Thuloid Speaks: Gaming and the Hyperreal, Part III – What Enchants Us
Greetings, O House! The mood is tired but celebratory, as young Elmer Bumbleforce Yog-Sothoth Bugenhagen Ookla the Mokk, Heir to House Thuloid has lately emerged from his watery den in Mrs. Thuloid (to her great relief), and begun his conquest of my abode. To date there are many fluids but little activity. Is such a one too young for gaming? If we speak of the miniature variety, undoubtedly, though it stands to reason that a nipple-themed mini game (Lactohammer?) might command his interest. As it is, he will have to settle for participating in his father’s digital Batman fantasies. My thoughts are neither deep nor voluminous these days, but I have a few, so let’s to it.
The ongoing encounter with a person to whom literally everything is a new experience has led me to consider why it is that certain games are interesting to us and others are not. Warhammer Fantasy’s death and subsequent partial revivification Khal Drogo-style raises the same question: what about the old game captured my imagination, and what about the new game fails to? An answer like, “The new rules are bad,” won’t do. They may be bad, but I’ve enjoyed bad games before. No, they leave me cold, spark nothing in me. I am not drawn to this new world of Regalia as I was to the Old World. I’m not drawn to the fat, super-powered, altogether immortal-appearing proto-Marines. Nothing about it sings to me.
You and I, good gamers, can game absolutely anything, but we only game what draws us in. Games can be about war or farming or tax policy. If the game, rules, aesthetic and all, feeds our fantasies, then we might happily play. Most wargamers are people who have never seen war, and God willing never will. But no few have seen a bit of it, and still they game. Is this sick compulsion? Hardly. It’s fun. I could game a daily trip to the grocery store, were the rules creative enough. But the point is not representation–an accurate simulation of my shopping experience would not be worth gaming. Neither would a game that duplicated in detail the real experience of a soldier (how boring would that be?). Perhaps the hobby equivalent would be to build a perfect 1:1 model of one’s own home and office. I don’t want a second life exactly like my first–I want a taste of something different, even if it shares aspects of my own life. Humming the Zelda overworld music as I go about mundane tasks only gets me so far. Games afford possibilities that I wouldn’t or can’t explore in daily life.
Our corner of the universe–miniatures– has not tended toward the odd or experimental in terms of the range of possible experiences. Genres of miniature games are quite narrow and well-defined compared to the wide-open spaces of RPGs. But it needn’t be so. Consider this oddity of an early-80s role-playing game: Alma Mater, the High School RPG. The perverse cover art by Erol Otus (surpassed only by the even more twisted and somewhat work-unsafe interior drawings by same) tells you all you need to know about this game. How is it as a set of rules? In all likelihood, clunky. Games published in 1982 frequently are, with a multitude of bizarre and detailed charts and tables (and don’t you worry about charts and tables–this one includes the price of various illegal drugs). But it does capture a certain moment, and offer an opportunity to take a common experience and transform it. The appeal is obvious: whatever the player did in school, they could do differently.
The artwork used to illustrate a game is not incidental to its appeal. How many were drawn into Warhammer by John Blanche, our imaginations populated by his illustrations at least as much as by the actual game pieces? It’s remarkable how well, for a time, those miniatures and illustrations mirrored one another. The phenomenon of Warhammer grew out of that synergy as much as out of any rules innovation. I grew up with RPGs and came to miniatures late, so I knew Erol Otus long before I encountered Blanche. He was, of course, a major illustrator for early D&D– and if my imagination has an illustrator, it’s Otus. His best work reminds me just a bit of Thomas Hart Benton, except instead of scenes of American life, we have dungeon vignettes.
I think the vignette, the moment, is exactly the right way to imagine a dungeon crawl. What is memorable from a gaming session is often not the triumph, but the moment of fear as an unexpected enemy steps from the shadows. The scene need not be epic, merely dangerous for the adventurers. It is best if they appear mortal, even a touch flimsy compared to their foes (Otus’ elongated figures encourage this). At least a touch of dungeon architecture is necessary to establish the setting and give it some weight.
We might draw a comparison to our miniatures. A good old-fashioned Chaos Warrior looks terrifying and invincible next to a Reikland Halberdier. Blocks of state troops suggest ranks of soldiers marching out to war against an opponent they perhaps cannot defeat–but this contrast is at the heart of Warhammer Fantasy. Similarly, the Imperium’s fabled Space Marines are all the more impressive if their resources are limited and their opponents truly overwhelming. Eight-foot godlings in ceramite may get some of your blood pounding, but I prefer them as men. I don’t think it’s unimportant that Age of Sigmar compromises all this by making immortals of the good guys, and illustrates the same with figures and art that suggest no weakness at all. The vulnerability of even heroic figures is important to maintaining our fantasy–else what is our entry point, our chance of identifying? Maybe it’s just a fellow entering his late 30s feeling mortality a little, but I have no use for games that render death trivial.
Terrain, too, makes an enormous difference. Done well, it suggests a real space, a field on which men fall and bleed. In smaller scale games, it becomes even more important to define the space well. Few details are necessary, but they can’t be altogether absent. Take the case of beer in the Benton painting–that’s an entry point, pulling you into the poker table and the whole scene. In the same way, a road, a farmhouse, perhaps a few gravestones help pull us into a tabletop world. I participated in Mantic’s Dungeon Saga kickstarter, and eagerly await my figures for that dungeon crawler. But it became almost a running joke during the campaign that announcements of character and monster models received muted reactions, while donations spiked with every mention of dungeon furniture. Players obsessed over doors of all things, and cheered about barrels, chests and shelves. These small objects, gestures toward ordinary life, turn a board into a proper dungeon. A bigger hero doesn’t capture my imagination as well as a simple bookcase, because the bookcase means this is all real.
These small things–the limitations of our heroes and the detritus of our dungeons–are gateways into new worlds. They are points of contact for us. Take them away, and why do we play at all?