As that cunning devil scheduling continues to rear it’s ugly head, Brad and I haven’t had the time to sit down, face to face, and go through a session of Call of Cthulhu. So, in the meantime, I figured I’d start what will be an ongoing, general discussion of my gaming philosophy and the overall hobby. I may also use this place to do occasional reviews or discussions of specific games.
The world of roleplaying games is very, very diverse. There is a game for anyone, but no game is for everyone. Some people like a focus on the nitty gritty of combat, using maps, miniatures, distance modifiers, and such. Others prefer esoteric games with no real rules to speak of. And still others, any number of variations in between. Some people adapt to whatever game they happen to be playing, and some simply can’t handle a game too far out of their comfort zone. I, unfortunately, fall closer to that latter type. I like playing a lot of different games, but only enjoy running a limited number, and there are more than a few games I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
When I started getting into gaming, somewhere around age 11 or 12, I used Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying, found at that time in Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Worlds of Wonder (as well as a couple other games). Even then, I was drawn to a game with less numbers, less ‘crunchy’ rules. I didn’t care what modifier you got for carrying an extra thirty pounds while trying to draw a sword. I certainly didn’t care what effect the wind speed would have on the same task. And honestly, I didn’t even care too much for games adding in the admittedly more realistic hit location charts. I know getting punched in the face is probably going to be more damaging than getting punched in the leg, but that’s just more detail than I want to worry about.
As I became more comfortable with the game, running scenarios and longer campaign games for a handful of friends, I found myself stripping the system down even more, ignoring details I found extraneous. I got very stuck in that one game, Basic Roleplaying, for a long, long time. After starting to work at a game store, I did finally break out of my routine and try new systems, and I found lots of great stuff, though I became more and more convinced that less is more when it comes to rules and mechanics.
From the beginning, I never went in for pre-published adventures; scenarios written by game designers, complete with non-player characters (NPCs), challenges, plots, etc. They always felt too limiting. What I couldn’t put my finger on then, but know now is that I’ve always liked games to be more free-formed and player/character driven. I don’t like a highly structured, difficult to deviate from story that I simply push my players through. That’s more like the so called roleplaying games you get in the video game world. What’s the point of playing a game of imagination if you’re just running through a pre-planned game with an already set down series of encounters and challenges? For me, not much.
That’s not to say I’m completely against pre-published adventures. They certainly have their place. Invaluable at conventions and useful for pick-up games, these pre-made scenarios can help out on occasion. But, as a regular thing, I just don’t think they stack up. Maybe it’s the writer in me. Part of the pleasure I get from roleplaying games is that writer’s creativity. As a player, it’s getting into the mind of my character and trying to see the world through his eyes. As a game master, it’s not only coming up with plots and fun NPCs, but trying to specifically come up with things to intrigue and entertain my players. And some game designer, sitting at his desk ten years ago isn’t going to know what my player finds interesting, or what gives her the heeby jeebies.
If I’m running a horror game, I like to use what I know about my players to create the atmosphere of fear. If I’m running an adventure game, I want to know what gets their juices pumping. And from there, I try to weave stories that contain elements for both my players and for myself. After all, I want to have fun with the story too.
But no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. And no adventure, no matter how well thought out or planned, ever goes the way you expect. Another reason I prefer not to use pre-published adventures is that once you introduce players into the equation, all bets are off. I once had a game master (for the weird western Deadlands) who used pre-published adventures every week. On this one night, he paused a session after about ten minutes of play. He said, “I just wanted you all to know that this is the point where you guys went in a totally different direction than the adventure. You guys do this every time. Five or ten minutes in, and you’ve gone completely off track. Somehow, you always manage to find your way back and kill the villain. I don’t know how you do it. But you guys NEVER follow the book.” He wasn’t upset. Just flabbergasted, I guess. It all worked out. He was actually quite good at improve. Which you need to be if you’re going to run a good game. Always expect the unexpected.
Early on, I would try to map out possible choices my players might make. Try to figure out ahead of time what directions they’d want to go in, and thus what I needed to have ready. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I either had to go with the flow and come up with a lot of stuff on the fly, or simply re-write things constantly to keep whatever I wanted to happen in front of them, whichever way they turned. Both have been handy skills over the years. By my later years running games, I spent most of my preparation time on the background of the story, on everything that happened leading up to the player characters (PCs) coming onto the scene and on any NPCs I thought they’d likely come across. Most of what would happen next then rested in the hands of the players. In this sort of game, it becomes my job to react quickly to what they choose. This does sometimes mean I come up a little short, though. So, I’m trying to rebalance the equation. With my next foray into running a game, I plan to have a slightly less loose idea of what may happen.
I do think that more than plot, character is the key element of a good story. This is why many modern horror movies fall flat for me, in spite of occasionally having cool ideas or monsters. If the characters are annoying, uninteresting, or worse, passive, then no amount of gore effects or CG will help the film. I think this is the same with roleplaying games. You need cool, interesting characters and you need players willing to use them to push the story forward. Otherwise, why not just pop in a movie or play a video game? It’s not interactive, group storytelling if only one person in the circle is telling the story.
|Who makes it? Who cares?|
As a player, I like to delve into what makes my character tick. What interesting things has he done? What makes him mad? What makes him stay while others run? Who is he, and what does he want? From that, I try to figure out how he sees the events that unfold in the game, and make choices accordingly. A trucker from Washington is not going to react to a zombie plague they same way a biologist from Paris would. Exploring those differences is one of the things that makes roleplaying fun for me. Playing a role. Getting into the head of someone else and trying to think like them. One of my favorite games is Ars Magica, a fantasy game set in “Mythic Europe.” It’s medieval Europe seen through the eyes of the people who lived in it. Dragons and fairies are real, magic is real, angels and demons are real. In playing the game, you’ve got to take on the role of someone not blessed with modern enlightenment, for whom the bone of a saint really can ward off devils and for whom that stranger with one eyebrow really is a werewolf.
Roleplaying is a form of group storytelling. For me, it’s not a contest. It’s not me VS my players. For me, GM and players are a group, like an orchestra and conductor, stronger when we work together to create something memorable. That can’t be found in charts and graphs, or the roll of the dice. On many occasions, in discussing game mechanics with fellow gamers, I’ve heard that ‘it’s not the system, it’s the players.’ And while I agree with the sentiment, I disagree with the statement. The group of people you gather together for a roleplaying game is of paramount importance. You need people who get along, enjoy each other’s company, embrace the activity of gaming, and are generally good folk. But what game you play is important. The rules you use are important. I don’t play or run Dungeons & Dragons because I feel that as a game master and a player, one has to fight with the mechanics to have fun or tell a good story. And that the rules are set up for a style of ‘hack & slash’ gaming that just doesn’t appeal to me.
If you have the option to play a game that doesn’t, by its very nature get in the way of having fun, then why would you choose otherwise? But, as I said at the top, there’s a game for anyone, and no game is for everyone. I’ve found many games for me over the years. Unfortunately, many of them are not only not for everyone, but not for most (Whispering Vault). Several that work very well for me, and some I don’t ever want to be involved with again. But each of us, player and game master alike, must find what works best for ourselves. My style of play is not going to be the same as someone else. It can’t be. And that’s one of the things that makes it so interesting. It's in finding the right mix of people and ideas that the magic happens.