Friday, April 4, 2014

15 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours

I've been thinking back to pen-and-paper role playing games a bit lately, as I was running one last week and I just had to quit mid-session. I couldn't go on one more minute. I was trying to think of what was going to happen next and I just dropped my pencil, looked up at my players, and said sorry. 

I played RPGs from 1982 to 1994, took a significant hiatus, and then played them again, though more rarely, from 2002 to 2014. That is essentially two 12-year stretches. Wow. I didn't realize.

I quit because they just piss me off now. First off, I am not sure that role playing games are even games anymore; they're really just activities. 

Sid Meier once defined a game as a series of interesting decisions. And I don't think the decisions that make up the bulk of role playing are very interesting. The part where you get to plan and execute a character build is pretty interesting, but it does not take up enough of the time. Most of it is talking to characters that usually don't want anything on their own; they are just window-dressing for the expression of the player character's agenda. And we spend way too much time on it. We all know that we're going to get to the next dungeon; the GM spent too much time building it for us not to. And a decision that doesn't ultimately change the outcome is not a decision, let alone an interesting one. 

Now we could do like DnD 4th and try to give everyone a bunch of different powers to use. I resist that every time. The two times I played 4th I purpose-built characters that revolved around making their basic attack as bad-ass as possible so I wouldn't feel bad not using the other powers. By the time you get 5th level or so, it's already far too many powers to keep accurate track of without shuffling four sheets of paper every turn. I've seen people try the power cards, which is bullshit on a stick. If we need cards to make it playable, why is it not a card game? See? Solved it for ya, Wizards. Stop making Dungeons and Dragons RPG books and stick with making card games. Where's my consulting fee?

RPGs were clunky to begin with, but their competitors were things like Monopoly and Scrabble. Card and board games have moved on, video games happened, Momorpuggers do what RPGs do well enough and provide a huge social context to boot. RPGs are the Jazz of gaming; self-referential and enjoyed mostly by people who have enjoyed it for a long time. The only reason I was playing for the last few years, in retrospect, was an attempt to relive past glories. 

There are other activities marketed as games, like Bunco and LCR. In LCR there are literally no decisions. Players take turns rolling a die and doing what it says. The "Winner" is whoever gets all the tokens that have been distributed purely by chance. Cheating would involve more skill. I liked it better when a friend showed me how to play Dreidel. At least there's a traditional excuse to play, and you learn some vocabulary words. 

In an RPG we wind up doing something similar. We all supposedly enact a story of heroism against incredible odds. The Gamemaster/Referee, however, is always adjusting the odds to keep the story happening. There is no real challenge here. There's nothing wrong with this activity. It just isn't a game. 

Possibly the most compelling reason for me to quit RPGs is the realization that every other kind of game has incorporated RPG elements like shopping for superpowers in your character build and getting more power and a semblance of a storyline. So you can shop around for what part of the RPG experience you want, and it comes in a more efficient package overall. Sometimes I wonder if I ever really liked the actual act of playing role playing games. Rather, I liked creating characters and settings for the games. 

I think my favorites for all time were Champions (4th) and Shadowrun (3rd). I'll miss them and those simpler times. It's not them, it's me.

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