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My life of late: Gaming update I - Baxil [bakh-HEEL'], n. My Sites [Tomorrowlands] [The TTU Wiki] [Photos]
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May 5th, 2005
01:38 am
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My life of late: Gaming update I
First, two plugs for other peoples' ideas, since they're good ones.

roaminrob wants a dialogue on "If you wanted to change the balance of power in the United States, how would you do it?" (Don't answer here, answer at the link!)

raki suggests that users of the dearly departed Tomorrowlands forums migrate to the Otherkin boards at Halenguide. As the Tlands forums are at this point unlikely to ever come back, I'm happy to forward her endorsement.

Now, the content: For the first time since I lived in Seattle, I'm role-playing again! Yay!

After leaping straight back into the deep end by GMing a one-shot game -- albeit a game of Toon, which is among the most GM-friendly systems ever designed -- I joined kadyg and our friends Don and Rachel in starting up Don's Fantasy HERO campaign. Our first (abbreviated) session was Sunday; we polished up the characters we created two weeks ago and very nearly got to the point where the party has met each other. I don't think I realized how much I missed gaming until I got started again -- I've been finding myself impatient for each session, spending off hours leafing through rulebooks, and having character creation notes run through my head at the oddest hours. ('Course, I guess it could also be that I'm finding a limited number of outlets for a level of geekery I used to take for granted.)

Technically, the campaign I'm in now isn't the first RPing I've done while back in California -- but it's the first I've enjoyed, a not insignificant thing.

Last year, some of the pressroom guys at work were running a D&D campaign and I got invited to jump in. It didn't work out. I attended one session and fled. Why? In a nutshell, it was Diablo on a tabletop -- a pure hack-n-slash, treasure hunt game, randomly generated dungeons and all. (The GM kept a Monster Manual behind his screen, but no adventure notes. Bad sign.)

A bit of explanation may be in order here: Those who have seen me game would probably call me a min-maxer. (Ask the GM who saw me walk over a bugbear singlehandedly with a first-level lizardman monk.) I admit it, I enjoy optimizing characters and squeezing every last little bonus out of each character point. It's a useful vice and I'm not ashamed of it. You would think that that sort of personality would shine at a pure hack-n-slash game ... but, in my case, you'd be wrong.

I don't play -- as hack-n-slashers do -- for the bragging rights. (I don't mind 'em when they come, as with the bugbear anecdote above, but I get pleasure out of having my skill with the rules validated, not by creating the biggest badass on the block.) True HnSers hoard treasure and magic items in a quest for even greater heights of badassery; if I can't prove a point or build out a character concept with further acquisition, I tend to be indifferent to it. (Leveling up is awesome, but only because it lets me get down into the mechanics again.) In other words, the major rewards of a HnS session -- magic items, gold, and monster trophies -- aren't very exciting lures for me.

What I do play for are two distinct and separate experiences, neither of which sit well in a HnS game: Solving problems; and immersing myself deeply in alternate worlds. It's pretty obvious the latter isn't going to occur in HnS games, where the depth goes about as far as how many monsters you can cram into a 10'-wide corridor. HnSers do do a lot of problem-solving, of a sort -- resource management, keeping those HPs and those spells going on a descent through a dungeon, and getting through fights without dying. But it's just not enough, especially when any good game will have all that plus character interaction, plot, and GMs able to get into the same gameworld the characters move through.

An example sticks out in my mind from the HnS game I played that illustrates the failure of both of those experiences. The party moved into a junction in the dungeon corridor, a well-travelled and recently used mining shaft, to find -- right in the middle of nowhere underground -- a coat rack on the wall for the miners' cloaks. There were several hanging up, recently used. Dusty footprints led from the passage we came from into one leg of the "Y". I grabbed a cloak, only to find out that that one (and none of the others) was a cloaker, a monster which lies still and simulates a coat until someone touches it.

By itself, getting nabbed by a cloaker isn't objectionable. Hey, if a player does something careless, it's only fair for the GM to zing 'em. But the thing about cloakers is that by their nature, they have to be used either as puzzle monsters or "gotcha" monsters. If the GM gives clues -- describes some strange dust patterns on the floor when a PC asks about those footprints, or drops hints back in town about mysteriously disappearing miners, or has the totally gratuitous coat rack contain four hooks even though miners work in groups of threes -- then there's a legitimate test of wits. If not, if he's just waiting for someone to examine the piece of dungeon dressing so he can sic the next encounter on them -- it's a gotcha monster. True, if you want to expand your definitions of "problem-solving," gotcha monsters can still be overcome by paranoia and meta-thinking -- but both of those detract from world immersion.

(Not that there's much world immersion to lose when the party investigates one leg of said "Y" fork, discovers a long, long passage that opens up into an impassable underwater cavern with no exits, and has to backtrack to follow the GM's assigned path.)

I could have forgiven the cloaker if, even post hoc, it had been embedded into the dungeon's ecology, or even given more thought than just "this would be a cool trap to spring on the PCs". How did it get there? How did it survive constant encounters with large groups of the dungeon's other inhabitants? Did someone deliberately place it in a junction of featureless solid stone corridors literally miles from the nearest other dungeon feature, or did hunger drive it far afield? Heck, even if the GM specifically wanted a gotcha monster to cost the party some collective HP, a little afterthought -- a hypothetical boss monster painting "Enjoying my mine?" on the inside of the "cloak" for the party to discover after killing it -- could have tied it in to a greater story arc and gotten the PCs' slow burn redirected to an in-game adversary.

But, no. None of this. No reason to care beyond just one more adversary to rack up the XPs from. HnS at its finest.

So, yeah, I'm much happier now -- taking notes about important NPC names, trading backstories with the other players, and figuring out how to exact my revenge on the captain of the guard after dark when I've changed forms.

Did I mention I'm playing a werewolf? In a straight D&D-like fantasy setting?

On one hand, this could be considered testament to my min-maxing skill -- I took the same 75 points everyone starts with at the beginning of a moderately powerful heroic campaign, and built a character that slowly regenerates, can hoist a grown man off his feet as casually as you lift a gallon of milk, and can tank like a warrior in plate mail. (After dark, anyway.) Rather than buy any pre-packaged racial stats, I carefully squeezed out my character concept from scratch, and it shows.

("Twink!" you cry. Pfah. This is because you have not yet heard what I did next: Typed up the racial stats for the wolfen -- the version of the race that isn't limited to night operations and isn't vulnerable to silver -- gave it to the GM, and gleefully suggested that should he allow me to play my character, my backstory suggested that we'd be running into a lot of these, and would he like a nice set of tough bad guys to throw at us? If I'm a twink, then it's a rare breed of twink who's confident enough to stare down a taste of his own medicine.)

On the other paw, this could also be considered testament to my love for ideas and world-building. I started from "I want to play a unique character ... hmm ... I wonder if I can build a stereotypical movie werewolf in 75 points? Yep! Cool"; quickly reached "I want a werewolf with a twist. The condition is usually described as a curse. But what if it weren't a curse that changed a man into a beast-thing? What if it were a curse that crippled a powerful beast-thing into a mere man?"; then worked out not only how the character's parents had been cursed (a god made them wear the faces of their victims in the light of the sun after their tribe desecrated a temple in an ill-fated raid on human civilization), but where these ridiculously powerful beast-men had come from in the first place (they were enforcers thaumaturgically enhanced by the ruling magicians back before the apocalyptic war Don had set out as world history) and why they hadn't stomped the rest of the world flat with their mighty combat prowess (poor intelligence, paws that handled tools and weapons at a steep penalty, and an innate fear of magic bred into them by their creators to help keep them under control).

Of course, there was also the requisite amount of personal character backstory, too -- his life as a subsistence hunter on the fringes of society, trading with the elves since both humans and wolfen saw the werewolves as dangerous freaks; his years at the knee of his parents hearing the stories of the glory days when the wolfen broke free of their shackles of slavery; his burning quest to lift the curse and turn into a full wolfen again -- but there's really only so far you can develop a character before the rubber hits the road of that first gaming session.

It's amazing how starting to play a character, getting into their shoes in real time, can coalesce their personality, isn't it? You can build up backstory, goals, motivations, life experiences, as much as you want, but there's some sort of personality chemistry that only the catalyst of decisions under time pressure can bring out. You can build a character's story for weeks and you'll discover in ten seconds who they actually are.

The most amazing part -- and writers should take note here; I'm getting this down for my own benefit later -- is that it's not even what they do that crystallizes them into people so much. It's why they do it. Often, the most profound definitions of the character can come from actions the game forced them into.

Case in point: The first plot hook involved an elven waitress being manhandled around by a human guy I later found out was the town's captain of the guard -- hence, nobody else was intervening to help her. My first thoughts: "Kynn has a big secret to hide and probably wouldn't want to draw attention to himself by sticking his neck out for a stranger. Besides, he's sort of elitist about wolfen and would just think you can't expect any better behavior from humans. He'll roll his eyes and have another beer." Second thought: "Well ... it does sort of go against my grain as a player to let that slide -- and besides, playing wholly standoffish, selfish characters is a tremendous burden on party cohesion and on the GM." (I know this from long GM experience.) "In character or not, I should at least do something rather than ignore it; maybe silently mark the guy out for dealing with later, after dark." Third thought: "Heeeey ... wait. This has 'plot hook' stamped all over it. Okay, character limitation of 'avoids fights in human form' and natural indifference aside, I have to deal with this now in some fashion." (Again, from long GM experience, it just makes game more fun for everyone if you bite on the lures they dangle to get everyone involved.)

No matter how much work you've put into backstory and motivation, it's their actions that define a character's actual personality. So I suddenly found myself trying to explain who this werewolf really was and why he hadn't reacted in the way I had first decided he would react. What was it about that situation that drove his need to get involved to the foreground despite his secrecy and elitism? No -- not despite them. How were those traits driving him to take the actions he did?

Reframing it that was brought some real possibilities out. He was willing to risk his secret being uncovered exactly because of that elitism -- they're just humans, after all; in a worst-case scenario he could leave town and keep going. (He was already migrating for better hunting and didn't have any attachment to the place.) And the incident refined his natural tendency to consider himself a superior Wolfen and flavored it with a subtle grudge against humanity -- who was this man, a member of the race which cursed his parents, to claim superiority over a member of the race that gave shelter to those two poor cursed refugees?

What's really going to be interesting is when he meets the rest of the party members -- and the justification I have to come up with to treat kadyg's character, a human, with respect. I have a feeling that will be the start of a long and perhaps gradual shift in attitudes on his part, and a real chance for growth.

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