Friday, 1 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 1 - First RPG Played

One of the things that really jumps out at me looking down that big ol' list of topics, and also watching my good buddy James run down his early RPG experiences on his blog is that my RPG experience is comparatively narrow, and I think that a lot of that relates both to the difference between gaming culture in the US and in the UK, and to the specific and limited gaming culture in which I have tended to move as a result of circumstance and my own natural tendency to move in limited social circles, which means that in any given phase of my life I have tended to be gaming with the same group of people for a long time, rather than swapping about groups and playing lots of different games.

In this one, I never even managed to
find the potion that let the character
speak a language and thus leave the
starting dungeon.
The background to my introduction to RPGs came through Fighting Fantasy, a series of solo adventure books written by Steve Jackson (British co-founder of Games Workshop, rather than the Steve Jackson games one) and Ian Livingstone (the other co-founder of Games Workshop). GW predates Fighting Fantasy, but the books were actually released through Puffin books (the Penguin children's imprint) and although not the first of the solo gamebooks, were unquestionably the big one, at least in the UK, probably because Puffin could get them straight into mainstream bookshops where they came to form a lime-green mass in the middle of the fantasy section.

Technically, I actually hit Choose Your Own Adventure books first, but FF was the one that really transitioned me into roleplaying via friendship with a fellow reader, Kev. Kev was the one who had a copy of D&D.

Oh-ho! You say, because you think I'm going to talk about my first RPG experience with D&D, like a million other people. Well, it is not so, because while we quickly moved on to D&D as an easier sell for a larger group, we actually started with something quite different:

Hey; it's... some guys. What's a
Maelstrom?
Alexander Scott's Maelstrom was a bold departure from the prevalent influence of D&D, replacing a high fantasy world of fighters, wizards and generically employed elves battling dragons for mountains of gold and magical swords, with the muddy roads of a low magick version of 16th century England and a rag-tag band of beggars, mercenaries and distressed clergy brawling with dragoons for a purse of copper and a new whittling knife.

Aww yeah! Dude's fighting a dragon. I bet
they're in a dungeon and everything!
Compare and contrast the covers for the two sets. In the red corner, the D&D basic rules set. I'm not sure if that's an absolutely original version there, but it's close enough. It's bright red, with Horn-Hat McManly the Contortionist Swordsman going mano-a-talon with a fucking great dragon for gold and bragging rights. He's in steel, the dragon is in gold. And then look to the just-about-blue corner, where Johnny Sellsword on the cover of the Maelstrom book (which was also, by the by, a slightly oversized paperback a lot like a Fighting Fantasy book, rather than a box of glossy-covered, Letter-sized booklets unlike anything you'd ever seen before, this being in the days when the instructions for electronic devices generally fitted onto a single sheet of paper), looking like a fight with Governmental Tinlid and his friend is the last thing he wants, especially since Micky Stabbed-in-the-Hand and Polly Oliver in the cart there are clearly not up for providing backup.

Maelstrom was a very, very early proponent of the idea that you could roleplay in a setting that owed nothing to Tolkien or Howard; that magic - I'm sorry, magick - could be a weird and unpredictable force existing at the edge of the ordinary world, rather than a list of set spells with fixed effects, or that the road from St Albans to London could be as rich a source of adventure as a dungeon full of goblins with a sack of gold and recurring nightmares about adventurers kicking in their doors. The magick system in Maelstrom was pretty sparse, and paled into nothing compared to either the variant rules for different types of rogue or travelling entertainer, or the great and sprawling rules for herbalists, which pretty much included a basic herbology in the appendix.

It also had an idea, which I think has yet to truly see its day, despite several grand elaborations, whereby when you got hurt you tracked your injuries individually. If you got hit for 2 damage and then for 4 damage, you had taken 6 damage, but you recorded it as 2 | 4. This was because wounds healed separately, so if a knifeman pinked you for half a dozen 1-damage scratches, they would all heal together, whereas you'd be wearing a single 6-damage wound for months.

I played his cousin. I'm not proud of that, but
I can own it now.
We only ever played a couple of games of Maelstrom, and never very successfully. Why did we drift away from it so early? I guess you could say it was because of the complexity of the rules - in that one paperback volume you had rules for fatigue and exhaustion, lasting effects from injury, experience and aging, and a price system based on proper LSD currency. However, in retrospect we probably didn't get into it because at 11 it was just much harder to get your head around the motivations of Johnny Sellsword (scrape a living, don't get stabbed up to much) than it was for Horn-Hat McManly (kill dragons, gold, glory); although in truth my metier in those heady days was a hard-drinking soldier priest of some kind.

I also played a Chaotic Good Drow in AD&D, because I was 12 and had no shame (if you think I exaggerate, said Chaotic Good Drow was Drizzt Do'Urden's cousin - if you don't know what that means, don't look it up; it shall profit you naught - and had Wolverine-styled claws built into his armour). You don't even want to know about my Cyberpunk and Traveler builds.

We also had no separate GM until we pitched D&D and got a couple more players. That didn't help, since co-run and co-played games can work, but not when both players are 11.

This is not to say that we gained nothing from our time with the game. In Maelstrom, Kev played a dual-class Assassin-Herbalist, because the Herbalist's restriction against killing had no mechanical enforcement. I think I did the same in the first game, and then switched to a Mercenary, but it might have been the other way around. We may therefore have technically learned to metagame before we learned to game.

Stay tuned for more #RPGaDAY - tomorrow is the first RPG I bought, but that might go up early or late as I'm visiting my folks this weekend, which it turns out will include visiting my Dad in hospital; I'm actually kind of glad of this project as a distraction for while I'm still at work - and more torturously run-on sentences, and scope out the hashtag for stuff in a similar vein from people who aren't me. I also highly recommend James's blog, Gonzo History: Gaming Edition, for game stuff in general.