Don’t worry dear, I’m not really a werewolf (just a bit hairy)

So, after my glowing endorsement of the art of roleplaying last week I did kind of suggest that there were problems. There are several, but first, let us be clear what I do not mean.

I do not mean that people get disturbed playing games and/or confuse reality and fantasy. They are much more likely to do that watching reality TV shows (which are far more disturbing and much less connected with reality than a game set in the far future on another planet). There was a fair amount of anecdotal rubbish pushed around in the eighties on this topic, and half a minute of coherent thought on this one I think justifies the somewhat dogmatic way I am viewing this. The clincher for me is that one of the major points of roleplaying is to consciously create a new reality. It is true that listening to gamers talk to each other about a game can be a bit disturbing, especially if the game is horror based, and the Lovely Wife has noted that, on the occasions where normal people like herself are around my gaming friends we do often branch out into a special brand of undecipherable talk that makes no sense at all to anyone not playing that particular game. So this is real problem number one; it is very easy indeed to fall into the abyss of in jokes and references that the players find hysterical (time and time again) while the long suffering loved ones look on in a mixture of confusion and pity. Or worse, sometimes these same loved ones, out of a misjudged sense of loyalty, pick up on some of the odd references and even start to use them… While mercifully not understanding anything about the reference (‘well done fluffy!’ is a particular favourite and has infected several households despite being a throwaway bit of silliness from a game we stopped playing over twenty years ago). Richard Dawkins – if you think religion is a powerful ‘meme’ mate, it has nothing on the longevity of some of these things.

You see, this is the worst and best kind of in jokes. With something like my Doctor Who obsession I can at least point to literally millions of people worldwide that are even more devoted that I am, and while my mind is full of useless ‘Who’ trivia I know that there are many with even more. But these gaming in-jokes are shared by maybe six or seven people, tops. That takes obscurity to new heights. We don’t have to share with thousands of juvenile latecomers. They’ll never feel exactly the same thrill as we finally won the battle of Illyria (against obligatory overwhelming odds, no fun otherwise). Or when the nuclear device exploded in space throwing us into a dystopian future (that one confused us to, still does). Or from the same game, when confronted by the name ‘Barney’ do not immediately think of the dinosaur (terrifying though he is) but of a marauding purple (no relation) time travelling bio-mechanoid whose appearance general meant character death, or at least the disintegration of large parts of the local area. Mean nothing, gentle reader? Well, sorry about that, these are ours and to be frank this is part of the fun.

But there is the other problem, which unfortunately we cannot do much about. That problem is time. Time for the beleaguered GM to create an entire world – or even if they are using sourcebooks, read the things enough to know what is going on well enough that they will not screw up in game play and have to initiate the embarrassing ‘shift reality’ manoeuvre as a major character suddenly is alive/dead/changes sex or suddenly it is actually Tuesday and not Saturday as previously communicated. A single game session (an actual game can, literally, go on forever in theory) takes the best part of a weekend to get into and with children, volunteering and general Real Life stuff does make it difficult to get even four of five people together; it was so much easier at university, which kind of explains why that is one of the times when most games (of incredible complexity at times) are played. Now it feels an increasingly rare event, although as with anything you enjoy and have to ration, when it does happen it always turns out to be memorable in some way.

Just last session, for example, it turned out that my Inuit shaman, washed up on the shores of Roman Britain in a block of ice (no, I don’t know why either, yet) might actually be about to be immortalised in this game world as that Merlin bloke.

Now that doesn’t happen every day.


All in the Game (personal reflections to explain what I sometimes do at the weekends)

A follow up to last week; staying with friends in the Chiltern’s on Saturday resulted in a temporary and beautiful bit of snow fall; just enough to make you think ‘ooh isn’t that lovely’ and wish Christmas was in fact about to happen rather than several weeks ago now. Also, it went before you could start to get a little nervous about that late night car journey home. So, yes, happy now, roll on spring time.

When of course I say ‘staying with friends’ I’m avoiding the real truth of the matter which is that I was ‘playing games with friends’. Roleplaying to be specific, something which periodically I do think about whether it is reasonable to for a man in his forties to be involved in and not something I should have dropped when I left University. Of course every time the result of this idle thought is a resounding yes. It is precisely at this age that the gaming is better than it has ever been to some extent. Let me explain.

To the uninitiated, role playing games are an exercise in group storytelling. There is a huge range of potential types, though the majority fall into the high fantasy genre (the most famous commercial game is ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ which is a glorious celebration of every fantasy cliché you care to come up with), but there are science fiction games, horror games, superhero games – anything you like really. My personal favourite for a game idea – although I never have gotten round to playing as yet – is ‘Bunnies and Burrows’ where the players get to role play, well, rabbits, a-la Watership Down. Anyone who knows that particularly wonderful book will know that it’s a dangerous world out there if you are a bunny.

Beyond the commercial games of course you can just make it up if you are prepared to put the work in to design it. Mostly these days we take a commercial game set up and adapt it; all the existing games are deeply flawed in some respect or other but provide a good starting point.

A game normally works well with a group of 4-6. One person is effectively god; he or she runs the game and has to represent the world in its complexity, including all the other people (or things) that live in the world, and have worked out what the overall plot of the story is. As you can guess, to do this well is a massive amount of work and when you find a good Games Master (GM) then you tend to stick with them (poor things). For everyone else it is a bit of doddle really; they just have to manage one solitary imaginary character within the story world the GM has created, and do their best to mess up the story as much as possible.

You see this is where it gets fun. The GM controls everything but the characters devised and run by the players. Those characters get to interact with the plot and the GM has to keep up by working out what the implications of these multiple interactions will be; like having to constantly rewrite the novel as most of your major characters have (literally) taken on a life of their own and refuse to do what they are told. What happens when your protagonist decides not to go to bar you have arranged him to be kidnapped at and stay in bed and watch TV instead? Or he accidentally gets killed in the kidnap attempt (when being alive is crucial in events yet to happen)? Or actually turns the tables on the kidnappers and finds out who is the real bad guy far too early in the plot?

Well… You make it up of course. That’s the whole point and the bit that is the most satisfying about a game – the stuff that happens when a group of creative people get together and improvise. When it works (and with a group who have been playing for decades, it usually does) it can be hilarious and memorable, usually so when a player does something utterly unexpected and the GM ripostes with something nefariously clever.

Unfortunately there are drawbacks. More on that next week.

Let it snow?

I wish it would snow properly.

I know it is a pain in the backside for me as well as everyone else who does not want school to be cancelled (more on that later) but I do miss a bit of winter. What we have this year, at least down here in South East England is more like March than January. On Friday I was running in shorts and T shirt and feeling warm; that’s just absurd for this time of the year. Even this weekend, up in the North East to celebrate my Dad’s birthday, it was windy but warm. This is in County Durham for goodness sake. Thank goodness that the region of my birth did finally decide to treat me to a specially arranged short wintry shower while I was out and about and tried to blow me back into New Year with some gale force winds, but I am not placated that easily. My childhood was full of huge snow drifts and ice inches thick on the top of stone walls, deposited day after day of unrelenting Siberian conditions. Hiding in my parka and mittens in a futile attempt to keep the cold out as I slithered across the cobbles of the old CO-OP yard – long since gone, sadly, a really old style little shop with a courtyard you walked through, which included stables for the horses that used to pull the delivery van. It sounds Victorian (and the building was) but it was still functioning that way in the late seventies. Needless to say they pulled it down in the 80s to build some bland housing, but moaning about the destruction of my childhood can wait for another week.

I really would like some snow now. Just a few days, so I can be reassured that at least some of the bugs will be killed off and to put a stop on the numerous plants in the garden that are starting to think it is time to come up and bud, about two months too early. There are other benefits too, such as the hilarity of watching people off to the station in wonderfully inappropriate footwear for one, the inability of most people (myself included) to drive in snow as well, thankfully not as dangerous as it could be here because most people cannot get out of their drives.

Ah. But the struggle to work, you say. To school, plans put on hold as you cannot get to where you need to be. Surely hoping for a blanketing of snow is selfish? I suppose it is. But we need reminding sometimes that not everything goes our way all the time. It might help us react better when things really are out of our control. I have been in enough M25 jams over the years to get some feel for when you are going to be late/miss something and there is nothing you can do about it, but it does not stop me raging at the universe. Although the lovely Wife and I have been very lucky on this, best epitomised by the winter Saturday evening out in London where we decided that we wanted to go home early after a long but lovely day. In London it was cold but free of snow, so we were a bit surprised to see the couple of inches on the platform at West Hampstead. As the train went north, the number of inches seemed to grow with each station until there was a really substantial fall at St Albans; we tromped happily through the snow home, but I was a little chastened to find out later that this was the last train that made it that far that evening.

I am going to put it down as payback for all those winter mornings as a child and teenager, sitting next to the long brown oblong cabinet that was my parent’s Radiogram listening to the local radio and praying that my school would be among the list of those closed because of bad weather. But it never was. Sometimes I swear that mine was the only school that didn’t close some years, that there was some kind of bet going on between headmasters in the context of which we were mere pawns. So if I’ve been lucky with snow since then maybe it some kind of catch up for all the days I missed sledging and making snowmen.

But I would like it to snow. Just a wee flurry, a light dusting, as a tiny reminder of the fact we are supposed to have seasons.

Found attached to a shopping trolley I almost fell over while running

Dear Humans,

As representatives of the Guild of the Wheeled Devices for the Enhancement of the Consumer Experience, sometimes slightly offensively and certainly inaccurately referred to in slang parlance as ‘shopping trolleys’ we wish to register a complaint with your species. The abuse has gone far enough and must stop immediately. Our place in the systems you insist on operating is quiet clear.

When we went into collaboration with your species to assist you in gathering of food and other helpful items in your many places of commerce, it was with understanding that we would remain on these premises. We understand that this service would entail – brief – diversions away from the neat colony areas (or in, a better class of establishment, the warmth of the interior) in front of the places off commerce (where we could be collected for the deposit of one British pound).

But the points here are that first, this trip should be brief, and second, we should be returned. One pound is not a purchase price. Nor is it a delivery charge to your home address (or bushes near your home address). It seems that unfortunately many of you seem to have misunderstood this process. You are not supposed to push us home and then leave us abandoned on footpaths or in a ditch. Worse, sometimes you try and hide your crime by pushing us into canals, ponds and other unpleasant expanses of water, ending our natural life and leaving us as eyesores to be stared at by curious ducks.

Even in St Albans.

This is just not on.

We appreciate that sometimes things in our working relationship are not always perfect. For example, the long standing problem of directional issues – we appreciate that sometimes the hard use that our members are put through does result in a the ‘trolley’ not going in the direction intended (or indeed refusing to move at all in any direction). But if you had to go through the abuse that most of the Guild undergoes every day from shoppers (and worse, the offspring of shoppers) you too might get a little wonky on your wheels.

But there is no excuse for being upturned in murky water, our wheels pathetically exposed, stolen and then abandoned simply because you cannot be bothered to return us.

We sincerely hope that this missive will help improve relationships by drawing attention to the plight of our members.


Yours, Grand Master of the Guild of the Wheeled Devices for the Enhancement of the Consumer Experience