Friday, October 04, 2002

WISH 16: OLD AND NEW

Okay, I had meant to answer all of Ginger Stampley's Game WISH questions in order, but then I'd be really late with the up-to-date ones, and then I'd, like, get an 'F' or something. So, at the risk of confusing people who might be reading this blog in sequential order, I'm going to skip from the first WISH question to the last, and then double back again. I don't really mind confusing people. I consider it a day wasted if I don't make at least two people say 'Ha!', three people say 'Hey!', and four people say 'Huh?'

So, without further ado, in Game WISH 16 Ginger writes:

In the gaming you are doing lately, what do you miss from earlier games? What works so much better you never looked back? Three examples?

Well, I've been doing a lot of thinking and writing about past games, so I'll just go down memory lane again....

I miss favorite old characters. When you really like a character and get inside their head and enjoy being them for a while, and then the game ends or goes on hiatus and you have to stop, you feel like you've fallen out of touch with an old friend. I had a character in Greg Morrow's long-running D&D game named The Eye. He was a paranoid, self-serving enchanter whose chief modus operandi was getting other people to do the dirty work because he was allergic to danger. As the game evolved, and one of our former adventuring companions turned into the Lord of Darkness who threatened to take over the world, The Eye reluctantly had to follow the course of Good. I remember that philosophical twist very fondly. Now when I play wizards I have to carefully tell myself 'no, you're not the Eye. Stop doing that.'

I miss the freedom to play at the drop of a hat. I have a family who needs me, a job that eats a lot of my time, and a metabolism that just isn't the inferno it used to be. These days I count myself lucky to be able to participate in one face-to-face game just about every week, and a handful of email-based games with sporadic turnaround. I would game more if I could, but I would do so at the sacrifice of something else. I'm booked solid. But I still remember a time not so very long ago when friends would call up and say "Hey, I'm starting a new game, wanna play?" and without missing a beat, without pausing to reflect, without having to weigh the advantages and disadvantages and check my schedule, I could answer 'Hell yeah, sounds like fun!" And I remember drinking ludicrous volumes of Dr. Pepper until the wee hours of the morn, tiny blood vessels in my eyes swelling up like earthworms in a rainstorm, half-shouting out nearly incomprehensible plans for achieving imaginary goals whose exact nature is long gone in the fog of my memory. Only one concrete fact from those days remains: that was a load of fun.

Frankly, I miss not being jaded. I have been playing rpg's since 1980, pretty much without taking a break. I have played in a lot of different systems and with a lot of different people who employed a lot of different gaming styles. I wouldn't say I've seen it all yet -- I've barely scratched the surface of diceless play, for instance, and I've never LARPed, and I need a lot more PBeM experience before I can say I've milked that for all it's worth. But I've covered most of the terrain of role-playing games time and again. Minus certain tweaks in plot and tone, there is really a very finite number of plots and themes you can experience in rpg's, and I've probably seen each of them at least once. I get occasional flashes of deja vu when I'm playing, where I think 'Jesu Christu, I just know I've played this exact same scene once before, but where? when?' I miss those first heady years of novice gaming, where everything was brand new, and the DM could describe a bizarre creature without me and some other guys confidently nodding our heads and saying yup, it's a flumph, two hit dice, seen it, yawn. I miss feeling like a gaming expedition was a *real* expedition, where anything could lie around the corner. I miss that a lot.

But there's a lot not to miss too. I don't regret playing with mature people. (um, well, for certain values of 'mature'. You know who you are.) When I was a kid and played with other kids, there was a lot of stupid crap that people did and said. There was a lot of overt sexism and racism and homophobia, a lot of cruelty, a whole lot of questionable morality and general stupidity. These behaviors were largely self-reinforcing, too; there wasn't any mechanism to curb them. ('cos, see, I didn't game with gurls, or non-whiteys, or anybody who would own up to being gay. Then I went to college. That was new.) These days I game with a more grown up class of people. I rarely cringe in games anymore. That's a good feeling.

I don't miss being unselective about who I game with. There was a time when I would accept any game invitation and play games with people I had never met before. I learned over time, though, that this is a bad idea for me. Gaming is first and foremost a social enterprise, and when you don't match well with your fellow players, the game is going nowhere. These days I make sure that I either have met and vetted the participants beforehand, or I make my initial participation on a trial basis, ie. I'll give it a couple of games and see if it works out. I feel like a bit of a snob having this attitude, but I've gamed with too many people who have ruined the experience for me by doing nothing other than having a personality that didn't mesh with mine. I'm usually pretty easy, but when Joe Freak sitting next to me thinks it's okay to whack me with a whiffle bat to illustrate what his barbarian thinks of my plan, it's time for me to find another game. (this happened. never met the guy before. unbelievable.)

I also don't miss being picky about the sorts of games I play. One of the things I have learned about myself is that I am an inveterate smartass. I simply cannot turn down a good straight line. I can't even turn down crooked lines. Sometimes I think up a straight line and response, and then goad somebody else into uttering the straight line so I can be a wit. I do this all the time. For most games it's okay, but for games with aTmOsPhErE, it totally sucks having me along. (when I get to the Game WISH about game mood, I'm gonna have a field day.) I do a lot better in PBeM, thank goodness, or else I'd only be able to play games where it's okay to be a goofball, and that wouldn't be much fun. These days I am very careful to choose games that I think I'll enjoy, and that I think will enjoy me.

Ack, brain vapor lock. Game WISH is hard!
PIRATES!

Earlier I wrote about the DUDE system that I used for one-shot games at JohnCon. Now I'd like to write about an adaptation of the system that I invented for use in an ongoing campaign.

I went into full-on post-mortem mode after the first JohnCon, trying to figure out what went right and what went wrong with my game. A number of mechanics issues needed to be changed or repaired, that much was obvious. What really struck me, though, was that something about the simplicity and pacing of the game really resonated with players. DUDE often moves at a highly frenetic pace (I actually encouraged the players to drink too much caffeine for the round) because it's so lightweight; you don't spend any time recalling the proper rules for adjudicating any given situation because there aren't any rules. This really lent itself well to the thrill-a-minute cinematic action that the game was supposed to model. I think a lot of people really want that simplicity in gaming; it's very liberating when combats don't take over an hour to resolve, as they sometimes do in D&D or (kum bay yah!) Champions.

I had a lot of fun running DUDE, so I sat down to think up a way that the game could be adapted for play in a weekly game. DUDE as run in JohnCon had a number of features that made for bad continuing play. First, nobody was playing a particularly sympathetic character; everybody was running some sort of big-headed Hollywood type. Second, DUDE scores shot up very fast in a single four-hour round of play -- the victors in each round rose from a score of 5 to over 15. Such growth obviously couldn't be sustained over even a few episodes. Finally, I felt the millieu of play would get boring quickly. Eventually, people want to play roles with some sort of importance, whether it be heroism or the pursuit of some internal ideal.

I eventually came up with some modifications to the system, rounded up the usual suspects, and voila! the game of Pirates! was born. Pirates is very loosely set in the real world setting of the Mediterranean Sea circa 1800. However, it's very fluffy history -- I'm an engineer, dammit, and my liberal arts education was pretty scanty. I use the SAT analogy method of describing the setting:

Real-world history : Pirates! history :: Ancient Greek Myth : Xena Warrior Princess

ie. many of the names are appropriate, and some of the stories fit into place, but they're all jumbled around and wrong and bad and stuff, partially because I'm ignorant, but largely to suit my selfish GM purposes.

So this story is set during a time when the British are feuding with other nations for naval supremacy and winning. In this game the British are Evil with a capital E, and are generally used interchangeably with Nazis in standard pulp games. The game occurs some time after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, but a lot of malfeasance is still going on on the high seas, whether it be the Barbary raiders, sneaky American merchantmen, or anybody quick or stupid enough to challenge the Evil British's mighty boats and cannon.

Our heroes were criminals, of course, but your standard swashbuckling sort of roguish good guys, having been caught by the Evil British and tried unfairly for their crimes. The heroes were thrown onto a British Prison isle in the middle of the Mediterranean with no weapons and many hostiles all around. In the course of their quest to survive and then escape, they pick up the thread of some ancient secrets that have come to light. The game quickly turned into a globe-trotting adventure of rescuing beautiful royalty, breaking into and out of prisons, raiding pyramids, thwarting sinister magic, swinging from long ropes, outmaneuvering British gunboats and generally shouting 'Arrr!' at appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) intervals.

The modified DUDE system was still based on the notion of having a single DUDE score. In addition to this, however, one was allowed a limited number of attributes (three) and skills (five). An attribute or skill could be just about anything one wanted it to be, within reason. If an attribute or skill applies to any action one is attempting, you get to add a die. Example: the characters had a DUDE score of 3, but if a character had an attribute of 'Agile' and a skill of 'Fencing', he would be allowed to roll 5 dice during a swordfight. Only one attribute or skill could be applied to any given action. Each character was also allowed one Schtick: something unique about them that helped them out. One character had the hearing abilities of Radar O'Reilly, for instance; another gained extra dice when performing actions in the name of True Love; still another could choose to perform a patently impossible action once per game session and would be allowed to double his dice pool. Finally, each character had to select a downside -- stuff like 'hates guns', 'drinks too much', 'will do anything for the ladies', etc. They then wrote up character histories and we were ready to go.

The rules for allowing DUDE scores to go up based on uttering action movie lines went away. Instead, healing after combat was allowed, and a slow character advancement system was developed. After one story arc you would be allowed to add a skill point; after the next, an attribute; after the next, another skill point; after the next, a full DUDE point. The cycle would then repeat. We only got through 2 out of 4 story arcs, however.

The overall plot was that, long ago, a monstrous creature fell to earth. It was the size of a mountain and was thoroughly evil. It also generated a kind of field that allowed humans with the right stuff to work magic. It planted itself out in the ocean and forged a sinister empire that ruled mankind for thousands of years -- an empire known as 'Atlantis'. Then, an alliance of three wizards teamed up to create a magical weapon that could destroy the creature. A terrible battle was fought and the creature was laid low.

The wizards were about to slay At'lan when the creature copped a plea-bargain. Destroy me, it said, and magic goes away forever, and with it your power on earth. Look, don't kill me; use your weapon to render me utterly weak and imprison me. Then I'll just hang out on the ocean floor harming nobody and generating my magic field, and you guys can keep on ruling the universe. This sounded like a good deal to the wizards. They sent At'lan to the ocean floor and then founded the civilizations of Greece, Egypt and Babylon.

The trouble was, At'lan knew that men are mortal and eventually forget things. It was also able to subtly reach out from its prison and influence the minds of others. Over the years civilizations rose and fell, but At'lan hung out on the sea floor biding its time. It slowly gathered its forces, teaching secrets of sorcery to a few black-hearted souls, and helped forge a new empire under its subtle sway -- the British Empire. Then it sent its human agents out to look for the magical weapon that had imprisoned it.

The trouble was, the original wizards weren't entirely stupid. They realized bad things could come to pass if the weapon ever fell into the wrong hands. So, they broke it into three pieces and each wizard got one to hide as he saw fit. The Egyptian wizard built a mighty library at Alexandria and hid his piece there. The Babylonian wizard constructed a mighty fortress to secure his bit, a structure that eventually would come to be known as the Hanging Gardens. The Greek wizard opted for security through obscurity and hid it in a tiny shrine on an obscure little island -- an island that eventually would come to be used by the British as a prison island, and where our heroes would begin their adventures.

The artifact, known as the Eye of Kyprios, had a will of its own. It didn't want to be found by the forces of evil. It therefore did a bit of manipulation over the years, causing an individual known as Mulligan to come to be. Mulligan was a pirate who loved to explore ancient ruins and pry into secret places. Unknown to him, Mulligan carried the bloodlines of the original wizards who imprisoned At'lan. Mulligan, operating of his own free will, had himself imprisoned on the isle so he could find the first of the shards of the Eye. His goal was to find them all, reunite them, and do in At'lan for once and for all. He never made it off the island, however -- betrayed by a jealous lover.

The characters found Mulligan's remains and, in poking around the island, found the shard. They also awoke the attention of the forces of Evil, who pursued the good guys all over civilization. The good guys escaped the island, gathered information and rounded up an unlikely crew at Mulligan's home base, and sought out the second shard in Egypt. They had just found it, after many adventures, when we decided to play a different game. Still remaining in the story was the finding of the third shard, the uniting of all the pieces, and travelling to Crete to lay At'lan low.

This was a pretty good game. The flow of the action was still quick and rules-light; people were able to do anything they wanted to be able to do with a minimum of head-scratching about mechanics; the PC's and NPC's were all amusing to play with. Pirates! will probably remain one of my favorite light-hearted action rpg's for a long time to come.

Later on I'll write a bit about a more grim game that I invented, which had a highly involved rules set. It was called NightSide, and it was fun too.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

WISH 1: SUCCESSFUL NPC's

This is the first question presented in Ginger Stampley's Game WISH writing exercise:

Describe three NPCs (not major villains) that you really liked and what they added to the game. The NPCs can be from any game you've been in as a player or GM, and any system or genre.

I like this question a lot. The good NPC's are often what makes a game fun for a GM, and are a big part of the interest for the players too.

1. Eop

Eop was a bird. No, he wasn't even a bird. He was a bird that existed entirely in a PC's imagination.

I was playing in Kellie Getty's Vampire game, as was Rick Jones. Rick was playing a fairly crazy Malkavian nutso vampire. He had a companion named Eop ('Poe' spelled backwards, although this etymology has been questioned), a raven that only Rick's character could see. There was some question regarding whether Rick's vampire really was just imagining Eop, or whether it was some sort of spirit that was enjoying tagging along with his crazy compadre. Either way, Eop hung out with the group.

At first Eop was fairly colorless as an NPC. However, Kellie had a little bat puppet lying around, so one time I took it upon myself to pick up the puppet and fill in the role of Eop. Eop was highly disdainful of this bunch of vampires running around and making trouble, and he had few qualms about expressing his true feelings on the matter. His feelings could usually be summed up with a single word: 'MORONS!', croaked out as witheringly as possible, yet with a world-weary air of eternal suffering-these-bozos-not-so-gladly. Eop usually managed to work the word 'moron' into conversation every time he opened his beak.

Eop quickly became a public character. Whenever somebody did something really dumb, another player would seize the bat, croak 'MORONS!', and cause it to shake its little head in disgust. This is, in my opinion, the way good NPC's should be: utilities and resources managed by the entire gaming group as a collective. One day Eop would be useful for a gag; another day I would spend essentially the whole session behind the couch holding Eop up over the edge, peering balefully (and mostly quietly) down on the entire proceedings to generate a sort of creepy atmosphere. (A dude spending his spare time hanging out behind a couch? yeah, that's pretty creepy.)

2. Mulligan.

In my Pirates! game, the characters were essentially on a giant treasure hunt, following the travels of the pirate captain Mulligan in their search for the ancient secrets that he uncovered. Mulligan died 25 years before the action of the game, and hence the players' opportunities to actually interact with Mulligan were limited. [They managed it anyway, having a run-in with his ghost and then bumping into him during a short foray into time travel. Mulligan got around.]

The characters mostly got to cross paths with the traces that Mulligan left behind: diary entries, annotations on ancient artefacts, and of course three amazingly competent daughters, each unaware of the others' existences. Mulligan was also an escapeologist and was constantly breaking into or out of places he shouldn't be; more often than not the PC's got to the places they were going by rediscovering Mulligan's escape tunnel.

I liked developing Mulligan as an NPC because it forced me to figure out ways to present a character without that character being right there, in the flesh. I think I painted a decent picture of Mulligan for the players despite the fact that he mostly existed in past tense.

3. Orville Wright

For years Angelo Benedetto ran a very good PBeM Call of Cthulhu game. We didn't actually get very far with the adventure; we were mostly interested in roleplaying the crap out of our characters, describing minor interactions in excruciating detail, and generally trying to play along with the atmosphere of claustrophobic creepitude. We succeeded pretty well in this, I think, but often at the cost of moving the action along. This seems to be a common theme with the PBeM games I play in or run.

The pacing wasn't helped by the fact that the ability of the participants to contribute was often somewhat erratic. For various very good real-life reasons, often one player or another was not able to post, sometimes for long stretches. Ultimately this loss of momentum killed the game, which was too bad. However, during one such lull near the game's beginning, I decided I would take the lead and fill in for the GM. A group of us needed to take a day-trip down to the Smithsonian Institute to get some routine information, so I briefly took the reins as the GM (more like the lead writer, really) and started fleshing out the trip.

The characters got to the Smithsonian Castle and entered, only to encounter the beginnings of a physical confrontation between the Institute's director and a wild-eyed middle-aged man. My fellow players got a bit excited -- after all this was a CoC game, where nameless colours from beyond space and time wait behind every hedge for the opportunity to devour foolish yummy humans -- and came in with swords drawn and revolvers brandished. The offending person came to his senses and stalked off.

It evolved that this man was nobody other than Orville Wright, of aviation fame. True story: even though the Wright Brothers successfully flew a heavier-than-air craft under its own power for the first time, the Smithsonian refused to credit them for this until the late '20's. This was because the Wrights' chief rival in developing a plane was the Institute's director, who was contracted by the gubmint to produce an 'Aerodrone'. Sadly the 'drone didn't actually fly, as gleefully recorded by the press during several embarrassing attempted launches on the Potomac. Anyway, the Wright Brothers won that race, but the Smithsonian refused to give them credit; they continued to display the Aerodrone with the label 'First Flying Machine'. Orville had come to the Institute, once more, to argue that he and his deceased brother shouldn't be shut out like this.

It was a neat little sidestory because it was fairly unexpected; I think my fellow players were expecting some shoggoth action and they got the History of Technology 101. Orville wound up being fairly sympathetic and, in my opinion, a well done NPC.

My character's schtick was that she was constantly interacting with famous people from circa 1925. She was constantly running afoul of the Algonquin Round Table and Harpo Marx, and I hadn't yet had an opportunity to have her bump into an eager young student from Columbia named Theodore 'Dr. Seuss' Geisel before the game ended. Writing those little bits really made the game for me.

Wow, three NPC's, all originated one way or another by me. Is that ego or what?

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

THE ORIGINS OF DUDE

At this point I would like to write a bit about a gaming system I have been happily monkeying with for several years. Its name is DUDE, which stands for the Dynamic Universal Determination Engine.

I was surfing the internet one day and came across Mark Hughes' gaming pages. Mark's pages are very thorough and are worth a read, particularly if you hate AD&D or want to read up on non-mainstream games. Anyway, Mark had invented a system with that same name, but his acronym stands for the Diceless Universal Determination Engine. This engine powered a game that I found highly intriguing: The Alan Smithee Project. This is a game where players take on the roles of actors making movies so bad that the directors refuse to use their real names on the project (hence, a number of real Hollywood dogs through the years have been directed or produced by 'Alan Smithee').

I liked the premise of TASP a lot, and I liked elements of Mark's DUDE system. In particular, Mark's system models big-budget cinematic action well because everybody has only one stat: your DUDE score. Most role playing games allow you to be good at one thing but lousy at another -- you're incredibly strong but stupid; you can pick locks but are weak in a fight; you can fly a starship but have no idea how to repair one. This is the absolute opposite of most movie realities, where the big stars play characters who are good at everything and everybody else is a mook. So, the philosophy of DUDE is that you should stop wasting your time with multiple stats and skill points and feats and crap like that. You should even stop worrying about whether you're armed with a sword or a gun, because in the movies, you're either a death-dealing machine or you suck. You have one statistic, and you use that statistic in every action you perform.

I found this sort of system particularly appealing because a simple truth has been looming larger and larger in my forebrain for years now: rules inherently get in the way of good gaming. It's neat that there are systems out there that allow you to accurately model the flight of an arrow based on wind speed and direction, the fletching and point type, the shaft and head materials, and bow strengths (I'm thinking of Aftermath here). It also makes for incredibly dull gaming. Who gives a shit about all that stuff? The joy in gaming comes from interacting and doing and saying, not hashing through the mechanics of interacting and doing and saying. A game system ceases to be an aid and starts being a liability the very moment somebody unfamiliar with the game says 'Okay, how do I do [x]?'

So, I liked a lot about the system, especially the Over-the-Edge-ish scornful disregard for the need for pages of mechanics and tables. Other parts I didn't like. In particular, I felt the use of cards and poker chips as a determination mechanism was simply replacing dice with something similarly random. I don't dislike the rolling of dice as part of the game, and my gaming buddies are largely all dice-slingers, so eliding dice from gaming struck me as something I should have a good reason to do. I hadn't got any such reason at the time.

There were other elements of movie-type action that struck me as conspicuously absent. The rules, for instance, talk rather vaguely about each actor's goals -- but what do big-ego actors really want? Ultimately their ambitions all converge on the same thing: the acquisition of even more stardom. It seemed to me, therefore, that the objective of a game like TASP really should be the building of one's DUDE score to ludicrously high levels. Thus was my DUDE acronym born: the dynamic universal determination engine is so named because one's DUDE score goes up and down throughout the game, based on one's actions during the course of the action.

I developed my version of DUDE for use in a Houston-area mini-convention. A gaming friend of some gaming friends was coming into town, and as his name was John, it was decided that there should be a long weekend of gaming called JohnCon. (There is a real and very successful annual sci-fi/gaming convention by that name at John Hopkins, something I didn't know at the time.) Various people threw together one-shot games, and in the end we had about 30 people participating. I created Hell on Wheels, a DUDE scenario. In this game, I, Quentin Tarantino, had been tapped with a budget of a billion dollars to create a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror film ala Road Warrior using six of the biggest Hollywood stars of the past or future. With a billion dollars I could clone long-dead actors, you see, and age them to perfection. So, the players took on the roles of various megastars and set to the matter of 1) making a hilariously bad film, and 2) infighting to see who would have the best DUDE score and hence get top billing in the movie.

This game was a qualified success. The chief mechanism for boosting ones' DUDE score was the uttering of clever action movie one-liners during the coup de gras, which was offset by losing DUDE points any time zombies or monsters hurt the characters in combat. The upside of this was that many truly bad lines were delivered, and egotistical action movie actors were effectively mocked. The downside was that the awarding of DUDE points for one-liners was necessarily arbitrary, and hence some people did better than others just because their brains were running in a higher gear that day. This wasn't particularly fair, and my friends were good enough to (gently) tell me so. Nevertheless, a good time was generally had, and the mini-con was deemed sufficiently amusing that it has become something of an annual affair.

In each subsequent JohnCon (JohnCon II: the Wrath of John and JohnCon III: the Search for John [John couldn't make it]), I have run a variant on DUDE. I have made some changes that have helped to blunt the arbitrariness of the first version: every scene there is a reset back to your starting DUDE total of 5, for instance, in case you really get torn up; I have added secret agendas and special awards for performing Action Movie Schticks; in the most recent version the actors were actually actor/directors and squabbled over the artistic direction of the film as well as who got to be the star. I have really enjoyed running this game, and I'm certain that most of the participants have really had a good time. Every con I have run two rounds of DUDE, and each time I have had to accommodate extra players due to strong interest. I hope there will be a JohnCon IV next year (John's Voyage Home, provided he can make it), and I plan on running a DUDE round at that time. I also plan on making the game different every time, just to keep people on their toes.

Next time I hope to write about a variant on DUDE that I employed for a more straight-ahead rpg -- Pirates!

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

I, SYSTEM WONK

I am, I confess, a gaming systems wonk. I don't like to admit it, because I feel that I am first and foremost a roleplayer. When I am playing in a roleplaying game, it is the adoption of a new and different persona that I most enjoy -- that, and the subsequent interactions with friends who are also wearing new and different personae, and the fireworks this inevitably causes. I enjoy the act of gaming the same way a pyromaniac enjoys a merrily burning condominium.

However, it is also true that I tinker with rules. My first version of the preceeding sentence read '...also true that I like to tinker with rules.' I changed this because I don't particularly enjoy the process -- or, rather, I don't directly derive enjoyment from it. I tend to approach the fiddling of game systems with the same inexorable sense of dread that one carries when going to renew one's license plates at the DMV -- there is a certain grim set of the jawline and a desire to get this over with as soon as possible.

I don't fiddle with game systems because I love doing it. I fiddle with them because, to my perhaps overly critical eye, there is something the matter with them. The game system represents the rules of the universe one inhabits all too briefly during one's playtime. If there is something that strikes your mind as disturbing and wrong about the rules of the universe, one is obviously going to have a tough time giving one's self over to the fantasy of occupying that strange place.

Consider a highly absurd case. Suppose you were playing in a game system that attempts to model the Old West, with all the attendant gunslinging and hoss-roping attendant to it. Suppose you have rules for firing a sixgun -- on a good roll of a d20 you hit your target, but any time you roll a 1, your gun explodes and you die. In my junior high days I got to play in a game with just this rule (the system was invented by a schoolmate) and I just couldn't play within this system. This system would require a gunslinger to have the mindset that at any moment, out of the blue, you could fire your weapon and kill yourself with no chance of escape, and the odds of this happening are not vanishingly small. Obviously, this system was badly in need of repair. The minimal requirements for matching reality, whether it is a reality equal to our own, or some other internally consistent and enjoyable reality, were not met.

(Mercifully I have since played in several rather good games with an Old West feel, notably Rick Jones' Kingsbridge Saga, and Elmo's Beaufort Cowboys and Dragons campaign. Both are now defunct, but they were fun.)

Now, I must admit that my threshold for minimal reality matching is pretty darned high. This was encountered during a recent poker game, in which the usual suspects were discussing enjoyable movies. The topic of The Shawshank Redemption arose, as it is often wont to do in such discussions.

"I hated it," I confessed. There was much staring agog and protestations to the contrary. I was forced to explain myself.

"The plumbing was all wrong," I elaborated. Mason was convinced this was some sort of sick joke, but it really wasn't. I explained that the whole premise of the movie revolved around the protagonist's clever escape from jail. This involved tunnelling through walls down to the basement, and then (in the midst of a torrential rainstorm) smashing open a large storm drain line and worming his way down it to freedom. I'm sorry, but this is just plain not possible. Even if such a line existed in the configuration shown in the movie, even if it were large enough for a person to crawl down, even if he didn't suffocate during the crawl, it wouldn't be possible for him to get into the pipe in the first place: the height of the column of rainwater extending up the roofstack of a tall building would create a veritable gusher of water at the pipe's break, making it impossible to get in. I design plumbing systems for a living, so trust me.

People were still shaking their heads. I gave them a final example to illustrate my side of the story. "Supposing," I said, "you were watching a mystery movie. It's very suspenseful because you know who murdered Mr. Body, and you know where he did it and when, but the police can't arrest him because they haven't found the murder weapon. The movie goes on and on, and finally at the end it is revealed that (drumroll) the man was killed with a KNIFE fashioned from CHEESE."

I allowed this to sink in. Then Everett spoke up. "I think I saw that movie," he said, and hilarity ensued.

But enough with these horrid digressions! The point is that it's tough to enjoy a universe if, deep down inside, you feel that universe is broken. I am probably more sensitive to broken universes than most, so I fiddle with game rules. Hence, I am a System Wonk: a person who is constantly toying with game systems and rules, not for fun, not for profit, but because he can't enjoy gaming unless he fixes what's wrong with things.

Fortunately, my System Wonk personality is willing to run in the background. I am actually capable of enjoying a roleplaying game even if the system has a flaw, because I can make a mental note to deal with the rules problem later and get on with the game at hand. I'm not such a putz that I'll stop the game and say 'That's all fucked up, Mr. GM!' I'll often send mail later on suggesting rules modifications, though.

The main trouble with being a System Wonk is that it leads to a related disorder: Power Gaming. It stands to reason that if one is looking at rules trying to figure out why they're broken, one is also easily able to figure out how rules can be exploited to create a character with more and better abilities. This is the Dark Side of the Force -- easy and seductive. Creating a good character shouldn't be about creating a powerful character. I fight this all the time.

In future posts I hope to talk about some of my attempts to create new systems, in the hopes of creating that wonderful end-all be-all system that will allow pure gaming to shine forth without any nagging system imperfections. (These attempts to date have all failed in this regard, but have generated some fun times along the way.)

Monday, September 30, 2002

WHY BLOG?

This blog will principally feature thoughts on the playing of games. I expect most of this talk will feature roleplaying games, but I like strategy and tactical games as well, and I might write a bit about poker if you're unlucky.

Why do this in the blog format? Several reasons. First, it seems to allow for the sorting of otherwise unsorted or unconnected thoughts, and as I tend to free associate a lot, this makes a lot of sense to me. Second, a number of my friends own gaming blogs, and it's easier on everybody if I can just write what I want here and link it up. Third, I'm curious what the rage is all about. Everybody was doing it! THE FIRST HIT'S FREE!!!

DANG I'M 'CYBER'

This is my first post to a blog. When beginning a new endeavor, all sensible persons must first ask the question: will this suck my soul? Will I, with this extremely small shift in my means of personal communication, become a blogging mutant? Will I post my laundry lists, my sports predictions, my trivial hopes and dreams and fears? Will I be working on a blog about 50% of the time I am at work? Will I expound? will I elucidate? will I -- saints preserve us -- whine?

Of course, I'm not a sensible person, so I don't ask those sorts of questions. Where's that laundry list?