Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Friday 20 April 2012

Playing a Role

Hello again. It’s been a while.

Some time ago I wrote a piece on why games--specifically board games--were important. I believed they were so important that when I moved to New Jersey all I brought with me were clothes, a clapped-out first generation Game Boy Advance and my entire collection of board games. I paid to bring a second suitcase on the plane, just so I could take them with me. My reasoning was I wouldn’t have to worry about power supplies and international compatibility. Providing I had a large enough and stable enough space I could play The Rivals of Catan and Monopoly Deal no matter where I went . . . so long as I had people to play them with, of course.

And in America--mind-bogglingly huge, ridiculously friendly--I wouldn’t want for people to play games with. They’d be eager to spend time slinging cards with me.

So I thought.

The majority of my Christmas haul was made from cardboard. My wife wanted to make my first Christmas living in a foreign country special; she knew I’d be missing home, where Christmas is the be-all and end-all--the fulcrum, as I’ve said, about which the entire year revolves. I mightn’t have turkey or figgy pudding but I’d still have a Christmas to remember.

Of all the games and expansions I received I’ve only played one: Quarriors--and even that only the once. Our Wednesday night resolution--Game Night, as it is, was, and always shall be--soon fell by the wayside. Other plans were made. Priorities shifted. Now, the game collection that the year before I’d prized above all others might as well be welded to the shelves it sits upon.

I don’t play board games anymore.

Tabletop games only come alive when you have people to play them with; otherwise they remain inert. The cards and dice and little wooden pieces--shrapnel from wars not fought--need hands to move them, and minds behind those hands planning which cards to play and where they should go. They’re special in that way.

Somes don’t even have pieces, just rules, an entire library full of them--and these are perhaps the most special games of all.

I’m talking about role-playing games; not Mass Effect, where your choices are limited, or Final Fantasy where you have no choice at all, but pen and paper RPGs, proper RPGs, where your actions are limited only by your imagination.

I’ve been listening to the Journey to Madness podcast, a series of actual play recordings from one group’s playthrough of the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play campaign The Enemy Within. It’s pretty wonderful. Like most actual play podcasts it charts the group’s procession through a story of intrigue and adventure; unlike most such podcasts the game is run by a games master whose grasp of this genre is phenomenal. Too often GMs speak like passive observers or deliberate antagonists, pitting their group against strings of attacks with detachment or malicious amusement and letting the whole affair disintegrate into dice rolls and number crunching. Even the most popular podcasts fall into this trap, and turn the unparalleled breadth of tabletop roleplaying into--horror upon horrors--a war game.

Journey to Madness doesn’t do this. Instead, the DM conveys the richness of the Warhammer setting in such a way that it breathes. He describes sights, sounds and smells--incidental details the characters notice as they wander from village to village. Players are given free reign to explore their surroundings; more than once, at the end of a hard day’s adventuring the GM asks the players what they want to do next, letting them play tourist in cities that only exist in their collective imagination. Days pass, the moons of the Old World wax and wane bringing holy days and festivals--there’s a sense of movement, of a world indifferent to the players which turns regardless.

In episode six players visit the Schaffenfest--the Sheep Festival--where they attend a freak show and place bets on a wrestling match. One of the players takes on the ring champion and enters into the swing of things, grappling and pinning, refusing to strike his opponent for damage as “It wouldn’t be sportsmanlike.” In the grand scheme of the story this is nothing but a diversion, yet being able to respond to the barker’s taunts and challenge the champion--or ignore them both and be on your merry way--adds so much to the world and so much to the game.

Thus far, The Enemy Within has a cast of hundreds: major NPCs who help or hinder the party and numerous others who appear only to utter a single line or provide colour. Player characters are bound not just to each other but to the world around them; each has his own motivations and secret quests, each steals off after dark chasing visions at nearby temples or spending gold at high class brothels. The story driving all this lurks inconspicuous below the surface, rising periodically to threaten the group before submerging beneath the hubbub of the Old World. There are no horizons here, only a world stretching infinitely in every direction. The only thing curbing players’ actions is a bad dice roll.

Directing--no, conducting--the game, the GM keeps things running smoothly. He alternately acts out conversations and glosses over details, emphasising important interactions while dismissing others with a wave of his hand. He makes other RPG podcasts with their interminable battle sequences look every bit the embarrassing nerdfests RPGs are often accused of being. It helps that the guy can act and doesn’t pause for thought every three seconds; he thinks on his feet and keeps the game running at an enjoyable pace, both for the gamers playing and for those listening at home.

Without his and his players’ enthusiasm, Journey to Madness would be a very sad thing indeed. I’ve had it with limp settings which have all the depth of flavour of Saturday morning breakfast cereal. I’ve had it with Cheeto-scented gamers who can’t go five minute minutes without bringing up every rancid slice of pop culture they’ve consumed in the last thirty-five years. Infectious in its enthusiasm, Journey to Madness reflects gaming at its best, without the cynicism to which we’ve all become accustomed, which our hobby has come to rely upon.

I wish I could overcome that cynicism, and attack my unplayed games with gusto. Instead I once again find myself in a malcontented malaise, without friends gamess with or incentive to play. I’ve grown so tired of feeling like this, of wallowing in despair. I’m fed up with everything appearing to be meaningless, and life being consumption and accretion in an endless spiralling coil.

After so many months playing board gaming evangelist I feel like a false prophet, that I’ve let everyone down. Even the games I’ve played I’ve played fewer than a handful of times. I have no friends to play them with and I’m never likely to make any. I’m a lost cause who pretended to be something he wasn’t, and now the truth is catching up I can only confess.

We all go through gaming doldrums at some point. Sadly, my issues run deeper and wider. It’s not so much gaming I’ve grown tired with as life itself; my only means of escape is a fantastical world where I’m a voyeur listening in on other lives. In theory I could join them--or others like them--and become someone else, if only for a few hours. But to do that I’d require courage, and that’s something I’ve never had.

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