Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What Are We Escaping From?

One of the most enduring annoyances I have with blogging is the speed of its “news cycle”. Topics and threads appear quickly, gain--or more often fail to gain—momentum over a day—perhaps at best lingering over a second one or spawning follow-ups. But quicker than their mercurial rise is the even more abrupt disappearance. The topic drops down the roll, the comments trail off—and that energy tends to dissipate into the ether.

Part of me revels in the immediacy, but a larger part of me rebels at it. By nature I ruminate, at the healthier moments I like to savor ideas—letting thoughts glide over the tongue for a while. I like to pick things apart and see if they hold up. I like to plow into readings to back up the sand castles in my mind. It's a long and pleasurable process for me, especially when it gravitates around fantasy world-building.

So chances are if you have left even a half-way interesting comment on this blog in the past I have thought about it; mulled it over at least few times; perhaps even debated it in my head with a straw man you.

Case in point is a comment made a half a year ago by the ever-perspective Bombasticus on a post I made asking about people's experiences playing at the domain level:
For our gang, the tween years--10 to 12--were the developmental "sweet spot" for this kind of domain creation. There was something hugely appealing about the construction rules at that age and we all spent many hours outfitting hidden valleys, cloud castles, secret undersea lairs. I wonder if that's why we were able to be such dedicated dungeon masters in those days...I wonder if more adults don't do more domain management because we can get a lot more of that kind of thing at home, so to speak--maybe for some of us the responsibility of running the roost is part of the problem.

This comment has stuck around in the comment chorus of my brain, in the main because I have swung violently in my opinion about that last sentence. Something just kept nagging me about it as I have been toiling away trying to get the Domain Game out the door. It struck a deep nerve as it pointed to a deeper question about why we are all here in the broader sense.

What drives us into speculative fiction and fantasy gaming? What keeps us there, book after book and game after game? What are we escaping from. Does that escape always neatly map to something opposite from what we are enduring in real life?

My gut has a hunch that many of you reading this, like me, are quite comfortable with the notion that our hobby is an escapist one. I have seen Tolkein's famous quip that the group most bothered by escape are the jailers quoted on several occasions in our circles with great relish, and approve of its spirit. Life in our madhouse of a world necessitates some kind of safety valve, our hobby is perhaps a bit saner than most by virtue of its honesty.

To be sure there are boulder-sized specks of truth in his statement specifically about the mega-stage of kingdom-running. When I drifted back into the hobby three years ago it was consciously as a revolt against the stress, frustrations, and boredom of a life running “domains”: both in real life as a managing editor of a small-circulation national magazine and in gaming even as someone highly addicted to the most complex of computer strategy games.

The old, comfortable package of D&D fit very nicely for me. It was “coming home” as Arky aptly put it on his own blog, Rather Gamey. The smaller scale of rootless adventurers tramping around a mostly unmapped blank slate of a world unmediated by the flickering light of a computer screen—and filled with the laughter and groans of flesh-and-blood players around a kitchen table—was like getting thrown a life preserver at that time.

Blessed escape.

My life shifted, and the work became more of a roller coaster since leaving Detroit to come back to Texas. There were two lay-offs and two long stretches of getting my sea legs in very different, challenging work situations. The above feeling of escape attached with that kind of gaming never let go through it—it's still the tent-pole of the HC tabletop campaign.

Almost paradoxically I did find, however, my appetite returning for the larger stage games, especially as the blog evolved and took on its own momentum of things it wanted to explore. My real life was just as complicated with as much of the burdens of leadership as before, even more so with the complexities of my personal life thrown in, but that old itch was there. Weirdly, even I found myself not just loving some of it, but loving the most granular parts of it.

But I also have found that I have a hard times with pieces of it, they don't feel like “escape”. I loved the hustle and bustle and ambition of the play-by-post experiment but hated feeling like the organizer trying to keep it all on track (my day job). (Sorry Domain Game players here is my colossal pokiness in that area laid out straight.) In writing the game I found my mind thrilling on some subjects and not others (taxation, legal systems, yawn).

In other words, I have noticed that my love of escape is highly selective, topical even. I may love resource management and tough choices in the game, but I personally hate keeping track of encumbrance both as a player and a GM. It reminds me too much of packing my car for a trip. 

What pieces of games you love do you rebel at or feel conflicted by? Not just dislike because of this or that game mechanic, but the deeper things that feel like the parts you want to get away from? What are you running from, dear reader?  

18 comments:

  1. I also hate encumbrance. Bleh

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think this is perhaps what made the Domain Game feel like work to me - very eloquently put.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I should make it clear that, as a whole, I still love the Domain Game and most of it feels not at all like work.

    Every game abstracts certain elements to bring out the detail of the central play area and I find myself uncovering certain areas that my gut wants to consign to the abstract section.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think part of the reason I dropped out of the Domain Game is that it was too much like work, and I just didn't want to take the time to do it.

    If you enjoy doing it, then it's not work. Since you enjoy some parts of the Domain Game more than others, it might be worth chucking the parts that feel like work and concentrating on the rest--or find some way of getting a spreadsheet to do your number-crunching. Even though setting up a spreadsheet is a lot of work, I find it satisfying in its own right, as well as effort well spent on something that will save me time down the road.

    To answer your question: For me, the bean-counting involved in keeping track of a character's last copper piece can get tedious if it goes on too long. That's why I wasn't sad to see you drop the detailed accounting when our characters take their money out of the bank, and it's why I just want to have my character pay (or overpay) a lump sum for mundane dungeoneering supplies (rope, light sources, etc.) rather than roleplay each encounter with a shopkeeper.

    ReplyDelete
  5. We are just about to start a medieval campaign based upon small domains set up using the Pendragon rules - probably those in the Lordly Domain book. I idea is to start out as Baronets with grudges against each other, but probably part of the same Earldom or Dukedom. We are looking to generate table-top skirmish games with possible larger battles when we actually join forces against larger foes.

    IMO, the domain rules have to be as simple and as book-keeping free as possible to achieve this. So no buying 10' of curtain wall, or any of that stuff like OD&D.

    ReplyDelete
  6. When I started my ongoing Pendragon campaign last year I did so with all the various rules options switched on. This included detailed manorial management and accounting.

    As we're about to move into a new phase of the campaign, this has been a good opportunity to reassess what I want to keep and what I want to jettison. What's absolutely going are the aforementioned management rules, and for the reasons you touch on here. Our lives are already filled with trying to stay in the black ahead of complications both anticipated and unplanned - it wasn't much fun to spend a half-hour of every session doing the same "for fun." The Book of the Manor has a "narrative" economic management option that we'll be going with from here on out.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Well the best campaign I ever played was a "Darkest Harn" campaign - colonial empires with Harn being re-imagined as an island in the Indian ocean. That started with a made-up battle which, at the close of, we said: "So what would happen next?" Which progressed to the next battle, then another as reinforcements arrived, and so on. No bookkeeping, just a story approach plus a bit of common sense. And as neither of us was competing against the other it worked well. Might not work with the assholes that just want to win all the time.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I don't see why enjoyment of gaming or speculative fiction as escapism so much (though I'm not opposed to that) but enrichment. It doesn't replace ordinary life but adds to it in the way art always does.

    More my part, I love the creative and social (well, most of the time) aspects of rpgs, but I often do not like reading or learning rule books, i.e. the gamey aspects. I realize that without them the whole activity ceases to exist, but they aren't the part that drew me to it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. @Desert Scribe
    it might be worth chucking the parts that feel like work and concentrating on the rest--or find some way of getting a spreadsheet to do your number-crunching.

    My design intention all along was to make it modular, more of a sourcebook with a lot of interlocking subsystems than something that had to be run as one complete package. It is intended to have advanced and basic levels too. So basically people can dial up and down on the complexity and granularity.

    But what a beast of task that is turning out to be. Some sections are just going to have to be streamlined, abstracted, or dropped altogether.

    On your second point I am really leaning toward this option. I had a nice long talk with our resident programmer, Brad, about the possibilities. Hiding the number with relatively simple, GM-friendly software tools (read simple on the user end)has a lot of appeal to me.

    A topic for another day is whether people use these kinds of things or not--and if so how much.

    And thanks for the reminder about some of my hand-waving. One of the things I have (re)learned about GMing again is that you need to have practice guide what happens at the table. If something isn't working, no matter how wed you are to the theory, chuck or amend it.

    I'm happy to have chucked the banking accounting and I don't think the game has suffered a bit for it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Phf
    the domain rules have to be as simple and as book-keeping free as possible to achieve this. So no buying 10' of curtain wall, or any of that stuff like OD&D.

    I am still pretty stuck on just that kind of granularity even in the increasingly dialed down version--there is just too much of Arneson's long shadow hidden there.

    But I do hear you and think that a number of people want that which is why I am including more "narrativist" and freeform methods like the Matrix stuff in the mix as one of the options.

    And I hope you blog about your Pendragon campaign. I am eagerly following all my fellow travellers with similar efforts (like Sir Larkin).

    I distinctly remembering reading about the Harn Colonial campaign somewhere a few years back. The Miniatures Page? Great concept, one day I'd like to put my Ral Partha colonials to use.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Sir Larkins
    What's absolutely going are the aforementioned management rules, and for the reasons you touch on here. Our lives are already filled with trying to stay in the black ahead of complications both anticipated and unplanned - it wasn't much fun to spend a half-hour of every session doing the same "for fun." The Book of the Manor has a "narrative" economic management option that we'll be going with from here on out.

    That's a good thing to keep in mind, definitely very important as I stated above to keep the ear to the ground on what people's experiences actually are for this kind of play.

    I'll have to hunt down the Book of the Manor to check out the narrative method there.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I love domain management. Birthright was an awakening experience for me in that it gave me the chance to run a small kingdom let alone a mere domain. Yet at the other end of the scale I equally enjoy domains on a much smaller scale -such as the simple Pendragon system or even Harn Manor.
    As much as my real life comes down to managing the books and making criminals miserable, I'm constantly fraustrated by the incompetancies and inadaquecies of the people above me in the heirarchy (at least in terms of man-management and long-term planning). I will remain disgusted until such time as my employer recognises that being good at police-work does not automatically make someone good at administration or management.
    Thus, I suppose, domain rule is an escape for me in that I get to be the one in charge, allowing me to flex the organisational, managerial and analytical skills I developed in my previous careers but which I am not in a position to use in my present one.

    ReplyDelete
  13. @Trey
    It certainly can be enrichment, there is real insight and craftsmanship in the genre at its best moments. And if you adopt a DIY hobbyist attitude it can help sharpen faculties you have fewer or no other outlets for (like editing, writing, and the wearing of 30 lbs of metal sheeting).

    But I do mostly read it just to move out of the zone of my daily life.

    It's funny you'd think with all my tinkering and navel gazing about rules that I would enjoy reading and learning new rule sets--but I really don't either.

    Not really at all, there are times where I think my real attraction to older rpgs is just that I did all the mental heavy-lifting with learning them years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  14. @Brian
    Thus, I suppose, domain rule is an escape for me in that I get to be the one in charge, allowing me to flex the organisational, managerial and analytical skills I developed in my previous careers but which I am not in a position to use in my present one.

    This is a really good point and I think helps me differentiate why this kind of play has carried over for me even as I have had a complicated, professional job.

    Maybe I like the idea of all these things minus the real life friction? Maybe this is why I can still stand some granularity in the planning part--but not so much in the execution (when hurdles start coming in).

    ReplyDelete
  15. What Trey said, ditto. Further, escapism, while a very real feature/attraction of fictional worlds, is not the only, and perhaps not even the major compulsion. Fictional worlds are dreams, and like dreams, they allow us to recycle our thoughts, push our boundaries, "practice" our ideas, and reach toward experiences we hope will round us, grow us, satisfy us. and entertain us all at once. Role playing games have the brilliant bonus of allowing all to take place in a real social context where we can share and compare and sharpen our dreams together - and maybe some of our social skills too.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Encumbrance as it is usually done is too fiddly and time-consuming for the payoff. Some sort of encumbrance seems important, though. The "encumbrance by stone" idea that ran around, or the abstract system in LOTFPWFRPG seem workable to me (though I admit that I have not yet had a chance to use them in play yet).

    I hate calculating fatigue for every action, à la HERO System or the worst excesses of RuneQuest. HârnMaster seems to strike a useful compromise, in my opinion, as do Villains & Vigilantes and Superworld.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Re. Encumbrance, LotFP has the best system I've seen. One I might actually use some day, as opposed to just taking the Sopranos route. (Forget about it!)

    ReplyDelete
  18. 'What pieces of games you love do you rebel at or feel conflicted by? Not just dislike because of this or that game mechanic, but the deeper things that feel like the parts you want to get away from? What are you running from, dear reader?'

    I deeply want to get away from inexplicable magic spells as limited ammunition fired by glass cannons.

    If the dynamics of magic cannot be explained, if magic is absolutely arbitrary, I am uninterested in dealing with its arbitrary limits.

    Lore F. Sjoberg did a cartoon to this effect, noting how bizarre it was that a rakshasa could only be killed by a crossbow bolt blessed by a cleric. If the challenges of any world - fictional or otherwise - are that arbitrary, I don't want to think about them.

    ReplyDelete