Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dancing With Myself

Others have yakked at length about how learning to play D&D was essentially an exercise in oral tradition. There is a large grain of truth there—I learned to play and grow as a GM in that way—but there were other games in that time that I learned completely alone, straight from reading the books. Traveller was the first.

One of the strengths of that system, at least at the time I encountered it in 1981, was that it took great pains to set out ways that people could learn the game on their own. The Deluxe little black box set I first purchased didn't just throw in an extra introductory book (Book 0 no less), it also had a slim pamphlet titled simply Understanding Traveller.

Most of the pamphlet is fairly pedestrian, a quick if well-organized introduction to the product line and official setting, but for one remarkable subsection on how to learn the game. (The entire booklet can be found downloaded here if you are so inclined; pages 8 and 9 are the most relevant. )

Remarkable because instead of just counseling a referee to run some kind of quick, training wheels scenario it laid out an entire 15-part curriculum to master the working parts of the system. Even more interesting, given the subject of Monday's exploration of mini-games, is the embrace of each part as an exercise to be “played between a referee and a group of players, without a referee, or even alone”. In other words, each step was owned as a separate mini-game, self-contained enough to function as something interesting in itself.

Take step one (and the most immediately obvious example) on character generation: “The challenge to create an excellent character, and then muster-out before failing a survival or aging throw can make this an interesting activity, even solitaire [my emphasis for when I switch gears later]. Keep records of the characters generated to use them non-player characters.”

This approach repeats itself in later steps for designing starships, practicing combat, trading, etc: each step a game in itself with its own rules and goals. (“Assume you have a Free Trader starship; start out in your subsector buying trade goods and travelling to new ports to sell them...Keep track of profits and losses, and continue until you go broke or make a fortune.”)

Again marvelously for rolling up star systems: Generate a subsector of perhaps 30 stellar systems, and record the results for later adventures. Before putting away this list, use it to strain your imagination: examine the characteristics for each world, and try and imagine the circumstances which make it the way is described.”

The point is here not to heap praise on a three-decades old gaming product (Lord knows, we have enough of those posts in our circles), but the potential, broader implications of this approach.

There's much that is wonderful about what solo mini-gaming can provide in the way of a tutorial: an alternative to the dull info-dump way of learning a game (or a setting as we will see in my upcoming post about the Adventures on Tekumel gamebooks); a rejection of universal mechanics; an organic approach to building your first campaign—and an extension of the gaming experience to the GM himself.

[Sudden harsh, grinding sound of gears.]

RPGs have settled into in the main very conventional boxes for the whole experience: play is for the players, design for the GM. Mini-games were part of the rpg experience when there was more blur between these roles.

As that blur has diminished, the GM's experience has become mostly a solitary pursuit. Like a writer, a GM mostly experiences the campaign as a series of behind-the-scenes design processes. And like a writer, his payback, the enjoyment of seeing the creation transferred and interacted with by the players, is quick, fleeting, and never enough. It has its joys--some quite deep even--but it's not mostly not the ludic joy of playing a game.

Why not make parts of that design process a game too?

I like the idea of a challenge for a GM that is commonplace for players of classic rpg: how do I make sense of these random rolls? What kinds of layers of flavor and detail can I make out of these game abstractions in this mini-game? How can the campaign evolve out of my own playing out of the possibilities of this or that action by an NPC actor?

Unconsciously this is what has been happening in the play-test part of the Domain Game. As the gameplay has unfolded I have found myself wanting to play too, so I restlessly carve out spaces. I play out my own mini-games, miniatures skirmishes like the Battle on the Golden Barge —and have even gone to extent of drawing up my own NPC expedition to Nowhere, a new realm whose own tribulations and explorations may in time become intertwined with that of the players.

Why should players have all the fun?


  1. Your experiences with Traveller are very similar to my own. In fact, despite having spent a lot of time with the game in my youth, I never actually played Traveller with other people .

  2. That's interesting Risus. I should have added that I played with the trading and starship rules for months solo between sessions as the supposedly NPC captain of the far trader the PCs were on.

  3. Well said. I'm preparing a new short campaign using a system I've not played before -- although I have played a previous edition -- and I'm learning through experience, by creating my own characters to be used later, running battles between them, and so on. My hope is that it will help me internalise the game better than simply reading the book.

  4. Great timing with all of this, as I am writing up the Solo components of UWoM as we speak. :)

  5. @Timeshadows
    Now that sounds extremely promising, definitely share at some point.

  6. @ckutlik: Cool. :D
    --You'll see it at NTRPG. :D