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Reefcon 06: Dissecting Experience, Defining Tastes

So what can I learn from my experiences at Reefcon 2006?

Overall, the Reefcon experience reminded me personally of a suggestion that circulates through RPG forums every now and again, that RPGs are often “twenty minutes of fun packed into four hours” (that the original quote was regarding D&D makes it doubly applicable here). Do they have to be? No, but a fair few factors work against the "traditional" RPG on that score.

My personal opinion of the Version 3.x incarnations of the Dungeons & Dragons rules is that they work best when "roleplaying", as it were, takes a back-seat to tactical chalenge. It's at its most fun when all of those feats, spells and pieces of equipment Swing Into Action – will holding until he moves closer and then Cleaving equal oh my God, did you see how much damage I just dealt? Now, don't get me wrong; character and what's traditionally considered roleplay are and should be still present; they make imagining the world of the game and the characters in it easier and more interesting. But that tactical crunch is and should be front and centre, because that's where you find D&D's maximum fun. If D&D is the game, then skills, feats, spells, equipment and hit points are the toys.

The problem is that a lot of roleplaying texts (including the Dungeon Master's Guide) try to make you feel guilty for playing with the toys, even as they shove the dice, the character sheets, the classes, the feats, the spells, the miniatures, the battlemaps, the 5-foot steps and attacks of opportunity down your throat. The result is often this odd mish-mash of tactical elements, pre-scripted event plotting and restrained, uncertain play, a shining example of that twenty minutes per four hours ratio of fun.

Looking back at that second session on Saturday, everyone else at the table (except the half-orc player) was a little more used to this type of play than myself. Still, while they didn’t seem quite as bored at times, I never got the impression that any of them was having any particular fun (that could simply have been a bad module as Wes was claiming). I recollect a tendency to discuss the D&D rules in general – not so much rules arguments as comments on classes, feats, spells and rules. For example, I distinctly remember Wes ending a brief discussion of the Bard class with a comment that the Bard class sucked at lower levels but rocked at high ones. It still could’ve been saved until an after-session post-mortem.

Also, I think that I had perhaps set my expectations a bit too high for the second module. The while “abandoned ancient civilisations in the midst of the jungle” vibe I get from the continent of Xen’drik coupled with the whole post-war, magitech pulp feel of the Eberron setting as a whole had me thinking, “The Dashing Love-Child of D&D And Indiana Jones.” Heck, if I were ever to run a D&D game, I'd probably set it in Xen'drik. I couldn't help but be disappointed with the generic find-and-fetch, "could be set anywhere" nature of that module.

But shifting the blame back to D&D itself for a bit: a problem with the Reefcon games, and with D&D in general, is that playing level 1 characters sucks. Although it might still look as though you have some tactical variety (sling? bow? magic missile?) they all tend to be rather samey (sling? bow? magic missile?). It's only when your character gets to later levels and you have a spread of options before you that a session can start to cook; in the meantime the DM has to design adventures with kid gloves, just so the PCs don't get put out of the game within the first round of combat.

So what does that mean for what I want to do in the next game I run? Well, it's reinforced my interest in becoimg a "bassist" game master, who mainly makes sure the pace of the game cooks along and throws well-designed bangs at the players when things slow down, instead of a game master who plots each adventure out beforehand and does his best to move the players to where he thinks the good spots ought to be. It's also given me a better appreciation for what D&D can do, and a willingness to maybe try it out sometime.

But I still want to give The Shadow of Yesterday a good whirl first. Right the way through that torturous Friday night session, I was wishing we'd been playing TSoY instead...

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