Sunday 15 August 2010

My Dad's Bigger than Your Dad

What is it with guys who play role playing games, and talking about how much they know about martial arts?

I consider myself to be moderately masculine. I never cry, drink a lot of beer, don't mind stinking of sweat, watch and enjoy most sports, and I like ogling women at the gym, but on the other hand I'm not interested in cars and I quite like Sex and the City.

I also have done a bit of Tae Kwon Doe in my time, and got okay-ish at it - enough to know what becoming good at a martial art entails anyway (and enough to know I'm much too lazy to get there).

But I can never get my head around those conversations that some blokes have. You know the sort of thing. "I have this friend who is a black belt in karate and he showed me this move where you punch somebody in the chest and actually stop their heart!" "Well, I did kung fun for 20 years, and I know how to kick you so hard in the goolies that you end up coughing them out of your own nostrils." "My dad taught me aikido, and he learnt it from the modern founder of aikido who visited him from beyond the grave!" "I'm so utterly hard that every time I take a shit the muscles in my glutes break the toilet!"

For obvious reasons, these conversations always seem to crop up during role playing game sessions. Every time they do I have to just sit in the corner rolling my eyes. It's so utterly moronic; surely it would be simpler and more efficient if everybody just took their cocks out, compared sizes, and had done with it?

You get it with guns too, of course. Listen, I'm a WWII history buff, and I can compare the performance of a 37mm and a 47mm anti-tank gun with the best of them, but I never do so in public, or at least outside of the insanity of the turn-based WWII tactical wargames I play. The next time I hear somebody talking about how a .45 calibre round does x to your torso whereas a .44 one does y, when really it's just a matter of one doing d6+2 damage and one doing d6+3, I think I'll start strangling people.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Schoolboy Errors

Yeah, yeah, I know. So much for increasing the posting rate on this blog. Work and personal life are not cooperating, I'm afraid.

Anyway, last weekend, I made a crucial, schoolboy error which I once would never have made, and which proves my gamer skillz are growing rusty. Yes, I did it: I wrote on my character sheet in fucking INK. Now I'm going to have to put up with crossing stuff out, or (even worse) use bloody Tipex. What a moron.

This got me thinking about The Mistakes You Can Make as a player. I'm not talking about in-game stuff like the n00b error of trying to fight a cockatrice blindfolded. I'm talking about the meta-game stuff, like writing with a pen on your character sheet or using crappy dice. The kind of thing that makes everybody else point at you and laugh, or try to run you out of town with pitch forks. Here are some others I can think of; they may be a little subjective:

  • Doing a voice while playing a member of the opposite sex.
  • Forgetting your eraser so you have to keep borrowing one off somebody else.
  • Making a bald statement about something you know nothing about, without realising that somebody else at the table does that thing for a living. (I once started rambling on about putting down a horse, only to discover that one of the other players was actually a vet and was busy laughing up his sleeve at my moronic misconceptions.)
  • Not bringing snacks or drinks. Probably the most egregious error.
  • Having a CD or mp3 player filled up with sound effects and queueing up the wrong one, so instead of a scary ghost sound playing when the scary ghost appears, you instead get the sound of somebody farting or a dog barking or a T-34 engine firing up.
  • Forgetting to keep track of your hit points/gold/whatever so when the DM asks you, you look all flustered and have to shamefacedly admit that you don't know.
  • Rolling 1d100 and mixing up which d10 is the 10s and which is the units, so you look like you're cheating when really you're just an idiot.
  • Persistently forgetting or mispronouncing the names of the other players' characters.
  • Rolling your dice too vigorously so that one of them goes flying off the table and under a conveniently placed cabinet, so you have to bend over or get on your hands and knees and scrabble around for it while you go increasingly red-faced because of all the blood rushing to your head and the other players stare at your ass-cleavage.

Any others spring to mind?

Wednesday 4 August 2010

The Creativity of Constraint

Regular readers will know that China Mieville is kind of an obsession round these parts. It's not deliberate; the guy just insists on saying provocative things that he knows I'll want to comment on. At the gym just now I was listening to his interview on The City and The City, in which he talks at some length about how genre constraints and rules are not in fact barriers to creativity but, on the contrary, spur it. Working around strict tropes and genre expectations forces, in some respects, ever greater leaps of imagination in the drive for something new. (Of course, being a total pseud, like me, he mostly ended up talking about the Oulipo school.)

This is something I can identify with, as it's true of all the RPGs I really enjoy. Being constrained by either expectation (e.g., it's D&D so there will be a dungeon) or starting point (e.g., it's D&D so you can be a fighter, a wizard, a cleric, a dwarf, or an elf) forces both players and DMs to continually re-invent, rejig, and genuflect their games and characters in ways in which a blank slate somehow could not. (At least in theory. There are of course plenty of players who end up being Bob the Fighter in every game.) If you're playing D&D and you know therefore there are to be dungeons, you put in the extra effort to make those dungeons unique and interesting so they don't come across as old. If you're playing D&D so you know you're going to end up being the cleric, you invent some weird and wonderful new deity, religion and trappings to keep things fresh.

RPGs accomplish creativity through constraint in three different ways:
  • The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Model. This uses hardcore randomness in character generation to force players into boxes they weren't expecting to be put inside. They then have to shape their character on unsure and unexpected footing.
  • The BECMI D&D Model. This allows some choice of role, but the roles are highly rigid archetypes that allow for little variation. This forces players to come up with cosmetic and character-based variety; if you have to be an elf you're going to play an elf who is scared of water, whose culture is modelled on Turkish horse nomads.
  • The Pendragon Model. This is the ultimate in constraint: in its purest form Pendragon insists that the players will all without exception take on the role of squires about to be knighted and taken into the service of King Uther (or King Arthur). Players therefore come up with highly creative means of distinguishing themselves from each other in looks, personality, abilities and history.
Generic games like GURPS, the HERO system, Savage Worlds and so forth therefore leave me somewhat cold. The vast blank canvasses they provide often intimidate and confuse. Better to restrict, better to constrain, better to make lack of options the spark.