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baby pictures -- summary of early RPG experiences, & one real game example

Started by Marshall Burns, November 30, 2007, 09:22:26 PM

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Marshall Burns

In this thread I briefly described my history of roleplaying -- namely that, lacking access to RPGs, my friends and I simply made up our own.  Larry Lade asked that I give some Actual Play examples of the early stages, where we merely had an idea of what we were doing and no way of knowing if it was "right" or "wrong."

Those early games are like looking at baby pictures of myself, so what I'm going to do is gloss over those early games and give a description of an actual game that happened at a more intermediate level.  If some of it makes you itch, please bear with me.  We were in junior high.

The first was called "Q":  the Great Gathering, by Rowdy.  It was set in modern times and about a mystical culture called the "Q" who were, for some reason, scattered over the globe where they specialized into smaller groups who developed fundamental differences.  In the game, a new Overseer, rightful ruler of the "Q", has finally appeared after untold years, prompting a "great gathering" as the various "Q" factions flock to him to become a nation again.  Problem is, they've grown so different from each other that they're having difficulty getting along.

Characters in "Q" were defined by their ability in various skills, ranging from the lore and application of herbs to skill with weapons to manipulating other people.  The meat of the skills was the magic, which consisted of 14 elements.  You either made magic by channeling one element--say, Fire, which would produce flame--or by combining them--say, Fire and Earth, which would produce magma.

You also had to pick which "Q" faction, or Order, your character came from, and each had its own special abilities.  For instance, the Children of Ice, who believed in nothing, had developed disbelief into a magical art--by disbelieving hard enough the existence of something, they made it not exist for everyone.

The unusual thing about the game was the resolution system, although I didn't know it was unusual at the time.  The way it worked was, whenever you had a goal you needed to accomplish, you rolled dice, and the result of those dice gave you two options of abilities that you could use.  You couldn't do anything about it except use one of those two options, but you didn't have to worry about failure (unless you couldn't figure out how to use either of the options).

Looking back, that last concept kinda has some potential, and even some other aspects of the game do.  But at the time, we didn't do much about it.  The game always degenerated into our characters beating eachother up.  If someone tried to introduce any degree of story, or premise, or anything other than blowing eachother up with imaginative combinations of elements.  And I was right there at the forefront of it.  I wrote up a grimoire on looseleaf paper in which I listed every possible combination and figured out what it would do.  I believe this sort of behavior could be considered Hardcore Gamism?

The second to be made was Nothing, by Steve.  Nothing was basically a setting and a system of describing characters; no other rules were given.  The setting involved an intricate social hierarchical structure, and what class your character fell in determined his goals, the situations he had to deal with, and even what he had a right to do in the game world.  It had a very dreary, haunting tone to it and sometimes dealt with disturbing, surreal, and/or perverse situations.  The focus was on what these situations meant to the characters, how they dealt with it (or refused to deal with it), how they were impacted by it, and what these things said about who they were as people.

If I'm understanding things right, that game would be best for Narrativist play, which none of us understood, except possibly Steve.  The game was over our heads (we were in junior high, for crap's sake), and no one could get excited about it except Steve, so after a couple attempts at playing, it was abandoned and never finished.  Looking back, that makes me hurt in a place I can't define.  I'd love to have another crack at the game, now that I've matured as a gamer and a person, but it will never happen.

These games were followed by nameless rules-heavy, inconsistent games by me and James, one each, that were poorly realized mish-mashes of fantasy tropes, simply not fun at all, and about which little was worth remembering and even less is remembered.

Then I made another game, called Misadventures in Nowhere, which has been mutated, complicated, simplified, re-complicated, streamlined, reworked, rethought, and overhauled into my favorite unfinished game, The Rustbelt.  In its current form, it's a simulation-oriented dive into a gritty, hardboiled, somewhat surreal world where life is nasty, brutish, and short, but back then it was just rules-heavy sword-and-sorcery plus guns and cars, for no other reason than I liked all of those things (and still do).  I was very gamist at the time (these days, I still like gamist play, but I'm primarily interested in simulation).

So, to introduce the players and their characters:
I was GM and also played an outlaw named Dirc, who wore jeans and an old leather jacket, had a fairly frail body, was quick on the draw, and was an excellent wheelman.  He mostly made a living by boosting cars.  I guess I should note that he was a dark elf (I was still heavy on the fantasy tropes at the time, although this wasn't the same thing as a D&D dark elf), as much as it embarrasses me now.  I will also note that "Outlaw" was a Class (essentially a combination of the also-classes "Gunslinger" and "Rogue").

Matt played a 10-foot "dwogre" (apparently some sort of ogre/dwarf halfbreed.  I still don't know why I let Matt do that instead of just playing an ogre) named El Cabong XIII.  He came from a long, proud line of Spanish dwogres.  His strength was of legendary proportions, as was his toughness.  His class was "Bruiser," which meant that his specialty was brawling, whether bare-knuckle street fighting or hitting people with chairs (he never needed a weapon.  He could collapse your skull with a single punch, as he repeatedly demonstrated).   Basically, the Bruiser is the type of person you would see bouncing at a particularly rough club.  El Cabong made his living as a mercenary.

Seth played a Sorceror-Ranger (multiclassed) named Zero.  This character turned out to be completely ineffectual due to flaws with the character creation system; basically, he was a decent shot with a crossbow and he could conjure up a fog in a target area.  That was pretty much the extent of his power, because he never lived enough to level up.   Oh, and he was also good with technology, but it didn't come up often.  Zero made his living (while he was alive) as a mercenary.

Gary played a hydraulic-powered robot named BR-549 (as you can probably tell by this point, I tolerated a great deal of silliness from these ridiculous people).  BR-549 began as Zero's property.  He was nearly as large as El Cabong, and in place of one of his hands was a circular saw.  Guess what that was for.

Basically, we all went about our business in a town called Galler, which was a hotspot for adventurers.  Because of the seedy nature of our occupations, we came into contact frequently (we mostly just fast-forwarded to these parts), and because we were all motivated by money (except the robot, who was motivated by his programming), we often ended up as adversaries trying to get X source of cash before the others could.

Lemme see... The earliest event I can remember was when Dirc was on foot, running from the cops (who, in the game, were basically a gang with government sponsorship). 

They corner him at the Old Owl Clocktower, inside which live flesh-eating owls (the tower was frequently used as a method of disposing of corpses by the mob; the owls ate all the flesh off, and the police lack the technology to identify the skeleton).  He is forced to go in, and is luckily fast enough to get up the tower and out onto the roof through a hatchway without being seriously injured by the owls.  The cops respond to this by sending in the hired help:  El Cabong XIII.  He casually strolls up the stairs of the tower, fatally swatting away owls that get close to him.  Not used to resistance, the owls give up, and El Cabong meets me on the roof.

Dirc responds by firing a hail of bullets from his 9mm machine pistol.  Five bullets connect, but the guy is 10-foot tall and two feet thick, so they don't do much to stop him.  El Cabong charges and throws a haymaker, which Dirc dodges, sending El Cabong off-balance, while standing on a stoped, unstable roof.  He falls, and starts rolling down the slope to the edge, but not before grabbing Dirc by the pants.  They tumble over the edge together.

El Cabong hit the ground first, Dirc falling on top of him.  El Cabong makes a nice crater and dies (death could be reversed in the game, for a price), while Dirc gets a broken arm but also manages to make a clean getaway from the cops.  The scary thing was that El Cabong nearly survived the fall – Matt's roll (a d100) missed by 2.

The next time Dirc met El Cabong, they recognized eachother, so Dirc tried to run him down with his car.  Worst idea ever.  El Cabong sidesteps and grabs the door of the damn car, swinging with all his might and sending it headlong into the front of a house.  The house turns out to belong to Zero and BR-549, who aren't too happy for the intrusion.  Needless to say, Dirc (already grievously wounded from the collision) shortly receives a fatal crossbow bolt to the neck.

Cheated of his revenge, El Cabong flies into a fury and storms into the house.  His massive fist connects with Zero's head, crushing the skull and—well, it was quite gory.  Programmed to protect his master, BR-549 assaults El Cabong with the circular saw and rolls a critical hit.  It connects with El Cabong's left arm, severing his left hand just above the wrist.  El Cabong is forced to flee due to the injury.

What no one foresaw was that El Cabong was very rich and would use this resource to purchase a new, mechanical hand, even stronger than his initial one.  While his right fist could crush skulls, his left hand could pop them like grapes.  At one point, he tore a car apart with it, later appropriating the hood as a breastplate and one of the axles as a weapon.

A big deal in this game was treasure-seeking, especially in the abandoned ruins of houses and skyscrapers found in a region called the Expanse.  Each of the characters independently learned the location of a house that was said to contain some treasure (adventurers had looted it previously but could not carry all of the loot, so they cached it to come back to later.  One of said adventurers gets drunk and loose-lipped, one is intimidated in a dark alley by a tall, dark, and 2-foot thick figure, and another is tortured with a circular saw).  End result is of course that we all end up at the house and are determined to be the only ones leaving with the loot.

Dirc arrives first, and, being very alert, becomes aware that others were in the house.  He peeks around a corner to see Zero, whom he recognizes as being the last person he saw before he died.  Dirc opens fire, critically wounding Zero, but the small caliber bullets are ineffective against BR-549's armor plating, so Dirc flees through a series of rooms.  Hiding behind a large, ornate, metal bathtub, he lies in wait for someone to ambush.  Zero fails his Resilience check and dies from his wounds.

El Cabong arrives and engages in fisticuffs with the large robot.  He connects a powerful blow, knocking BR-549 into a gaping hole in the floor that goes down to the cellar.  The robot makes a satisfying noise when it hits the bottom, and El Cabong continues through the house, passing through the very room in which Dirc lies in wait like a snake in the grass.

Dirc opens fire, emptying an entire 30-round clip.  Only seven of the bullets make contact, but it's enough to critically wound him.  But El Cabong passes his Resilience check, so he's able to keep going.  His response is to charge Dirc and pin him between the heavy tub and the wall.  Dirc is not very strong in the first place, especially not compared to El Cabong, and is crushed, receiving multiple broken ribs that perforate both lungs.  As Dirc dies gasping, El Cabong takes the gun, crushes it in his mechanical hand, and proceeds to eat the mangled remains.

Meanwhile, BR-549 survives the fall to the cellar, although many of its mechanisms are damaged, causing it to behave in an erratic and deranged manner.  It finds El Cabong in the main hall of the house, who is gradually bleeding to death as his Resilience checks get harder and harder to make.  They begin a desperate battle for survival, each of them avoiding destruction by narrow margins.

Now, this hall had, at one point, several wooden beams supporting the floor above, but they had all been removed or rotted away except for one.  And it is this beam that BR-549, in a moment of malfunction, viciously saws in half, collapsing the floor on top of both of them.  (Once again, El Cabong nearly survives).

At this point, there is no one to find our bodies and take them to the morgue (where the resurrections happened), so the game was over.

So, that's what Happened.  As to, was it fun?  Everytime someone died in an unusual fashion, it was very fun.  Simple deaths were kind of boring, or at worst they were disappointing, because you felt that the character deserved more than a basic, got-hit-and-died death.  We were playing VERY gamist.  There was a LOT of "Hah!  I kicked your ass!"  But it was all in good fun, and no one's feelings got hurt.

The game that Misadventures in Nowhere developed into, The Rustbelt, is different in many ways.  For one, it's far more sim-oriented.  The grittiness, harshness, and violence are still there, but gone is the silliness, and also the non-human races (nowadays, nonhumans make me itch).  I'm only saying this because I don't want The Rustbelt to be judged based on MaNw – even though they were once the same thing, they're not anymore.

So.  Yeah.  There's my baby pictures.  I left out the ones where I was naked, but, hey, that's my prerogative.

Larry L.

Hi Marshall,

This is some interesting stuff. Just to make sure I'm clear, a few questions.

So this Misadventures in Nowhere game you describe, when did you play this? Way back in junior high? Have you been out of gaming since this game?

This game was just you, Gary, Matt, and Seth? Who were these people to you? Just your gaming buds?

Marshall Burns

We played MaNw in junior high and high school.  After that, I was pretty much out of the hobby except for a few scattered games of Toon and D&D, and except for continuing to design games (designing became, in itself, a hobby for me).

Gary, Matt, and Seth were just some friends that I talked into playing the game with me.  They were already into the sort of computer games that call themselves RPGs, so it wasn't too hard to get them to play.

Ron Edwards

Hi Marshall,

I wish I could have seen the early-early ones too.

Here's my question about what you did describe. Clearly, somewhere along the way, you and the others picked up concepts from existing fantasy games, both mechanics ("classes") and imagery ("dark elf", "ogre"). It looks to me as if you picked them up in such a way ... well, as if they were necessary, unavoidable components of role-playing. Misadventures in Nowhere looks like a mash-up of these concepts.

The first description of the Q game seems extremely free of all that. In many ways, you guys were literally inventing role-playing, and it seems to me that it foundered strictly as a function of your adolescence. I can see why you grieve about it now, because it's as if you had discovered a precious, rare animal as a kid, but didn't know how to take care of it.

Am I right in thinking that you and the others encountered published role-playing sometime in between the two? Or perhaps, regardless of when you encountered it first, internalized the published material sometime between the two?

As a final point, I think we should stay away from the Creative Agenda (GNS) talk for a few posts. What you've stated about that stuff is a bit wonky - for instance, nothing about "swords and sorcery with guns and cars" denotes Gamist play, and nothing about "muse about dark and personal reactions to weirdness" denotes Narrativist play. So let's grab a more detailed look based on further posts, and then I'll walk you through the right questions to ask oneself in order to clarify Creative Agenda.

Best, Ron

Marshall Burns


You hit the nail on the head describing the way we (or at least some of us) thought about those concepts and ideas from existing fantasy games; that they were "how it was done."  Although we had mostly encountered them through video games.  I was an avid video gamer (still am), and I think I was primarily the one who brought that stuff to the table.

Re: GNS, I've read the essays and have been reading the related discussions as much as I can.  I know what *most* of it means, but Narrativist still eludes me.  When I read the "Right to Dream" essay, I immediately had a "that's me, innit" reaction.  But the way I just used the terms in my previous post was, I can see now, very ambiguous (plus, there's always the possibility that I totally and truly have misunderstood the whole shootin' match). 

When I described my play in Misadventures in Nowhere as gamist, it wasn't because of the "sword & sorcery, guns & cars" thing, but because it was very competitive, there was a lot of "I kicked your ass" and "I got the gold first," and the first thing on my mind was "how do I win in this situation?"  Any other type of play got blown out of the water by the constant attempts at one-upping the other players and making their characters suffer (the more gruesomely the better, was how we felt about it at the time).  The setting was just a backdrop that was never really thought about, the characters (in terms of actual characterization) took a back seat. It was more like a war game than anything else.

Does that make sense?

As an aside, the more I think about those early days, the more I wish I had held onto the little rules sheets and whatnot.  That is, the ones from games besides Misadventures in Nowhere.  I have all of that crap.

Larry L.


Ron has beaten me to the punch on a couple things. I also am very curious what influences you had which led you to make up your own role-playing games. If you actually made up your own games without prior exposure to published games, this is exciting stuff to see.

When you say video games, do you mean so-called "RPGs" like Final Fantasy, or something else?

Ron's advice on GNS terminology is also wise. Statements like "We were playing VERY gamist" seem rather nonsensical in the context you're using them; it would help a lot if you explained what you actually mean by those. I know you're eager to bust out the lingo, but for now let's pretend like you've never heard the terms Gamist, Sim, or Narrativist.

I'm also interested in some value judgments you're making between some gameplay that is a bit silly and irreverant -- but clearly fun -- and some ill-defined "mature" gaming that you'd rather be doing now. I'm left with the impression you're a little embarrassed by your early game efforts. But I don't see where you have anything to be embarrassed about. These games sound pretty cool to me!


Dwogres? Robots? Flesh eating owls? Grotesque character death as the driving goal of the game?

That so totally rocks.

....but you can call me Sam

Marshall Burns


When I said video games, some of them were "RPGs" (although I despise Final Fantasy and all its Wagnerian senseless bombast), but I was (and still am) especially fond of action/adventure games (from Legend of Zelda to Shadow of the Colossus), and straight-up action games (Castlevania and Twisted Metal at the top of the list).  I had also been exposed to computerized versions of D&D (the SSI goldbox games).
Now, I believe that Rowdy and Steve had played a little bit of Vampire at some point.

The GNS... GNS, GNS, GNS...  I think I've been basically feeling the terms out.  I tend to keep shooting at something until I hit it; if I miss, I realize it, but I don't make any reaction to it, I just keep shooting.  I also tend to not let on when somebody says something that leads to a correction on my part; I'm *very* accustomed to figuring things out on my own, and often loath to let on that I had help in it.  When Ron said "walk you through," I twitched.  But, hey, none of you people should worry about that, that's just my enormous ego.  I seriously am here to learn, despite any kneejerks I might shoot off from time to time.

Okay, now, silly vs. serious -- I don't mean that nonsense is immature.  I love nonsense.  What I meant by maturing as a gamer was that I am capable of playing in more "serious" modes.
Now, I'm embarassed about Misadventures because it wasn't supposed to be so silly.  What I really wanted was for it to be gritty and compelling, and it just came out silly all the time.  Which was fun, but it wasn't what I was trying to do.  (The Rustbelt, the creature that Misadventures evolved into, still contains occasional absurdities, but they tend to be slightly disturbing as well as amusing, in a sort of Burroughsian fashion).

Sam Wreckage:
Thanks :)  Maybe I should make a game that's *supposed* to be like that.