Friday, August 1, 2008

Traditions Abandoned

No, I'm not talking about Fourth Edition -- I'm talking about two "traditions" of older gaming that seem to have fallen by the wayside over the years. They were both staples of my youth in the late 70s/early 80s and it's been years since I've seen either one in action anymore.

The Big Group: OD&D recommends a ration of 1 referee for every 20 players, although it notes that campaigns can reasonably handle up to 50 players without much difficulty. Now, I never played in a campaign with even 20 players, but I frequently played in adventures with a dozen or more players at one time. My regular gaming group consisted of 6-8 players on most occasions, sometimes more if friends were visiting. They'd bring their characters and, if the referee approved, they'd simply drop into the campaign and play with the regulars. Many gamers nowadays look with befuddlement on the notion of a party leader or "caller," but, back in the day, he played a very necessary role. When the adventuring party consists of 12 guys sitting around a table, a caller is the only way to get anything done without total chaos erupting.

Over the years, the average size of the party -- and presumably the campaign as well -- has declined quite precipitously. I'm not quite sure why that is. The average size seems to be about three or four. My current group consists of three people, although a few years ago it had swollen to eight, counting the referee. Before anyone makes the unlikely claim that there's been a philosophical shift in gaming toward more a more "intimate" feel (let alone that it's closer to the pulp fantasy ideal), I suspect the shift in group size has more to do with non-gaming social dynamics than anything else. The graying of the fan base has meant that it's harder to coordinate the schedules of many adults than it was to get a dozen kids together. Goodness knows I can barely get three people together to game; I can only imagine the nightmare of trying to coordinate a dozen adults with jobs and families. Mind you, I've also observed that children don't seem to be as freely available to play as they were in my youth. It's the middle of the summer now and there are no kids out playing the neighborhood and won't be until the late afternoon/early evening, because they're all off at day camp/daycare while their parents work. When I was a child, this was not the case and, during the summer vacation, children could be counted on to be constantly outside and available for play from about 9 AM till almost 9 PM -- lots of opportunities to play D&D.

No wonder everyone's looking to the wonders of computing to save the hobby.

The Rotating Referee: Because groups were so large, this led to a second commonly accepted practice: multiple referees for a single campaign. In days of yore, it was simply a fact of life that, on some days, one guy would run an adventure and, on other days, someone else would. Indeed, it was rare in my experience that a player didn't at least occasionally don the referee's hat and take over such responsibilities. Now, granted, most campaigns had a "primary" referee or a pair of them, but that doesn't change the fact that most players in a given campaign would try their hand at the referee's role every now and again.

This is a change that I think owes to a combination of factors, some of them purely accidental and some of them philosophical. The accidental factors mostly pertain to the shrinking of the average group size. If you have only three regular players, there's not as much scope for referee rotation. On the philosophical side, though, I think there's definitely been a slow morphing of the concept of the "referee." He's now viewed not just as a neutral arbiter cum occasional opponent. Rather he's now a "storyteller" or "narrator." He's the guy who creates the "story" of the campaign and keeps it moving in accordance with his grand plot. Given that, it's much less easy to accommodate a second or third referee, because they'll almost certainly spoil the story, or at least derail it, and that's not viewed as a good thing. In campaigns without explicit stories, a rotating referee just adds more details and events from which a story might later be woven, but there's no danger that he will "ruin" the campaign by introducing things that get in the way of some grand plan.

For myself, I miss both larger groups and rotating referees. They used to be givens and now they're, at best, rarities and, at worst, deemed eccentricities. I'm thinking about ways to change that in my own group.

18 comments:

  1. In a five part series Ben Robbins marked out how he managed to handle the "Big Group" problem with a specialized sandbox setup. It's received quite a bit of interest and buzz here and there on the 'net (just search around on Google and Yahoo, and when you find links, follow the links for what they miss). I have been putting together notes on a new game for some time, and I've decided I want to try this myself. I know there are a lot of ex-gamers among my coworkers and in the general populace who can't play a lot but who would still like to play when they can manage it. It seems like an ideal structure, and quite similar to the campaigns of olden days. I suspect it'd even work online around a community such as the OD&D boards or DF.

    (My biggest problem with his "West Marches" approach is how to address the problem of having a single base of operations for the players. I want an open sandbox where players can go anywhere and base in any local city, village or farmstead, but I don't want the problem where persons A, B, C and D can't play together because they're all in different locations. One could allow for it (portals between large centers, airships, etc.), but they have effects on societies that I rather not have in a game world I run. How was it handled in the old days, or was it just handwaived?)

    As for too many GMs spoiling the plot, even a sandbox has groups, societies and even powerful individuals that have goals and plans that progress and change the world and societies over time, unless the world is static and sterile. Either the co-GMs have to decide everything in committee (which is often the worst sort of decision making) or everyone is in charge of their own particular area, which leads to its own metagame where the DMs all compete for who has the coolest area and the general ratcheting-up of power levels that often accompanies it.

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  2. I remember my old group from the early 80's. There were about a dozen of us who routinely showed up, plus maybe another dozen or so hangers on.

    I must have missed the "caller" phase; in our games, we just went around the table.

    We had a bit of the rotating DM thing, in this one guy's game, but mostly each DM ran his own world. Certain of us were noted for running certain games (or genres); I for instance ran Champions but rarely AD&D.

    We played anything that came out, and we enjoyed them all, but we always came back to AD&D.

    Glad to see that I'm not the only one who remembers the big groups!

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  3. Even in my earliest days, we didn't have the huge group, and thus no need for a caller.

    I definitely second the suggestion to look at the West Marches campaign. It seems to handle easily what to me is the biggest drawback for a large campaign, and it's a problem you mention in your post. Scheduling.

    By having the players handle the scheduling, it takes an enormous burden off the DM's shoulders. Too, it makes explicit the fact that not everybody needs to show up for every session of the game. "Oh, well, we can't play this Friday because Craig won't be there, and the party can't play without a cleric." It puts the decision squarely in their hands.

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  4. I think the largest group I've ever played in had ten players. I can't consistently DM a game for more than eight. I just can't do it. I can't run the games the way I like to and give everyone a fun game with a group that large.

    But then, I've always been a "story" DM, and the idea of handing off my campaign to another to run has always rubbed me the wrong way.

    restless: How was it handled in the old days, or was it just handwaived?

    Multiple PCs per player. This was pretty common so that players could tailor their team for the proper mix. Sometimes you'd play your fighter, and other times you'd play your magic-user, based on where your PCs were and what the current group coming together needed.

    - Brian

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  5. trollsmyth
    Multiple PCs per player. This was pretty common so that players could tailor their team for the proper mix. Sometimes you'd play your fighter, and other times you'd play your magic-user, based on where your PCs were and what the current group coming together needed.


    That's what we did, except we'd play them all at once.

    Seriously, there'd be a line of figures down the center of the table, sometimes 2.5 to 3 feet long.

    There was the tale from before my time how the front of the party met up with some strangers and started fighting them. At the same time, the center of the party was attacked.

    After a few rounds, the mapper said "Hey, wait a minute..." They had gone around four corners and had attacked themselves...

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  6. I enjoy the idea of the "big group" but the closest I can come to implementing it right now is in the PBP realm, where I'll shortly have 12 or so players in 3 small groups adventuring concurrently in the same setting. The issue of the groups crossing each others' paths hasn't arisen yet.

    I'm enlisting the talents of one of my more creative friends who's willing to contribute monsters, dungeons, and so on, but I'd kind of freak out at the idea of actually co-DMing with someone.

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  7. We had lots of co-dming in both D&D and other rpgs. We didn't do much megadungeon delving so there wasn't a problem of mucking up somebody else's dungeon. If you wanted to DM, simply draw up a dungeon and have at it. The other games we did this with a lot was TMNT where the pc's were vigilante crimefighters. There wasn't usally two much connection between one adventure and the next, so having a guest GM was kind of like having somebody come in and direct an episode of a TV series. It was the same characters involved, but the story didn't have to mesh with anything else. Oh yeah, whoever was GMing would likely continue to run their "PCs" as npcs.

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  8. I co-DM'd the CoC adventure Grace Under Pressure once, which is very story-led, almost like live theatre, and has multiple locations of simultaneous activity, so you really needed to co-ordinate between DMs. It was complicated fun, but the format necessarily constrained the action (something the setting of the adventure was designed to naturalise). I thought it was interesting because it seemed like it stretched what an RPG could be, but the costs were obvious, in terms of open-ended action and problem-solving. I don't know that I'd do it again, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it for a long campaign.

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  9. I don't think it's so much the aging of the population as the fact that everyone is busy. Remember that Gary and Dave both had pretty large groups and they were adults (and at least in the case of Gary, married with children).

    Kids though are definitely much more active. When I was a kid, kids had perhaps 1 or 2 extracurricular activities. These days, kids seem to have something going on every day of the week.

    Adults are also busier, certainly the fact that wives are working is a factor. I think our economy is also busier, we shop more and go out to eat more. I know I go shopping a LOT more than my parents did, and we manage to go out to eat a least once a week these days, whereas when I was growing up, we maybe went out once a month.

    I have had some pretty good sized groups recently though. My Arcana Unearthed (D20) campaign had a regular attendance of 6-8 which was what most of my high school and college groups achieved.

    I think one difference on bigger groups is there is a lot less club play. When people are gaming in their homes or dorm rooms, they are much less likely to acquire new players who start as bystanders then join in because it looks fun.

    Interestingly, we never used a caller. Oh, we might have at the very beginning, but by the time I was in full swing, the caller was gone. Most groups do tend to wind up with just one or two people who take charge of the exploration (which is where you need the caller, in combat it's not so necessary - just go around the table handling each player in turn).

    The increased desire to have logical sensible campaign worlds (sometimes with a "story") has definitely virtually eliminated the migration of characters from game to game. The decline of clubs is also a factor there (but it's worth noting that in college I saw almost no character migration from campaign to campaign even with a decent club structure. The diversity of game systems is also a factor, when D&D was almost the only game in town, everyone had a D&D character.

    I've seen almost no co-DMing, but the MIT games club had a pretty solid concept of a "multi-verse" where a bunch of DMs who trusted each other allowed character migration with a lot less scrutiny. In the early 90s, I did see a couple co-GM a WHFRP campaign, but that wasn't a hand-off from week to week deal, but a deal where both GMed at the same time, handing off as PCs split up or had different kinds of scenes. Glen Blacow did run a Traveller game in part of Paul Gazis's universe, but they largely operated as independent campaigns.

    Frank

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  10. The reason I avoid the big group is because the one time I tried to judge a game with ten people, it was a disaster. Someday I may think about trying it again based on what I learned from that experience, but I’m in no hurry to do so.

    As for scheduling a big group... I would think this would be easier. With a group of three or four players, I feel like skipping if two or three players miss a session. With a group of twenty, I think I’d be OK holding the session even if ten to fifteen of them couldn’t make it.

    All my groups have rotated the judging duties. In all but one of my groups, however, each judge ran his own campaign. Even in that one group, it was more two judges running two campaigns in the same milieu.

    It's the middle of the summer now and there are no kids out playing the neighborhood and won't be until the late afternoon/early evening, because they're all off at day camp/daycare while their parents work.

    My kids do go to day-care and summer day-camps, but I’m careful not to over-schedule them the way I’ve seen some parents do. I give my kids the opportunity to be bored and figure out how to entertain themselves.

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  11. I can imagine a campaign with a lot of players being a lot of fun, but it seems like it would be a hassle for the DM/DMs. I'd certainly be willing to give it a shot.

    The Rotating DM thing I don't explicitly disapprove of, but I do kind of like to have a myth arc to my campaign. If I were to do that, I'd ask to speak to the other DMs about what I had in mind for the story and how that can be reconciled with their plans.

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  12. I've run and played in large campaigns (8-15 regular players), though not since I was an undergrad. The group I currently play in consists of seven regular players plus the DM (8 total), though we usually game with 3-6 of us present, and we all run missing players' PCs. Currently we've been playing under the same DM since the campaign started ~20 months ago, but we have at least five capable DMs in the game, and had originally planned for the campaign to be co-DMed (but the play in-game and the logistics/timing in RL hasn't worked out to change DMs thus far). We also have an extended group of players that include children (6-19 in age) of the regulars, some other ex-regulars who can't play the every-two-weeks schedule that we try to maintain, and several other occasional players/out-of-town players, etc. The extended group used to play about once a quarter, when we would hold our "Wrath of Con" scenarios (rotating DMs), but that's slowed down quite a bit since we got the regular campaign going. We also use the regular campaign and/or the WoC sessions for playtesting (for both Pied Piper and for Goodman Games), from time-to-time, which is also quite fun and sometimes a very-needed change of pace.

    I enjoy the dynamic of running (and playing in) large parties, as well as running concurrent parties in the same campaign. Splitting the party was never a concern when you had 10+ PCs in the game, sometimes with henchmen/NPC members/etc. While running a campaign @ PSU I would also still run games at home for my brothers and friends, and we managed some joint sessions from time-to-time, when characters from one party joined another in order to combat common foes. Definitely good times, but in college we also gamed 1-4 days a week, sometimes for an entire weekend, and no one I know can commit that amount of time to gaming today.

    @ richard:

    richard said: I co-DM'd the CoC adventure Grace Under Pressure once, which is very story-led, almost like live theatre, and has multiple locations of simultaneous activity, so you really needed to co-ordinate between DMs.

    I played GUP and "In Medias Res" with John and the Pagan crew when Pagan was still located in Columbia MO, as well as "Deep Shit" before Biohazard published Blue Planet: "Deep Shit" is very similar conceptually to GUP, although it's got a few added twists (PCs = GEO SuperTroopers instead of normal geeky scientists, and they're heading into an Alien-like bug hunt where they're the hunted...). I've always thought that GUP and "Deep Shit" both worked best when special effects were used: Pagan rented adjoining hotel rooms, and when the party split, they were in different rooms; we used glow sticks for light; they had ocean sounds going in the background, sonar pings, and such available via a Mac audio system; separated parties communicated by walkie talkie (with all of the vagaries of reception throw into the mix!); etc. I can't imagine playing either game at the dining room table, after the immersive experience that they provided.

    Allan.

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  13. Restless,

    Thanks for the pointers. I'll read this links with great interest.

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  14. I must have missed the "caller" phase; in our games, we just went around the table.

    Not sure when the caller died out. I know it was specifically mentioned as late as 1981's Moldvay Basic Rulebook, so it's a tradition that survived into the beginning of the mass marketization of D&D. How long after that I haven't a clue.

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  15. But then, I've always been a "story" DM, and the idea of handing off my campaign to another to run has always rubbed me the wrong way.

    Heretic!

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  16. After a few rounds, the mapper said "Hey, wait a minute..." They had gone around four corners and had attacked themselves...

    That's terrific. I can believe it too, because I remember games in which, between the PCs, their henchmen, and their hirelings, there were close to 50 people tramping around the dungeon.

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  17. Frank,

    Some excellent insights in your comments. Thank you for sharing them.

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  18. I give my kids the opportunity to be bored and figure out how to entertain themselves.

    There is much wisdom here. I do the same with my own children and I am so glad I have done so. I could and perhaps should make a post one day in which I talk about the creative liberty of boredom, but I've already got too much on my plate as it is.

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