Are We Having Fun Yet? (Part 1)

A generational gap that divides opinions on what makes a game worth playing

My first roleplaying game experience takes me back to when I was 12 years old. I stepped out of a December snowsquall into Phoenix Games, a hole-in-the-wall game store squeezed into a strip mall five minutes down the road from my house. After purchasing the 3.5 DnD Player’s Handbook there, I joined a game group made up of kids who would become my closest friends for the next six to fifteen years. The game was run by the owner of the store, a late gen-X geek in his mid-twenties who got paid either nothing to way too little to put up with all of our teenage bullshit for the next few years. It was a seminal time for me, is the picture I’m trying to paint here.

Well, now I’m the geek in his mid-twenties, running a game for a bunch of teenagers who came to me as 12-year olds wanting to start up an after-school DnD game at the elementary school I worked at. It’s safe to say the torch has been passed. The fact that they’ve stuck with me for years now is a testament, I would hope, to how engaging they find the story they I make with them. There have been astoundingly fun sessions and lackluster sessions and plenty in between. After each one of them I drive home thinking about what didn’t work and how to make it better, as is the habit of the neurotic GM.

In the most recent session, the party took on the task of sneaking into a heavily-guarded government base to abscond with a prototype of a magic-powered spaceship to take them to one of the four moons surrounding the planet they’re on. (Long story, you can imagine). To avoid fighting their way through half a dozen guard checkpoints, they took a detour through a long-forgotten tunnel that had been carved out by dragons centuries ago. They dealt admirably with a few magma traps here, a lava flow there. Then came the inevitable combat with three magma beasts; tough, but certainly within the players’ weight class, especially if the heroes pulled out some of the more powerful magic weapons they had sitting at the bottom of their Bags of Holding. (This is technically their second world; after saving their original one, the gods politely thanked them, but sent them on their way due to the… impressive scale of the collateral damage).

This is where the session, which had been chugging forward at a comfortable pace before, hit the molasses trap, with failed reflex saves all around. Round after round crawled by with them throwing their old standby stabs and spells at them; damage-per-round wise they were certainly winning, but that prospect didn’t seem to be make the situation more exciting. Even after years of gaming, a couple of these players would get themselves knocked out in the first round of combat due to not considering their low HP, or would try tactics that could be short-listed for a Darwin Award. After half an hour of session time had elapsed without much change in the situation, I actually ended up encouraging them to evade the monsters and carry on ahead with their mission; in my games, the players don’t get experience for specifically defeating monsters, and by extension it’s only sporadically that I pair up combat encounters with loot.

Any seasoned GM would expect me say, and rightly so, mea culpa. The reason the players are bored with combat encounters is because I make boring combat encounters. I’ve done my self-flagellation for these sins, but afterwards I kept poking at the conundrum; why do I rarely put in the effort to make engaging combat encounters? There have been times in the past when I’ve gone the lengths to create dynamic, vividly-detailed combat scenes. And they’ve gone off alright. I can’t deny I’ve been envious of GM friends who seem to have a knack for bringing us players into incredibly-choreographed encounters that stay fun in even in milk.

I think I found my answer, eventually. And I hope you’ll be back next week to read about it!

— Nagi