Thursday, August 30, 2018

Playing Games Part 6: Going Off the Reservation


Once I made the decision to step out of the box on D&D and see other RPGs, I was something of a “loose” GM, if you know what I mean and I think you do. I figured out pretty quick that some games were better at simulating specific genres than others. I eventually amassed a shelf full of RPGs in boxes and books, and also plastic Ziploc bags and paper envelopes, and clamshell boxes…it got out of hand. I would venture to say that about one-third of the games that I owned I never played, because they were stupid and horrible. We didn’t have the word “crunchy” to describe “lots of rules, many of which are largely not needed” in the 1980s, but we made do with the more elegant, “This sucks.” Others on my shelf were games that people wanted to play, but I didn’t necessarily care about. I ran them, with mixed results, and then never went back to them. Here’s a few of the games I spent a modest amount of table time running for others:

This ad is what got me interested in Chill.
Jim Holloway did all the Pacesetter art.
Chill
Pacesetter, Ltd. was this really ambitious company that showed up out of the blue and had, by every appearance, a lot of money. They put out good looking boxed rpgs that used the same system, a percentile-based thing that I’ve since forgotten. I was taken by Chill, their horror game with lots of great illustrations by Jim Holloway. They also did a Sci-Fi game called Star Ace that I never was interested in (thanks, Star Frontiers!) and Timemaster, a time travel game that I didn’t want to run.

I loved Chill, but I think I was the only one. My friends played the game to humor me, but they weren’t into it. And then, Pacesetter was…gone. No idea what happened to them. My guess is that they ran out of money, because they spent a lot of it trying to make sure that their games competed with everyone else’s on the already crowded shelves. I also flirted with the other Pacesetter games, but nothing ever came of it. We nearly played Time Masters once. Once. 


Champions 4th Edition. Perez Cover.
Denis Loubet  interior art.
Still, too little, too late.
The HERO System
I tried, I really tried, to get into Champions, especially when the fourth iteration of the game came out with better artwork and even a George Perez cover—they finally learned their lesson, it seemed. But I just could not handle the people who liked playing Champions. Well, that’s not fair; most of the people playing the game were friends and people I genuinely liked. But there were others—in these various groups—that were the rules-bending min-maxing loophole-abusing jackholes that I not only didn’t want to play with, but wanted to punch in the chops.

One guy, let’s call him Dougie, was a big gamer in Waco, Texas. He loved Champions, GURPS, you name it, but he was a gleeful Man-Child who took great delight in being a disruptive shithead. He turned up one time in a Pick-Up Group game of Champions I tried to join after I’d moved to Austin, a two hours drive away from where Dougie lived. I was gobsmacked. I'd managed to avoid playing with him in Waco, because I didn't want to deal with him as a player or a GM, and now here he was, grinning at me like a tree sloth.

He was so excited to see me, because he’d brought his character, Clay Moore—wait, that’s “Claymore”—to use in this game. We were supposed to be a team of crime fighters. So I picked the Batman character—smart, agile, hand-to-hand fighter, you know the drill. Other people pick the strong man-brick, a couple of energy blasters, a magic-user who wasn’t quite clear on the concept of super hero gaming and ‘ported his D&D character into Champions, you know what I’m talking about. The guy who plays the same exact character in every game. What does Dougie do? He created a character that explodes. A radius-effect killing attack that damages everyone. And he reforms the next turn. That’s his power. On a team of strangers he’s never met before, and me.

I am not sure what it is about Champions GMs that makes them think that if the points all add up, then the character must be good. It’s insane to me, but this guy, not wanting to be unhospitable, let Dougie play his living grenade who kept running into fights and setting off his power. He wiped out two players before everyone begged him to stop. Dougie’s reaction? All smiles. He was having a ball. Any attention, even negative attention, is good attention.

I later played the less mathematical Justice, Inc. because I wanted to do pulps-era role-playing and it was the only one that we could all agree on. Justice, Inc. is way, way less problematic, mostly because you’re dealing with two-thirds less math and 90% less super powers, which suddenly makes the HERO system playable, if not enjoyable. I was so relieved when GURPS showed up.

The best thing about this game is that
your cowboy can finally fight a dinosaur.
GURPS
Steve Jackon Games’ Generic Universal Role-Playing System was just fun to say. The game was meant to do anything you wanted—fantasy, Science Fiction, modern-day, historical, pulps, horror…any genre, you name it. Just write up the specific rules that govern your genre, snap them into GURPS, and Bob’s your uncle. And it worked, mostly.

You could come up with characters that were D&D style heroes, or cinematic and television heroes, or even action heroes from movies who shrug off massive damage and keep on going. The math was way easier than HERO, even as the application was virtually identical. They even used d6 dice, same as HERO. It was a deliberate shot across the bow, but it did encourage HERO to put out their own genre books.

The biggest sin of GURPS was that it wasn’t very exciting. The GURPS Swashbucklers book is full of great stunts you can do and cool adventures you can run, but there’s nothing epic about the game itself. Maybe it was that the game only used d6 dice. Maybe it was that it was so generic, it wasn’t very specific. I don’t know, but I played a lot of GURPS over the years, in a lot of genres and blends, and it all just runs together for me. I couldn’t tell you anything exciting from any GURPS game I played in or ran for friends. GURPS is the Miracle Whip of RPGs. You either love it, or hate it, but either way, you know mayonnaise is really better.

I'm not a fan of Patrick Nagel but the overall
aesthetic of his art was spot-on for this game.
Cyberpunk
R. Talsorian’s game was designed to emulate the nascent literary sub-genre that was everywhere in the post-modern 1980s. Cyberpunk had a lot going for it; a ton of source material, an interesting and robust but easy to understand system, and the advantage of being in the right place at the right time. They also were able to write quickly and offer up a bunch of supplements early on that gave them forward inertia that was only matched by FASA's Shadowrun.

No one was doing cyberpunk, not like R. Talsorian was, and as a result, no one has been able to do it better. I say this knowing that some of you loved Shadowrun and are reacing for the comments button even now, but let me say this first, and if you want to still bring the noise, go ahead: Cyberpunk was role-playing in the realms as created by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, and others. Shadowrun was shoved Dungeons and Dragons into a high-tech future, for the sole reason of letting gamers play chromed trolls because they have the strength to hold a plasma cannon in one hand, and boy, isn't that neato-keeno? I'm not outright saying that one is better than the other (okay, I am), but they served two very different audiences. Let's leave it at that.

This was the last of my gaming years, after I’d moved to Austin and started writing and living on my own. We broke this game out several times in my twenties and spent an evening shooting shit up and acting cool with guns in armored trenchcoats. Cyberpunk was perfect for that.

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