.

In this way, I actually had fewer decisions to make than I thought, but could make more powerful, specific decisions using the character sheet. But I had to figure all of that out as I went. Because I was learning the game, it was different than really playing it. My enjoyment came more from learning than from playing.

People have asked me if I will play D&D again, and have offered many RPG alternatives to D&D as well.

They are very excited for me–which I find endearing, but I also feel guilty because I can’t quite match that excitement yet. It’s all still too new for me, and new things make me more wary than excited. I will try to be different, and better, and change my attitude, but that’s more of a life-goal, so . . . WE’RE WORKING ON IT.

I think I would be willing to do another D&D campaign–albeit a short one. I’d like to go in a bit more prepared. Now I know, for example, that D&D is a combat-heavy game, and the mechanics are dice and stats. I don’t know that, on the whole, I’m really very interested in episodic combat quest games. I know that I don’t have any desire to meet for a long-running game, but I would at this point be willing to devote an entire afternoon/evening to a single long game, just to say I’ve done it.

And yes, I’d be willing to play other RPGs, but it’s not because I fell instantly in love with the idea of them.

Again–none of my actual enjoyment came from the highly trained (and maybe a bit stuck up) acting and writing parts of me, but from the audience and student parts of me, which are more generous and interested in trying new things as a rule.

Perhaps the other stuff will come in time.

But, actually, what I think I’m finding–and this may not prove ultimately true, as I try to remain flexible and be open to surprises–is that, in the realm of games, my preference is for short, humorous, medium-strategy party games.

I like a 40 minute game that’s fast and elegantly designed. I like card games with interesting art and intricate lay-out. The cards, you see, are the poetic limitation, but within that limitation, a game can be infinite. I like a game that’s easy the first time, but gets more complicated the longer you play it. I like tile games, and decoding games, and I really, really like collaborative games.

Theatrical impov, voice acting, storytelling? Not so much.

See, those are my JOBS. AND I LOVE MY JOBS. But I pretty much give everything I have to them.When I go to games, I’m not really interested in WORKING. I want to play. And that might mean, in the end, that I just like a different kind of game than an RPG.

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13 responses to “On the Occasion of My 1st D&D Game

  1. I’ve had this happen in groups before, where trained actors, whom everyone thought would naturally adore the game, have balked at playing D&D. I think part of it happens because D&D quantifies things to such a degree, makes things “true” that in real live are much more ambiguous, that it can hamper an actor who’s training involves digging into their psychological depths in order to uncover difficult, contradictory or otherwise opaque motivations.

    For instance, a person, npc or monster can be truly and actually “good” or “evil” in the game, and in a way that has gamic consequences, instead of, say, having a more nuanced sort of psychological profile that’s harder to pin down. Intelligence is an exact number: 16 is better than 15; so much more multiple intelligences. And so on: there are tons of examples of how the game assigns a number or gamically relevant designation that, in improv, would almost never be nailed down so absolutely.

    Now, that said, I love D&D, and would argue that what it creates is a highly regimented and idiosyncratic form of improv that requires a ton of reading and experience to learn to navigate. But no actor loves all improv games equally, and D&D’s overhead, DM-centered form of storytelling, and focus on combat (though that last one depends a great deal on the DM) will definitely not appeal to all.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:

    A blog about my first D&D game!

  3. I was interested in your response specifically because I thought you’d hate it from your actor/writer parts, & was curious as to whether or not that would be the case! Stu balks at the idea of RPGs too, much preferring party games. I love them because my writing was rooted in them for a long time — the roleplaying I cut my teeth on was freeform, text-based, & online, & I’ve found it fascinating to adapt to the different dynamics of in-person gaming. The text stuff, at its best, was like writing a story together & reading a novel at the same time; the in-person stuff introduces an element of deeply variable performance, from the intimate to the mechanically distancing, & depends hugely on multiple aspects of the DM & players, singly & collectively. I feel like I’ve had a few different experiences of “best” with in-person groups.

    Anyway it’s all FASCINATING & I’m very glad you shared your experience!

    • I often wonder how I’d think of things if I were half a generation younger, and had your and Jess’s experience of online RPGs and community storytelling and the like. In a way, I think I’d be much more FLEXIBLE as a writer, and collaborative, and willing–and much more WITH IT. With the ZEITGEIST, MEIN LIEBLING, JA?

      But one must accept one’s idiosyncratic experience, I suppose, and also try to examine new experiences as they come, even when they come late.

      So much of the observed fun, I think, is watching the nostalgic reaction awaken and enliven older players. Their own memories inhabit them, as if they are being haunted by themselves in a sort of ludic thrall, reuniting in time and in play with their younger selves. I find the playfulness and invigorating aspects of nostalgia as fascinating as I find the more dangerous, stultifying aspects of it, though in different ways, of course.

      La la la. I sound so STUFFY to myself, and I don’t mean to be truly. I can feel the mulish rearing of my head; I want to be more flexible!

      • LUDIC THRALL, AH

        It’s interesting–I don’t know that my enjoyment of RPGs now comes from nostalgia. I FEEL nostalgia for the good times that were, certainly, but they’re separate from gameplay–and a big part of that is that I can’t do WRITING for play anymore. Writing is my work, and to write for play draws from the same well, and I can’t justify it. I’ll feel nostalgia for Vampire: the Masquerade when I glimpse the bare bones of a blank character sheet, for instance, and viscerally feel myself yanked back to Geography class in 9th grade when to make a character was to build a sheet. But it doesn’t make me want to play the game.

        The play I do twice a month on Twitch, though, in an Adventures in Middle-Earth campaign? That’s very nearly the only thing I do these days that feels like glorious, soul-enriching PLAY. Even when it DEVASTATES me. And it’s weird because it’s so much more explicitly a performance! I see myself on camera! I struggle to keep up with the wit and experience of my fellow players! But it’s also Tolkien, and Tolkien’s like immersing my soul in a warm bath while offering it tea, and I look forward to it and tremble over it and am haunted by it and it’s so utterly separate from writing, even when it makes me write silly songs about fording the Anduin!

        We are such puzzle-monkeys, aren’t we!

      • We are. And I love that you are doing ANYTHING that makes you feel glorious, and sort of deliciously haunts your days at the edges, and makes you write silly songs. WHERE ARE THESE SILLY SONGS? WHY ARE THEY NOT IN MY IN-BOX?!? I’ve been daydreaming about rereading The Lord of the Rings again and then throwing myself a WATCH ALL THE EXTENDED EDITIONS IN ONE SWELL FOOP. It is a pleasant daydream. Oh, my.

  4. watermelontail

    OK, so, another part – my new gaming experience.

    I have shied away from MMOs all my gaming life. I don’t know exactly why – it could be that WoW does nothing for me, and WoW is pretty much the only MMO that remains eternal (thus all the others ape it to one extent or another). Also, I don’t like gaming with people I don’t know and can’t see. That said, I’m not immune to the lure of multiplayer situations – I’ve put some hours into the incarnations of Dark Souls where multiplayer interactions are strongly defined and constrained (you show up to help someone at their behest or show up to murder them at your whim, there’s little ambiguity about which you’re doing, since you show up rotoscopied red as the orcs in the Rankin-Bass Lord of the Rings if you’re there to murder).

    So recently, I’ve been playing Monster Hunter World, where the multiplayer is showing up to help other people, at their behest, hunt down the magical dinosaurs of the world and kill them (this game might be responsible for more than one person’s vegetarianism, is all I’m sayin’). In this case, and with the friendly summons in Souls, the skill and the joy for me is the same: figuring out what the play is and how best to complement the other players’ actions without a way to directly communicate.* It’s great fun figuring out what the other person’s style is and how to pull off the hunt. It’s great fun, also, to be on a 4-hunter team representing 4 different countries and languages and still being able to figure out how to take down whatever it is. It’s fun to be able to divine a person’s skill level and familiarity with the prey by what they took into the field and what their playstyle is. You get to learn a lot.

    Also, Hunting Horns are great fun. Giant bagpipe-clubs that let you bonk monsters while laying down sweet tunes that change the nature of the environment or augment your fellow hunters. It gets me.

    Right now, they are doing a crossover event with Final Fantasy 14, the current MMO version of that venerable franchise, where one of their monsters pops over into the Monster Hunter… um World.

    Now here’s the thing: this monster behaves a little differently than the monsters normally in the game. Normally, the monsters in MHW are modeled to act like animals first and boss monsters second, regardless of how weird and improbable their biology would be. They don’t have magic powers, per se, even though magic is a better explanation for what they can do, technically. The big fiery monsters cause explosions by releasing biological gunpowder from their scales in big glittering clouds, and they generally would rather not die than eat you, but if you’re trying to make them die, well, it’s them or you, so chomp-chomp.

    This franchise immigrant monster is kind of different. It casts spells. It doesn’t need to flap wings to make tornadoes, it makes an MMO-style notification appear that it’s tornado time, and the tornado appears if you don’t stop it from doing so. I can’t stress enough how disorienting this is at first. The thing makes meteors just fall on your head without any physical tell. You need to be watching the notifications to know far enough in advance to be able to dodge it.

    What this does is add a bunch of factors to manage as you’re playing – and to read the strategies your fellow hunters are bringing to the table. Instead of picking a strategy and improvising from there, you’ve got to have a plan – someone needs to be able to grab its attention and tank its attacks, someone needs to stop those damned tornadoes with flashbombs or everyone needs to remember to run to the edge of the zone if they’re getting targeted, someone (more than one someone) needs to have tooled out to heal and support the others, someone needs to focus on damaging the thing, someone needs to worry about buffs and debuffs, and everyone needs to get behind the rook when it summons its one-shot AOE.

    In short, it’s like an MMO raid – there’s a lot of management, and as someone who usually brings healing and the horn to the party, I’m juggling buffs, healing, dealing some damage – but not enough to get it’s attention because I can’t tank worth a good god-damn, and then stopping it from dropping those effing tornadoes.

    And the thing it reminds me most of? Operating for Ingress – trying to direct people who may not have chosen the optimal loadout for what they are doing and trying to get everyone to work together toward a goal. It’s rewarding in a weird way.

    Rewarding emotionally, because heaven knows, I’ve only brought down the thing once.

    • watermelontail

      Ach, it looks like wordpress might have eeted the first part of this, so reposting:

      Oh my, so many thoughts. But first; this was absolutely fucking illuminating in a number of ways that make my ludic-brain and inner game theorist (lowercase g, lowercase t) nod along vigorously.

      It also helps that I have just had my gaming horizons stealth-expanded in a way that bridges two previously polar aspects of gaming. I’ll get to that later, though

      Gaming is a multidisciplinarian sort of thing to do. Smarter people than me like to divide it up between Gamist (how to use the mechanics and get cool outcomes), Simulationist (how the fiction models the world – traditionally this is kind of like physics in video games, but I think it’s expanded to genre – e.g. making a game that “feels” like a police procedural TV show or, with Fiasco, like a Coen Brothers movie), and Narrativist (making stories, exploring character, embodying character, etc) sorts of areas. I don’t have an idea that works better than that, so I roll with it (no pun intended, but I’ll roll with that, too).

      D&D and it’s ilk (Traditional Games or Trad Games, if you’re nasty [and I am, so that’s what I use]) tend to put people off with the cognitive load of STUFF YOU NEED TO KNOW to get at the Gamist goodness and, to an extent, the Simulationist goodness so we sell the narrative, and designers who seek to make things accessible do (or did about a decade ago) work very hard on lightening the cognitive load that Trad Games to get people into the GAMEY GOODNESS faster (or to jettison most of the gamey goodness and focus on the narrative, which is arguably, what Fiasco does, but YMMV).

      I think we might do ourselves a bit of disservice as game designers and game advocates leaning hard on the narrative, especially in a situation – a common gads-damned situation, where someone with little to no experience – where a less experienced player is dragged along without a patient, proper intro to the gamey parts. I think it would feel like being the only sole-focus actor in a production with people who are doing the acting, directing, and tech, all at once and not bringing that only-an-actor in on how they decided the blocking was going to work. Yeah, it’s a theatrically ignorant analogy, but it feels sufficiently alienating a situation to explain it.

      More soon!

      • watermelontail

        And it’s got me thinking, now, how Simulation has shifted from what I like to call Falling and Drowning rules that make up the “physics” of a tabletop game (and are still very present in trad games), to story beat, scene, trope, and genre convention. Oh the wheels, how they spin…

      • I love your analogies! And your brain! I’m reading and rereading your comments in order to really absorb them; I know that you are a great gamer and deep thinker. Carlos was SO HAPPY to playtest with you at Readercon. Also, THANK YOU FOR READING!

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