Fool, fool; back to the beginning is the
- William Goldman, The Princess Bride
For the most part I expect that much of this page will be of little interest to anyone who does not know me, but I feel I ought to put some content in the web space, seeing as it's free and all. Anyway, I think what I'll put in here will be:
My own opinions on what roleplaying really is, for whatever that's worth;
Some memories of RPGs I have known;
A few words about the alt.games.vampire.the.masquerade newsgroup, where I post.
Well; I'm no expert. If you don't know what roleplay gaming is, I would suggest that this is not the place to be. There are a number of far better introductions to roleplaying available; for starters, I would suggest following a few links from Mant's Lair.
In brief however, roleplaying - or more correctly roleplay gaming - describes any game system in which the players each take on the persona of one or more fictional (or fictionalised) characters in order to interact with a more-or-less freeform scenario. Most include a random element, usually in the form of dice rolling. Roleplaying can vary from the classic 'dungeon crawl' to the high-concept likes of Hogshead's Baron Munchausen.
Oh yeah; and it isn't evil or corrupting. Roleplay gamers who go out and kill people and drink their blood or what have you are sick bastards, but they aren't sick bastards because they play roleplaying games. They may take some ideas from roleplaying games, but if the games weren't there they'd find outlets in other media, or in the bad sickness in their brains.
Roleplaying games do not make you kill your parents, friends or pets; they do not teach you to do magic; they do not contain the keys to a better tomorrow, nor the keys to unlock Satan's prison and loose hell upon the earth; they are not a means to dominate or hurt others.
Roleplaying games are just that; games. If you want some evil to hiss at, go and take a look at Jack Chick's slant on roleplaying; I guarantee at least seven-in-ten well-balanced individuals will come back more worried about Jack Chick than about roleplaying.
In an attempt to portray the wealth of roleplaying games in an almost meaningful context, I now present a generalised account of my own experiences in the merry land of make-believe.
The dungeon crawl is a classic format, pioneered in the public field by the toothless old conservative godfather of modern roleplaying; Dungeons and Dragons. In a dungeon crawl the characters are typically based on one dimensional occupational templates, usually called classes. In the original D&D game you could be a Fighter, a Cleric (priest of no apparent religious persuasion), a Magic User, a Thief, an Elf, a Dwarf or a Halfling. That's right, non-humans don't have any other occupations; they just elf, dwarf or - in all probability - half.
Regardless of class however, all D&D characters initially led very simple lives. They would boldly descend into a succession of deep, labyrinthine dungeons, all of which tended to be laid out in 10'x10'x10' segments for ease of map drawing on graph paper, all of which were filled with piles of mad loot, and all of which were infested with hundreds of monsters not quite tough enough to kill the heroes outright, whose sole raison d'etre seemed to be to hurl themselves in a green-skinned (most of the more common perils of the dungeon crawl had green skin, thus allowing all sorts of racist, anti-orc slurs whilst avoiding any suggestion of real-world racism) tide at the heroes, in bold defiance of their own inadequacy.
This was all good fun of course, but unless you had a really good Dungeon Master (the fella responsible for managing the dungeon itself, inventing - or at least interpreting - the setting and plot, such as it was) it soon got kinda dull. Many people also found themselves asking the difficult questions like: Are we really justified in relieving these poor suffering bastard orcs of their hard-earned cash? And how did they get the cash in the first place? What do all the normal people do with their lives? What are these 'girls' everyone says are so cool?
OK; last issue a bit of a self-damning stereotype, but it was often true. Roleplay gaming is and always has been a male-dominated hobby - and if you are to retain any balance in your life, hobby is the only word for it - although the ratios are far less dramatic than they used to be, especially in the States.
Anyway, the point is that as roleplayers - for want of a better phrase - grew up, they wanted something a little more intrinsically challenging than round fifty-three of man vs orc.
And so D&D begat AD&D - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Still much the same style, many of the same rules, but with greater depth and complexity; elves and dwarves and halflings could now get jobs like the humans did! The books also covered in more detail such things as adventuring outside, adventuring in cities and the like. In someways though, it was a case of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss'. For all its greater complexity, AD&D was still very much rules driven, and the monsters still pretty much drooling thugs.
There remained the extremely linear hero career path; you basically just got better at what you did (fight, cast spells, pray, steal stuff) and that was it. There was also always a tremendous disparity between the heroes and the ordinary folk. The burliest farmer in the world would fold if you hit him with a potato sack, while after a few adventures even the spindly wizard could take a couple of arrows without flinching. There was once an adventure published for AD&D featuring Robin Hood and his Merry Men, who got to surround the heroes with longbows. Unfortunately, to an AD&D hero, a longbow just isn't frightening, since if it will take twenty hits to put you down, you can just shrug off the first couple while you bludgeon Little John to death with his own quarterstaff.
And then came Warhammer (and please understand that this is very much a history of my personal exposure to rolplaying games, and not a history of the hobby; Warhamer was where I went after AD&D). Originally based on a table-top miniatures wargame (armies of model soldiers, the players control the armies, there are rules, dice, tape measures; I can't really get into that now), Warhammer had a clunky system, in which it was altogether possible for an experienced PC (player character, a vital acronym to get by in the world of RPGs... Ah hell; check out the Vocabulary of Roleplaying here) to be physically stronger than a large dragon, but the setting was beautifully detailed, largely coherent, and at times managed to become something altogether more than your standard sub-Tolkein fare.
It wasn't perfect of course, and if you wanted to be cool there were few reasons for being anything but a wood elf, who were generally quicker, smarter and better looking than everyone else, and had that whole pan-Celtic look going for them (on pan-Celts see Diana Wynn-Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land - its a book, made out of paper, I'm sorry but I don't know of an e-version). Still, it was good fun when done well, and that's about as good as you can get in the whacky world of Roleplaying. It also, to the best of my knowledge, introduced the Fate Point - which for my money was one of the most astoundingly simple yet brilliant innovations in roleplaying history.
The Fate Point was an alternative to the overwhelming competence and bad-assness of (A)D&D heroes, representing the mark of greatness in an initially fairly ordinary character. Spending one of the precious stock of Fate Points allowed the player to save their character from certain death by quirk of destiny: a ledge you just managed to catch, the swimming pool under the window, the cigarette box which stops the arrow over your heart; all that sort of thing.
Call of Cthulhu - another venerable game - offers an inversion of the Dungeons and Dragons staple of bad-ass heroes putting the smack down on hordes of pitful monsters. Based on the fiction of Howard Philips Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu offers a view of the cosmos in which the world of humanity is but an insignificant scribble in the margin. Not only can CoC characters never hope to defeat the bad guys, most of them are so alien, or so indescribably hideous, or so at odds with any rational human's world-view, or all of the above, that even to look on them is to be plunged into madness. Most of them are pretty much bullet-proof too.
The next stage in roleplaying development is the character-driven plot, in opposition to the earlier plot-driven characters. Heavily pushed by White Wolf games (in their better moments) character-driven plot games allow much greater freedom of action to the players, and break down the dichotomy of powerless players and an almost omnipotent Dungeon Master - or at least that's the idea. I could dwell on this subject for hours, but White Wolf have comissioned dozens of essays in a similar vein, which doubtless ascend heights of pretention of which I can but dream.
A final alternative is the lightweight RPG. Especially popular as light relief between heavy bouts of 'serious' games, lightweight RPGs are those which specifically refuse to take themselves too seriously. Perhaps two of the best known lightweight RPGs are the Logan's Run inspired comedy game Paranoia, and the action-movie game, Feng Shui.
Paranoia is one of the best comedy games out there, because it has more than one joke; it has at least three. If done well, the PCs stumble around the futuristic Alpha Complex, adrift in a sea of bureaucracy and lost in a maze of technobabble, all trying to score brownie points with the all-powerful Computer (which is your friend, and wants you to be happy) by rooting out traitors (such as people who - in defiance of the Computer's wishes - aren't happy) and either turning them in or - in many cases - simply subjecting them to the summary justice of their hand lasers. It does help that all PCs are - through no real fault of their own - automatically traitors twice over, and are at pains to conceal this fact by acting with even greater zeal.
Alas, done badly the whole thing degenerates in an opportunity for the GM (Game Master - like a Dungon Master but less copyrighted) to be beastly to his players.
As for Feng Shui, again it must be done well to be good, and as much depends on the players as the Director (like a DM, but its an action movie game). Feng Shui scores points in my book for being one of the only games around in which it can be easier to hit someone by leaping through the air wildly firing two .45 handguns than by taking careful aim with a 30-06 elk rifle, the reasoning being that in the movies the hero always hits with his trusty pistols, but snipers miss all the time.
The setting sucks, but since it's a movie game the setting is pretty much incidental. You can set it anywhere; or at least anywhere that anyone knows kung-fu, or anyone has made a movie with a slow-mo shot in it.
Warhammer was originally produced by Games Workshop, but is now carried by Hogshead Games. Hogshead also produce what they term 'New-Style' games, such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Puppetland. These games are even harder to explain than most, since they play around with the standard roleplaying formulas. Some of them are more than a little disturbing: Puppetland is set in a world of puppets, where Punch has killed the kindly Maker and made his evil enforcers from his skin. Others are just strange: Baron Munchausen is quite simply a drinking game of competitive tall-story telling.
The New-Style games also score points in that they are relatively cheap. You don't get much material, but an awful lot of concept.
Anyway; that's pretty much my two bits.
a.g.v.t.m is a usenet group, where isolated roleplayers can go to get
their fix. It is not - as some newsgroups are - an online game, but rather an in-character
discussion group, where players talk about the (vampire) issues of the day within the
persona of a favourite vampire character. More information on the newsgroup can be found
on the A.G.V.T.M homepage, including the FAQ and a
roughly current list of posters.
At some stage I may take the space to detail a few of my characters from the newsgroup, in the deluded notion that this may be of interest to somebody.
Some say that a culture's humour is one of the best keys to understanding that culture. Or I think they do. I can't remember who they might be though, so I could just be making that up. Regardless, in the name of further understanding, a few samples of roleplayer's humour can be found at:
http://www.duke.edu/web/DRAGO/humor/fun-list.html- RPG 'humour'
The latter also includes the old movie humour favourite: 'If I were an evil overlord', and its companion pieces: 'If I were a hero'; 'If I were a sidekick'; 'If I were the hero's true love', and; 'If I were the Evil Overlord's Henchman'.