Saturday, April 14, 2018

What Dungeons Are For

Part three in a loose trilogy, following on from my previous post.

I am tired. Not just tired of trying to find players who will engage with a game on its own terms, nor merely tired of pulling teeth to get people to respond to my queries for a time and place to game. My fatigue is a lot simpler:

I am tired of Dungeons & Dragons.

I spend hours upon hours tweaking the rules to my liking. I seek the input of the few players that can attend consistently. I draw maps, and stock them, and work out connections between various antagonists, both individual and collective. And what happens?

Some players never answer the text messages that get sent out. (I figured out years ago that trying to get anyone to answer a phone call is a lost cause.) The few that show up barely pay attention, and complain that the rules aren't to their liking... even though I specifically solicited their advice, and they said nothing. Having come to associate "D&D" with a fantasy version of The Avengers in tabletop form, they balk at only getting one attack per round, at not being able to cast spells and wield war-axes simultaneously, and at having to engage with the game world in a deeper way than rolling a d20 and adding some numbers to the roll.

Another (large) part of my exhaustion has to do with my campaign setting. Of the three original players who attended the first session, one of them is too busy to play any more, and the other two may never talk to me again due to some out-of-game social crap that happened. Some other players have dropped out, some due to time constraints, others as part of a temper tantrum (how dare I let their character get killed). I've spent so much time improving the maps, adding details, and trying to create a more lifelike world, but to someone who shows up for one session and then drops off the face of the Earth, it just doesn't matter.

I originally read this comic well before I even started running D&D.

But the engine and the upholstery are less of an issue than the configuration itself. Go to the tavern, go to the dungeon, kill the goblins, go get your reward, lather, rinse, repeat. I realize that not every game has to follow this pattern, but I keep sliding into it because it's easier for new players to understand - players who might be completely new to the very concept of a roleplaying game - and because even the slightly-less-new players are too disinterested to want anything else.

I keep sending people to the dungeon, and I now feel imprisoned, restrained, and in the dark. A fitting punishment, I suppose.

So as not to end on a completely pessimistic note, this is part of the reason I've been trying alternative games - not just different editions of D&D, different retroclones, or different fantasy heartbreakers. Games that are different inside and out, with different mechanics and different aims. Many of these are storytelling "games", and I've accepted that some of the people I game with just do not want to put in the effort required of an actual, risk-based, rule-based roleplaying game.

The game of Vampire: The Masquerade that I've been working on (in collaboration with a friend) looks promising, if the senior projects of two of my players don't scupper it before we even finish the Preludes. A modern-day urban setting is completely alien to me from a gaming perspective, and it's forcing me to stretch myself in a different direction. It's actually kind of refreshing.

I've also finally bit the bullet and ordered my copy of Unwritten, a game set in the universe of the Myst computer games. Exploration, discovery, and nonviolent gameplay are all things that greatly appeal to me, and there are even rules for creating one's own Ages. At this point, I've been reading through the PDF, and it seems very interesting. Hopefully I can find some like-minded players soon - perhaps from the group I play in, which will soon be trying a Powered by the Apocalypse cyberpunk game. Yes, collaborative storytelling is very different from D&D, but it's still something I enjoy.

The other advantage of this type of game? If the players don't engage with the setting, there's no game. In cruder terms, they have to "piss or get off the pot". Though it remains to be seen what they'll do, they have to do something, which will hopefully result in a more fulfilling experience for all of us.


  1. I might be misreading this, but it sounds like you're tired of players, which is a state I've been in many times.

    I especially feel you on the campaign setting going to waste. My campaign settings are now pretty minimalist, fleshing it out as I go, to avoid so much wasted effort.

    In gaming 26 years, I've found that campaigns have the life expectancy of an infant in the middle ages.

    It's very tempting just to shrug it off to
    1.) players being douchebags
    2.) Mobile devices ruining human social endeavors in general &
    3.) Video games ruining tabletop.

    I'm sure it's more complex than that, but I really do feel your fatigue.

    I'm not sure the things you are tired of are going to go away with a switch to a different game, but I sure hope they do.

    1. Thanks for the sympathies. Switching players might indeed be a better idea than just switching games, and circumstances will soon be forcing me to do so; here's hoping it brings at least some improvement.

  2. Let me echo DMWieg by observing that it seems to be an issue with players and ~ if I may be so bold as to hazard a guess ~ a period of growth. When I was finishing college, I grew fatigued of the game in part because it was the introduction of 4th Edition but equally because my good players had moved on. (There were other things, too, as much my problem as anyone's.)

    Give it time. Explore other games. Learn from the experiences they offer. Don't be afraid to admit that D&D might not be the game for you.

    And don't be afraid to come back to it down the road. It's not going anywhere; it'll wait.

    1. Very true. And my books certainly won't be going anywhere; if there's one thing I've learned from a few bad decisions with vintage video games, it's never to sell something I like, even if I think I'm done with it.

  3. I sympathize ... I had a falling out with a group of players six years ago when I was introducing them to B/X D&D. "Why would my character go back into the dungeon when he's seen so many people die?" one player asked. (Maybe you and your friends shouldn't blindly attack everything you see as if you can win Pathfinder-style, I wanted to reply)

    But two of the players from those first games stuck with me because they liked the game, and we've been playing with the same (or mostly the same) characters for the past six years now in an ever richer game. And I've introduced others along the way ...

    Perhaps D&D really isn't your speed--but whether it is or not, I suspect that at least a couple solid players is hugely beneficial to any game. I hope you find some solid players and thrive!