Monday, January 14, 2019

Show and Tell

A couple days ago, Timothy Brannan commented on my "Bubble" post. Part of what he wrote included the following:
Moldvay, Holmes and Mentzer Basics were all a product of their times. That is getting people (often read as "kids") to learn how to play. As someone who has been developing college curriculums for 20+ years I can tell you kids and young adults don't go to books to learn how to do something, they want a video or podcast (but mostly a video) and that's where they go first. If I were writing a course on how to learn D&D I'd first look at my video budget. BTW this is not a value judgement on learning, it is a different modality. I used to work with severe Learning Disability students back in the 80s that used similar modalities because they could not process information via text and they did fine this way. I know people that swear by audiobooks too and others that hate them. (I have spent much of my academic and professional career on these exact issues.)
...which I find interesting and worthy of exploration.

My son is young (he turns eight this week), but he already exhibits a lot of his father's love of gaming (duh, of course). He enjoys card games (rummy 500 is his current favorite, but he plays cribbage, poker, and a few others, including Uno, Pokemon, and Magic: the Gathering). He loves Blood Bowl (we had a BB "World Cup" tournament over the summer that was pretty epic). He just acquired Axis & Allies & Zombies for Christmas (it was the top of his Santa list). And he's been playing my old games of Dark Tower and Dungeon! since he was three and four, respectively.

[he is also interested in designing his own games, as I've blogged on a couple-three occasions]

As I write this, in the early morning hours while the rest of my family sleeps, I can see from my vantage point two board games (AA&Z and Camel Up!), completely set-up, on two different tables, where he was tinkering with both (a third table holds a recently used Yahtzee and a cribbage board, though my four-year old daughter was the one messing with the latter), and I know there's a new Star Wars Monopoly floating around somewhere (acquired from los Reyes Magos).

As far as I know, he's never read a single instruction book or manual.

In fact, while he opened the new Axis & Allies (and Zombies) himself, and set it up in its entirety, he has all but refused to read the manual, other than the parts on set-up and disposition of forces. He wants me to read the instructions and teach him how to play. And lest you think he will eventually get restless waiting on me and buckle down and read the instructions himself, I would draw your attention to the fact that he's owned Arena of the Planeswalkers since last Christmas, and has never gotten around to playing it, because no one in the house has read the instructions.

[he has used AotPW and its neat minis for other purposes, however...he's just never played the game as intended]

Now this is a child who enjoys reading...he's read the first three or four Harry Potter books, half a dozen of those Wimpy Kid books, and more than double that number of Nancy Drew mysteries (the original ones, written in the 1930s)...he's currently on the Ski Jump Mystery. And that's when he's not reading non-fiction history books, which he really loves...especially anything about World War II or ancient Egypt. He's read a lot of the Magic Treehouse books, but he prefers the dry, "Fact Finder" series that provide the historical foundation for the time travel adventures. The kid even read (an abridged) Moby Dick over a four hour road trip...that was last April; I haven't even read Melville!

But, of course, there's a difference between reading a book and a manual. A book's sole purpose is to entertain and/or inform. A manual's job is (or should be) to instruct, for the purpose of understanding how to do operate a blender or maintain your car or play a board game. Some people really dig on manuals (my wife is one, and she's not a huge reader). Most of us, though, prefer only to use them a reference when actually needed. After all, manuals are merely a means to an end, whatever that end might be (working the blender, changing the car oil, playing the game).

In asking my son how he'd like to learn a new game, his clear preference was to have me read the manual and then teach him. His second preference? Have mom read the manual and teach him. Asked if he'd rather watch a video instead of reading the instructions himself, he said "sure"...if his parents weren't available and a video was (my child isn't given ready access to the internet). Reading instruction manuals is just "really boring."

And when I really think about it, it's hard for me to find a lot of disagreement in my heart. Reading manuals are one of my least favorite methods of learning anything, even ones that include photos or illustrated examples. Even videos are a poor substitute for can't ask questions of a video, nor ask for additional clarification when required.

I have this story in my head about role-playing games, about learning to play them from reading them, because I've read and learned so many over the years...all the way back to B/X Dungeons & Dragons (which I taught myself to play). But this hasn't been the way I've learned most of the games I know. All the card games I know how to play have been learned the same way as my boy: I've been taught them by other people. Even Magic cards (which were showed to me by a roommate back in 1999). But most of the "standard" card games I know were taught to me by my grandmother in Montana (they play a lot of card games in Montana over the long winter months): everything from rummy and hearts to cribbage and pinochle. I asked my mom to buy me Dungeon! when I was eight years old, and I'm pretty sure it was she that first read the instructions and taught me to she taught me to play Scrabble, Clue, Monopoly, and (presumably) Candy Land.  I taught myself Risk, but I'd seen it played before by my teenage uncles and their friends (again, in Montana). My father taught me chess.

Even recently (three or four months back), I purchased the deck-building game Ivion only after I was taught the game in a demo with the husband of the game's designer. I know deck-building games are a "thing," but till Ivion I'd never figured out how to play any of them. I even purchased a Blood Bowl-themed deck-builder about five years ago (based on great reviews) that sits on my shelf to this day.

Of course, it's not just games I've learned from other people. Every job I've had has required on-the-job training. Sure Burger King showed me a couple 30-minute videos during my first day of orientation (as a 14 year old), but an experienced person walked me through all the ins and outs of the kitchen (and only allowed me to make the most basic of sandwiches till I'd mastered that). The 15 year career I quit to move to Paraguay required four weeks of training in Olympia before I even got a desk in the (Seattle) office, and then 11 more months of a probationary period where I was assigned a dedicated trainer who audited every single action I took for my first six months.

And around the house, I am hesitant to start ANY home improvement project unless I've done it before or consulted with someone more knowledgable than myself (like a contractor buddy or my mom's 65-year old boyfriend who's a retired Boeing engineer and ex-military). I am more likely to pay someone to do the work, not because I have money to burn (I really don't) but because I don't trust myself not to screw things up without at least some solid instruction.

[though I should say I have been much better in recent years in taking the initiative in home projects...but that wasn't the case for the first four decades of my life]

Learning from least learning the the way most of us feel more comfortable learning. Probably it's a cultural thing (schools and stuff) but regardless of whether we learn best by seeing, hearing, or doing all of us want someone to teach us the various skills we want to learn. Once we've acquired knowledge of the basics, THEN we can refine our knowledge through our own exploration or experience with the subject matter (or seek coaching for more speedy or targeted improvement). But the more complex the skill we're attempting to learn...and the more consequence to failure...the more we desire the help of a teacher.

Now, of course, I have taken the time to read game manuals...many, in fact. However, in all the cases where I have "self-taught" myself something I believe there are caveats that can be attached as to why this occurred.

  • In the case of some games (Axis & Allies, Camel Up!, Battleship Galaxies, PokemonGo Go Gelato, Lost Cities, etc.) there was a case of my children begging me to read an instruction manual in order to teach them, so that we could play a particular game. My kids have been my biggest impetus to learning new games over the last three-four years.
  • In the case of some games (Firefly, Nautilus, Dragonriders of Pern), the theme or setting of the game was one I had particular interest in AND there was a significant (or possible) method of "solo play" included with the game. I have acquired other games with themes/settings that have special appeal for me (The Dark Crystal, The Call of Cthulhu Card Game, Bang!, Arctic Scavengers) that I've never bothered to learn as I have no one with whom to play.
  • Some games, almost all RPGs, I've acquired for reasons of nostalgia, intriguing theme, or specific "design purposes" (i.e. to examine them for how they designed their various systems and incorporated them in the game). However, while I've "read" the manuals for most of these, I can't say that I've learned how to play them. In fact, if you asked me point blank to run most of these (including Everway, Dragonraid, Hero Wars, Privateers and Gentlemen, Blood Red Sands, or the newest Star Wars line from FFG), I would need a substantial amount of "refresher time" (probably a week or more) to re-read and absorb the material before we could have anything like a first session.
  • Other games have been much more easily digested (and thus remembered/retained) because their basic "chassis" are so closely akin to another game I'm already familiar, for example, Dungeons & Dragons.

Yes, Dungeons & Dragons, the game on which I base the lie that "all you need to learn a game is a good instruction manual" because, of course, I was able to learn how to play D&D without the aid of anyone teaching me. This, by the way, is absolutely true: I received my copy of the game, I read it, I introduced my friends to it, taught them (to the point that some of them would later run the game as DMs themselves, for other friends), and never looked back. Having said that...
  1. The edition I first acquired was the Tom Moldvay basic set, perhaps the single greatest edition for learning the basics of "dungeons" and "dragons" ever published. Complete with multiple page-long examples of character creation, running encounters, creating adventures, and running players through the game. The included The Keep on the Borderlands adventure module also provided great notes from Gygax and examples of home bases, wilderness areas, and dungeons...and tying them all together.
  2. The basic premise of basic D&D isn't all that far removed from the Dungeon! board game which, as I noted above, I had already acquired and learned (through my mother) prior to picking up my first box of Moldvay. Just the concept of a multi-level dungeon (filled with monsters, traps, and treasure) gave me a leg up on understanding the game's premise.

I probably can't overstate how much Moldvay's examples of play helped me. I read and re-read these examples many times, even after playing the game the first time. The encounter example (page B28) shows how to use the reaction table, how spells work (in and out of combat), how to conduct missile and melee combat, and how players interact with the DM and each other based on alignment (not to mention basic kibitzing during a game). The "sample dungeon expedition" (page B59 to B60) shows how the DM presents information to the players, how to clarify that information, how to present traps, how to describe features of the adventure site, how to award treasure, how to deal with character death (it happens), and how to manage a group of least, a group all bent on the same objective of play. From these examples, I could look at my own DMing (at a young age) and at least get some idea of whether or not my game looked at all like the one Moldvay was playing. Everything else I learned later (adding the "Advanced" texts to our game) was built off this foundation.

If I had come to the game through some other gateway (especially the original version of the game or first edition AD&D) I can understand how a teacher would have been pretty much essential, just to prevent frustration with trying to understand the instructional text of the game. Hell, I'd be hard pressed NOW to try to parse out the D&D "instruction manual" as it is today, without my basic foundation (I've blogged before how I've literally fallen asleep every time I've attempted to read through 4th edition Champions). I can definitely see that, lacking a foundation and any teacher or mentor, I too would be left with little alternative besides combing the interwebs for some video to show exactly how I'm supposed to play this game...

I feel I've been something less than charitable to folks who "don't like to read the instructions" (even my own boy!) or who prefer watching a video to reading a manual. Instruction manuals aren't terribly fun (usually) and even when they are written in a "fun" way, it's usually somewhat less fun than the fun anticipated from the end for which they've been written (for example, playing the game the manual explains). Dungeons & Dragons especially is a hard game to learn, regardless of edition. I was simply fortunate that my introduction to the game was written for persons "Ages 10 and Up" (yes, I was reading above my age level back in 1982), and that it was written in such a particular, precise yet streamlined manner...even including a page count (64 minus illustrations, tables, and example text) that wouldn't bore the shit out of my young mind. Something to think about with regard to my own game design going forward.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a manual to read about World War II zombie invasions...

Probably everyone loses...


  1. How I made it through the 1st edition DMG when I was in 5th grade, I will never know.

    I ended up being the one to teach the game to all my friends. Only one or two of them ever cracked the book back in the day.

  2. I find this post interesting because I am the exact opposite of your premise. I love reading everything (I read 40 novels & graphic novels last year that I kept track of, e.g.), and I've always loved reading game manuals. The manual is the first thing I go to when I open a box (of anything), whether I really need to read it or not.

  3. In education circles, we talk about "learning styles" or "learning modalities" and this is pretty much what you're getting at. The theory is that different people learn best in different ways. An overview of some of the theories at Wikipedia:

    The theories have taken a lot of criticism recently, but there may be something to them. Personally, I think the theories get applied incorrectly. People think "Student A is a visual learner" or "Student B is an abstract learner" and think it's the ONLY way they can learn. That's not what the various theories suggest. They suggest that we learn BEST when the learning style matches our natural inclination.

    So JB may be an experiential learner, while Brian Lee may be an analytical learner.

    I learn very well by reading, analyzing, and rereading. I did very well in school because I actually bothered to read the textbooks (and could pick up information easily through reading). I can and do read manuals and learn. But not always. And as a kid, we never read the rules/manuals when we got new games (board or video variety), we just jumped in and tried to figure them out experimentally. RPGs, on the other hand, seemed to require that someone read the rules since we were cut off from older gamers who could mentor us.

  4. @ Brian & Dennis:

    To be clear, I *do* read manuals: I've read, mastered, and played many of the old TSR games (Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gamma World, Star Frontiers) which only superficially resemble D&D. Likewise, I've done the same with more disparate games (including Vampire the Masquerade, Amber: Diceless, and InSpectres) without any fuss or muss. And my impetus for learning GW's Blood Bowl and WH40K (not to mention Mordheim) was all on me.

    But lacking a strong "push" (from our kids wanting to play...or our regular table gamer friends wanting to learn) providing motivation, it's harder to work up the grit to sit and learn SANS teacher. Certainly not from a 300+ page textbook (or three 200+ page "core" books). I've had no issue picking up a (small) instruction manual for a video game and reading it (even though I've known people roughly my own my brother...who were too lazy to do so) because it allows me a better understanding of game play from the get go and earlier access into the nuance of a particular system.

    But role-playing games? They're "payoff" isn't nearly as immediate as a video game that opens with the touch of a button. It's only through the actual playing that we achieve the maximum potential enjoyment that's being offered by a particular system...and only someone knowledgable and versed in the system (and thus prepared to run it) is going to provide us that opportunity.

  5. Hey thanks for taking what I wrote and giving it some deeper thought. I'll respond with a proper reply later today (gotta get to work).

  6. Actually, there is not a lot more I need to add to this.

    To Dennis' point. Yeah I was in grad school at the height of the Learning Styles craze. It's still there, but we know we can't teach to 20-25 different styles, or even 5 broadly described styles. So we try to hit as many modalities as we can. Books are always here, always going to be here and we will always assign books, readings and my favorite journal articles in class. That will never stop.

    What has changed more are the expectations of learners. The way I was teaching in 1999 vs. 2009 and today are, at their core, similar, but the execution has now shifted.
    In 1999 I boasted I could teach an entire stats course from the sports section of the Chicago Tribune. Many times I did it to get my undergrads to relate to what I was doing but never used any video.
    In 2009 my Nurses getting their Master's degree liked video, but not as their primary tool. My MBA students in 2019 demand it.

    Keep in mind by a video I am not talking about something someone just threw up onto YouTube or, well professionalism prevents me from saying, but let's just say it's a place where a Star Trek villain might go to school. I think my typical budget for an instructional video is about $100k, give or take a few thousand.

    A good example of how video is changing the face of what is the D&D learning experience for many is to look at “Critical Role” and what many are calling “The Mercer Effect”. It gets the new players in the door the same way the Moldvay did for us. Well...maybe not exactly the same way, but it is the same door.

    To end this though I will say something that my Ph.D. advisor told me. Video is nice, but would you get on a plane with someone who only learned how to fly by watching other people do it?

    I think we would all answer the same way.

  7. @JB - I hear you. I like to read manuals. I like to be informed. But you're absolutely right about the amount of effort needed to jump into a board or video game being MUCH lower than for an RPG. A well designed video game shouldn't even really require a manual or tutorial mode to start playing. RPGs, as you know, are quite different.

    And to be honest, these days I don't even read through all the rules anymore. There are tons of spells in 5E that I've never read, and parts of the PHB I just skimmed. Lots of monsters in the MM I haven't looked at either. I don't even own the 5e DMG.

    The stuff you're posting recently has been good food for thought for me. I'm trying to figure out a good way to mentor beginning referees because I've been asked lots of Qs by a few recently.