Two of the players in my ASUDND game have posted some great thoughts on their experience with RPGs so far (MK and John), and I feel it's only fair to post mine. Why do we play games? Because they're fun. And why are they fun? When RPGs work, they combine the best parts of the narrative experience of a good novel, the tactic cut-and-thrust of a skirmish wargame, and the social pleasure of hanging out with people you like.
Narratives are the heart of the RPG. What kind of story do you want to tell, what themes, what stakes, what characters? For a GM, the tension is between a tightly plotted story, and the sandbox, where the character explore a broader world. ASUDND is a sandbox, I've created a very sketched out island populated by prospectors, goblin tribes, mysterious ruins, and mercenaries, and let the characters seek their own paths.
The standard D&D story is half-way between Campbell's monomyth, and a heist movie, where a team of skilled professionals is a given a quest, completes it through the strategic use of violence, and is rewarded with power and another quest. Eventually, you go from nobody to plane-shaking god-slaying superpower. This model works well enough, but gets a little tiresome. Great gaming enables players to establish a character, then places that character in a situation of actual conflict, where their preconceived notions of morality and loyalty break down. As I put in the teaser for my play-by-post game, Under No Banners, “What do you believe, and how far will you go for those beliefs?” I want to create a world that lets ambitious people seek excellence, and puts those ambitions in conflict with each other, and with something larger.
To describe where ASUDND stands, the Emerald Regiment has put their plans of capitalist-imperalist domination on hold to deal with a personal feud with an NPC group doing many of the same things they've done. To accomplish this, they've allied with the goblin tribes against their previous employers. But every action has consequences: goblins can't pay for mercenaries, and the Regiment has made a stand against everything that Port Arthur stands for. Where will they go from here? I would say that the past few sessions have been practice, this is where the adventure really starts.
The second part of the game is the system. Both of my players mention some dismay at their pregenerated characters. I personally find D&D4e a lot of fun as a tactical wargame, regardless of the roleplaying, which means that part of my job as DM is to teach new players how this game works. Character creation should be a collaborative process between a player and the rest of the group, usually mediated by the GM. In this case, because I have so much more power due to my knowledge of the rules, and D&D character building software, I've appropriated a lot of that process, translating a rough description of the character that the player into the language of the D&D4e ruleset. This is not how the game should work, and I hopefully won't have to do it again. Conversely, I need to shape up my encounters, making them more balanced, interesting, and treasure-filled.
I could talk more about ludic circles, or cultural models, or finite and infinite games, but I've found that RPGs are delicate creatures, and the tools of academic discourse usually just mangle them, like deep sea fish being brought to the surface. Forget the theory, Gary Gygax has The Wisdom.
"The ultimate success of this adventure in your campaign, rests upon you, the DM. It is you skill and knowledge not only of the adventure and the AD&D rule system, but of your players as well, that determine how enjoyable your games with this adventure are, There is no "right" way to run any encounter. There is only your way to of running encounters. You may add or delete from the story as you see fit. What is contained within is only a skeleton, it is your input that makes it a worthwhile adventure".
"You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to the all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow."
"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."