JimCon 2012 – part 2: Playing RPGs

So, in my previous retrospective on JimCon, I focused on the board gaming aspect which seemed to be the biggest draw for JimCon attendees.  But, the RPGs were the real reason I came.  I managed to run a couple Dungeon World games and sneak in a game of Burning Wheel, as well as attending a panel on DMing.  To keep these posts a manageable size, in this post, I’m going to focus on my experience as a player and a couple general comments, and save discussion of the DMing aspect for Part 3.

The Elephant not in the Room

One of the curious things about JimCon was the complete absence of Dungeons and Dragons.  Not only were there no organized D&D games, but even 4e books were completely absent from the vendor tables.  I mentioned it to a former DM I ran into, and he said that organized 4e play had completely died out at the old FLGS, and he hadn’t run a 4e game in months.  I don’t blame him, I wouldn’t want to touch 4e with a ten foot pole after being expected to run Lair Assault:  Talon of Umberlee every week for a month or three.

It’s pretty clear that 4e is on its last legs.  Wizards is now focusing all their energy on D&D Next, an upcoming edition whose title is an affront to grammar, syntax, and any shred of elegance left in the world of D&D.

Now, I’m a fan of 4e-

Hey, all quiet in the peanut gallery

Now, as I was saying, I’m a fan of 4e.  3.5 was the first system I was exposed to, but it had never really “done it” for me, and I didn’t start playing in earnest until I got into a 4e group.  Admittedly, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to play Pathfinder, but considering I have no desire to go back to 3.5, I doubt I’d find what I’m looking for in what Paizo is offering.

While I would much rather DM a rules-light and gridless system like Dungeon World, I thoroughly enjoy playing 4e.  It’s well-balanced, pretty straightforward, everyone has a role to play, and the mechanics tend to be divorced from the flavour so you can role-play and reflavour your characters however you want.  I honestly don’t get the common criticism that there isn’t role-playing in 4e.  Quite frankly, if you can’t role-play in 4e, the problem isn’t the system; the problem is that you suck at role-playing.

And, sometimes, as a player, I like to flex some tactical muscles and fuck shit up on a grid.

Well, I am Belgian after all

It seems like we had a big split in the community between Pathfinder and 4e, and while some people would be happy to see Wizards fail and Paizo take its place, I think the two systems have enough differences and enough of a difference between their target audiences that there is a place for both of them.

Unfortunately, Wizards doesn’t seem to think so.  They seem to be going backwards in an effort to appeal to the grognards who stuck with Pathfinder.  But it seems like a long shot to me.  As a 4e fan, all Next has to offer me is the abandonment of one of my favorite s edition while it still contains holes in content (for example, a couple of classes, including one of my favourites, the Seeker, are clearly unfinished).  But in going backwards, not only are they abandoning 4e, they’re going to be going head to head with Pathfinder, and I think it’s unlikely they’re going to be able to break what looks like a big edge to Paizo in the organized play department.  It seems as though it will be difficult for Wizards to put the toothpaste back in the tube, especially when they don’t exactly inspire customer loyalty with some of their decisions.

Oh come on, that was a cheap shot.

Sure, there is the possibility that a new system can bring in new players and expand the hobby, which is good for everyone, but with they path they’re taking, if D&D is going to reclaim it’s place as top dog in the role-playing business, it’s going to wind up going head to head with Pathfinder in the organized play department.  And given how well-organized the Pathfinder Society was at this con and the complete absence of D&D, it seems unlikely that Wizards will succeed.

But that’s enough edition chatter for now.  I simply wanted to address the elephant in the room in a mutually respectful way, and I hope my discussions of 4e and Pathfinder didn’t offend anyone, least of all the Pathfinder crew.

Well, at least I didn’t blame them for the air quality in the RPG room…

Playing Burning Wheel

While I did much more DMing than playing, I did manage to get through a quick micro-dungeon in Burning Wheel.  It’s one of those dice pool systems, is gridless, and uses a wound system rather than HP. I played a pregen Dwarf fighter guy, who seeks the Sword of Ages and always carries around a keg of Nog.

The drink, not the Ferengi

We managed to find a unique way to solve the dungeon, thanks to the creativity of the Sorceror and her hot dice.  The wizard trapped in the orb managed to find a host and make off with the orb.  Unfortunately for him, that host happened to be a giant ant which can’t cast spells.  There is some rather dark humour in there…

It was a pretty good system, somewhere between Dungeon World and 4e in terms of complexity.  It was open ended enough that we could do cool stuff and be guided by the fiction.  Also, being able to add another die to your dice pool for using multiple skills or assisting someone makes for a good roleplay reward system – basically, if you can justify something, you get to throw in another die to your pool.  Going from “I pick the lock,” and “I climb up into position, with Ragnar giving me a boost, and carefully attempt to pick the lock.” can be the difference between success and failure.

While the adventure was a premade microdungeon, the system and the DM still allowed for a significant amount of creative control on the part of the players.  The old-school simulationists might disagree with me on this, but I think the more creative control the players have over the world, the more invested they are in it and the better for the whole table.  Also, it can enable some cool scenes.

My only critique of the system is that it is a little strict when it comes to staying within the lines on your character sheet.  For example, in the final room, my character came across the Sword of Ages.  Of course, the room also contained a horrible medusa-like creature warning me not to touch anything.  Now, my response to that was “Aw, hells yeah, I grab it.”  But, I was told that since one of my character traits is Greed, had I said that my character doesn’t go for it, I would have had to roll and had I failed, I would have gone for it anyways.

Maybe we’re getting into deeper narrativist vs. simulationist arguments about the alleged sins of metagaming here, but this kind of thing is something I’m not crazy about.  My philosophy is that, barring the rare dominate spell, players should always be in control of their characters’ actions.  In any other medium, characters are developed as the story progresses, not from filling out forms at the start of the story.  Rather than trying to construct mechanics or engaging in heavy-handed DMing to prevent or punish “metagaming,” a better strategy is to just roll with it, and if it really bothers you, ask for a justification.  The filthy metagamer might just come up with something cool to add to the rich tapestry of one of these little worlds which exist in our collective imaginations.

But overall, it was a quick, fun game.  The DM was great, the system is pretty good, and the adventure was fun, although I suspect we managed to bypass most of it with a clever illusion.  My only qualm was that it felt like we were left wanting a bit more at the end, but that is probably because we took a couple shortcuts on the way to the treasure.

General Thoughts

Role-playing at a convention is a great way to meet people who share your interests.  It feels like with role-playing, you make slightly more of a connection to your fellow players as you develop your characters together than with board gaming.

Another problem with playing RPGs at a con is the time crunch.  The games I ran felt a bit long, and one of my players commented that the game she ran prior to mine ran overtime.  I think it is also a bit trickier for RPGers than board gamers because even at the best of times, an RPG will run much longer than the average board game, and signing up for an RPG session is committing a significant amount of your time at the con to one game.  In addition, with an RPG, we all want to develop our characters, create expansive worlds, and squeeze more content and complications into our games.  This can easily cause bloat; I know I had to leave stuff out of the bloated scenarios I ran in order to wrap it up in a reasonable amount of time.

The microdungeon and pregen characters for Thelon’s rift were great in that allowed us to quickly get a complete role-playing session in.  Now, I like to make characters as much as anyone else, but unless I’m playing a very rules-light system like Dungeon World, the amount of time it would take to figure out a new game system and make a character would quickly kill the session.  So, I’m cool with playing a pregen, although I mayu prefer to write my own fluff to make him really my own.

But overall, I had fun with the little bit of RPG playing I managed to get in, and I would like to get some more RPGing in next year – that is, unless I volunteer to run a crapload of Dungeon World.

Stay tuned for part 3, in which I lead a band of brave adventurers through The Fucked-Up Feygrove and Into the Gullet of the Graboid

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