Passing the Torch
A man's character is his fate.
Heraclitus (540 BC - 480 BC), "On the Universe"
When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons out of a blue paper box back in 1980 there were no grownups paying attention at all except for the ones who thought we were going straight to the devil. The rest didn't really get into it as long as we didn't spill soda on the carpet. We had to explain to my best friend's mom what we were doing carefully arranging little metal robots and stretching a knotted string between them on her lazy susan once, but for the most part grown-ups were there to provide pizza and yell at us to keep it down. There was no accumulated fund of knowledge out there we could tap into. We had to just sort of make it up as we went along.
And boy did we. Our exploits could fill a library on the scale of Gondor's. We played Dungeons & Dragons (1ed), Battletech and Champions all through high school, college, and on into our adult lives. We dabbled in many other systems along the way: Star Wars, Vampire: the Masquerade, Palladium, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Car Wars, Paranoia, and Twilight 2000 to name a few.
But time marches on and we have become the grown-ups. Even if we've put our books aside for the most part, they still seem to have pride of place and everyone seems to just know that you used to play. The next generation is discovering our old pastime for themselves and is looking to us for guidance. My kids were led astray by a friend whose parents bought him the 3rd edition D&D books for his birthday the year they came out. As they've grown I've GM'd Champions and D&D for them. None of them turned out to be heinous nerds, and I think I learned as much as they did. They learned that I truly am as huge a geek as they suspected I was. And I got to dust off my d20's and hand down some of that hard-earned knowledge, like:
General Group Dynamics
A good pen-and-paper gaming group is a finely tuned machine or it's the funnest disaster you've ever had in your life. And even though you are all odd enough to be sitting around a card table in someone's basement on a Friday night, certain truisms of the normal human condition can be observed.
- There will always be at least one guy who will continuously be looking for chances to meet girls in-game. Even if there are real girls present and he hasn't spoken a word to any of them in three weeks.
- Any under-21 group member is on the lookout for a tavern. If they're all under 21, they're on the lookout 24/7. Even in the deepest, dankest wastelands of post-apocalyptic Utah.
- The only female character in the group will be played by the one guy you are dead certain is still a virgin. With all that that implies.
- The female player will often play the biggest, burliest barbarian fighter anyone has ever seen. With all that that implies.
- The pimpliest, stammering twerp in the group will have the highest charisma.
- The thickest jock will have the highest intelligence.
- The bard will be played by someone whose voice is cracking, and who cannot carry a tune in a bucket. Even one with a tight-fitting lid.
Mapping the stereotypical character types to modern-day sensibilities is always a challenge no matter which game-system you're using.
- The fighter's alignment is not Massive Agressive.
- The paladin's alignment is not Lawful Anal.
- "Hotness" is not a multi-power. Neither is "Coolness." Yes, I know you think the guy who played Superman is totally smokin' hot, but that's not his super power.
- No, you don't get Detect Traps with your Hammer skill. "A hammer is just a really heavy lock pick," is not the Fifth Commandment in Dwarven.
- Your bard does not have Ebonics as a language skill, nor does he have anything in his pocket to indicate he is happy to see you. Fine, you can do medieval rap. But you have to put your helmet on sideways and wear that over-sized mail outfit drooping around your knees. Yeah. Just like that. The tavern chicks totally dig it, and you'll do great in the next dungeon with those pluses to encumbrance and minuses to your spot hidden and listen rolls.
- There is no mathematical system in the world where 270-340=65. Nice try. Take your shoes off and add it up again.
Staying in Character
Each group somehow ends up carrying in the same stereotypes from somewhere. Elves and dwarves don't seem to get along. And everyone tries to use the Halflings for some sort of ordinance or dragon bait. It can make for some interesting by-play, or it can drive you right up the wall if you're not careful.
- Halflings do not taste like chicken. Neither do Ewoks. You might, though. What say we let that Rancor find out for us?
- The next person to step on the fighter's foot in hopes his armor's chest plate will pop open so they can put their trash in gets eaten by a grue.
- Rogues don't do THAT from behind. At least not in this neighborhood.
- The Paladin is not to be referred to as "The Portable A$$hole, by Ronco" just because he wouldn't let you steal from that NPC.
- A lawful neutral character isn't "born to break the rules". Follow your alignment, or I will change your character's class to "Dwarven Mine Detector".
- I know you're playing an elf but no, you may not re-write your character sheet in Tengwar. I don't care if it's Quenya or Sindarin. Interesting. You just wrote down I have tight pants. No, I don't know how to write the word donkey.
- No, your character does not have "gaydar" as a skill, and even if you did it wouldn't automatically detect elves.
- Dwarves are not good storm anchors because they can grip the bottom with their toes.
- Look, if you two don't quit it the next session is going to be GURPS Nancy Drew: The Secret of Pony Ranch.
Get this many geeks in a room you're going to get copious amounts of reference. A true dyed-in-the-wool geek can have entire conversations that consist of very little but references to pop culture. There is a saying around Microsoft all the old hands know. "Every conversation in the place will end up including a reference to one of five things: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Monty Python, or a computer game." From my experience, they aren't too far off.
It works like this -- someone starts off by using a euphemism from Monty Python to describe something, and then someone else answers with another one, and then the whole thing devolves into a quote-fest, usually relying only on the other person's knowledge of the quote to acknowledge that these things are from someone else's work. You can start off talking about N-tier server architecture and before you know it you are discussing "tracts of land". Sorta like that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Captain Picard has to find a way to communicate with a race no one else has managed to before because their entire language is references to stories. (Yeah. Like that.)
Since you're starting off in a geeky realm like D&D you're already over the edge of the cliff. Just about every session can turn into a quote-fest. Here are a few ground rules you might want to set up in advance.
- The Mountain Dew is in the fridge. The Cheetos are on the kitchen counter right next to it. Duh.
- Your Bard character is not a lumberjack, and he is not okay. EVER.
- Your character is not French, socialist, or burning anything. He cannot knowledgably discuss aerodynamics, ordinance (blessed, fruity, or furry), or the Uniform Building Code for castles in swampland.
- Unless it's metal, it ain't "shiny." And you may not shout what sounds like Mandarin Dinner #2 from the Chinese takeout menu every time you get mad.
- You do not have any wrath, squirrelly or otherwise.
- Your character does not rhyme incessantly, speak with an unholy amalgam of a Spanish and Jewish accent, or laugh maniacally for no reason. Masks may be comfortable, but you do take a minus to your perception rolls so I don't think everyone is going to be wearing them. Quit it, or it is very conceivable I will kill you.
- Oh, and if you shout "Believe it!" one more time I'm gonna Blue Bolt you. Believe it.
(with apologies to my gaming groups, my kid's gaming group, and any other external wisdom I'm accidentally channeling from my brain full of geeky detritus)