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Looking for the Real World

by Juhana Pettersson
Aug 19,2002


Looking for the Real World

- Juhana Pettersson

A typical conversation with somebody I've just met who's also a roleplayer might go something like this:

The other guy: So, what kind of games do you play?
Juhana: Well, I play a lot of tabletop, a little less live-action.
TOG: You GM yourself?
Juhana: Yeah, I have a couple of campaigns. Kulak is the best.
TOG: Is it D&D3 or Over the Edge or what?
Juhana: The setting is contemporary Yekaterinburg, Russia. The campaign started with the characters being released from prison after serving their terms and now they're trying to settle back into society.
TOG: Oh. So is it Vampire or what?

Now this is stupid, but understandable. There are no non-marginal real world games on the market, and for some reason most people aren't playing without a published game. I'm not counting any game with a supernatural aspect that invariably is also the central subject of the game as a real world game here, since most such games use our world as mere stage decor. The one big exception for this is Werewolf: the Apocalypse with its explicit environmental themes, but the actual content of play is, if played as presented, highly removed from reality.

Reality Doesn't Make Money

Here's a thesis: there are no major real world games on the market because they are not marketable. They don't make money.

If I make a fantasy game, I can publish the main rulebook or perhaps two. A monster manual. Setting books. Adventures. More rulebooks. I own three meters of shelf space worth of AD&D stuff (not counting the novels) that testify to the marketing potential of the fantasy rpg.

If I make a modern day game like Vampire: the Masquerade, especially if I claim to disdain rules, I have to think a little harder. Fortunately I have the example of the folks at White Wolf to follow: the almighty splat! I must divide the supernatural world of my game into endless clubs, because then I can make a separate book for each club, and perhaps jewelry as well. In Vampire we have the clanbooks, the Sabbat, Camarilla and Anarch books. Round it out with a couple of collections of NPCs, spellbooks (apparently the people who play the Tremere also buy books, at least if WW's flood of Tremere stuff is anything to go by), rulebooks and by Night books and voil!

If I make a game about the war in Vietnam, I can make a couple of setting books with information people could get from Amazon.com for the same price, except done better. I could make an arms book. I could make some adventures.

If I make a game about the life of released prisoners in modern Russia, I'm high and dry. No arms manuals, no nothing.

I'm ignoring here the apparent fact that much of the roleplaying game market is composed of geeks who buy anything with the word Tolkien on it or suburban goths who like to play Malkavians and also like Pokemon. This naturally also has some effect on what sort of games are made and what are not. Among other relevant factors is the tits factor, i.e. how easy it is to explain a pair of Elmore-style breasts on the cover of the book, hung on an almost-naked slab of female flesh. This has more bearing than one would think, because everybody knows that women in fantasy settings have huge tits, and that all the lady vampires dress as if they were going to an SM ball, but soldiers in Vietnam tended to be men, and having an image of a Vietnamese woman looking like a porn star on the cover of Vietnam: the Carpet Bombing might be a bit much.

So we have an economic factor and the geek factor against the publication of games set in the real world, dealing with real world stuff. I think it's unpleasantly telling that the rare modern day game we have is an army game or a spy game. The geek factor strikes again.

I Wanna be an Afghan Opium Farmer

I've been moaning for a long time now to my friends about how people never play real-world games that have any meaning or relevance: even when they do Vietnam, it's just the same old American soldiers in the jungle, always the military angle. And then, out of the blue, comes Holistic Games's Afghanistan: D20, apparently the first in a series of planned real world games. In Afghanistan: D20 you can play all kinds of characters relevant to life in Afghanistan, like Soldier, Combat Medic, Officer...

At first I felt vindicated. But after I looked a little closer, I found out, much to my surprise, the Smuggler and the Terrorist Cell Leader. Sadly I have been unable to read the book itself, so everything I say here is based on the information on Holistic Games' website. Somehow I doubt that this will be any competition for D&D3 or Vampire, but still. Somebody's making an attempt. Even if I suspect that we don't get prestige classes for the Opium Farmer, the Refugee or the Unlawful Combatant.

And if, as Andrew Greenberg says at the Holistic Games site, "The success of the D20 system ... gives HDI a chance to pursue other interesting RPG environments that might not otherwise have been financially feasible. One of these areas is ... our own world. Afghanistan D20 is the first of these..." it seems that something good has come from D20 after all. I still don't understand why a system might be needed to play after most good games (campaigns, not published games) I've seen are systemless, but still.

He continues later: "Afghanis are not orcs with assault rifles, green berets are not paladins, and nobody has resurrection spells. All the combatants have real motivations, usually based on doing what they believe is right." This actually sounds reasonably good. Not the way I'd do it, but it could be a Hell of a lot worse. Even as a kid I thought that orcs and ogres seemed uncomfortably close to being racist allegories for niggers and gooks. Isn't the whole concept of a race of evil beings a little suspect? That's what I feared Afghanistan: D20 would be, but apparently there's at least an attempt to do it otherwise.

But hey, Afghanistan D20. I hope to see more of this Real Life Roleplaying stuff. Perhaps someday we have games about things like the entertainment industry, political activism or refugees. Perhaps even games that not only "deal with these issues" by having everybody play a nine-foot werewolf but instead let us play indie directors, Earth First! activists, refugees or UNHCR relief workers.

D&D Makes Your Brain Rot

A published game is not like a book or a movie, a finished product in itself. I'd liken it more to a movie script, something that might have value itself but is fully realized only after some production. Considering that every game needs some creative effort, and that most roleplayers think of themselves as creative people, I'm surprised at how little people play games that are not based on some published game product.

The situation is little less dire in live-action games, at least in Finland and Scandinavia. Indeed, the only published game I've played live here is Vampire, although to my knowledge Werewolf and Cthulhu games have also been tried. The bulk of Finnish games is fantasy, typically set in original worlds. The rest are Vampire (which used to be very big until it practically died a couple of years ago) and miscellaneous original games, including a lot of historical recreation, cyberpunk and humor.

It's not hard. If I want to make a game, I can spend from twenty to hundred bucks buying a game, or I can say my game is like Oz, watch a couple of seasons and be all set. Real world has the added advantage that all the background material is easily and cheaply available. The characters are easier to relate to. After years of playing vampires, elves and other things that are rather removed from human experience, the concept of playing a black college-level basketball player seems very appealing.

The reliance on published material is even weirder considering how limited that material is. Say I want to play a game in which the characters are a hugely popular pop act like the Spice Girls. No game for that. Say I want to make a game that's like some movie. The odds are that that movie is not "supported" by any game. If that movie is Spider-Man, the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, the game is there. If the movie is Amelie, Monster's Ball or Titanic, the game is not there.

In short, if I want to play real people doing what real contemporary people do, I have to look outside published material. I think you should too. Have a little variety. Do your own thinking. The world is out there for the taking.

Roleplaying in Finland http://www.roolipeli.net (in Finnish)
Afghanistan d20 http://www.Holistic-design.com/Real/AfghanD20.htm

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