Finding a way into D&D 5e

My partner is curious about RPGs but didn’t reliably click with D&D when we played online over the first year of the pandemic. Some of this is no doubt an artifact of that group and its dynamics, and my partner only knowing one other player in that group. Some of it came from their struggles to find the sweet spot for playing their character and engaging with the story. We spoke about that a good deal.

But I think it was also due to D&D simply being… not simple. It’s not straightforward, or intuitive, or streamlined, or… any of that. My impression of 5e as an “easy” system is grounded in decades of playing RPGs, starting with 2nd ed. AD&D before I could reliably read or write. And while a different system wouldn’t have removed any of the hurdles posed by story, character, or group dynamics, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have made the other issues feel more approachable or less insurmountable.

There are plenty of other RPGs to play. The very narrative-focused systems which have grown from the indie RPG scene would offer games more focused on the character and story. Any number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems would have given my partner a more mechanically streamlined introduction to gaming. Hell, I love Monsterhearts and would happily play that all the time, and my partner enjoyed playing that for a little while too (though that group fell apart due to COVID).

We could have gone with Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for the straightforward percentile-rated skill-based gameplay with no (or very few) special abilities. I even could have used an extremely simplified GURPS—presumably with plenty of help during character creation, because that system feels like it’s intended to train future CPAs, and navigating all the possibilities of GURPS is a headache in its own right. What I’m trying to say is, I have a laundry list of RPGs that I’ve played and run before. At last count, most of a decade ago, I’d run more than a dozen systems and played close to thirty… and a lot of them were easier to engage with than D&D. That isn’t necessarily true for every step of playing them, but many have a lower mandatory cognitive load for “effective” play. Unlike with D&D, you don’t always have to keep track of an ever-growing collection of powers and abilities with hyper-specific uses.

But none of those other games are D&D. And that’s the problem. In so many other contexts, in pop culture, with other groups, or just playing with me and my sibs, my partner knows they’re going to run into D&D. And they’re abundantly aware that, for that to be accessible to them in the future, they need to pick up the basics at some point.

Which brings me back to the issue at hand. What other game might I run for them first, to give them a better feel for RPGs before they try D&D again? How might I run D&D differently to better engage them, and to help them feel their way into familiarity with the system?

I have some ideas.

We can talk through what genres my partner is excited to play, and choose a system with mechanics which fit. We can try some solo-play, to give my partner experience with a system without the distraction of larger group dynamics. And we can try a couple different one-shots or brief stories, to let us more-quickly sample the many different flavors available. Just jumping in and trying different systems and genres is probably our best bet.

D&D 5e doesn’t work equally well for everything, I’m very aware. But hopefully we can find ways to play that my partner enjoys, and give them the background to feel comfortable with D&D even if it’s not their game of choice. Wish us luck.

Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.

Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

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I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

What Flavor Is Your Game?

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I like vanilla ice cream.  I have for a very long time.  Before I knew my alphabet, much less how to read, I knew that hearing my older brother spell out “I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M” meant that I should start asking Mom for ice cream too.  Better yet, as I got older and discovered the joys of living in Vermont (home of Ben & Jerry’s before it was bought out by Unilever), I learned that there were far more flavors of ice cream available, and that many of them were exceedingly tasty as well.

When I was little, I played make-believe all the time.  A number of my friends simply couldn’t understand the appeal, and stopped playing with me, but at the tender age of seven my older brothers harnessed my ambitions and introduced me to 2nd Edition AD&D.  My introduction might actually have been earlier, but that year was the first time I can remember staying up until midnight to play RPGs with them.  Over the next few years, I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade (along with a bundle of other White Wolf games), D&D’s 3rd Edition, In Nomine, and GURPS.  More other games followed.  Just like with ice cream, I had discovered a whole new world of flavors to choose from.  I was very nearly overwhelmed by my enthusiasm.  These days, some people refer to me as an RPG snob.  I much prefer the term ‘connoisseur’: through dedicated consumption, I have built an appreciation for the inherent flavors of different game systems.

But what the heck do I mean by “flavor”?  And how do you figure out what a game’s flavor is?

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Temple in the Sands: A Musical Teaser

I’ve been working on a module for Call of Cthulhu for several years now, and I’ve finally found a model I like for organizing my written content.  It’s not fancy, and I’ll have to alter a few things eventually when I get around to posting maps and pictures alongside the text, but it will mean that other people can play the game that I’ve made without me running it for them.  But the module isn’t done yet, and is already far longer than most of our posts.  So with that in mind…

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