"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Feedback From Some Former Northern Marches Players

I have been having a discussion over the last couple of days with two players that had participated in some of the sessions for the Northern Marches. They had stopped participating and I wanted to get some feedback from them as to why. Both of these players are experienced with d20 and were not familiar with B/X and especially my style of B/X. I am really interested in what they have to say as I feel that it is important that everyone have a good time - it's a game after all.

The feedback that I received basically broke down into 3 categories:

1. They didn't like the power level of the characters and the corollary dependance on retainers.

This is strictly a preference issue to me. They prefer the d20 power level and being the heroes. I have told them on various occasions the quote I posted the other day:
Basic & Expert D&D requires a different play-style than later editions. It is not a game of heroes doing superhero things. The power level doesn't ramp up like that. It is a game of exploration and discovery. Imagine if you, yourself, were thrust into a D&D adventure - you would take all steps necessary to ensure that you survived. You would investigate for knowledge of what you were up against, you would make sure that you had all the resources necessary and available to overcome obstacles and you would make sure you had enough muscle to survive. Instead of Superman think Dr. Livingstone.
If they don't care for this style of game then they should not play in the Northern Marches.

As I have mentioned previously, as one goes farther back towards the origins of the game the closer it resembles and plays like a wargame. By this I mean that combat is about resource management. The more hit points, attacks, protection, information and spells you have while minimizing those of your opponent the better off you are. B/X characters are fragile so you need to have as many advantages as possible. Some people don't like that style - that's cool.

2. They didn't feel like they were getting anywhere in terms of the story.

My thoughts on this are threefold:
A. Story? What story?
B. One thing that is perplexing and frustrating to me right now is that the party has not asked any questions and has not done any investigating. They don't ask questions about the who, what, whys of what was going on. The party does nearly everything blind which is very dangerous. I have given out about 4 of my 30 rumours about the ruined castle, 1 or 2 about the abandoned mine, only 1 regarding one of the local rulers and nobody asked what might be in the forest or mountains near the witches hut where they were searching. No one has asked about the paintings or statues in the castle. No one asked where they could get a scroll of protection against undead to get past the wraith.

Not investigating has done a few things: a) it has made things more dangerous and it has been reflected in the mortality rate, b) it has kept a number of nuggets about treasures, mysteries, and history hidden. By asking questions the party could have gotten a sense of being part of a bigger world and a sense that things were going on around them, c) it has also made it more difficult for me. I feel that I am a better DM when I get to react to proactive players. There were glimpses of it when they were getting ready to ambush a bandit to claim the bounty but the party never followed up. I felt I had to keep handing out hooks because there was no direction from the players.

C. Connected with the lack of investigating - in a game where most characters who can use platemail can buy it at the start and where you cannot buy magic items to me there are 3 main uses for treasure (after the XP of course): a) buy information, b) hire retainers, and c) eventually build a stronghold.

As for buying information, I have talked a couple of times about my use of the Retainer Reaction or Monster Reaction tables to handle most social interaction. This does not mean that everything is at the whim of the dice though. There are a number of ways to improve the odds. Spending 25 gp buying drinks for the off-duty captain of the guard will get you a +3 bonus on the roll. When using a 2d6, a +3 bonus makes it hard to really screw up, especially if you have any kind of charisma modifier.

RE the hiring of retainers - it is important in B/X. It just is - see above.

3. "I am more of a roleplayer..."

Honestly, this one burns me a little. Even with my "Gameist" preference I still believe that my style - especially with the low power style of B/X - is very encouraging of roleplaying. Now I don't do a lot of talking in 1st person or, to quote the Pundit, "sitting around talking melodramatically in your character's voice."

As the Pundit also says, "Roleplaying is ANYTHING that you do from the point of view of your character, any in-character action."
From this perspective, I feel that the Northern Marches has the potential for GREAT roleplaying. If you want to roleplay a character instead of roll dice for a piece of paper, put yourself in your characters shoes and figure out a way to overcome the obstacles and figure out a way to survive! In character decisions do not have to be stupid decisions. Again, imagine if you, yourself, were a character in a D&D adventure - you would take all steps necessary to ensure that you survived. You would investigate for knowledge of what you were up against, you would make sure that you had all the resources necessary and available to overcome obstacles and you would make sure you had enough muscle to survive. If you are roleplaying does you character deserve any less? The odds are against you so step into your character's shoes and figure out a way to improve them.

B/X is more dangerous for characters than 3.5. By ignoring this fact and marching into near certain doom is actually poor roleplaying unless your character is a suicidal adventurer with a death wish. Why is it not roleplaying if you have 3 retainers to help protect you? Or if you have to figure out a way to get past the monster that is way too powerful to fight head on?

To me that is smart roleplaying...if I have a character who is doing anything as dangerous as exploring vile dungeons for a living and I put myself in their shoes I would be sure to have lots of help!

Do you feel that the fact that I use the Monster Reaction Table for social interactions makes it not roleplaying? I feel the opposite as I then have to step into the NPC's shoes and come up with a reason for the result. Just because I don't use funny voices doesn't mean I don't have to make in-character decisions for them. In fact it might even be tougher as I am constrained as to the decision I make.

There was also a comment related to the roleplaying one about how the mortality rate was de-motivating. By understanding the points I made above I believe that this issue goes away or they go play a game they prefer.


  1. Hear Hear! I believe you outlined clearly the differences in gaming expectaions between OG's and the Next Generation. The Next Gen wanted more power, easier combat, and spoonfed information to create the story.

    Not to be the old guy on the porch here...but in general it sonds like their ideal gaming requires less work and effort on behalf of the players.

    The burden of "roleplaying" and being involved in the story is shared between players and referee. It is incumbent upon the referee to set the stage and have a script, but it is a dull and empty stage unless the players act.

  2. This is a great post. First of all, let me say that I do think there is a misconception out there that Role-Playing equates to Play-Acting. This is most certainly not the case. Sure, being able to speak in flowery terms might get the player some style points during important NPC-PC dialog, but personally I can only handle that stuff in small amounts. True Role-Playing flourishes in sand-box style games, and goes beyond elementary Play-Acting.

    As far as the rest of the "reasons", they all scream "Hand it to us. You're making us think and work too hard". Or, "We're the Heroes, the NPCs should be lining up offering us plot hooks."

    This has nothing to do with old vs new or editions, this is play style preference and expectations. I'd sign up for your game in a heartbeat and find out exactly what lies in the forest near the witch's hut (after I boozed up the locals, plied them for rumors, bought them all spears and hired them on to show me).

    I'm convinced after reading this post that the term Role-Playing sucks. Case in point, these players sound as if they want to be told a story, not to create their own. "Tell us when you've finished reading your dialog box so we know when to Role-Play." Bah.

    Sorry for the rant, carry on.

  3. Hmm.
    I agree with everything, but I want both as much characterisation as well as tactical forethought as the ridiculously-dangerous situation demands.

    It's a bit disheartening to read that speaking in a character's voice is annoying to some in the hobby, but I'm going to assume that it is on the balance due to that in combination with poor tactical/decision-making rather than an a class of action by itself. If not, I'll have to steer clear of those games with annoyed GMs.

    As a general history buff, and a general military buff in particular, who works in High-Risk Armed Security, I am entirely out of place in normal society with my critical eye and vigilant nature. But, give me a well-run RPG with a GM who understands the tactical nature of things, and I'm your go-to girl -- but you will hear me in my character's voice bitching and barking orders. They are inseparable for me.

    Okay, my 'rant' is off, too.

  4. Now TS, I never said talking in your characters voice is annoying. I just said I don't do it and I don't think it is "roleplaying". If it is fun then do it. In my last C&C campaign there was a guy who used his gruff ranger voice. It didn't bother me but it also didn't make him a better roleplayer than me.

  5. I'm sorry, I should have specified that I was referring to Dave's comment in that particular regard.

    I apologise for the confusion and any hard feeling that may have caused. :(

    I'm really digging this blog, and the crowd you've got gathered 'round. :)

  6. In fairness to them on point two, I think playing an old school game takes a lot of getting used to. It's not always immediately obvious to an fresh player (without a little initial prompting) that they need to be the ones taking initiative and scouring the area for adventure. I've also found that it's even less obvious to someone raised on less choice-intense games. A failure to try investigating rumors and hooks is a textbook symptom. Do you know if they had been exposed to old school games before this? The comments on story and role-playing kinda make me think they hadn't quite understood how it was supposed to work.

    I keep thinking about writing up a bulleted list of "things you may not be used to" for the benefit of incoming d20 players. Maybe I'll actually go and do it tonight.

  7. Rob,
    I think you are bang on. It takes a very different mind set. I've tried to coach them on differences and prompt them to take the initiative but, like all things, it takes practice.

    If you write your list, please send me a copy!

  8. TS,
    No hard feelings :)
    I just want to make sure I am not vilified by any drama majors!

  9. lol
    On the contrary, I've advertised for folks to read this particular post because I really do agree with the vast bulk of it, and think the comments equally interesting.


  10. Timeshadows: I should clarify what I mean. You can Role-Play without the Play-Acting. Play-Acting should be nothing more than a by-product of Role-Playing. If speaking or acting with a Play-Acting style helps you get into character and think like your character might, I wouldn't object to it.

    When I say I can only take so much of it, let me give you an example.

    Earlier this year, in an effort to expand my role-playing circle, I joined a D&D meet-up and met six complete strangers at some random person's house. The guy who answered the door was Play-Acting before we started the meet-up. He announced to me that he was the Door Troll and I had to pay a toll to enter. After agreeing to remove my shoes upon entering I was ushered in to meet these other folks.

    The Play-Acting never stopped. That's what I mean when I say I can only take so much of it. At some point I want it to feel like a bunch of friends playing a game, and an overdose of funny voices and theatrics really turns me off.

    I'm more of a gamer than role-player I think. Theatrics do not equate to role-playing. Critical decision making, logical thinking, exploring possibilities, teamwork and interacting with the fantasy world are what do it for me. I'm just not into the whole amateur theater club aspect.

    I wouldn't object as long as the funny voices didn't detract from the other players enjoyment. Knowing my guys it might actually loosen them up and provide some enjoyment. They're a fairly stoic bunch that enjoys the obstacle/challenge aspect.

    I should add one last point now that I've hijacked the post here, Play-Acting does not exclude the aspects I enjoy. You can still engage the game in the manner I prefer while doing so.

  11. Eek! I'm sorry guys. Didn't mean to ruffle feathers. > Hides in Shadows; Fails! <

    * Dave, I appreciate your clarifications, and I am 100% with you on all that. Door Troll? > blink-blink < Ewwkay... :)

    > slips out all stealthy-like <

  12. #2 on their reasons to quit definitely equates to a different perspective being needed, and #3 is just disingenuous...you get as much out of role-playing as what you put in, regardless of the system.

    It's the #1 reason mentioned, though (the lack of power), that is more troublesome for me anyway. This is simply a different expectation, and one that many new players (by new, I mean "since 2000") are going to have. How to find gamers to play with an old school grognard when "the kids" want all the shiny feats?

    Maybe us earlier generation types are simply more masochistic...or maybe Old School is simply Gen X role-playing and Gen Y, with their need for coddling and affirmation, is only rarely going to grok why we enjoy it.

    Just a thought....

  13. I'm looking for constructive stuff to say to help prevent further such developments, because I personally find players leaving always incurs some emotional drain.

    I think chgowiz' post Playing an OD&D Solo Game with my wife - Session recap has some relevant information. There, he tries to easy his wife into traditional roleplaying games with things such as "Aeli then visited Thumbold, the one-eyed dwarf smith who repaired her bow (string broke from a fumble) and gave her some tactical advice based on rumors coming back from the hirelings on how combat had went." If you noted that your players were not asking questions, then maybe NPC A should have volunteered some useful information and told the party to go ask NPC B or C for more. Maybe NPC B is a church guy and the enemy of C who is head of the rangers, so you can effectively only ask NPC B -or- C.

    With that, you managed to impart info from A, told players to get information themselves, showed them that their actions had effects and changed the world around them, and hopefully imparted info from either B or C.

    I'm not sure about the other points they mentioned. But that would be the general idea I'd pursue: Try and find ways of "teaching" how your game ought to be played so that they can make an informed decision instead of suffering in frustration for session after session until they quit.

  14. I don't know if you're familiar with the "Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" ( http://www.lulu.com/content/3019374 ), but it makes a nice introduction for the uninitiated. And it's free.

  15. I am familiar with it but I did not give it to any of them - which I really should have.

  16. If you don't feel like printing the longer document out for all your players, there's a good one-sheet version here.

  17. Frankly, if your players don't ask for information and you want to play a game where exploration is a major theme, then you'll have to teach them.

    Now, that might actually be more than just tell the players. Give away information! Tell them they overhear people in the inn! Let people they meet on the road on their way to the dungeon volunteer information! If they see that what they hear is useful they will probably start ask for it after a while.

    As far as play acting is concerned (door troll? What!?), I've been acting out as my roleplaying ever since I realized that it was more than Monopoly with funny dice.

    When someone did a poll on Dragonsfoot it became clear that for most people roleplaying meant fulfilling their archetypical role in the party. While I think that is mostly too bland for me, I don't think it has anything to do with old/new school. It might be more common with play acting in crowds where the White Wolf is a house god, though.

  18. Now, that might actually be more than just tell the players. Give away information! Tell them they overhear people in the inn! Let people they meet on the road on their way to the dungeon volunteer information! If they see that what they hear is useful they will probably start ask for it after a while.

    I eventually had to resort to that. Merchants talking about goblin raids, the midwife talking about a witch that disappeared.

    But then they would go traipsing off without any more investigating and get their asses handed to them.

  19. An interesting corollary: I've been playing, (well, we're currently on a bit of a break actually.) a game of Labyrinth Lord with my wife and daughters. Many of the same issues that you're facing seem to be part and parcel of bringing a completely "newbie" group up to speed in a sand box style game.

    I used to believe that the reticence to engage and explore in a sand box game could be laid at the feet of video games. But I no longer believe this to be true. My wife and daughters do not play video games of any sort. So, what could it be?

    Maybe it's the fact that they're female? Males tend (in completely general terms here...no offense intended whatsoever.) to be much more hands on I suppose. Case in fact, my daughters never played w/ the stereo when they were very young. My nephews on the other hand nearly took my sister's stereo apart on a daily basis. So is it that females take a much more thoughtful approach than do males?

    No, I don't think that's quite it either. In truth, I'd be willing to bet that it took us a while as kids to get into that particular "groove" as well. There is absolutely a period of "hand holding" if you will. A break-in time where the DM has to slowly introduce these new players to the method of adventuring.

    I often find myself answering questions after the fact with "Well, did you ask?". And ever so slowly, I'm seeing the girls warm up to truly engaging with the setting.

    Good luck, and as ever, fantastic post.

  20. @ Gamer Dude: I think it is perhaps more due to the speed and ease with with information is available these days making folks from that paradigm (younger?) less prone to research, plan, and sketch-out/imagine things before setting off and doing them. Your video game vector does seem a strong reinforcement, but as you said, it isn't a vector present in all cases.

  21. I'm firmly in both camps (and the two camps I see are the (loosely) gameist/sandbox/exploration camp and the storyist/storypath/epic journey camp.

    If players don't like your style of play (don't fault them for giving it a try even though you told them what style it was up front. If you discourage people from trying new things, you suck.) and they end up not liking it, let them go. Don't analyze how they're wrong and really should have liked your game.

    You need to help and train players unfamiliar to exploration style. It's unreasonable to expect them to know how to do it considering 90% of other games and 99% of other books, comics, movies, are all heroic storypaths. What chgowiz does with his wife is excellent example. Don't just give away clues (that is anti-training). Use those NPCs and retainers to show by example. Help players to start thinking tactically by having a short 5-10min analysis at end of session "Whew that sure was a tight spot, huh? Any ideas on what you could have done to make that easier".

    Finally, realize that many, many people are attracted to RPGs because they want to be that guy/gal from the book/movie/comic/computer game, they want to be a hero in a story. If you can't provide hero in a story feeling (it's not incompatible with sandbox exploration game) and/or teach them to enjoy a "tactical wargame played out mostly in the imagination" then understand you will have very few potential players.

    P.S. To understand what people say you have to understand where they are coming from. It's erroneous to judge their words based on your definitions of those words. "I am more of a roleplayer..." many times really means "I want to be a hero in an epic story."

  22. @gamer dude "reticence to engage and explore in a sand box game could be laid at the feet of video games. But I no longer believe this to be true. My wife and daughters do not play video games of any sort. So, what could it be?"

    Um, really you don't know? If anything computer games encourage exploration and engagement, they're interactive. The general reticence to engage in sandbox is (besides some videogames) every other entertainment is "passively sit and have someone tell me a story". Comics, books, movies, TV, shows, plays, music events, circuses, sports. An most other games and activities are "obey the rules, follow the turn sequence". Not, "You're in the town square."

    There's other factors(gender, culture) I'm sure But it's obvious to me lack of exposure/ignorance on how to do it is the #1 reason.

    @Alex This guest post on Campaign Recover might be of interest.

    Thanks the Intro... is excellent but long that 1-page hits the sweet spot. I can see printing char sheet on back of it for use in 1-shots/convention games.

  23. NH,
    If players don't like your style of play... and they end up not liking it, let them go.
    I completely agree. I am a firm believer that there is no bad-wrong-fun. If someone likes strawberry instead of chocolate that is cool.

    Don't analyze how they're wrong and really should have liked your game.
    The purpose of the post wasn't to say that the should have liked my game. There is no right or wrong preference. But I think it is entirely fair to analyze their comments.

    You need to help and train players unfamiliar to exploration style.
    Once again, completely agree. I was trying but there is only so much I can do if they don't put in the effort. After a session, I would try to discuss tactics and philosophy. Many of the points I have made here have been on the Northern Marches website for quite some time.

    "I am more of a roleplayer..." many times really means "I want to be a hero in an epic story."
    There was the possibility of "epic" stuff. They already knew that a self-proclaimed duke was actually an undead lord. They couldn't do anything about it right now but it was on the horizon.

    But if they want to play the kind of game where they save the world then the Northern Marches isn't for them - and I hope they have a great time. Hell, I'll even play with them. The style of the Northern Marches isn't the only style of game I play. Just look at my list of "Other Cool RPG Things" on the right side of this blog. The one-shot dark sun game that is coming up is not a sandbox game.

    The reason for this blog post (not like I really have to give a reason since it is my blog and my post) was to look at the reasons they gave and give my thoughts on them because I am sure others have heard the same thing (as the comments have shown).

  24. @Norman Harman No, I can't say that I do "know"... I would hazard to guess that it's different for everybody, and that I can't nail it on one certain cause. But, I can also say, from experience, that video games are far more linear than a pen and paper role playing game.

    I can't think of many computer games that are non-linear. (a few...but not many) That type of logic is just coming into its own and if we're talking about true sand box play, then there's nothing linear about it. You're going to meet monsters that you just can NOT beat, tricks that are going to foil you for a very long time and no, not every NPC is a plot hook.

    While I do like electronic games, I can definitely say that they're in no way, shape, or form any type of primer for a real sand box style table top role playing game. There are simply way too many pieces missing.

  25. For the sake of background, I've played in games Pat has run before, but haven't participated in Northern Marches - so I'm not one of the players who has stopped participating.

    It's seldom that I both agree and disagree so vehemently with two parts of the same post by the same poster. :)

    I suspect that your party(ies) is(are) skimping on the preparatory work because they've misinterpreted the general 'beer and pretzels' atmosphere of 'gamerist' gaming for a 'gaming lite' experience where they'll be handed situations that come with all the tools they need to manage them handily.

    I think they probably haven't grasped that a longer term view would be more rewarding and a more intensive prep session with keen attention to inventory, personnel and recon would lower the difficulty level significantly.

    Personally, I enjoy 'gamerist' games - but I think I view them more as micro-wargames than as the sort of character development driven experience that I usually equate with 'Roleplaying'. In fact, I often feel actively discouraged from considering my character or his situation from the first-person around that sort of table.

    Part of the problem is that Roleplaying is a pretty big umbrella term for a lot of different gaming experiences and people's perceptions and expectations differ. I wouldn't dream of saying that the way someone roleplays is 'bad' but there are definitely styles of roleplaying I wouldn't be interested in participating in.