Sunday, 9 August 2015

Watching Wesley Crusher DM a Game: Is this my first ever review?

I have nothing much to do with Will Wheaton's post Star Trek endeavours - I have never watched or listened to anything he's done - but out of morbid fascination I sat down earlier today and watched Chapter One of his "celebrity"-let's-play-an-RPG-on-TV affair, Something Vaguely Fantasy Sounding: Something Else Vaguely Fantasy Sounding. I tried my best not to be mean-spirited about it (it's fair to say that both in philosophy and system it's diametrically opposed to what I'm looking for) but here are my observations in bullet point order.

  • Christ, Will Wheaton has apparently spent the last 20 years developing a really annoying supercilious manner that is a massive pain in the arse initially (I know, I know, I promised not to be unduly negative; he grew on me after a bit - and I can never truly hate anybody who was in Next Gen).
  • The idea that you have to watch a big introductory "Episode 0" so you understand the setting of Valkana and the special snowflake characters and their backstories could go one of two ways. I personally find it unnecessary and likely to be counter-productive (does any good film or novel require you to read supplementary material first in order to understand the plot?) but on the other hand, I appreciate that they want to start the series proper in media res and this sort of thing would be explained in a normal game during character gen or whatever. The backstory of Valkana itself is pretty bog-standard stuff, but that's to be expected.
  • The game proper begins with a quest being delivered to the PCs in the standard manner. They have something to do, and they're going to do it. Take magic item to place, ask sage about it. I don't have a problem necessarily with games which have a predetermined plot arc such as this, but there are ways of going about it. Personally I would have stopped the introductory narrative at "You have found this strange sphere; what are you going to do?" This would allow the players to get started straight away examining the item and then asking around town to see if anybody had any information. This could then have led to the discovery that in the next town over there is a sage who might know about these things. This would get the players invested in things from the beginning - meeting NPCs, getting a chance to ask questions both of the DM and other characters - and reward them using their initiative. But ho hum, in the interests of time, fine.
  • Okay, okay, I get it. We all like beer. 
  • I think a pattern is emerging already: the players ride the DM railroad for a short period, and then get a section of down-time to pursue autonomy in a limited fashion (interacting at the bar) before likely getting on the DM railroad again later. It resembles video-game RPGs quite closely, and also the "Silver Age" method of gaming which I remember from my teenage years so well. It's interesting to know this kind of thing still goes on; maybe I've been in the OSR echochamber too long. 
  • I like the idea of a "Battle of the Boasts" as a way of getting the players to have a chance to be creative and tell some amusing stories and develop their PCs' personalities a bit. Sort of like how Pendragon games traditionally start off with a race or something similar to get everybody into the swing of things.
  • Oh, but hang on.... No, there's a chance for Will Wheaton to do some acting first. It's 20 minutes in and the players have done almost nothing so far.
  • Oh, but hang on.... No, after the first PC's story (couldn't tell if this was rehearsed beforehand), something pre-scripted happens - the PCs have to come to the rescue of stolen beer. Okay, okay, I get it. We all like beer. It's a side-quest, clearly, to give the PCs something to do on the way to the main mission. Again, no criticism of the play style necessarily, but this could have been presented better so as to give the players a sense of agency: I'd like them to have heard in the bar that some beer had been stolen, but left them to act on their own initiative as to how to rediscover it rather than simply fast forward to them riding to the rescue. They may, for instance, have wanted to track the stolen goods to the bandits' lair and attack them in their sleep. They may have wanted to simply try to steal it back. And so on.
  • A fight! Lots of excited shouting. One of the girls keeps shrieking "Whoo!" and "Doubles!" I recognise these aren't bad people, but I do find them quite profoundly irritating. The two men on the couch are complete nonentities - they may as well be literally anybody - but the girl on the right at least has a personality and both women appeal in a mild way to the superficial male, which of course I am. 
  • The fight is sorted out mercifully quickly; there was no way the PCs were ever going to lose it. All a manner of taste of course, but watching the fight scene I sort of feel like how I used to feel when as a kid my parents would drag me round a shopping centre or art gallery where I didn't want to be. I'd get this mounting sense of frustration - almost a tension in my chest like an incipient heart attack - and feel gradually more and more like I needed to blurt out some kind of awful primal scream of annoyance and revulsion. Just please can we go somewhere else. That's the sensation I get from watching the fight. Just what's the point? The PCs are going to win, so please just get on with the game
  • It's all over, tune in next week, etc.

An unusual experience. Perversely, despite the negative flavour of my observations, I didn't mind Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana all that much. I think this may have been coloured by me reading the comments on the video afterwards, which are so universally nice ("This was awesome! You guys are amazing! I haven't played an RPG in 25 years but I am desperate to start!") that I feel like a horrendous cock-end and a churl for saying anything remotely bad about it. I don't object to people having fun, I really don't. Is it at all satisfactory to end this excuse for a review by saying that I would probably rather be flogged than be involved in that session, and yet at the same time I can't summon up the necessary bile enough to say I disliked watching it? 

Verdict: I didn't dislike watching it. 2 1/2 becs des corbins


  1. Are you me?
    But yea, this sums it all up super well. My housemate and I watched the second one and it got a bit better. Still drinking game material, but better.
    This is mainly because there's less Wil Wheaton self-important monologuing and more letting any other person talk for more than five seconds.

  2. a fair review, but you must remember some aspects of the videos:

    First, it is mainly done to introduct new players to Tabletop RPG

    Second, its a featured show in a moderetally known youtube channel, not the ramblings of some friends in a blog, so they need: to be laser focused so people dont lose atenttion to the episodes, and to have a limited arc so they dont choke the channel with the videos.

    As you said you are too into OSR and a Entire world of RPG, this is not really a product directed to you, and its allready pretty hard to sell videos or podcast of people playing tabletop rpg, as the thousand of podcast and shows trying as shown us.

    1. Yes, I don't mind its existence for those reasons. I do think that Will does a mediocre job of DMing even given those caveats, however.

  3. A fair review. Fun for young teenagers. Managed to get through the first two and then lost interest. May drift back to it in the future if I get really bored one day but otherwise lets face it, there are better things to be doing with our time.

  4. I think a pattern is emerging already: the players ride the DM railroad for a short period, and then get a section of down-time to pursue autonomy in a limited fashion (interacting at the bar) before likely getting on the DM railroad again later. It resembles video-game RPGs quite closely, and also the "Silver Age" method of gaming which I remember from my teenage years so well. It's interesting to know this kind of thing still goes on; maybe I've been in the OSR echochamber too long.

    This is very much how my 5e campaign is running. It's not really my first choice, but it works considering we're all new to 5e, and two players are brand new to RPGs. In part, however, it's largely a function of how big the group is; with so much attention focused on the PCs, the world really hasn't had a chance to shine, so the players are not invested in it, so they have little in the way of context by which to be proactive enough to take over the task of coming up with their own goals.

    1. I don't mind that playstyle actually, if it's what works. But it's important the PCs still get as much agency as possible within a more restricted framework.

    2. I mean basically everything that happened in Episode One was prearranged/pre-planned. The players got a little bit of illusionary freedom to interact at the bar but everything else followed a strictly-plotted path.

    3. The whole thing was preplanned and scripted. There are outtakes where they have to go back are repeat their lines.

  5. I think the best way of understanding the whole Forge/Story Gaming thing is that a bunch of people got annoyed at the exact same things you were annoyed about and came up with reaaaaaaaally different solutions to those problems.

    1. @David Boshko. Yep, I absolutely agree and have written about it before somewhere - the OSR and story game movements have much more in common than some people like to think.

  6. @ Noisms:

    What...? Will Wheaton is still alive? I thought he'd died or something!

  7. Someone was raving about this show at the last convention I went to so I checked it out. I felt similarly - it's not for me, but I do hope it will get more people into the hobby.