Monday, June 1, 2009

The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues (The Theory And Practice Of GMing RPGs) Part I

The title comes from a classic pen and and paper RPG from the 80s called "Paranoia".  The political lamp is decidedly NOT lit.  After recounting my lawn-a-cide last time, I find that I am interested in discussing other things that are going on around here rather than just what's going on in Washington.  I do have other interests.

One of those things is "Geek Night".  As it happens those of us out there (like Stephen Colbert) who played D&D when we were little nerdlets occasionally visit the mothership.  So for the better part of two years I have been playing D&D 3.5 with a bunch of very cool folks, discovering that you can have even more fun with elves when you're an adult (for one thing, by calling them "tree humpers"...they HATE that) than when you're a teenager.  We've been meeting every other week (mostly) with the same crew of folks (mostly) and having a high old time (mostly).

We first started playing in "Forgotten Realms", the by now default D&D setting.  One problem.  Thanks to having been designed back in the dark ages (the AD&D era) it had a LOT of baggage.  Not least of which is a series of merchandising novels that pretty much put you in a straitjacket.  There's one way to present (and play) Forgotten Realms, and don't you DARE violate the way it's supposed to be.

Booooorrr--ING!  Thieves are thieves, Fighters are fighters, etc., etc. ad nauseum absurdum.

So when we lost our wizard to ennui and our flagrant lack of compliance with the way he thought way we should be playing (see above) one of our number trotted out the new "default" D&D setting from Wizards Of The Coast..."Eberron".  Now I will freely admit that the conceit of Eberron--that magic in many ways replaces technology but with similar effective end points--is simply a gimmick to allow elves to duel with orcs on top of moving railroad trains, while the dwarf hijacks an airship to swoop down and rescue the orc from the vicious elven mercenary (think Mission Impossible meets The Good, The Bad And the Pointy Eared).  But it is well executed.  Pretty fun allowed me to play a shapeshifter with a nasty case of PTSD as result of his experiences at the end of an all encompassing world war.

But D&D has a problem, a systemic one.  There's a "sweet spot" to the game...starting about Level 5 and ending about Level 13.  Most of the interesting stuff happens in between those two points...before Level 5 a stiff breeze can cripple you and after Level 13 or so the scaling gets out of hand and you increasingly find it difficult to throw out a challenge that isn't either too much or too oscillating system forever on the verge of getting out of control.  Our group collectively started getting close to 13 and we were running out of prepublished stuff to play (for the reason I just outlined you don't see many commercial modules for Levels 15 to's all but impossible to get the level of difficulty "just right" at that HAS to be personalized).  The GM for Eberron is getting his Master's and wanted some relief from prepping.  It was getting time consuming.

That's when I stepped in.  As it happened, I had something I was really, REALLY interested in revisiting.  When we were casting about for a way to not have to end "geek night" when we lost the aforementioned Fandamentalist, and before we settled on Eberron, I had been lamenting the loss over many a relocation (some more frantically rushed than others...leases will run out from time to time) of all but the dreg ends of what had been a truly impressive collection of pen and paper RPG games.

The loss I felt most keenly was a game called Traveller.  It was, to SF RPGs what D&D was to Fantasy RPGs...the very first, the wellspring, the alpha and omega from which all subsequent games derived.  Its system was gloriously different from the d20 system we were playing.  It had all KINDS of spiffy aspects, including a character generation system that started you out with your mature skill set (instead of the usual generic, "You have left home to seek your fortune..." start) and a backstory as famous in its time as Forgotten Realms is to D&D now.

So there I was, hanging out in a game shop trying to find some Eberron sourcebooks when I ran across the reprint.  Apparently Marc Miller, the original designer of Traveller, had decided to reprint the old "little black books" of Traveller having reacquired the rights to the game at some point in the past.  After a quick consultation with the group regarding their willingness to contemplate playing something other than D&D at some point (the consensus was "why not") I started acquiring books and refamiliarizing myself with the game system and campaign setting.

This has gone on for a bit so I will leave you with this insight, stolen blatantly from Spiegelman's "Maus"...

And here my troubles began.

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