Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Avoiding RPG Burnout (Is it possible)

Are RPG's Transactional In Nature? I mean, is the point that the Game Master and the Players are exchanging services in order to "get something" out of the experience? Maybe that's not the right question. Role-playing is supposed to be a shared experience where everyone at the table is having fun. Believe it or not, this isn't always the case, especially for the GM.

As a GM it's a blast to create something and then watch as the players "live" inside that creation. It's fun to react to what the players do. It's fun to improvise narrative responses to unexpected actions. It's fun to watch an idea take on an entirely different form than the one that you had imagined inside your head. It's all fun. Well, it's almost all fun.

I posted previously that I was tired of "fighting" in role-playing games. Not, player bickering. I don't mean that. (Although, I've certainly seen my share.) I am referring to the combat mechanisms and processes that are prevalent in most RPG's. These have overstayed their welcome, for me. 

I want to take a closer look at this. Combat in games can be fun. But, I will admit that it's almost always more fun from the player's perspective. (Meaning, I have more fun as a player engaged in a combat than as a GM engaged in a combat. YMMV.) At lower levels, at the beginning of a new game with new characters, the combats are rarely a problem. It's later that things get cumbersome. That's a good word … cumbersome. As players gain in power and utility the amount of bookkeeping required from the GM increases exponentially and this game changes from fun to work. 

On the player side of things, the opposite happens. As you gain more power and utility as a player, the game becomes more and more fun. Or, so it seems. This is where RPG's become transactional. At this point the GM isn't really playing for fun, but rather out of some sense of obligation to the players and to the campaign. (This might actually be an example of a codependent relationship.) At this point the GM is working for the players. And, yeah there are actually people out in the world who get paid to be a professional GM. I don't ever want to go there. This is supposed to be a hobby. It's supposed to be fun. This isn't supposed to be a job.

This is not a new problem, and there are RPG's out there that are trying to address this in their own way. The RPG, "Shadow Dark" by Arcane Library is based on 5th Edition D&D, but it has taken strides to smooth out the player character power curve, allowing characters to advance, but not so much. Is character advancement and power creep the problem? Maybe? But, look at 13th Age.

I only mention 13th Age because it remains my favorite D20 based RPG. One of the things that I love about 13th Age is that the characters feel so powerful and epic. You can tell really big stories with 13th Age and they've always been fun. I don't think that I have ever experienced burnout with 13th Age. In fact if anything, the opposite has occurred. I think it was maybe the players who burned out because they had too much to keep track of. The same thing happened with the 4th Edition of D&D. How did that happen?

In both 13th Age and 4th Edition D&D (13th Age is actually based on 4th Edition D&D) a great amount of effort has gone into streamlining the combat experience for the GM. In these games, the GM and the players aren't really playing by the same rules. The players get all the crunch that they want, and the GM gets shortcuts (This is why I often use 4th Edition monster rules no matter what version of D&D I am playing.) and it works, until the players burn out. Is that what has to happen? Do games just go until one side or the other burns out? Maybe? I have heard stories about D&D games that go for decades. My hat is off to those GM's. I don't want to play the same game for decades, but it would be nice to enjoy a game for just as long as my players do.

I have this superhero RPG called, Supercrew. It's an awesome little game presented in a comic book format and it's "designed" for one-shots. The author says that Supercrew is designed for one-shots, I suppose, because the game has no method for character advancement. Nor do the rules really support one. I have considered trying to houserule this, but have decided that that would be a bad idea. The rules of Supercrew are perfect as written. A big part of this is because they don't try to leave room for character expansion. Because they are self contained, they can be balanced and never have to worry about breaking. (If you don't own Supercrew, you should. It's awesome!)

So, could I run something more than a one-shot with Supercrew? Can we ignore character advancement and just play for fun? Are the players expecting to be paid for their time in experience points and levels? Isn't experiencing and telling a shared story from game to game enough? Characters grow through the course of the narrative. They gain memories, contacts, friends, enemies, possessions, etc. Isn't this enough? Why do the numbers, and the dice, and the complexity have to grow? As players inflate these things, the GM must do the same. A player's chance for success or failure doesn't really change. These games are a Cold War of escalation where nothing ever really gets better, just more complicated.

In 13th Age and 4th Edition D&D players start out feeling pretty powerful. I could just play a game to level 3 and stop. The problem is, we aren't generally "done" with those characters yet at that point. Maybe slowing down player character progression is the answer. I'm not really interested in the approach to storytelling that Shadowdark takes. (It's all about the dungeon crawl.) But, I am interested in the changes that it has made to the way 5th Edition D&D levels its characters, and I will be following the game as people continue to play it, to see how it holds up.

It's crazy. D&D turns 50 this year. The RPG hobby is 50 years old, and we are still talking about the same problems. I suppose that ultimately, this is an economic issue. Player options sell products. These options tend to run out of control and create power creep. D&D and every other commercial RPG is produced and presented to the public in order to make money. Books full of player options make money. Therefore, power creep makes money. 

Perhaps it's more correct to say that greed (or you know, just the need to put food on the table) means that publishers must produce books full of player options for their games. It doesn't take long before too many of these options warp the game. But, even the core game suffers because it's skeletal framework has to be designed with the eventual addition of countless new rules and options in mind.

Will games like Shadowdark, that turn away from this model, sell well enough to make a difference? It's been 50 years and we haven't gotten there yet. Time will tell. Maybe we're chasing a white whale?

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