RPGBOMB – Interview/Chat Log

This was fun, I’d do it again. Hopefully a bit better organised next time though!

Worth it just for the Cthulhu Confectionary…

RPGBOMB – Interview/Chat Reminder

I’ll be on there from 2am UK time tonight, and probably tripping my tits off on sleep deprivation poisons, so it’s probably a good time to ask me about, well, anything.

RPGBOMB – Interview/Chat

I will be on www.rpgbomb.com tomorrow night (Wednesday) from around 2am UK time for an interview/chat. So if you want to come along so I don’t get lonely and quiz me about anything to do with gaming, or indeed anything else, you’re welcome.

Grim’s Tales: My Gaming History IV & Comments


In at the Deep End

Unlike the enormous and overhelming majority of people in the world, I didn’t start ‘proper’ role-playing with Dungeons & Dragons. I wasn’t even aware that Dungeons & Dragons existed for quite some time. When I went out looking for a proper RPG, in a shop in a shopping area that doesn’t even exist any more, I gravitated immediately to Middle Earth Roleplaying (or MERP) by Iron Crown Enterprises because I loved The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings so much, even at that young age. Anyone who knows anything about MERP knows that it was basically just a ‘lite’ (Ha ha ha…) version of Rolemaster, one of the most baroque, complex and inaccessible RPGs in existence. Unbowed by almost completely not understanding the rules I threw myself into playing it with my customary gusto and it was my roleplaying game of choice for many years.

That might well surprise people, since I seem to be somewhat associated with the ‘New Style’ or ‘rules lite’ system movement, these days somewhat inappropriately called ‘Indie’, but then perhaps grappling with ‘Rulesmaster’ all those years gave me a greater appreciation for the possibilities of stripping back the rules to get at a more ‘pure’ gaming experience. Even so, MERP taught me a huge amount about creating a good game world, about making it consistent, keeping the mood of the material and learning to expand on it an an appropriate way. It also put me completely off using figures and maps to the point where I never really used them again until very recently.

After that things turned into a bit of a blur, game after game, willing to play just about anything, but there’s some particular stand-out games that I think have informed me and helped make me into the gamer and writer I am today.

  • Dragon Warriors: A very simple system and spread across several books, Dragon Warriors was important for a couple of reasons, firstly it was sold in paperback format (a shame the new edition wasn’t, though it is great) and secondly it really went for the mythological, British feel to the background, even more so than Fighting Fantasy. The mini-adventures in the backs of the books were also of excellent quality.
  • Cyberpunk 2013: If Cyberpunk hadn’t laid the foundation none of the ‘stylish’ games that came along later in the 90s, none of them could have really existed. 2013 also tried for a realistic combat system and while success was mixed, it helped show how system to could guide player behaviour.
  • Cyberpunk 2020: A massive improvement in presentation and a progression in system showed that new editions could genuinely improve upon older ones. Cyberpunk 2020 was played for years and years in my group and we still return to the game and the system for near future and transhumanism themed games. It’s just a real shame CP3.0 let the legacy down.
  • Blood!: Blood! won me back to system-heavy games through the critical hit tables and in the way it played, showing me that a system heavy game could still come through and create an engaging and immersive game, especially in terms of survival horror. I loved it so much I resurrected the game under license.
  • Over the Edge: Going the opposite way to Blood! this was a vaguard of ‘rules lite’ and showed how it could really work well. Characters defined very simply in a setting where you can literally play anything. Challenging as a Games Master and inspirational from a design point of view I still go back to it for inspiration.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade: A revelation in its time in terms of presentation, graphic design and the focus of the game upon story and narrative over the game. Arguments can rage back and forth over whether the system married up to the intention and the nWoD is a crushing disappointment compared to the oWoD but Vampire did break the mould and did make roleplaying genuinely cool for a while.
  • Mage: The Ascension: Mage was the apex of the Storyteller system and ethos for me, it was downhill after Mage 2nd Edition. A magic system that was inspirational, freeform and could cope with all the different ideas, a sandbox environment and a cosmology that tied together the previously dispirate WoD games. Mage was a work of art and damn near perfect, inspirational for working on systems that ‘build themselves’.
  • Feng Shui: Feng Shui is a masterpiece of genre emulation and most of it done with only a couple of rules, one of them being stunts. The freeform play and the stunt system, combined with the mood setting book combined to create a clear vision of play.
  • Legend of the Five Rings: L5R is something of a strange game, a fantasy Japan, but that excuses some of the strangeness. The inspirational nature of the setting, its detail and the reasonably loose metaplot allowed me to create my most successful ‘epic’ campaign yet.
  • Unknown Armies: After the occult/horror glut of the 90s had seemed to drain that well dry Unknown Armies managed to claim it back a bit and give it a fresher outlook. The horror/sanity system therein was also an inspiration, an improvement on the age old Cthulhu sanity system without rendering it too much more complex. Unknown Armies re-enthused me to the whole genre and showed there were still new spins on the theme yet to be tapped as well as room for more ‘conventional’ design to do the business.
  • HeroQuest: When we wrote Neverwhere we kind of got ahead of some of the ideas in HeroQuest, the definition of characters by their description. HeroQuest showed me this could work in a more sructured game and with a more defined rules.
***

said: I managed to finish Starship Traveller first time. Not sure how, it was a while back.

To which I say: KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

Grim’s Tales: My Gaming History III

Fantasy Fighting
The Fighting Fantasy game books were a revelation but, unfortunately, I don’t remember where I got my first one. It was a slightly younger guy, Russell, at school who was really into them, more than I was. He had every single last one of them at the time and used to loan them to me and I’d play through them over a couple of days – apart from Starship Traveller – which like many people I never finished, whether there’s any truth to the rumour that it was broken or whether it was simply bastard-fucking-hard I still don’t know, but even cheating I never got through it.

Even before we knew what was going on we began reading the books to each other, one person reading the text and one person playing the part of the hero and making the decisions and the rolls for him. We quickly began to get frustrated though, FF game books suffered from the same problem that computer games still do, your choices were limited and even things that made perfect sense you couldn’t do, or even attempt. Then Fighting Fantasy, Titan and Out of the Pit came along. Suddenly it all made sense, we could do whatever we wanted, so long as it made some sort of sense. Of course, we didn’t quite grasp the idea of making up our own adventures, at least not straight away.

It’s safe to say that Fighting Fantasy – and later Dragon Warriors – were the ‘ZX Spectrum’ of British Roleplaying. Where that computer game us a cottage industry of bedroom programmers who later went on to create a world-beating computer games industry, so FF gave us the beginnings of the quirky and eccentric British RPG industry and, for me, my first steps into genuine role-playing and some of my ideas about what makes a good adventure, traps, settings and the overall ‘feel’ of a fantasy adventure.

A slight delay

Acts of wanton bloggage will be mildly delayed until I’m 100% sure I can hit my next freelancing deadline.

Grim’s Tales: My Gaming History II & Comments

Telling Stories
The other thing I did when I was young was to tell stories and tall tales. Not lying as such, just ‘going off on one’ and spinning yarns, making stuff up and wittering away happily to myself or to any audience that would listen, walls, chairs, the cat or – eventually – my schoolfriends. I would even read to them from a boy’s comic at the time called Spike, which ran various weird stories under the title ‘5 Minute Mystery’ inside it. 2000AD was always the superior comic but the text stories in Spike were better for this.

There was no interaction as such, but I would improvise and add to the stories and when the other kids asked questions I’d make up the answers and weave them into the story. This is a lot of what a Games Master does, though when you’re GMing this happens during the flow of the game, not afterwards. Weaving a story, keeping it cohesive, it’s a lot like lying and keeping your story straight under constant cross-examination.

From there, things got interesting as I started to make up the basis for our make-believe games. Sure they were unholy blends of the various films, books, comics and so on I’d consumed but the other kids would play along and seemed to think some of these games were ‘cool’ enough to play along with… in fact, writing that’s a startling revelation to me because, shame of shame, it makes me realise that one of my first RP-Like experiences could be termed… *choke*… LARP!

***

Comments:
said “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing.” Which is a George Bernard Shaw quote, though   and Mr Shaw apparently share initials, at least on the internet!

Shaw was a clever fellow and had a talent for saying quotable things but I don’t think he was quite on the money there, despite being witty and quotable. I think everyone plays, they just get surreptitious and embarassed about it. There’s the old stereotype of the father who buys toys for his kids so he can play with them, but anyone who has ever gotten stuck in a traffic jam and imagined firing missiles out of the headlamps of their Aston Martin or who plays rubbish-bin basketball is playing in their own little way.

In my opinion, what makes us ‘old’ is that we act like this playing, these flights of fancy, are something to hide, rather than something to celebrate and, perhaps, it’s this breach of social etiquette that contributes to gamers being treated a little funny, even in an age when computer game escapism is near universal and genre fiction is all over the TV, those being somehow acceptable.

That’s my take anyway.

Grim’s Tales: My Gaming History I & Q&A

Imaginative Play
Growing up I was surrounded by books and my dad and my grandmother were teachers, almost all my immediate family were bookworms and my dad had a consuming interest in science and, along with that, in science fiction. I still have most of his old paperback classics of the 70s and 80s in my bookcase (Why don’t they still make those short paperbacks I ask you? Why does everything have to be a Hamiltonian or Eddingsesque brick?). I was encouraged to be creative and to let my imagination fly and I was also surrounded by beautiful countryside, the very countryside that inspired Tolkien, Lewis, Richard Adams, Kenneth Grahame, Carroll and A.A. Milne. It was a fortunate childhood and I’m fortunate enough to find myself in the same surroundings again now as I’m writing this (though it’s not exactly convenient for the shops or gor getting a gaming group together – more on this later).

In short, it would have been a miracle if I hadn’t grown up into the creative whackjob I am today.

Like most children I got my first taste of ‘roleplaying’ without even realising what it was, we would play out Star Wars or James Bond in the school playground, occasionally – under the threat of kooties – we would be forced to play house with the girls, or occasionally some vague fantasy thing involving princesses and unicorns where it was never quite clear what the whole thing was about. Unlike the other kids I wasn’t also interested in football and my interest in imaginative games lasted long after most of the other kids had decided they ought to ‘grow up’ – around age ten or so – and that they didn’t want to play army and run around the woods like a mad thing any more.

Looking back on it I can see the evolution of my interests towards role-playing and it’s really as a sort of a justification to continue playing games after the others around me had, instead, gotten into – progressively – football, pop music, girls, studies, work and, ultimately, babies. The structure and the study that goes into it is, basically, an excuse and a method to continue that child-like play at make-believe and to ward off the barbs of critics, not that this always works and not that I’m saying this is a bad thing, not by any means.

I remember one game, a transitive moment in fact, very clearly. Myself and a friend had been dragged into playing one of the girly games (under threat of The Dread Lurgy) but had hit upon the idea of making it far more interesting to us, as boys, by playing at being knights – knights and princesses go together after all. We galloped around the school doing our best impressions of riding on horseback, something which, on reflection, probably resembled a cross between ‘I’m a little teapot’ and skipping and loudly proclaiming that we ‘Must save the princess’.

That was a mistake.

As we passed one of the older children teapot-skipping and dramatically declaring our intent to save the damsel from the dragon, he turned and – with sarcasm I have yet to hear equalled, so withering that it instantly aged me two years – said ‘Oh yes, we muuuuussst‘.

Instantly we felt like the most foolish creatures in existence and stopped, sheepishly creeping away to go and play British Bulldog instead to reaffirm our boyness. For all I know the poor girl is still there waiting for her knights in shining armour to save her from the dragon.

As roleplayers we need to recognise – and even be proud of – the fact that we’re playing, that we’re persisting in what children do. We dress it up in rules and shared game-worlds and canonical reference but really, at heart, it’s still playing. All that other gumph is just our armour against sarcastic bullies and it works very well indeed.

***

Q&A
asks me about what to do with players who fall asleep in the middle of a game, but then goes on to give his own – very good – answers, rendering my advice largely redundant. Thanks cockbag! 😛

So, what should you do if one of your players falls asleep on you at the game? Well, that depends on the context really. The most obvious and universal answer is probably to poke them with a sharp implement, a pencil works quite well – and try to get their attention focussed back on the game while intraveniously feeding them Red Bull. Failing that:

If it’s very late: If you’ve been playing a while before someone falls asleep then you should feel flattered. Clearly they’re enjoying the game and are invested in it or they’d have begged of for beddy-bye-boes before they passed out at the table. You should probably come to an agreement with the rest of the group and play on up to a good point for the game to take a break until the next session. You can always poke them with a stick first and see if they want to try and stay awake and play, but the odds are that if one person is passing out then others aren’t that far behind.

If they’re just really tired: If someone’s falling asleep before the game starts, right at the beginning of the game or while the night is still young then things are more complicated. One person shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the game for everyone, whatever the circumstances. Falling asleep at the end of a long session is understandable and excusable, falling asleep at the start or in the middle of the action is not so understandable and is a bit disrespectful. If they’re that tired they should have stayed home and you could have worked around (see Emergency Contrivance below). Give ’em a poke first to see if they can stay awake,otherwise play on without them, the rest of the group deserves to have a crack at the adventure with or without them.

Of course it might be: As unpalatable as the thought might be the problem could just be that you’re being incredibly boring. Your masterpiece adventure might be slow and dragging, you may have slipped into a monotonous drone or you might be concentrating too much on one player at the expense of the others. Yes, boredom factor and sleepiness can be your fault as the Games Master. Consider switching things up a bit, throwing in a combat scene or an argument, getting up and gesticulating, varying your vocal tone. Anything to keep the player’s interested and don’t be afraid to ask them if it’s boring.

Emergency Backup Contrivance Omega IV:If a player fails to stay awake, or, indeed, fails to show up, you can always use the Emergency Backup Contrivance. This can take various forms but ultimately it is a means of providing an In-character excuse for the Out-of-character absence of a particular player and their alter-ego. Use one of the excuses below and consider giving the party a Non-Player-Character hireling or ally to make up for the gap:

  • The character has been kidnapped by the villain and his lackeys and is out of play for now, adding to the group’s motivation to get to the bad guy and rescue their companion. If they wake up before the end of the game then they ‘escaped’ with valuable information.
  • The character is ill and needs to be left behind to recuperate.
  • An emergency at home or some other obligation has called the character away.

Yes, these are all terribly contrived and unsatisfying excuses, but they’re better than nothing and a great deal of role-playing is built on contrivance and stereotype. ‘You’re all at the inn when a mysterious old man enters…’.

Grim’s Tales: Introduction

Practically every RPG book ever written contains some written advice for the Games Master, the guy or girl who carries the can and the responsibility for a good session largely on their shoulders. This advice is manifold and somewhat helpful but somehow the play examples and the sorts of problems that the Games Master might encounter don’t ring particularly true and none of the big problems I’ve had in my games have ever been dealt with by any advice section I’ve ever read. This has improved a little over time, the 4e D&D DMs guide has a much better section on dealing with the differing demands of different players but never explicitly points out that they’re being an actual problem. It just treats it all very softly-softly and nicely-nicely as it being a clash of different tastes and gaming expectations.

No.

Sometimes the player is just being an arsehole and needs a dry-slap and to be told to stop being a wanker.

Even with these improvements the books have never tackled the sorts of problems I’ve had as a Games Master. They’ve never told me what I should do if it’s 3am of a marathon session and one player out of the group falls asleep while the rest are still up for it. They’ve never told me how to handle it if the group has one too many bhong hits and gets a giggle-fit in the middle of a serious scene or what to do if one of them passes out and sticks his character sheet to his face with drool. There hasn’t been so much as a hint of how to stay impartial when one of your players is cute and is coming onto you, certainly not if they’re doing it with the express desire to get something out of it in the game. There’s not been any clue as to how to let down a larper gently about the crapness of their costume or the horrifying morphological transformation that their corset has done to their body.

In short, then, the sort of Games Master advice one gets in RPG books is like passing your driving test. Sure, now you can drive the car from ‘A’ to ‘B’ but you’ve been given no hint as how to handle a car full of swearing drunken people trying to shove you off the road, what to do if a child vomits on your neck from the back seat while you’re on the motorway or whether you’re allowed to take a piss on the hard shoulder.

We all need real and practical advice sometimes and this series of blog posts, intermittently, will try to deal with some of the real problems that GMs – and players – encounter in real-life gaming groups, rather than the sort of ‘Gaming with Dick & Jane’ items we find in our gaming manuals.

Feel free to chime in and use the articles as an ‘agony aunt’ column for your own questions and group problems as we progress.