Friday, December 20, 2019

Holiday Gaming Failures

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another
with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Winston Churchill

In my earliest days in adventure gaming I tried desperately to recruit my cousins, particularly when our families gathered at the holidays. As kids cousins often fulfill the role of natural playmates, especially when close in age as my cousins were. We’d indulged in traditional board games when we got together, but roleplaying games seemed a bit more advanced; although we often had plenty of time together, the interest and focus just wasn’t there. It certainly didn’t help that the adventure games available to us at the time were probably more complex than our age group. The holidays – with their gatherings of friends and family – seem ideal times to introduce non-gamers to our hobby; yet our ambitions often fall short.

I recall a cousin one year who’d just received Avalon Hill’s Dune bookcase game; I assume he’d read the novel at some point, while I had not. Nonetheless we dutifully sat around the dining room table as he read through the rules, though I recall my initial confusion came from his pronunciation of the word “spice” – an integral component of the Dune setting – as “spies.” When that failed we bumbled through a game of Risk, never an enjoyable activity in the slow but steadily grinding endgame to defeat.

On another occasion I got it in my head to run my cousins through the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity. I copied the adventure’s pre-generated characters onto my custom-printed character sheets (set and printed on my brother’s Deluxe Star Printing Press). Alas, despite my hopes, planning, and great enthusiasm the effort quickly devolved into a morass of bored players, long rules explanations, and not much adventuring.

I discussed this issue before in “Share Gaming during the Holidays.” How do we turn our enthusiasm for a game into a rewarding experience during holiday gatherings with non-gamers willing to give gaming a try? Certainly today we have many options for board games suitable to newcomers. I’d certainly suggest such classic titles as Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, Tsuro, and King of Tokyo, all of whose core rules seem basic enough but allow for a great deal of nuance in the actual player interaction. In that old blog post I offered a few other general suggestions, but I want to revisit and expand a recommendation specifically focused on roleplaying games. The three games below seem especially suitable not just for forays into roleplaying games during holiday gatherings but other times of the year when our non-gaming friends venture forth and express an interest in experiencing this facet of our adventure gaming hobby.

Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game: This game presents a combined system and setting extremely accessible to newcomers. The setting remains iconic, as most everyone knows Star Wars, though some of us old curmudgeons still insist on running games set only in the “classic” era of the original three films. The d6-based game system relies on a core mechanic of rolling the dice associated with the relevant skill to beat a difficulty number or an opponent’s score. By using the central rules concepts – derived from the main game into the OpenD6 system – one can customize the rules to nearly any genre game, even on the fly. Although West End Games’ original rules are out of print (though occasionally available on the secondary market), the OpenD6 rules remain freely available under an Open Game License; the OpenD6 Wikia website includes numerous links, including those to PDFs of the D6 Fantasy, D6 Adventure, and D6 Space core books as well as numerous derivative versions (I personally recommend Mini Six, available as a free PDF download).

Hero Kids: I’ve featured this game at Hobby Games Recce before. It’s a roleplaying game experience tailored just for kids, not just as a game designed with them in mind, but where kids are the heroes within the setting itself. The core game costs only a few bucks on DriveThruRPG with a host of setting and adventure supplements available. The mechanics center on using six-sided dice, with basic character templates players can choose and start using right away. Although I’d love to introduce my own son to fantasy roleplaying through my favorite Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, Hero Kids provides a far more accessible, ready-to-play experience.

Risus: The Anything RPG: Perhaps the most concisely elegant roleplaying game, Risus employs some similar mechanics to OpenD6 – roll some six siders and beat a difficulty number or an opponent’s score – but relies not on skills but on clichés that help define the character and broadly (and sometimes creatively) express their expertise. Lose a contest against an opponent or otherwise “take damage,” lose a die in a cliché. Significant equipment can add bonus dice to certain rolls. Although it doesn’t come with a default setting, it’s easy enough to customize on the fly, especially given the character clichés can help define both the game’s setting and tone. At four pages long – including an entire page of options to further fine-tune the play style – it’s an easy read that will have you up and running quickly. It’s also available as a free PDF download at DriveThruRPG. The Cumberland Games & Diversions electronic storefront also includes other free resources to help run games, notably Toast of the Town (a Risus pulp-fantasy adventure) and The Big List of RPG Plots for inspiration in any roleplaying game.

As an aside I’d recommend solitaire adventures for two of these game systems as easy ways newcomers can explore roleplaying games on their own (or experienced gamers can give the systems a try to determine if they’re suitable). For the Star Wars/OpenD6 games one can download the free PDF version of Trapped in the Museum by yours truly, a brief pulp exploration of a museum after hours. (For a small price one can also try a longer, science-fiction solo adventure, The Asturia Incident.) Those looking to give Risus a try can download the medieval fantasy solo gamebook Ring of Thieves (complete with Risus rule inside).

Games we find easily accessible and quickly explained to newcomers are perfect for gatherings any time of the year. They can help us effectively share our enjoyment of the adventure gaming hobby and bring people back to the gaming table for more.

I'd rather be a failure at something I love
than a success at something I hate.”
George Burns

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