You never run out of white whales. It’s a fact in life. As a chaser of whales, I’m not confident in saying you’ll never catch them, because that’s something I literally cannot believe about this metaphor. I am incapable of that. And now we make a hard pivot to talk about gaming.
There are some gaming whales that I’ve been chasing for a while. We might talk about those later, but for new, we need to talk about the new whale in my sights. A greek whale.
Theros is Moot
Last week, I did some commenting on Theros as I flipped through my digital copy. I told a group of mine that it was probably going to be our world for a new game, and I got a, well, mediocre response. That weighed on me as I started my preparations and as I studied, I found Theros to be lacking. (I may have mentioned some of these in that thing I linked.
First, there was the map, which in my Non-cartographer opinion, was speaking in monotone and not singing to me. This would take some work, but once fixed, very useful to have.
Second, on a party level, it was going to be tricky to balance (story wise) all the things people *could* be and write stories that allowed creative freedom while ensuring servants of various gods could co-work. This is fixable with a good Session Zero
Third, I’m still not sure how to run a Long game with Theros. What can you sow for 10 levels later that the gods won’t deal with? It’s a more advanced form of campaign anxiety, but it’s deal-able. And studies have shown that players can’t actually taste the plot, and have no idea what’s foreshadowing and what’s not. I know physical copies of the book have more pictures, which might help the old idea engine.
Finally, Fourth, for the campaign to meet *my* desired standards, I would need people knowledgeable and excited to play some greek heroes. But looking at my players, none of them feel that burn to emulate such a caricature. (Well, Jordan might, but only because there are lion-people.)
I feel I should clarify, I don’t fault this play group for that. In fact, as I am probably linking this article to them as part explanation as to why we’re not doing Theros, I should smile and wave at them, and say that I don’t expect anyone would really be able to live up to that expectation. And if I ever want to run Theros, I’ll need to drop my standards a bit. Not everyone, or every game, should be expected to run at that level of focus. Sometimes, people just want to play a game, without worrying about silly things like properly honoring the gods and dealing with honor and a bunch of that crap. (Even though I do)
But as I made that realization today, I realized it had to deal with different levels of commitment to the game. And my mind moved to another fictional world I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: Star Trek.
Where No player has gone before
On paper, Star Trek seems like it would be the perfect carrier for D&D activities. The ship leads you to the premise, which is fixable by a party of 3 to 7 VIPs, you see some cool stuff, you have some fights, and then move on. Like a murderhobo campaign, right?
Except it doesn’t work out like that. I’ve tried my hand at some Sci-Fi RPGs, and each time, they fell apart. Sometimes it was the system, sometime it was the setting, and sometimes, it was the framework. But that easy ride just never appeared to me. I learned useful things, but it makes me really eerie to run a SF game because of it.
What makes Star Wars different? Is Star Wars different? Yes and No. Some Star Wars is different. You want to play a team of Jedi and bounty hunters infiltrating some smuggler base? Not-Trek. You want to play as Han and Luke as they infiltrate the Death Star? Strangely, it feels like Trek to me. You want to run a ship of smugglers and soldiers for hire? Not-Trek. You want to play as stormtroopers on imperial missions? Trek, again.
Let’s try a different universe. You want to be a band of rodents in the Redwall universe? Not-Trek. You want to be that same band, actually at Redwall? Trek. Ride with Rohan? Not-Trek. Escort the Hobbits to Mordor? Trek?
Why does Galaxyquest feel like it would be a different game than Star Trek????
The answer involves a Vulcan. Voyager, Season 3, Episode 2. Flashback. Tuvok the Vulcan is relieving memories of serving with Captain Sulu (guest starring George Takei, because why not?). The ending of this episode is stupid, but there is a scene, when young Tuvok cites regulations to his Captain about following orders and he’s given a dressing down and I realized that this would be a scene that defines what makes the fiber of the Star Trek universe, that few players would ever be able to accomplish.
How focused would you have to be, to have your character object to a plan because it is against a fictional set of regulations? I mean, Murderhoboes, ignore big laws, like, well, murder and decent characters might complain about breaking that law. But to complain about flying into a nebula without whatever the thing was? That’s a crazy level of focus(Not gonna spoil it, the episode has only been out 24 years…)
And then my mind exploded as I started putting together what I am going to call the Buy-In Scale.
How much In have you Bought?
When I talk about games, it is not uncommon for me to mention “Buy-in.” I use this to mean how much a player is involved with the game. To use sportsball for a quick example, if the player hasn’t bought into a game, and doesn’t believe a victory will be rewarding, they’re not going to play their best. Conversely-wise, if the athlete has bought into the game, they’re going to want the team to win, or at least, they’ll want to play their best.
In a business example, when a Venture Capitalist buys into a company, she wants the company to succeed so she’ll get her money back. If the company starts to fail, Madame VC is going to do what she can to turn things around. If it continues to fail, she’ll cut her losses, try to make back as high of a percentage as she can, and look for a better company to invest in next time.
In game play terms, the more a player has bought into the game, the more they’ll participate. They’ll learn the rules, make a character, write a backstory, have off-line roleplay, invite people to the game, so many cool things when you have player buy-in. When you don’t have player buy-in, if they show up, they’ll show up late, and then they’re on their phone for the whole session, except for their turns.
Any of those descriptors sound familiar? I can tell you, reading a D&D blog when it is not required of you, shows that you have buy-in. To the game in general, if not a specific table. Although the levels of buy-in that you have don’t fluctuate that much. They do move around, but, AFAICT, it’s probably pretty steady? Changes in tone, genre, character spotlight, even how much sleep you got and when you last ate is going to change your buy-in for any given session, but doing homework, speaking in an accent for your character, these are things that, if it’s truly in your nature, are going to happen without you thinking about it, across the whole campaign.
Ranks of Buy- In
The word “rank” does not imply that some people are better than others, or ranks are better than others. Life happens, sometimes you don’t have the time or the attention span. There’s a lot of reasons why a person might have a lower rank than they’d desire, and there is no problem with that. The only problem is in assuming (and proclaiming ) a higher rank than you truly are. If you can’t make it to game night consistently, don’t tell me you’re good to play a Long Game.
Rank -4: Communicate
A gamer at this Rank has your contact information, and you have his. It could be a stranger at the Con or Gamestore, a friend of a friend of a friend on a Discord server, people in your school’s D&D club, whatever. This is a person that you can talk to and come to an accord: It’d be cool to game together. Anyone below this Rank is someone you can’t contact reliable
(RYAN IF YOU ARE READING THIS, PLZ CONTACT US!!)
Rank -3: Place
A gamer gets to this stage by being willing to meet with you at the game place. This game place might be digital, so they’re willing to hop online via whatever medium, they have the equipment, or a ride to the game store, or they have a permission slip that lets them stay after school. They are physically able to meet with you.
Some people need assistance here. I’ve given rides to people in my game groups before. I’d rather people play than not play, and some people need a helping hand with that. Or they need a compromise. Their software might be better, who’s to say?
Sometimes, though, a player can be suddenly thrown into this category because they have to move and nothing can really be done about that. Just raise a glass to the good times, and tearfully go and make more.
I once had a player at a game store I was at who physically could not stand the noise build up at the place. She only joined us there once.
Rank -2: Time
Sometimes, schedules just don’t work. Life happens and that sometimes causes changes to previously acceptable game nights. I once lost all 5 players in a single night and day of new semester misfortune. All of a sudden, we were no longer playing 7th Sea. I’ve also had a lot of single players in and out over the years. Life, as I have said, happens sometimes.
The other side of this is showing up on time. Life may happen, but if it’s happening on a consistent weekly basis, if it’s a joke at your table that you’re not late unless you arrive after a certain player, then maybe there are buy-in issues…
Rank -1: Mix of People
I have no personal experience with this, but according to things I’ve read, sometimes, players just don’t get along. Or don’t mix well. I can write a lot about my thoughts of Loud and Quiet players, Aspects of Fun, and a bunch of other characterizing definitions of players that help in creating useful definitions, but I won’t do that here. The more you know your players, the easier it is to make sure they can all play nice together.
If you’ve seen Gamers: Dorkness rising, there’s a scene that goes:
“I thought you were going to get another player?”
“There is nobody else. It seems our group has a reputation.”
“What did I tell you, you make one 8 year old girl cry, you never have to deal with them again!”
That’s part of what this rank is about.
Rank 0: In a Room Together
Look, if you’ve ever tried to schedule D&D, you know how hard it is to get everybody together, in the same place, and the same time, and to be civil with each other. We don’t even have to be playing a game. Sometimes, people watch for a bit before joining. THis is fine, and people who are there to hear the story probably have this buy-in.
What’s more, if you’re willing to watch a stream or VoD of people playing an RPG, this is probably the level of buy-in required for that.
Rank 1: Let’s play a game
We’ve gotten to the level of buy-in that has people consistently playing games! It might not be an RPG, or it might nor be a campaign, but you’re doing more than just sitting and talking!
There’s a lot of games out there that scratch all sorts of itches without the commitment the RPGs can have. I knew a guy who refused to play beyond this level. (I wonder if he’s done any Legacy style games since he’s said that…)
This is the Rank of one shots and trying a game out. I once played a LARP thing at a Con that didn’t understand at all their new player were at this Rank, and yet they were running their Rank 3+ game anyway, just with a bunch of noobs around.
Rank 2: The Long Game aka Commitment
Beyond just playing a simple, single, game, this is a commitment that most D&D players have in the dice bag! This level of RPG is not a beer and pretzels game. There’s a story, a campaign. There’s leveling and character progression and a growing world.
I would also say that this point and beyond is where outsiders start getting weirded out by RPGs. How can you play a game for four hours a week every week, say people who forget that there’s only like 3 weeks a year where the NFL isn’t big in the news. And sometimes the focus switches to baseball? Idk. Sports aren’t my thing. (Hence this blog, yeah?) But in addition to sports, this is the buy-in the soap operas get.
Rank 3: Game Tone and Realism
I had these separate, but smooshed them together. These have nothing (well, almost nothing) to do with the genre or the setting or the rules of the game. It’s how you play a character. Without this rank of buy-in, you just react to things. Your character is some numbers, game mechanics, maybe some story, but not much more. Here, things start getting deep.
Game Tone buy in means your character enhances or synergies with the tone. Looking at Marvel, Deadpool has a different tone than the rest of that universe. Looking at DC, their current cinematic universe is never going to feature Mxyzptlk (which I had to look up the spelling, to my shame…). In fact, there are some animated series in DC where he wouldn’t fit, and some where he would. At the same time, Rorschach from the Watchmen doesn’t fit on ScoobyDoo.
I once had a character, Saran K’Dock (who I also can’t remember the exact spelling of…) who was mismatched in tone. I was playing a gritty barbarian king, in a superhero world where my allies were trying to run a four-colored team. And our tones were not harmonious and I stopped having fun until I realized the issue and asked to change characters. And a different character with a more harmonious tone played a lot better.
Realism, on the other hand, can happen no matter how cartoon the world. It’s the idea of the character being a living person, and simulating that. So the character is reacting to things not as the gamer would, but as that character would. Compartmentalizing knowledge is part of it, although that’s its own thing. It’s also making character story decisions over game mechanic decisions, it’s about your character creating relationships. And that includes having campfire moments, where your team builds bonds.
Layer 4: Focused Games
This is my White Whale. On top of the immense Rank 3, there is an extra level of… focus…. I do not have a better word than focus. As we mention, this is things like adopting the Star Fleet Regulations from Star Trek. The Code of Chivalry is another. It’s something even more that is placed on you, an extra level of roleplay gunk that makes it hard to be yourself, you have to focus on being this other person, including trying to follow guidelines that you don’t have a manual for.
And it’s not just following guidelines, known characters do those too. It’s a lot easier to play a smuggler rogue type of your own devising, than it is to try and actually run Han Solo himself. I’ve played a character once upon a time that was trying to be a Captain America, but it kept not working, until I threw most of the content away and started making my own character, whose name I don’t entirely remember. D’Avandra was part of it, but I don’t remember his first name.
As I said people fluctuate. I was in a campaign where my first character was an R3. When she dies, my second character was an R3, and I decided my third character wouldn’t have all that extra stuff, because he was going to die anyway. His R2 nature lasted until the campaign stopped for other reasons.
Some games artificially add things to try and raise your rank. Dungeon World has Bonds, D&D has backgrounds, 7th Sea has their 20 questions. Doctor Who RPG had a system that made it so if you wanted to attack, you’d go last, and if you wanted to talk, you went first, so there was a high chance that everything would be resolved by your turn before a shot was fired. Most impressively, though, Pendragon has mechanics that force your character into R5 and then Chivalry on top of that tries to make Rank 4 within your grasp.
I would love to see a Theros game at Rank 4. I’ve never gotten a superhero game where all the players were Rank 3. I have never gotten a game of family D&D to consistently run at R4. My time running games for the local gamestore causes my anguish, because there are times where I can’t get that above a level 1 with all the players dropping on and off of my slough table. Logically, I know my role at the store, but, well…
Emotionally, I want to run a game with all of my players at Rank 4. The closest I’ve gotten to that was the level 20 cyberpunk/D&D experiment I did that one time. And that one time I did an Oriental Adventures I also got pretty close to 4, although 5e’s system itself is what failed for me (the new Piety system might be a fix for that, though.)
Parts and Piecemeal
People are complicated though, and D&D does not change that. You will encounter people who interact with different parts of the game differently. Social encounters do this sometimes, where people are more likely to go into emotions, rather than relying on game mechanics. Part of this may be due to the fact that Social encounters often don’t have satisfying mechanics to fall back on.
Some people fluctuate their Rank even during the session. My dear sweet mother loves to join us for games, any games. She’s at least a R2, and I’ve seen signs that some R3 might be hidden in there. But, about 8:30 each night, she starts drifting off, and you can watch her buy-in sink.
There are things I can do to counter that. Playing earlier is one thing. Carefully curating the snacks is another. Choosing a less complicated game would also help by enabling her to have to think less about the “how” so she can focus on the “what.”
You’ll notice, likely as I point it out, that I don’t have things like “Learns the rules” or “makes a character” as items. Because they don’t really apply. You can learn the rules of D&D without ever responding to the DM’s messages. I’ve met many a “player” who was at that level. The buy-in is about how YOU play the game, not how TO play the game. Focusing on the system is part of the Gygaxian lie. If all players were able to play at Rank 4, we wouldn’t have to worry about hit points and who shot who first. Actions would happen, and get resolved. Like one time Paul was playing Tanith, a character he has played many times before, and we played several sessions before I learned he didn’t have a character sheet. He was just saying things that Tanith would do, and reacting as Tanith would react, and I was just rolling with it, because I never doubted that Paul knew precisely what Tanith was doing at the time.
What this means for me
While the idea of a Rank 4 game is intoxicating, I need to accept that it is unlikely to happen, except at a table where all of the players know each other, the world, their characters, and you very very well. Every table should be working towards that familiarity, to one day accomplish that.
Can I run Theros without expecting my players to be Rank 4? I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. If I want to play in Theros, though, I’ll have to. And that’s the real take away. I need to match my expectations to what my players can do. I’ve said before, there are no bad players, just bad GMs. And expecting your players to go beyond their Rank before they are ready is bad GMing. It’s our job to bribe and cajole and encourage and reward players as they reach for that Rank. But it’s not up to the player to change. It is up to the GM. Because unlike the players, it is we, fellow Masters of Games, to take the game universe in our hands and bend it to the form and size and shape it needs to be, to allow our players to share in the bounty of the world we have wrought. And to show them that there is much more out there.
That’s it for now. But this is likely a topic I will revisit. I have a lot of thoughts left as to how to be a R3 player, and probably some thoughts on R4 as well.
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