Or, How I overcame my childhood sneers.
Image by Barefootliam Stock
Geeks are not all alike. In high school I was a historical and sci-fi wargamer, and I disdained the role-players, whom I thought a queer bunch. They carried hefty books and bags of oddly-shaped dice, and talked about “levels” in a way that made no sense to me. At last I gave Dungeons & Dragons a half-hearted try: after a day of explanation and play, it was decided that I had been cursed and sold to a traveling circus. It would be my last attempt at an RPG for ten years.
My prejudices were reinforced when I arrived at college and discovered that the Games Club and the BDSM Club had a significant overlap in their membership. (No, I didn’t join.)
It took several years after college to rediscover (non-computer) gaming. Several of the science fiction games familiar to me had role-playing aspects, e.g. FASA’s Star Trek and BattleTech, but my first real stab at an RPG was Shadowrun at a convention, (importantly) playing with friends and not strangers. My interest was piqued.
There are lots of things you don’t understand until you try them for yourself. I made it to middle age before giving role-playing games any serious attention, so I never realized how useful they were for working through your latent homosexual urges. It should have been obvious all along, right? Here’s what I’ve gleaned:
What’s good: the setting. The British Empire on Mars. Native Martians flying “liftwood” corsairs against coal-fired æther ships. Lizard men and German Zeppelins on Venus.
What’s bad: the game is extinct, so good luck finding players. The rules for fighting seem unworkable, which may have lead to its extinction.
When they say “General” they aren’t kidding! Every characteristic of the player’s in-game avatar, whether physical, mental, or supernatural is given a point value and can be combined almost without restriction, excepting whatever budget the referee sets on point totals.
But a lack of restrictions can be a demerit. Players can design and play cyborgs, dragons, insubstantials (i.e. ghosts), time-travelers, psychics, wizards, super-heroes—or mix any of these into a chimeric monster character.
This system seems designed to answer the age-old question: could Superman beat Godzilla? And: how should the fight be handicapped?
PDQ# (PDQ Sharp)
Optimized for a Dumas-style setting of swordplay and rapier wit (but as general, though much less detailed, than GURPS), this system is simple, fast and free. For an inveterate cheapskate like me, there is no down-side to this one.
(No, that’s not the name of a game, you clod.)
Role-play works best when all the players want the same thing from their game. A session of Monopoly or Stratego doesn’t suffer if one of the players is a serious competitor and the other plays casually, but a trip through Dracula’s castle is misery if one of the players takes the game too seriously, or not seriously enough. The performance of the game master (presenter and referee) is paramount: he has to gauge the level of difficulty correctly, and to provide the players a satisfying (though not necessarily successful) conclusion to the endeavor. A good RPG session is tougher to pull off than a more traditional board game, and the rewards for success are correspondingly greater.
A well-researched historical game can be a pleasantly educational experience. A World War II themed game taught me more than a healthy person should know about German gunnery and garrison-keeping. I’m holding out hope that some one will release an RPG set during the Peloponnesian War. Any day now, I’m sure.