Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Zatan-Gohr (13/6/16-13/6/16)

I don't count the times as a kid when I was captive audience to rpgs and did not get them or enjoy them, nor the evening I pretended to be Cyclops but didn't pay attention and mostly just went JEEEEAN!!! So outside of that the first time I really started reading rpgs and reading about rpgs was about six years ago. There were a few things that prompted that, including links to recounts of +Jeff Rients's public play games and discovering +Zak Sabbath's site and a couple of friends who were into the hobby already doing a bit of outreach and answering a lot of questions. One thing I remember being an inciting incident for me was being linked not to those old Penny Arcade podcasts but the blog posts where the Penny Arcade Guy, who had similarly never given any of this the time of day, was (as a result of those podcasts I guess or maybe after just decades of prodding from the other guy, I don't know the timeline) dipping his toe in for the first time, making his own shit, and having a blast.


From within the hobby it seems like a lot of people want you to follow a manual like Ikea assembly instructions, do not stray from the path, playing the game is about encyclopedic knowledge of the legal code of the game, everything is very serious and very you need every book and you need all this special shit and you need to be somewhere on the five pointed star of genre emulation: Tolkein, Lovecraft, Howard, Shelley, Lucas. If it seems like that from inside the hobby I implore those of you who grew up doing this to imagine what it looks like from outside the hobby. It's not that "Clerics can't use a sword" or "+4 tohit gives a bonus to succeed at hitting" are hard concepts to grasp, it's that those concepts are only part of a language and system of sharing information kept willfully arcane and archaic. It's that each of those and a hundred other rules concepts besides have been the source of endless catechism and are taken as gravely serious as the Bill of Rights (or, for my foreign readers, the Eurovision song contest). If you never understood the appeal of some newschool games that's the honey pot in question: on their face they demand no secret handshake or countersign or history degree in order to play, just the promise that you can always just make shit up.

Outside looking in, it isn't always obvious that that's entirely true for every fucking rpg. Oh I think most people realize you can make up your own stories. Despite everyone talking about playing through the same adventures and describing their different outcomes there's not one neophyte with a gaming friend who hasn't heard stories about a personal campaign. Let me tell you about my guy, let me tell you about my world, let me tell you what I did to my players, let me tell you what my players did. If you're lucky then the person telling these stories actually knows how to tell a story and will focus on why you should give a shit. If not then someone will describe all the rules and rulings and cross referencing and combos and power builds required to make that story happen, and they will tell it with all the flair of a graphing calculator. From within you have to constantly reiterate that there's no wrong way to play while a sea of voices all shout from forgotten BBS urls about their own gospels, the only way truth and light. From without, all you hear is "no."

So it was something I understood academically but had never really formally processed that rpgs didn't just mean making up stories but also making up rules. Not in the system building fantasy heartbreaker way, although as a non gaming person I had actually TRIED to build my own systems before (reasoning that if I had to start from the ground up and master some science then it would be easier for me if it were science I invented). But the idea that you could take a series of rules that worked fine for the most part and take something you didn't like or didn't understand and say "How about this instead?" and have everybody be cool with it...no, larger than that, that you could construct entire scenarios not explicitly laid out in the rules without having to find other rules to graft on or without writing a whole big list of rules. You just make something cool, go "it works like this," deal with edge cases and bugs in the system on the fly, and everybody goes "Hey! Look at the cool thing!" It can be some weird styrofoam dungeon, replicating a video game style puzzle with dollar tree tools, rules about leveling or character options or making up wild new traps or complicated magical puzzles...

THAT'S all this is?

I was in.


In those six years I've never died.

Well, that requires a little elaboration.

I've sat in on a guy's character one week at the store. He was killed without a roll for a GM's plot point, basically because I had to start counting down the drawer and it was the last session anyway. Completely out of any player's hands and not the character I'd have chosen to play anyway. I think it's fair not to count that one. Not my character, no decisions involved.

I had an unconscious character drowned by my party while I wasn't playing him. I think it's fair not to count that one. Not playing the character when he died, no decision involved.

I've played storytelling games where it makes a better story if my character died later from shitting himself too badly but by any metric the "game" was over by then. Death freed from consequence after all "action" had been resolved, willingly inflicted for a laugh.

I sat in on a couple of NPCs when I was working the shop, NPCs who weeks later kicked the bucket. One of them died while killing my friend's character in the above example.

I have been in many situations where I dropped to 0 or less and the intervention of fellow players meant I did not DIE-die. Magic moss, magic potions, magic prayers, stim-paks, whatever, close only counts in horseshoes and radiation.

I have been in many situations where I probably should have died but very forgiving death rules meant that I just barely made it. I mean, too forgiving, really, even though it worked out for me.

And I've been in a situation where I would have absolutely died-died if my compatriot did not own the world's most loyal parkour bull mastiff. This is basically a lucky draw on my part, a good story but without a direct hand.

I've also been in a lot of situations where I should have died.

My wife's Marvin the Robot (tv version) style droid skinning Lando Calrissian alive and wearing him as a suit only to die at the end of basically every single laser. Jumped off the ship in time, lived my life in jail but survived.

Turned myself into the planet and blasted off through space away from the new singularity.

Saw my party trying to wake up some awful 40K elder god thing and just stole a jeep and went to the airport, another lifetime in jail.

I've played with DMs who pulled their punches because they prized the story above other concerns. I've played with DMs who simply hated character death on principle and tried to avoid it. I've played with DMs who would have killed me a dozen times over if they didn't keep forgetting my guy's special bullshit abilities. I have been in situations where I should have died but I had some bonus to my hare brained scheme because I was playing so 100% true to my guy. I've played in games where I probably would have died had we ever actually finished the game. I have had a near death experience just to speak with the gods.

I've ended many a game at 1HP like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I have done soooo many things that should have absolutely killed me. Counter to that I have also hid, skulked, waited, even cowered when appropriate. I have gone insane or been frightened and forced to wander off before everyone died. One consequence of joining an existing game (like a FLAILSNAILS game) is that a lot of characters are more powerful than you and the dangers are scaled for them, meaning my warrior who might have been in front ranks is now in a more supporting role, contextually shielded by a wall of power and steel even though I am doing my very best to stay useful. Sometimes it's just a matter of playing at a large table where the damage gets spread around enough that we 7 survived what 5 would not have. One time I hid in a pile of shoes to get leather armor.

I did have a very close DM with whom I talked at length about suiciding not because I was sick of my guy but because I thought it would be really cool for the group and for his story and etc. Toph correctly reminded me that it's HIS job to be really cool for the group and my job to play a cool guy (as a compulsory Nick Bottom type I always need someone willing to sensibly rein me in; I'm not a fan of suiciding characters but I had a cool idea for a death scene and let that override my good sense, temporarily forgetting that WE are here to play a GAME, rather than ME being here to tell a STORY), so we tabled it and the game fizzled due to scheduling before we ever revisited it.

But I have never made a character who died while I was playing them, especially not as a consequence of a decision I made. I have been often cautious, sometimes canny, never truly craven, and through some mix of craft and chaos I've never DIED.

Until now.

Pickup game with +cole long. Brand new character in a Conanish coastal raider type game. I'm not intimate with his rules enough to discuss at length but basically played like "Honey Bunches of D&D." A couple of long lived characters in a party of six or so, mixed warriors and wizards. I was of course ZATAN-GOHR, sorcerer's apprentice.

Zatan-Gohr, who looked like the old Ming the Merciless from the original Flash Gordon serials. Zatan-Gohr, who was in black and white. Zatan-Gohr, who did not take any offensive spells because of my personal MU ethos. Who on learning they traveled to the tower alongside a cannibal companion made it his mission to become BEST FRIENDS just in case. Whose Unseen Servant helped force open a door we didn't actually need to open because there was no goddamn roof, only to have its invisible ass blasted toward the horizon like Team Rocket with the breaching of a magic seal. Zatan-Gohr, who could not throw flammable oil for shit, whose attempt to Indiana Jones a snake monster around the mouth merely resulted in whipping the floor, whose incongruously Southern manner of beast taming left him with lungs full of poison and a Strength and Dexterity of 3. Zatan-Gohr did not own effective ranged weapons. Zatan-Gohr cowed dogs and then ran away. Zatan-Gohr could not throw caltrops for shit.

When a crystal statue man ascended the stairs toward us and my allies caused him to stumble with his feet bola'd, Zatan-Ghor tried to knock him off his balance and send him crashing and shattering down the stairs. Out of things to ineffectively throw, Zatan-Gohr hurled HIMSELF.

It did not go super good.

Sure I could have played with more caution. Sure I could have had all the fighty characters do the fighty things and tried to otherwise stay invisible unless my 1 spell was required. Maybe I did a bit of that but maybe I also feel like playing the game and being devoted to your guy involves more than only the smart thing to do according to numbers. Sometimes it's about taking enormous chances on risky gambits. I've survived those time and again by the skin of my teeth and I've failed way way more only to have my bacon saved by someone else. And every one of those stories is a better story than "I played it safe to make it to level 2, now I can do anything at all TWICE in a three hour session!" I do not hold with this. I do not do anything halfway. I believe in subtle, I love subtle, but the game (and yeah the story) is really won or lost in BIG.

Which is why
when the crystal behemoth chopped me with its sword
and crushed my ribcage
I took so much damage that I not only died
Breaking My Death Cherry
and setting a personal record
I also set a record for Cole Long's game
and became The Killedest Man of All Time.

Even in death I was Zatan-Gohr.

My response was to shrug and make a new guy. No game is about your guy, the game is about the game. It's not even about ME, because a 20 session veteran (or some ridiculous number like that) got failed-save incinerated before I had finished rolling up my new guy. Dennis' response was to SHRUG AND ROLL A NEW GUY. I have never died but I have never feared death. I believe to my core that death is a positive result, that any "how I died" story is better than any story of rules exploitation or Timely Natural 20. In all rpgs we set our own win conditions and the opportunity to roll up a new guy is a FANTASTIC prize, especially since I've never met a player who didn't have four other kinds of character they wanted to play. Cole and Dennis understand this the same way the cannibal watching the camels did.

I died doing what I loved, playing the game balls out, playing a Conanish wizard as a foaming little bulldog lunatic who understood that great reward only came at great risk. Eventually the dice come up 4 and you bounce off the wall and rock candy murders you and your dying words convey that it's okay if your new best friend eats your body. That you were Zatan-Gohr. That doesn't mean you never try to be amazing even if your numbers think you're stupid for doing so. You are the boss of those numbers, not the other way around.

I should have died. I bloody well deserved it. But that's because I earned it. I have no regrets nor fear of death. Even my new character Dohrcoarç is, in his own way, Zatan-Gohr, with his very first act being to put himself in death's way in order to hook something through the eye. If rpgs have a failure state it is chiefly being afraid of failure. I die because I choose to win.


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