Friday, July 10, 2009

Live and Let Dice: Confessions of an RPGeezer

For the past few years, I've been writing an occasional column on Role-Playing games entitled "Live and Let Dice" at a site called Pop Thought. Well, it looks like the site is going to be shutting down, so I've decided to move some of my pieces from it over to this blog, (since I don't seem to be using it for anything). And maybe I'll start actually using this blog again. Stranger things have happened.

First up, from October of 2003, my first Live and Let Dice column:

Confessions of an RPGeezer

October 2003

By Kurt Wilcken

Welcome to the first installment of "Live and Let Dice", a monthly column exploring the polyhedron-sided world of role-playing games. Well, maybe "exploring" is an overstatement; "wandering vaguely all about" would probably be more accurate. But since a journey of a thousand miles begins by forgetting where you put the map, perhaps a few words about your guide would be in order.

In my secret identity, I am a ninja cartoonist. I live in the Enchanted Land-O-Cheese with my wife, Lute; my daughter, Gamera Rose; and a menagerie which currently includes two ferrets, an enormous cat, a finch and several fish. I've been playing RPG's almost as long as there has been Dungeons & Dragons.

I started in high school, in 1981, back in the days when Atlantis was young and the world still flat; when dinosaurs ruled the earth and Reagan the White House. We'd play in the school library between classes: myself, my wacky brother Steeve, his best friend Frodo, and Lute, who played bass clarinet in the row in front of me in band and who, my first day as a freshman, had loaned me her paperback of the Star Wars novelization. You can see why I married the woman.

We weren't exactly sure what we were doing in that first game where Frodo led us through the Caves of Chaos. I didn't quite get the alignment system and the artwork in the stapled booklets seemed rather amateurish. (which, as an amateur cartoonist myself, I found extremely annoying. The oddest part of all to me was the method of determining success and damage. The various shapes of polydice we all know and love now were not readily available in these antediluvian times. The boxed game came with carboard punch-out chits to be drawn out of a cup to simulate a 1-in-4 chance or a 1-in-8 chance or what have you. It was an inconvenient system, but not as loud as rattling dice, so it probably saved us from getting booted out of the library.

Our various class schedules gave us little time when the four of us could game, but the experience did give me inspiration for my first hand-made comic book: a sword & sorcery parody that I originally devised as a comic strip and which I printed at the local copy shop and sold out of my backpack.

I gamed occasionally in college. The wargamer's club at Iowa State University met in the student union every Saturday afternoon to wage battles between minatures across felt terrains and they condescended to allow the RPG-ers to occupy the tables they weren't using. Some members of the campus science fiction club hung out in that group, although they usually spent more time trying to decide what game to run than they actually did gaming. As a rule, they avoided traditional sword & sorcery. They ran games like Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes, a modern-day adventure and intrigue game, or Pendragon, a fairly realistic game set in the Arthurian Age. I also met McMack, a short fellow in a black trenchcoat who edited our science fiction club's fanzine for a year and who may have been a time traveller. He also was a master of the Silly Dungeon, skewing the grim hack & slash of the traditional D&D game with a Monty Pythonesque sensibility.

After graduating, I got a job in Des Moines. I didn't know any gamers there, but I did finally have a disposable income I could use to buy gaming supplies. I discovered GURPS, the "Generic Universal Role-Playing System" from Steve Jackson Games, which looked extremely useful; and TOON, also from Steve Jackson, a game based on wacky Looney-Toons-type cartoons. TOON taught me the three basic principles of running an RPG:

(1) Keep it fast.

(2) Keep it funny.*

(3) Reduce everything to the simplest possible die roll.

* (The second rule literally only applies to comedy games like TOON, but if you interpert it as "keep it entertaining," you could apply it to any genre of game).

In Des Moines I joined a comic book club. At one meeting a couple of new members saw me drawing in my sketchbook and said "Tell me, are you Kurt Wilcken?" It turned out they had been at ISU at the same time I was and were fans of my handmade comics. Cath like "Brisbane the Barbarian". Her husband Bryon prefered "Arizona Schwartz the Lost Archaeologist." The two of them ran their own gaming group which specialized in superhero games using Champions.

Cath taught high school english in real life and she insisted on incorporating plot and character development into their games. Bryon believed that the character portrait was an important part of the game and redesigned his own Champions character sheet to provide more space for it. Generally he photocopied characters from comic books and hand colored them. (I suspect part of the reason they invited me into their group was so that I could draw character portraits for them).

They had some unusual ideas about RPGs. As a rule they based their characters off existing ones from comic books or other sources. They didn't give out experience points or deal with character advancement. "Characters in comic books rarely change regarding their powers," Bryon said. Instead, they designed each character to match what he or she was like in the comic. Then Bryon laminated the character sheet, for durability; (and because access to a laminator is one of the perks of being a public school teacher). Cath had endured years of D&D from her gaming father and brothers and developed an aversion to mindless hack & slash, so she prefered rewarding players with intricate character subplots, what she called "the interpersonal stuff", rather than mere upgrades in character levels.

I ran my first campaign in their group, based on Justice League International, the infamous Keith Giffen incarnation of the venerable JLA known for it's comedic take on superheroes; (which does the series a vast injustice, but that's the subject for a whole 'nother column). At the time I didn't really know much about the Champions system, but I ran it like a TOON game. I kept the plot moving and reduced everything to the simplest dice roll possible. Then I asked Bryon how much damage to roll.

The JLI game led to other games: a Golden Age superhero campaign, then a "Justice League, the Next Generation" campaign. I persuaded our group to try a quirky, anime-based game called Teenagers From Outer Space which wound up becoming my longest campaign ever.

I made contact again with Lute, after living in different states for nearly fifteen years, (I in a state of confusion, she in a state of Illinois), and shortly afterwards we got married. I've heard that those mixed marriages where one spouse games and the other doesn't rarely work out. Fortunately that has not been a problem for us. She joined our gaming group and we even ran RPG's on our dates together. (I have yet to persuade her to run a game herself, though. Someday.)

Lute and I moved back to the Enchanted Land-O-Cheese. We found a landlord who enjoyed playing D&D, which is almost as ideal as finding a gaming spouse, and so returned to the game we started with. I also discovered the joys of on-line RPG's with all the special challenges that presents.

Currently, our gaming group has dwindled, but I find time to participate in a couple on-line games and run a couple others. I occasionally run a private game just for Lute and myself, just as we did before we were married, and I'm corrupting a new generation by letting our 10-year-old Gamera Rose into my Sunday afternoon game. Just this week she came up with a creative way to use the "detect magic" spell to defeat a monster. I'm so proud of her.

I'm also writing this column, in which I hope to share with you some of my wisdom, experience and opinions (which aren't all the same thing, mind you) regarding this eccentric hobby of mine. Some of the topics I plan on covering include Creative Plagarism (the GM's Friend), How to Run a Mystery, On-Line RPG's, Dice vs. Diceless, Gaming Fiction, Character Portraits: The Most Important Part of the Character Sheet, and perhaps even What Role-Playing Games Have Taught Me About Theology. There's also a good chance I'll wander into Comic Books, Favorite TV Shows and the Care of Ferrets, so be prepared.

If you have any remarks, whether good, bad or chaotic neutral, by all means leave a comment. I live for feedback.

Nil Desparandum.

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