Adventures in Tabletop: Aaargh-PG
I’ve got a theory. I think that for every player out there currently active in a role-playing game, there is another player who would like to join, but doesn’t know how. Some of us are lucky; they have a friend sponsor them into the world of tabletop RPGs like a new arrival at your local church. But then again, there are those players who come to the hobby completely cold. They don’t have any game-minded friends to guide them and give a +2 to Wisdom checks. Hell, those people are doubly screwed because they – more often than not – won’t have any friends interested in even trying the game they want to learn. It’s like trying to train to be an Olympic swimmer in the Sahara Desert. The will is there. The support system is not.
Enter the RPGA.
The RPGA (or Role-Playing Gamer Association) was founded in the 1980s by TSR, Inc, the company who owned Dungeons and Dragons at the time. The organization sought to eliminate this problem by setting up organized play events at local game stores, comic conventions, and other places where nerds gather. The affairs were usually structured around tournaments or awarding “points” to the best players and DMs, and often came with pre-generated characters for players to use. Unlike what most people think about role-playing games, these RPGA-backed events were just a chance for players to meet and play together, or to provide new players with a pool to dip their toes into.
If you caught the bug, you were offered a membership in the RPGA, which came at a monthly fee. Once your joined, you were “sanctioned” player (or DM). This meant that you could participate in a “living campaign,” an organized-play event where players from across the country (and later, around the world) played in the same world and often played the same adventures at around the same time. It was called a “living” campaign because each game had to report their progress. Did your party barter with Ageroth the Giant Hunter, or slay him? The players got a chance to influence the direction of the plot and lore of the world with their decisions, like a “Choose-Your-Adventure” book on a massive scale.
Playing in an RPGA “living campaign” also meant that things were very strictly controlled to provide a consistent game world. Any magic items or treasure acquired during the quests had to be signed off on by a certified DM, or else they didn’t count. DMs awarded experience points based on what the adventure told them and were not allowed to doll out extra XP for any reason. This made for very strict play, but it also meant that your character, as long as he or she played by the rules – was RPGA legal in any event.
But things have changed since then. TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997 and, along with acquiring the Dungeons and Dragons brand, they also got the RPGA. The board was run much like it ever was, with several “living campaigns” going on at the same time, until 2008 when Wizards launched the “Living Forgotten Realms” campaign to coincide with the release of D&D’s fourth edition. But somewhere along the way, the RPGA sort of… vanished.
It’s still there, at least in appearances. If you go to wizards.com/rpga, you get bumped to the official Living Forgotten Realms campaign page. (LFR is the only campaign left that the RPGA supports, for now.) New players get RPGA numbers, which the event organizers use to track attendance, but that seems to be all they are good for. You can go to the Wizards Player Network (WPN) and register, but for what benefit? The only good news is that membership no longer requires a monthly fee. You just show up, get a card with a number on it, and continue playing. Functionally, the RPGA no longer exists. It is an organization abandoned. The dragon has lost its fangs.
For most players, this doesn’t impact their gaming lives. Either they run a home campaign, which wasn’t under the jurisdiction of the RPGA anyway, or they show up to events at game stores whose attendance get reported back to Wizards of the Coast. Everything in between is a massive grey area.
If you read last week’s column, you know that I recently DM-ed my first game at an RPGA “sanctioned” event. Like an absolute dummy, I went into the experience with absolutely no research done whatsoever. I just picked my adventure and the slot I wanted to play it in. What followed after that was a massive forum thread on whether or not I “could” play my quest, since it wasn’t written for LFR and would have to be heavily adapted. I personally saw no problem with my quest. It was a simple dungeon crawl for Level 1 to Level 2 players, so what was the harm? I was more than willing to play by the rules, but the rules were so damn vague! One PDF I found said that previously published adventures really shouldn’t be “skinned” to work in LFR, like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. I was fine with that, but then I found another PDF saying that adapting adventures from previous sources was okay, as long as they fit into the general campaign rules. Fine and dandy, but where the f**k are the campaign rules?! Every time I searched, I found a new PDF or site that attempted to provide answers but only brought up more questions. And I wasn’t the only one. People on the forum thread argued both sides with my game caught in the middle. Nobody, it seemed, had all the answers.
And that’s where I have a problem with the whole thing. The RPGA, and its rigid control over what was considered “legal” and what wasn’t, was philosophically fine with me. I understand that you don’t want rogue DMs giving out a million XP for a Level 1 encounter. That was fine as long as there was someone at the rulebook to enforce the rules. But now that the judges have left their post, it leaves the game masters to interpret the rules with no oversight but the specter of oversight. The inmates are running the asylum now, and all the problems associated with that are very evident. I see posts almost daily on the Meetup group forum talking about how an adventure will be “retired” soon. Cool, but I looked online and saw several adventures that were supposed to be retired last year that I played and got credit for this year. If you’re a new player or DM, how do you know what the hell is going on?!
As the RPG world prepares for the release of D&D’s 5th edition soon, Wizards of the Coast is trying to take in player feedback to unite the D&D faithful under one edition. I may not have a lot of insight on the mechanics of the game itself; I’m fairly green in the whole matter, after all. But I do have some advice for Wizards and the RPGA (if they’re still around to listen) about how to run their official games: keep it simple. Remember that these events you run are not only for the old guard, but for new players who may not have a clue how to play or how to run a game. They just want to play. The more rules and stipulations you put in their way, the less people are going to want to join in. But if you do want to keep up this “living campaign” stuff, that’s fine, but please for the love of Corellion put an FAQ or “how to” front and center for the newbies. We all want to play by your rules, but if the rules are obtuse, hard to find, or otherwise get in the way of someone who “just wants to play,” they will not stand for long.