It’s 1994, Soundgarden is on the tape-deck and I am about to make the biggest gaming decision of my spotty life. We’re at the end of a bloated, messy Rolemaster campaign which has seen multiple character changes, some critical wins and a whole heap of epic fails. We’ve been tanking for the last couple of sessions, and now we’ve finally made it to the sunken ziggurat from which all the nasties have poured out into the world. Half the party is engaged in an endurance ritual to try to close the warp gate, and me and John have to decide how our characters are going to stem the horde of mutated orcish Darklings.
We both know that we’re probably not going to make it out alive. But we just have to hold out until the ritual is completed. His half-elf has gone from Ranger to multi-classing Ranger/Paladin, and my obnoxious human Thief is now a Rogue/Scout. We’ve come a long way, baby.
I spent a lot of my formative years doing silly things with funny-sided dice. It’s a fact that I am very proud of, now that I work in the industry. Our gaming groups varied over the years from Lone Wolf and Dungeoneer style text-adventure, to high-tragedy World of Darkness, gritty conspiracy-ops Millenium’s End, camp Warhammer, Talisman, Space Hulk – anything that we could get out hands on. This current campaign has been bastardized out of half a dozen different fantasy systems (Rolemaster, Middle-Earth, DnD…) with house rules abounding. Gaming was always like that for us, about making it up as we go along, stealing inspiration wherever we find it. We watched the Alien trilogy back-to-back and converted it for our campaign the next weekend:
The Visitors (a one-shot fantasy adventure)
Strange lights have been seen in the skies over the sleepy town of Grindle for the past few nights. The local cleric claims it is a sign that the end-times are coming – they are far more correct than they could have imagined… On the eve of the Midwinter solstice a terrible storm hits Grindle, and brings in its teeth a fire from the sky, as lumps of strange rock fall to earth. Now, all messages from Grindle have stopped, and there are stories that those rocks from the sky brought something else to the lands as well; a creature that is faster than a hunting cat, more ferocious than a frenzied bear, and with blood that can boil through plate steel…
Play was a way to explore. It was also a way to have fun, to not take ourselves too seriously, to create a space that was exciting, scary, and inspiring away from the world of GCSEs and saturday jobs. The shadows of the world, from depression to war, were still a long way away.
In The Philosophy of Play, the editors summon the spirit of critical theorist Gadamer by claiming that play is
…the space of the (Aristotelian) development of virtues over time, and as such further isolates play from the practice only of children.(p 9)
which is a theory I can certainly empathize with, apart from that whole ‘Aristotelian development of virtues’ bit. Whilst my doomed obnoxious thief was wondering whether he should lay his life on the line for the party, I balk a little at that Gadamian idea that all play is only about instilling virtuous behaviour, like it is some moral conspiracy. The essential experience for me at the time, I think, is that we were experiencing a kind of limited freedom to decide what sorts of people we could be, what we could do.
From a game-tinkerer’s perspective, play needs to be open-ended. You need to offer real options, customizations and possibilities to players otherwise the experience feels like you are running a con. A part of that is that the challenges, too, need to be varied and unexpected. The players need to feel that they have real choices in an unpredictable world.
‘Play’ then, might be more like what the anthropologists Turner and Gennep call a liminal space; a space of otherness where the normal proscriptions of society are suspended. In it’s most rewarding and hyperreal moments, play might even become like what the ontological anarchist Hakim Bey calls a TAZ, or a temporary autonomous zone – a zone of liminality which is maintained and upheld, like at a festival. This zone can be a state of imaginative otherness, where your choices are real, and you can create what sort of world you think deserves creating.
Closing the Gate
It’s the start of an exam-season summer, and the end of a messy, bloated mega-campaign. By next week we will have ditched our D10s in favour of fountain pens, our damage charts for science textbooks. No more revising spell lists, but revising GCSE booklists instead. My obnoxious Rogue/Scout lies dead in a passageway, after umpteen rounds of combat, but I’m okay with that. In fact – I feel pretty good with the outcome. The party had enough time to close the warp gate, and retro-work the portal so they could jump through to a safer land at the last minute. It’s the end of a long story and I can now turn to start a new one, feeling like I am brave enough to do impossible things.