Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I Attack the Gazebo

Role-playing games, or RPGs, have sure come a long way since their birth in 1974, which if you've been paying attention, makes the category as agéd and infirm as I am.  Originally an offshoot of miniature wargames, RPGs came into their own in the 1980s.  Thanks to the scorching market success of the flagship title in the genre, Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs dominated the hobby game trade so completely that the game stores of that day owed their existence to "D&D" just as stores opening in today's boom owe their existence to Magic: the Gathering.  Much of this history is exhaustively detailed in a series of books called Designers & Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, released about a year ago.  I've been reading them and I'm on book four (the 2000s) now.

It is hard to convey how big D&D actually was to an audience that wasn't there to see it firsthand.  As the first hit RPG, it was D&D that unlocked the imaginations of many a nerdish youth, so dominantly so that in the cultural zeitgeist the abbreviation D&D has become slang for nerd hobbies generally.  The game appeared in 1982's biggest movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and all at once everybody wanted to play.  Publisher Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) couldn't print Basic D&D Sets and Advanced D&D sourcebooks fast enough.

So how do you play D&D anyway?  Players use pen and paper to create a fictional character with physical and mental traits and skills, equip that character with weapons and gear, and then take part in imaginary adventures.  The entire game occurs in a tabletop setting, with most of the action taking place in the mind's eye.  A game master (for D&D, the "Dungeon Master," another term that has been Kleenexed into becoming generic through ubiquity) manages the adventure, revealing to the players new information as they discover it, performing the roles of non-player characters in the game, and playing the enemies/monsters/villains.  Resolution of tactical conflict is achieved using polyhedral dice.  A fighter might roll a die to score a hit against an attacking goblin, then roll a different die to determine weapon damage.  If the goblin's wounds exceed its health remaining, it dies.  The party's thief then sweeps in and takes the goblin's loot before the fighter can get to it.  After combat, the party's cleric heals any wounded, and the party's mage cracks wise and opens another can of Mountain Dew.  It's great fun.
That's fundamentally all RPG gameplay is.  It's something less structured than a strategy board game, but more substantial than a dinner party mystery game, and more concrete than a campfire tale.  Fundamentalist religious nutjobs caused some uproar decades ago by claiming that D&D consisted of real Satanic rituals and diabolical practices like chicken sacrifices and slave orgies.  The notion is so laughable now I can barely keep a straight face.  Orgies?  Don't we wish!  You're talking about a player base that consisted, in the early days, predominantly of teenaged male virgins.  Orgies indeed.  As a sidenote, I am delighted that the category has become tremendously inclusive of women and mainstream players since then, especially with systems like Paizo Publishing's massive Pathfinder line.  But no, in the 1980s, all that parental angst and blame-shifting had to go somewhere.  Pinball was passé, so D&D was the target du jour until a few years later when Mortal Kombat and Pokemon came along to take over as designated media punching bags scapegoated for the corruption of youth.  They even struck a nerve with my parents, who were religious but not of the bible-thumping ilk; my parents forbade me from playing D&D, which of course made it into a forbidden fruit for me.

It wasn't long before other RPGs arrived on the market, but few of them have had any staying power, much as things are in the trading-card-game category.  The winners typically did something in a new genre rather than swords and sorcery.  Such included: Traveller (science-fiction), Champions (superheroes), Battletech (fighting robots, with heavy crossover into miniatures), Vampire: the Masquerade (modern-day goth), and the Generic Universal Role Playing System, or "GURPS," an unfortunate-sounding acronym for a flexible framework for adventures of any flavor.  My parents' opposition to D&D on religious grounds did not extend to the lasers-and-starships realm, so I enjoyed plenty of Battletech without having to hide what I was doing.

The arrival of Magic: the Gathering forced the industry to shed much of the RPG history that came before it; few titles crossed the early 1990s chasm.  Only later did today's modern RPG category take shape.  Magic's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, bought out the husk shell of TSR, and now publishes D&D, which has reached its fifth edition.  Paizo fields the massive Pathfinder line, a branch from an earlier edition of D&D that offers a different in-game world for more fantasy-genre action.  Fantasy Flight Games has licensed RPG properties for Star Wars and Warhammer that are close behind in player and sales volume at this point.

For our store team-builder for January, we had our RPG guru Tanner run a module of Star Wars Force and Destiny so that the rest of the staff could become familiar with the RPG experience.  It was a lot of fun, which passes the first test, but what struck me was how much different it was from the roleplaying that started me off in the early days.  In fact, it even differed sharply from what came in the later era of Battletech and Vampire.  It's still roleplaying; in fact, if anything, it is more worthy of that label than what we did back in the day.  Permit me to explain.

Many players today don't know that D&D started off as a competitive game.  Early Gen Con and Origins tournaments ran competitive D&D adventures just like the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour Qualifiers are for players today.  Dungeon Masters had to know their modules inside and out and be well-versed in the rules to account for whatever random crap any player might try, and players were wise to learn the entire game system as much as they could, so that they might invent a solution out of whatever the worst puzzles and threats the DM might present.  Modules were designed for tournament play and premiered there, so that players did not have an advantage from early knowledge of the content.  Gameplay was as hardcore and rules-lawyery as any Magic Grand Prix, with players bringing their ingenuity to bear against a DM fully focused on killing the entire party and denying players the sweet taste of success.

The result of the competitive bent of RPGs at the time was that many modules were "dungeon crawls," or essentially extensive puzzles punctuated by cycles of combat and reward.  Within that framework, modules became obtusely difficult at times, such as with Gary Gygax's sadistic magnum opus The Tomb of Horrors.  While this format can be enjoyable and for some players even cathartic, it involves a lot of mechanical and mathematical "work" that in today's era is typically performed by a computer running a piece of software like the World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy.  In fact, video game RPGs have done far more to corner out tabletop RPGs than the entire history of trading card ascendancy in the trade.

White Wolf Publishing reduced the emphasis on dice and math with Vampire in 1991, switching to a unified skill system that uses only multiple ten-sided dice and is predicated on degrees of success and failure rather than D&D's threshold matching.  Fast-forward to today and entire systems by Fantasy Flight use a fudge dice system derived from that same concept.  They use proprietary dice, of course, because there's a profit to be had from squirting plastic in a Guangzhou factory.  But the system is well-designed and well-balanced, so I give them a partial pass on the egregiousness of their money grab.

Today, RPGs are narrative-focused, and dispense with hard resolutions except to stratify pivotal results, such as combats.  Even then, it's a step forward.  A roll in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire might bring up two successes, an advantage, and a blank, against a DM's failure and blank.  Using cancellation, the player had some success and some advantage, which might be expressed in game terms as "Your blaster bolt nailed the lead Stormtrooper, and he's down and not moving.  The three troopers behind him grab partial cover against the wall and bring up their blaster rifles.  Do you scramble for cover, fire away, or do something else?"  A roll of multiple critical successes against no failures, especially augmented by advantage, might be enough for a Snowspeeder pilot to fell a mighty AT-AT, or a Jedi-in-training to hold his own against a powerful Sith lord.

Even my description above doesn't truly do justice to how a present-day D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars, or 40K Heresy session really works, though.  It's all narrative now.  It's all about the players visiting wondrous places and meeting exciting and interesting people (and yes, sometimes killing them).  There is die rolling and there is combat because conflict has to resolve some way that isn't arbitrary.  But the real thrill usually ends up being when the party talks its way out of a jam (with perhaps some nice success rolls) or invents a great solution to a seemingly insurmountable threat.  The scope can widen, Lord-of-the-Rings style, from character to party to village to region to city-state to nation to empire to world... and it all just depends on whether the Game Master is able to build a compelling narrative for the players to experience.

Tabletop RPGs are a remnant of the market now, and market realities probably prevent any meaningful resurgence from here on out.  The experiences of tabletop RPG gameplay are going to become fewer in number overall and less frequent over time.  It's attrition and nothing any of us do is going to change that.  But in the meanwhile, those of us who have stuck around at this shrinking banquet are discovering that the entrees being served up now are savory indeed.  Revel in it.

Oh, and the meaning of today's article title?  Read for yourself and enjoy.

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