“Game Over, Man!”

by Jimmy Akin

in Miscellaneous

Down yonder I mentioned that I don’t like D & D’s concept of "alignment," and afterwards a reader asked:

Hey Jimmy,

What role-playing games do you play?

‘Fraid that I haven’t done any RPGing in a coon’s age, but I can tell you what I did play.

The first RPG I was exposed to was a variant on Dungeons and Dragons known as "CalTech D&D," because the revision of the rules had been (ostensibly) done at CalTech. I think this was later published as an independent game, but can’t recall what it was called.

I later became acquainted with regular D&D, including its early versions (which I liked more, before it got overbuilt), including the game from which it originally descended, Chainmail.

I was never very pleased with the way a lot of the D&D rules worked, though, and in general have thought that it is an over-complex, poorly-designed game.

More to my liking was The Fantasy Trip which was an outgrowth of the games Melee and Wizard, published by Metagaming and authored by game-designer Steve Jackson (hence the periodic questions from me and others whenever Steve Jackson posts comments here about whether he is Steve Jackson the game designer. He has never answered so far as I know.)

This was a much simpler, more logical game. Unfortunately, Metagaming went belly up, and Steve Jackson (the game designer) started his own company, Steve Jackson Games. He wanted to buy The Fantasy Trip from Metagaming, but they apparently thought the asset was worth far more money than he had (something like a quarter mil, if I remember right), so he didn’t get it.

Jackson then designed GURPS, which originally stood for the Great Unnamed Role Playing System but which was retitled Generic Universal Role Playing System. It’s simlar to The Fantasy Trip, but unfortunately I never had anyone to play it with, as it was coming out about the time I was pulling out of gaming.

The games I played most were put out by the company Chaosium. In particular, I played the now-defunct Superworld and the not-defunct Call of Cthulhu (which seems to have been what’s kept Chaosium in business).

I also read a lot of games that I never really played (e.g., RuneQuest, Champions, the Marvel Game, DC Heroes) and enjoyed thinking about and critiquing their rule systems.

This was a product of my interest in game design as an art, something I did a good bit of.

In fact, if you look in the credits for the full version of Superworld (and in some Superworld adventures) you will see me listed there (as James Akin, this was back when I had first started going by that name).

I even designed some full game systems, but never published them. (And no, I don’t have copies of the rules around anymore.)

I’m kind of proud of the Superworld/Call of Cthulhu universe that my friends and I created (it was a single universe with the CoC stuff set in the 1920s and the SW stuff set in the 1980s, so there were crossovers).

We decided that all of our characters’ adventures were being published by an imaginary comic book company called Genghis Comics, and each night’s game play was one issue in the imaginary series. I served as gamemaster for the company’s flagship title, The Protectors, while other friends gamemastered their own titles. A few titles we took turns gamemastering.

I’m pleased with the fact that we were able to coordinate a shared universe in which everybody got to exercize a great deal of creativity without it degenerating into petty squabbling. The players didnt’ backstab each other for the fun of it; they didn’t revel in having their characters do juvenilely immoral things–two problems I’d seen among many groups of gamers.

I’m most proud of the fact that we ended up going beyond the usual game format and ended up doing what was, we discovered, really a form of interactive storytelling. Because we were treating the games as if they were real issues of comic books, we ended up plotting them out in advance (though only the gamemaster knew all of what upcoming titles would hold).

For example, when I first started The Protectors, I had a gamemaster-run character in the team who the other players were suspicious might be a traitor because he was a non-player character. He wasn’t, but I decided to introduce a real traitor into the team, only sneakily. I went to one of the players who had a lot of discretion, told him my idea, and asked if he would be willing to play the traitor character for me (keeping this fact secret from the other players) until the story I had evisioned for her was finished. After that, he could do anything he wanted with the character. He agreed, and the traitor (traitoress?) storyline played out wonderfully. Afterwards the player took the character to even greater heights by inventing emotionally heart-wrenching plots for her (including a romance with another character, followed by pregnancy, followed a apparent birth in seclusion, followed by the revelation that the pregnancy had been hysterical and the character had used her superpowers to kidnap a baby to present as her own, followed by  jail) that put the other characters (and players) through their paces.

Because we were viewing ourselves more as the authors of comic books than as players wrapped up in a game, we didn’t get over-involved in having our characters aggrandized as extensions of our own egos (an all too common problem in RPGs). Instead, we got wrapped up in our stories. We wanted to tell the other players interesting stories through our characters, and so we would make up characters, not for purposes of having them accumulate more fame and power, but for telling an interesting story.

In fact, the starting point in character creation tended to be figuring out what the character’s "exit point" from the series would be. Would he die? Be murdered? Self-sacrificed? Mutated? Jailed? Lose his powers? Lose his fortune? Get cancer? Go crazy? Turn evil? Be exposed as a fraud? A clone? Her own daughter from the future? And what would happen with him on the other side of the exit point? Would he come back somehow, initiating a new character arc, or stay permanently gone?

Creating detailed character arcs meant, of course, that we totally ignored the rules of the game a lot of the time. They had to be subordinated to the character’s larger story–so no accidental deaths due to bad dice rolls; those were far less meaningful than tragic, pre-planned character deaths which had a lot more emotional meaning. By ignoring the rules at appropriate moments, therefore, we were able to create a much more satisfying story and really lift the campaign out of being a simple game and into being interactive storytelling. (The main game designer later told me he was a bit jealous of the way this campaign operated, which was a big compliment.)

It was a neat experience. A lot of fun for me, and it generated a lot of memories of friendship for me as a young man.

But it’s over now.

Haven’t played in years.

Haven’t found the kind of guys who are interested in that kind of thing, since, and anything else seems like a step down.

I did, a few years ago, toy with the idea of creating a game with rules that were designed to create the kind of campaign we had. Was thinking about having the design based not on rolling dice but on spending and accumulating "story points."

Unfortunately, the only players I knew at the time weren’t interested in that. They wanted to roll dice and kill bad guys.

Oh, well.

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R.V. Miole January 1, 2005 at 10:52 am

Wow. That was an incredibly thorough response. Who would’ve known that you were a game designer. Thanks for answering!

Benedict January 1, 2005 at 12:15 pm

In defense of D&D, the new edition of the rules removed all the unnecessary junk you had to deal with in earlier versions and streamlined the whole system.
Rolling dice and killing bad guys is still fun but now you do not need a high roll to use your low THAC0 to hit the well-armored orc’s low AC and then roll high damage.

Matthew L. Martin January 1, 2005 at 12:25 pm

This kind of low-to-no rules, story-driven play is actually a design approach/goal of a small (but influential) section of the gaming market nowadays.

Jimmy Akin January 1, 2005 at 12:43 pm

Can you provide a few links or titles, Matt? I’d love to learn more.

R.V. Miole January 1, 2005 at 3:22 pm

Have ya’ll ever heard of the gaming company, White Wolf. I love their d10 gaming system. While most of their products center around a gothic theme (the gameworld is called ‘The World of Darkness’–a darker, edgier version of the real world), their gaming system is oriented more towards storytelling.

Matthew L. Martin January 1, 2005 at 3:48 pm

One free download that may be close to what you’re looking for is the FATE System at http://www.faterpg.com . There are countless free systems designed for story-focused gaming, but FATE is one of the ones I’ve heard the most good about in the circles I move in.
For general discussion of the hobby, I usually hang around http://www.rpg.net. It’s a convoluted grab-bag of topics, but you may be able to find some useful information.
The Forge, at http://www.indie-rpgs.com, is an RPG think tank/discussion area. I don’t visit there myself, but I’ve heard a lot about it. It’s the source of a lot of innovative and quirky designs, but it’s also got a reputation for being pretentious and overly intellectual. (How accurate that reputation is, I can’t speak to.)
And if you want to see what’s up with D&D’s mechanics nowadays, WotC has open sourced the system. You can find the mechanics (sans any flavor text or more than a cursory explanation of use in play) at http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=d20/article/srd35

Benedict January 1, 2005 at 5:27 pm

Storyteller lives up to its name . . . it requires a GM to tell the story and ignore the system.
FATE is nice.

Tom C January 1, 2005 at 6:06 pm

Worst D&D rule — 1st level magic users start out with 1d4 HP. Inevitably, I’d have this 1st level wizard, with 1 HP, no armor, carrying a bunch of darts. He’d die almost immediately, and the other players with me would drag him around looking for a high level cleric for the rest of the game, while I ate Fritos and drank mountain dew.

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