Monday, December 5, 2022

Don't ask me ...

I know. I haven't blogged in a while. It's been difficult. Among all things, I think I have said all I can say about the game without repeating myself a lot or stretching it. At least in this here medium. What's next is a number of publications where I get to explore all of this in depth and beyond. It's been long due, and it will happen eventually (I'll have some teasers at the end for those interested ...). Doing this for the time I'm doing this, I get asked shockingly often how to approach this hobby of ours. What's good, what's popping, where to start ... I always have a hard time answering this, so here's a post (yay!?).

To be honest, I am truly lost

I make a habit of visiting shops selling role-playing games and paraphernalia when I'm in a city big enough to actually accomodate something like that. Here in Germany it is a bit different than in the US as no one seems to bother and my impression is, those shops are disappearing more and more here.

A couple of years ago I started to get a strange feeling when I found one of those shops and looked for books to buy: nothing appealed to me at all. Same old, same old, all colorful, all with lots and lots of supplements ... all very much uninspired. The market is stretched so thin that only the blandest of corporate word sauce makes it into the shelves. No exotic little independant games, no old games, no character in the selection, for lack of a better word. 

Nothing is new anymore ... [Source]

It is all so bland, most of the time I have to go and spend my money elsewhere (usually I end up buying a d20 or something like that).

To the point: there was nothing to explore, nothing to discover. I had the direct contrast of this when visiting one of those shops in Hamburg. I had had high hopes there. Big shop in a big city ... and it left me underwhelmed. The staff was uninterested close to hostile and while it had lots of stuff to sell, it all was just kind of there. I bought a deck of playing cards I liked and left dissapointed.

However, just down the road it had a little comic shop, and I thought, while I'm already there, I could take a look. Smaller shop, so full of comics it left no room for natural light to come in. Good selection, too, as far as first impressions go. But what really really got me stoked was two very prominent and STACKED bins full of recommendations collected by the staff there.

Fringe shit throughout, stuff I've never seen or heard about, as well as some popular favorites. Sometimes with a couple of words why it's good, all of them good ways to engage with the clerk behind the counter and geek out. I left money in that shop. Too much, according to my wife, but it felt justified.

Very weird, very funny ... [Source]
Made me think, too.

It is not even that the comics themselves had been the best thing ever (although I did have fun with the lot of them), but among all the things sold in that shop, they'd been enthusiastic enough to share what they liked. I always thought it worthwhile asking the people knee deep in a topic what their preferences are. It's always interesting, if nothing else.

So you might think: but good Sir, isn't it just common sense to go and ask the people working in those places what's good and interesting? To which I'll say that I'm not only a somewhat peculiar person in those regards (as in: shy), I also know too much on the rpg topic already, so chances are that I will encounter opinions I will feel the urge to challenge (if you've read anything here, you know what I talk about). I am opinionated like that, so I don't engage easily.

My point is, however, the shop itself should offer a path of sorts, a map, if you will, for the interested customer to find and follow up on. It's what we book sellers in Germany call the "wallpaper": the books you put on display, being your preference, help a customer understanding you, which, in turn, offers opportunities for conversation. They show their hand so you can come and play. It helps getting over the insecurities, over that threshold of the unknown other.

In too deep

While it sucks to go into a shop knowing too much, it sure as hell gets really ugly when someone interested in the hobby asks you for advice (I know, it stands in direct contradiction to the above, but I already told you I'm peculiar ...). I could talk about the finer points of game design all day (and have put it to the test when talking to like minded people), but when confronted with an enthusiastic lack of knowledge, I'm at a loss fast. Again.

One could say that I'm so deep in that I don't see the forest because of all the trees, but that's not entirely true (although part of it). What's more problematic, however, is that our hobby relies too heavily on recruiting through self-professed gamemasters without offering the tools for it as well. And without the tools it needs, you'll more often than not end up with a personality cult of sorts.

Actually, "they" (big corp, naturally) fuel that idea of cult-like, personality driven recruitment through their media representations of the hobby, which are always never accurate, imo. And by design, too. Think about it: their policy is customer driven, they want to sell shit, so they can't tell customers that it needs a certain set of skills to do Gamemastering properly. Everyone needs to buy, so everyone needs to be welcome.

Which ironically leads to the impression that the circus clown bullshit that goes for role-playing in popular youtube shows is what the game is about. All need to be flamboyant improv actors in fancy costumes, everything needs to be snappy and immediate. Storytelling, yes, but you won't see Critical Role (or whatever) crunch and grind some high level AD&D combat over a couple of sessions ...

Anyway, I digress. I have made that point elsewhere somewhere already: the popular kids have discovered D&D now, so it's all about showing off and hierarchy and superficial (virtue) signalling. That's not me. As a matter of fact, I really don't care for that aspect of the hobby at all and there is a lingering fear that someone new to the hobby asking me about it just wants a road map to the circus. Because I'm one of those clowns. Right?

Then again, I do love the hobby and I do have opinions, so it might be ill advised to overcompensate and go all Joseph Campbell and game design approaches and history of the hobby or, in other words, avoid the all-out nerd-speak to proof the stereotype by being it. Ease them into it, then go full nerd.

But how?

Again, I'm conflicted there, but usually I have to claim authority by telling what I've done so far in the hobby (the little I did is more than most did, relatively speaking) and somewhat where I stand. Or rather, what I think the hobby is about and what it takes. As described above, I'll show my hand. Usually people will realize then, sooner or later, if that means something to them or not. If it's interesting and something to explore further, or not at all what they wanted or expected.

So, at best those people get an individual take with a lecture and reading recommendations. Not very shiny at all, and most defintiely not the kind of glitter some people like to engage in, but honest to the point where someone REALLY interested might as well end up playing at my table, and with the proper attitude too. If it is that kind of contact, that is. If it's a "friend of a friend" asking, it gets difficult again.

How to approach our hobby (meaningfully)

Here's the original inspiration for this post. A colleague of my wife asked what she could give her boyfriend as a present that could be considered a nice entry into the hobby, because he has shown interest to get something started. The question was forwarded to me, and here we are. 

The first problem is, I don't know the person and I won't get a read on him as well, so this is totally into the blue. The second problem is, there is no solid recommendation for a role-playing book that checks all the boxes so well that it could be a cold, all-purpose sell for everyone.

Most indie publishers don't have the funds for proper artwork or any means to have a proper layout, so there will be no appeal as a present, regardless of the quality of the content. Or they are great coffee table fodder, but so fringe that they still won't work as a general entry to the hobby.  

What's more, there are so many serviceable (as in: will get you gaming with friends) role-playing games out there that are free in their digital version that it'd make no sense at all to actually buy one as a present unless it really checks all the boxes (which, again, to my knowledge doesn't exist).

The popular brands are out as well, since I don't subscribe to their business models and their approaches to game design in general. They might be shiny, but they are the poison apple.


What's left? My answer was to have him learn about the origins of the hobby and make up his own opinion. The scholary approach, if you will. So I offered she should gift him either Empire of Imagination or Rise of the Dungeon Master, both readily available in Germany and with decent enough takes on how the hobby started (as an entry, of course). Names and dates and stories. With this, or so my thinking, someone really interested would have all they need to decide how to tackle this hobby.

Another recommendation was trying their hand at one of the numerous rpg-board game hybrids out there, since they capture the essence of "classic" play well enough without needing the commitment it takes to start and maintain a campaign (Legends of Andor and Mage Knight made the list there). You'll learn the tropes and it makes for a great big box under the tree.

A third option would be to make something like a Player Starter Kit with some nice dice, maybe a solid folder for character sheets (something made out of wood with a nice dragon up front, maybe?), a personalized leather bag to carry the dice ... stuff like that, stuff that'd be useful in every game.

All in all it's not a lot to go with, and only relates to playing role-playing games in the narrowest of senses. It doesn't help in establishing what one might like (or even just to get a sense of what it would actually be like to play), but it could help mapping the territory.

And that's that. While I'm at least somewhat relieved that something came to mind, it really helped more illustrating the shortcomings of getting people interested in this little hobby of ours beyond the original impulse. One could do worse than reading a reasonably well researched biography of Gary Gygax to get an idea what made that early D&D such a success, but it's still a bit of a stretch.

It's also all so fractured

There's another thing making it difficult to offer guidance for our hobby: by now it all seems to break down into smaller and smaller tribes all over the place. And the loudest ones aren't really good representatives of the hobby in general. The OSR? Done for. Or it's something else now that milks it for what it's worth. The "artpunk" discussion? Blech. Those trying too hard to be the opposite? Yawn. Official D&D? Excludingly diverse, all posture no substance. The next edge lord driving nother pig through the digital village? Pestiferous, at best.

Just the other day I saw a new book by Lamentations of the Flame Princess out in the wild. Hadn't heard a word about it. As always with LotFP, it was a solid presentation. A good looking book. And yet, I did not care to even just look inside. There is SO MUCH scorched earth and bad policy associated with the brand that I won't bother anymore.

There was a time when I'd recommend those books for all they did well when they did it. Today I'd hope people new to the hobby don't stumble across all the bullshit in that corner of the internet before seeing the more positive sides of the hobby first.

Add to that even more social media controversies and flame wars and scandals and cancellations all over the place, and what are you left with? A couple of quiet and well hidden forums trucking on (Basic Fantasy comes to mind, as do the guys that publish the Threshold zine). The rest, generally speaking, seems to be a very loud and toxic environment not worth pointing towards.


So, don't ask me?

Maybe. It's that "get off of my lawn" kind of thinking that just comes from not having many options to begin with. It's also mixed with the feeling that my way of playing is already fringe in the greater hobby, so people might not find what they are looking for if their inspiration to look is derived from aspects of the hobby that follow very different rules and ideas. Doesn't mean I'm not willing. Doesn't mean those worlds don't intersect. But it makes it difficult to be an "embassador" of sorts for the hobby.

So I hope my recommendations fall on fertile ground and some people have some great gaming ahead. That'd be nice.

And to close on a more positive note: there is an "old school" shop of sorts in Ulm that I visit whenever I can. Lots and lots of fringe games and old games mixed in with board and card games and books and all kinds of fun stuff. It is all over the place, but in a good way. If you get lost in there, you will find treasures to bring home. At least I do everytime I get to spend some time in there.

You know, I do get to spend money for gaming material. I still collect, my taste in those things is just very, very fringe nowadays. Maybe I'll share my purchases this year in another post. I feel like giving the blog some more love the next couple of weeks. 

Either way, thank you for reading! How would you guys handle something like this? What would you consider a good rpg book for someone who never had any other exposure to the hobby? Is there such a thing? Should it exist?


Some teaser art for my upcoming BX retroclone mutant be67. It plays in the weird Sixties. We have a layout and the artwork is coming together as well (copyright is all mine):

Another project I'm working on for 2023:

There's more, but that's enough for today, I'd say :)