Sunday, July 12, 2020

Here is a story:
I am playing Runequest—I am playing Basic Role-Playing, never having got to grips with Glorantha. I am playing a crazy berserker fighting man. There is, for good and adequate reasons, a bloody great giant demon running about in the catacombs.
I slice my way through the cultists. Mooks fall beneath my swirling sword. I see through a red haze. I come face to ankle with the demon. I roll to hit it with my sword. I do a few points of damage. It doesn't seem to care. I prepare to beat a tactical withdrawal. 
"The demon is trying to grab you" says the referee. "Roll [some number] on your dexterity to avoid its mighty claws."
I roll much lower than [some number]. Its mighty claws duly grab me. It lifts me up in the direction of its mighty teeth. 
"Is it wearing a helmet?" I ask
"It is not wearing a helmet", says the referee
"Then can I get one smash on the head with my sword before it eats me?" says I.
"Certainly you may", say the referee. 
I roll my Sword Attack, expecting to die. 
In Runequest, a role of 00 on a percentage dice31 represents a critical hit. Maximum possible damage.
Guess what I rolled? 
Double damage to the monsters head.
The demon goes down 
I escape and for as long as I played that character, who didn't in fact have particularly high combat stats compared with what the game allows, I had the reputation for invincibility. Varos The Demon Slayer. 
I know all about the maths of Casinos. I know that so many dice are thrown in Vegas that people role triple sixes and are dealt quadruple aces every night of the week. I suppose I must have thrown ten thousand dice in my RPG career so some of them were bound to be double-zeros. 
What Runequest did, if I remember the rules correctly and am not confusing them with Pendragon, is encode some possibility that even a relatively weak character will occasionally have a lucky hit and that even the strongest character will occasionally mess something up. Where a Dungeons and Dragons character will gradually have his hit points whittled away and hope to leave the dungeon with two or three points intact, a Runequest character might go for a whole adventure without being wounded; but even the weakest enemy has a small chance of finding that chink in his armour and ending his career. So every fight is exciting, and heroic, and blood thirsty. 

Here is another story: 
We are playing Star Wars; the old West End D6-based Star Wars game. 
One of the rules mechanics of Star Wars was the Force Point. All the players had Force Points, not just the Jedi, but none of the baddies did. You could spend your Force Point—"call on the Force"—and temporarily double all your skills. This meant that once per session, everyone could do something ridiculously heroic—shoot down a whole room full of stormtroopers; leap across a chasm; perfectly shoot a proton torpedo into a tiny hole.
We are playing one of our periodic Final Battles to definitely save the Rebellion and totally defeat the Empire. One of the players is playing a Retired Imperial Captain: one of those veddy honourable admirals who Darth Vader keeps strangling, defected to the Rebellion. He is in command of a giant Rebel capital ship, while my character, Lance Starstrider (no, don't laugh) is zooming around in an X-Wing picking off TIE Fighters and trying to avoid his evil half brother who is in one of those big pointy TIE Interceptors.
Realizing that they are hopelessly outgunned, the Retired Imperial Captain orders that his ship accelerate to ramming speed. The rebel ship collides with the Imperial Star Destroyer, knocking it off course, before it can zap the Rebel Base, and sending flames and sparks across the rebel flight deck.
"I remain standing calmly at attention," says the Retired Imperial Captain.
"You will need to role a very hard dexterity check to do that", says the referee.
"Very well: I remain standing calmly at attention and spend a Force Point" says the Retired Imperial Captain.

Here is one more story:
We are playing Pendragon. We have been playing Pendragon for a very long time. Two ancient enemies meet on the battlefield. The good guy's sword skill is 40 on a scale of 1-20. This means that he gets to add +20 to each roll of the dice, which means that every time he swings his sword he will do a Critical Hit and score Double Damage—which will certainly kill any opponent. The bad guy's sword skill is also 40 on a scale of 1-20. This means that every time he tries to defend himself, he will roll a critical parry and take no damage at all. However, regardless of skills, a role of 1 on a 20 sided dice is always a fumble, a total automatic failure. And so the fight goes on, long after everyone else is dead or fled; while the legendary kingdom of Lyoness is falling into the sea around them. Critical hit; critical parry. Crash. Critical hit; critical parry. Crash. Eventually, after hours, the ancient enemy roles a 1. He fumbles. He fails to parry. He is hit for double damage and dies in a single blow. The good guy is victorious, knee deep in the blood of his enemies. 
Poets still write songs about the epic confrontation. 

I have no interest in games in which you track the individual trajectory of a bullet in 10/1000th of a second melee rounds using advanced quantum mechanics, so my bullet might be a 10th of the way to your head while you have only pulled 33% of your trigger. There really was a game which worked like that. I have very little interest in games where designing your character is like filling in a tax form and it pays to know all the loopholes and special cases. And I never had any interest in learning spell lists and skill trees and knowing which combination of weapon and magic item and spell best exploits each monsters weakness. If I wanted to do that I would play Magic The Gathering. 
But I never liked the purely systemless games as much as I sometimes pretended to. I have always secretly liked game rules which feed into a style of play—rules which cleverly create a particular kind of story. I do not believe in transparent, neutral rules-systems any more than I believe in transparent, neutral news reporting or transparent, neutral interpretations of Hamlet. A physically realistic simulation of a seventeenth century full rigged sailing ship is not a pirate game even if it has pirates in it. A pirate game is one which encourages ye to talk like a pirate; which permits ye to use your dagger to slide down the mainsail—nay, which encourages ye, forces ye, to do so. 
Many games have a system of Initiative; an artificial way of deciding who goes first. I have little interest in playing the Doctor Who role-playing game; but I take my literal hat off to whoever came up with the rule that people trying to run away go first; people trying to talk or take some other action go second; and people trying to attack go last. 

And this is why I still like the idea of role-playing games. This is why I am still fascinated to hear about new systems. This is why I have boxes and shelves of role-playing games I will never, ever, play. Because these networks of initiative systems and critical hits and Force Points are a form of literary criticism. The Star Wars rule-set excited me because it appeared to be a code which described every possible Star Wars story; which describes the genre which Star Wars is trying to be. Not everyone liked it. Some people found it simplistic and game-like and too heavily weighted in favour of the invincible player characters. Some people felt that a Star Wars game should have tried to realistically simulate the aerodynamics and engineering of an X-Wing tell us what its operational parameters are and how much G force is exerted on a pilot doing a give us a sense of what it would be like to be in the cockpit of one of those things if they really existed. But that isn't a criticism of the Star Wars role-playing game. It is a disagreement about Star Wars: a disagreement about what kind of a story it is, about how we ought to be reading it. More than one right answer can exist. 
This is why the cover of a superhero role-playing game, or a fantasy role-playing game, or a space-opera role-playing game still excites me in a way that actual comic books and fantasy novels hardly ever do. Any one game of Traveller or Dungeons and Dragons is simply one experience, a particular story, which may be exciting or funny or boring or even sometimes moving and traumatic—just like an episode of Game of Thrones or He-Man or Grange Hill. But the game itself, the product, the thing in the box is not a story. It is, until you start to play, every possible story. It is as close as you can possibly get to the idea of Story, separated from the sequential one-thing-after-another-ness of a particular narrative. It is langue as opposed to parole
There is chess, and there is a game of chess. A role-playing system is a great big box of potential story.

In 1982 I started my English degree at Sussex University. Everything I knew about university came out of The History Man...


I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one's first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false -- even if all possible promises of it are false.
C.S Lewis -- Talking About Bicycles

31 i.e two dice numbered 0-9; read as two digits, between 01 and 99, with 00 counting as a hundred

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Inigo said...

Perhaps you might be interested in Dungeon -

"Dungeon is a game about recapturing the experience of enjoying traditional fantasy narratives. You play a group of young kids playing Dungeons & Dragons while grappling with the perils of high school, and how these things can intersect."

Mike Taylor said...

How delightfully meta.

My middle son is at university, and therefore in several RPG groups. In one of them, the PCs are playing a game of D&D. I think this kind of thing should be encouraged.