It is strange, but since the inception of Nerdstream, I never once wrote about roleplaying games. I don't know why exactly this is. For almost a decade, they were one of the central things in my life. As with so many people, the arrival of "real life" with its demands - job and family chief among them - put an end to RPG. I played quite a lot in my day, starting with table-top RPG, adding LARP to it. I think I'll talk about LARP in some later post. Today, I want to tell you about the absolute apogee of P&P-experience. Don't worry, I won't bore you with tales of my character. I also won't get into too many details about the campaign in stuff, because, quite frankly, no one but the people that were there are interested in this kind of stuff anyway. I want to talk about what made it great. It's a sad story, I'm afraid.
|Sad stories call for sensual lower lips.|
And then, it hit a brick wall. As is so often the case in P&P gaming, groups change. Players leave, new ones come in. With them, characters disappear and new ones join the group. Intricate relationships are suddenly ripped apart, vital parts of your character suddenly don't work anymore because the counterpart is missing. The stories become stupid again, because you can't fuel them with character motivations anymore. It goes on for months. Bad feelings come into the game. All the insecurities of puberty, all the stuff that is bad about being a teenager seeps in like a cancer growth and continues to pull the game on a meta-level, where characters in the game strife to make their players feel good. That's not roleplaying anymore. But it took a long time for us to notice that, and even longer to understand it.
The most important lesson we took with us was that we needed a group that was stable and in which everyone could play with everyone. Our first succesful attempt broke apart when stupid highschool-type quarrels gained a life of their own and ripped the group in half. Two seperate groups continued simultaneously, and the effort to try to recreate the size of the old group failed miserably, as the new players didn't fit in. Luckily, we outgrew the petty teenageer differences and reunited. It turned out that we were incredibly lucky. Both groups had played in the same universe, same time and with their old characters, but different parts of the continous world that we played in. Remerging didn't create any inconsistencies we couldn't deal with.
When our characters asked themselves why they had been apart for so long, they echoed a sentiment that could have been voiced by the players (but never was, we were too young for such back then). By then, we had embarked on what would be the greatest experience in P&P-gaming: a larger-than-life campaign over more than two decades of in-game time (and, as it turned out, a half-decade in real time) in which the characters would develop into heroes that held the fate of the world in their hands. Yadda, yadda, you know the drill. I guess every P&P has some such.
|Donnu where they get that.|
Anyway, we wanted to play this campaign basically from the start. For me as a gamemaster, it had always been the ultimate goal, but with the continous break-ups, it had seemed for a long while like it would get out of reach forever. The patchwork groups we tried to build were unable to play on that scale. By then, we had really understood what had so often frustrated us about P&P: it's not about winning. You read this in every sourcebook and online compendium, of course, but really overcoming it is hard. You don't believe how hard. It's a major feat into itself to get the players not to compete against each other, but to knock out any competition between the gamemaster and the players is a different beast entirely. I can't pin down when it happened. I know, however, that few groups ever achieve it. I know that this sounds arrogant and elitist, but bear with me.
I won't claim that we found a secret recipe or that I possess some unearthly skill that allowed us to achieve this. In fact, we simply were really lucky, because we achieved a thing that few do: we built a group in which the chemistry between all the players and GM was right, were the chemistry between the characters was right and that was stable over nearly four years. And with stable I mean meeting once a week to play for a day. That kind of stable. Most groups never achieve this, simply for real-life-reasons. We got lucky to hit the jackpot at the right point in our lives. Never before or after could we have succeeded with this. I will come back to this, it is what makes this a sad story.
|We talk when I return.|
We played and played and played. The characters became kind of second identities. Not that we ever tried to use them outside the weekly play session, like in the parental nightmare scenarios of children losing control over their fantasies. But when we sat around the table, we would delve into their skins and their world quickly. Keeping focus like that is also difficult, and it was only possible for us because we saw each other so often anyway that there was nothing important to discuss at session.
The campaign developed. I had shared the GM burden with my closest friend. He was gamemaster for about a third of the way, I wager, and when he returned to his character and mine said goodbye to the others, it was a farewell forever. We all knew two things. First, at the end of the campaign, the characters would be dead. This had been clear from the start. You don't do stuff like that and walk away from it. Everyone knew it from the start and prepared for it for years. Second, after we completed the campaign, playing with this system, playing in this world, would be over. The campaign was the ultimate achievement one could have in it (and it is advertized as such), and besides, we knew that real life would catch up with us. The end of university drew near for some of us, with semesters overseas and stuff like that. We were on borrowed time, and I had the unpleasant task to make the logistic of it work. We had to be finished at 01/02/2008. We concluded the campaign on 12/30/2007. It was planned months ago in advance.
|Without something like this.|
When you invest so much time in something like this, you breath and live it in some way. Opening a source book is like coming home. You know the feeling, I guess. I have it today whenever I open "A Song of Ice and Fire". I seldom open the source books anymore. It feels sad and pointless at the same time.
I spoke of eliminating the competition element before. It was crucial to the roleplaying success we had in the group. Whenever I spoke to other people who gamemastered the same campaign (and there are some, it's quite popular), they were shocked by the amount of stuff I threw at my players. They had artifacts that were considered absolutely gamebreaking. But we had a level of trust within the group, a level of mutual understanding about what we were here to achieve, that it was never a problem. I have to tell you some of the examples of this, so that you know what I mean.
The rules for magic in this world are quite complex (several hundred pages) full of exceptions and special stuff you can do. There is no way that anything of this is balanced, and much of it could be devestating to any challenge the GM set up. I never really knew the magic rules. Whenever the players wanted to do something, I let them determine how it worked. And this worked, simply because they were not interested in succeeding for the sake of it. They knew that there would be no disadvantages to them that would hinder their ability to play their characters. And I knew that they would never, ever, abuse this power to gain advantages in the game.
|It's called Needle. No special powers, but emotional connection.|
Another example involves a ridiculously strong magic sword that one of their characters got from some dragon as old as time (yadda yadda). Besides dealing devestating damage, it also cut through metal and stone. Normally, you would render any encounter with this character meaningless henceforth since what exactly can stand against that shit? You have to engage in an arms race with the characters, and that never ends well (believe me, we were there and did that). But I could rely on the player to never abuse the power. In fact, he used the sword once before the final battle against the forces of evil (in which he fell and the sword conveniently vanished), and there only to disarm someone hellbent on dueling to the death in order to allow her to escape with her honor intact. He knew that this sword was something that defined the character ("Keeper of Teclador's Claw") instead of something that he would use all the time to show off.
Events and items got meaning this way. We played together, developed the story together. The players understood what was required of them. They never went the other way just to see what the GM would do, and the GM would never insult them by putting on arbitrary obstacles or humiliating them. That is not to be confused with easy-going for the characters. They suffered, and they suffered mightily, and they were defeated more than once. But the players didn't suffer. They enjoyed the story, the mood, the ambience, and they liked to play it. To do all that is incredibly difficult. We failed with our groups every time we tried it. Every time, except in this group, in this campaign.
And then it was over. We went in hiatus for a time, about half a year, before we reassembled, short one player that was overseas now. We tried different systems, since after this campaign, we could impossibly return to this world as mere level 1 characters. But the magic never came back. After a few sessions, we gave up and went into hiatus once again. It took years to come together again, try the world we had played in and loved for so long. It worked, in a way. You could see the seed for something like the old greatness again, if you looked hard. But it was a seed that would never grow.
We tried to meet every month, but that was too ambitious. Even two months were not doable. New jobs and family obligations made it almost impossible, and when we met, we were often interrupted by intrusions from outside. It's over a year now that we played the last time. We often talk about that we should meet again and play, but somehow, it never comes to pass. We left some of that magic when we concluded that campaign. When I open the source books today, or even the campaign books themselves, memories come rushing back. It's like opening a family album. It has been with us for so long. We had the greatest experience you can get in P&P. We are lucky we had it. But it's a thing of the past, now.
Although, of course, we might meet again when we are pensioners and the kids are out of the house. Will we dust off old books, grey haired and wrinkled? Somehow, it's a nice thought. I think I will hold onto it.