Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The greatest experience in Pen&Paper RPG

It is strange, but since the inception of Nerdstream, I never once wrote about roleplaying games. I don't know why exactly this is. For almost a decade, they were one of the central things in my life. As with so many people, the arrival of "real life" with its demands - job and family chief among them - put an end to RPG. I played quite a lot in my day, starting with table-top RPG, adding LARP to it. I think I'll talk about LARP in some later post. Today, I want to tell you about the absolute apogee of P&P-experience. Don't worry, I won't bore you with tales of my character. I also won't get into too many details about the campaign in stuff, because, quite frankly, no one but the people that were there are interested in this kind of stuff anyway. I want to talk about what made it great. It's a sad story, I'm afraid. 
Sad stories call for sensual lower lips.
When I started RPG in 2000, I was heavily influenced by games such as Diablo and the like. You know, slay monsters, loot, level up. The possibility to do that without a PC (remember, no internet and no network parties back then) was intriguing. That's how we started, "we" being basically everyone I could draft into service. It soon wasn't enough, and we had a steep learning courve, rewriting our characters into actual characters (yes, an elf with maxed out strength and a barbarian sword is silly, no matter how much damage you deal). And then, our first real roleplaying experience where characters genuinly involved in a short campaign that grapped us, not for its epic scale (it was quite low-fantasy and designed for beginner's charactes) but for the little things. NPCs you became friends with. Things you started to care about. A country you got a feeling for. Characters got motivations, background that would continue to drive their stories for years to come.

And then, it hit a brick wall. As is so often the case in P&P gaming, groups change. Players leave, new ones come in. With them, characters disappear and new ones join the group. Intricate relationships are suddenly ripped apart, vital parts of your character suddenly don't work anymore because the counterpart is missing. The stories become stupid again, because you can't fuel them with character motivations anymore. It goes on for months. Bad feelings come into the game. All the insecurities of puberty, all the stuff that is bad about being a teenager seeps in like a cancer growth and continues to pull the game on a meta-level, where characters in the game strife to make their players feel good. That's not roleplaying anymore. But it took a long time for us to notice that, and even longer to understand it. 
The most important lesson we took with us was that we needed a group that was stable and in which everyone could play with everyone. Our first succesful attempt broke apart when stupid highschool-type quarrels gained a life of their own and ripped the group in half. Two seperate groups continued simultaneously, and the effort to try to recreate the size of the old group failed miserably, as the new players didn't fit in. Luckily, we outgrew the petty teenageer differences and reunited. It turned out that we were incredibly lucky. Both groups had played in the same universe, same time and with their old characters, but different parts of the continous world that we played in. Remerging didn't create any inconsistencies we couldn't deal with. 

When our characters asked themselves why they had been apart for so long, they echoed a sentiment that could have been voiced by the players (but never was, we were too young for such back then). By then, we had embarked on what would be the greatest experience in P&P-gaming: a larger-than-life campaign over more than two decades of in-game time (and, as it turned out, a half-decade in real time) in which the characters would develop into heroes that held the fate of the world in their hands. Yadda, yadda, you know the drill. I guess every P&P has some such.
Donnu where they get that.
Anyway, we wanted to play this campaign basically from the start. For me as a gamemaster, it had always been the ultimate goal, but with the continous break-ups, it had seemed for a long while like it would get out of reach forever. The patchwork groups we tried to build were unable to play on that scale. By then, we had really understood what had so often frustrated us about P&P: it's not about winning. You read this in every sourcebook and online compendium, of course, but really overcoming it is hard. You don't believe how hard. It's a major feat into itself to get the players not to compete against each other, but to knock out any competition between the gamemaster and the players is a different beast entirely. I can't pin down when it happened. I know, however, that few groups ever achieve it. I know that this sounds arrogant and elitist, but bear with me. 

I won't claim that we found a secret recipe or that I possess some unearthly skill that allowed us to achieve this. In fact, we simply were really lucky, because we achieved a thing that few do: we built a group in which the chemistry between all the players and GM was right, were the chemistry between the characters was right and that was stable over nearly four years. And with stable I mean meeting once a week to play for a day. That kind of stable. Most groups never achieve this, simply for real-life-reasons. We got lucky to hit the jackpot at the right point in our lives. Never before or after could we have succeeded with this. I will come back to this, it is what makes this a sad story. 
We talk when I return.
We played and played and played. The characters became kind of second identities. Not that we ever tried to use them outside the weekly play session, like in the parental nightmare scenarios of children losing control over their fantasies. But when we sat around the table, we would delve into their skins and their world quickly. Keeping focus like that is also difficult, and it was only possible for us because we saw each other so often anyway that there was nothing important to discuss at session. 

The campaign developed. I had shared the GM burden with my closest friend. He was gamemaster for about a third of the way, I wager, and when he returned to his character and mine said goodbye to the others, it was a farewell forever. We all knew two things. First, at the end of the campaign, the characters would be dead. This had been clear from the start. You don't do stuff like that and walk away from it. Everyone knew it from the start and prepared for it for years. Second, after we completed the campaign, playing with this system, playing in this world, would be over. The campaign was the ultimate achievement one could have in it (and it is advertized as such), and besides, we knew that real life would catch up with us. The end of university drew near for some of us, with semesters overseas and stuff like that. We were on borrowed time, and I had the unpleasant task to make the logistic of it work. We had to be finished at 01/02/2008. We concluded the campaign on 12/30/2007. It was planned months ago in advance. 
Without something like this.
When you invest so much time in something like this, you breath and live it in some way. Opening a source book is like coming home. You know the feeling, I guess. I have it today whenever I open "A Song of Ice and Fire". I seldom open the source books anymore. It feels sad and pointless at the same time. 

I spoke of eliminating the competition element before. It was crucial to the roleplaying success we had in the group. Whenever I spoke to other people who gamemastered the same campaign (and there are some, it's quite popular), they were shocked by the amount of stuff I threw at my players. They had artifacts that were considered absolutely gamebreaking. But we had a level of trust within the group, a level of mutual understanding about what we were here to achieve, that it was never a problem. I have to tell you some of the examples of this, so that you know what I mean. 

The rules for magic in this world are quite complex (several hundred pages) full of exceptions and special stuff you can do. There is no way that anything of this is balanced, and much of it could be devestating to any challenge the GM set up. I never really knew the magic rules. Whenever the players wanted to do something, I let them determine how it worked. And this worked, simply because they were not interested in succeeding for the sake of it. They knew that there would be no disadvantages to them that would hinder their ability to play their characters. And I knew that they would never, ever, abuse this power to gain advantages in the game. 
It's called Needle. No special powers, but emotional connection.
Another example involves a ridiculously strong magic sword that one of their characters got from some dragon as old as time (yadda yadda). Besides dealing devestating damage, it also cut through metal and stone. Normally, you would render any encounter with this character meaningless henceforth since what exactly can stand against that shit? You have to engage in an arms race with the characters, and that never ends well (believe me, we were there and did that). But I could rely on the player to never abuse the power. In fact, he used the sword once before the final battle against the forces of evil (in which he fell and the sword conveniently vanished), and there only to disarm someone hellbent on dueling to the death in order to allow her to escape with her honor intact. He knew that this sword was something that defined the character ("Keeper of Teclador's Claw") instead of something that he would use all the time to show off. 

Events and items got meaning this way. We played together, developed the story together. The players understood what was required of them. They never went the other way just to see what the GM would do, and the GM would never insult them by putting on arbitrary obstacles or humiliating them. That is not to be confused with easy-going for the characters. They suffered, and they suffered mightily, and they were defeated more than once. But the players didn't suffer. They enjoyed the story, the mood, the ambience, and they liked to play it. To do all that is incredibly difficult. We failed with our groups every time we tried it. Every time, except in this group, in this campaign.
When we finally jumped into our final two days in December 2007, scheduled right before year's end, the only thing left to do was to face the mighty ├╝ber-evil that they had fought the last years, both in real life and in their character's lives. A sense of melancholy was pervasive, both for the characters (who also knew that they were like to die) as with the players. It was the ultimate battle, the most epic event that ever was and will be in this world, but after that, it would be over. I had written personal texts for the end of each character, about the afterworlds they were to enter, had interviewed the players before about their secret wishes and desires. The campaign and its end was all that it should be. 

And then it was over. We went in hiatus for a time, about half a year, before we reassembled, short one player that was overseas now. We tried different systems, since after this campaign, we could impossibly return to this world as mere level 1 characters. But the magic never came back. After a few sessions, we gave up and went into hiatus once again. It took years to come together again, try the world we had played in and loved for so long. It worked, in a way. You could see the seed for something like the old greatness again, if you looked hard. But it was a seed that would never grow. 

We tried to meet every month, but that was too ambitious. Even two months were not doable. New jobs and family obligations made it almost impossible, and when we met, we were often interrupted by intrusions from outside. It's over a year now that we played the last time. We often talk about that we should meet again and play, but somehow, it never comes to pass. We left some of that magic when we concluded that campaign. When I open the source books today, or even the campaign books themselves, memories come rushing back. It's like opening a family album. It has been with us for so long. We had the greatest experience you can get in P&P. We are lucky we had it. But it's a thing of the past, now. 

Although, of course, we might meet again when we are pensioners and the kids are out of the house. Will we dust off old books, grey haired and wrinkled? Somehow, it's a nice thought. I think I will hold onto it.


  1. great story and a bit jealous of the great experience you had playing!

    might you share, which campaign and system you played?

  2. I kept that information out of the article on purpose, because I didn't want to fall into the "Don't tell me about your character"-trap. What I wanted to convey in the article was on the one hand telling this personal story (what I don't do often, but is unavoidable on the subject) and on the other hand to try to analyze the reasons for roleplaying success, which is something that bothers me for quite a while now. Why do so many roleplaying groups, sessions and events (including the majority I took part in) fail?

    That being out of the way, people who know the system and the campaign immediately know what I'm talking about, judging from that reaction on Twitter ( The roleplaying system is almost exclusively German, but reigning surpreme before even D&D here. You can check out its Wikipedia-article. The campaign is called the "Borbarad-campaign", after the name of its main antagonist (careful not to use "villain" here ^^), but it does not have an English wikipedia entry.

  3. thx, I grew up playing "Das Schwarze Auge", probably a few years earlier than you. but we had a great time, meeting in our "Mehrzweckraum" in school in the afternoon whenever possible, but we only played one adventure after the other, and stopped at the end of 11th grade, as we all had differnt courses then...

  4. Wow, I've never played P&P RPGs, but this mkes me want to try them (if I just had the time...). Great story.

  5. Thanks. You need really much time, and people you trust with equally much time. Hard to come by.

  6. Hate to break that to you, sweetheart, but I know quite a lot of people holding a job and having families w/kids who still do P&P gaming.
    As long as we're not talking three-times-a-week, 12-hours-straight, coke-and-potato-chips-sustained hardcore gaming, P&P roleplaying and having a "real life" aren't mutually exclusive.

    1. Oh, I know. We roleplayed sometimes. But it didn't work out for us, unfortunately. Perhaps I could squeeze in roleplaying now and then, but as I wrote, the contuinity is the important thing, and we are not able to hold that one up.

    2. Pettiness aside, though, the rest of your entry was great. Heartbreaking, even.
      For me, roleplaying was always a way to meet, and connect with, people I have things (hobbies, intersts, general nerdery) in common with and thus make great friends. That often worked well - after all, I met the love of my life that way, right? - but it has a few pitfalls.
      The closer-knit (is that a real English word?) a group gets, the more the possibility arises for soap-opera-ish intrigue and conflicts, and sometimes this can poison the whole gaming experience, or worse, the whole friendship for everyone involved. I've witnessed that recently with a friend who relocated to his hometown after graduation and tried to "reanimate" a group with old school-friends. Went on to find out that apart from gaming they really have nothing in common anymore, and even that didn't go so well. It was heart-breaking to see him struggle to give his friends a good time (as GM), while they didn't appreciate his attempts one bit.

      BTW, have I ever linked you to this webcomic:

      It's ragingly hilarious, very "nerdstream", and has quite a bit to say about the clashing of characters/players and gaming/real life. Read it :)

    3. Thanks. We had our own share of really ugly fights within the group, which is what I glossed over and euphimized with the puberty stuff in the article. Didn't want to get the personal experience stuff in the way of the message.