Monday, September 1, 2008

A bad gaming experience

Prepare for a rant about a recent experience I had with a gaming group. I should preface it by stating that it was not my worst gaming experience ever. And the experience doesn't even compare to the legendary Worst Dungeon Master Ever. Despite what happened, there is still a chance that I might game with a few of them again. So I don't name any names. Except for you, Ray. You're an asshole. Fuck you.

Although I had copies of the rules and had read much of it, the best way to learn and remember the rules is by actually playing the game. And D&D 3.5 is not as easy as the version of D&D I played in the 1980s. The people in the gaming group I joined in 2005 knew the rules very well. Unfortunately, they had little patience. For example, they were always yelling at me for forgetting to declare that I was “casting defensively” when I’d start throwing spells in combat. It’s a rule that didn’t exist in the first edition and it didn’t make intuitive sense to me. Of course I would cast “defensively!” What else would I do in a combat situation? The rules for combat procedure are complicated in 3.5e and I wasn’t picking it up fast enough for some of the people in this group. It was tremendously frustrating. In their view, it was all my fault because I wasn’t “paying attention.” It's hard to concentrate on learning rules when you're in constant fear of being yelled at for the slightest mistake.

Another problem is that I barely knew what was going on in the campaign. At least they had a campaign hex map of the area within which our characters existed. But when it came to dungeon crawling, I had no idea what was going on at all. No one was mapping the dungeons we explored. Apparently, everyone had a map in their own heads and they never forgot what it looked like. There was no way for me to understand how far we had progressed, what passages were unexplored, where we were when we ended the previous week’s game session, or where we were planning to explore in the future.

At least the general goals of this campaign were fairly clear to me. The DM was using a few modules published by Necromancer Games. Although I wasn’t involved with the beginning of the campaign, I later figured out (long after I left the group) that they had started with The Wizard’s Amulet. From there, they played through The Crucible of Freya and took over the ruined keep that was featured in that module. As they delved the Stone Heart Mountain dungeon presented in The Tomb of Abysthor, they rebuilt their keep and used it as the start of a fiefdom. As they explored this dungeon, they also started going through the Rappan Athuk trilogy of modules. This turned into a great crusade against the evil cult of Orcus, the demon prince of the undead. The paladin in our group became the de facto leader and lord of our fief.

Although I generally knew the primary goals of the group, other aspects of the campaign took longer for me to comprehend. Most of the people in this group were fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. These books are heavy with court intrigue and political battles between nobles. They drew considerable inspiration from those stories. And thus there was much political maneuvering between the governments of the city of Bard’s Gate and some other kingdom whose name escapes me.

I had no idea what my character, Blaize the half-elf wizard, should have care about. Sure, she joined in with their crusade and she was enthusiastic about slaying the evil priests of Orcus. But I felt that some of the other players never seemed to allow me to have any say about political maneuvering among the nobles. It seemed that taking notes was of no use. So I decided that the big goal of my wizard was to start a learning institution dedicated to magic, a la Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Sorcery. But this was virtually ignored by the DM and other players.

Another huge problem was that everything I suggested as a course of action was shouted down and criticized. Somehow every suggestion I would make was the worst possible thing to do because of this, that, or the other reason. Frustration does not even begin to describe what I felt about this.

One of the things that really bothered me was the house rule that nerfed spellcasters. The DM and the rest of them had decided (before I joined the group) that the wizard class was too powerful. Therefore they decided that whenever a wizard casts a spell, that character had to succeed at a Spellcraft skill check. Normally, the Spellcraft skill is only used to identify what another spell caster is casting. But the implementation of this new house rule established another hoop that my character had to jump through in order to use any spell. According to the original rules, opponents have a chance to make a saving throw against many types of spells that I cast. On top of that, some creatures are resistant to certain types of spells. This house rule added yet another layer to that. After succeeding at my Spellcraft check, there was still the possibility that my spells would fail. When I realized the situation, I bitterly complained. But I was yelled at for not remembering that I was told about this rule when I first joined the group. The trouble was that when I joined the group, I wasn’t familiar with all of the rules in the first place. I hadn’t even played 3.5e before, let alone mastered the rules! I didn’t realize how much my wizard had been crippled by this group decision that didn’t not involve my opinion at all.

It got to the point where the most enjoyment I had on game days was the 45 minute drive to the location of the game sessions. I would listen to my favorite podcasts or radio shows and enjoy the scenery while I drove. The only thing I enjoyed about the game sessions themselves was the combat encounters. I eventually became more familiar with 3.5e’s system of combat. And I got better with the preparation and use of my spells.

The only feeling of satisfaction that I got out of playing with that group was the ending of our campaign. We had all achieved 15th or 16th level. At the very end of the Rappan Athuk dungeon was a showdown with Orcus himself. Using a spell from out of a splat book, I cast a spell that prevented Orcus from summoning other demons to join in the fight. Despite the nerfed rules, I succeeded. Denied one of his primary tactics, the demon prince got the full brunt of our group’s attacks. And as chance would have it, I delt the killing blow.

There were other things that I disliked about this game group. But much of it is not important to recount here.

Having said all of this, I don’t have particularly bad feelings towards the DM of that campaign. The man really knows how to game. But unfortunately for everyone else, he knows the rules too well. He has absolutely no problem with learning and knowing D&D 3.5e or any other game rules. Despite what I’ve said, he’s actually a good DM. He keeps the game moving. He doesn’t buckle under the pressure of rules lawyers. He's rooted in the old school style of gaming but doesn't object to a good storyline. Almost to a fault, he doesn’t allow “metagaming.” He’s creative and knows how to wing it.

What it came down to is that I disagreed with their basic attitude towards the game. This experience introduced me to a term that seems to acutely manifest itself in D&D 3.5e. That term is known as “power gamer.” The primary focus of these players was using any rule available to maximize the power and effectiveness of their characters. For them, this is the entire point of the game. And since I wasn’t interested in making my character as powerful as possible and showing it off in the game, I could never win their respect.

If you don’t have the respect of the people you’re gaming with, there’s no point in playing with them at all. But I gamed with them for TWO YEARS because I simply had no one else to game with.

So I decided to start my own gaming group that I would DM myself.


PatrickWR said...

TWO YEARS? I feel for ya, man, I really do. I would have snapped six weeks into that game. It really does sound like the players (not the DM) ruined it for you. I can't believe this didn't turn you off to D&D forever!

M.gunnerQuist said...

I put up with it because I didn't know anyone else who played D&D. It didn't turn me off to D&D because I wasn't a newbie and I was aware of the fact that there are many different types of player groups.

Gamer Dude said...

I think we've all "experienced" this in one way, shape, or form if we've gamed for any considerable length of time. I certainly know that I have. I've seen great DMs and players and I've seen abysmal DMs and players as well. And man, it IS painful when you're in a group of people that just don't hold the same philosophical ideals about the game that you do.

The "Timmy Powergamer" syndrome sucks... I hate it with a passion and it's the main reason that we disbanded my previous group. I was the DM and I'll freely admit that I was part of the problem. I tried and tried to move away from that particular style of play, but a couple of things kept steering it back in that direction.

The first issue was that a couple of the players just refused to try to come to the middle ground and play in a style that was more conducive to the rest of the group's wishes. The second problem (and this directly relates to your sandbox entry) was the style of adventure...And that was absolutely my fault.

Somehow, over the years, I had migrated my style to a more story-centric type of game. And frankly that was a huge mistake. I found myself trying to stick my fingers in the constantly appearing holes in the dike by re-aligning the party with the main plot elements. All to no avail.... It was a horrid exercise in railroading and I'm sorry that I put anyone through that nightmare. I hated it.

So, next game (and this belongs on your posting re: sandbox games) is going to be all about the old school setup of an area that is available to be manipulated and interacted in by the players.

But back to this my experience it's been about what people want from a game. If you all have roughly the same idea about what you want to achieve then I think things will turn out alright.

Oh and another thing (this is getting long winded), have you ever thought about running with a different rule set? Something a bit more conducive to a faster paced, GM-ruled game? If you haven't looked around yet, take a look at Castles and Crusades. Besides OD&D, I think it's one of the best systems in terms of simplicity and flexibility.

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