Friday, April 18, 2014

Exclusionary Culture, Leviathan, and Why More Girls Don't Roleplay

This is about to get serious.  The rolepaying hobby is a prime example of a self destructive industry.  Roleplayers are an exclusionary culture..  As it often does, had an article that made me think.  The author mentions roleplaying as, "It's the scorched earth method of social interaction, which is what happens when aggressively antisocial people are forced to be around each other for an entire evening."  Why are gamers viewed so negatively?  I'm introverted, but not aggressively antisocial.  Now, I've played with some aggressively antisocial people.  Dear God, I've played with them.  Public gaming can be extremely scary, and there are catpiss men, B.O. barons, and creepy people who use RPGs as their own personal way of fulfilling their fantasies that should not be aired.  However, most of the people I play with are relatively well socialized.  Now, we're weird, but functional members of society with friends, jobs, and good social standing.  Some people I've played with don't even come across as nerdy.  Some of the best roleplayers I've ever played with you'd never think they even gamed.  I've sat across from youth pastors, popular high school cheerleaders, football jocks, and rednecks.  From my experience, roleplaying transcends labels and cliques.  However, it's perceived as a pit of the creepiest, women hating misanthropes.  Many people who would probably love the hobby are driven away, because they do not want to associating themselves with neckbearded mouthbreathing basement dwellers who smell like funky cheese and desperation.

I have played with far worse than this.

One of the big reasons that gamer stereotypes are allowed to perpetuate is that it is extremely hard (or in some cases almost prohibited) to turn people away from public gaming, i.e. the most visible form of gaming. If you sit down at a folding table in the corner of a comic shop, God only knows who's going to sit down with you.  Most likely, you will meet one of the players who can't find a group to play with for very obvious reasons, and, if you're at a public space gaming, often it's because you've put out an open call for players and it's considered rude to tell someone you don't want to hang out with them because their breath is toxic and they haven't bathed in two weeks.  So they sit there, and when your normal, well adjusted friend comes to a game to see what it's about, they get a less than pretty picture of what roleplaying is like.  I've had some pretty funky fellow players when I gamed at comic shops.  I've had half deaf players who practically screamed what they were saying, people who tried to enact rape fantasies at my table, and even a guy who was way into bestiality (like, he got arrested for it and everything) and so were his characters.  

This will be important in a moment.

Thomas Hobbes wrote a book called Leviathan which was published in 1651.  It's a book on society and government that I had to read bits of in some of my college courses.  One of the segments that really struck me was that a ruler was a composite of his people (see image above), meaning that if there is sickness or dissent in the body, the whole thing is affected.  For purposes of my argument, the RPG hobby is the ruler, and all the roleplayers are the body.  The body excises unwell parts, meaning that for new people to be brought into the hobby, the less presentable specimens of gamer should not be presented as the norm.  I'm not saying completely shun people.  Just remember, it's a game, if you're not having fun, don't play with the people who aren't fun.  Even more important, don't inflict the not fun people on newbies.  Roleplaying is a hobby that more people should experience.  Don't scare potential roleplayers off.

A huge attitude common in the industry that scares off many potential roleplayers is a chauvinistic and/ or bigoted attitude.  Now, chainmail bikinis, hypersexualized women in RPG and fantasy art, and slut shaming have been beaten to death in discussion, but they still happen.  Fantasy worlds are typically misogynistic places, women are usually identified as second class citizens or pidgeonholed into bitch or whore roles.  Even in settings that don't fall into those pitfalls (Rokugan from Legend of the Five Rings comes to mind) still have to contend with the actual players.  Never in my life have I heard more overtly misogynistic comments than at a gaming table.  Every woman referred to as a bitch?  Check.  Casual rape comments?  Check.  Continual objectification of women?  Check.  Poorly played female stereotypes?  Check.  Several of my female friends who have played with even my most well behaved groups have remarked about it and been obviously uncomfortable, and by scaring off women, we are scaring off 50% of the world population.  Many of the most entertaining roleplayers I've ever played with are women, and if the general population of the RPG hobby would curb their tongues a bit more, people probably wouldn't wonder why so few girls play RPGs.

The same thing goes for the LGBTQ community.  If anything, roleplaying games and settings are less friendly to non-traditionally straight roles, players, and characters than they are to women.  So is the gaming table.  Forget that women's rights issues are more commonly accepted than LGBTQ right issues, the common slang is just flat out damaging.  If I had a nickel for every time I heard "that's so gay," or a gaybashing reference during a game, I wouldn't have college loans to deal with, and most of my gaming in the last five or so years has been with an extremely accepting group of friends.  

Especially considering that even if gay characters are mentioned, they look and act like this...

Roleplaying is a very vulnerable hobby and needs to be played from a place of safety and security.  It's a game about opening up and having fun and being goofy and somehow expressing a side of yourself that you probably never reveal in public (seriously, most of us have some Barbarian in us somewhere).  If there is a fear of harsh critique or even mockery (especially when it does not come from friendly jibing), there will be less fun had by all, because nobody will be able to truly let go and experience the game and immerse themselves.  

And let's face it, when this face is making fun of you from behind a DM screen, nobody is having fun.

Even worse, if you can get a new, possibly non-traditional players past the bigotry, meanness, awkwardness, and get them comfortable in a gaming chair, there are the rules to deal with.  Games like Pathfinder, GURPS, and even several editions of old faithful Dungeons & Dragons are almost prohibitively difficult for non-gamers and new gamers to pick up.  Not a lot of people have the mindset, attention span, expectations, or even necessary math skills to calculate Base Attack Bonus, remember attacks of opportunity, remember THAC0, and consciously deal with Force Point Economy.  Number crunching and rules lawyering are very few peoples' idea of fun, but experiencing a fantasy world and immersing themselves fully into it are.  This is a gigantic failing of the industry and a way that it alienates itself from new members.  Sure, there are games that are far more intuitive than industry mainstays, but they're more niche games, and don't have the exposure and brand appeal to expand public perception of the industry or have the table time to show new players a different aspect of how games can be played.

Why yes, let's play a "simple" game of Pathfinder.

There is, however, a solution.  One that will take people out of their cliques, require some work, be uncomfortable for a while, and probably seem like it's not worth it for a while.  The solution is to bypass the smelly nerds at the comic store.  Let them play with each other.  Be the Jehovah's Witness of gamers.  Find new players, play with them .  Find a new group, and go outside your introvert comfort zone.  Zak S of Playing D&D With Porn Stars fame is a prime example of this.  He grabbed porn stars and strippers from his work to make a group.  Now, he lucked into some former gamers (and more importantly, some disenfranchised former gamers), and so can you.  When you grab new players, play something simple and/or make it as easy as possible for your new group to jump into action with a minimum of frustration.  

My friend and DM, Jacob, volunteers at his old high school's band camp that happens to be hosted at a church that is right next door to my parents' house.  One night of band camp a few years ago, he called me to come and DM a game of Pathfinder for him, his friend Joe (who I'd played with before), and two of the band camp kids.  It was...memorable.  Immediately the rules were a problem.  The new players barely grasped them, and they really didn't understand their characters' abilities.  The Rogue tried to cast a spell, the wizard tried to swing a sword, I had to pull punches not to kill them and they realized it, and it sucked the fun.  Jacob and Joe were playing very vulgar and extremely violent characters who just steamrolled everything, and there were no approachable female roles for the girl playing to approach.  It was a mess.  Now, we had fun, but one of the players said she probably wouldn't play again, and the other player was awkward to play with for quite some time, just because he took the confusion, number crunch, and immaturity of that original Pathfinder game to heart for quite some time. 

Forget that there really wasn't a lot of women bashing in that game.  I made a few blunders, and the first one was bringing full blown Pathfinder complete with Ultimate Magic and the Advanced Player's Guide.  Character creation took forever, because I gave the players an overwhelming list of options to choose from instead of saying "just make something up."  It wasn't a friendly first taste.  It was overwhelming, overstimulating, and uncouth.  Last summer, Jacob got a few more kids to play at the same band camp, but this time they played Hunter: the Reckoning.  That game grabbed several roleplayers who had never even considered gaming before and quite a few of them have become real gamers since then.  I attribute this success mainly to Hunter being an easier access point for most of the players.  They were already comfortable, because they were playing with friends, and it was far easier for them to make up a "normal person" than to pick a fantasy race, and the modern day vibe is easier to relate to.  Also, the Old World of Darkness dice pool system of Attribute+Stat is extremely easy to master.

Plus it has a one page character sheet.  I love one page character sheets.

In fact, the system and themes of Hunter brought that group together, and several people in that group were hesitant to try other systems, because they liked Hunter so much (Vampire: the Masquerade was an easy transition, however).  We ran another one shot a few weeks later, and the newbies showed up excited and already knowing how to fill out 90% of their character sheets, knowing the Hunter Creeds, and understanding exactly how to figure out what they needed to roll.  It was magical, because they threw themselves into their roles, acted in character, and a few even affected special voices.  If time constraints weren't such an issue, I'd play with most of those kids weekly.  

My normal group is made up of veteran roleplayers, all of whom are GMs in their own right.  I find that group fighting with staleness, because we've been there, done that, seen it, and tend to snark at each other more often than not possibly due to boredom with the game.  We tend to over-analyze, try too hard for uniqueness, and not embrace actually playing the game.  We've had several scheduling issues with that group too, and I think I may embrace the whole "Dungeons & Dragons Witness" thing and find people who haven't played and immerse them into a hobby I've enjoyed for over half my life.  I'll find people who know each other, who are comfortable with each other, and take the character sheets and have them roll dice and have fun.  I can do the math faster than them, and, over time, they can start understanding it better, and I can hand them the mechanics piece by piece.  We'll probably start with something really easy, too, like the New World of Darkness or Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures.  Y'know, things that drip with flavor and not with rules.  

I'm thinking it'll loosen it up a bit if it drips with wine too...

An idea I've seen bandied around roleplaying circles recently is a player/GM contract.  In its simplest form, it's a set of expectations for what everyone involved expects out of each other during the game.  Some games such as Whispering Road, even include a version of setting up such a contract in game creation.  It's an excellent way to gauge what people find uncomfortable and what will really excite them.  For new players, this can be key.  If I can get a checklist of what will hook them right into the game an hobby, you bet I'm going to use the hell out of it.  It will help me inform the pacing and content of the game.  If someone writes "no sex, please," that immediately means I'm probably going to phase out that band of succubi that I was thinking about adding later on.  If someone really really wants to kill tarantula people, that means I get to include tarantula people, probably sooner than later.  As with most ventures, communication at the outset is key for success.  Also, be nice to people and thoughtful of their feelings.

It's something that we nerds, for all our preaching about being inclusive because we were bullied and blah, blah, blah seem to be pretty bad about...

Friday, April 11, 2014

State of Beyond the Wall

Hi blog.  I'm sorry I neglected you.  It's been a hot minute since my last update and simultaneously a lot and not much of anything has happened.  I got very sick, had Christmas, worked a lot, roleplayed very little, bought a bunch of new dice, moved, and got a cat.  She's pretty.  The cat is partially blind and totally deaf, so her name is Hellen Keller.
Also, every picture of her looks like she's possessed by Satan...a definite plus.

On the gaming front, my group finished a half year long campaign in a highly unsatisfactory way, mostly because a lot of the interest in the game had waned (especially from the GM quadrant) and nobody's schedules seemed to be meshing well.  We had a one shot game of Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures over spring break (I'll get into that game later), and tried to play Legend of the Five Rings, but scheduling conflicts completely ruined that.  We also tried to play another game of Pathfinder run by my friend, Jacob.  It ended up being an extremely abstract game world with somewhat ill defined characters and we all got confused.  The game is now "on hold."

The one shot for Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures was pretty fantastic.  First off, the game is hands down my favorite Open Gaming License quasi OD&D retroclone.  It's dead simple (no attacks of opportunity).  Skills are handled by rolling under the applicable stat (with a +2 on the stat if you have the applicable skill), attack and defense are handled as normal with the D20 system.  There are destiny points to do things like re-roll, and the entire system is scaled back so that it is less complex and characters are far less powerful than most D20 games.  The two real pieces of genius, however, come from the magic system and character creation.  Magic in Beyond the Wall is not Vancian but divided into three types of magic: Rituals, Spells, and Cantrips (and is not broken down into Arcane and Divine).  Spellcasters can cast infinite Rituals and Cantrips per day, but have to roll under the appropriate stat (and spend time and spell components on Rituals) to make sure the magic doesn't go haywire.  Spells can be cast at the rate of once per level per day (so a third level character can cast three spells per day) before they are tapped out of their magical reserves.  
Character creation is the best part of Beyond the Wall.  There are three classes, Warrior, Mage, and Rogue, but each class has several "Playbooks" such as The Reformed Bully (Warrior), Witch's Apprentice (Mage), and The Young Woodsman (Rogue) as well as playbooks for hybrid classes such as The Young Templar (Warrior/Mage) and The Gifted Dilettante (Rogue/Mage).  Each Playbook has a packet of tables that you roll on to determine facets of your character's backstory, special starting weapons/equipment/allies/pieces of knowlege, relationship with the other characters, and skills and spells.  Almost every roll gives you a +1 or +2 on a stat so that you can't min max stats.  Each roll is dripping with flavor.  Your character could get the childhood trait "All children fight, but you never lost."  You could end up having thwarted a barbarian invasion through guile with "the help of the player on your right," or even end up with a pet bear (the Assistant Beast Keeper playbook is awesome) or a wife (looking at you, The Village Hero).  
The print version from DriveThruRPG is literally all the game packets jammed together in a hardcover.  It's possibly the only game I do not prefer in dead tree version.

It does have some wonky bits.  It uses oldschool saves (Vs breath weapon, polymorph, etc), but has rules to substitute Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.  It has race as class for Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings (in a seperate, PDF only packet), which I do not like.  However, those playbooks are really cool and flavorful, so I can almost give it a pass.  It also has a pretty awful print version.  The game is broken up into packets (character creation, monsters, spells, and a PDF for each playbook) which make it really easy to navigate in PDF form.  The hardcover is the core packets simply printed and put in a hardcover.  They are still paginated in packets, so there are like 4 page 1s and no index.  It's annoying.  Still, the book is small enough that it is navigable, but I'd recommend PDFs for this.  I did print out all the playbooks to pass around the table though.  

My one shot was a simple horror story, which this game lends itself to quite well due to the low power level and focus on spirits and unique versions of classic foes like goblins and demons in the small bestiary.  My group was pretty slap happy and goofy and ran amok.  Much fun was had by all.  It was a blast, but nothing to write home about or really inspire anything.  It did feature an aspect of the fantasy world I've been creating, but I plan on writing about that for future posts so that I can get back into this whole blogging thing.  
For now, I promise I'm back into this posting thing.  More will follow.