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INTRO TO RPGs

by Jeff Freeman

 

In spite of what you may have heard or read, no one has ever given me a free game. For some reason, publishers actually seem loath to have me mention their games at all.

Speaking of which (games, and loathing, too), is Vampire the most pretentious thing ever written, or is there something even more Holier-by-being-Unholier-than-Thou on the market? Here's a game rule book that states as fact that it will succeed where all the world's religions have failed. By playing, you will be a better person. By implication, you'll be a better person than those who don't. Vampire, this game, will buy the world a Coke and teach everyone to sing in perfect harmony.

Before I vomit, someone please, please, please give me a freakin' break.

I play Vampire on MUSHes. Here's how it works. One guy logs into game and creates a female character that is the most stunningly beautiful, sexy, super-model-esque creature ever to walk seductively and with cat-like grace. This guy, pretending to be a hot chick, has cyber-sex with another guy. Since they play Vampire, they are better people than those that don't. Says so right in the rules.

It is to roleplaying as McDonalds is to food.

Still, it is remotely possible that this sort of Vamp-tramp MUSHing could be a person's introduction to role-playing games.

My son, eight, who happens to like McDonalds very much, has recently discovered another version of RPG that has nothing whatever to do with roleplaying. He has been playing Final Fantasy 7. Turns out that the original Final Fantasy wasn't so final after all, and neither were the next five. Given the enormous number of dollars FF7 has raked-in so far, it's a long shot that it will be any more final than the first one.

Which is okay. Although my son can read fairly well for a kid his age, he is actually learning to read better by playing FF. There just isn't any book I could get him to sit and read for hour after hour, but he does that with FF. Sure, he's mostly just suffering through the reading part so that he'll know what's going on, the big pay-off being when he gets to go smash monsters for a half-hour or so before the next big reading lesson, but he is reading. I'm happy. It's that 'practice makes perfect' thing.

Thanks to the policy of not sanitizing the US versions of Sony Playstation RPGs, he's also learning that D-A-M-N spells 'darn' and S-H-I-T spells 'shoot' and H-E-L-L spells 'heck'.

That's actually a draw for him, too. He doesn't just want to play the game to bash monsters, but also wants to play because it's a 'grown-up game'. He reads 'heck' and glances at me knowingly. "Very Good," says I, nodding. I don't mind so much if he sees the words or hears the words, but I don't want him to say those words and he knows it. That, to me, is the important thing. I want him to know what's appropriate and what's not, regardless what anyone else is doing.

But that's just my take on the situation. Raise your own kids, or just have them play Vampire if you believe White Wolf's claptwaddle, and I'll share this irony: Final Fantasy claims to be a role-playing game, but isn't, and instead of being 'final', it's actually my son's first fantasy adventure game - his intro to RPG.

See, an introduction to roleplaying games needn't be a roleplaying game itself. It just needs to be close to it.

One day I spread my RPG crap all over the kitchen table and started throwing away mid-game notes that were made in early 1988. They say things like 'Speak to Homstrom in Tarintor about mithril blade.' I can only suppose that meant something at one point. Anyway, my son wandered in and looked at the D&D box. He read, "Dungeons and Dragons... what's that?"

"Er... It's like Final Fantasy, only you don't play it on a computer or game console, you play it around a table with a group of people."

You know what he said next?

He said, "cool."

Granted, he's only eight, so what does he know? But here's a kid that thinks it would be 'cool' to swap the slick graphics and animation sequences of Final Fantasy (not to mention having the computer keep track of everything) in exchange for being able to play the game with other people. And he doesn't even realize that there's more to it than that. He doesn't know he could play a whole new kind of game with a real RPG. He could play, well, an RPG.

Sometimes in Final Fantasy your options are, for example, to walk through a door or alternatively, to stand around for a while and then walk through the door. The choice is yours, but it doesn't really matter which you do.

Or there'll be a guard blocking your path and so you can't go that way, even though you've killed about a bazillion guards by this point in the game. Now you can't even attack.

My son doesn't realize that it's abnormal - that in a real RPG he could do anything he 'darn' well pleased.

And still he said, "Cool."

He doesn't realize that he could make his own adventures. Or make his own world. He doesn't even realize that he could make his own characters.

And still he said, "Cool."

I realized this a very long time ago of course, but that scene just reminded me of it: This is one nifty hobby.

But "makes you a better person"? Gag.

Final Fantasy is encouraging my son to practice reading and has sparked an interest in real role-playing games. Fortunately for my over-worked B.S.-detector, it isn't pompous enough to make any claims beyond being fun to play. It certainly doesn't claim that having cybersex in virtual-drag will make one a better person.

I figure if Vampire is going to claim anything, it should claim that you'll learn one-handed typing. And if this sounds appealing to you, let me give you some advice to help you 'til you get the hang of it: Put all the words you use most frequently in macros.

"Oh, baby.... Now I <F1> your <F3> with my <F7>..."

Anyway, this has sent me searching for an "intro to RPG" game. There are few good ones out there, not the least of which is D&D itself.

The problem with D&D is that he isn't going to read it. He can read FF screens one after the other for hours, but a big book still intimidates him. One look and "Ugh, this is too much to read." And never mind that he just sat reading for hours, non-stop, 'playing' his game. Where is the digest-sized format when you need it?

Guy McLimore of MC+ Creations sent me an email in response to 'RPGS: THEN AND NOW', claiming that Pocket Fantasy (published by Plaid Rabbit Productions) was everything I predicted the future of role playing games would not be. It is actually marketed as an introductory level role-playing game, "small, fast, easy to play, inexpensive". Because it is published in a CD-sized jewel case, the books are, naturally, small.

Guy didn't give me one for free, though. So I went to sextoys.com and ordered a 'Pocket Fantasy'.

Sure, it was fun and all, but it was a bit more of a solo deal than I had in mind, and not entirely appropriate for an eight-year-old.

Then I realized that I had ordered the wrong 'Pocket Fantasy', so I went to Plaid Rabbit Productions' web-site, listed the Pocket Fantasy product-line and ordered Pocket Warrior.

While waiting for Pocket Warrior to arrive from Plaid Rabbit, I swiped a friend's copy (yet another advantage for the CD-sized format - it made it really easy to steal). It turned out to be much more appropriate than sextoys.com's version, closer to what I had in mind and almost as much fun, too. There are a lot of words there, but they're small. The books are physically small, I mean, and therefore less intimidating. It's a simple system too, so he can 'get it' pretty quick. He won't be blown-away by tons of stats, skills and so on, defining his character. If he likes it, then he'll read the rules when we aren't playing, just as he reads through the Final Fantasy book (which happens to be about the same size) whenever I reclaim the television.

Not that I'd leave him to read and figure-out how to play on his own anyway. In fact, I'd do all the prep-work, both the GM's and the players'. No sense telling him we're going to play, but then sit down to read, write and do math for a couple of hours.

Pocket Fantasy (the game) is a good intro to RPGs. I just wish it would have gone a little farther towards making the game an open-and-play sort of deal. For example, how about a character creation that consists of 'pick a character'? Record keeping could be minimized by printing the objects in the game, everything from monsters to magic items, on business-sized cards. You find a magic sword, you get the magic-sword card. Like Monopoly - nothing to write down. You might need to buy a 'new game' for every adventure, but what the heck, the things are cheap. Especially compared to the $60 that I, and over a million other people, shelled-out for Final Fantasy (and character creation in Final Fantasy consisted of 'Pick this character'. Plus, even though I didn't have to do any record-keeping, I did have to play with myself, much like the Pocket Fantasy from sextoys.com).

In short, instead of releasing RPGs (especially introductory ones) as as separate, compatible games for each character type, I wish they'd release them as separate, compatible games based on pre-made adventures. In Adventure-X, you get the rules that are required to play Adventure-X. You get the descriptions of the items found in Adventure-X. You get the stats for the NPCs encountered in Adventure-X. That's it.

Back to recordless record-keeping, hit points could be kept track of with tokens of some sort. Cards could be used to keep track of which spells you have, either losing the spell as you cast it ("gimme that card back") or using tokens of a different color to keep track of mana points. No record keeping per se, but rather a 'character sheet' would be replaced by a pile of cards, tokens and assorted other knickknacks. It would be really great if a character fit into one of those nifty CD-sized jewel cases like the one that Pocket Warrior came in.

Let the RPG publisher do all the setup and background work instead of, say, me doing it myself. I'm lazy, I'll pay for it. All the NPC's and encounters and even the 'plot' of the adventure can be pre-made. Just pop open the box and start playing.

Roleplaying games, including introductory ones, always seem to assume the consumer is going to adopt gaming as a lifestyle. RPG rule books aren't games, they're game construction kits. They give you everything you need to create characters and adventures and worlds... but they don't give you the games themselves and certainly don't provide the additional spare time that is required.

For example, I play AD&D about once a year with my kinfolk - not an ongoing campaign, this. We spend an hour or more making characters and I spend several hours making an adventure (or reading a module) that we'll never use again. I can see shelling out a few bucks in order to avoid character-creation, pre-game GM work, etc.

Sounds good? Too bad, it's probably not going to happen. Guy McLimore came up with the 'scenerio-oriented design paradigm' way before I did and rejected it as being too costly and un-marketable. He's making games for game fans, for people that do make a lifestyle of gaming, and you people don't want a pseudo-RPG.

I still maintain there's one huge advantage that does make-up for the absence of slick graphics and having a computer keep track of everything. That is, there's a draw for computer-RPGers and 'Gaming Is Not My Life'-types alike.

If you don't believe me, order a Pocket Fantasy from sextoys.com. Within hours, you'll make the same discovery: It's just less fun to play with yourself.


Comments? Feel free to email them to ack@rpg.net.

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All of Jeff Freeman's Acks

  • The One True Way to Roleplay, Online: July 20, 1999
  • What Were We Thinking? September 8, 1998
  • Random Thoughts August 9, 1998
  • Run With It! July 14, 1998
  • Background: I'm Evil! June 9, 1998
  • Who Wants to Role-Play? May 12, 1998
  • Playing Without Brains Apr 8, 1998
  • Ultima Online Looked Good Off March 10, 1998
  • The Perfect Game February 10, 1998
  • "INTRO TO RPGs" January 6, 1998
  • "Do I Have A Point?"
  • "LOOK BEFORE YOU LARP" November 11, 1997
  • "RPGs: Then and Now" October 7, 1997
  • Chicks in Gaming", September 9, 1997 (and its Danish translation)
  • The FUDGE review that inspired it.

    Other columns at RPGnet

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