Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Archaeology of Gaming

I have been playing pen and paper (now “old school”) rpgs since I was about 10 years old, I think.  Being something of a systems nerd, I have read a lot more than I have played.  I enjoy the various ways that these games try to simulate reality; going back to Tactical Statistics Research (TSR) and the original Dungeons and Dragons, rpgs are both a game (in which rules for action resolution are dealt with using the randomizing element of dice) and a venue for creative story telling.

I’ve never tried to list all the games that I’ve played or read, but I’m gonna give it a chance now, in roughly chronological order.  Started out with a homebrew system my buddy Bret made up to play a straight old-school fantasy game.  I remember that the currency for his game was fangs, ripped from the mouth of anything that had fangs (largely goblins and wolves).  From there, I moved on to actual published games, starting with:

Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP!)
            A simplification of ICE’s Rolemaster system, with great art and WAY too many tables.  Action resolution required addition and subtraction of 3 digit numbers, and percentile dice rolls on multiple tables.  It was ridiculously complicated, but you never forget your first time.

            Palladium’s lumpy, unbalanced post-apocalyptic fantasy/cyberpunk mash-up.  The core book was amazing, and one of the few that I have re-purchased for the fond memories.  This game was tremendously creative, but suffered (in retrospect) from a crazy inconsistent system, too many attributes and bonuses, and an increasing power level.  In the core book, you could play as either a dragon or a hobo.  Down the line in the various supplements (Rifts Atlantic rocked my face off), starting characters got more and more powerful.  All in all, it was a really fun setting, and one that I have since converted to work with the BESM 2nd edition rules. More on that later.

Then there was a mixture of:

            Awesomely detailed combat system that resolved actions in 10ths of seconds.  You could be a street samurai, or a shaman.  In retrospect, the appropriation of  essentialized Native American “spirituality” was ridiculous (thanks a lot, Anthropology degree).  This was one of the first games I played that dealt with multiple planes of reality (the spirit world, with one set of rules, and cyberspace, with another).  Really difficult to run, but a good setting/atmosphere and my first experience with dice pool mechanics.

            Read, but never played.  Had sky ships and lizard men as playable characters, which were pluses, as well as some neat classes.  All in all, the FASA games (including Shadowrun, Earthdawn, Battletech and Mech Warrior) were a neat alternative to Palladium and D&D, but I never spent much time with them, other than designing mechs and playing battletech on graph paper in high school. 
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition
            Yeah, I know, 2nd edition is no AD&D.  But I started there, and I still think that it fixed some systemic flaws in the earlier games (heresy!).  I liked that limited skill system, still enjoy calculating THACO, and have a fondness for the original Monsterous Manual that will never go away.  I played this one for years, and wrote adventures for it long after I had lost my core players to other concerns.  There’s nothing like rolling up random treasure, and this is the core of so much of what came after --- in my opinion, an essential read.  I have considered picking up these books again, having given my copies away (I think to Dave S.) when I moved to Georgia.  Again, a major focus of nostalgia.

Call of Cthulhu
          I got Chaosium's early outing here, at about 2nd edition.  This system used percentage based skills, and a detailed sanity and insanity system.  I was reading a lot of Lovecraft, and the creepiness and detail of this book had a big influence on me.  The book detailed how to run games set in the 1890s, 1920s and 1990s, and included a long list of both historic events and actual "weird and creepy" events from history.  Since I went to pretty bad schools, the history timelines in the back of this book actually added to what I knew about the 20th century for years to come ---- that is one of the bonuses to reading these books, which are full of actual history, literary references, and allusions to larger cultural themes.  Like a lot of nerd kids, i think that I learned a lot from RPG books, and this one in particular.  Plus, the artwork in this book made me love Tsathoggua.

          This was a system put out by TSR near the end of their run. The system, which was largely d20 based, was a precursor of the d20 system that formed the basis for later Wizards of the Coast offerings.  Unfortunately, the system itself was unrefined, and used a scaling die as a modifier (d20 + d6, or d20 -d4 vs a difficulty number) that was sucky to calculate, and a scaling results system (various levels of successes and failures) that were likewise overly complicated.  But the hard science sci-fi setting was great (Star*Drive was the official campaign setting), and it set the stage for the D20 system that came afterwards.

There were others, too --- I spent a lot of time with White Wolf's 2nd edition of the World of Darkness games, especially Mage 2nd Edition, but that deserves it's own post.  These were the building blocks that made me into a systems nerd, however --- a lot of these systems brought skills to the fore, which allows for characters (and thus stories) that are not entirely about, as Katherine would say, killing things and taking their stuff.  

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