Monday, 22 June 2015

Free RPG Day (And Some 5th Ed D&D Thoughts)

Saturday was Free RPG Day, an annual event in which special product is given away free at a variety of RPG stores.  These freebies weren't inventory-clearing back catalogue items but specially designed and are predominantly quick-play scenarios, often with basic rules included so newbies can get started straight away.  There are also sometimes other little oddities like dice, cards or what have you.

Inevitably the product ties into games which are either current or upcoming - it's not uncommon for the quick-starts to be preview for games expected to launch in the next couple of months.  Unfortuantely for the last few years Dungeons and Dragons has not participated officially - Wizards mostly run their own events these days rather than join in the general purpose gaming ones - and with a lack of any hugely exciting new games launching lately it hasn't felt quite as big a deal to me as it was a few years ago when it was a "get to store as quickly as possible" kind of event to get the preview of the new Changeling/Paranoia/Warhammer 40,000 systems.

Just next to the Clydesdale bank where Games Workshop used to be.  But you knew that already.

Still, I came along to a local shop this year because they weren't just giving away free product but also hosting an open GM space.  Geek-aboo, more a geek clothing and accessory shop but with a small RPG section, set aside a few tables and asked for GMs to turn up to run some bits and pieces.  Anyone could run what they want, though of course they'd prefer you use the quick-starts since they ordered the things in especially!

I answered this call, because if there's one thing RPGs lack it's public events to entice newbies in.  RPGs can be a tough thing to get into unless you have an experienced person to show you the ropes - the classic D&D beginner boxes in toy shops are a thing of a past and while they helped get me into the hobby these days there's nothing really like that.  If you aren't already visiting your Statics, Dragon & Georges or whatever you're unlikely to bump into the hobby and without a university gaming society you'd struggle to assemble a group of like-minded friends.

This is a real book.  It has several sequels

Running a game for beginners and at Free RPG Day in a shop was an interesting mental hurdle.  I own over a hundred different RPGs but not just any of them would do.

  • I needed something with simple rules and no indie weirdness - Fiasco is great, but GM-less games might be a bit scary for a newbie.  
  • I needed a simple to explain premise - Paranoia might be popular with nerds but can you explain the key elements in a thirty second elevator pitch?  
  • I needed something where I had a good pre-gen adventure and characters on standby - I couldn't squeeze the hours to make a whole new bunch of Pendragon characters.  
  • I needed something that suited the tone of a public game in a nerd shop in the afternoon - Dread is very atmospheric but so much in that situation.  
  • I wanted to help the store sell RPG product so I needed to pick something I owned in print and which they could sell in print - Ghostbusters International is one of my favourite games but what use is it to the store if I sell people on a game last printed before Tony Blair was Prime Minister?
Therefore I brought Kobolds Ate My Baby and Doctor Who with me.  

The former is an easy pickup game, with minimal rules and a bare bones premise of "you are crap monsters trying to capture human babies and failing miserably".  I also knew there'd be a Kobolds quickstart, "Youz Iz Kobolds", amongst the Free RPG Day product so I would have an adventure available and a handy full-colour corebook to sell players on. 

I mainly turned up for this

As for the latter, Doctor Who is an easy sell to most British people being almost viewed more as a family than a sci-fi program and I have a few adventures and pre-gens I could pull out the archive.  The rules are fairly simple, so the quick opening blurb wouldn't be tough.

I made a wad of pre-gens based on characters from Doctor Who comics/novels/audio dramas - here is Anji Kapoor, one of the Eighth Doctor's novel companions.

In the end, the turnout at Geek-aboo was about a dozen to twenty people over the course of the day.  I didn't get to run anything - when I arrived at 11:30 they had already got one group started and a second split off fairly quickly.  I played in a D&D 5th Edition game run by a volunteer while a staff member ran Valiant, a superhero game I hadn't heard of based on a minor comic line.  At about 15:00 our game wrapped up and I left, at which point Pathfinder and Shadowrun games were starting up.  All the games used the free modules - the D&D one being a third party offering - but the players seemed to be less "newbies" and more "people who had RPGed at least a little already".

Some of the atendees playing Shadowrun - the chap in the grey T-shirt with white writing on it also ran the D&D game I played in.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a copy of Youz Iz Kobolds.  Free RPG Day gives differing amounts of each product to each venue so while there were loads of Pathfinder modules or Shadowrun quick-starts, there were hardly any Kobolds books.  There only seemed to be one at Geek-aboo, and as someone else picked it up it seemed there was no nice way to scream GODDAMNIT I LIKED THIS SHIT WHEN IT WAS UNDERGROUND so I decided to keep that petty, selfish thought to myself.  :-)

Actually, that's only the 3rd edition in the foreground - there were two other editions before that.

I still got a lot of product, though, so I can't complain too much!  I skipped most of the generic fantasy stuff but I blagged quick starts for a few games, including a cool double-sided document which was both Battletech and Shadowrun.  I did get the Pathfinder adventure because it was delightfully bonkers, a game in which you play Goblins who must defend their tribe.  On a more general gamer note, there were Munchkin bookmarks that did things if you pulled them out in the middle of a Munchkin game.

My freebies
 You'll see a pencil down the bottom: this isn't a random item, but was in fact part of the giveaway.  Everyone who attended got a "Free RPG Day" pencil marked as an "Implement of Scribbling +1".  I think this is my favourite freebie of the day, truth be told!

A Torchic gives it blue steel

As for my actual experience playing: The D&D 5th ed game was a bit of an odd one for me.  Of all the things I turned up to do, take part in a fairly generic fantasy dungeon-crawl (well, forest bramble-crawl) was low on the list.  I hadn't really tried or even read much of 5th Edition, though, so I figured it was only fair to give it a go.  The scenario used 12th level characters and samples were provided, which was interesting because they proved fairly simple to pick up and play.  (But not possible without the core books, whereas the Shadowrun, Kobolds, Valiant and other non-D&D-dervied games came with basic rules)  We didn't see the Wizard or Cleric in play and they would have been the more complex ones, so my complexity impression isn't complete, but it did seem easier than a 3rd Ed game at that level would be.

While I did like the Advnatage/Disadvantage system (roll two D20s and use the highest/lowest) over the many individual mods of 3rd and 4th edition, I found myself a little cool to the whole thing.  5th Ed feels slightly….. Pointless to me, if I'm going to be honest.  That sounds harsh, I realize, and I want to stress the game didn’t seem bad so much as lacking in a clear Unique Selling Point.

Third Ed and Fourth Ed were big changes on what came before them and, like them or not, they allow you to do different things you couldn't do before -3rd Ed with its unified engine, easy multi-classing and standardised rules across campaign settings and 4th Ed with its laser-focus on exciting miniature combat and balanced classes that all contribute equally at all levels. They have a Unique Selling Point, one that’s apparent pretty quickly.

One of the few occasions I would use a management-bullshit-speak diagram

5th Ed was the attempt after the divisive 4th Ed to make a more traditional D&D edition, an intentional "rosetta stone" to appeal to players of all editions.  Obviously I only played a sample of the game and did not read the core books - and as Raj pointed out to me when I spoke to him about this, my interpretation must be tempered with the knowledge I am not a typical player or even GM considering how many different games I own and have ran.  Like a film critic who savages a blockbuster I must acknowledge not everyone watches film like Mark Kermode does!

Still, the end result of 5th Ed was that at no point did it jump out at me and tell me why I'd pick it over 3rd Ed, Pathfinder or 4th Edition.  Considering how the game eschews the radical changes of 4th to go back to the 3rd Ed base style of thinking, I must assume those players who stuck with 3.X/Pathfinder and not 4th Ed are the target of this edition.  However, I don't see what's in this game that will make them drop their books and jump ship bar being "new", which can only get you so far - especially when the support line isn't especially large.  A big part of people using Pathfinder was a fair amount of cross-compatability with their old 3.X books and the steady stream of open-source material and for those people I'm not sure if any new system could ever appeal.

I got Boss Monster 2 at Geek-aboo, as they had it in for 10% off on Free RPG Day.  I played twice; Sister Superior crushed me both times.
Regardless of that, though, it was still good to play 5th Ed and I was still glad that Geek-aboo put the event on.  They were very thoughtful in their setup - they provided not just tables and the quickstarts but dice, pencils, paper and even some biscuits and chocolatey nibbles to keep the gamers going.  Unfortunately not everyone in our group could stay for the full time period - four hours out of someone's day is a big ask - but they certainly tried to make people feel welcome and make sure that gaming could happen.

I'm pondering if I should go along to their tabletop events in the future and try to play something with the randoms that turn up there - I think it's more a card-game or board-game gathering, but maybe there's be someone worth converting to the RPG way of life?

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