First off, let’s just clarify that when I say RPG experience, I don’t mean the kind that ends in a very bad day for your Black Hawk helicopter. In this case, much like in the blog I wrote a few weeks ago, RPG stands for “Role-Playing Game”, and might be further clarified as not involving sex at all, either.
Ahh, fuck it. Let’s face it, if you’re not some sort of gaming nerd already you’re most likely not going to care about the rest of this post. Get out of my basement. Leave the Cheetos.
For the rest of you, let’s talk about the basic idea of the Role-Playing Game. When we were kids, we all engaged in varying degrees of “Let’s pretend” with our friends. A simple declaration of “I’m a cowboy/space ranger/princess!” was enough for starters (and given the wonderfully crazy brains we have as kids, “cowboy space ranger princess” might not even have been considered mutually exclusive). Sometimes it was more specific and media-savvy: “I’m Han Solo!” (which inevitably led to argument as at least one other friend also had imagined themselves to be portraying Han Solo that day). In any case, it was a fairly simple process. You declared yourself Spider-Man, your friend was Wonder Woman, and you ran around doing horribly risky things in the name of fun. If you were hardcore, you did so while wearing your awesome Spider-Man and Wonder Woman Underoos.
The rules, such as they were, tended to be improvised; a childhood phenomenon where Bill Watterson’s Calvinball provides one of the most well-known examples, but one just as easily observed in any park or playground: “You’re dead! I shot you!” “Nuh uh! I got a force field!”
Ad infinitum. In some cases, early examples of good cooperative storytelling occurred where everyone got a chance to be cool, but also recognized that defeat or failure of their alter ego didn’t mean the game wasn’t fun. On the 0ther hand, you’d also run into a lot of cases of Superman being presented with kryptonite, and instead of saying “Argh! Kryptonite!” he’d just tell you he’s immune to kryptonite today and punch you in the arm. Fun for him, perhaps, but not necessarily for everyone else.
Role-playing games, at their core, are nothing more than a glorified version of Let’s Pretend… but to prevent Tommy from being that poophead who always ignores the kryptonite when he’s Superman, role-playing games concocted codified lists of rules and systems. It was a necessary evil intended to prevent grown men and women from repeating the force field argument above (although not always with success).
In fact, childhood nostalgia aside, I contest the notion of RPG rules systems being an evil. Perhaps I’ve just seen one too many games out there that tried to operate on the idea of a “gentleman’s agreement” and failed miserably. Tommy is always out there, ready to laugh at any idea of fair play and punch you in the arm. But a good rules system goes beyond simply settling disputes… a truly superlative rules system offers an enhancement to Let’s Pretend.
Here’s where I’ll finally get to my goddamn point. As kids and adults both, the height of Let’s Pretend is to be as much like Han Solo as possible, because Han Solo is awesome, and has cool space opera adventures. Bear with me, here, I know not everyone wants to be Han Solo. Maybe you want to be Spaceman Spiff, instead. The point here is that this is the most sacred trust of an RPG system: if it advertises to you that it enables cool space opera adventures, then it damn well better provide cool space opera adventures. If you crack that book and are instantly bombarded with page after page of technical minutiae detailing the inner workings of the Millenium Falcon, it is a sign that something has gone horribly wrong.
I touched on this in my D&D 4.0 essay. D&D, purportedly a game that would allow us to portray heroes of heroic fantasy in the mold of Aragorn, Lancelot, Conan, etc., was crippled from its inception by a system chock full of impersonal number crunching and bizarre, complicated rules. This can be partly understood by knowing that the D&D ruleset originally evolved from a full-on tabletop wargame known as Chainmail; in general, you really don’t have much attachment to your little wargaming guys, they’re just means to an end… as evidenced by the fact Chainmail had wargaming conceits such as one halfling miniature representing several halflings.
Also, D&D was the first, and pioneers can always earn some forgiveness as they grasp for the best ways to achieve their ends. That said, it still took D&D an awfully long time to figure out their system was stifling a heroic fantasy experience rather than enhancing it. To use an Underoos analogy (because I’ve always wanted to do that), you could say it’s the Let’s Pretend difference between wearing the Underoos that looked like Batman’s costume, and wearing ones that just had a picture of Batman on it. In the latter case, you’re a kid wearing a Batman shirt. In the former, you’re the goddamned Batman. Okay, maybe not the goddamned Batman. I don’t think anyone besides Frank Miller wants to enhance the goddamned Batman experience.
You could also pretend to be Batman without any Underoos at all, but if someone’s going to market them to you, wouldn’t you prefer the ones that better helped you connect to the awesomeness of being Batman?
Next week I’m going to talk about some of the RPG systems throughout the decades that I feel are the best examples of enhancing the experience they advertise. Maybe mention one or two of the worst, as well. Some of my choices might be surprising, but remember the main principle here: does the system not only preserve, but help in recreating the spirit of what people love about the source material? When all is said and done, the closer a game can come to that ideal, the better the game will be.