Sunday, May 19, 2013


Game post. I really enjoy reading Neani's posts about my games, and doing so has kicked off some thoughts about them in my own head.

It seems incredible to me that I have been playing Silverway for nearly three years. That is to say, I have been actively playing Dungeons and Dragons for three years. That just doesn't sound like me. While I revere D&D for its place in the history of roleplaying generally and my personal history of roleplaying in particular (cf. the fact that I self-consciously call all runners-of-games "dungeon masters," rather than the more generic "game masters"), I have only ever been attracted to it in the abstract. On the positive side of the ledger, D&D stands for the thrill of the unknown - the band of adventurers in a small town dealing with a small menace, who are slowly sucked into a wider world - that I think is one of the essential elements of roleplaying. Collaborative storytelling is cool precisely because neither the storyteller nor his audience has complete control over the direction or content of the story. It is in the unknown that the magic happens. No roleplaying product I have ever encountered stands for the essence of the unknown like D&D does. Not for me, at least.

On the negative side of the ledger, D&D stands for mechanics that don't tell a story. As a DM - that is, as a storyteller - this is a major problem for me. I feel like virtually no mechanic in D&D structurally reflects what is actually going on in the story, but the easiest example is this: combatants in D&D can routinely take half a dozen "successful" attacks to render incapacitated. There are various ways to narrate these "hits" in ways that are more realistic, but (i) I've tried all the ones I know of and they only confuse my players, and (ii) I don't think the mechanics of a narrative game should be so divorced from the narrative that you need to think up workarounds. As far as I'm concerned, that's a design flaw. It happens to be my pet design flaw, and Phoenix Earth 4th edition is still driven largely by my burning hatred of game mechanics that don't structurally reflect what is happening.

And yet, here I am, nearly three years into a D&D campaign.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. I find the mechanics of D&D 4th edition genuinely engaging as a game, and I thought it would be fun to play a simple little boardgame-like D&D campaign for my cousin. I've always been intrigued by the forest-as-wasteland motif in Miyazaki's NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, and I'd recently read a book on the history of the Byzantine Empire, so I thought I would just cross the two and be on my way. But when it came time to figure out what the story actually was, those darn narrative-defying mechanics came back to haunt me.

Whenever I start a new campaign, I more or less consciously (often less) try to do something new for myself. In part I think this is because I don't really think of roleplaying games as, well, games (I'm beginning to suspect I think of very few "games" as games, but that's probably a post for another time). I approach a campaign more as performance art, so when I think about a new campaign, I try (or instinctively end up doing so, anyway) to give myself a sort of artistic hook to organize my thoughts. In Apocalyptic Phoenix Earth, that hook was to tell a fictional story that used Christian mythology completely straight (as opposed to using it as an inspiration, the way stories like Neon Genesis Evangelion do). In Classical Phoenix Earth, it was to really double down on letting the players' choices drive the story. In Modern Phoenix Earth (its second/current incarnation, anyway), it was using fully-realized characters who don't increase in power over time.

In Silverway there are a couple of new challenges, but the most fundamental one was to take D&D on its own terms and make those terms work for me. Classes, levels, battles with pyrotechnics straight out of Michael Bay - I wanted to take it all and tell a serious, Natalie-style story in a Natalie-style, Homer-inspired way. I don't feel that I've been 100% successful, but I am pretty proud of what I've been able to do with classes, levels, and power sources - the full impact of which I don't think is going to become clear for a few levels, which is frustrating giving the whole moving-to-New-York thing. I hope that we'll be able to continue playing via Roll20 (future, don't fail me now!), but it's also a little frustrating in that one of the other challenges was to expand the roleplaying-as-performance-art metaphor beyond the mind. I've never been much for roleplaying with miniatures, or even maps, but D&D 4th edition sort of requires a battle map at the very least. Armed with Campaign Cartographer, inspired by Mike Krahulik's mind-blowing visuals for his campaign, and fresh from my success in making a custom miniature for the short-lived Dark Sun campaign that got me into D&D 4th to begin with, I decided that if I must play with physical objects like a barbarian, they weren't just going to be mere visual aids. I think I was starting to get good at making the maps and models part of the performance, too. Now I'm going to have to figure out how to do the same thing with a virtual tabletop.

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