So, this weekend, I'm having some friends over for D&D for the first time since February. We started playing D&D early last autumn with a group of five players (Kris, Tiff, Ryan, Mike and Chuck), which quickly became four, then three. The three players we had left were all very inexperienced so we decided to change what we were doing from an open-world campaign to the offical D&D campaign resources.
We got a new player (and lost another) and started Horde of the Dragon Queen with a group of three very enthusiastic newcomers. We played a couple of sessions, and then Kris and I moved, and things sort of just stopped being as easy to schedule. I tried a couple of times over the summer to get it started again - once in June, and once in July. Nothing stuck.
So this weekend, I'm really hoping we will be able to gel together as a group again - I really enjoyed running D&D while we were active, we even were recording the sessions so others could enjoy them along with us (the short-lived Adventures in Roleplaying podcast)... that didn't exactly work out, mostly due to technical issues. We are adding another player (one of Tiffany's friends) and so we will head into chapter two of HotDQ as a group of four. Or five, maybe... Mike says he might want back in too.
That's where I am starting to have concerns. Is it possible, as an adult in 2015, to form a D&D group and have it stick together long-term? I remember back in university the campaigns my group of friends and I had, the same core group of five players along with four or five stragglers that would come and go, encountered endless monsters, became kings and gods in our own right, and for three glorious years we met for twelve hours every Saturday night. Give or take.
I miss that, but I understand that adults have more responsibilities than university kids, and that as we get older we have to compromise with wives, husbands, and children over the way we spend our free time. But there has always been a sense of community that comes with being involved in a committed and enthusiastic D&D group that I don't remember ever seeing before or since in gaming. Nobody gets you like your party. I haven't played D&D as a player since 2006, and in those nine years I have played Magic: the Gathering at every try-hard level I could qualify for, I've played Warhammer, Warmachine, X-Wing, Netrunner, and even Heroclix. Nothing really stuck to me like D&D.
Time is valuable, and I know that D&D takes a lot of it to really get the most out of; but I really feel like in this world that alienates us from one another and forces us to compromise with our own selves in order to maximize buzzwords we could all use a group of friends on whom we can each lean in times of trouble. Some of the best and most long-lasting friendships I have to this day were made over the kitchen table rolling plastic polyhedrons; and I feel there is still room for that in my life. Your characters stories might be dreary to everyone else, but we all understand how important they are to you and the passionate gamers with whom you shared in either glory or glorious failure!
So this weekend, I'm giving it another try. I know I have some enthusiastic gamers in my group, I just need to find the bait that will really hook them on the concept of "organized imagination" as a hobby. So, what would you do?
I have been working the past couple of weeks on a way to integrate the Wizards official modules with the campaign world that I had made. In theory, this will allow the players the structure of published modules with the freedom to explore new parts of a world as they become more and more confident. I hope that this hybrid style of DMing will give each of my players what they are looking for, and hopefully it will help them open themselves up to the experience.
This is all muddied a little bit by a small doubt that has crept into my mind... what if it is the system?
While Kris and I were wandering the vendor's hall at Gencon two weeks ago, we were bombarded with dozens of new (and pseudo-new) RPG systems, each of which were offering something new and exciting to the old pen-and-paper style of roleplaying. One of the best was a game called ODAM (Of Dreams and Magic) by ODAM Publishing. John, the vendor in the hall was extremely enthusiastic about the core concept of the game and how the mechanics help to differentiate it from the rest of the games I would be seeing.
ODAM was explained to me as a cross between Nightmare on Elm Street crossed with The Matrix; as Avatars, the characters enter a dreamworld and establish themselves as warriors in the fight against The Doubt, an intangible entity which lurks in the darkest recesses of our minds. While taking on crazy adventures within the dreamworld, the Avatars will be forced to contend with nightmares seeking to strip them of their powers, and The Doubt operating as a negative force operating against all Avatars.
The mechanics are also very interesting, with the entire D20 system stripped away in favour of a 2-d10 system that merely allows players to tell the story in the most dramatic way possible. Rather than strictly rolling a die for every action they wish to undertake, they roll two ten-sided dice, one representing their confidence and abilities as Avatars, and the other representing the Doubt seeking to keep them from accomplishing their goals. The difference between these two dice operates as a spendable currency (Ki points) which can be used to make even ordinary actions (such as throwing a ball or jumping a fence) extraordinary.
It is a unique and expansive storytelling mechanic that really speaks to me, and I found myself drawn to the booth time and time again, hoping for just a few more minutes with the publishers. I didn't wind up getting a copy of the book (it sold out on the first day, to the surprise of everyone but me), but I am planning on getting in touch and seeing if I can get a copy or two this autumn.
Another one that I have seen around before (specifically on Kickstarter last year), but never really took the time to look into was Shadows of Esteren by Agate RPG. This is a narrative RPG based on the philosophy that dice get in the way. The world is a blending of Ravenloft, Game of Thrones, and the Cthulu-verse of H.P. Lovecraft. As a fan of low-fantasy RPGs, and psychological horror, the world speaks to me, but I wasn't able to get a real clear picture of how the game is played. I got the idea that the mechanics of the game drive storytelling rather than the achievement-based system of D&D (and ODAM), rather than stating an action and rolling some number of dice, you describe the way you would achieve the desired effect and the game master would determine (in some undefined way) whether or not your action succeeded.
This feels very next-level for a group of beginners, and might even be more esoteric than I could handle very easily. The constant description of actions in order to ensure their success would lead to very long running-time of even the simplest adventure. I think that it certainly deserves more investigation, but right now I find it safe to say that the Shadows of Esteren system would be too big of a change to really hook my players. Maybe if I have a chance to run for some veterans in the future, I could look at the 'Shadows' system as a launching point for a more psychological campaign; the woman at the booth seemed very enthusiastic about how much fun it can be once you grok it!
All told, an environment-based game rather than an achievement-based one might be more compelling to me, but I don't know if it is too difficult for newcomers to grok. I don't know if I would be able to get the most out of players who are still getting used to the D&D system if I just throw them into the middle of a different set of rules. I think that consistency is key, but in this day and age, consistency is incredibly difficult to come across - someone has to get their kids to a sleepover, someone else has a fmaily trip planned with their in-laws, someone else has a football game... Getting four or five people together on a regular basis for something that hasn't been a part of their routine is mind-bogglingly difficult.
How do new DMs do it? How do you make D&D a habit, how do you make it a part of your party's life? Is it in keeping things fresh and trying out new systems and worlds? Is it about keeping things very rigid and making sure you keep to a very firm schedule? Is it something else?
Please, comment below and let me know what you think about this issue, and if you have any advice for me, be sure to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on twitter @esternaefil.
Thanks so much for reading, and remember - always be gaming.