Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gaming and punk rock

My last post got me thinking about a sort of funny analogy. See, when I compared old school gaming as some (many?) would categorize it to old school punk, I realized that we're looking at a near-identical time frame. And the more I thought about, the more I saw more similarities.

Oh sure, the two don't line up perfectly. I can't say "D&D is like the Ramones, and Traveler is like Minor Threat, and this game is like Operation Ivy, and so forth." But it's surprising how many broad similarities there are.

We have two things that grew out of marginal movements (RPGs grew out of wargaming and pulp literature, punk rock grew out of the shunned-by-the-mainstream "proto-punk" groups of the 60s and early 70s), both of which were spread largely by word of mouth and an active, zine-based fan community. We have an explosion of national interest beginning around the same time (the late 70s). We have a slight retrenchment and expansion in the 80s (punk rock moved into the suburbs and became hardcore; RPGs moved out of the suburbs into...other suburbs...and became increasingly more complex--"hardcore," if you will). The 90s saw another mini-fad (with third wave ska and bands like Green Day, Rancid, and The Offspring for punk, and for RPGs the second edition of AD&D and games like the White Wolf line and its many, many imitators) that was sparked by a combination of old school revival and new interpretations on old ideas, while the last ten years have seen an increasing emphasis on "marketability" over being true to the scene's roots for both (the "fashion punks" like Avril Lavigne and Ashley Simpson 2.0, or the pop punks of Good Charlotte, et al., for punk and, for RPGs, things like "lite" rulesets, hard-cover, full-cover game books, and D&D 4e), along with movements labeled "indie" in both camps that focus on bringing "heart" back to their respective endeavors while expanding the accepted forms into previously untested waters, all the while traipsing dangerously close to obnoxious pretentiousness.

Now, like I said, these aren't perfect analogies--is 4e as vapid and commercial as your Avrils or Charlottes? Probably not (although the way some people go on about it...). But there is an intriguing similarity going on there, I think. Perhaps it has to do with the life cycle of any creative endeavor that engenders a "scene," be it music or collective storytelling. Or maybe I'm full of it.

Wargaming and Computers; or, "Just what exactly is a 'gamer' anyway?"

Since a very early point in my involvement in the gaming hobby, I've been a frustrated wargamer. When I say "wargames," I'm speaking of course about those boxed games that come with a 3'x4' map covered in hexagons and two or three sheets of punched cardboard counters with various NATO symbols and numbers printed on them. As I've written about before, I got into RPGs right at that cusp, that transition, from the last gasps of "old school" gaming (the end of the 80s--and yes, I know there are many out there who would argue that old school had died long before that, in much the same way that some would argue punk was dead by 1979, but let's just set that aside for now) and the "new school" as heralded by such games as Vampire: the Masqerade and AD&D 2e.

The end of the 80s didn't just herald the passing of a certain phase of RPG gaming, it also brought about the final effective death, I think, of an even earlier facet of the hobby, the granddaddy of them all, wargaming. The mass-market board wargame we know today was developed in the 1950s by Charles S. Roberts; his first game was called Tactics, and it sparked the creation of a whole new hobby that hadn't existed before (sound familiar?).

It was, of course, out of wargames and the associated hobby that RPGs and miniatures games grew, and it was the wargaming community that allowed folks like Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, Dave Arneson, Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, Rick Priestly, etc., etc., ad nauseum, to network and grow the nascent offshoots that later eclipsed wargames.

It's interesting and worrying to me that D&D and RPGs followed a similar trajectory to wargames: start with a small, self-published game that spawns an entire hobby; said hobby quickly grows from a small cadre of dedicated enthusiasts to a much larger phenomenon; phenomenon leads to all sorts of new blood coming in to hobby; said new blood takes hobby in strange new directions; hobby eventually shrinks back to its original size as the "grognards" keep carrying the torch forward and the new blood takes their new interpretations elsewhere, particularly into the world of computers, where the hobby is reborn in an even bigger fashion.It's that last bit I find a bit worrisome, and it's why I'm ultimately somewhat prejudiced against CRPGs and MMORPGs.

Like I said before, I was a frustrated wargamer. I bought Tactics II on sale at a mall game store (The Gamekeeper, if anyone remembers those places), and bought several more games over time for years after that. This at a time when you could still find wargames in a mall--hell, when you could still find gaming stores in a mall... It immediately spoke to me. It appealed to my interest in strategy. It appealed (very much, obviously) to my interest in military history, and my interest in "what if" scenarios. It appealed to that slightly OCD side of me that liked seeing serried ranks of squares and hexagons laid out like a military map showing main lines of resistance, breakthroughs, routs, and so forth. Yet, try as I might, I could not get my gaming friends interested in 'em. They just didn't see the appeal of pushing a bunch of cardboard counters around a paper map when computer wargames would do the same thing and offer better graphics and take care of all those fiddly rules for you. Now, my friends (Philistines that they are) aren't the best representatives even then, because they were never really interested in computer wargames either--they were much more of the "Warcraft/Starcraft" school--but I know that computer wargames in general sort of what put the nail in the coffin of the board wargame hobby (which had been in decline anyway).

This is why I'm a bit wary, as I said, of role-playing iterations of computer games, especially since the RPG hobby seems to still be following that wargames trajectory. Add into this the co-option of the term "gamer" by video game players (a huge pet peeve of mine), and you've got a recipe for a cranky young grognard. I know these are hardly new or revolutionary sentiments. And I know that wargames map to computers much more easily and readily than RPGs ever will (and even moreso for miniatures). But still, I worry--will I one day have to clarify what I mean by "RPG" ("Games you play in person with other people, involving dice and books...") like I did for "wargames" at the outset of this post?

I guess it comes down to the fact that, just like a feel a bit sad over the fact that I just missed out on the old school era of RPGs (as I define it), I also feel sad that the age of wargames had passed me by as well. Even sadder is the fact that I've recently come to realize that I simply no longer feel the urge to play wargames. I guess you can only carry a torch for so long. Like so many others, I scratch my wargaming itch with computer games these days.

(And for what it's worth, I have played board wargames online via the various "gamebox" applications one can access (VASL, Aide-de-Camp, etc.); it's just not the same as the real thing. Nor is solo play, which doesn't hold a candle to those few times I've managed to cajole a friend or two into playing. Also, interestingly, every time I've resolved to start playing more solo wargames, I've gotten a girlfriend or my social life has gotten suddenly much busier soon after, as if the universe is saying, "No, I won't let you go down that road--here, here's a bunch of stuff to keep you otherwise occupied.")

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Games I Have Known and Loved; or, the Solipsistic Spree Continues

Since I'm seemingly on a self-reflective streak, I figure now's a good time to trot out my list of games I play and have played regularly in the past. This was a bit of a meme going 'round about a month ago, so I'm a little late in coming, but on the other hand, this is another one of those posts I've been meaning to do for a while now. These are certainly not all the games I've ever played, just the ones that I once did or still do that mean alot to me.

Listed in approximate order of when I started playing 'em:

  • D&D/AD&D: So as I've written about before, I got started with the Mentzer Basic/Expert boxes. Thing is, I never had much chance to play 'em. Everyone I knew at my junior high played AD&D. Thanks to a warning in the back of the Basic Set ("AD&D is way more complicated, don't try to run AD&D modules with these rules or your eyes will explode, etc."), it didn't occur to me that I could simply sit in on a game of AD&D with the other kids. After my family moved cross-country that summer, I went out and bought the AD&D Player's Handbook (2e, of course, although I didn't realize at the time that were different editions); naturally, it turned out no one played D&D at my new school, Advanced or not. Life's funny sometimes, you know?

    Once I finally did start gaming regularly, I did manage to run a couple epic AD&D campaigns (quite a feat with only one PC!), but the halcyon days of AD&D were my late high school/early college years, thanks to Tim's enthusiasm. We played a metric ton(ne) of AD&D during that period. So much so that Alex pretty much burned out on D&D specifically and RPGs in general (although it took him years to realize this). But we did manage our greatest campaigns during that period, so it certainly was "burn-out well earned." And, in the years since, I've made peace with 2e--the system's perceived flaws are more likely to be viewed now as virtues. Prior to those days of delirious D&Ding, it was all about Palladium for Alex and me.

  • GURPS: Ah, but let us not forget the Generic Universal Role-Playing System. This was the second RPG I ever bought, quite a leap from the 64 pages of Mentzer Basic. Foreshadowing my Mythus swindle, I was lured in by the back copy on the GURPS 3rd edition rulebook. In particular, I loved the part that promised that you'd never need to learn a new set of rules "every time you switch campaigns." Considering that I hadn't run a campaign, let alone multiple campaigns that would have required switching between, it seems rather optimistic of me to have based my purchase on such criteria.

    The other thing that caught my notice was the promise that you could use the system to run any module or setting. I think I had visions of buying, say, a D&D module, setting it down next to the GURPS rulebook, and--presto!--a GURPSified adventure would somehow result. To that end, shortly after buying GURPS I also purchased the I.C.E. "Robin Hood: Giant Outlaw Campaign" (this being right after seeing both the Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergen versions of the tale--that was a good year for Robin Hood fans). I still have that I.C.E. supplement. I've kept it for purely nostalgic reasons, as I never did manage to GURPSify it. I just didn't have the level of gaming experience required for that sort of thing at the time, and my Robin Hood fervor has decreased somewhat since those days. If I were to try it nowadays, I'd probably use either Burning Wheel or Pendragon. Hmmm...anyway!

    GURPS is my own personal unrequited love, I'm afraid. To this day I'm an ardent fan of the system, but I've yet to run a long term campaign with it. One shots and short campaigns only. I suspect this is because others in my group tended to favor dedicated rulesets, so for fantasy we played D&D, horror got Call of Cthulhu, modern-day or futuristic got Palladium, etc.

    I've made a vow that the next campaign I run after I wrap up my Pendragon game will be GURPS. After all this time... We'll see if it pans out.

  • Palladium games: I think it would have been pretty hard to be a gaming neophyte in the early 90s and not have had some sort of exposure to one or more Palladium games. Not only did they have the hot licenses (Robotech, TMNT), but they were widely available, carried in book stores as well as specialist shops.

    As it turns out, Robotech was my first Palladium game. This, incidentally, was also the beginning of my strange habit of buying licensed RPGs associated with properties I have had little to no exposure to. GURPS Riverworld was another one I picked up around this time, even though I'd never even heard of the books. I just liked the setting idea. And to this day, I'm pretty sure I've never seen a complete episode of Robotech/Macross. But you needn't have seen the show to appreciate the idea of giant robots wailing on each other, especially when you're thirteen.

    I can still remember scratching my head, trying to puzzle my way through the rules at the beginning of that slim volume. Yet that sort of infectuous energy that inhabits most of Palladium's products soon infected me, and other titles were to follow. I bought Rifts and proceeded to drool over it. I picked up TMNT. Ninjas & Superspies was my next addition. We even dabbled in the Palladium Fantasy RPG, particularly after the 2nd edition came out (the illustrations in that book are some of my all-time favorite fantasy RPG illos).

    Of that list, Ninjas & Superspies and Rifts were our all-time favorites. We used the former almost exclusively for doing martial arts scenarios, pretty much ignoring the "superspy" aspect of the game (the product of coming of age during the "ninja craze" of the 80s, I suspect). And of our Rifts campaigns, much more could be written than would be of even passing interest to you, good reader. So we shall move on, pausing only to note that both Rifts and Ninjas & Superspies have been revisted by our group over the last couple years. I'll have more thoughts on that in a future post, I'm sure.

  • Call of Cthulhu: For my fourteenth birthday I received two RPGs that could not have been more unalike: Call of Cthulhu and Aliens: the Adventure Game, which was based on the trigonometrical Phoenix Command system. I got the latter because I had a friend who was a nut about the Aliens movies and, as I was still trying to get my friends to come together as a gaming group, thought I might lure him in that way. CoC I simply knew by reputation thanks to Dragon Magazine and the Wargames West catalog.

    Well sir, it was one of the strangest experiences of my life that weekend, reading a chapter of the Aliens RPG, then a chapter of CoC (I couldn't decide which to read first, so I read them at the same time). Schitzophrenic, almost. It certainly was a wonderful education in what makes a game good and what makes a game bad.

    CoC, of course, rightly deserved its reputation, and many wonderful nights have been passed scaring the bejesus out of each other. It was my gateway to the works of Lovecraft, and to a love of horror in general. We tried playing a couple of those mega-campaigns ("Masks," "Orient Express") but they never took. CoC, for us, was always about one shots and short campaigns--and unlike GURPS, I don't see that as a tragedy at all.

    (Incidentally, I did actually run the Aliens RPG once, for the aforementioned friend. I think the charts and pre-algebraic math actually drove him away from RPGs rather than suck him in.)

  • Cyberpunk: This was one of those games whose influence towers high above how much we actually played it. We spent more time talking about it, or ogling the Parente illustrations in the rulebook. Oh sure, we had a handful of short campaigns, and it turned me on to William Gibson, but it was always more appreciated than played, this one.

  • Pendragon: The new kid on the block, in its way. I've written at length about how it came to be that the longest-running campaign I've ever run turned out to be Pendragon, so I'll just leave off here by saying that this was the campaign where Des went from "casual" to "committed" gamer, and will probably remain her favorite RPG of all time because of it.
Notable by their absences, you may notice, are White Wolf games, superhero games, and classic sci-fi games.

We played a bit of Vampire (in GURPS form, no less), and we always wanted to run a Vampire: Dark Ages campaign, but never quite managed it; we were the "D&D" group. My high school also had the "White Wolf" group, led by Juan, and we sat in on each other's games from time to time, but it just never took off with us. I guess we weren't angsty enough?

Never played any of the classic 80s-era superhero games either (Marvel, DC Heroes, V&V, Champions, etc.) I owned one or two of those titles at various times, but, well, we were never big fans of four-color comics, so we never particularly felt the call. After seeing The Dark Knight I've felt a slight urge to rectify this oversight, but I doubt it'll happen any time soon. Still, I have been mulling over which ruleset I'd use...

As for sci-fi, well, I was certainly aware of Traveller, thanks in part to Roger E. Moore's war stories in Dragon Magazine, but it was sort of on its way out as I was coming in, as it were. Certainly the days of Classic Traveller were long gone. And, frankly, I like to think of Rifts as my own version of Traveller. It's what I played when I wasn't slaying orcs and just wanted to blow stuff up with lasers.

Looking back, that's a surprisingly short list, considering how many RPGs I've owned and/or played. I guess it goes to show that, in the end, you keep coming back to the games that really "do it" for you.

Gaming Hillbillies

So as I wrote about in my last post, Alex and I formed a two-person "group" for over two years in high school. Not only that, but we didn't really know any other gamers, let alone game with them. So suffice to say we were a bit, uh, isolated from the gaming community, especially as this was in the days before the World Wide Web and all. Our only real connection to the world of gaming at large was through Dragon and White Dwarf.

This led to some rather funny peculiarities. The most obvious of which was our strange "dialect" that we developed. That is to say, whenever we ran across a word that was new to us, either because it was game-specific or because it was via a game that we were exposed to an existing, arcane word, we'd do our best with coming up with a pronunciation. Some of the best of the worst:
  • Illuminati: We pronounced this as ILL-oom-ih-nuh-tie. Note the hard "i" at the end. We actually got called out on this one by a snotty game store employee when Alex asked if they carried the Steve Jackson CCG of the same name. I think that's when I first started to realize that we spoke in a gamer hillbilly dialect.
  • Attribute: This was all Alex, actually, but for a year or two there he pronounced it the way you do when you use it as a verb, as in, "I attribute this to the bad weather."
  • Gargant: If you're an old hand at Warhammer 40K or Space Marine (or Adeptus Titanicus for that matter) you know that this is the Games Workshop term for Space Ork giant mechs. I'm still not entirely sure, but I imagine it's pronounced as if it was short for "gargantuan." For some reason, though, our teenage selves chose to go with "gar-GENT." Still not sure why, really. Or, for that matter, if we were actually correct on this one all along.

Dramatis Personae

Well, thanks to Jeff Rients's shill, I signed on with the RPG Blogger's Network. Which means, since I'll probably be bringing in a handful of new readers here, this seems about as good a time as any to do the post whereby I outline a bit about myself and those who feature (regularly or irregularly) in this here blog.

Main Players
Yours Truly (aka David, Dave, "that guy," etc.): My first true gaming experience came at the tender age of 9 when a sometime friend ran me through the solo adventure in the Mentzer D&D Basic Set. I received the Expert Set for my 10th birthday, stared at it for about a year, then finally bought a Basic Set of my own so I could start to make sense of the Expert Set. Convoluted enough?

I didn't start gaming regularly, much to my chagrin, until I was 14. I seemed to exist in a strange gaming wormhole--I knew of kids both older and younger than me who gamed, but no one in my own age group did so. And it took me a while to realize that I didn't have to join an established group, but could strike out on my own. So I forged my own group, one person at a time. And that's where Alex comes in.

Alex: I met Alex by chance the year before we started gaming together. Discovering a shared love of sitting in the back of Science class, drawing comics about futuristic assassins, we talked about forming a gaming group with a few other friends. Nothing came of it, so Alex and I eventually said "screw it" and started gaming anyway, just the two of us. Our first game was AD&D 2e; Alex's first character was a half-elf ranger named Arthur MacArthur who was rolled up using one of the more arcane methods from the DMG (I think it was the "roll 3d6 twelve times, keep the six highest and assign at will" method). I don't remember much about that adventure, save that he had a hireling named Patsy (natch) who managed to trigger a fireball trap in a kobold dungeon (natch) and that Arthur MacArthur took Patsy's charred corpse back to town and paid a druid to reincarnate him. The session ended with us rolling on the random reincarnation chart until we got something we liked (troll, if memory serves).

Unfortunately that was the end of Arthur MacArthur and his troll henchman (shame, really). Next week we played Rifts; Alex made an Atlantean Undead Slayer named--wait for it--Douglas Von Holsing. That character was much more a hit than Arthur MacArthur, and we were off and running.

We gamed, just the two of us, in countless "solo" campaigns over the next two-and-a-half years. Eventually, looking for a little variety, we started casting about for fresh blood. We even almost joined a game club. But then we ended up expanding our little group by one person. Enter Tim...

Tim: Our new player came via Alex, who met Tim in a Graphic Arts class. Or rather Tim met Alex, which is to say he saw Alex reading a copy of Rifts and, as he was interested in getting into gaming, made a point of striking up a conversation.

Once Tim came along, we shifted focus from Palladium games to AD&D--Tim's preference, and Alex and I were just happy to have a new member of the group, so we went along with it. Unlike Alex or me, Tim has never really taken to running games, despite multiple attempts (several of which continue to live in infamy).

Oh, and the arrival of Tim cemented a strange pattern with the people I game with regularly: ever since the early days, it's been all about (a) only bringing in one new player to "the group" (such as it is) at a time, and (b) always bringing in a gaming newbie. Oh sure, I've gamed with experienced gamers from time to time, but they never became "regulars."

This pattern continued even years later with Des...

Des: My girlfriend/partner. When I met her, she was a total gaming newb. She's since grown to love gaming (under my careful tutelage, of course...) and I get to have a partner I can game with (see my earlier post about our Pendragon gaming frenzy of the last few weeks). A win-win, all around.

Des has shown interest in running games, and has successfully run a Call of Cthulhu one shot, but due to her punishing academic schedule (being in grad school and all) the odds of her running a campaign of any sort are slim to none at this point.

Currently, both Des and Alex are "local" to me--I live with Des, of course, and Alex has a place about 5 minutes from mine. Tim is down in Southern California; we had maintained regular gaming with him up until a couple months ago thanks to chat-based games, but as I wrote about earlier, the decision has been made to focus on "meat space" gaming, which means that my gaming with Tim will be largely restricted to the couple times a year one of us visits the other. So it goes.

The "group" at the moment is effectively me and Des. Alex and I plan to play occasional pick-up sessions of Rifts or other games, but he's not really a "regular" at this point. Nor is Tim, for obvious reasons.

It's funny to have come full circle; back to gaming one-on-one. It was how I ran and played games for over two years in my formative gaming career. And I gotta say, it's nice to be back.

Irregulars
Cameron: After Tim joined the group, he went on to contribute to our strange pattern by bringing in his friend, Cameron, who was similarly a newb. Cameron was once a regular but has been lost to the dark side of gaming (aka CRPGs and MMOs). Every once in a blue moon he sits in on a session, but for the most part he's moved on.

Jen: Alex's girlfriend at the time, she was briefly a member of the gaming group before going down the same road as Cameron.

Juan: The head honcho of one of the "younger gamer" groups that we sometimes interacted with, Juan also sat in on a few campaigns in our own group. Your stereotypical White Wolf/stoner gamer, but a stand up guy and fun player all the same.

I'm not sure how much these "irregulars" will come up in the course of future posts, but it's good to have them here for reference nonetheless.

I'll add more names if/when I think of them and I'll try to keep things updated to reflect current gaming realties as well.
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