One of my first posts was on Rules of Gamemastering, or at least on the rules I use. One of those was “RPGing is not wargaming.” Well, I was wrong. Sometimes it is, especially recently.
These days, when someone mentions they are playing a role-playing game, that may mean that someone is playing a computer game like Fallout 3 or Skyrim or other such games. I like some of those games. It’s loads of fun to wander through a beautiful three-dimensional world created by talented artists. It’s fun to play soldier and shoot stuff (whether fireballs, bow and arrow, or plasma rifle) and it is fun (for some of us, myself guiltily included) to have a power trip and watch the enemies fall in great numbers. “Conan, what is best in life?” “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Except in games today, you don’t have to listen to the lamentation of their women, both because that might make you feel guilty about killing a lot of people, but also because their women are buxom and armed and shooting at you too. There’s no dead babies in Call of Duty. Some of these games are “Massive Multiplayer,” which means that others can share your fantasy, and the enemies are a lot smarter, because they are other players. One of my favorites was Aliens vs. Predator 2 (AVP2), because you could play a character who was truly Alien, and you could do things no human could ever do. I have yet to see one of these games get beyond what I would call wargaming. The quests are dungeon crawls where the player mows down numerous foes, solves one or two problems if he is lucky (Portal is an exception, as it is more puzzle than wargaming), and acquires a pile of loot that gives better weapons, better armor, or other “power ups.” There are also various “achievements,” which are badges to show you did something interesting in the game. So these games are prettier than the video games of the 1970s, and smarter about how they addict the player through achievements, power-ups, and the like. Most of them are not even as fun as Gauntlet (1985). I often find myself saying to myself, “Elf needs food, badly!” The very best of them (and I’m thinking of KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic) here) have a great story, allow you to make your character good or evil, and can be played several times. They might even change where key encounters take place. But I still don’t call them roleplaying games, because as good as they can be, they still are not as good as table-top rpgs, except, perhaps, if we’re talking about Zork.
Because in a table-top rpg, anything can happen. With a good gamemaster, the players truly can do anything they like, because the game revolves around them and their imagination. My wife tells me that I make it too hard on myself by giving players that level of freedom, because I have to prepare so much. For me, it’s worth it because my joy is in creating a world and rules of existence, and then watching the players bend and change those and creating something utterly new, something I would never have thought of by myself. It’s true that the amount of preparation I have to make has meant that I play one world only, because I have to know that world in so much detail. I don’t play Traveler any more because I would flesh out a solar system with cultures, key cities, key areas for adventure, and then the characters would go flying through it and off to one I knew nothing about. The Galactic mapping program helped, which is why I designed the Magyar sector for it — to help out! But in my own world, I know where every dirt path goes, ever town name, the number of inns and how tasty their food is, how delicious their mead, and how clean their rooms. I have Excel files to generate cities of 5,000 people, with statistics, occupations, number of children, marital status, fighting ability, social commitment, key personality traits, and anything else I like. If the city has more than 5,000 people, I generate various districts and put them all together. And into all of that I drop the players who either provide dutiful service to the crown, amass personal fortunes, or create general havoc in a region. Among my favorite moments are these:
- An hour the players spent planning how to kill a stuffed monster (they didn’t know it was stuffed).
- The capture of a flying castle and then its renovation as a base for the players’ operations.
- A player playing a ghost after dying early in the day’s adventure.
- Players singing hymns along with the Snail Priest.
- Watching the players tear through my elite ogre guards in no time flat with perfect rolls and good planning.
- The mage who changed to a falcon and had his breath sucked out by an air elemental.
- Watching the players experience the machinations of warring magician’s guilds without ever figuring out what the heck was happening.
- Killing all of the rest of the party as an assassin and having everyone decide we wanted to play a good party rather than an evil one.
- Fifi, the talking poodle poo.
- The player who fell into the 60 foot pit with the Shoggoth and survived.
- Playing the Tombs of Horror and not surviving.
- Using maps of real caverns for the adventures, so the very smallest characters sometimes were the only ones who could squeeze through an area.
- The players testing every footstep for traps in a particularly diabolical set of catacombs.
- The thrill of being one of the players who didn’t get their brains sucked out.
- The time a player came home as a potted plant (she still got her share of the treasure).
- The party suddenly realizing that the cleric they brought along to turn undead is actually a conman.
- Wandering through Tegel’s Manor.
- Cavorting with the nymphs, even though we knew we weren’t going to be leaving Faerie afterwards.
- Players escaping from the dragon by sacrificing three of the pack animals.
- Singing the theme of the Chaellaxian Spiderman.