Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Winging It

I've got nothing but respect for actors who perform improvisational theater.  The mental agility required to pick up a story line and run with it, deftly crafting an amusing tale at the drop of a hat is amazing, and quite beyond my brain's sluggish processing speed.  My shortcomings in this area have been painfully illustrated in recent weeks as my four year old daughter, Elena, has recently developed an unwholesome appetite for improvised stories.

The whole thing began when I grew bored reading the same books to her each night and began to elaborate on them, usually incorporating monsters who like to devour little girls.  This wasn't the only monster I created.  Ever since then, Elena is no longer satisfied with having a story read to her; now she only wants 'Daddy's made-up stories.'  This is really cool, except that the pressure to be entertaining and creative each night is really beginning to tax my limited ability to ad-lib and I'm beginning to get stage-fright at bed time.  It kind of reminds me of my early days as a game master (don't tell me you didn't see a segue coming).

When I first discovered D&D I was possibly the worst game master ever to cower behind a screen.  I always chuckle when I see lists of mistakes that bad DM's make because I've been guilty of nearly all of them.  As I've mentioned previously, my very first D&D session, in which I attempted to run Keep on the Borderlands,  was a disaster as I tried to cope with rules I didn't really understand, an adventure that overwhelmed me with details that I felt I had to get right, and a table full of my friends who just sat there and looked at me like I was mental.  I'd like to say that I improved greatly after that first session, but I didn't, and as much as I loved being the DM for the creative outlet it gave me, I dreaded actually sitting down at the table and running the game.

It wasn't until more than a year later, with a different game system, that I began the transformation into something resembling a competent game master.  In June of 1981 I was at The Wizard's Corner, my local game shop in search of a present to buy myself for my birthday (a habit I continue to this day) and I was perusing a rack of micro-games by Metagaming, and noticed one called Melee, written by some guy named Steve Jackson.  I'd already bought quite a few of these cool little wargames in the cardboard pocket box, and this one looked neat, so it became my self-bestowed birthday present.  Melee, for those unfamiliar with it, was a tactical combat game where each player would make up a warrior character and then duel on an arena map.  I loved it.  I quickly bought the companion game, Wizard, which was the same game but allowed you to fight wizard duels.  With the two games together you could even pit a warrior against a wizard.  I spent the majority of that summer fighting duels with  my friends and, when they were away on family vacations, with myself.  Later that year, I upgraded to the Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard rules and shortly thereafter bought In the Labyrinth, which combined with Advanced Melee and Wizard to transform a simple board-game into a full-fledged roleplaying game, called The Fantasy Trip, albeit a rudimentary one.

I really loved this game and I was especially fond of the cover art on the books, which sparked my imagination and evoked the system's particular 'feel.'  More importantly it helped me down the road to becoming a competent game master, mostly because of its very simple rules.  Characters could be one of two basic archetypes: a warrior or a wizard.  There were only three attributes and a handful of skills.  To hit in combat you rolled under your Dex - that's it.  No charts or byzantine formulas, just a minimal, dead-simple set of rules.  This might sound limiting, but I found it immensely liberating.  For the first time since I began playing rpgs I was free to actually think about the game and the story we were telling rather than looking up charts or tables and arguing with the players about rules interpretations.

My mind was now completely focused on the story - the rules just faded into the background.  I could adjudicate player's actions in fun and novel ways without worrying that I was 'doing it wrong,' and I was spontaneously creating interesting NPCs, some of which stick out in my mind to this day.  One such character was Malcolm Brinebester, the king's tax collector who always had a sixth sense for when the characters were back from a lucrative adventure.  Where the characters fearlessly faced down the worst horrors I could throw at them, they lived in mortal fear of fussy little Malcolm, whom I always enacted with a prissy falsetto voice.  Whenever they saw him coming down the lane or heard them calling outside their door, they'd dive out the rear windows, hide in bushes, or otherwise lay low until he went on his way.  Sometimes there was no avoiding him and they had to render undo Malcolm that which was His Majesty's.  I just made Malcolm up on the spot and he became one of the campaign's most endearing characters (to me, at least).  Playing TFT was also the first time I actually had fun being a game master.  It taught me that rules weren't really all that important and that dwelling too much on playing the game 'right' would ensure that you would end up playing it wrong.

My friends were less enamored of TFT than I was.  The characters were pretty rudimentary, and the players preferred to have more mechanics to flesh the characters out.  I tried to explain to them that lack of rules meant that they were unfettered in how they could define and envision their characters - this was an opportunity to really have fun with them without worrying about breaking the rules.  But, in the end, players want crunch.  It's almost inevitable.

In 1983 I met Steve Jackson at a convention.  I got to chat with him about role playing games and mentioned that I loved how easy TFT was to play, but that the players would have liked more options for character creation.  He just smiled and said, "let me tell you about an idea I have for a new game..."  A few months later I received a play test copy of Man to Man, the combat system for what would become GURPS.

So, my early deficiencies as a game master were due, in part, to my inability to handle a rules-heavy game system.  It must seem ludicrous for me to call AD&D rules-heavy; by today's standards it is quite a simple game.  But to me, at that time, it was more game than I could handle.  Ironically, I went on to become a Champions fanatic, but I was able to take the lessons in ad-libbing that I learned playing TFT, and apply them to anything.  But, there is no getting away from it: the more complex a game's rules are, the more they are going to intrude into your play.  Sometimes complex, crunchy games are a lot of fun to play, but most of the time, especially these days, I want my rules to fade into the background and let spotlight shine on the play and the character interactions.

My TFT books are long gone, but the fond memories remain.  I find, though, that I'm getting the same sort of vibe from Swords & Wizardry that I did from TFT and I look forward to being able to run some seat of the pants sessions again after a decade spent buried under a heavy mountain of 3E books.  I predict that this game is going to provide me with more fun behind the screen than I have had in over twenty five years.  Its about damned time.

I might even become a better bed-time story teller.


Shane Mangus said...

I never had a chance to play The Fantasy Trip, but GURPS dominated my gaming life back in the 90's. I had 300+ GURPS source books at one time. Now I have about 30 or so.

I can well understand the need of a rules lite game as a game master. I can also understand players who want options and powers for their characters. In the end it is hard to compromise and find a happy medium. I think players miss the point that if the GM is freed up to tell the story it will be a better game for it, even if options are sacrificed. I am looking forward to reading about your next S&W session.

Sean Robson said...

That's what I loved about GURPS - it retained the dead-simple simplicity for the GM, but the character creation had all the crunch anyone could ever want.

Ultimately, though, I think that character 'options' are actually limitations - by setting the limits of what a character can do, they are really defining what they can't do.

I also played GURPS through most of the 90's - it was the publication of 3E that lured me away.

I've still got most everything published for GURPS 3rd edition. I was writing for Pyramid quite a bit in those days and SJG paid double the rate in merchandise, so I often opted for that instead of a cheque.