Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jason White the --- Roleplayer?

All right. Confession time. I did some roleplaying recently. And I liked it.

Well, of course, the first question (after the obligatory "What the --?") becomes "How did this come about?" Even I didn't really see it coming. Most of my peer group are boardgamers at heart. I myself had given up on role-playing years ago (time slips away, but I think it was in the 90's that I gave up). Our group had hit a point where we didn't meet very often (we shot for once every three weeks and failed to meet even that requirement at times), and a point where we were so individualized in our role-playing that we spent a lot of time working out private details of the adventure with the GM in closed door meetings. And whoever was not in those meetings was out in the living room, waiting.

I came to realize that boardgaming scratched my particular gaming itch much more effectively than roleplaying. I felt that I was spending the first part of every roleplaying session catching up because we met so irregularly and the second half waiting while this person or that person went off by themselves. With a boardgame, you all sat at the table and played. No delay, minimal waiting (especially with the innovations going on in boardgaming at the time where players had very little "down time"), and no consistency problems. Every boardgaming session was unique and was (optimally) completed in one sitting. So I dropped roleplaying and honestly wondered if I would ever come back to it.

Fast forward to 2011. My friend TJ and I had been playing boardgames for a few years. He had come into our gaming circle through the podcast and his great personality and willingness to play anything meant that he had quickly become a regular gaming partner. As I said, TJ would play anything. He still has his CCG's. He has the most complete collection of Up Front cards that I have ever seen (do you have that desktop published set of cards that "corrects" the Italians? I didn't think so!). He plays Descent and Hive and EastFront and Hannibal. After we had played a number of board games together and had set a regular playing schedule for a few months, he broached the subject of roleplaying.

He had his own issues with roleplaying. I think they mostly stemmed from roleplaying's dependence on the people with whom you play. One of roleplaying's major weaknesses is that every group has its unique flavor. It is very easy to fall into a really bad roleplaying game. TJ had decided that if he were to try roleplaying again, Joe (formerly Friend of the Show Joe), Tom the Tinker (another player TJ was playing with regularly) and I would be the guys he thought would have the right attitude and demeanor for such an endeavor. I responded with as tepid a "maybe" as I could safely muster. I was careful not to say "yes" and honestly thought it sounded like one of the pipe dreams where, if you wait long enough, it would just go away.

But it didn't. TJ kept bringing it up. He brought it up with the others and they tentatively said "yes." We spoke about it at Prezcon and Joe and I rode home from the con together and discussed character ideas. This just might happen.

Of course, as you can see from the regularity of my schedule in posting, it was hard to arrange a time where we could all meet. We had a number of delays. Some were from dragging feet in character design. Others were from things like coaching soccer getting in the way of scheduling. Finally, after a number of emails and a couple of false starts, we locked our schedules in for mid-May to mid-June. Three sessions in two week intervals. And after much prompting from Joe, I half-heartedly designed my character, a part-thief, part shepherd named Oswald. He would be the party's scout and "thief" (don't worry, I won't tell you a "character story," but there was this one time...)

We played that first night. And...

I had a good time.

I exited the first session with much more excitement than I had entered it. I actually looked forward for the two weeks to pass and for us to rejoin our attempt to rescue our old "hedge-wizard" friend. The second session involved quite a climactic combat with a nasty that was more powerful than any one of us, but not more powerful than all of us (Joe actually said at one point that he was worried he had made the creature too powerful, but we defeated it -- sounds like a sweet spot for monster design). The third session picked up at the cliff-hanger on which the second session had ended, a "hair-trigger" situation where negotiations with the local goblins had started to go bad.

Another risky combat ensued and we emerged victorious. We returned home in relative triumph. And I realized that, among all the other gaming I was to do, I needed to fit in some roleplaying. Not a lot, not regularly, nothing that would interfere with a somewhat busy boardgaming schedule, but a few sessions every year or so.

This also made me reflect on what it is that I want out of a roleplaying game. We hear some gamer stereotypes thrown around: min/maxer, munchkin, goth vampires, one of those larpers who gets lost in a steam tunnel. I'm none of these. I think what I need out of a roleplaying game is that unpredictable tactical situation that a boardgame can only give you for a short amount of time.

I love boardgaming. It is by far my favorite hobby. But when playing a game, the time I love is that time where you've gone through the rules and everyone knows how to play and you're exploring the game's tactical nuances and possibilities. Some games have a consistent vision combined with a certain strange combination of knowing what is coming while still maintaining a level of surprise and excitement that extend this golden period for a good long time. Napoleonic Wars, here is your obligatory mention. Other games are fun at first, then quickly devolve, either because the randomness overwhelms the tactical possibilities (as in a game like Munchkin or, to a lesser extent, A Most Dangerous Time), or because the game becomes so scripted as to become about proper opening moves and correct reactions to predictable problems (which is one of my frustrations with simpler Euros).

Roleplaying games, when run well, always leave us in that process of becoming. That is, a roleplaying game should always be somewhat unpredictable with the character's knowledge of the rules and a bit of creativity being their main tools in responding to the tactical situations put forth by the GM.

Joe is particularly good about this. This time, the unique challenges were a creature with poison and a prehensile tale and goblins who had prepared an ambush as we exited a cave. Each situation presented its own challenges and we had to be somewhat creative in solving them. And not everything was combat related. In the combat with the goblins, at a certain point, we had to turn a small advantage into a larger one through intimidating dialogue. Boardgames rarely offer this kind of opportunity, usually giving a particular way out of a bad situation. If it's a wargame, fight your way out. If it's a diplomacy game, negotiate. If it's a trading!

So at this point, I don't know how often we'll meet and play a roleplaying game. There was discussion of meeting a few times a year, and I could see myself doing that. Joe's game scratched an itch that I had forgotten I had and it played to some my favorite aspects of gaming, the tactical situation and the creative solution to a problem. So, while I'm still a boardgamer, and of that particular species of boardgamer called the wargamer, there's a small part of me that is a roleplayer. Don't look for me in a steam tunnel and don't look to this blog to discuss my acquisition of a +5 Holy Avenger, but, periodically, especially if I get a chance to talk abstractly about what a roleplaying game brings to the table, you might see this blog discuss roleplaying.

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