I’ve been thinking a bit about my own development as a roleplayer recently:
I started with D&D, at an early age, started running games very early on (I think I was 9), and occasionally took inspiration from written adventures, which were often… rather railroady, to say the least. I would imagine that some subset of these things was true for many of us.
Over time, I got more and more disillusioned with the process of trying to a) run an actual game, but also b) trying to control outcomes enough to get the “desired plot” or whatever other effect I was going for.
Since then, I’ve played all kinds of games and developed all kinds of tools to break free of that, which has been quite eye-opening, and gave me a new appreciation for roleplaying as something I can enjoy long-term.
In contrast, I have some friends who gave up on roleplaying when they started to see those limitations, deciding that really the only thing that had made it fun was the power fantasy aspect: that, since, as children, they were relatively powerless in their lives, playing a powerful hero and getting to make actual choices and make a difference was really potent and engaging. As they got older, that part stopped being so appealing (not for everyone, of course; for many the “beer and pretzels game” is a good break from adult responsibility - but I’m not talking about those people).
I’ve had a fairly good track record helping people like that rediscover roleplaying as a thing which is free of some of those burdens.
Recently I’ve been thinking about it again, because in the last half decade or so the advent of popular streaming RPG play has kind of taken over the RPG subculture, and now Critical Role and similar entertainment is often peoples’ first exposure to and inspiration for trying out roleplaying games.
This means, of course, that they are also most interested in and most likely to play D&D 5e.
While 5e has lots of admirable qualities and strong design, between its expected adventure structure, design features (a sequence of balanced combat encounters which form an attempt at a “plot”), inspiration from recorded media (streaming games, the D&D movie, whatever), and published adventures… new players will be repeating my experience in many respects.
A system based on balanced combat encounters and linear storytelling and a proliferation of rather… limited… published adventures is producing new players who don’t have strong tools for open-ended play. It’s hard to play 5e in any other format - not impossible, but hard.
So I find that I’ve often been chatting with younger players who are excited about D&D. And some come to me for GMing advice. “How do I make this cool mystery, and have it turn out just right?”, perhaps.
I find that they are actually quite interested in other tools and other approaches. I ask them questions about what they expect to happen, how they hope it will happen, and what likely outcomes are. For instance, if they say that they will have a scene where “the party meets the murderer”, I can ask some gentle questions like, “So, what will you do if the murderer gets killed in scene 2?” or perhaps, “what will happen, then, if the PCs decide to get on the ship and leave the island?”
These are usually provocative questions and they often get the person thinking.
And then I can share some of my tools and approaches, focusing on ways that:
- The GMing can be responsive and open to various possibilities,
- the gameplay is focused on the fundamental aspect of giving the players meaningful choices, as the central part of the activity of playing a game in the first place, and
- get the GM excited about the uncertainty of how things will turn out.
It’s definitely daunting sometimes, but so far in my experience people get really excited about actually having tools for that - which the published adventures usually don’t give you, and watching streaming play (especially edited streaming play) doesn’t help us understand.
A typical example was my friend A., who came to me for help preparing his mystery/investigation scenario. He was doing a great job with NPCs and content and themes, but at one point I started asking him questions about what the players actually do. “So what is the player’s role here? What decisions are they actually making [e.g. at this particular point of the game we’re discussing right now]?”
This was fairly eye-opening for him, and he could see right away how the game was lacking in this respect. He was also very interested in working that in. “OK, so how do I do that?”
I’ve had many such discussions with various people over the last few years, and it’s almost always been in the context of playing 5e. I don’t blame them - as I said above, the design of the game, expectations of play, and published materials all really really don’t help in this regard. If they were playing The Pool or some other game (particularly games which don’t require balanced encounters and intensive rules prep), it would be a lot easier, but that’s not what’s popular at the moment.
So, what am I posting for?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, and wanted to start an open-ended conversation here.
In the “era” of 5e in which we currently find ourselves, we have a great influx of new players. I have a feeling that there is something very natural and human about trying to “control” a game so as to create a particular ending. A natural impulse. Doing roleplaying in such a way that everyone gets some input into the conclusion isn’t always easy, and take practice and tools.
So, my questions to you all:
- What was your entry point to the hobby, and how did you deal with this topic?
- What are your experiences like with the “new generation” of roleplayers?
- How do you think that we, as a community, should engage with the current state of roleplaying as it exists out there in the world? What kinds of conversations should we be having?
I think there are many interesting and valuable conversations to be had, and I’d like to hear about your own experiences with this. Maybe you were invited to join a game, asked for GM or character playing advice, or even asked to run something like a stereotypical 5e game. How did you approach it, and how did it go?