Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Still Roleplaying After All These Years

Why do I still play roleplaying games? Certainly, when I first started to play Dungeons and Dragons by the actual rules I never expected that it would still by my hobby all these years later. I always had a fascination with the idea of role playing games, even before I knew there was a term. We of course played make believe games as kids, usually Star Wars (where we beat each other with sticks) or even Battlestar Galactica, where one of us dressed like a Cylon and walked around like a Zombie. We made up complex little rules about what constituted a kill and what you could do as a Jedi. It was tons of fun, and when I discovered choose your own adventures like Endless Quest and Lone Wolf I was hooked. In those days no one sold Dungeons and Dragons books in South Texas, and mail order was not an option for me. So we made up our own rules by dredging what we could from those worn out paperback adventures, and made stories up that were silly, gory, and bastard children of He-Man, Lord of the Rings, Conan comic books and Thundarr the Barbarian. When I saw Fire and Ice and Wizards that got smashed up in there too. It was fun, and I can't say that the basics of what I enjoy have changed much over the years, merely refined and the number of inspirations has drastically increased.

I play for many reasons, the most important of which is entertainment. I enjoy the interaction, the experience of sharing the experience with my friends. I enjoy the storytelling aspect to be sure, and despite my inability to finish a novel I consider storytelling to be one of my better talents. A very dear, long lost friend once told me it was what I was born to do, and I have always taken that to heart. Gaming doesn't have to be about deep stories, or even particularly good ones. Gaming has the advantage of being perfectly fine as a straight up dungeon crawl, entirely about taking the enemies stuff and dancing on their bodies. It can, with the right group, be about shared storytelling and may explore any theme or element from literature or film.

I prefer to balance the deep and shallow, myself. My games are a nice family pool rather than Olympic dive pool or inflatable kids pool.

Characters in my campaigns have been stalwart warriors, swashbuckling knaves, sly tempting enchantresses, dangerous sword wielding wizards, insane megalomaniacal thieves, inhuman murderers, undead champions, sneaky archers, assassins, knights, brigands, priests of the temple, acolytes of forbidden gods, and in on case, your average working Joe, who for a year was king. In terms of roleplay, any of these concepts could exist in nearly any game, I understand that. The stories I tell in my games focus on epic struggles for the survival of man, of order and chaos, and free will vs. fate. These campaigns have been set in eras roughly analogous to our Dark Ages, a medieval period, and a late renaissance like Age of Reason. Religion, politics, faith, agnosticism, and adventure have all played important parts. The games have featured elements horror, both gothic and cosmic. Other stories have been romances, and relationships and family have also been major components of my games. Certain families have been played as player characters and NPC’s over the course of several generations and throughout the eras.

In one of my pretentious moments I called what we did Fantasy Noir gaming. Our games featured antiheroes, both as players and npcs. One of the most iconic of the player characters, which eventually became an NPC in later games was a death knight, though his exact nature later changed to be more in line with the story. The choice of death knight as his race at the time was a matter of convenience. This particular character was from a 2nd edition game, so the choice of a templated human warrior was not available in the rules as written.

In terms of plot the games always dealt with shades of gray in the characters actions, as well as the surrounding world. Some of the greatest heroes of the day were forced to commit acts they regretted, and sometimes had to make choices that caused the death of hundreds to save thousands, if not more. The villains on the other hand were often respectable, even admirable in their restraint or motivations. Not all of the villains are quite so human, however. In my world there is a dark stain at the heart of creation, flaws in the very fabric of reality that gave existence or name to things that should never have been. There are the Mehshia, the neverborn souls of beings so foul that God prevented from birth, and were barred from the House of Souls, and now wait on the edges of creation for a chance to live, corrupting everything their decaying spirit touches.

The game is, oddly enough, in some ways a Christian Dungeons and Dragons game. I have never made any attempt to hide that the principal god, the creator god, is in fact the same as the Islami-Judeo-Chistian god. Despite that, and the strong correlation between certain existing and historical manners of worship and ones in game, it is also a world where other gods exist, many of which are actually more proactive in the world, actively pursuing their agendas and aiding their flocks, whereas the creator allows his children to find their own path, even if that path leads to divinity. There are gods of the earth, celestial powers, forbidden entities beyond sane comprehension, ascended beings, avatars of concepts, and philosophies made manifest. These many and varied gods interact with the physical world directly and through intermediaries, and it would be difficult to deny the existence of the divine, were it not for the power and ability of mortal wizards (in this case used to describe any person who uses magic) who exhibit many of the same miraculous abilities.

I have spent some time trying to design my own system, mostly due to the fact that I have never played a game system I did not modify drastically to suit my needs. In game play I like the idea of complex, full characters, with a balance of simulationist and gamist elements. I prefer open character creation, rather than classes, but like the idea of classes for ease of use. In other words, I would prefer that players be able to create a character as they picture them, rather than being forced to take a package of abilities and make it work for the character concept.

The campaigns that would become my game world began with 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons, continued through 2nd, and 3.x. I have used Iron Heroes, Arcana Unearthed, and non d20 systems as well. Other d20 systems that have been borrowed or experimented with have been True Sorcery, Call of Cthullu D20, Stormbringer d20, and Slaine. Short stories were run using the world of darkness system, mage in particular, as well as GURPS. One off games were done with Amber and Legend of the five rings. We even thought about using Chill once, but decided it was a little too silly.

Gaming allows me to explore my creative side, and utilize my various artistic interests simultaneously. I enjoy making terrain, painting miniatures, designing mechanics, creating stories, and sharing these things with my friends. Simply, gaming is a hobby that I can enjoy in my solitary moods and is a great social way of spending an evening.

While amateurish, here is my attempt at mapmaking in Photoshop.

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