Tuesday, September 26, 2017


I'm sure I've written this before, but I'll write it again: much as I love the game of Blood Bowl (and the latest edition might be the best version yet)....much as I love the game, there are a lot of ways in which it fails to mimic the actual game of American football on which it's based. While the various discrepancies could be written off as just a post-apocalyptic fantasy world's imperfect interpretation of the ancient rulebook (so would say the original "fluff" of the game) there are other, non-field aspects, that simply cannot be emulated. The current brouhaha in the NFL, for example, where players are using their public platform to bring attention to the continuing racial injustice in our country that has led to more inappropriate outbursts from our sitting POTUS. While some non-field events and antics can (and are) emulated with the use of random event cards, in the existing fantasy setting the various Blood Bowl teams play for different nations and species, rather than a single country. There can, thus be no single cause or rogue leader against which to rail and bring unity between teams bent on mutual annihilation in the name of sport.

As usual, reality proves itself stranger than fantasy.

Even so, Blood Bowl is a great game, certainly one of my All-Time Faves. Diego and I have had the chance to sit down and play a game or two since the NFL season started. As said, the current release might be the best iteration yet published (previously, I would have given the nod to the 3rd edition), at least in terms of rules. But then, Games Workshop has been publishing and evolving Blood Bowl since 1986...thirty years!...and while the main "overhaul" of the game was the '94 version (when they introduced time limits and turnovers) the last 20 years have simply been tweaks and tinkering based on actual play and feedback in an attempt to make the gameplay experience better. Blood Bowl isn't the flagship game of the GW brand; hell, there have been periods in their history when they weren't even publishing the game. Their business strategy for getting new cash infusions from BB fans is based on newer, shinier releases (better game pieces, cooler models), not some false proclamation that the "older version" is no longer viable as a system. The game is still about 16 fantasy figures taking the field 11 at a time, and I still can (and do) utilize the playing pieces I've owned since I got into the hobby circa 1989 (with the 2nd edition).

The reason I bring all this up is the recent series of thoughtful posts from Alexis over at the Tao. For reference, you can check out:
Measuring Yourself as a DM
Those Who Quit the Game

They're all short, but particularly thoughtful (and thought-provoking) posts on Dungeons & Dragons. One thing Alexis has been good at over the years is reminding his readers that D&D, for all the wonderful things it is and all the joy and meaning it may have given us, is still a game. A game that has to be played to have any real value. A game that we can...and perhaps should...strive to become better at.

Last week I received a comment on an ancient blog post in which the reader expressed doubt of my actual experience with the game (and, presumably my authority to blog about it). It's true that I've played D&D since 1982, but those 35 years have been "off and on" and the last five years or so have been mostly "off." If I really consider the actual years I've spent playing and running D&D...not just acting as an "armchair DM," my actual experience probably amounts to only 15-17 years...and maybe not even that. Reading and designing and prepping are all a part of the game (especially for would-be dungeon masters), but most of the practice is only accomplished at the table. Like flight time for a pilot...there's a difference between hours spent in a simulator and hours spent in the air. It is quite possible that there are people out there who only started playing D&D with the 3rd edition (released in 2000) that have more hours "in the chair" or "behind the screen" than I do, despite my decades of involvement in the role-playing hobby.

And that actual, hands-on experience makes a real difference. It does so with any game or sport, and the more challenging and complex the game, the more difference that experience makes. When I play Uno or Rummy 500 with my son, he beats me nearly as often as I beat him. With Cribbage, I generally beat him (even though we don't count muggins and I help him with counting). When we've played Magic cards...recently discovered this month...he's beat me a single time in a dozen plus games (random draw should preclude this from happening). And I've never lost a Blood Bowl game to him. But then, I can only remember losing a handful of Blood Bowl games, ever, to anyone...BB is just my wheelhouse.

And it's not just about winning (after all, D&D isn't about "winning," right?). The boy and I were at the local game shop where we completed a full game of Blood Bowl in a couple-three hours...and during the same time period we watched a pair of adults struggle to even complete a half in the same time period (Blood Bowl, like soccer, is played in two halves)...despite having been set-up at the table before we even sat down. When I've simply acted as referee for two players (I do this sometimes), I've managed to facilitate complete games far quicker. That's just experience that comes from playing.

D&D is a game. A special game, sure, but still a game. A complex game with a strange set of rules, some of which are unwritten, some of which can only be parsed out in play. Especially for the development of a competent DM, real experience is needed at the table...hence, the often heard phrase, "you learn to be a DM by running games."

And yet, imperative though it is, just running games is not enough to hone your craft as a DM. I've run the Hickman module Pharaoh two or three times (boxed text and all), but if that was all I did I wouldn't develop anything except my ability to run that particular module. I think Alexis is right when he states part of the reason people quit the game (assuming that they had an enjoyable experience with it when first played) is that they reach a point where the game's perceived limitations fail to satisfy their expectations of entertainment. "I'm tired of killing things and taking their stuff," or even "I'm tired of pretending to be something I'm not," especially when one can instead escape into the easily accessed television program.

There are several strategies for enhancing and retaining player enjoyment...and I think those strategies are ideas worthy of exploration. But that's going to have to wait for a follow-up post.