In college I majored in two subjects: theater and English. They are intimately related, with each one requiring an understanding of the other to fully appreciate (at least in American colleges). A subject that was a frequent topic of discussion in both of my circles was whether or not the content we studied was didactic. If you’re not familiar with the term, media that is didactic is media with a point. It teaches a lesson. That’s a pretty valid question, in my view: is every piece of media truly didactic? Is there something to learn in even the most poorly-constructed book or play?
I personally fall into the school of thought that all media is didactic, even if it wasn’t intended to be. Every work of media has a built-in bias according to the worldview of the person who created it. So even if the author or playwright or whatever had no intention of teaching you anything, they still are inadvertently teaching you about themselves and what they believe. And those views can influence your worldview if you choose to be open to them – at the very least, they’ll probably lead you to ask questions that might affirm your own thinking.
This applies, in my mind, to any form of media, and that includes one of my favorite hobbies: tabletop roleplaying games. When I first took up the dice I only played one game, the superhero RPG known as Mutants and Masterminds. I learned all my basics with M&M, but as time went on I played more games. Even more importantly, I began to serve as the gamemaster for more games, and I read their rulebooks in detail. What I found was that gaining a greater understanding of each rulebook gave me a greater understanding of roleplaying as a whole. Each creator’s philosophy and each game’s focus on certain aspects of play as being more important shaped my views and helped me to discover how to run games better.
From Mutants and Masterminds I learned the bare basics. Learning to roleplay was quite an experience – there are so many personalities at the table to balance, and not everyone makes decisions you are fine with. You have to learn to pick your battles, to let some situations pass…or to engage in a little PvP when the time comes. Sometimes, you’re cooler than you ever thought you’d be. Others, you miss every attack you make and feel pathetic. Those are the dice.
I also learned from Mutants and Masterminds how to apply myself creatively to create characters of all different types. These are skills I’d hone later when I started making homebrew content for the first time. M&M has a power system that allows you to mix and match effects to create nearly any power you can imagine. Since characters are made on a point system, you can create pretty much any type of character you want, outside of established archetypes. This makes it important to understand how difficulty checks work and how to create an environment with different solutions to problems, because characters can have wildly different abilities and will solve problems in very different ways.
As a GM, I learned the basics of creating a session, balancing encounters, and splitting screen time between players. I learned a little about how to fudge the rules when the rules interfered with the fun (though it’d still take quite a few more RPGs for me to really master that one). Mutants and Masterminds is a pretty decent first game – lots of creative options for new players, enough rules that someone new to roleplaying won’t feel totally lost, and superheroes are an accessible entry point compared to other genres. While there are other great starting points for roleplaying (D&D arguably being the best, which I’ll get to), this game helped me to get into the hobby and to learn the basics I needed to get better.
Once I had the basics down, I needed to get a better mastery of specific techniques. The game that helped me do that was Dread. If you’ve been around the blog for awhile, you know that this horror RPG is one of my favorites to play. Dread is a simple game that uses a Jenga tower rather than dice, and it is designed primarily for single session play. It’s a horror game that relies on atmosphere and strong roleplaying in order to create a memorable experience.
Dread’s questionnaire system is a great form of character creation because it teaches you to think beyond the mechanical limits of your character. With no numbers to crunch, everything about your character is focused on their personality and fictional qualities. The questions of Dread urge you to think of your character as someone with flaws and foibles, and to define those things in an interesting way to make the game engaging. This game is all about the roleplaying and trains that skill moreso than any kind of technical prowess (although you’ll get better at Jenga after a few games!).
As a GM, Dread taught me to structure single sessions in a more engaging way. It also taught me the value of one-offs in general. Before playing Dread, I thought of tabletops exclusively as a campaign experience. Now I better understand that a one night stand can be a great way to experience a tabletop game, particularly with a group of folks you otherwise might not be able to play with on a regular basis. Dread also helped me to learn to better utilize more serious emotions in my sessions – horror, helplessness, madness, fear, and yes – even dread.
My experience with the most iconic tabletop game – Dungeons and Dragons – was less than stellar, but I still learned some things from it. D&D helped me to realize the style of game that appeals to me by being the style of game that DOESN’T appeal to me: a heavily mechanical, gamist experience that focuses on rules of a game as much if not more than fictional needs. For me, roleplaying is about storytelling, and D&D didn’t allow me to do that as effectively as, say, Dread. Playing D&D caused me to realize that I wanted to find more tabletop games, because there had to be one out there that would fit my needs more.
However, I don’t want to just dismiss D&D as the game that I hated, because I don’t think it’s as simple as that. After all, D&D has reached its place in the community for a reason. I mentioned earlier that this can be a good starting game, and when it boils right down to it D&D has the ultimate formula for just jumping in to a TTRPG. Party up, explore a room, fight monsters or dodge traps, loot treasure, go to next room. The game has tons of rules and mechanics to learn, yes, but the game introduces them to you in chunks and for someone new to the hobby, rules are guidance that help you learn how this whole thing is supposed to work.
As a roleplayer who prefers the narrativist approach, and one with enough experience that I don’t need to learn how to play an RPG, I don’t enjoy D&D. But I totally understand its appeal for newer players who need structure and suffer from “paralysis of choice,” the inability to do something when you don’t have a strong enough guidepost telling you what that something should be. I also can appreciate the support system for D&D – this game has an ever-growing list of expansions and is always refining itself to be the best game it can be. Whereas something smaller and more independent might not be able to hit the refresh button as often, and there aren’t nearly as many pre-built campaigns, dungeons, and materials to keep your game fresh. So beyond teaching me what kind of game I personally look for in a tabletop, D&D has taught me that we have a large variety of tabletops for a reason – because there is a large variety of tabletop gamers.
My next tabletop was Dungeon World, and man did that game expand my horizons. Dungeon World was the narrativist game I was looking for after my unpleasant experiences with D&D, and playing it taught me a lot about improvisation during sessions, the balance of planning versus player agency, and the importance of always moving the game forward.
Dungeon World also introduced me to the universe of Powered by the Apocalypse, an entire genre of games that find their origins in the game titled Apocalypse World. Learning the mechanics of different PbtA games and seeing the different philosophies of those creators really helped me to explore different options and to better learn what roleplaying is all about. I find the origin of the genre, Apocalypse World, to be particularly enlightening.
I read a thread on Twitter the other day where this blogger was sharing an RPG theory about PbtA games (I immediately followed them and if you’re interested in this sort of thing, you should check them out too!). The thread discussed how Apocalypse World has a wonderful system for an implied conversation between the MC and players for them to discuss what kind of game they want to experience, not only long term but also from session to session. Choosing your playbook is a way for players to tell the MC what they want to be in the game, and highlighting stats is how the MC tells the players what (s)he wants to see, as well as how the players express what they want to see from each other. What I want to focus on here is how the playbooks selected tell the MC what kind of game the players wish to play.
This might seem obvious to experienced GMs, but with only a few years under my belt I never looked at tabletop gaming like this. I have always thought of an RPG as something where I bring a concept to the table in advance. I tell the players what I want to run, and adapt it slightly to the characters that they give me. But in Apocalypse World, each playbook functions so differently that which ones are and aren’t in play defines the nature of the game. A campaign with a hardholder in play is significantly different than a game without one. A game with a brainer, a hocus, and a skinner is going to offer a unique experience compared to a game with a gunlugger, a battlebabe, and an angel. When the players choose their classes, they send a message to the MC: “this is what I want this game to be about. These are the elements I want to be present.” And while the mechanics of playbooks in Apocalypse World make this a lot more evident than in other RPGs, nearly any tabletop you play (at the very least, every tabletop with an archetypal class system) functions in this manner.
Think of the typical fantasy RPG. When one of your players chooses to be a fighter, what is that player saying? They want to be in the thick of combat, which means there needs to be combat frequently enough to keep them engaged. Your thief is going to need traps to spring and locks to open. I have made the mistake before of not presenting the correct situations for the classes present in my game – sometimes I don’t give the social characters enough opportunities to show off their skills, or the magicians enough circumstances to show off their more varied spells. The spells a wizard prepares may be a reaction to what that player *thinks* you are going to put into the session, but it also should be a signal to you of what kind of situations to give them. As a GM, it can be tempting to present the players with circumstances they are not prepared for to challenge them or whatever. But one of the principles of Dungeon World is to give each playbook an opportunity to shine, and that philosophy goes a long way towards helping your players to have a positive experience.
Of course, it’s also a principle to give them something specifically for a playbook that isn’t present with the group, so there’s don’t completely leave challenge out of the equation. That’s part of the fun too, after all!
My point in all this is that if you are at all interested in tabletops, particularly if you are interested in running them, the best thing you can do is to experience more than one. Just like learning about different subjects in school helps us to understand different disciplines and apply their principles to each other, and learning about different cultures helps us to see the world in a fuller light, experiencing RPGs of different systems can expand our gaming horizons.
So what about you, adventurers? What lessons have you learned when playing tabletops? What games would you recommend for teaching a specific technique or school of thought? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!