One of my strongest memories of growing up is sitting down with graph paper, several pencils, some dice, and the Dungeons and Dragons rules books (starting with the boxed basic set and quickly moving into Advanced D&D as soon as those books were released). I remember fumbling around at first, creating things to trick and torture the players, but fairly quickly (in my memory, at least) I learned that my friends would be more likely to want to play again if I created things that challenged them, but wouldn’t necessarily result in instant party death unless they did something incredibly dumb.
I specifically remember the adventure when I starting giving creatures more intelligence than an insect. The party was approaching what was once a mighty frontier fortress that had been abandoned, and eventually occupied by, what the townsfolk called “horrifying, creatures from your worst nightmares!” The party was fairly experienced and had a few levels under their belts, so when they crested a hill and came within sight of the entrance they were pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Kobolds milling around outside.
For those of you who have no idea why that would be amusing, suffice it to say that the Kobold was almost always used as a nuisance, or throw-away creature. They would die if you tapped them too hard on their shoulder. My players, being used to creatures that could reason about as well as a rock, had their characters march down on the poor, weak little pests. When the Kobolds saw the party coming towards them all a-bristle with various weapons, they squeaked in fear and ran as fast as they could inside the building! The players found this pretty amusing and chased after them. Once inside the building the characters discovered that they had been led into a trap! The corridors were barricaded with cast off furniture and holes had been carved in the stone walls and the wooden barricades through which the Kobolds could fire a large number of arrows!
One of our players, Greg, was playing a paladin. The Paladin is supposed to be a holy warrior, afraid of nothing. Greg called for a retreat, and the players quickly began to tell him that he wasn’t playing the paladin correctly, and that he should be losing his favor with his deity for being a coward! There were two things wrong with this reasoning. First and foremost, players should not be telling other players how to run their characters, ever! And the second reason is simply that a strategic withdrawal is not cowardice. The party was encountering something they had never experienced before; reasoning creatures with a rudimentary understanding of tactics. They really did need to withdraw and reformulate their plan of attack.
So, for the first, and probably only time, let me be the one to say, “I’m sorry, Greg.” We ganged up on you, and tried to force you to play the game the way we thought (in our narrow experience) it should be played. We were wrong. If you are reading this, Greg, you are probably sitting there thinking, “I have no F’ing idea what he is talking about”. But just in case this has been eating away at you in the back of your mind, or negatively affected your gaming life I just wanted to set the record straight.
The point of this article isn’t just to reminisce, or apologize for ancient mistakes; it’s to point out the evolution that happens with experiencing these table top games with a collection of real live humans! I learned how to make my D&D games fun and interesting for the players by watching their reactions. I learned a lot of my social skills by interacting with these other human beings on a regular basis. I remember sitting down multiple times to play a game of Junta, or Circus Maximus and waking my parents up at 3am when something particularly cool got us excited! I remember playing with all the Mikes (there were several), Kent, Greg, Gary, Bruce, Brandon, Andy, Vic, and Billy! These are the names and faces associated with some of the coolest memories floating around in my head. It is now 30+ years later and these people still have a major impact on my life. I’m working with Mike (as I said, one of the many), and I’m still in contact with several of the others. And I consider every single one of those guys to be family.
Gaming face-to-face has so much more impact than playing against, or with, random strangers across the world. I’m not bad-mouthing video games, or MMO’s, or even internet games. They are a great form of entertainment, and I really have a lot of fun playing them. But, they simply can’t replace sitting around a table with like-minded people and sharing that vibe you get when you are all about to do something that you know you are all going to enjoy, seeing each other’s reactions, watching the drama of the game unfold before your eyes. I support pretty much all forms of gaming, but I am helping to create a table top gaming site, because I feel that socializing in the presence of other human beings is something that we can’t afford to give up.