Monday, August 1, 2011

The Home Campaign vs. OP Experience - Part Two

     One of the first things a player needs to get used to with OP is that he or she is going to end up playing with people they would prefer not be at the same table, and maybe not even in the same campaign.  It is going to happen to everybody in OP campaigns.  It even happens in organized One-Shots.  I am not saying this doesn't happen to a certain extent with home campaign groups; sometimes there is so desperate a need to fill out a group that an unwanted type is tolerated up to a point.  So what is the real difference here?  OP doesn't let the player (or group) kick the "problem" player(s) out of the campaign.

     There have been a handful of people with whom I've played in home campaigns where I would have preferred they were not in the gaming group, but none behaved so badly that I would have had a serious discussion about excising them from the group.  The first experience I had with true problem players was when I was running Vampire: The Masquerade (2nd Ed.) sessions for the FAL.  There was a player, Chris, who would show up about 75% of the time and made it his goal to frustrate the goals of the other players' characters.  Chris was the reason why we couldn't keep an on-going and connected story going.  I knew that I wanted him to stop doing this (and I made that clear to him), but I guess I was too immature to actually tell him to stop showing up if he didn't have enough respect to allow the other players (and me) to have some fun as well.  I also rationalized it by thinking that the FAL wasn't my organization; it was Dennis Johnston's, and it was hardly so financially stable that turning away paying participants would have gone unnoticed.
     But the FAL, while OP in the sense that it was organized play, had not OP campaigns represented.  I guess Living City would have been an option, but it was the mid-to-late 1990s and we were all too dark and brooding to play Dungeons and Dragons.  My first flirtations came when Living Greyhawk came on the scene in 2000.  I didn't get involved; I still had a plenty of opportunity for home campaign play (albeit at a game store) and didn't have any interest in a more restrictive play environment.  On top of that, the people I knew who were playing Living Greyhawk spoke of it with more than a little anger and frustration.  "Do you play LG?  No?  Don't start."  To this day, I'm not entirely sure the sentiment behind that was to keep me from ruining their already flawed OP campaign experience or if they were trying to save me from the frustrations they were experiencing and expounding upon at length.  So I was aware of OP but not in need of it.
     Then the 3D House of Games closed and my haven for organizing games went away.  I was at the 2003 GenCon with Josh Haag, looking for new cool D&D things and trying to talk my friend into organizing a home campaign that would fit what I was looking for in a game.  I actually had a setting partially written, so I could DM the campaign, but I needed players and ones who had some bona fides (or at least somebody I trusted to vouch for them).  We were wandering around the dealers' room when I spotted the banner for Arcanis at the PCI booth.  Their products looked like they had some production value – indeed, I already owned two of their printed modules for their setting which I adapted for use in my store-based campaign – and there wasn't much of a crowd around them.  So I wander up and flip open their new hardcover book to page 18.  I read the words "Mother Church" and "Plebians" and on the spot decided I wanted to buy it.  It had the elements I wanted in a setting.
     A friendly man walked over and asked me if I had any questions.  This was Henry Lopez, president of PCI and lord of all things Arcanis.  (There will come a day when I write about my complicated relationship with Mr. Lopez, but it should suffice for this piece that we have had much difficulty seeing eye-to-eye after that first meeting).  We talked for a brief period, I purchased the Players Guide to Arcanis (PGtA) and the Codex Arcanis and was excited about using their world as a blueprint for a home campaign.  Henry and another man (who would turn out to be Eric Wiener) repeatedly pitched their OP campaign, but I was going to have a home campaign – or so I hoped – and people like that didn't need OP.  I was wrong, of course.  Josh was pretty sure his friends wouldn't want to play in the same style I wanted and his level of interest wasn't that high to begin with.
     With the 3D HoG out of business, I had to spend my gaming dollars at Hobbytown USA in Oak Park.  I frequented it even during my 3D days (3D HoG was 33 miles away, Hobbytown USA was a five minute walk from home), but I was a customer, not part of the store family like at 3D.  So I'm in the RPG aisle at Hobbytown, on bended knee looking through Reaper miniatures when store manager Josh Brown returns from lunch and announces – somewhat casually – that he is going to run a Living Arcanis mod in the store that Saturday.  I called out from my hidden location that "I want in on that."  And so I came to OP through Living Arcanis.
     I had no control over who would be in that first group.  Josh Haag was supposed to come up and play but didn't.  The only player I knew was a kid named Brendan who I had thoroughly disliked from the days of Cathartic Dreams being Oak Park's game store.  It turned out that Josh Brown didn't even run the session; he dropped off the certs to Terry Doner and went home to play video games (this was a contentious issue with Terry that night who felt like he was being used).  From that day to the end of the campaign, I was an OP person.
     So, what are the differences between the OP and home campaign experience (and why can't Tim just leave out all the personal BS)?
  1. As I wrote earlier, there is less control over who is at your table in OP events and campaigns than in home campaigns.  There are some ways around the pot luck approach of just showing up to game days and conventions.  Many people coordinate to play primarily with those they know and trust from other play experiences (largely including home campaigns).  On the flip side, if you are just getting in to OP and don't have connections, you may be a little left out because of this type of exclusion but you will still have a much greater chance than joining up with a home play group full of strangers.  There are only three players I met in Living Arcanis with whom I would never play again: some guy whose name I know not but he played a Milandisian who was in the Legio Lex Talionis (not part of the LLT group, and he did the majority of his playing on-line), Joel Fischoff (he was just too deliberative in everything for me to enjoy playing with him, and his characters were less effective than mine), and Nicole Rubins (who was not only loud and boorish, but consistently cheated and had no regard for the other players or their characters when she thought there was glory to be won by her).
  2. The level of involvement each demands is different.  Home campaigns generally rely on one person (the GM) doing an insane amount of work to build and run a world that can serve the needs of the players.  Players, for their part, often come up with personal goals for their characters to accomplish and the GM tries to work these into the greater story.  In OP, there is (or there is supposed to be) an overarching story to which the players' characters will be party to, and the player has to find a way to work his or her character's story and goals into that main story in order to find some level of satisfaction with being involved in the primary narrative.  Likewise, in a home campaign, there is always direct interaction with the ultimate authority of the group.  This is not the case in OP.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  When one may grow frustrated with how sessions are being run in OP, another person can take over the duties of running the sessions (indeed, most groups have a sort of rotation as to who runs the mods).  This allows for a different sense of ownership because everybody has the opportunity to run the world; everybody gets to be the GM.  Where home play doesn't allow the GM a character of his or her own, OP encourages it (the GM usually getting equal credit for running a mod as those playing it).
  3. There are vastly different senses of continuity between OP and home campaigns.  Home campaigns traditionally have one GM (occasionally there are two who split the responsibility) and he or she sets a consistent tone and level of expectations.  In OP, one can have as many as ten different GMs running mods for them over the course of a convention.  There is almost always a perceptual difference in quality from one OP GM to another.  Some are awesome.  Some are horrible.  Many are not properly prepared.  When the GM isn't prepared for a home campaign session, that session can be postponed or something else can be played.  OP is usually at cost and players expect to play when they have put money down to do so.  This is even more true when those players have put out $300 in air travel (then add another $50 in taxi service to and from the convention), $280 for a hotel room (with taxes & fees), $80 for convention badge, $70 in event tickets, $150 in convention food, whatever purchases made in the Dealers' Room (easily more than $100 for most people), and whatever expenses incurred at the bars.  I know that when I was putting down $1000 for the four day weekend, I didn't want to hear anything about how this experience was free for me.
  4. Feedback works differently between the two.  Granted – in Living Arcanis – I had Jeff Witthauer, James Zwiers, Casey McGirt, Dennis Kirkpatrick, Joe Cirillo, Sean Smith, Sean Esterline, Matt Flinn, Chris Sanders, Carrie Amodio, and Kimberly Wajer-Scott as GMs for mods they had authored.  My LG experience was more limited, but as most of it took place in Wisconsin I could always go over to the next table and talk to either the mod's author or somebody in charge of that region.  But it isn't as simple as just having a conversation with the single person in charge.  And even in a small OP campaign like Living Arcanis (about 200 players at Origins, 140 at GenCon, but around 1200 around the world), a single voice of feedback can be easily lost.  It doesn't help if you find yourself disliking the main storyline and the man in charge has developed a personal animosity towards you (which may or may not have been formed on legitimate grounds).  
  5. Characters are (supposed to be) the stars of the story in a home campaign.  The overarching story is the star in OP.  It is that simple.
  6. Talking shop is a hell of a lot more fun in OP than home campaigns.  First, there are just more people with which to share your tales and theories.  The community is just so much larger.  
  7. Characters tend to be built different for the two campaign styles.  Home campaigns allow for more well-rounded, role-play focused, sub-optimal character builds (and the GM can always adjust the power level of the game to fit the capabilities of the characters).  OP invites the players to build the most powerful (functional?), purpose driven characters they can imagine.  A character should do one thing, do it exceedingly well, and let other characters make up for any deficiencies.  I never have quite understood that; I still make characters who attempt to be able to do a variety of things well enough and maybe one thing better than average.  I believe in organic character growth, but planning one's character out in OP is not only an accepted strategy, it is what most players do.
  8. Home play is a person playing with a small group of friends.  Nothing beats that.  But I had the opportunity to play with people from 18 states, Canada, England, France, and Australia in Living Arcanis.  There was not a bad experience with any of the foreigners, and (again) only three real problem players encountered out of the 100+ people with whom I played (or GMed).  
Phil Scott dressed to run a Living Arcanis mod. 
     Hopefully, that satisfies my desire to opine on the two different experiences (and I really have a lot more I could say, but I don't know that it would mean anything).  I have some weightier things to write about, but I'd like to keep it light for now.

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