Friday, March 4, 2011

"The Serious Game", Or: Hazel's 2cp in Support of Our Humor - A One-Year Retrospective

The Spawn of Endra presents a choice philosophical treatise from another player in Carter's Lands of Ara campaign, Hazel the Fighter/Magic-User, with some editorial material:

Roughly two months into our current campaign, Uncle Junkal's player came across this post on The Mule Abides about silly names, which sort of called us out for having Uncle Junkal and Barbarella Bootay, and NPCs called Porkins and Val Kilmer. I now guess Mr. Minton was really musing about something else that he couldn't define at the time. Anyway, we all got varying levels of excited for being linked to, but indignant for being called "silly" or "not serious" and perplexed that this should be upsetting to some folks.

Out of a few emails between us all, Hazel made this statement. Now, Hazel's player had never played any RPGs before starting the Lab Lord campaign. There was no nostalgia, no notion of different editions, no idea that story and narrative and character background could be OSR blogosphere Molotov cocktails (or 1d8-damage-for-2-rounds oil flasks, or whatever).  The idea of role-playing and hanging out with friends is what was attractive about joining this campaign, and unwittingly joining the OSR (i.e., Hazel's player is Cyclopeatron's 6th Generation D&D player).

So Hazel said: 
"Hmm.. a guy who doesn't condone PUNS or too-silly names writing on a site titled "The Mule Abides"... hmm... "
Whoa, hang on a sec, let's keep it cool!...

Then Hazel wrote:
My Two Copper Pieces in Support of Our Humor

Coming into this game without any prior experience or cultural knowledge of the gaming world, I simply assumed that some amount of humor was part of a good gaming session. Not the kind of humor that would prevent other players from enjoying the game or totally undermine the rules that undergird the foundation of the game, but rather the kind of humor that is the product of invention, creativity, wit, and cunning. What drew me to trying this experience was the ability to think outside the regular boundaries of the game--the idea that I could exercise my own powers of imagination to formulate a character background (which may be more significant for Hazel as the game progresses) and offer my own ideas to any given situation, rather than simply choosing between a set of game-sanctioned possibilities.

My favorite moments of game-play have been just these kinds of moments: realizing that we could use orc-skin as a covering without needing an invisibility cloak, watching Barbarella Bootay and Innominus figure out how to take an assortment of "idle" materials the game offered us to construct lethal plans of attack, or noticing how Uncle Junkal developed his own check-list of tests and maneuvers to account for lurking contingencies.

Other things Hazel has done that might initially seem like I am thumbing my nose at serious game play--wearing a bear skin*, picking up stuff like a goblin skull, considering an Eagle Eye for my kestrel--are actually, for me, the most crucial "fun" of game-play. Yes, I like the idea of becoming a bear, but it is how I can use this costume to deceive, frighten, or protect myself from harm that motivates when I put it on. Buying some perfume after wearing the bear-skin for an extended time may be funny, but it also indicates the whole-heartedness with which I am imagining all aspects of our game-world and its effects.

I pick up random stuff because I see potential in using it later on down the road. Who knows when I might need to convince a goblin king that I have spoken to the spirits of his ancestors and bring warnings that should be heeded or when I might need to persuade a goblin-king enemy that I also hunt and kill goblins. It is the flexibility inherent in the narrative that makes the game exciting. If I had thought that the game was to be taken totally seriously, I may not have wanted to play.

This is Carter's stroke of genius. He is able to be inclusive, inviting, and creative himself, in a way that keenly responds to our improvisations and encourages us to use our own imagination. And good imagination, folks, should include constructive humor (And beer. And chips. And those curly fries.) 
[Emphases in bold were added by Spawn. The title, "My 2cp.", is the subject line of Hazel's original email, btw.]

The Spawn reconvenes: I'd love to try to break that down and analyze the themes that bear (no pun intended) upon topics crucial to gaming, like:
  • Is narrative lacking in old school D&D?
  • Should we enforce immersive play?
  • Should the players' desires be accommodated? 
  • Does silliness undermine the serious efforts of DMs in their epic world-building?
  • Is character background development antithetical to old school gaming?
  • Is D&D 5 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours?
  • Is the OSR all about nostalgia, and we're just fooling ourselves into thinking we're bringing new players to the table?
... but I can't. I think Hazel's words speak to all those 'issues' (straw men though some may be). Here's a total newbie to RPGs who stayed active over the last year even when we only had 3 players and Hazel and Carter moved east and we began Skype sessions. And this is a player that isn't at all crunch-oriented, but when the enemy wizard disappears (and I, the grognard, assume the wizard has teleported away from the fight and stopped thinking about him), Hazel says "I want to fire my longbow at the position where I last saw the wizard." And rolls a natural 20, rolls d30 damage and puts an arrow through the bad-ass wizard's throat before he can incinerate us. Smart play. Relying on the strength of the imagination rather than the strength of the build, irrespective of system, here's a player that can change the game. And creates a lot of FUN doing it.

If that's not Old School then get me out of the Old School, quick.

*The Bear Skin: We killed a bear at one point, and Hazel kept the skin and had it preserved. Now whenever some shit is about to go down, Hazel puts on the Bear Skin. Even if a Cloak of Invisibility is going over it, Hazel wears the Bear Skin. Old School as all hell. For me, hearing "Hazel puts on the Bear Skin" is like hearing "Alright some hardcore D&D is about to happen, so get your shit together."


  1. Great Post! Hazel has been great fun to play with, even if the occasional digression to explain exactly how this particular arcane path of actions will end up aiding the party monetarily (normally a thoroughly meta-game conversation about where the loot might be expected to be...) has been known to happen.

    There are many things lacking from most articulations of how system relates to play experience in the blog-o-sphere (in my opinion) - the primary ones are player assumptions (what fantasy means, what a fantasy rpg means, and how a fantasy rpg should be played as articulated by the individual player), DM assumptions (the same for the DM), inter-personal dynamics at the table (both between players and between players and the DM) and assumptions for normative play made by the game designers as expressed mechanically and in descriptive text for the system.

    I value Kelly's input as Hazel's player MORE because she has no background in D&D or any pen and paper RPG at all, and I am not even sure about her computer or video game experience.

    In short, Kelly may be as close to a blank slate as we armchair-RPGologists will ever get to test our theorys out on.

    Kelly AKA Hazel is an uncontacted tribe in the amazon, and she has just been exposed to Dungeons and Dragons.

    How does an intelligent woman with little to no prior assumptions react to our little hobby?

    She has fun, she skins hobgoblins and bears and subsumes them as she pursues her journey as Hazel, thats what she does!

    Any of us at the table could have taken a shot at the wizard - the possibility had been expressly voiced several times that he MIGHT be just invisible, but that he had PROBABLY teleported, because we KNEW he teleported stuff to the 2nd level as a job.

    She didn't listen to our assumptions (really the same kind of assumptions that a good poker player would make - a quick reading of the statistical odds of the situation and the opponent [the DM])-

    and she scored a game and campaign changing critical hit.

    Everybody stopped then and there to congratulate her, and we did so again at the end of the session, and Danny and I talked about it again later at the 4e game next Friday -

    this is the stuff of legends.

    This is why we


  2. "Relying on the strength of the imagination rather than the strength of the build" - I love this phrase! Well done.

  3. Fantastic expression of what the game is from a newbie player's perspective, thanks for posting.

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  5. Whooops ... there was a meaning-altering grammatical error to correct...

    Thanks for the comments, and I'll pass them along to Hazel! Carl hits on a really crucial point (though being an anthropologist I'd grumble about the uncontacted tribe metaphor if taken too far [but I GET what you're saying Carl]) about how someone with no mechanical preconceptions about the game might perceive it now, and that we have so few testimonials of that when it does occur. It might really help those trying to push new games to a completely new crowd of folks. I mean, why play-test with pros if you're trying to attract (create) absolutely new gamers?

    As I think about the metaphor, from the perspective of the broader culture Hazel's player is more aptly cast as the ethnographer or folklorist entering the social milieu of this subculture of D&D people. The OSR isn't discovering her, she's discovering the OSR. And, crucially, she has "the ticket home". If this trip down to the lost Isles of OS'R goes to hell, she can leave at any time. The OS'Rians can't. They're in it for life, even if they stop blogging, stop playing, stop collecting.

    But as a resourceful ethnographer does, she keeps an open mind, learns the language, pieces together the traditions and simply tries to get along while she makes her observations and tries to understand the cultural system. But like all ethnographers, she sometimes does stuff that makes no sense to the people in whose culture she's immersed. And that can be funny or awesome or ludicrous or sublime or all of the above ... i.e., as Carl said the stuff of legends.

  6. Very well said! I personally love having such a wide array of players in our group -- each of whom brings very different assumptions and inclinations to the table. So much the better!