A Paul B Origin Story

Skipped the weekend questions, which were “tell me about your character” questions and those invariably suck. So!

13. Describe how your play has evolved.

Alrighty. Story time.

When I started, I was 11 years old. Eleven is awfully young, definitely emotionally underdeveloped, but also super creative and weird because nobody has told me any different yet. Honestly I miss that time.

Eleven year old autodidacts pick up some really weird ideas. I sponged up cultural and creative ideas from the older kids who ran my first games (older as in middle-schoolers). After a couple years, I started running my own stuff for peers at and after school. Did the whole lost-weekend thing that only kids can do: have friends show up for a sleepover in the morning Saturday, get driven home strung out and sleep deprived late Sunday night. Those marathon play-every-moment 40 hour games were absolutely formative, because that’s when I learned how to build a cult.

That weird cult-leader status was both self-made and sort of imposed on me by my friends. I 100% get where the whole “GMs are special and different from players” tradition comes from, and I find it frustrating and dismissive when young indiefolk who were never exposed to this culture assert that everyone at the table is a player and a peer and so on and so forth. I mean yes, that can be true, but it’s also a conscious cultural choice a table makes. It’s not de-facto true for everyone everywhere. And there are probably millions of players in groups at various levels of functionality who are okay treating their GM as special.

The first big shift in my relationship with RPGs was when I professionalized my relationship with it. What started as an eagerness to run CCG tournaments for Doomtrooper (the Mutant Chronicles card game) became a good professional relationship with Target Games AB, which was Sweden’s answer to Hasbro through the 80s and 90s. I started showing up at GAMA trade shows and GenCon and DragonCon, fighting tooth and nail to get meetings with FASA and White Wolf and Pinnacle. For several years there, I was a major producer and one of the best-paid in the business. (Mostly because I had been a feature writer for magazines that paid me $1/word, and this $0.02-0.03/word shit was ridiculous. But nobody ever asked for more because working for RPG publishers is and will always be super weird. The closest mainstream equivalent I’ve run into is travel writing, which is also notoriously underpaid because the pleasure of travel and the deep discounts are a nontrivial part of your compensation package. Buuut you can’t pay for groceries with airline discounts. Or the entire Earthdawn library.)

As has happened every time I’ve ever tried to make money on what I love, I ended up hating the activity. I completely fucked up my relationship with Pinnacle, which was heartbreaking because I really liked those folks. FASA went out of business. Target went out of business. I found myself in a codependent relationship with local publishers Precedence (they did the Babylon 5 CCG and the Immortal RPG), which got super weird and dysfunctional. It was 18 months from me being a solid, dependable producer to dropping out of the scene entirely.

I kept playing the entire White Wolf oeuvre because the melodrama attracted me. But my relationship to gaming had become cynical and angry, and honestly I think I hate-played a lot of those games in the late 90s. Like, I’d run Exalted just so I could rail about it all week until the next session.

The full frontal assault on White Wolf games, particularly Vampire, by the Forge community was attractive but it was some years before I really internalized those lessons. Just like my 11 year old autodidact, I came at indie gaming in entirely my own way. I reflexively rejected the larger community behind it because I still held deeply cynical opinions following my late 90s flameout.

The game that moved me from theoretical complaint to a functional new way of thinking about my relationship with Rules as Written was Burning Empires. I think this was a variation on a fairly common trad-to-indie pathway that folks had followed via The Burning Wheel, yeah? BE was a radical departure from the game I had run just prior, Exalted. It required I stick close to the rules as actual rules in a way that nothing I’d ever played before was even capable of doing. If you stick to Exalted’s text, well, your game will fall apart.

From Burning Empires, I fell in with a local indiegame meetup group with the intention of trying lots of little games. We played all the OG indie titles: Dust Devils, 3:16, Agon, Lacuna, InSpectres, Primetime Adventures, Dogs in the Vineyard, Sorcerer, Fastlane, others I’m not remembering. This was entirely a result of the growth of online gaming communities. There was no way my FLGS was ever gonna host a game night where their big titles (D&D, Pathfinder, WoD) didn’t get featured, for obvious reasons. And Arizona gaming conventions were uniformly terrible, although RinCon in Tucson is now the best of the bunch and actually pretty good.

There was the Forge diaspora followed by a few good-ish years at http://story-games.com, which I tried to engage with with varying success. It took until after http://story-games.com fell by the wayside that I figured out how to engage with the various kinds of weirdness one finds online in gaming communities. I’m still not great at dealing with all of it, and the growth of hyper-toxic blogs is still a no-go zone for me.

I think it’s been the past 2-3 years, maybe since my experiment with King Arthur Pendragon, that I’ve gotten okay with trying out more conventional games again. Their success rate is quite low, but I’m open to finding buried gold now. Some of that is what has felt like calcification of tabletop game design. I know someone will come up with a robust new paradigm of play, someday. I’ll be here for it.


0 thoughts on “A Paul B Origin Story”

  1. There’s a bit on the podcast My Brother My Brother and Me where they opine that if you have a group of friends or family all together, and you ask them all, on the count of three, to point at the person they thing should be the Captain if they were suddenly on board a boat, that nine times out of ten, everyone would agree on who the captain is.

    I think the same is true with groups that play games. If you put a bunch of people who know what the term means and say “OK, 1, 2, 3, who’s the dungeon master!” they would almost all point to the same person. Yeah, the gamemaster is just another player; yeah, what we’re doing is collaborative, but… people know. They knowwwwww.

    Also: I’d love to play a full campaign of 3:16 someday. Heck, I’d like to play it long enough for the majority of the players to grok what it’s actually communicating at them.

  2. Honestly luke crane was the first person in the scene to actually critically engage with me on, well, anything having to do with indie gaming. Rather than just start fights or dismiss me or smirk that I was just an old trad dude — those all happened, repeatedly, at story-games.com — he was super smart about really drilling into the hard parts, explaining them in a way I could understand, accepting critical pushback, and so on. He’s a confrontational dude and I totally get that he’s not everyone’s flavor of the month, but that was a great early relationship to form and I’ll always be grateful.

  3. One of the more notable aspects of playing with people I’ve met online, either people who I connected with because they read my blog or that I met via G+, is that it’s much more common to have a table full of people that usually referee. My online games are generally at least 75% DM types, sometimes 100%.

    I’m sure that changes the way people engage in a number of ways. And of course it’s easier to preference match relaxing geographic constraints, so the whole potential buyin problem is pretty much nonexistent. I just run exactly whatever it is that I want to run and people that are interested show up. No compromise needed, generally speaking. Even a lot of my in-person gaming is with turbo nerds met online.

  4. This is shockingly similar to my storyline of gamer evolution. Years are a bit off, and I got on a bit better on Storygames than you did (though I did hate-flame out of the community eventually), and it was Dogs rather than BW… but yea. Pretty much.

Leave a Reply