The Von Show #9 – The Games I Play

Yes yes yes I know the numbering’s slipped.  This is what happens when you change your mind halfway through a three-week dump of pre-recorded footage that you hastily edit while you should be working.  Normal service, i.e. the single-week dump of fresh-recorded footage that I hastily edit while I should be working, has now been resumed.  I blame any factual errors, lapses into slackjawed silence, or outbursts of TVTropes-speak on the lack of a script.  It’s been a busy week, okay?

Mornin’ folks.

SinSynn, at some point in the comments over the last few weeks, has mentioned that he’s not a hundred per cent sure what games I’m actually playing.  There is a reason for that – I try not to violate the First Rule of RPG Club* and do try not to talk too much about my game**, ’cause I’m well aware that that’s slightly boring and, arguably, unnecessary.  What I try to do with this series is talk about stuff that could apply to any game, or any group, or any conception of RPGs – but the man’s got a point, and the point that I think he’s got is “if I talk about the games I own and play, it might help to indicate something about the different kinds of game that exist, and to answer those sort of nabcake questions like ‘what exactly is there out there for me to play?'”  So, rather against my better judgement, I have gone and pulled my RPG collection off the shelves and I’m gonna do a quick sort of run through, this week, of the games I play.

The first RPG that I ever bought in the history of ever was Advanced Fighting Fantasy (AFF).  Advanced Fighting Fantasy is classic sword-and-sorcery films, that’s what it’s designed to emulate.  It calls the GM the Director, its prewritten adventures are broken up into Scenes with lists of Extras and Props… It’s more than just a gimmick, though, because the game lends itself to a very fast, very cinematic style of play.  It’s arrestingly simple, lighthearted and cheerful, and swashbuckling.  There are rough and ready mechanics for things but the basic impetus behind the setting game is that you should never have to stop to look anything up.  You keep rolling with it, keep being exciting, and when things are being boring you don’t spend ages describing fucking hobbits trudging across the lands of the downfallen North-West – NO.  You cut straight to the interesting bits…

I’ve owned that for many many years and only actually ran it quite recently, because the game that I actually cut my teeth running was Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (WFRP).  I owned, and learned to GM on, the first edition of this baby – what I’m holding in my hands is the second, shinier, slightly-higher-production-values slightly-more-balanced-mechanically arguably-more-bland-in-the-background one.  Warhammer Fantasy Role Play is like an episode of Blackadder scripted by H. P. Lovecraft, or possibly an H. P. Lovecraft story rewritten by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton.  It’s grim and gritty and very, very silly.  It’s shot through with this black and twisted humour.  This isn’t about heroics and white shiny knights glomphing off on magic celestial horses to slay the dragon-god.  This is about ratcatchers and apprentice wizards who can barely cast a spell without accidentally invoking demons, and the scum of the Warhammer world struggling to make that world a slightly less grotty place – but doing so with that gallows humour, that torrent of dreadful puns, that made the third edition of WFB so great and so beloved of so many players.

WFRP’s rules are crazy random.  There’s a random chart for everything, and I know quite a few people who refuse to play it because the nature of character creation is such that you basically get to pick whether you want to play a human, elf, dwarf or halfling and that’s basically the only choice you get, because there exists a mechanism for randomising pretty much everything else.  The idea is that you play the hand you’re dealt in WFRP, that you’ve been born into this crapsack world and you didn’t get to choose who you are, you didn’t get to choose where you are, you didn’t get to choose the life you’re living – but now you’re damn well living it and you’re damn well stopping the minions of Chaos from making it any more miserable than it has to be.

I cut my teeth running WFRP at secondary school, and when I was about sixteen or seventeen I got into running the World of Darkness games, for a group of goths, drama nerds, and drama nerds who were also goths, and I think that should indicate something of the appeal of the World of Darkness.

The World of Darkness is ‘a Storytelling Game of Personal Horror’.  It’s not so much about going out into the wilderness and down the dungeon and kicking in the monsters’ heads as discovering that the monsters actually live up the road from you and are pretty much people like you, more or less.  More powerful than you, and sexier than you, and generally better off in the world than you, cursed with awesome in a way…

The core World of Darkness is a game about finding out that the supernatural exists and generally being mindblasted by it and struggling to resist its pernicions influences and, generally, dealing with the fact that the world is not as they think it is.  Variants on the World of Darkness, sort of bolt-ons to that system, include Vampire: the Requiem.

Vampire is… well, it’s a game where all the player characters are vampires.  At some point some vampire’s taken a shine to you and turned you into one of its own kind, and now you have to deal with the fact that while you may live more or less forever and be dead sexy and have loads of cool fun funky stuff happen to you, you’re also going to be murdering people.  By exsanguination.  For the rest of your days.  The personal horror in this one is how you cope with pretty much having to murder people who are not that dissimilar to you, for ever, to survive.

This one, on the other hand, is Mage.  Mage: the Awakening.  With Mage, you basically wake up one morning and discover YOU’RE A WIZARD, HARRY!  The thing about being a wizard is that you suddenly have these powers where you can tell the laws of physics to sit down and shut up and go away because you’re trying to work here, but that that leads to a kind of strange ticking in the brain-pan where you suddenly realise that because you can do anything, there isn’t really anything that you shouldn’t do any more.  The terrible risk to one’s humanity is that you get lazy, you let magic start doing everything for you, you perform bigger and bigger acts of magic – and every time you perform a big act of magic you unravel the fabric of the universe slightly more.

So it’s a sort of risk vs. reward thing, because you have these extraordinary powers, but using them to too obnoxious and great an effect dooms the world, and there are some mages who are trying to stop that and others who are saying “no, bring it on, we want to hasten the downfall of reality and destroy everything, ’cause we’re evil, Brixton, evil.”

While we’re talking about the World of Darkness – I am at the moment running Dark Ages Vampire, which is an older variant of Vampire: the Requiem*** set in the early 13th century (which is actually the Middle Ages, not the Dark Ages, but Middle Ages: Vampire doesn’t sound all dark and gothy and sexy-like, so they get it wrong on purpose).  Anyway, the idea with this one is that in the present day, vampires are very much outnumbered by humans, very much aware that humans are taking back the night, inventing things like streetlights, UV lighting, guns that work… aware that their number’s up.

Not so in the Dark Ages.  In the thirteenth century, vampires rule.  Humans don’t go out at night much, people don’t travel very far, they own the night.  This is a game about the glory days of being a vampire, when you could quite happily set up in your castle on the mountain overlooking a small village being tyrannical, and… people might be the wiser, but who the fuck’s gonna do anything about it?  Apart from mad witch hunters, other vampires, werewolves… you’ve basically got vampire overlords struggling for domination over medieval Europe.

All the World of Darkness games use… they don’t have races, or classes, per se, although they do have something similar, where you’re a vampire or a mage or a werewolf or whatever, and then there are different kinds of vampire, mage, werewolf or whatever with different powers and different weaknesses, and different social organisations that they belong to… so there’s still lots of that stratification, that classification of characters there, but it’s organised differently, much more controlled.  There’s no random stats in the World of Darkness.  You get to build this character and pretty much build whoever you want to play in quite extraordinary detail. 

The other systems that I own are…

Savage Worlds, which is a go-anywhere do-anything system of pulp adventure.  Whatever you can think of, provided it has that sort of punch-first ask-questions-later vibe to it, Savage Worlds can run it.  The tagline for this one is Fast! Furious! Fun! and the idea is that you can just look down at your character sheet and go “a-ha, that’s the die that I need to roll to do whatever I’m going to do”****  It’s meant to be quick, and adaptable – there’s rules in here for playing it as fantasy, as 1920s pulp adventure, swanning around in space like John Carter of Mars kicking in alien heads, it’s all possible in here.

Last but not least, there’s the various variants of D&D, and I have owned various of these at some point or other and played most of them apart from fourth.  The one that I currently own is called Backsword and Buckler, which is a tiny tiny stripped down version of the D&D rules set which only has three classes, only has rules for humans, and is basically designed to be as open to GM and player invention as physically possible.  If you want a magic system, for instance, you can just go and borrow it from wherever you like and crowbar it onto the very basic rules framework that’s in here…

Whatever you want to do with D&D, if you strip it down far enough, you can do it, and that’s the logic behind this ‘un here.  It was written for adventuring in a slightly dark fantasy version of Elizabethan London, but I’ve used it for games in all sorts of settings and locations… the last thing was a sort of Cthuluesque thing in Victorian England.  The core system really does hold up wherever you take it and whatever you do with it.

Other stuff that I’ve played and that I don’t own…

Call of Cthulhu.  Call of Cthulhu is a classic of investigative horror.  Doesn’t have races or classes or anything – you’re basically a human, you’ve an array of skills and abilities, and you’re trying to solve some sort of mystery.  You’ve stumbled upon some ancient artifact, you’ve inherited some mysterious papers, someone you know appears to have gone missing, and what your characters are trying to do is unravel the mystery of all this and get to the bottom of it.  SPOILER WARNING – at the bottom of it lurks something supernatural and nasty that you either have to do your level best to survive encountering or defeat.

Call of Cthulhu is lethal – player characters die, a lot, and those that don’t die tend to go mad, because… the whole point of Call of Cthulhu is that you’re playing through a H. P. Lovecraft story, and the thing about H. P. Lovecraft stories is that often the protagonists do not survive the experiences entirely unscathed.  They learn things that mankind should not know of, they encounter things that mankind should not encounter, and they either struggle through this encounter and live to tell the tale – not that anyone will believe them – or they don’t.  This is not a game that you play to go off and say “haha, we defeated the monstrosity, now let us have all the gold and experience points!”, it’s not a heroic ‘win’ type game, it’s a game where you’re trying to lose in the most dramatic and scary way possible, and still feel like things could have been worse if you hadn’t been there.

There’s also the Star Wars d20 game, and this is sort of proves the versatility of Dungeons and Dragons.  It takes that essential paraphenalia of D&D – using a d20 to resolve most things, and having a race and a class and a level, and just translates it wholesale into recreating the Star Wars universe.  The clasiscal trinity of fighter, mage and thief becomes soldier, Jedi and scoundrel, and there’s a few other classes as well; for races you’ve got humans and Wookies and droids and so on, and levels… are more or less the same.  Spells become Force powers, and all of a sudden instead of playing this game of manifest destiny with swords where you’re trooping around something that resembles medieval Europe clobbering things that don’t look like you and taking all their cash, you’re instead clobbering round a galaxy far far away in a time long long ago… looking for things that don’t look like you and clobbering them and taking all their stuff, fighting epic battles of good and evil and all that.

That’s basically it – I’ve talked for long enough about the games I play.  If there’s one that you play that I haven’t talked about and you want to describe it for the benefit of SinSynn and the other nabs in the audience, comments box is where it always is – and I will see you next week, for Death and the GamesMaster!


* – too often…
** – unless I need an example…
*** – technically it’s the second edition of a spin-off of the second edition of Vampire’s previous incarnation Vampire: the Masquerade, but this is supposed to be the noob’s guide, so I’ve obfuscated some history there.  Or maybe vicissituded it.
**** – I didn’t explain this very well in the video, so I’ll say here that it’s meant to be readable at-a-glance, no maths, you just look for the right stat or skill and go ‘ah, so that’s a d10 I need to roll and I know I just need to roll high’.

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