Introduction

I started playing tabletop roleplaying games (TRPGs) in 1981, when my family gave me the newly revised Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (also known as the Moldvay edition, after that version’s editor). I was surprised by the gift – I’d asked for the older (and simpler) Dungeon! board game, but my family didn’t know the difference.

Regardless, D&D impressed me, and my middle-school friends. We played as often as we could – which wasn’t nearly as often as we’d have liked – and persuaded our families to buy us more D&D material, as well as other TRPGs. Since we didn’t have the opportunity to game together regularly, our years of play experience consisted primarily of single sessions, often using published adventures. No campaigns for us; no long-term attachment to gradually developed characters. We approached the games as tactical puzzles first, and genre emulation second.

I suffered some frustrations. Many rule books were poorly written. Some rule systems had design problems that led to arguments over interpretation. And some play experiences confounded us. For example, my first attempt to run Espionage! immediately devolved from gritty spy thriller to superhero slapstick when the rules as written combined with some fluky dice rolls to let a player one-shot-kill a gunman with a thrown butter knife…which set some expectations that the system couldn’t consistently deliver. But these frustrations were minor; my friends and I had fun for years.

Then, I left home and friends for college. Living on a college campus allowed frequent, regular play sessions; exposure to a greater number of TRPGs; and new gaming companions. This is where the real trouble began.

I found game systems that were practically unplayable (such as the sci-fi/post-apocalyptic Living Steel), game aesthetics that didn’t appeal to me in the least (such as the sci-fi/black comedy Paranoia or the “game of personal horror” Vampire: The Masquerade), gamer styles that badly clashed with my own, and game experiences that seemed designed to infuriate me. An early example is my first session of the fantasy TRPG Rolemaster: I’d created what I thought was a highly skilled warrior; in our first game session, I only made three attack rolls and CRITICALLY FUMBLED each one of them, inflicting damage on my own character! My “skilled warrior” devolved into “embarrassing joke.”

Beyond the games themselves, I started clashing with my fellow gamers. We’d all gathered to play roleplaying games, but we seemed to be playing different games, even if we used the same rulebook. TRPGs are supposed to be (largely) cooperative, but we each kept doing things the others found counterproductive. To be honest, in some groups, the only problem player was me.

In one particular game session in the late 1990s, I had made what I considered a big adjustment to fit in with what I understood that gaming group wanted to do. I tried to be as helpful and complementary as I could imagine. And yet, the actual play experience went methodically wrong. I walked away from the session wondering if my fellow gamers had set me up to be humiliated, but I don’t think they enjoyed the experience, either. This one session finally broke me.

I stopped playing TRPGs.

But I couldn’t bring myself to give them up. I couldn’t stop trying to figure out why I was having so many problems. I couldn’t stop wondering how TRPGs worked when they did and/or how they were intended to work. I couldn’t stop reading (and buying) new TRPGs.

I was still a gamer, even if I was a broken one.

I found others who had similar problems, or at least similar questions. First, in the usenet newsgroup rec.games.frp.advocacy; later, on game-theory websites such as The Forge; more recently, in academic research on (mostly computer) games. Reviewing all these malcontent reports revealed a number of insights, the most important being that there’s no one thing labeled “roleplaying gaming;” it’s actually a collection of related, sometimes-incompatible activities. People trying to play together while trying to play differently will naturally step on each others’ toes.

As a simplified example, imagine that the company for which you work organizes a softball team. Most people on this particular team just want to have fun and get a little exercise, but one guy really wants to win (and really hates to lose). This one guy will get frustrated because no one else takes the game seriously, while everyone else will get frustrated with him for taking the game too seriously. If this competitive guy can’t “loosen up” and start playing casually, no one would be surprised if he dropped off the team. He’s looking for a different experience, even though he’s still wanting to play the same game.

These insights have helped, though not completely healed me. It hasn’t been so easy to figure out what I want in a TRPG experience, but I’ve had much more success figuring out what I don’t want, and why various game designs and play practices don’t work for me (while working just fine for other gamers). Along the way, I’ve had a bit of fun reading about game-design theory, game-analysis theory, and alternative approaches to TRPGs. All the study and the brooding has let me start gaming again … in small, trial games. Results have been mixed, but have usually proved educational.

And all the study, the brooding, and the experiments have generated a great number of essays wherein I record my frustrations, my speculations, and my tentative conclusions. I’ve been too shy and uncertain to post much to gaming forums, but I’ve overwhelmed my poor friends (and my fiancée) with more emailed text than they’ll ever be able to read. Partly out of self-defense, they’ve encouraged me to publicize my writings, if only to finally sort things out into some kind of structure.

So my plan is to make this blog a collection of my informal TRPG studies and experiences. I hope it might be of use to other gamers struggling to fix problems in their own games, theorists interested in how TRPGs work, and/or readers looking for critiques of various TRPG products through the years.

Welcome to the Old Broken Gamer. I hope you enjoy your visit.

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