I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want…

Having watched both The Blues Brothers and Still Crazy, I realize that the most frightening words a person can say are “We’re getting the band back together.”

Okay, having acknowledged that, I want to start roleplaying again. And I would like to welcome back some of the people I played with back in the 20th Century.

Let me be honest. Since I moved to California almost 18 years ago, I have only played in a few campaigns that lasted any more than a session or two.

One was a long-running Call Call of Cthulhu game that lasted for years; it was run by a legendary GM whose credentials are impressive. More importantly, the game itself was detailed, plausible, and forced the characters to make choices that would occasionally come back to bite them. In short, really good stuff.

Another was a GURPS-based campaign based on the old “Pirates of Volturnus” adventure from Star Frontiers. It was a great series of sessions; Dustin, the GM, took a fairly pedestrian published adventure as his jumping off place and made it really plausible and exciting. Good stuff, again. That went into some sort of hiatus, and that was that. I moved, and I wonder if they appreciated me as a players or a person all that much—there was not too much effort to stay in touch with me. I have come off annoying to many; I know this about myself. It hurts, but how can I blame people? (1)

There have been a few others, but nothing quite like the fun I used to have…

So, here’s what I want to do. I want to start up a new gaming group, and run games regularly, but on a schedule that will work with the lives of middle-aged adults without being so infrequent that no one can remember what happened in the last episode.

I have a list of things I want to do. Mind you, this is just a list of things I’d like to try. Nothing here is set in concrete. And it’s not all going to happen at the same time. Obviously.

  • I’d like to try out the new Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition rules. It seems like this version is very similar to what we played back in the day, minus the guesswork and the fudging. It promises to work very well; I want to see if it makes good on that promise.
  • I like a lot of the ideas in FATE. I have both FATE Core and FATE Accelerated. I like the system, especially the way the game allows the players and GM to add detail and make the situations more dramatic. It seems to me that the best times I ever had roleplaying incorporated a lot of this sort of thing; I am intrigued by the possibilities and really want to try the FATE System. It seems like it would make for a pulpier, less “realistic” game, but I’m fine with that. There are many fames based on the Core System, and I am convinced that one could do anything with it; Spirit of the Century is just one excellent example of what can be done with FATE.
  • I have been running 1978-vintage RuneQuest (RQ) with my daughter. It’s a sound game system, and it’s brothers like the Basic Roleplaying System (BRP), Legends from Mongoose Press, OpenQuest, and some of the more recent iterations of the basic RQ are all mutually comprehensible to anyone versed in any of them. They are like dialects of the same language, and I like the simplicity and clean function they all have in common.
  • Firefly. I like Firefly and Serenity and I want to game in that world.
  • I’d like to include my daughter. She’s 14; we’ve been roleplaying together for a few years and she gets it. She has never played with other player characters, but I think she’ll be good to play with.
  • I want swashbucklers on steampunk airships. And Green Martians.
  • And I want you to come and help make this happen. I want to alternate with another GM, and I want lots of ideas from other players. You are someone I’d like to play with.

Let’s start the conversation to make all this happen!

Exploring the Lost Cities of Geo

Here is something that I thought I’d never see again. It’s my first website! Like many people back in the late 1990s, I decided that the world needed to hear my opinions and sample my creative work.

Well, that hasn’t changed, apparently, but the level of sophistication has. To be accurate, the sophistication of the tools has improved; whether my thinking or my content has improved is really not for me to say.

Back then, kids, we didn’t have this fancy WordPress or Blogger; we had Geocities and you actually had to know a little HTML. Which is why the pages often looked so bad; we were not skilled enough in HTML nor experienced enough in design to make an attractive webpage.

To give myself a little credit, I never had red lettering on a chartreuse background. Nor did I use flashing text. There are limits even to my poor judgement.

Geocities was closed down in 2009. The operator, Yahoo, certainly gave us plenty of advance notice and we were able to download our materials. But it closed down, and the rest was history.

But there are those who wish to archive everything on the web, and there is a new Geocities: www.geocities.ws

And so I can go back and see my first website in all it’s glorious lack of consistency, taste, and value.

Actually, I am being too hard on myself. Other than big plans and small effort, it’s not really all that bad, but it never really got much of an audience, and I lost interest and became too busy to think of it much. This, of course, is how adult life goes. My front page gives the usual apologies for the lack of new content, and makes the usual promises of more activity.

And there it has sat for 11 years. The three-year-old child referred to is now a young woman of fourteen, I’m officially qualified as an old fart, and I still write at a snail’s pace.

Geocities.ws will actually let you reclaim your old pages and edit them. Unfortunately, It does this by scanning your page for email addresses and assuming that one of them is yours. One _was_ mine, but it was a _Mindspring_ address which has been purely defunct for many years. I am sure I can get control by contacting the good folks at the new Geocities.

But why bother? Let archives be archives. The old pages are there should anyone want to see them. My efforts should be going to newer work and I should be moving on. All the same, there they are. Look on my works, ye mighty, and be kind.

Putting it All Together 2: More Thinking (or, I Smell Peanuts Roasting)

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Hello again, Ludophilus!

In my last post I was talking about putting together ideas for a roleplaying game campaign. Before I get on any further, I should make it clear that one can only have a campaign with a successful series of games. My goal, therefore, is to put together a series of game sessions, three or four, and see if they turn out well enough to have the players want more. With a few tweaks, perhaps, an entertaining campaign will result.

Where We Left Off Last Time

In the last post—which, I want the reader to notice, was not six months ago—I set out a list of things I thought might be fun in a campaign. Looking for those Special Effects I’ve been talking about. This is my list; it is by no means complete and is completely subject to change. This project is still in the brainstorming stage. Here are the ideas, copy-and-pasted from the last post:

  • Detailed combat with hit locations and specific damage, not just point erosion
  • Dramatic, swashbuckling combat
  • Firearms of limited power–black powder or some equivalent
  • Swordplay would still be a very important skill
  • Characters can lead troops in battle on land or sea or air and make a difference
  • A dramatic and not particularly safe method of air travel
  • Different intelligent species and not just re-skinned elves, dwarves, and orcs
  • Magic, but it is hard to come by and rather dangerous
  • Remnants of older, mysterious cultures
  • Some over-arching major danger that has no apparent solution and that few people understand
  • A light tone with occasional peeks of darkness

Well, that gives us something to work with! Okay, let’s see what comes out of that.

Thinking About A Game System

First, the rather dramatic and detailed combat idea suggests certain game systems that might be appropriate. The first I think of are Runequest, Basic Roleplaying, or Legend. The most recent iteration of Runequest has more D&D-like combat, with a general pool of hit points to erode. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a relatively mild blow that still puts one’s better arm out of use for a while-that is more what I am looking for. So it makes me think of older versions of Runequest. Basic Roleplaying has optional rules for hit locations. Actually, it has all kinds of optional rules, and I am used to the Call of Cthulhu and Runequest systems that it is related to, so it should be pretty easy for me to get good at running it. Another system I am familiar with and like is GURPS, but that is a very complex system and is probably more than the potential players I can think of may want to take on. It may be more than I want to deal with. But GURPS is not entirely of the table.
Conclusion: I will probably use one of the Chaosium-style systems, either Legend or BRP, which is easily customizable. Legend may have the edge here, as the price is hard to beat, as you can see here.

How About These Things?

  • Firearms of limited power–black powder or some equivalent
  • Swordplay would still be a very important skill
  • Characters can lead troops in battle on land or sea or air and make a difference

There should be no problem with these. There are rules or systems in all of the above game systems to cover those.

These Should Require Some Work

  • A dramatic and not particularly safe method of air travel
  • Different intelligent species and not just re-skinned elves, dwarves, and orcs
Featured image

Perhaps safer than this…

The first idea just screams “Airships!” to me. But there should also be ornithopters. And weird planes maybe. Which makes me think of another campaign idea that has been bouncing around my brain.  

The second point is the one that is going to require some thought. But I am suddenly remembering how clever and friendly my pet rats were. Rats? Giant rats? How about regular-sized rats who are intelligent and have opposable thumbs? Rats who are crafters and rogues? There several ideas I have for other sentient races. All in good time.

Matters of Style

  • Magic is hard to come by and rather dangerous
  • Remnants of older, mysterious cultures
  • Some over-arching major danger that has no apparent solution and that few people understand
  • A light tone with occasional peeks of darkness

These are not difficult—mostly a matter of style. Of course, the players will have as much—or more—influence on that than I will.

Which brings us to the question of who our players might be. Which question we will tackle in the next post.

Starting to Put It Together: What I Like

All this bandying of ideas about moments of awesomeness and special effects is neither terribly original or extremely brilliant, but it does give one a handle on creating a game that will give the players involved what they want. Which means that one has to have a pretty good idea of what the players (including oneself) would find fun and exciting. I guess we could put the steps in some sort of order:

  • Decide who will be in the gaming group
  • Determine what those players will think is cool
  • Put together a game that will give them that

Does this sound entirely too obvious? Believe me, I often did this in many other ways, including:

  • Decide what I think is cool
  • Grab a game system that I like and preferably already own
  • Get players more or less as they come up

Now, I have had some really good game experiences that began that way. But I’m an adult now, as are most of my friends, and we do not have the plentiful free time and flexibility of schedule that even college students have. Jobs, social obligations, kids–the list of things competing for time is a long one. This means a game group will have challenges in scheduling. It is also imperative that the game be worth the time and effort it takes to be there. If people are going to arrange busy schedules to be there, one hould at least make it worthwhile, especially if you want those busy adult players to come back.

However, I have left out something: my own tastes, so I will return one of my old methods to the top of my list, like so:

  1. Decide what I think is cool
  2. Decide who will be in the gaming group
  3. Determine what those players will think is cool
  4. Put together a game that will give us that

Listing What I Think Is Cool

We’ll finish this post by dealing with number one in the list above. What do I think is cool and might be fun in a RPG campaign? Well, let me brainstorm a little.

  • Detailed combat with hit locations and specific damage, not just point erosion
  • Dramatic, swashbuckling combat
  • Firearms of limited power–black powder or some equivalent
  • Swordplay would still be a very important skill
  • Characters can lead troops in battle on land or sea or air and make a difference

Okay, that is a lot about combat. What else?

  • A dramatic and not particularly safe method of air travel
  • Different intelligent species and not just re-skinned elves, dwarves, and orcs
  • Magic, but it is hard to come by and rather dangerous
  • Remnants of older, mysterious cultures
  • Some over-arching major danger that has no apparent solution and that few people understand
  • A light tone with occasional peeks of darkness

All this is rather general; it could be fantasy, science fantasy, sword and planet, or even historical. But these elements are what I would like to play with.

I’ll be thinking about this. In the next post I’ll play with these ideas and see what will come of that.

Special Effects 2

A while back I wrote about Special Effects in role-playing games. To recap very briefly, any game will contain various special effects to create the proper feel of the genre of that particular game. The feel is achieved make capturing those moments of awesomeness that the players like about that genre. For example, If the game is a pirates campaign, and the players are into that genre, they will want lots of cool sword fights, ship-to-ship combat, and swashbuckling action. Since these genre staples are about risk and skill, the game system one chooses for a pirate campaign should be one in which the game mechanism emphasizes risk and skill. It certainly shouldn’t be too abstract a system; the player should feel like he or she is having to make the same choices and experience the same stress that a person in that situation would. Note: this isn’t really possible; it’s a game. But the game campaign’s special effects should create those feelings. Hence my use of the term “special effects.’

These special effects can be done on several levels.

  • The game rules system should be one that includes mechanics that make such pseudo-experiences meaningful, or at least doesn’t make them dry, abstracted, or unlike the genre conventions.
  • House rules can make the emotional impact greater, either by augmenting, simplifying, or even eliminating the features of the game system relating to the kinds of actions that the game should feature.
  • The Game Master is the ultimate special effect. He or she should run the game so that the adventures and the emotional payoffs are in keeping with the genre.

In other words, to fit the genre with the effects that the GM and (presumably) the players want, it takes the right rules system to allow those effects, careful tweaking/house ruling to make the game better fit the genre-based expectations of the players, and a style of play that makes the game fit those genre conventions.

When we are deciding what type and genre of game we want to play, it is not just the genre we choose. We are also looking for the kind of Moments of Awesomeness we want to experience. These then determine not only what kind of genre our game will take on, but also the style with which it will be played. Thus, games taking on a medieval world can either strictly adhere to historical fact, or can be fast and loose with the facts; it can even be ridiculous parody if the players and GM like that sort of thing. The special effects leading to those potential Moments of Awesomeness must also reflect the desired style.

What Will We Play?

Getting Back In The Game, So To Speak

So here I am, 55 years old and it has been a long time since I played regularly in an RPG campaign, and even longer since I ran one as GM. This has to be changed.

A Veritable Cavalcade of Options

The key elements of any campaign I run will have to be fun and appeal. Fun, because if it isn’t fun why do it? Appeal, because I would like to attract some good players and hold on to them. These two key elements will be primary considerations in deciding other factors:

  • Genre
  • Game System
  • Number of players
  • Group Structure
  • Location

Genre

What genre should the game take on? There is always good ol’ sword and sorcery, in all its various sub-genres. Gritty fantasy, high fantasy—there are so many variations. Fantasy Noir. Epic or Mythic, based on either existing cultures or new invented ones. Most experienced players are comfortable with this one.
Something more technological? Science Fiction has an almost infinite range of varients: Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Near-Future, Post-Apocalypse Dystopia, Sword and Spaceship Planetary Romance. Straightforward Traveller.
Alternate History? Adventures based on 30s Pulp Magazines?
There are many that could be fun.

Game System

I do have my favorites. I like Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing and its various relatives, like Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. GURPS is a good system if you like a bit of crunch. There are other systems I have not used yet, but which intrigue me; chief among these is Savage Worlds.
Choosing a game system would have to be done carefully and should include the players.

Number of players

Four to six seems to be the bestsize for a gaming group. A larger group can be fun if there are ways of keeping the game from bogging down. Worth a lot of thought, that.

Group Structure

The traditional group that includes one Game Master (or DM, Referee, or Storyteller) and several players is the classic mode, but not the only one. Having more than one GM, or a rotation is worth a look.

Location

Most likely the Sacramento area.

So…what will we play?

The Contract between GM and Players: Peace Not War

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Or: Don’t be a Player Hater

In my last post I wrote about some of the misguided things GMs do trying to produce cool scenarios for their players. Most of it was based on situations that came up in my long-running Erom campaign. When one player throws his dice and mechanical pencil down hard and another puts his books in his backpack and zones out, those are signs that they are not having fun. And if your players are not having fun, guess what? Your prep work was a waste of time. The truth is, you are probably not having fun either; you’re just too busy running your game to notice.
So what I recommend–and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject–is that you work out some kind of agreement with your players about how you–meaning you and the players–will be running the game.
Think of it as a contract with your players. But what might it cover?
My friend Janyce–whom I think of as the ultimate GM–wrote in response to my last post. That post was about giving your players their moments of awesome. Janyce pointed out that in addition to that, “the contract should encompass more than giving players their rewarding piece of the awesome pie.” She cited one example: “the contract can be an unspoken system to negate the GM versus the players paradigm.”
Oh, how right she is. In fact, I would insist that changing that dynamic is the root of a good campaign. Think about it; if the relationship is adversarial, then the GM has set up the scenario, knows where all the traps are, puts in whatever dangers and opponents he or she wishes, and rules on the results of all contests. Such a GM plays with a stacked deck. If it’s an adversarial relationship, it’s an extremely unfair one.
Those of us who have been playing a while have all had the experience of playing under (not with) a GM who seemed to delight in frustrating the players and making their characters suffer. Shades of Jonathan Edwards and his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”!
So I would insist that the first item in the contract between GM and players would be this: We are playing together, not against each other. And that means that we are all trying to make this game as fun as possible. Which means if there is a challenge, the GM has made it challenging enough to be exciting, but not unbeatable. And if there is something that is clearly difficult to defeat, it will be obviously so, but there will be ways to avoid it, plenty of warnings of the difficulty, and some sort of means of winning that may require further adventures or encompass help from NPCs the PCs encounter. So maybe fighting it today is a bad idea, but someday? It could be something to train up for.
Every adventure has setbacks. If adventures didn’t have setbacks, they would be pretty bloody boring, right? The key to keeping the contract is to make sure that the setbacks make the awesome more delicious when it comes. As the amazing John Wick once pointed out, player want their characters to be like the Bruce Willis character in Die Hard. “They want to be knocked down, punched out, bloody, battered, and beaten. But…every time they get knocked down, they want to be able to get back up.” And so it is important for the players to trust that every reversal has a possible payoff. If the players trust the GM on that, and if the GM delivers, then there is fertile ground for a great gaming experience. Of course, a PC can still blow it. Failure is always an option, but it should be entirely based on the player’s wrong decisions. Otherwise the game is just another railroad.

What else might be a part of the GM/Player contract?

Awesomeness and the GM’s Contract with the Players

(From our “ Wouldn’t It Be Nice” Department)

If there is one thing I have learned about roleplaying games, it is this: your experience is determined not by the system or setting, but by the people you play with. It only takes one person to entirely ruin a roleplaying session. On the other hand, playing with a good group makes roleplaying more fun than just about anything. It’s important to have the group dynamic working well. There are many facets to this; one of the most important is the contract, explicit or implied, between the players and the GM. Most of these times this contract will be implicit; which means that it is easily misunderstood.
What is the thing almost all roleplayers want?
Awesomeness.
You know. A huge slice of awesome pie, with awesome sauce, and a scoop of awesome ice cream ala mode. We all roleplay for different reasons, but I think we all enjoy those moments when our characters get to do something awesome. And we will go through all kinds of trouble in an adventure for the sake of that awesome moment. So why do so many players get frustrated and fret while playing? Because they feel cheated out of their share of awesomeness, and usually–but not always–by the GM.
In my experience this is usually because the player and the GM have different ideas about awesome: what it is, what it consists of, and how to get it. I had two players in my campaign, both good enough fellows, both imaginative and involved players. But they would become extremely unhappy at times. One liked to stack the odds in favor of his character to the point of being completely undefeatable. You know the kind of player: His character never took off his armor, and if he had been able to wear three layers of armor, his character would have. At times, especially in combat, he would sort of drift off and stop participating. The other would try to make the ultimate tactical plan, then get all upset during combat when it didn’t work because the other players wouldn’t keep to the plan. He would often throw his pen and dice down in disgust. Looking back, it was my fault. I was failing them by not letting them get their awesomeness.
The problem is that both players–and everyone at my table–had their own idea of what was awesome, and those ideas were often incompatible. In addition, they were often incompatible with what I was doing , or at least trying to do.
In the example above, the first player wanted to battle his way through hordes of foes, unstoppable, like Conan. The second player wanted to execute a perfect tactical operation, achieving victory efficiently. I did not know how to make both those things happen, so I ended up making neither happen. My players did not get their awesome.
Neither did I. I had my own idea of awesome. But I was the GM, and when the GM forces his idea of awesome on his players, the result is often no fun for anyone. And that is bad. Example: I am very fond of escapes, so I love to put in situations where the PCs get captured, which will lead to a really cool escape sequence. What’s wrong with that?
So much is wrong with it–not everybody is into escapes, many people hate having their character captured because that means they either have to surrender or be defeated, and lastly, having a situation where they have to be captured and then have to escape is 100-percent whole-grain railroad. And in my book, that’s bad–even though I used to do that sort of thing to my players fairly often. I funneled my players into situations where they felt helpless and had no fun, and then I had no fun bcause I was losing them.
How do you avoid this situation?
You have to have a contract with your players. It can be inferred or explicitly stated, but explicitly stated is better, because everyone has to be absolutely clear on the basic deal.
First: The GM wants the Players to have their awesome moments. All of the players. And so the game has to provide opportunities for those awesome moments.
Second: Those awesome moments to be really awesome, have to be worked for. Anything easy will not be all that awesome.
Third: The players will have to trust that whenever things do not go well for the characters, that there will be a corresponding possibility of an awesome moment. Setbacks make for adventure.
Fourth: The GM will not railroad the PCs, even in the service of awesome. No forcing them to surrender so you can have a cool escape sequence. Just have ideas for escape sequences ready for when they have blown it.

Next time: More ideas on this…

It’s all just…Special Effects

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I have regaled you, gentle reader, with a little nostalgia for the roleplaying games I shared with many friends over the years. I have had several of my old gamer friends check in with me, and nobody has accused me of distorting facts or anything like that–not that the story was so detailed or dramatic or controversial that anyone would. However, I did find one little error in my post “The Long Campaign.” The campaign I am referring to in this post, the one that went on for so many years, actually started in 1982, not 1981. So now that I have corrected this, I can now sleep more easily. I feel a lot better and I hope you do too.

So now I wish to whip forward to the present time. I have played just a bit since I changed states sixteen years ago, but I have not run a game in probably fifteen, and so it is high time I got a campaign or at least a series of games going again. I have several ideas, in fact. There are several systems I want to try, genres I’d like to play with, and stories I’d like to develop, I hope with some creative players who will help shoulder the task of developing those stories. And while I was thinking about all this, I realized something about roleplaying games systems and genres…

It’s all just special effects.

We’ve all heard this phrase from various friends over the years, usually in a disparaging mode about a movie lacking in story or plot or characterization, but abounding in fights, explosions, giant robots, and Megan Fox. And hey, the first movie effects were lighting and makeup effects to make the female leads look gorgeous. Lead hotties are special effects. But I digress.

Special effects are not a bad thing when used in the service of a good story. They allow us to continue with our suspension of disbelief as the story unrolls, helping us to accept that a man can fly, that a monkey king can leap from India to Sri Lanka, and that Megan Fox can fall for the geek protagonist. And if well done they can make the story seem as realistic and as plausible as anybody’s day at work.

Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone. A lady I know said she liked The Avengers but she did not like the first Captain America movie because it was too unrealistic. Another said the film Noah was good but somewhat fictionalized. I did not have a response to either comment.

Well, it’s time to get to my point. Any worthwhile roleplaying game will either fit the taste of a particular player or it will not based on whether it provides good special effects for the type of setting the player is interested in. A hard-science RPG like Traveller or Diaspora really doesn’t have the mechanism to create duels between Force-wielding sorcerers or light-saber wielding Jedi. On the other hand, none of the various Star Wars RPG iterations really seems to have the features to convincingly depict space travel with all its attendant dangers and the technical details of actual space travel. One sometimes suspects that interplanetary space in those games is not actually a vacuum full of deadly radiation; one just shuts the lock, starts up the engines, and flies. Which is groovy in a space fantasy, but doesn’t offer a glimpse of the way real spacefarers have to operate their ships and perform maneuvers outside the ship. In either case If one is not playing with an appropriate system, one will not get to experience those exciting scenes that one want to play out.

The writer Steven Brust has said that his critical theory as a writer consists of this: “Let me tell you about something really cool.” This may be the best aesthetic approach I have ever heard of. In Brust’s case it really works. And I think that if modified slightly, it can be applied to a roleplaying game by any GM: “Let me help you experience some really cool moments.” What moments would you want to play out in a game?

I have a few. I would really love to have my character hold off a horde of baddies at a bridge or other strategic spot while the rest of the party are able to escape. That will either result in a narrow escape or more likely a noble death. A good game for me would allow that kind of scene–that kind of special effect.

I have always wanted to infiltrate an enemy-occupied planet by gliding down from orbit in a stealth infiltration vehicle. Very dangerous and very tricky. A good game for me would make that sort of action come alive.
How about a Man Who Would Be King type special effect that could make it easy to play a scenario in which uniting the tribes into an allied force and opposing the enemy was the goal. And for it to be a good special effect, it would have to make that fantasy plausible.

The same applies to genre. If I want to use my will to summon a fireball and send it to devastate my enemy, traditional sword and sorcery fantasy would be the genre where that kind of scene can best be experienced. But if I want to experience tinkering with arcane devices and gearing to create a flying machine, a steampunk game is more likely to satisfy me if those sorts of actions can be made to come alive. If I have players who want one and others who want the other, the genre has to be able to contain both.

There are some game systems that don’t make any of these things seem particularly real because of extremely abstract mechanics or just a failure to make it interesting, but much of that can be remedied by a good GM and by good players. The key elements are first that the details have to be there: description so that the player can feel like he is experiencing that dramatic moment. Second, the player has to feel like he or she is in control of the process of casting a spell, winning a battle, or navigating a ship, and this means that his or her choices have to be important to the outcome. Third, no matter how successfully the character achieves his or her task, the danger of failure and its consequences must seem real.

So again, does your game system and genre have the “special effects” to make your players’s dramatic moments come true and seem real?

This is directly related to what I call the “Game Compact” which is what we will be discussing next.

 

 

Russell Becomes a Traveller

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Ludophilis: I have earlier described the almost magical impact that the original LBB version of the Dungeons and Dragons Game had when I first laid eyes upon it.

Just a few years later—it all seems about the same time, and looking back from the age of 55 at my teen self, I realize it was—I was browsing at The Legionnaire and there was another boxed set of little books very much the same size and format as the D&D LBBs. It came in a shiny black box with red printing…do you remember?

Yes. It was Traveller.

I stared at that black box a lot over the next month or so. Since it was closed up, there was no way to look at the contents. It came in three books…well, that was almost traditional. It promised a roleplaying game for science-fiction adventures in the far future. That part was great as I have always been more into SF than Fantasy, though I do enjoy both. But what was actually in those boxes? It was, quite literally, a black box mystery.

I asked the owner of the store, Paul, what he knew about it, and he said it looked good, and several people were excited about it, but nobody he knew had actually played it. No one likes buying a pig in a poke, but back then everything , no matter how crude, was grist for the role player’s mill. We were all just making it up as we went along . That was half the fun right there.

I decided to risk the ten bucks or whatever to buy it. And I ended up opening the box in my car. And I was amazed. It contained something I had never seen before in a roleplaying game: professional typesetting. And okay art.

I have since definitely seen better layout and sexier graphics, but back then everything looked like it had been laid out by enthusiastic amateurs using IBM Selectric typewriters, probably because everything was laid out by enthusiastic amateurs using IBM Selectric typewriters. But this Traveller game was different. The more professional, consistent layout and real printers typeface meant that these GDW guys were serious. And everything about that game seemed serious while at the same time promising that one could run any kind of far-future space adventure.

There was no magic, but there was Psionics, though it was a repressed practice.

I played some trading games, I even did a sequel to the Star Wars films just out by having Luke and Leia’s daughter hire the adventurers to find her missing Uncle Luke. I had to plug in all kinds of Force stuff—but it worked!

Forget that they omitted any task resolution system at that point (They presented one later). Forget that they were weak on giving examples. Heck, forget that the name of the game misspelled “traveler.” It was a fun game, held up well as they years went by, and looked and felt better developed than a lot of the games out at that time. At the same time, the gaps in the game system were something we were used to. That’s just how RPGs were!

I still have my original Little Black Box and its three original books, covers scuffed but essentially sound. The $9.95 I paid for that game was and will probably always be the best value for money I ever received in my life.

Let’s sip ahead a few years to college; actually, to my grad school years. To keep costs low and my focus appropriate, I was living in a dormitory while working toward my master’s degree. Yeah, so what, I was uncool; tell me something I don’t know.

At the start of one year I met a guy who lived in the room next door, which meant he and his roommate and my roommate and I all shared a bathroom. He was an affable, intelligent guy coming back for his MS in Civil Engineering named Russell Iwasa. Russell and I hit it off directly. We went down to the dorm cafeteria for dinner and over dinner we discovered we had a love of good, funny, brainy SF and adventure stories, in fact, a of of books and authors were mutual favorites.

Encouraged by this meeting a kindred mind, I then asked the big question, “So—what roleplaying games do you play?”

He looked puzzled. “What’s a roleplaying game?” And he was serious. Well, they were still kind of obscure, especially in Hawaii, but someone who loved SF and adventure stories was the sort of person….

“Oh, Russell. Oh, oh Russell. Oh my God! After dinner I have something that I just have to show you.”

His brow furrowed “Okay,” he said cautiously.

Well, given Russell’s love of SF, it had to be Traveller. And as promised, I brought the books to his room, showed them how the game worked, showed him how the character generation system was almost a little mini-game in itself.

And he liked it. Hey Russell! He asked if he could hang on to the books overnight.

The next morning we met up in the cafeteria. Russell looked a little tired. He admitted to having stayed up late rolling up characters. (I had also loaned him dice.)

“Really?” I asked him? “you look a little tired? How many characters did you roll up?”

“Forty-one,” he replied. “I never did go to sleep.”

Russell and I played Traveller and many other games over the years. He ran a Traveller game that was great fun. I’ve lost touch with Russell, but I will never forget how immediately he took to Traveller.

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