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.