Thursday, June 25, 2020

A long time ago I wrote an article called All The Boys Are Marching Out of Step Except My Johnny1.

 It was a kind of eulogy to role-playing games; it should really have been my last word on them. The substantive point was that when I played a game I wanted to pretend to be a character and get caught up in the flow of the narrative but that rules systems and models and even maps kept pulling me out of the flow. 
I wrote the piece in a fit of irritation after dropping out of a particularly pointless game of Star Wars. Playing games with strangers is never a very good idea. What had irritated me was that the other players were keeping track of ammunition and weight and what supplies they had in their backpacks, which seemed to me to be wildly out of keeping with the style of Star Wars and the Star Wars role-playing game in particular, which is all about melodramatic stunts and action. I think the rules say that guns run out of ammunition at the point where it would be dramatically appropriate for them to do so. 
Who remembers Toon?2 It was written by some of the same people who wrote the Star Wars game. You could probably split the role-player fraternity rather neatly into those who thought it was a revelation and those who thought that it was an abomination. There was no character advancement to speak of; and no puzzles to solve or objectives to fulfil. The only reason for playing it was the process: to think up silly cartoon characters and bounce them off each other for a while. The game said quite explicitly that any rule could be broken or ignored provided it was funny. Toon came out rather before Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but it was obviously thinking along the same lines. 
You mean you could have escaped at any time? 
No, not at any time. Only when it was funny.
The Star Wars role-playing game had that same rule, stated or un-stated. You can do anything you want provided it is heroic: you can do anything you want provided it is the kind of thing which might happen in a Star Wars movie. The first rule of Star Wars is that you have to play it like Star Wars. 
Of course, the group I flounced out of after one session were playing Star Wars like Dungeons & Dragons, because at that time everyone played everything like Dungeons & Dragons, because Dungeons & Dragons was what role-playing games were like. The whole fun of Dungeons & Dragons was trying to predict what equipment you needed to survive in the dungeon and how many 10 foot poles you could fit in a backpack; and whether it was worth wasting your one-use-only Wand Of Goblin Evaporation this early in the adventure. I believe that clever referees set up little puzzles with this in mind: monsters that could be defeated by the clever use of particular pieces of equipment in particular combinations. The guy who says "let's not worry about how many magic arrows the elf has left" is about as welcome as the guy who says "rooks and pawns, who can tell them apart?" 
What all us clever and sophisticated role-players used to dismiss as "rules lawyering" or "munchkinism" was the very thing that made the game world seem real to those players: a different way of looking through the crisp packet and seeing the space ship on the other side. Before they could imagine that they are bounty hunters or stormtroopers they had to have some sense of the physicality of their gun; how far it fires; how many shots it fires; how you recharge it. Saying "it's a medium sized gun; it kills people; and it runs out of bullets when the referee says it does" is a cheat which brings them out of the game-setting; just as surely as five minutes of calculating wind resistance and range and angle of acceleration and percentage hit ratios made the game world melt away from me. 
I turned my moan about the bad Star Wars game into a rant about how gaming wasn't as good as it used to be: a lament about how gamers nowadays kept interrupting my pure Star Wars experience with their rules and their numbers and their dice and their maps and their waiting their turn and their letting other players get a word in edgeways. Perhaps what I was really saying was "It is high time I admitted that I am over those silly games and should have a go at writing stories instead..." 
I like stories, but I can't be arsed to make any up. Like Philip Larkin, I basically find human beings too boring to want to become a novelist or a journalist. 

I have told this story before: too often. The discovery of Dungeons & Dragons in a green box in the basement of a very trendy toy shop, carpeted, wooden walls rocking horses, hand- knitted dolls, science construction sets, green boxes of Basic Dungeons & Dragons.
Where was the shop? Not in my village, for sure. We had an old fashioned toy shop, with teddy bears and model kits and an old lady who disapproved of children, but nothing trendy or fashionable. It was called The Toy Shop. It was a few doors up from The Sweet Shop and next to The Wool Shop. I sometimes think I grew up in an episode of Milly-Molly-Mandy. (They have now been turned into The Tatooist, The Nail Bar and The Undertakers.) 
The guy in the Elfish Gene is old enough to remember the three little brown booklets: Men and Magic; Monsters and Treasure; The Underworld and the Wilderness. By the time I was on the scene they were known as ORIGINAL Dungeons & Dragons. I know them only by reputation; they were already being sold as facsimile collectors' editions. I have never handled a set: perhaps I should. The box I saw in the trendy toyshop was BASIC Dungeons & Dragons, which was in turn replaced by ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons. I had a trendy Aunt who drank wine and cooked with garlic and lived in Kew so perhaps that is where the toyshop was. 
Some weeks later I found a shop much closer to home. It was called Tally Ho Games; because it was near a part of Finchley called Tally Ho Corner. It was called Tally Ho Corner because there used to be a pub called the Tally Ho even though there wasn't a fox for miles around. The Tally Ho Gaumant was where I saw Star Wars for the very, very, very first time. The local MP was called Margaret Thatcher.
After the war, to combat malnutrition, every school child was given a free half-pint of milk to drink every day. Milk-time and milk-monitors are a central motif in the childhood memories of people of a certain age. Crates of tiny milk bottles in playgrounds; children drinking slightly off milk through straws; hi-jinks involving concealing bottles and making cheese...  As minister for education Margaret Thatcher decided that this was not something which the country could afford. The English never forgave her. Chumbawamba celebrated her death with a song which went "When I first came to commons law; it was easy you see; stole the milk from the children's mouths; you get nothing for free." On the 5th of November we still burn her effigy on a bonfire while chanting "THATCHER! THATCHER! MILK SNATCHER!"
Tally Ho games was next to, and may in fact have been a sub-branch of, Michael's Models, which mostly sold intimidating military model kits and radio controlled aircraft but also sold unpainted lead war-game and fantasy figures in tiny little plastic bags and hand-written labels, "hobgoblins, set of three, £1.50". The basic Dungeons & Dragons set cost some absurd amount of money like seven pounds fifty; but it turned out that you could buy the rulebook by itself for two pounds ninety five. I am not sure how I got this princely sum together. I don't think it can have been a present because I remember reading it on the bus-ride home. 
I know it's a cliche, but the smell of that book, the cheap ink, the slightly haphazard type-setting can send me into a Wordsworthian spiral. Not making the memories come flooding back (they don't) and not longing to be eleven years old (everything else about being eleven was horrible) but somehow reconnecting with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons, the possibilities of Dungeons & Dragons, and going back to the day or week or month when there was nothing in the universe but a knight with a bow and a wizard with a staff and a dragon with a huge pile of treasure. Remember what C.S. Lewis said about bicycles? 
Perhaps my mistake was opening the box; moving from the moment when role-playing games were esoteric and unobtainable tomes with names like Empire of the Petal Throne and Nomad Gods to the moment when they were impenetrable and untested rules-sets in tiny type-faces.
This is the free trader Beowulf calling someone. Anyone. S.O.S. S.O.S
The mistake was reading the books and supposing that you could actually play these things; that four eleven year old boys in an empty classroom with old fashioned wooden ink-well desks could ever have anything to do with those free-floating concepts. 
Ral Parthar. Apple Lane. City State of the Invincible Overlord. Vault of the Drow. 
I have told this story too many times, and told it wrongly.
Role-playing games did not start in 1977; they started in 1983. Star Wars and Michael's Models and Outer Spacers were over. Sylvester McCoy was in the future. I managed to stretch "university" out to cover a fair proportion of my life. An undergraduate degree, some time living at home and doing a dead-end job; a post graduate degree; some time living in my old college house after my degree was over. "Work" and "study" were only ever the things which happened in between gaming meet-ups with two sets of old college friends: 1983 to 1995. That was when I created Aslan3, perpetrated Interactive Fantasy4, single-handedly invented free-form games5, created Once Upon a Time6 ("with others"); and even published some truly dreadful Warhammer scenarios without ever having played Warhammer. I reviewed a lot of games which I hadn't played for a couple of magazines I despised, and ended up with a column in an actually quite good magazine called Arcane. There was a picture of me and everything. The Terrible Star Wars Game would have been in about 1994. My twenties and thirties were the years the dragons ate. So why all this Proustian wrangling with the enchanted neighbourhood of Andrew's childhood days?

1 Reprinted in the printed and e-book editions.

2 A role-playing game in which the players take the roles of Warner Brother style cartoon characters.

3 An A5 photocopied fanzine about role-playing games.

4 A square bound pseudo-academic journal about "story making systems".

5 It says so on the internet so it must be true

6 A story telling card game.

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1 comment:

  1. Wow, this was an eye-opening section of the book for me.
    1) My kids and I used to play "Once Upon a Time"; it's a really well-designed game! At the time, a few years back, they were maybe 7 and 9, and frankly almost of the burden of making anything genuinely creative and story-like fell on me; they were just trying to race through as many cards as possible on a turn. I want to see if I can get them to re-visit it now.

    2) When you mentioned the ethos of "Toon", I immediately wondered if it came before or after my favorite Role-Playing Game, "Paranoia", which has a similar ethos, and which my kids and a few of their friends are learning and which I will be game-mastering. Answer, via Wikipedia to which I donate $5 a month quite happily: "Toon" was slightly after, and came from the same lead designer, Greg Costikyan. In "Paranoia" your characters die many many times, but have clones, and can purchase more; in some sense that's the opposite of "Toon", but in any real sense it's almost exactly the same.

    3) Your paragraph about why rules lawyers play the way they play is a grand feat of empathy. I bet it's right. Annoying, but right.


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