Friday, June 11, 2010

Gaming Interlude

I don’t suppose it will surprise anyone if I mention that for many years, I was a player of table-top role-playing games. Not the painted-miniature sort of things, but the complicated dice-rolling games. Like Dungeons and Dragons, yeah.

And it was a total fuckload of fun. (Why else would I bother?)

RPGs got a bad rap for a while there, associated heavily with the geekiest of nerddom. (Like I ever gave a flying fart.) But then, I was never one for memorising rules and arguing over which specialist combat table to use: I liked the storytelling aspect of the games, and I made the most of it. Made a lot of friends, spent a lot of time in imaginary worlds doing wild shit. List the games I’ve been part of... yeah, that would go on for a while. I’ve been superheroes and space travellers. I've played wizards and warriors and thieves and spies. I’ve been a half-mad monster-hunter with his trench-coat pockets full of dynamite. I’ve been a master of super-science, battling fiendish villains from the worst of the pulp fiction era. I’ve been good guys and bad guys, monsters and men of all kinds, and I completely goddam enjoyed myself.

When I shifted here to Tasmania, the gaming was something I knew I’d really miss. I figured I could stay in touch with friends; I was already used to living three hundred kilometres from them. But we still used to get together every month or so, break out the dice and lose a weekend to junk food and booze and wild storytelling. Down here? Well, I didn’t know anybody who might play, for starters. (Except Tansy. In Hobart. And that’s a long way when you’ve got kids.) And of course, it’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand why a man of forty-odd might want to play nerdy table-top games like that... so I quietly let that side of my life go, and got on with being a dad, and a writer, and a martial arts instructor, and all that other stuff.

Still. I really missed it. At its best, a good role-playing game is like fast-moving, plot-driven improv theatre. Everybody’s got a job, something to be or do to keep the story rolling along, and the game master has to be on top of things at all times. Keeping a tale unfolding while five or six different wannabe heroes are all trying to go in different directions and screw things up in their own unique fashion — that’s damned difficult. Holding their interest while you do it is even harder. And subtly guiding the whole show so that the story unrolls beautifully and the players think it’s all their own doing, and keeping it up for four or five hours at a stretch: that’s one hell of a challenge. Seriously: writing a novel is goddam difficult, but keeping a game campaign happening is one hell of a good way to practice.

So why am I mentioning this? Well... because I sorta figured that these games also do a lot more than entertain.

In a proper Role-Playing Game, the players must literally take on the problems and the personalities of their characters. They need to think ahead and plan carefully. They need to consider each other’s part in any action. They need to negotiate, often quite intensely. They need to be able to react quickly and improvise when needed. In short, a really good player has to show a range of complex thinking skills.

Then there’s the matter of imagination. There’s no screen here. Sure, some people play with miniatures and little wipe-clean map-boards to display terrain — but you don’t have to. In fact, that kind of thing just slows it down. All that business of measuring distances on a simulation surface... dull. Much better if the player asks ‘Am I close enough to jump over the table and punch out the drunken barbarian?', leaving it up to the Game Master to say ‘yes’, or ‘no’, or add something else to it, such as ‘sure, but don’t forget there’s a big puddle of ale on the floor. Step in that and you’ll probably slip and fall instead of making the jump.’

The best games are a fluid, ever-changing narration negotiated between the Game Master and the players, with the dice providing (apparently) neutral moderation. They’re feats of concentration and vivid imagination, and they’re near as entertaining to listen in on as they are to be part of. The mental challenge they provide to the Game Master is a real kick; I always enjoyed that job. But more importantly, the wide range of mental challenges that a good RPG puts to the players is potentially very valuable.

Imagine you have a smart kid, hooked on imaginative narrative in a big way. Now imagine he lives in a small town where most of his contemporaries are far more interested in footy and whatever cartoon show is currently providing a crop of spin-off toys to K-mart. A smart kid, naturally talented in communication, can really be a handful. He can be highly manipulative, for example: not because he’s so very smart (if he was really smart, he’d soon learn that manipulation is a fool’s game) but because he can naturally and easily talk his way around most of the kids he knows. He can be moody, and sullen, and bored if he doesn’t get enough input. He can be temperamental. And while one day he will need adult levels of sophistication, right now most of the adults around him are more than impressed enough by his vocabulary and his eclectic general knowledge that he can get away with far too much.

That was me, age 10. Yep. And yes, that’s the Elder Son now, more or less.

By inclination he’s a decent kid. There’s no malice in him. But like any kid, he’s fundamentally self-focused, and since he can communicate quickly and think quickly, he very naturally uses his talents to manipulate situations and people to suit himself. Of course, that’s not super-easy at home. I remember this time of life, how it felt, what I wanted, and how I went about trying to achieve it. I have, in fact, a very unfair advantage in this game, and I’m sure it pisses Elder Son off no end. But at school? And elsewhere?

Imagine you took that kid, and in the guise of a game — a game that involved all his favourite kinds of magic and monsters, treasure and rescues, villains and heroes and exploration and all the wonderful stuff that goes with that kind of story-telling — you made it necessary for him to take on the role of an adult. A member of a team, or an interdependent group. Imagine now that the other players in that group need his skills and abilities to help them survive the story; and that he needs them just as much.

Now you know what I’m doing.

Today, I ran my first fantasy RPG session in maybe a decade. It involved Elder Son and Younger Son, and a couple of the very bright lads from down the hill, who are just a couple years older than my two. I’ve sketched up the basics of a useful set of rules, and I laid out the very simplest of plots and settings, and I expected it might go for two, maybe three hours.

It lasted four, and could easily have gone longer. The boys had a marvellous time. First they uncovered a changeling baby in a little coastal village. Then, realising that meant there must be a nest of vile gobliny evilness somewhere around, they teamed up with a local ranger-type, and tracked the goblins to an old, ruined Roman-era villa in the deep forest. By the time Natalie came home, Younger Son had sneaked in and recovered the baby while the others kept up a satisfyingly violent distraction...

The upshot? Very happy boys with lots of stories to tell. All kinds of odd bits of subtle history. (For example: did you know that a hypocaust is an ancient Roman system of central heating? The boys know that now: that was how Younger Son sneaked into the ruined villa.) Heaps of discussion and negotiation and turn-taking — nobody dominating the storyline, everybody taking part where they could. Planning ahead. Improvisation. Truckloads of imagination.

And then there’s me. Yeah, sure: I’m telling stories on the fly with a bunch of young kids. But you know what? They’re at least as challenging and imaginative as grown-up players would be. Maybe even more.

That was fun, and I’d earned it. I’ve worked damned hard these last two weeks of holidays, and hardly taken much time at all to be with the boys. It was great to spend an afternoon that way — and even better to see them learning to enjoy something I’ve had so much fun from down the years. We’ll do this again — or so I was told, with great vigour and enthusiasm — and I’m already looking forward to it.

Just for the hell of it, I’ll put the rules and the background information for the game here. I don’t think anybody needs ‘em. RPG systems are a dime a dozen, and then some. But who knows? Maybe someone else will see an opportunity to have some fun too.


  1. ...I want to play.

    No wait. 1st I want to burn Kilmarnock to the ground, then I want to play.

  2. That is fantastic.

    There is a group of friends back home that I played D&D with from my teens through my early 30's. They still meets every Thursday to play. Only now, instead of playing in someone's basement, they play in the conference room of the guy's legal office.

    Some of those guys are in their fifties.



  3. Its great that those guys have managed to keep it together. I would love to be involved in a game, but getting that many good people with that much freetime, all at the same, time seems impossible.

    By way of example, the last group that Dirk was involved in (that I know of anyway) is currently spread across 2 continents and 3 states within Australia.

  4. Sorry, make that 2 continents and 4 states within Australia.

  5. I am totally surprised that for many years you were a player of table-top role-playing games. I would never have guessed that, and now that I know, it ruins everything.

    And the rest of you: what the hell is wrong with you? Don't encourage him.

  6. Boylan ... you are just jealous because you were forced to spend your formative years drinking and whoring your way across "The Continent" whereas we spent our time in damp basements with pimply faced, socially stunted geeks, nerds and dweebs enjoying salty snacks, sugary drinks and regurgitating lines from Monty Python and oodles of bad puns. Don't be a hater because we were so fortunate.

    For the record, I say this every night as I bury my face in my pillow and cry myself to sleep.

  7. Rhino - You defame me, sir! I did NOT "whore my way across the Continent." You accuse me of sloth - a mortal sin. I whored my way across three continents and believe me it wasn't easy, but someone had to do it. I can name any number of persons who will attest to my diligence, none of which will speak about those years "on the record" but that isn't the point, is it?

    Having set the record straight, I retire to my ivory tower.

  8. Three continents? That's intriguing. Because if we excuse the USA and Europe (and knowing you've not yet visited Australia) you wind up resorting to Asia, Africa, or South America, and that suggests some seriously extreme whoring.

    Unless you whored across the Antarctic. Which, if you managed it without frostbite, is an achievement surely worthy of great adulation.

  9. A gentleman does not discuss such things. I reveal nothing unseemly when I say that Egypt and Morocco are considered part of Africa. And I will also say without risking impropriety that the women of McMurdo Station know how to keep a man warm. I mean that in a literal sense. Everyone there has special training to prevent and treat hypothermia.

  10. ...and just this once, the porn-bot has perfect timing.

  11. Seems I fit the profile too...reformed gamer, me. With old school mates, who I am still mates with, but family etc. got in the way so I do games anymore. But by crikey we had some good times doing it, great stories created worthy of novels! I know a few of them still do games, but moved away from RPGs to lead figure tabletop wars and the like.

    Funnily, unlike most pimply geeks, many of could do stuff in the real world too. At least half of us ended up in the Defence Forces and/or emergency services. And many became highly regarded professionals in their fields.

    Wish I had the time to do it again - I might take a leaf from your book FH and try out an RPG on my first three boys when they next visit.

  12. Okay... just this once, the PornBot gets to stay. Nobody actually clicks on the farkin' thing anyhow, do they? (Boylan, I'm looking at you and your chequered past here.)

    Bondi: I do wonder, from time to time, about that pimply nerd stereotype. Because my batch of gaming buddies seems to fit the same bill as yours.

    Serious gaming takes brains. You don't have to be a complete couch potato and a social pariah just because your smart. In fact, if you're really smart, you generally put your brains to work on finding ways NOT to be a couch potato and a social leper...

  13. Oh no, the pimply/stinky nerd stereotype exists. My mates and I have travelled to Canberra every year since 1982 for the big gaming convention they have there annually. Trust me, a greater betonce of fucktards you will rarely meet. I always marvelled that whilst these dicks played at their games, my mates could probably DO a lot of this stuff in real life if pushed. And some really do have issues with complexion and personal hygeine.

  14. Ah Cancon :)

    I missed this year what with being o/s. The two years prior I ran the WARMACHINE tournaments. Its a fine convention that would benefit greatly from some new blood at the helm and proper air conditioning.

    As for gamer demographics, I have been a gamer by choice for over 30yrs and in that time I have noticed two trends...

    1st - More girls. It used to be around 1 in 10. These days I would call it closer to 3 in 10. Nice.

    2nd - The nature of the nerd. We used to get a lot of gamer kids that didn't fit in with their peers because they were smart. Now we get a lot of gamer kids that don't fit in with their peers, but aren't especially bright either.

  15. Strange thing was that at school the guys I played AD&D with, weren't actually geeky.

    Yes at Uni alot were, and then after uni less than a third.

    The joys of creating a world populating it and then setting your player lose on it to basically screw up all your hard work was always fun.

    In the group I player in London it was said that myself and another GM competed for the nastiest scenarios. It cut me to the quick....

    Would like to play again.

  16. Chaz... nasty scenarios are FUN. Go ahead: ask Jyggdrasil sometime just how many Paranoia Troubleshooters it takes to change a lightbulb.

    (The answer varies, depending on how desperate your player group gets...)