Monday, April 11, 2016

The Void and The Rubik's Cube: Playing RPG's with Mixed Skill Levels

Expect the unexpected; this is the law of game masters and character players. No one knows what devious plots the GM concocts, and the GM can't always predict how the players will react. I could probably start an entire blog based on DnD games gone horribly wrong, and I'm sure a few of you can, too. For now, let's focus on my first campaign ever and how the GM was able to maintain interest in a game where everyone was divided - in and out of character.

We had, for one year only, a Dungeons and Dragons club at my high school.It was ran by a fellow marching band member, who demonstrated the game and gave all of us pre-made character sheets. The members consisted of three kinds of people: kids who had played DnD before, kids who never played DnD but wanted to learn; and kids who never played DnD but joined the club because they were friends with the GM. Although I had a few buddies for the first club meeting, quite a few people dropped out.This left only me and my friend Mike who wanted to take the game seriously. Everyone else wanted to partake in the endless cycle of taverns and brawling: in anime terms, they wanted to play "Fairy Tail". I was starting to get pretty annoyed with the constant distractions but then our characters let a fairy out of a jar, who rewarded us with a deck of many things.

Now for anyone not familiar with popular DnD icons, I'd like to offer some friendly advice: DO NOT EVER TAKE CARDS FROM THE DECK OF MANY THINGS. Just don't. Or if you do it, know that you are gambling and may have to get a new character sheet ready. I didn't know this advice, and by the time I was offered to draw a card the club day ended. My GM wasn't keeping track of who picked what card, so when the next club day came about I accidentally picked out the same card as my friend Mike: THE VOID. Traditionally, people die when they get to the void, and traditionally cards disappear once selected. But this GM was teaching us the game and the value of improvisation. You essentially have two options when faced with the unexpected, 1) apply logic according to the rules, or 2) apply logic applying to the story. The rules would either have me draw another card or have both of our characters die. The story crafted by the GM was in part inspired by the characters he created. In the case of me and Mike, we were playing as Wraiths - undead beings. Why would we die in the void? The GM made the right call by going by his story's logic, because the following events would have never happened.

Once the GM realized two of the seven characters were missing from the initial plot, he turns to us trapped in the void and said, "Listen, you guys are in the void, the nothingness. You can escape by either fighting each other to death or until the rest of the party find you." The rest of the party were in deep conversation about whatever popular rumors were floating around school that week; we weren't going to depend on them. We told him we didn't want to fight, and then he came up with a wonderful, awful idea. "You can escape if you find a Rubik's cube, solve it and show it to me." Alright, we said, and then asked what we should roll to start looking for a Rubik's cube. "No. I want you to find a Rubik's cube. Solve it. And show it to me." Mike and I stared at each other, realizing that our GM just broke the fourth wall. At first, I was taken aback, why the heck would anyone at a tabletop game want to leave the table? Mike pointed out to me that we were, in fact, in a room that taught algebra and maybe, just maybe, the teacher had a Rubik's cube. By the power of Lady Luck, the teacher actually had a Rubik's cube in her desk!  Then it suddenly dawned on me: rules or stats didn't matter. I was having fun and still invested in the game; the only thing that changed was the platform. We grabbed a hall pass and sought out the one kid we knew could solve the puzzle.Time was running out for club day and the kid had switched clubs, but against all odds we found him and delivered the finished puzzle by the end of the day.

So how do you run a campaign with varying skill and varying interest? The GM accomplished this by balancing structure with free-form. He started us out with fixed characters, which he gave us the first day of club. He explained the stats and how to engage with the story by using those stats. But when it came to improvisation, the GM was creative and lenient. He didn't let the rules get in the way of good story telling, or overwhelm players with  unnecessary information. It's also important to note that the rest of the group got their taverns and brawl, and I understand why that happened. As players, the kind of game you want to play becomes the story you hear. There's no law that says you can't have a drama mixed with your drunken tavern fantasy. They knew what game they wanted, and the GM made it happen. And the Rubik's cube? That little bit of improv gave me the best advice I could ever use: just go with it. In any kind of RPG, your stats are only numbers on paper. To really enjoy your game, you need to go beyond the sheet and get into character. I'm fairly sure the GM didn't plan on it, but having me physically move helped me break out of my rule-centric mentality. Anyone planning on running a campaign for newcomers may want to keep this in mind.

As always, let me know if you have any questions or comments. Do you want to hear more about my DnD misadventures? Do you have a mixed skill group and want some more advice? Ask away, and as always, have fun playing!


  1. You know I always want to hear about D&D misadventures.

  2. Okay, so whats next? The Half Orc Party or Paranoia?