Personal Pages: Revisiting RPGs

I think it’s the current deep investment in writing a book that is both adolescent and fantastical that made me think of tabletop roleplaying games again — that, or some of my old scourcebooks were in the pile I had to move hastily when the cat threw up my shoelace; either-or.  The point is, I did play nerdy RPG-type games in high school, which didn’t actually interfere much with having a normal social life; I got both laid and drunk on a regular basis (though usually not simultaneously).  And while the last thing I need in my life is another commitment that demands both time and creative energy, I gotta admit that there’s a certain whimsy to the whole thing that seems to fit well with twenty-somethings — we’re the post-ironic generation, it’s okay for us to sit around and drink beer and pretend to be psychic dinosaurs if that’s what we want to do with our evening.  We will listen to Deerhoof while we do it, and be very hip.

I can’t ever imagine myself going back to weekly games that run at the same time on the same day every week (sometimes we had three or four of those going on at once!), but I can totally see getting people together every once in a while and fixing them supper so we can nerd it up.  I even found some titles in amongst the old books that seem like they might go beyond mindless entertainment and be an actual enjoyable creative exercise — I’ve listed a few champs here, and saved my absolute favorite for last (so you can just scroll down if you really wanna know):

Dungeons and Dragons is of course the progenitor for all modern nerd games; I actually got an early start for my generation and was playing D&D a year or two before 3rd Edition, but I think for most of my peers those are the iconic roleplaying books.  I’ve got the 3.5 versions up here, just the three core books, and while I don’t see it as a system I’d want to get very into, I think there’s value in every once in a while getting back to your roots and playing it pulp for the sake of playing it pulp.  “You enter a 10 x 10 room.  There is an orc guarding a chest.  No one knows why…”

HackMaster is essentially a mechanical representation of exactly that tongue-in-cheek approach to the conventions D&D established; it is needlessly complex, absurdly focused on killing things and taking their stuff as the sole means of advancement in power and in society, and features a sprawling, eight-volume compendium of monsters with no possible ecological justification.  It also numerically represents and rewards swaggering, braggartly behavior and general badassitude of the sort that needs made-up macho words like “badassitude” to describe it, because it’s just that silly.  It will always be one of my old favorites, but I think that it’s too mechanically-complex to be worthwhile when you can achieve the same effect by approaching D&D with equal silliness and save yourself a lot of dice-rolling.  Still, it’s a fantastic example of parody-writing that uses structural elements as well as the written text in its mockery.

Vampire: the Requiem was the last roleplaying book I ever bought, along with the core rules for the new World of Darkness, way back when they were first released.  I never did much with it, outside of a couple one-nighters in undergrad, but it’s just as focused on storytelling and character-driven plots as all the old White Wolf games were — often to the point of pretentiousness — and is probably the best option if I want to be thinking hard about dramatic choices.  I fear that it’s also less fun — getting together to pretend to be very serious, emotionally-distraught sorts of people doesn’t seem like a good sell for the Deerhoof crowd, or anyone over the age of eighteen that I want to spend any amount of time with.  Still, the world and the people in it are pretty…

World of Warcraft offers the potential for hilarious campaigns if all the players are familiar with the online game, but isn’t very useful otherwise.  I don’t think I’d have any interest in running or playing in a World of Warcraft tabletop game that didn’t attempt to incorporate all of the shortcomings of the online world, but could see myself having a great time playing an orc or a troll or whatever that was truly dedicated to studying why the damn dragons “respawn” five minutes after you kill them!

The generic systems — GURPS or the Hero System 5th Edition — are obviously the most strenuous creative exercise, requiring everything to be built from scratch and then translated into the game mechanics.  They’re also the most complicated, and therefore likely to languish on my shelf for a while.

Children of the Sun was an impulse purchase that I’ve never regretted.  It’s a beautifully-illustrated book and a well-created world (and I say that as someone who generally doesn’t like well-created worlds, but was impressed this time around), and it carved out a niche that no one else had occupied and even made up a name for it, sort of, slapping a “dieselpunk” label on the setting, which can be safely read as “WWII with elves.”  The mechanics are a little unwieldy, but at least novel, and I’d like to visit this one in more depth some time — I never did much beside read the book.

And then there’s my absolute favorite candidate for getting back into this stuff — are you ready for it?

Rifts.  That’s right, Rifts — if you’ve heard of it, your opinion of me just lessened; if you’ve never heard of it, you’re missing a treat.  Taken seriously, I think it’s probably idiotic — in fact, I played in some pretty idiotic Rifts campaigns back in high school.  But no other system not only allows but encourages you to play a cybernetic wizard who rides into battle against a T-Rex on a flying motorcycle.  Or rides into battle against a flying motorcycle on a T-Rex.  Or whatever!  It’s the ultimate pastiche RPG; if there’s a trope you want to throw in, you probably can.  And the main villains are basically post-apocalyptic Nazis, and they use robotic skeletons and armor with skull motifs and such, so as the hero you get to cut your way through legions of zombie Nazis.  It doesn’t get much mookier than that!  (A “mook,” for the uninitiated, is a faceless underling that serves the single purpose of dying before the heroes’ blazing guns — think stormtroopers in Star Wars or the Foot Clan in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Part I were a deliberate homage to all the mooks that ever mooked).  Rifts also features an incredibly simplified combat system (“roll over a 4 on a twenty-sided die to hit your target, or over 12 to hit them in a specific place” is a good summary), which is terrible for anyone with expectations of hard-hitting realism and therefore perfect for me.

So who knows.  If there’s folks in town who are interested, and I don’t have to work too hard at it, it may be time to revisit the old silliness, with tongue firmly in cheek.  As mentioned above, I’m not exactly hurting for creative outlets — but I might benefit from a low-stress creative outlet, or at least one that doesn’t punish me with anything worse than smart remarks from friends if my output isn’t very good.  As long as I can avoid becoming one of those writers who thinks “man, that Rifts game last night was awesome, and wouldn’t my character be totally sweet in a novel…?”

I’m pretty sure I can.

  1. *snerk* Aaaah high school Rifts games. Good ol’ Mike.

    Good luck with your game. I certainly expect a novel based on the campaign that is a masterly executed silly satire!

    • Well, like the post says, it’s more thinking about a couple of casual evenings here and there than it is about a long-running campaign. I doubt we’ll see much influence on my writing…though that said, the folks who get tapped for pulp novelizations of game systems do usually make pretty decent cash, for fantasy/sci-fi writers. And there is that lurking childhood dream of getting to write a Star Wars novel.

      • Well, as long as you don’t kill off Chewie, I don’t see why you shouldn’t, once you make enough of a name that Lucas’ll let you.

  2. Thanks a lot for taking time to post “Personal Pages: Revisiting RPGs Misanthropology 101”.

    Thanks a ton again -Arden

  1. October 1st, 2010

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