Thursday, August 1, 2013

What's in it, then, and why should I care?

I just read a thoughtful piece by +Shoe Skogen, over on her blog (highlighted by +Zak Smith), and it got me thinking about why I game the way that I do, why I enjoy what I enjoy, and similar matters of the heart (as applied to gaming more generally).

To begin with, and I think my readers will probably agree, I play games to have fun. If I'm not having fun, then there'd better be some other reason to continue. Now, what is "fun" can vary widely. I've had fun as a player and as a GM. I've had fun having my characters killed, cursed, or otherwise fucked up beyond repair. I've had fun being on the verge of TPKing my players, and then had fun watching them defeat my fiendish plans through a combination of lastounding luck, teamwork, and sheer audacity. In short, there's a lot of ways to have fun with an RPG. My fun may not be your sort of fun, nor yours, mine. That's okay.

But here's what I like.

I Like Stories

The main thing that I like about RPGs is the story. I've been an avid reader since I was about 9. To quote myself (of all people) about myself:
Miss Hopkins, my first grade teacher, read to us every day. She read a lot of stuff by Beverly Cleary: The Mouse and the Motorcycle was my favorite. I was learning to read as well, and the first books I would read myself were those read to us by Miss Hopkins. We also were learning to write. That was a very different matter than reading. Each day, before lunch, Mrs. Hopkins would write five sentences on the board. Our task was to copy them into our notebooks, using one of those oversized pencils the little kids used back then. I never finished the job. Not once. It was tedious and boring, and I just couldn’t make myself do it. Instead I sat there, thinking, looking out of the window, bored out of my head, and filled with more than a little fear that I would get in trouble for not doing the work. Miss Hopkins never said anything though, not a word. Flash forward.
I was in third grade, at a new school. I had no one to hang out with, having been betrayed recently by my “best friend,” Ernie. It was lunchtime, and I was in the first floor hallway. On some impulse, I walked into the library. The librarian saw me standing there. I probably looked very small and a little lost. She walked right up to me, and asked if she could help me find a book. She was very nice, and even asked me what I was interested in. I walked out of there with The Sword in the Stone. It was a thick, heavy book, but easy to read. I read it in just two days. My life would never be the same. Within the year, I would be going through books like most people go through socks. Reading became my entertainment and my refuge. To this day, I cannot sleep at night without reading at least a few pages.
That state of affairs has persisted to this day. My shelves groan under the weight of my books. I'm always looking for new ones, and rereading old ones. They are weirdly important to me. I had a roommate at one time who was standing in our living room, looking at the TV. I was on the couch, doing the same. Then I noticed that he was standing on top of a book, which was on the floor. It was a discrete math book, if I recall correctly. I think I'd sold it to him. "Kyle," I said, "don't stand on the book."

He looked at me, uncomprehending on some fundamental level, what I was about. "Why not?"

"It's disrespectful," I replied.

This went on a bit longer, my arguing my (admittedly irrational) argument, and he his (which was more practical and which had no regard for my bibliophilic anthropomorphism). Eventually, just to humor me, he relented. So, yeah, books are that important to me. The idea that someone would destroy books is abhorrent.

Anyhow, for me, gaming is about telling stories. Given my proclivities, those stories tend to combine some elements of grittiness, intrigue, fighting, theft, wondrous objects and machines, treasures with potentially fatal flaws, villains worthy of love and respect, genre stereotypes done just a bit differently (but to the hilt), journeys to Some Crazy Place to do or retrieve Some Crazy Thing, lots of peril, long-term consequences for failure (and even for success), at least some character deaths (I'm not out to get you, I'm trying to tell a good story. It's not personal.), and as many "What the holy hell is that shit?" moments as possible.

As a storyteller, I most certainly am performing a piece. Not in the sense that I'm hamming it up. That happens, but there's only so much I can do with just the one, vaguely Eastern European character accent I have for my use. I mean I'm trying to perform more in the sense of a magician's performance. I'm trying to make like a conjure-man of skill and grace, to put this detail in the setting, to trigger that thought in the players' minds, which causes them to pursue this goal or motivation, which makes everything go fucking nuts. This usually results in my being completely stressed out for an hour or so, trying to keep track of and manage the three or four plot lines I'm working to bring together at a climax of some sort. All through this process, I have a group of people who are there for their own reasons, doing things their own ways, and my job is to try to bring all of that into the fray, as well. Sometime it works. When it works, it's like eating a good meal or getting laid or hearing a new song that rocks you all the way down to your marrow.

So, this is, for me, about telling a story, and making it as epic a tale as possible. Over time, the players in my campaigns will have a sense of the world, and (more importantly) a sense of their place in it. Even when I play in others' games, I like to make a place in it. When I play a cleric, I want to be more than a dispenser of healing. I want to witness my faith. I want to smite the unrighteous. I want to make the world a better place in which to provide glory unto my chosen deity. When I'm a thief, I want riches and to be legendary in some respect, to pull off the capers that will give people reason to be awe-stricken by their audacity and execution. When I'm a member of a party of adventurers, I want us to play like we mean to win. I also expect that we'll play our characters in ways that make sense (not meta-sense), and that, even though we might know that playing in-character could be fatal, damned if we don't do it anyway. That's the difference between telling a story right, and being more interested in winning than in making it fucking awesome. Give me awesome all day, every day. I don't care if my zero-level funnel characters are dying. Just make it awesome. I'll go roll up some more. And if an established character dies, then I will damned well mourn that character like it mattered, even if (as GM) I was the bastard what killed him.

As an addendum, I must say that I love gaming books. PDFs are fine, but give me a big, printed tome and all is right with the world. If it's got fun art and lots of little bits to play around with, all the better. A tale for another time, I think.

I Like Tweaking on Details

When I write adventures, I take it very, very seriously. I like to have them completely written before I even start playtesting. I like to write and edit and revise, over and over. I like to build in little widgets and subsystems. I like to use the details to paint in parts of the larger picture of the campaign world, and imagine the implications for the player characters and their places in that world. I like to create real-seeming NPCs with motivations and goals. I like to make monsters. I like to make places and neighborhoods, and to put people in them. Basically, I like to put into my adventures the same sorts of details that matter in a good story. Characters, settings, structural imbalance requiring some sort of resolution, and (ideally) some level of indeterminacy as to what that resolution might be.

For me, there's a strong element of craftsmanship in this task, and the process of drafting, editing, revising, and so forth, is much the same to me as what happens when I build a piece of furniture, from the rough carpentry, to the finer finishing carpentry, to the sublime joy of watching the development of a fine finish, putting on the the stain, then the polyurethane, then fine sanding, then more urethane, then increasingly fine grades of steel wool, and then polishing cloths and wax, until that finish just glows. It makes for a thing of beauty, that level of detail, whether its a game or an end table. The great thing about gaming is that I don't have to provide all of the details. I have players who help me do that, and take me places I wouldn't otherwise have gone.

When I finally get an adventure ready to go. When the maps are drawn/drafted, and the narrative established, and the NPCs settled, and the adventure areas keyed, and the monsters and traps ready to rip the party to shreds... it's just so shiny and beautiful. There's not really another feeling like it, and I find it tedious, difficult, entrancing, obsessive, and completely addictive. Getting, then, to play that adventure with a bunch of people who really want to be there, as well... that's an incredible bonus.

In fact, much of my gaming life, until recently, included more writing of adventures than actually playing them; making characters rather than actually playing them; imagining rather than playing. It's a lot more fun for me to play, but I still get a lot of personal satisfaction just from having crafted something that could be played.

I Like Love Dice

You'd think at this point that, given my obsessive control fetish with regard to adventures, I'd want to maintain as much direct influence over the happenings in my game universe as I can. That's not precisely true, as I've learned in my encounter with Dungeon Crawl Classics. DCC is incredibly swingy in terms of its dice mechanics. Those mechanics can turn shit into gold and, subsequently, turn that gold into plutonium that will FUCKING KILL YOU. I recently watched the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad guys go from being on the cusp of a (very sad) TPK, to rolling like the very Metal Gods were on their side, and somehow avoiding what seemed like certain death. That never would have happened without the dice (a dice simulator, actually). While some people hate that sort of randomness, I love it. I like being surprised, and I like having to deal with unintended consequences of seemingly predictable actions and situations. I even like it (though less so) when it makes me fail. And fail again. And fail again. Just as an aside, I'm a shit cleric. When I cast my spells in DCC, I fail entirely too often. It's become ludicrous. Still (as I said above), that can make for a pretty good story, in itself.

I also like making things that you can do with dice. I like creating game subsystems, improvised tools using dice, and I really love random generators. I especially love random generators that use all of the dice. Most recently, I've been working on some tables that use literally "all of the dice," including d3, d4, d5, d6, d7, d8, d10, d12, d14, d16, d20, d24, and d30. No d100, though. I'm not a fucking masochist.

Finally, I love the dice themselves. I like their physicality and their various forms. I like my dice to be both useful and decorous. I like to have sets in all the colors. I like to have all the kinds of dice I could possibly use. I like to have dice I can simply give away to my players. I have so many dice. I want more dice. I want some of those metal dice, and some natural stone dice. I want all of the dice.

So I bought all of the dice.

Still, I somehow think I could use some more dice. Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with me? Enough is enough... but I need some more green ones, and some purples, and...

I Hate Like People

Okay, that's not true. For the most part, I find most people fairly tedious. My job forces me into situations (teaching, committees, etc.) where I have to be "on" pretty much all the time. It's exhausting, mostly. I'm an introvert, and doing that sort of thing for long periods of time is draining to me. However, if those people are providing the absolutely correct vibe, if they're all putting out the right energy, then I actually am energized. In most of my life, outside of my wife and kid, and a few close friends, I much prefer my own company.

That said, I've been lucky to find the people I've found on G+. I never would have met them, otherwise, and I'm quite thankful that I have found them. These are the people I really like to game with, because they are people I like to talk to. I like the cuts of their jibs (to paraphrase Monty Burns). These are people with whom I think I could share a beer in person, and not just virtually. These are the people who make me laugh and laugh at the stupidest gaming shit in the world. "Herbgerblins" is a word that now makes me giggle incessantly, and my regular Metal God of Ur-Hadad group would probably laugh even harder. Even people with whom I game infrequently are a lot of fun.

There's a certain level of cross-pollination that occurs as well. Really good writers are never alone. They read other authors, and steal bits of their approaches, making them over in their own ways. Most recently, my gaming has stolen bits from +Adam Muszkiewicz's work on his Ur-Hadad setting. We've had an incredible collaboration, and our work together has taken me in very, very interesting and creative directions. Some time soon, you all will have a chance to see some things that the Metal Gods crew has been working on.

My hangout games on G+ have really been fun, too. I've gotten to play +James Aulds's version of Stars Without Number. It's a blast. Even though it's not the same adventure I would have written myself, I've learned a lot from his approach. I've also had a ton of fun playing it. I frequently play in +Shawn Sanford's Saturday games. That group is a lot of fun, as well, and I've particularly enjoyed playing with Barry, Alexei, Chris, Steven, and the rest of the Saturday crew. We've been through a lot together, and they can attest (as I've already mentioned) that I'm a shit cleric whose gods hate him.

I Love My Characters

Right now, I have two main characters, and I love both. 

My "oldest" character is Kormaki Lemmisson, a 2nd (almost 3rd) level DCC cleric of the Metal Gods. He is based, in turn, on my old AD&D cleric (also named Kormaki, but no last name) who reached 8th level. I can't find his character sheet anywhere, though.

Zehra the Archer is a 2nd level DCC thief. She's very, very good, and a lot of fun to play. She's impetuous and prone to misadventure, but she's gotten a lot better at using her best skills, lately. She earned the sobriquet "The Archer" for acing The Emerald Enchanter (with her bow) in the Joseph Goodman adventure of the same name.

There are others, though. I've got Berzerker Joe (1st level Warrior), and Grogar Nox (4th level AD&D fighter, recently killed by a shambling mound), Jotun Vargo (1st level S&W Ranger), and Lily Lardbottom (3rd/3rd level AD&D halfling fighter/thief), and a few others. They've all got some possibilities, I think, but I don't get much chance to play them.

I believe very strongly that characters, not setting, not plot, are the very heart of what makes a good story. If the characters don't drive the story (whether PC or NPC), then it's not going to be a very good story, and the players aren't going to have a very good time. At the same time, who the character is ought to be intensely personal to the player. It is derived from the players imaginings, and from what happens when those imaginings are enacted (responded to) by the GM and his/her setting, adventure, NPCs, random dice stuff, etc. I really dug something that +Zak Smith said a little while back, about character development in games without mechanics for character development
I think games with extensive personality mechanics expect that your character starts one way, undergoes Character Development in play (like they teach you in creative writing courses), and emerges another way. 
With most games I like, the character starts no way at all, undergoes experiences which reveal character and then are proved to have been a certain way all along. Then, maybe, if they survive, undergo some character development. ... 
I like the artlessness of it. I'm not choosing a character to play. I am, literally, exploring the character, as one might a dungeon--going into it to see what is there. Not pushing it along, just knowing that I can dip a toe in at any time and see who somebody is.
The "like they teach you in creative writing courses" part of that is right on with my sense of what a character is/does in his/her development. It's especially great when that happens with a bunch of other people with whom you're having the same experience. Sure, not everyone will treat character development in that emergent way. Some people have very clear character concepts, even if those character concepts don't seem to work very well in the setting. Hell, the world's got plenty of people who are the same way, so not that big a deal, is it? My ideal is fiction that's as real as reality (minus a few tedious unpleasantries, of course), about people who have the potential to be as fully-realized as you wish to make them. If they survive. Many don't, but that's why the ones who do survive are special.

So, there you go. These are a few of my favorite things. Thanks to everyone who makes my favorite things possible, from the kid in China who makes my minis, to the the authors of my gaming books and modules, to the player and GMs whose time I am lucky enough to share. My life's a happier place because of you. And thanks +Shoe Skogen for helping to prompt me to this get out on the page. It's easy to forget to celebrate the small delights, even when they are the ones that make the biggest differences.