Saint-Sebastian #3

Originally published in Fluxus 11.

Collectable Card Games

There is only one thing wrong with CCGs and that is the Collectable part. I initially learnt Magic under protest as I was President of a Gaming society and sincerely believed that unless we got into the Magic craze the society's membership was going to seriously decline. As with anything done under duress though the experience may have breed familiarity but not a great deal of fondness. Instead I only really began to appreciate the quality of the game design within CCGs after the card collecting craze had started to die out.

I always have a schadenfreude moment when I think back to the manic card collectors and speculators of the mid-Nineties. I wonder if anyone made any money out of that ruckus (apart from the big companies obviously). Personally I traded every "valuable" card I had for more cards. The trading aspect was unpleasant, the abiding memory is of applying fairly hard-nosed tactics to boys in their early teens. They wanted the "rare" cards while I wanted the cards that allowed me to play the game. The cash deals were often nastier. Older men (and it was always men, at least Star Trek merchandising is equal opportunity decadence) wanted a great deal of money for "rare" cards. I had already set myself strict upper and lower values on the cards based on the actual value of the card (which is a combination of its use in the game and its physical value as a mass-produced artwork). Since this value rarely strayed above 1 I was never likely to get stung in a deal, but how would a ten year-old feel to sell a card for 2 and then see it be sold for 10? How did he feel about me taking a card from him for 50p because he couldn't understand it and then sees it listed for 5 in Inquest?

As night follows day, bust follows boom and soon it was possible to pick up large numbers of cards for defunct card lines for a third to a quarter of their original price. Myself and friends often raided stores selling "line ends" leaving the shelves empty because we knew that if the store keeper realised what was going on they would often raise their bargain bin prices. Which was counterproductive of course, if you are buying something because it is cheap you do not continue to buy it once the price has gone up.

As a result I now own a lot of Kult, Magic, Rage and Changeling cards. This is in a big contrast to the starter deck of Battletech I own. It probably wasn't a bad game, just an uneconomic one. Having access to a great many of the cards allows you to appreciate one thing. The game designers often really knew their business. My first experience with the Vampire card game was abysmal. I thought that despite its great artwork and the nicer aspects of its gameplay (which did seem to simulate the Methuselah's struggle for power in the last nights) it had been rushed into production and didn't really hang together. Recently I bought one of the new Sabbat War Starter Packs that have been re-issued by White Wolf who have revived the game. The main difference between the two editions is that the War packs are pre-built around a certain clan and the cards and characters all hang together well.

Which leads to the question: if they are pre-built, pre-balanced and pre-sorted and they work, why ever buy a booster pack? Only the competitive card gamer seems to make some case for it on the basis of hopefully gaining some competitive edge with a rare card. That may well be the case in the world of tournaments and so on but am I going to gain a great deal of satisfaction from spending anywhere up to 40 just for the pleasure of always thrashing my friends at the game? Not only that but will they even want to play with me again if I indulge in that kind of gamesmanship?

It seems to me that the collectable card game is doomed as a game rather than a profession. However an unlife beckons as a non-collectable card game that is designed to played amongst friends for the pleasure of playing rather than winning. Everything being well I hope to start this reanimation next issue and also make a few points about card games and the relationship between some of the games and their RPG parent along the way.

Constants in my GM'ing

This is a fragment of the piece I wrote last issue that I had to hold over because the issue was becoming distinctly fat and over-length. I find that when I am running games the following themes and motifs recur time and again regardless of the background of the game or the rule set used. Looking at them I believe that this is because they are universal human concerns and therefore re-occur because (as far as I know) it is humans who are playing the games regardless of what their characters are.

Themes

All RPGs essentially allow the conventional laws of reality to be broken. When they do so they offer a fundamental attack on our perception of what is real. This attack is on our concept of reality not on our macro experienced reality of course. The question is how can the characters we play form any conception of reality when the reality they occupy is essentially fluid and negotiable? You think, therefore you might not be alone.

Playing roleplaying games is also an assault on our real conception of self. If you can play another character convincingly then is that character actually an aspect of you or is it you? If it is an entirely fictional created avatar then how can the mind create something that it does not intellectually comprehend? I am not going to even pretend to try and answer these questions.

Playing a character of another gender is obviously part of these questions on the nature of the constructed character. Is it possible to convincingly play a character of the opposite sex to the player? Countless people do it: boys become girls, girls boys and girls who want to be boys play girls who want to be girls. Quite possibly vice versa but I'm not sure if I understand what I'm saying any more.

Roleplaying provides a safe environment for players to explore the attitudes and perceptions of gender. Opinions are safely encapsulated in the views of characters within the game rather than being directly attributable to the player. As a GM I will freely admit to presenting archetypes of femininity or perceived feminine values for critical evaluation by the players through the medium of NPC-PC interaction. I suspect the players also "trial" certain ideas through their characters as well.

The ideal portrayal of sex and sexual relationships is still very distant for me in my GM'ing. So far I've managed to get as far as fairly accurate flirting and then the curtains get drawn... until the next morning. I don't know how the GM is meant to portray sex without getting mired in pornography or sentimentality. I do know that I do not want to just sweep the whole thing under the carpet.

"Box in boxes" is literally the plot construction that is often referred to as the "onion". Layer after layer of plot and detail. Of course at the heart of the onion is the "truth", box in boxes implies that everything contains a hidden deeper meaning or truth but that inside every box is another box. The implication of ultimate truth is not guaranteed, unlike the onion.

Pretentious? All I am trying to say is that for most of my games I create I like to have a higher overall meaning but that what is really important is that everything within the game has a depth of meaning, even if that depth is irrelevant or hidden.

Not liking the implied revelation of truth in the onion model is a result of postmodernism with all its railing against higher level meta-narratives. Postmodernism is arguably the most important philosophical and intellectual idea of the late C. 20th I don't think it can really be ignored in any sphere of life. Postmodernism is extremely prevalent in several threads of roleplaying thought whether it be the movie inspired antics of Feng Shui which admits to its players its unreality or the crass meta-game devices such as Dying Earth's taglines that I talked about last issue. It can be co-opted, reacted against or countered but I do not think that it can be ignored in any RPG post the year 2000.

Motifs

Motifs are simply recurring "stylistic" features of my games. They come out not in the planning of a game but in the running of it.

The films of John Woo heavily influence my combat scenes. I was at university when they first became widely available in the UK. It is hard to explain quite how different they seemed and how they seemed to represent a revolution in the depiction of violence that was graphic but not necessarily brutal. It terms of visceral brutality Reservoir Dogs takes the crown and in terms of visualisation is second in my portrayal of combat.

The importance of films in terms of portraying violence is simply that as an individual I have never been in anything but fist fights and have no particular desire to go any further than that. Therefore having a cinematic shorthand for violence is useful while combat remains a key RPG staple.

Since I am not a "killer" GM I have noticed that I tend to maim characters instead of kill them outright. La Tristessa Durea being preferable to the Big Sleep. Generally I handle the physical side of things while the players do their own psychological torture.

Talking animals covers all anthropomorphic entities from literal talking animals to possessed objects or intelligent buildings. In general, like a lot of people I have a tendency to project human qualities onto inanimate objects or non-sentient beings. The thing that makes it a recurring element is that I tend to portray such beings as being wiser, more knowledgeable or just superior to the real human beings.

I am sure that this little thread running through most of my games (talking statue AD&D; cat, building, car Mage; ghosts, robots, computers Vampire) is related to the idea about Reality being subjective. If a wizard can shoot a fireball from his hand then why can a cat not talk?

Runepunk

I recently put aside my notes on the Runepunk setting for the second time. The project still seems off-puttingly big. The concept is simple: the world of Runepunk is the mirror of the Western Civilisation of the Eighties as depicted in the Cyberpunk genre of science fiction. Only there isn't any science, or any metal, or plastic or indeed any artifice beyond a roughly Bronze Age technology level. Instead all the artefacts of the modern world are made of organic material powered by the energies of the "runes" a set of mystical symbols that channel otherworldly energy into the objects upon which they are placed.

The world of Runepunk has skyscrapers, they are gargantuan trees that have been hollowed out and turned into apartments. It has guns, they are crossbows whose bolts are formed of pure energy. It has taxis, they are rickshaws drawn by large lizards both slow and fast.

The idea is that every aspect of the modern world is there except that the whole edifice is constructed not by appeals to logic, rationality or science but instead by appeals to mysticism. Buildings (trees) do not stay up because they balance loads under gravity, instead they stay up because they have had runes of stone carved upon them and therefore they will stand like mountains.

Here is a shocking confession, I didn't create the world of Runepunk. Someone else had the idea and I played in the trial run. It was an interesting idea but its creator hadn't really grasped its true potential. He played it with GURPS, bad move, too realistic. The players didn't seem to get it, they played fairly straight bad fantasy rather than otherworldly Cyberpunks. He failed to convey the Cyberpunk ambience, to my mind, clearly muddling this idea with some other fantasy ideas he had that were more suited to the slightly plodding realism of the GURPS system.

I played in that game about six years ago and I sincerely believe that at least the name "Runepunk" is mine. I thought I had sorted out all the problems with the setting and how all the aspects of the Cyberpunk world were to be translated into Runepunk terms. The trees and lizards are definitely my idea, the crossbows definitely not as they are a jarring anachronism. I even got as far as translating the idea of Cyber augmentation. Pain junkies could have their living bones carved with runes turning them into living power conduits.

Then it all fell down - I couldn't create a suitable "Net" or "Matrix". I had an idea of ley lines (the things that powered the runes akin to an electricity grid) but this was a physical network not a mental landscape. I toyed with the idea of a dream network but then I hit the second fatal problem. The setting is now complete in my mind but I could find no way of conveying it to a prospective player. I had the idea that I was going to write an article in my regular fanzine carnel that would be an introduction to the world. I could give a player the article and bing! off we would go. The concept is simple, the Cyberpunk world but witch magical noir heroes with a Stone Age twist. The execution is complex, what runes allow a telephone call? Is there a catch all Communication rune or are there air spirits? Or is the space between the two participants in the call warped and altered so that their conversation occurs next to one another while their physical presence remains separate. As a GM you know that all you really want is to have a wooden box (complete with a paper "speaker cone") into which the character places the rune-inscribed "credit card" and then they talk. The trouble is that the picture is painted with such broad strokes that the player ends up feeling only mystified not mystification.

The Dark Mirror

Runepunk sums up my attitude to the science fantasy genre. There is no such thing as a "realistic" RPG, all of them incorporate an idea of "magic", a realm of possibility that is open to the characters that is not open to us, the players, in our normal existence. Whether that is faster-than-light travel, a world made mostly of water or a wizard in robes chucking spells around, it is all magic.

The issue is really about whether the magical is addressed in a rational pseudo-scientific fashion or a more spiritually mystic way. Most games allow an equality here, magic may be rational or spiritual and both are equally effective. Problems only occur when only one system of appeal is permitted. In Traveller for example only the rational scientific appeals for magical behaviour are allowed. In The Whispering Vault rational science is entirely subjected by mystical otherworldly power. The division of these two methods seems to me subjective in the extreme.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are only divisible by their devotees, I regard myself as a fan of neither but a reader of both. They seem to me to be equivalent, some of favourite works are listed as one or the other but the tag does not sit easily. A Scanner Darkly is science fiction, but where is the science or the fiction? Gene Wolfe's New Sun series is often listed as fantasy but the reader is constantly reminded that the supernatural occurrences are all the result of forgotten high technology.

The Problem Player

The classic scientific problem player is the one who in the middle of the Dark Ages wants to "invent" gunpowder. Their problem is not one of misapplied knowledge but the more traditional bad roleplaying where they refuse to separate their player knowledge from their character knowledge. They refuse to accept the culture and social background of their character.

The GM needs to decide how the magic is their game is to be addressed, if it can be done both rationally and mystically then there is no conflict for them and the scientific wizard and the mystical scientist co-exist because their philosophies are equally valid. If one approach or the other fails then the issues becomes void as the GM should not let any magic accessed "incorrectly" to work. The character trying to create gunpowder will never succeed for he is a rational scientist and the world only listens to the mystical speaker.