RPGs: Why I stopped playing them and what I did about it

edited September 2011 in Directed Promotion

Hi all,

During my youth, one of my favourite hobbies had always been playing RPGs. I started playing them almost as soon as I could read. As I grew from a child into a teenager RPGs became even more fun. I had lots of time to put into my games and my intellectual capacity was increasing, which allowed me to derive a lot more enjoyment from my play sessions. As I grew into an adult and joined the working world (this would be around 2006) I ran headlong into a wall. It was no longer possible for me to keep playing RPGs the way I used to--in fact, I was finding it harder and harder to play them at all anymore.

The main reasons were:

  1. I lacked the time to do the research and setup required to develop interesting fictional worlds and characters.
  2. On those rare occasions when I did have the time to play, the fun-to-work ratio was not high enough. In short, I wasn't enjoying myself anymore.

I put some serious thought into how RPGs worked to try to figure out what wasn't working for me anymore. Here are some of the issues I came up with:

  1. The fictional world must support a group of PCs. Typically, RPGs are played with 1 GM and 3 or 4 players. Therefore, since each player has one character the fictional world must support stories that can involve more than one main character. Unfortunately, many of history's greatest stories only involve one main character. It's also very common for works of fiction to switch the focus back and forth between different groups of characters. This is very difficult to do in RPGs. Switching the focus around means that some players will actually be playing while others will be left idle for extended periods of time.
  2. Campaigns require significant time expenditure for all players (usually 4-6 hours per week) plus several extra hours per week for the GM. This is not a problem for a child or teenager with lots of free time, but for a working adult those free hours are rare and precious.
  3. One-shot adventures require even more time expenditure for the GM. In one-shots an entire story is played through in one sitting. At least for a campaign the different sessions are related to each other and so story material can be reused, and only a part of the story needs to be developed for each session. With one-shots, the stories, characters and even the game rules can differ dramatically from session to session.
  4. Campaigns require all of the players to attend. If some of the players miss a session, it can be difficult for the attending players to accomplish their in-game goals and annoying for the absent player to catch up next time. Again, attendance isn't a problem for children and teenagers, but working adults tend to have very busy and inflexible schedules. It can be atrociously difficult to get the same group of 5 working adults together for a 6 hour period on a regular basis. You can mitigate this issue by running the campaign less often, but then a new problem arises: players start forgetting what happened last time. Furthermore, since at every session it's been about 2+ weeks since the players saw each other last, half (or more) of the play time will be spent chatting about real life events. You're still having fun, but at this point the gaming is more of a distraction than a hobby.
  5. Campaigns are exclusive. After the first few sessions it can become very difficult for new players to join into an existing campaign. It's also tricky for drop-in friends (who are there just for the weekend, for example) to join in. New players become an annoyance for the existing players since they have to learn the rules, create a character, and learn about what's been going on in the overarching story.
  6. The story is an emergent property of an RPG. In other words, the story is generated spontaneously from the player's actions and is not something that's crafted directly. Consequently, it can be hard at times to create a fun story. It's also rarely clear exactly why a particular session went well and another did not.

Has anyone else here experienced these issues too?

With some help from my friend Paul T (who's a regular on this forum AFAIK), I was delighted to learn about the new renaissance of gaming that's going on. New games and new kinds of games are sprouting up like mushrooms. I figured that maybe something there would help me keep gaming and maximize my fun, while cutting down on the time requirement?

One game that caught my attention was Baron Munchausen (a.k.a. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen). It's actually a fairly old game, more of a precursor to the new revolution than strictly a part of it, but it really sparked my imagination. In that game the players would tell tall tales one at a time, around the table. I liked the idea, but wondered if it could be brought even further: what if all the players were creating the same story, and that story could be about anything?

At the time (again, circa 2006) I didn't know of any game that I really liked that did these two things. So I set about designing such a game with Paul. After about 5 years of working on it, lots of discussion and playtesting, and about 25 (!) different rules iterations (including one premature attempt at publishing 3 years ago), I think that we've finally succeeded at making a game that's really fun and easy to play.

The game's called Muse, and it's available for free download on the official website.

I welcome your questions or comments!

--Jonathan

Comments

  • Hey, I'm gonna give these questions a shot!

    There's really not that many options for getting around attendance problems. I'd recommend playing a game that only requires two players and a GM, something that is enjoyable and functional with a small number of players.
    There are some games out there that support isolated protagonists - Polaris is one, as is The Questing Beast. Both support "hopping about" between protagonists in different locales, too.
    The important thing would be to have players willing to take turns, or in the case of Polaris, you can just give all the players other stuff to do during other people's scenes.

    As for GM prep and time expenditure, I gotta say that a lot of games are much more low-prep than you've encountered previously. Fiasco is one such example (character creation is random, then you fill in the blanks), and it's actually designed to be a one-shot, at that!

    Player attendance: okay, so Polaris won't work if one of the regulars is missing. But I can recommend Apocalypse World - between sessions, or in place of a session that one PC couldn't attend, the GM (called the MC) can write down little summaries that require a dice roll to see what's been happening to the PC since "last time". Very neat way to wade back into character again!

    As for telling fun stories, and having this be a regular occurrence, I would strongly recommend you check out "Story Now" games like Sorcerer, Hero Wars, Polaris, and Apocalypse World. They all tell different sorts of stories, and they all do it in pretty cool ways, some perhaps more familiar to you than others (Hero Wars and Apocalypse World are a bit more run of the mill in how play works, but it works really cool).

    I'm gonna check out Muse; you check out some of these games I mentioned!
  • Hey, Jon!

    Great to see you here on the forum. You and I have had this conversation many times already, so you already know my thoughts on the topic.

    But I'm looking forward to hearing what people think!


    (For what it's worth, in the last few years, I've introduced Jon to a handful of "story games", including Land of Nodd [one of my own creations], Dogs in the Vineyard, and my Lady Blackbird hack. So those are all possible avenues of discussion. Jon, what other "new" games have you played?)


    Finally, you recently told me that you saw some interesting "storytelling games" packaged as card games in your hometown. Can you tell us some more about that? The only such game I'm familiar with is Once Upon a Time..., and it's an interesting design but not terribly satisfying by our standards, I think.
  • Hi. Your story is very similar to mine, resulting in a similar solution -- identify everything that I was not enjoying about the games I was playing, and write my own game to address those issues, ad well as promote the things I did like.

    At the very least, its a great learning process.
  • Posted By: DemiurgeAgain, attendance isn't a problem for children and teenagers, but working adults tend to have very busy and inflexible schedules. It can be atrociously difficult to get the same group of 5 working adults together for a 6 hour period on a regular basis.
    What's weird is that my experience has been the other way around: as teenagers and especially in college, everyone's schedule was chaotic and unpredictable, and people flaked out on gaming all the damn time. You never knew who was going to show up until the game actually started: it was all herding cats all the time, and getting even four people to show up on a regular basis was a minor miracle. But once we all became working adults and had actual schedules and responsibilities, suddenly getting a regular gaming night going became the easiest thing ever. People actually know a week or more in advance if they're going to be available on Saturday evening! When they say they'll show up, they do! If they're going to be late, they call and let everyone know! Yay, adults!

    On the other hand, we don't do 6-hour (or longer) sessions anymore. 4 hours is pretty much our limit, after that we all turn into pumpkins. And no one can snarf down entire pizzas and 2-liters of Mountain Dew anymore, either; instead, it's all healthy vegetables and water and things like that. Still, that's an awfully small price to pay for being able to stick to a goddamn schedule, I think. ;)
  • edited September 2011
    This game gets mentioned a lot, but I'm mentioning it because of personal experience and love for it:

    Apocalypse World.

    The designer designed it with several of your issues in mind:

    fun, lightweight prep. In Apocalypse World, the game is very procedural in its prep. You do what the game tells you to do, and nothing else. If you do it as written, you end up doing more thinking about the game than actually hammering out stats and numbers. The game absolutely forbids pre-plotting. You play to find out.

    easy for players to drop in and out. AW is basically a love-letter to the designers wife, so he made it with her in mind. She's a busy person, so the game had to go on with whoever could make it from session to session. Character creation is easy, the rules are wicked simple and easy to teach (and in fact you don't really have to teach anybody anything, you can just let them learn as they go), and adding new players is only slightly harder than starting a game from scratch (due to a stat that is based on interactions between the PCs; it's no big deal though).

    the fictional world supports the PCs independent of each other. Fuck yes, AW does this. The PCs can be friends, enemies, acquaintances, whatever. Inevitably they will be drawn to each other though, as they are the badasses of the world. Whether is occasional contact, life-long friendship, or all out war, AW has you covered.

    The story is an emergent property of an RPG. In AW, there is no plotting. The story comes from the characters and the questions the GM asks them. It's collaborative world-building, and after an initial first-session in which the GM asks the players all kinds of questions and gets an image of the world (and then does about 30m-1hr of prep for the whole campaign), the game takes off on its own. In the words of the game, you 'play to find out'. The game lives up to this style of play; you do almost no prep aside from occasionally writing out a Front sheet (Fronts are groups of threats that are affecting the PCs, or have the potential to affect the PCs).

    I just got back from a work party, so I am super drunk. I tried very hard to be coherent in this post, but if you have any questions please feel free to ask. I'm sure the rest of S-G will chime in with their thoughts, too. It's a popular game. :)

    What I'm trying to say is: Apocalypse World is your game. If you want to try it out, whisper me. I will organize a Skype session for you with some of my buddies, no strings attached.
  • edited September 2011
    D&D4 also handles many of these issues. It's not that uncommon for games to address many or all of them in various ways, though new approaches are always welcome!
  • Whoa! How does D&D4 handle these issues? (I've never played it.)
  • edited September 2011

    Hey Paul,

    Paul wrote:

    Jon, what other "new" games have you played?

    In early June, Robert Bohl came by to Montreal for the Grand Roludothon game convention to show off his new game Misspent Youth. Out of a 5 hour game, we spent the first 3 hours generating the game world and the Overarching Evil. It was a futuristic world with a cashless economy and where government-licensed super-heroes were the police. The PCs were super-hero-school dropouts eking out a living stealing what they could and living in the less technologically advanced part of town. My character was an evil genius clairvoyant. We then had a good time playing for 2 more hours, and I got a pretty good feel for the game.

    Some of the highlights of the game for me (in terms of mechanics) where:

    1. The way the game encouraged (actually required) the players to work together as a team to figure out what they wanted to do next. I could see this sometimes causing problems, but by and large it seemed to solve one of the problems RPGs can sometimes have, which is a lack of cohesion in story direction.

    2. I liked how for the PCs in order to win against the Overarching Evil (in our case the licensed super-heroes), we inevitably had to become more and more like them. The theme of the game was like the famous Friedrich Nietzsche quote, "Be careful when you fight monsters, lest you become one."

    Finally, you recently told me that you saw some interesting "storytelling games" packaged as card games in your hometown. Can you tell us some more about that?

    Yes, the game is called Aye, Dark Overlord by Fantasy Flight Games. Judging by the copyright (2005) it pre-dates Muse by a year, although I didn't learn about it until a year or two ago.

    In the game the players are goblins trying to avoid being killed by their angered overlord by passing the blame for their failed mission onto one of the other players. It has some remarkably similar mechanics to Muse. The players tell a story in turns (like with Muse) and there are cards available for getting your turn early (like in Muse, except Aye, Dark Overlord doesn't use standard playing cards like Muse does). Unlike Muse, there is a GM (somebody plays the Dark Overlord), and the story is really very focused on a particular theme whereas Muse is theme-agnostic.

    One other particular advantage I think Muse has is the use of a Story Sheet to structure the game. A lot of people believe that around-the-table storytelling is impossible to do without creating something very silly, but I think that too much silliness can be avoided by adding sufficient structure to the game. In Muse this is done with the Story Sheet, Question mechanic and Time Outs, whereas in Aye, Dark Overlord they use a very restrictive theme (and probably some other mechanics I don't know about since I only got the chance to glance over the rules).

    --Jonathan

  • Ah, yes! I've heard of that one.
  • Hey Zac,

    Zac wrote:

    There's really not that many options for getting around attendance problems.

    Sure there are. This is one of the reasons why card games and miniatures are so popular! Short play time, and/or the ability to add or remove players as the game progresses. Think of Poker for example. Unless it's a tournament, new players can show up anytime. Old players can leave anytime. Each round is played very fast so new players don't need to wait very long before they can start playing.

    I was wondering how this could be extended to RPGs or Storytelling Games (STGs).

    I'd recommend playing a game that only requires two players and a GM, something that is enjoyable and functional with a small number of players. There are some games out there that support isolated protagonists - Polaris is one, as is The Questing Beast.

    I agree that requiring a small number of players would make commitments easier to keep... but doesn't Polaris require exactly the same 4 players every session?

    The important thing would be to have players willing to take turns, or in the case of Polaris, you can just give all the players other stuff to do during other people's scenes.

    I've always found this difficult as a player, and the worst in LARPing. I solved this issue in Muse, though! Since all of the players are telling the same story, nobody is ever left out even if they're not currently contributing directly.

    Player attendance: okay, so Polaris won't work if one of the regulars is missing. But I can recommend Apocalypse World - between sessions, or in place of a session that one PC couldn't attend, the GM (called the MC) can write down little summaries that require a dice roll to see what's been happening to the PC since "last time". Very neat way to wade back into character again!

    Apocalypse World is definitely first on my list of games to try!

    I'm gonna check out Muse; you check out some of these games I mentioned!

    Thanks, I will.

    --Jonathan

  • Posted By: Paul T.Whoa! How does D&D4 handle these issues? (I've never played it.)
    1 - Fictional world supports group of PCs. "Adventurers", you don't have to worry about shifting focus because most of the time there's a party.
    2-3 - Drastically reduced preparation time for the GM. If you want to reduce the time footprint to one encounter and play it on your 50 minute lunch hour, you can (though I don't think that's the ideal way to play).
    5 - Again, the "adventuring party" makes non-exclusive campaigns easy. Also they support a very thorough Living campaign where the whole idea is that you don't know who will show up this week.
  • Jason,

    Does D&D4 support that stuff more so than Generic Brand RPG X?

    I mean, lots of games feature "groups of PCs", require little prep (and, I would argue, many much less than D&D), and allow you to swap people in or out (any "mission-based" play).

    I'm asking because I've never played D&D4.

    The Living campaign feature is an interesting comment, though! It's an organized way to facilitate easy drop-in-and-out games for people. Wasn't there something called "D&D Encounters"? A one-hour session service of some kind? Anyway, that's a Thing, for sure!
  • Please correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that in D&D (particularly for the "Living" campaigns) new players are allowed to drop-in by simply erasing the individual importance of the PCs in favour of the Party. I personally don't think this would enhance my enjoyment of the game... I like it when a PC's issues get woven into the plot. I'm thinking of Keys here like in The Shadow of Yesterday.

    The solution in my mind is not to eliminate the importance of the individual character, but rather to cut down that importance to the length of one 4-hour play session. This way it doesn't matter if this same player shows up next session.

    Anyway, just a thought...

    --Jonathan

  • Actually, is there an RPG out there where all of the players play a single PC?

  • There's the party game/RPG, Everyone is John, where the players are voices in John's head and the GM plays 'everyone else.'
    --
    TAZ
  • edited September 2011
    I took a look at Muse yesterday, and made some notes about it on my blog: Reading Muse - A storytelling game by Jonathan Benn.
  • Hey, Jon!
    If you in the Montreal area and want to get in on some Apocalypse World, I'm starting a new campaign soon. You could join if you wanted.
    We might also be playing Remember Tomorrow or Polaris!
  • Suddenly I want to visit Montreal...
  • Posted By: Paul T.Does D&D4 support that stuff more so than Generic Brand RPG X?
    Well, since D&D kind of is that Generic Brand, or at least the baseline RPG...I don't really know how to answer?
    Posted By: Paul T.I mean, lots of games feature "groups of PCs", require little prep (and, I would argue, many much less than D&D), and allow you to swap people in or out (any "mission-based" play).
    Yep, and those games would also address those issues. As I said, there's lots of RPGs that address these things out there.
  • edited September 2011
    Posted By: framweardno strings attached.
    Brainers always say this.

    Something that speaks directly to your number 4, Jon, is Ben Robbins' West Marches campaign. I haven't read his posts about it in a while, so I can't summarize it, but I know it speaks to your point, and it's good reading:

    West Marches

    Running Your Own
  • Posted By: JDCorley
    Yep, and those games would also address those issues. As I said, there's lots of RPGs that address these things out there.
    Jason,

    I suppose my suspicion is that, since Jon's "issues" were caused by precisely this type of gaming, I doubt D&D4 (i.e. more of the same) would be likely to solve those same issues.

    Agree/disagree?

    Again, I've never played D&D4, so I'm just guessing.
  • edited September 2011

    Posted By: zircher

    There's the party game/RPG, Everyone is John, where the players are voices in John's head and the GM plays 'everyone else.'

    Awesome! Sounds like it would be fun to play!

    I was curious because while I haven't tried to do this yet with Muse, it's technically possible to play a session with only one protagonist.

  • edited September 2011
    Posted By: Paul T.I suppose my suspicion is that, since Jon's "issues" werecausedby precisely this type of gaming, I doubt D&D4 (i.e. more of the same) would be likely tosolvethose same issues.
    Well, D&D3 had a lot more prep time, and not many shortcuts for GMs (other than buying preprepared stuff, which is cool but not the same), so it wouldn't address 2-3?

    And games that are not about adventuring groups wouldn't address 1 or 5 in the same way?

    So I donno, maybe? There's a lot of variety in "this type of gaming"?

    Anyway, he weighed in and said he didn't like parties anyway, he WANTED there to be individual plotlines and spotlight shifting, which requires a different approach to the "spotlight" issue than just saying "the spotlight's on everyone, together".
  • edited September 2011

    Posted By: Hans c-o

    Something that speaks directly to your number 4, Jon, is Ben Robbins' West Marches campaign. I haven't read his posts about it in a while, so I can't summarize it, but I know it speaks to your point, and it's good reading:

    Thanks for the reference, Hans. West Marches seems like a neat idea. However, it doesn't adress several of the issues I brought up, namely #1 and #6.

    • It still forces the stories into a party-style format that doesn't match well with most fiction and consequently severely limits play options.
    • It does not guarantee that the stories will be fun. What is the characters' motivation for putting themselves in constant danger? Why go to Fort X rather than Cave Y other than simple curiosity? I've played open sandbox video games like Oblivion before, and as vast as the game might be, every cave or castle ends up resembling all the others eventually. The real fun for me in Oblivion was in the storylines.
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