Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crouching Buzzard - Fantasy Role Playing games

The action in Crouching Buzzard revolves around the computer game that Rob (Meg's brother) has developed. He's formed the company (Mutant Wizards) to develop and market the game. But half way thru the book, Rob's computer-geek employees gather for a late-night "old style" game of Lawyers From Hell, with a living Game Master, and a handful of dice. They're astonished and impressed to discover that Meg was "Judge Hammer", the semi-mythical "Judge from Hell."

The reason they give for playing the face-to-face game, rather than the electronic version, is face-to-face allows for more people to play at one time (a deficiency the online version was to remedy), and the "ambiance" (grubby room, scattered fast food wrappers, empty pizza boxes, scraps of paper, and stacks of dice with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, and 100 sides) was more interesting than the fairly sterile environment of an electronic game.

Back in the "old days", face-to-face gaming was the way to go. On Friday and Saturday nights, dormitory rooms in colleges across the country would be filled with young adults playing Dungeons and Dragons, Car Wars, Tunnels and Trolls, Awful Green Things from Outer Space (a particularly evil little game that originally came free in a magazine), and later, GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) from the gaming genius Steve Jackson. The players actually assumed roles in the game. They had individual characters with identities and personalities.

Before Fantasy Role Playing games, gaming geeks huddled over more realistic "board games", such as War in the Pacific (World War II naval combat, spreading huge playing boards over entire rooms), Squad Leader (World War II ground combat), Ace of Aces (World War I aerial dogfighting), and various other actual war re-enactments, often with tiny metal figurines. (Painting the tiny figurines was quite a art, and the practice continued with fantasy figures.)

The allure of these games was a lot of puzzle solving, mounds of dead pizza crusts, and a lot of fellowship. You had your "gaming group", and there was a lot of plotting, laughing, backstabbing, and just plain fun, all the time. Gaming was cheap (except for the beer and pizzas) and fairly easy (exept for the game-master or dungeon-master who had to develop her entire scenario and all the details). Because the games were played manually, they were very complicated to develop and maintain. Gaming once or twice a week was about all you could manage, just because of the development and setup time involved.

Because "creating the characters" and keeping track of all the statistics, maps, and options was so massive, gamers started using computers to keep track of stuff and make things simpler. One thing led to another, and that eventually lead the monstrous MMOGs (Massively Multi-Player Online Games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft), which are hugely expensive to play and are seriously addictive. (Everquest was often called Ever-Crack)

Board gamers and "old style" RPGers are still out there. My brothers still play D&D weekly. (Neither is a dungeon master, they're just gamers.)

The board games also lead to Live Action Role Playing Games (LARPs), dating back to the D&D Steam Tunnels debacle at Michigan State University, which exemplified the the conservatives' beliefs that "those games are evil and will Destroy Our Children." This incident earily echoes in the amazing teen novel The Body of Christopher Creed, by Carol Plum-Ucci.

Have you played a board war game or classic RPG? Is it a fond memory? or do you now say "What was I thinking???"

Tell me about your favorite or least favorite gaming experiences! And, check out this list of gaming books the library has!

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