RPG Gaming for Grownups

By: Arjan Dice This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

So here I am, late on a Sunday Night, writing about Gaming. I mean, RPGs, not casino gambling or board gaming or digital gambling or any other sort. No, not even those pixely FPS’ and whatnot. Computer physics make me sick. Also, if I have to communicate with people, fewer miscommunications happen when we are all in the same room.

You know when you are grownup when your friends really want to game but don’t have time. And when they do have time, your time is limited. I swear it’s like the whole universe decided to have babies and get married, have baptisms, travel to Europe and have first communions all at once–at least those portions of it that my dear friends all know.

Since among my direct family, I’m the MOST likely to have children and all that implies, well… my calendar is pretty clear save holidays.  Even so, we can go for months where there is literally not 4 hours in one row where all five of us can be in the same room at the same time.  These are not casual gamers either.

I mean, yes, there have been a few too many LOL cats around the gaming table lately, but that’s mostly because the GM is still trying to get her act together. [Ed: The GM is also the writer of this post, FYI]  I really need to stop using the editor stance in my work. Note to self: I’m not Fr. Z, nor will I ever be anything near.

By Diacritica (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

At any rate, I’m using a new world and a new system (to me– the system is quite ancient and all the gaming hipsters will think I’ve taken a step backward) that is, GURPS Lite-ish 4. I use some of the supplements (EG: GURPS Wild West, Ultra Tech, and Space) for much needed veracity, occasional charts, and inspiration. I am running  a Firefly-eque campaign.  Why GURPS? Well, I like the emotional stuff to be unburdened by system-related forces. Also, I want my system to simulate the mechanical aspects of a world with as little  hassle on my part as possible. Cortex meddles with mood and headspace, and I want people to think for themselves.

I want a system that does all the things I could care less about, all while providing enough reality-framework  to be getting on with. Leave my emotional states and motivations ALONE! I don’t need some sociology professor tweaking  my philosophy and inner workings with his game system.  I want a game system that gets the hell out of my way.

Yes, I will Indie game, because that’s where my favorite gamers tend to be, but it is not my prefered paradigm.  I’m a grognard, except I like being nice to the new kid.  Why? We need new blood or we will die.    I will not be responsible for killing off the hobby just because it makes me feel privileged.

I agree with teh Forge folks that a number of tropes in the gaming world are sick. We are not 12 years old anymore. Thank you Jank Cast, for saying what I’ve been saying since credit card companies started trying to sell me credit. (I admit. That started when I was 12. By the time I was 19 they thought I should be comfortably into my second mortgage.) Ok, some of us in gaming actually are, but they deserve to have better roll models, pun absolutely intended. There is no excuse for violence against puns.  I said, gaming for grownups! So act like one!  And that means, stop with the hazing, too. We are better than that– or should be.

Grownups show up on time.  We are clean and bring our own dice and food if necessary. If we have to be late, then we arrange things in advance. Naturally, there are unforeseen circumstances, but those happen to grownups too. It is equally incumbent on me (as GM and whatnot) to NOT take those sorts of things personally or gum up the works.  It’s a work in progress.

If you have problems, you freaking talk it out.  “Bleed” is not a player failure but a benefit that should be appropriately managed.  YOU would not game if you did not have bleed. After all– how could you enjoy charging wild gazebos on the high Kuzbanian prairie if you couldn’t participate in the rush of the hunt, beauteous zen of archery, the thrill of risk, the drama of the kill– even if the mundane  backdrop involves nerds,  grid paper and the rolling of dice?

So not only do we talk about bleed, but also GM performance. With great power comes great responsibility.  Chances are, by the time you are 25 you can have a civilized discussion about things like story line, not stomping on your player’s last nerve, arbitrary rock falls killing  their beloved years old, lovingly crafted characters, and so on without losing it in front of your friends.

Yes, I’m being sort of fatuous (I HOPE you have more mature things to talk about around the table, in some cases) but sometimes a little yogurt keeps things regular, if you get my meaning.  Sorry, in one of my gaming groups, “yogurt” was the name for  extraneous  talk about… stuff.  The easiest time  to make time to discuss how things are going toward the end of the session.

THIS is what you use  the time when the gamerly action stops a half an hour before your most tightly scheduled friend must fly from the basement to  attend their next commitment.  It’s all about talking about the best of times, the worst of times, and what we can do to make the next game even better.  You can even *gasp* shoot the breeze and whatnot. If you game with them, at least pretend to be their friend.

Trust me, you don’t want to wait to have that conversation until after things have gone wrong.

They will go horribly wrong. You all have lives, and relationships, and it seems like every long standing campaign I’ve ever been a part of has had some relationship implode –complete with the long lasting and hard to recover from fallout. You definitely need to make gamer time for this thing– because outside of game things get dicey. People start feeling like they are being singled out, or that you are telling them you need therapy.

You need to jump on this thing a ahead of time, because no one will bring up the problem under normal gamer lock-lipped conditions until things have gone HORRIBLY wrong.  Trust me, people won’t even know how horribly it has gone wrong until you have the painful teeth pulling conversation(s) about it with players who aren’t used to using their social muscles in this way.  Yes, I’ve done this more than once, on both sides of the table. This sort of dramatic, forced, all hands meeting about our most recent meta-Gaming disaster is usually a signal that the game is not long for this world. That is, unless your players are especially desperate.  Hey, it happens.

Łukasz M. Pogoda (original author) By Hyena at cs.wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The only way I know of to take the pressure off is to make this feedback exchange a regular thing. So when the difficulty comes along, those most sensitive and reticent players don’t also have to scale the Everest of actually having to speak up in front of the gaming group about something besides dice adds and pulling out yet another log from the Jenga tower.  (Yes, the latter IS an RPG reference. Look up Dread if you don’t believe me.)

This way, feedback won’t be a surprise attack from a horde of rock-wielding orks descending on you from on high.  We all know that would make it SO much better.  Indeed, for your next player-level conflict, why NOT do a tabletop duel or something? Use your current characters, and whoever dies regens for the game– but they have to give up something.  You figure it out. The only people who can make that fair are the participants– and every one of those people should agree.

If you are having difficulty with getting the convo started, relax. Some people just need more stimulation than a casual conversation to get their noses out of a smart phone. One idea is to use the Jank Cast’s patented method of getting their attention. Go around the table and insist that everyone have a one minute rant on the topic of their choice (Some people will need more time. Be cool with that.)

One minute is a suggested starting minimal time for this. Adjust the time up or down, but don’t make it punitive for those who don’t have much to say. In truth, the only reason to have a time limit is to have a handy way to cut short people who might take up all the available time (if left unchecked).

To really make it count, give XP if it’s actually about the gaming session in some way, increase the number for actual feedback. Granted, you will have to grow some thick skin (and possibly other articles of metaphorical anatomy) but it is seriously worth it.  Hell, record if if you have to. You WILL thank me later. Also, if you have a ham or two in your group, you might be able to give them grat even if they did not shine in the session.  People will actually look forward to feedback time, and you will actually appreciate it.

Mix it up a bit, get creative, as if it were a part of the session.  Relax your iron grip on your authori-TAY.  Your players won’t be happy if they aren’t allowed to at least blow of steam in a way that might actually make a difference.  And you can’t deal with it, you need to look very carefully at why you are the GM in the first place.  Are you having fun? What do you get out of leadership outside of shutting down all disagreement, being in charge, and making stuff up?

Yes, those types of questions are serious business.

They are fundamental  because the whole reason for the exercise is fun, and if you aren’t having it, it is not worth your time. Seriously, if you are the GM ONLY because you make stuff up,  and your whim is law, give it up and become a writer. That way, you can at least in theory make money off of it. Writers control all they survey (at least about story).  I personally benefit from player input. Some would say too much… but I’m cool with that. I think my ideas grow stale without plenty of hot air and social footballing. Trust me, ideas don’t die when exposed to heat air and light. They just get better.

And hey, if you do go the writer route, you can learn the all important skill of literary communication.  Even your improvised color text will improve markedly, and people will be less likely to misunderstand you day in and day out.  When you do go back to gaming after you figure your sh*t out, you will actually get more skills that will improve both your player skills and your GM skills in one, multifaceted stroke.

I meant to explain how GURPS actually improved my GMing style.  Frankly, too many years of Whitewolf, and having noncommunicative players made me a flacid GM. I was also lazily thinking that I was awesome.  But, you can’t be awesome unless you are staying on your toes and getting your feedback and figuring out how to get maximum grat for all your players– including yourself.

That means learning time  management, leadership skills, focusing on what’s important, and shaping your ideas for your player’s benefit– and especially enjoyment. Yeah, I know– grownup stuff.  Ironically, those grownup things mean that your childhood hobbies become much more fun in the long term. The price is that there’s some work on the front end.  And, that’s what adulthood is all about.

Hey, I know of what I speak.  This sort of thing has happened to me relatively recently.  After a wake-up call watching a highly skilled GM work, I knew I was in trouble. The hammer really came down once I was pressed with time constraints and a new system.  I did not adapt quickly, and there has been quite a bit of dead air, and some poor conceptual jumping. Because I never learned how to read a set of rules and visualize the flow from the ruleset.

I only even figured it out because of those awesome people at the Jank Cast.  Yes, they are gaming hipsters. I don’t care. I can always roll my eyes when they get ridiculous, but I enjoy their intense and 32 degrees off center commentary from the Indie perspective. A good deal of it is applicable to those of us who are El Dorado chasers. That is, the golden mean between Simulationism and Narativism. I quibble with the term Narativism, because I think they force the Narative through the game system, which I think is broken. Hey, that’s my job. Hands off!

Not all Indie game systems do this, but all too many do.    If you remember your GNS theory, and read The Forge as selectively as I did, some of this might make sense. Nope, I think I made a grand total of three comments all the way through the 1990’s.  I did not really have the advanced degrees or the inside information to really follow the conversation comprehensively enough to understand all the jargon.

Doing so would taken up too much of my life.  After all, I had games to run!

So, why do I still run games when I’m also a writer? Wouldn’t they scratch the same itch, you ask?

Well, it’s like this. Gaming is how my writer brain socializes. This way, some of the characters are controlled by my brain and some of them aren’t. This takes a lot of pressure off of me, and gives me several points of chaos to refract light off of to continue the world building/evolutionary process. The plot in your traditional novel is screaming too loudly in


my ear for me to indulge in as much world building as I’d like– because I get too distracted with research and what have you. When I bury myself in research, nothing gets written. So, the only way to capture the novel is to stringently avoid doing anything but sit down and scribble things until my brain doesn’t leak anymore.  This is why my husband calls writing the world’s most profitable mental illness.  He’s  one, too, so it’s all good.

However, with a game, the plot can wait–and should wait– for the players to interact with it. I can have several seeds–mix them up, and let my players run with them. I get surprised along with everyone else, and that makes me happy.  I have had some fairly stupid seeming tangents culminate into the most incredible events that were talked about years later.  Like that time I got pissed off at my players and invented a “dungeon crawl” that creeped everyone out so badly that I got a few requests to switch my writing to horror.  Funny thing is, no monsters jumped out at anybody– the rubber suited type monsters were all dead. NO, it was those who ran the facility that bred those monsters that were the real beasts– and they’d already pulled out stakes and left town.  It’s amazing what a single acid-burned and tooth-marked teddy bear does for those with the right personal history.

GURPS  location/generic supplements are AWESOME for coming up with seeds of story– I recommend that writers and GMs in ANY system get the generic supplements for their areas of interest from Steve Jackson Games.  Why? Because the research is sound, and they do survey-style data dumps VERY well.

This means you get enough details to give the context meaning, feeling and depth, without tying you down with a set track or plot–so no game system level railroading.  (They do have regular plot related supplements too– read the fine print before you buy.) Also, just from reading their supplements  you can easily get the sense of how to use information wisely in your novel, AND your game.  Because too much detail is boring, and too little is like focusing a little too hard on all that graphite and grid paper.  So– explain to me why we aren’t playing with miniatures again?!  Then at least I can paint things, cuddle them and call them George.

So there you have it. Gaming does give you life skills. It CAN be a tool to socialize those whom are difficult to socialize. It is living proof that even nerds need each other. And it that social interaction is still not the same as a MOOG.  For one thing, you can look them in the eye. For second, you don’t have to worry about lag– unless it’s the GM looking up rules or some stupid thing. In which case, you drag out your bucket of yoghurt, or show off just how well you know the rules.

The most amusing thing of all is that RPGs were actually invented by a serious Grownup– Alexander the Great. He not only used the sand table for military simulations that Gygax used for his departure for the creation of D&D, but he used simulated situations to challenge his commanders to think on their feet– so they did not necessarily have to get Alex’s permission before responding with boots on the ground in a real situation. This gave ol’ Alex a huge advantage on the battlefield  back when communication took forever and was chancy at best.

Through these scenarios he taught even his regular soldiers some  tactics and strategy  and made it less likely that they would desert. If not acclimating them to the fog of war, then by building camaraderie that is hard to get without some of the intense experiences you can get from the gaming table. The military still does that today.  A good many RPG fans who aren’t hard core nerds (and some who are) have some kicking military backgrounds. (Thank you for serving!) I bet they don’t have the usual troubles running combat scenarios.

At any rate, it is late, and I am tired. And the Rant is Done… For now.  Vampires needed editing, I will post soon, I promise.  If you got this far, I salute  you.

_CC_ Bibi Saint-Pol This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

EDIT: Yep, I cleaned up the language (ie. made it intelligible) and added some links.


3 thoughts on “RPG Gaming for Grownups

  1. A person with my record who has begun to regularly interact with real writers cannot get away with calling himself a “writer”, or allowing others to do so unchallenged.

    I mean seriously…the last time I actually committed fiction to paper in anything remotely like serious quantity, Yugoslavia was still one country and Germany was still two. Calling me a “writer” is an insult to the people who actually do the work of getting new fiction written. Including, my dear, _you_.

    1. This is what we call constructive guilt. If I call you a writer in public long enough, maybe you will feel compelled to take those amazing ideas out of your head and actually do something with them.

      Walk like a duck, look like a duck, quack like a duck… etc.

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