Saturday, January 10, 2015

A few thoughts about role-playing games


Dice! Glorious, beautiful dice! The most heavily-fetishized
object at the gaming table by a huge margin.
Watching the third Hobbit movie got me jonesing to play Dungeons and Dragons again. I know a lot of Tolkien purists hate the films, but I don't, because I'm not. Oh, there's stuff I don't like about the movies; don't get me wrong. It's just that I happen to really like the way they've played fast and loose with Tolkien (two adjectives I'd never use to describe his work, which is why I'm not a fan, per se). Never mind the "video game sequence" that seems to be in every movie. Watch the PCs--excuse me, main characters--fight the wandering monst--I mean, the orc patrols--makes me want to roll to hit in the worst possible way.

So, I've been dusting off my old campaign (and by "old," I mean, like, ancient. I haven't cracked this material in over twenty years), and the results have been both daunting and humbling. Never mind trying to find four players who will work around my wonky schedule in Vernon By-God Texas, I have been embarrassed by the lack of verisimilitude in my old campaign notes (always thought to be golden and sacrosanct).  As a result, I've started a top-to-bottom refurbishment, from campaign map to dungeon door. Worldbuilding, now done with the eye of a writer who has been creating fictional worlds in prose for nearly two decades.

I'm having a blast, I really am, but I can see the rabbit hole approaching. I can tell I'm going to go down it, and throw together a ridiculous amount of material that my players will likely never see, nor need to see, because that's how I always did stuff like this. I burrowed in my youth, when I didn't know no better, and I tend to do it now, as a grown-ass man, when I certainly DO know better.

A first draft map of Riverton, the first city the players
will start out in. Huge, bustling, with three distinct
districts and lots of potential for trouble, both political
and otherwise. I love this stuff!

But let's face it; world building is fun. It's thirsty work, challenging, frustrating, and frequently headache-inducing. But once you start making choices, it becomes a blast. I forgot how much I loved making maps, writing descriptions, and working out things like trade routes, bandit lairs, thieves' guilds, and all of that nit-picky stuff. I really loved making my own tables and charts for things like wandering monsters, encounters, and reactions. And while I have some 5th edition rules (gifted to me from Christmas), and there are some great improvements in the system, to be sure, I have several Old School first edition knock-offs that I am looking seriously at; OSRIC and Adventurer Conqueror King both have a lot going for them with that stripped down, simplified set-up that we used to love so much.

Of course, I usually ran the games we played. And I got pretty lucky in that most of my players liked the collaborative idea of "let's create a story together" aspect of the game. I never had to be adversarial or vindictive. That's just not my style. I like to dazzle you with the world, and let you bounce around in it, or carve your initials onto it, as you see fit. That's the real fun of sitting down with people for literally dozens of hours to create this shared narrative.

My "New World" campaign setting is shaping up nicely. The map is drawn, and there's a lot of blank space for the players to explore. Or they can hug the cradle of the New Civilization and take their lumps there. It's wide open, and I foresee having enough basic info on hand to handle whatever goofy thing they decide to do.

I took a little break from the D&D fix to restart Skyim again. I played it up to the point where I got terrifically bored with the game and let it lapse for a year or so. Now I'm playing with more of an eye towards taking the world apart and critically examining it. I gotta tell you, I really don't like it that much. Not the game play or the way it's set up. All of that works great. No, it's the world. Granted, with all of the expansions, it's perhaps the greatest sandbox out there. But for all its vast scale and scope and size, you're still pigeonholed by two things: the "Main Quest" idea and the limits on what you can and cannot do.

First off, I hate dragons, okay? I hate dragons almost as much as I hate elves. And I loathe elves. So cliched, so broken, so, so, so what. Granted, my elves and dragons are specifically designed to be NOT that. But in Skyrim, not only are there dragons, and right out of the chute, at that, but you find out that YOU are "Dragon Borne." You can beat them. Speak their language. Ride them. Oh, lord, how horrible. Way to take something that's supposed to be primeval and a force of nature and reduce it to a collection of stuff you can loot. Welcome to Skyrim.

And what if I decide to take over the town? Kill the Jarl, take his place, etc. What do you mean, I can't do that? Not in Skyrim. Not unless there's a scripted story for it. Otherwise, you're just hacking up frozen undead and suicidal bandits and waiting for the next dragon to swoop down so you can shoot it from a distance and kill it and loot its corpse.

This is what I emphatically don't like about computer role-playing games. Skyrim is fun, as a Monty Haul Crawl kind of thing, but it's just not the same as looking over your screen at your players, who are hanging on to your every word, as you explain how the dragon lifts himself up...and up...and up...towering higher than anything they've ever seen in their lives, and watching them exchange looks as one another that say, "We may have bitten off more than we can chew."

Damn straight you have. It's called Dungeons and Dragons for a reason.

And those instant reactions, the inspired bits of dialogue, the interplay between player and GM, and the allowances for instant creation of material in the face of players doing the unexpected, is something that computers can never duplicate, or even imitate. Oh, maybe they could, but they won't, because of how much code it would take. That's why I'm making this campaign and starting over basically from scratch. I miss that interaction with other people.

I'll post more from the campaign if you're interested. Let me know in the comments, okay?

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