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.