Saturday, July 04, 2020

I have a dream. Literally, I mean.

I dream that I have asked all my old friends over to play a role-playing game. Including the ones I am not speaking to any more. 
I have not prepared a scenario. I have not prepared any characters, in the same way I had not prepared for my role in the Revenger's Tragedy. It is not Traveller or Pendragon or any of the old ones. It is Risus, a very cut back dice-pool system intended for light-hearted or comedy games. 
It is one of those systems where you can choose any skill you like, however silly, and assign it a point value. 
I am going to specifically run Risus: Pirates. I very specifically tell the players that they can play any piratical character they want.
Name: James Hook
  • Pirate With Hook - 3 dice
  • Ex-public school boy - 2 dice
  • Music Hall Singer - 1 dice
Name: John Silver
  • Pirate With Pegleg - 3 dice
  • Ship's Cook - 2 dice
  • Owns Parrot - 1 dice
Perhaps I have a map of the Spanish Main. Perhaps I have some ideas about rival pirate ships; pirate hunters; and gold-laiden-Spanish-galleons. Perhaps there is an incredibly sexy lady pirate whose first mate is a mighty-thewed barbarian. Perhaps there is a ship entirely crewed by ghosts. But the idea is that the players, the people I invited over, are going to create such interesting characters that the game is mostly going to run itself. 
Paul Mason had a fanzine called Imazine. He talked about the narrative approach to RPGs; games which were about telling stories and not about rules and dice. You could have rules and dice but only if they made the Story more like a story.
My own fanzine was called Aslan. I endorsed the idea of Narrative Approach, but I called it "player centred narrative approach". Games where the player characters were free to choose their own paths through the game world. They might now be called "sandbox" games. 
Paul Mason said that the addition of "player centred" was a bit irrelevant and redundant. That hurt. The great Paul Mason telling me I was wrong. 
I had a perception that fanzines were publishing narrative scenarios which were simply scripts or storylines; a story for the referee to tell the players. There had been an—actually quite interesting—role-playing game based on Raiders of the Lost Ark in which it appeared impossible for the player's to deviate from the plot of the movie in any respect. I felt personally insulted by this. 
A role-playing game is an infinite series of interactions between a player and a referee; the player says "I do such and such" and the referee says "Well, such and such happens" and the player says "Then I do such and such" and so on until the princess is rescued from the type VII demon. The rulebook makes sure that that process keeps going with a minimum of fuss: the demon will be wounded if you roll a double six; your sword will break on the demon's leather hide if you roll a double one. 
In Dungeons and Dragons the exchange generally goes:
"I walk down the corridor and turn left at the intersection" 
"You see a door." 
But there is no particular reason it couldn't go: 
"I press the button"
"The planet Alderaan blows up".
Or even:
"I go home and wait for eleven years" 
"The boy wizard is unaware of his identity and living under some stairs in the working class end of Birmingham." 
It was never clear to me how these exchanges worked in the heavily narrative scenarios. Possibly you were supposed to infer a branching narrative. Possibly the idea was that the players solved a puzzle or killed a bad guy and were rewarded with the next bit of the plot. 
A dungeon is really only a flow chart rendered in bricks, mortar and 25mm figures; or, put another way, a story is only a dungeon made of words. I wanted to cut the story away and replace it with a world. I wanted the story to be whatever the players chose to do. I wanted the players to look back on whatever it was they had done in the gaming session and said "Oh: that was a good story". Life is what happens to you while the referee is busy making other plans. Above all, when I was piloting my own spaceship I wanted to be able to choose—or appear to choose or pretend I was choosing—whether to hang out in the bar or fly to visit my old friend on the gas giant or retire and open the first launderette on Tatooine. (Clothes must get pretty filthy with all that sand.)
Let me say it first. The games I actually ran were nothing like this. The games I actually ran were railroaded and plotted and invoked DMs Fiat25 to a shameless degree. If I wanted a particular monster to appear at this point, or a particular character to die at that point, then by God they appeared or died. Rules were fudged. Over-powerful non-player characters were invoked. Some players felt helpless. But they kept on coming, week after week, so something fun must have been happening. 
And I honestly never pre-plotted. The players were honestly free to say "Forsooth, let us launcheth a raid on the black castle of Sir Hector the Horrendous for he did mock us most mockingly in the last game"; and there was a good chance I knew where Hector the Horrendous was on the map and how many men and weapons he had guarding the Castle of Horrendousness. But it would suddenly occur to me, halfway through the session, that it would be a wonderful wheeze if it turned out that Sir Hector the Horrendous had Princess Arlene the Attractive (fair lady love of Sir Theodor the Thick) in his dungeon, and in his dungeon she would jolly well be however many steps Sir Theodor had taken to keep her safe in his absence.
The relationship between me and the players was interactive but unbalanced. They were never actually free to run around a sandbox. I have never had the patience or commitment to create a detailed world, or even understand someone else's. But they were perfectly free to propose story ideas. What really happened was that the players said—"Wouldn't it be fun if Thing X happened?" and I responded "Wouldn't it be even more fun if Thing Y happened?" and the story came out as some compromise between Thing X and Thing Y. The compromise being whatever I said it was. 
My Platonic ideal of a player centred narrative would have been a game in which the players freely decided what their characters did and the referee freely decided what the non-player characters did, and the completely neutral rules adjudicated the result. In practice, everyone pretended that that was what was going on; but everyone knew that we were operating according to the Toon imperative: "You can do anything you like, provided it's funny." And the referee gets to decide what is and what is not funny. So you can do anything you like provided it is what the referee thinks is funny. You can do anything you like provided it is what the referee wanted you to do.
And we carried on playing.
The only genuinely good idea I have ever had ("with others") was a card game in which a number of different players were trying to hammer a story towards different conclusions. 

My dream players have written down very short descriptions of their characters on very small pieces of paper; and they all have big piles of dice in front of them. I think I allow them to have back-up characters as well: or possibly I have some minor non-player characters who they can take over control of if their main character dies. 
I think they also have pirate toys. I am far too old to believe that little metal miniatures are part of a role-playing game; but I am still young enough to think that Lego Pirates and Playmobil Pirates are way cool. So there are a lot of toy plastic pirates in my dream game, cheap as you like, the cheaper the better, bought in a little plastic bag at an old fashioned post-office, lined up on the table. Maybe that is how the players create their characters? Pick a plastic figure and play that character, peg-leg, pistol, cutlass, parrot, canon, whatever....
At this point, the dream bifurcates. 
I am not sure if I have dreamt it both ways on different occasions; or if the logic of The Dreaming means that you can dream two contradictory things at the same time. 
You come to a fork in the plot. If you go starboard, turn to paragraph 18. If you go anti-clockwise, turn to paragraph Gamma. 
When the players has finished rolling up the characters they calls out "Arrrr!" and "Bejabbers!" and I says "What do ye do?" and they says "We sets out along the SPANISH MAIN me hearties" and I says "Be rollin' on your ship handling skill, jim lad, and ye may lay to that" and they says "I be rolling two sixes and a one, belay and be-like" and I says "The ship slips out of port awful pretty and sails toward the horizon, so it does" and they says "Be there any rum on board?" and I says "There be rum, but it be running awful low since the last adventure" and they says "We looks for a ship a-laden with rum, so we do!" and I says "Which of ye has a telescope?" and they says "Roger the Cabin Boy!" and I says "Maybe I will and maybe I won't but which of ye has a telescope?" and Roger roles on his "Spotting Ships on the Horizon" skill and I says "Ye sees a ship fresh from Florida Quay on the horizon, it's likely laden with rum" and they says "Arrr".....
But somehow, we are now on an actual ship. Sometimes it is a full scale replica of a sloop or a pinnace. (Blackbeard the Pirate had a very small pinnace. Fnarr, fnarr.) Sometimes it is a small riverboat that we have decided to pretend is a pirate ship. Someone is standing at the wheel. Someone is standing up aloft. Someone is standing down below. Everyone is shouting "Arr" and "Belay" and "Belike". I know that I am dreaming and in the dream I know that we are just ordinary people playing at being pirates: but there is a door marked "Captain's Cabin" and there is a treasure chest and a globe and an hour glass inside it, and sails and spare Jolly Rogers and we all sail off, the people I used to play games with, the people I have grown apart from, the ones I am no longer on speaking terms with, the ones who would not play a game with me now if I got down on my knees and begged them, the ones who are actually quite cross with me for writing this book, and we all sail off together. Bring me that horizon. 
They all finish rolling up their characters and look at me expectantly, and I look at my notes, and say "there is a ship" and there is an awkward pause and one of them says "we chase after the ship" and there is another awkward pause and I say "you catch up with the ship" and there is another awkward pause and they say "we fire our cannons" and I say "the ship goes down" and we all sit and look embarrassed for a few minutes and then we talk about Pirates of the Caribbean for a bit and everyone goes home feeling cross with me for having wasted their Saturday evening.

25 When something happens because the referee says it happens, not because it is generated by the rule-set.

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