Monday, 25 June 2007

Memorable games

So what does make a game memorable? And is it for the right reasons? This is an essay I wrote for the 300th issue of the venerable treeware publication, Alarums & Excursions.

To a first approximation, games from the long ago were either great or forgettable; while more recent ones have been so-so or dreadful. Asking which were more enjoyable than more recent memorable ones is, on one level, facile. The true question is “why did it stop being good?”

I feel a major factor is that the early games were run while innocent; later games cannot regain that state of grace.

Although I got into D&D in late '76, I just tinkered with game systems for the next couple of years primarily because I didn't find a group I wanted to join whose schedules meshed with mine (i.e. not an all-nighter every Sunday), and actually did more than one or two sessions before folding. So the '78-9 when I finally got into a regular game, and got a character through more than a couple of levels was the real start of my practical experiences. Yes, it was a dungeon crawl, with maps kept neatly on graph paper, one 2mm square to the pace, with one-pace-thick walls, and I couldn't repeat it and enjoy it these days — but, oh!, the memories!

  • Like the time some randomly encountered mage dropped an Ice Storm (not your wimpy D&D version, but an proper area-denial spell doing a few dice per 2s melee round for several minutes) on the party, and Ororo (my elementalist) tumbled out of the room at his feet with just a handful of hitpoints left, and had to do a highly risky fast-cast Dimension Door to get the hell out of there.
  • Like the infamous 36+ hours with only a few cat-naps post-exam Overland Expedition to the fabled Crystal Pyramid — so we were getting stoned on sleep deprivation by the time the characters reached their goal — and dealing with the thousands of vampire bats arising from the trees ringing the pyramid — one mage's owl familiar strafing them with a wand of fireballs (“How many charges are you using?” “As many as it takes.” “30 seem reasonable?”), and mopping up stragglers by waiting until flocks were strung out chasing flying mages, and then Cone of Colding them. Plus the escape from the surrounding gardens with the wagon train going hell-for-leather ahead of a horde of nasties — ropers, shambling mounds, probably more — and the STR37-equivalent Knock Ororo cast (involving major rolling up an open-ended 20 on the casting roll) to blast open the gate to get out of the surrounding garden.
  • Like the time when, lacking other healing, and with the front line fighters well down on hit-points, we broke out the herbal tea acquired from a group of pot-head pixies from the Planet Gong — which did the healing required, but left them stoned and chatting amiably with the guy in black leather with a guitar who strolled by. Meanwhile the rest of us were having to deal with a type V demon and her friends.

About the only early memorable negative I can remember is the campaign where characters were assigned, rather than rolled or designed, and when the GM presented us with what was in effect the script outline for the campaign's second season, everyone declined.

And so we fast-forward over the 80s. More recent memorable gaming incidents from the early to mid 90s (i.e. as recent as they get) are somewhat different, such as

  • Having designed a character in a 60's spy genre campaign to complement the skills of the team (the other characters were a boffin and a proper secret agent) a hippy with a VW bus who was mainly a driver/mechanic with a bit of Kung Fu on the side (having to have some combat skill, but with stats in the Star Wars based system being used that made firearms a liability), we found out that the villain organization, Paradox, was actually from out of paratime. Essentially without exception, the parallel worlds encountered either had vehicles that even the boffin couldn't figure out how to tinker with, or used horses. It was bad enough violating character when the agent's player — who did fine with the suave jet-setting role-play aspects I can't handle — couldn't remember the genre clichés required to pull off the field operations! I didn't want also to buy, from an unfavourable base, a duplicate of the other characters' strong points. So I gritted my teeth and made a silent protest by usually leaving 2-3 sessions worth of xp unspent, and never — at least never voluntarily — improving firearms skill (I can't remember if towards the end I was forced to). To cap it all, he kept on getting into situations where his hair got cut and beard shaved, while none of the other characters were exposed to any equivalent indignity.
  • The RQ2.8 (later Pendragon based) Glorantha game which involved a little bit of sightseeing, and a lot of running away from small groups of trollkin, while acting as gophers for the agents of the aides of the people who looked like they might actually be the ones going to make a difference in Dragon Pass. And including a shameless bit of coerced power-gaming (having been knocked over by a werewolf while companions were dealing with its packmates, I DI'd out — and then rather than let me fold my hand with a POW 2 character, I was argued into buying POW by the process of buying a spell, getting a POW check from the spirit combat, forgetting the spell to free up INT, lather, rinse, repeat). Pendragon made things worse in that it went from having to take a couple of volleys from emplaced trollkin slingers when closing to melee from extreme range to dozens. This destroyed my faith in a couple of game systems and a world that had been for many years almost a gold standard to me.

Those weren't the entirety of my playing during the 90s — there was an AD&D2 gritty Central European campaign, which fell over when the first story arc concluded and the characters were converted to Ars Magica; but I was playing like a lump all through and never really got drawn in. About the only thing that sticks in mind as exceptional was finding that after the systems conversion, my Uruk-hai warrior was even more heedless of damage than she had been before (Soaking all of an attack doesn't whittle away any hit-points). Another Ars Magica game started when 4th edition came out, but I just zoned out when faced with assigning skills for my magus, and never finished chargen (having no good idea as to what level was beginner, what competent, what expert).

Note that all the above events have been from the player perspective, where the visceral experiences have been, even if in the latter days it was desperately trying to prevent my frustration bursting out in a fit of petulance that would be more appropriate to a two year old. GMing has always been a much more cerebral pursuit, since I can see the hidden side of all the stage scenery, and have to manage the cast of thousands. I know I've GMd more than I've played, but the olden days on that side of the table are lost in the haze, with very few flashes where an incident has remained clear in memory. All I know is that I must have enjoyed doing it, even if designing a session was mainly an issue of setting up two fight scenes and threading them together.

I have more positive memories of later GMing — the catharsis of the AD&D2 modules I ran (the Horde campaign) after the RQ mentioned above; the quiet satisfaction of watching the players thinking their way through a run of Shadowrun modules (when those used to be good); the ambiguous Vampire run, which was technically well executed, albeit at the cost of far harder work than the result justified.

And then there was the worst — a few sessions where I foolishly agreed to GM because no one else had anything ready, and after frantic ad-libbing I just burned out hard.

So, after all that, the conclusions? That the really good experiences were early times, with no preconceptions. Yes, the PC was just a thin proxy — I know the adrenaline was pumping when rolling for the DimDoor, but at the same time I was thinking how long it would take to work a new PC up to the same level — what I was fighting for was to protect an investment in playing time. Later games also suffered under the load of raised expectations while familiarity was breeding contempt — a feeling of “once you've gotten a mage to 12th level, doing the same again is just going through the motions”.

And then there was role-playing in the character crafting sense rather than “my tactical role is as combat air patrol” which was good enough for Ororo at high levels. This has been held out by some as a source of high-octane emotional charge when done right (just see the archives of the r.g.f.advocacy newsgroup during 1995, for example).

Naturally, I was seduced by this concept, and threw myself into it; alas also getting infected by the rider to the meme, that “if it isn't working for you, you're not trying hard enough” which seems to be the sub-text of most role-play evangelism — and is well crafted for inducing guilt trips. Note for example the difference in terminology between the 1970s and 1990s era experiences discussed above.

At one extreme, characters are nothing but barriers (condoms?) between me and the action, where I have to consciously work through their thought processes to arrive at their responses; at the other extreme where they work naturally, both of them that got this far said “Sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm off somewhere safer.” and continued in play only under protest, and not for very long.

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