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Monday, 26 December 2016

Fanzine Focus V: Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed how another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Winged Snail Plays RPG’s (sic) is a small fanzine—quite literally at roughly an A6 size—that looks at getting into roleplaying for the first time. The inaugural issue, Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Begin at the Beginning’ looked at how to get into the hobby as a new player and being a good player through the experiences of the author, Sarah E. Hoffman. With the second issue, Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, the author takes a further step into the hobby by looking at what it is like to be a GM or referee.

Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’ beings with a decent description of what a GM, framing it in terms of taking the role of the Banker in Monopoly, but explaining how the GM facilitates the game and works to ensure that everyone has fun. It tells how to create a game in knowing your players’ personalities and keeping it small—two to four players rather than six; to organise the GM’s supplies, what to do prior to the game, during the game, and after the game. So it suggests and advises that it is better to choose a more well-known and popular rules system because it will be familiar and better supported, to use rules that you understand, to use ‘canned’ (or pre-written) adventures, and during play to directly ask the players if a particular rules work or explain a particular rule or explain the consequences of an action. After the game, the advice is take notes, ask for specific feedback, and schedule the next game. 

The advice is never less than to the point—unsurprising given the paucity of space in Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’—and perhaps whilst familiar to some, it does not mean that such advice cannot be stated or given. Unfortunately, from the very first page of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, it is clear that the author’s experiences in the hobby have not always been positive ones and have not been positive ones of late. In both the introduction and in the last few pages, Sarah talks about the ‘player from hell’, in her words, “…the doubchebag player, the rules lawyer, the railroading player, and every other conceivable rude social behavior imaginable.” Their existence and her experiences with players of this type and with the GMs who do not fulfil their responsibility to police and curb such behaviour, is why she has stopped being a player and switched to being a GM. She also states that the, “…constant negative interaction with rude players is the reason so many interested individuals never begin or become long term players.”

This is such a disappointing reason to switch roles. Most players switch to being the GM because they want the chance to run a game and present adventures to the other players. They do not change roles necessarily because of bad players and deciding to, or being forced to, for this reason, is terrible indictment upon our hobby. Or rather not entirely, since the author also makes the point that she does not actively play in real life in the tabletop roleplaying community of Yellowknife in the North West Territories, which is where she lives, for these reasons. So more a terrible indictment upon our hobby in Yellowknife in the North West Territories.

This is not to say that the problem does not exist at large in the hobby, such immature players do exist. It is one reason why the gaming community adopts conduct and harassment policies for its public events, its conventions, and so on, and certainly in this gamer’s experience, such poor behaviour is anything other than the norm. At home, around the gaming table, it is another matter, and that is where individuals in the hobby need to self-police. Not only the GM, but also the players too. There is no indication in Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’ that the author raised these issues with the offending player or the player’s GM, and it would have been interesting to read what the effect was had she done so… Further, could she not have recruited the players and GMs she likes to form a group where such issues would not such an issue?

As good as the material is in Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, the second issue of this fanzine is disappointing. The advice is good, it is clearly presented, it is to the point, and it is helpful, and overall, the second issue of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s is more assured and well written. It disappoints though because of the sting in the tail of the author’s poor playing experiences, yet more so because the reader is left wondering about these poor playing experiences and their consequences. Her experiences would make the fanzine more personal and more interesting. That perhaps is the challenge for the third issue of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s, that and perhaps attending a gaming convention…

Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’ is not really a booklet for the experienced GM (or player). Most of the advice will familiar to them, but this does not mean that it is bad advice. In fact, the advice is sound and is clearly born of personal experience—though in the case of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, not really quite enough.