Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - The Wider World

As I was starting to explore the wider world of role-playing games beyond Dungeons and Dragons, the industry itself was undergoing explosive expansion. There were dozens of companies putting out products compatible with Dungeons and Dragons, and just as many, it seemed, putting out products to try and unseat it. And among those products were some future big names.

For instance, there was a little company called Midkemia Press that put out a series of campaign books--a book describing a city named Carse, for example, complete with maps and NPCs, encounter tables and price lists--that would fit together to form a larger campaign world. Within a couple of years, that series of Dungeons and Dragons campaign supplements would be fleshed out further in a massive novel, titled Magician, that would turn out to be the start of a hugely successful series making its author, Raymond Feist, one of the most successful writers in the field. And of course, thanks to the Internet and a resurgence of interest in retro RPG products, Midkemia Press is still around, still offering some of the same supplemental materials they sold thirty years ago.

Similarly, there was a company called Flying Buffalo that put out a game titled Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes designed by one Michael Stackpole, who would later rise to prominence as a novelist for the Battletech and Star Wars X-Wing: Rogue Squadron series of books. And after Stackpole left the X-Wing series, another previous RPG designer, Aaron Allston, would take his place on that series.

Which is not to mention the direct media spin-offs of D&D itself--the Dragonlance novels, the animated TV series, the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

For my own personal journey though, stepping into the wider world consisted of two stages. Stage two I'll talk about in a couple of weeks. Stage one was Multicon, the first time I gamed outside of my usual group.

While I was home for summer vacation in the summer of 1981, I attended a science fiction convention in Oklahoma City called Multicon, and for some reason, ended up spending almost the entire convention in the gaming room. I entered a Villains and Vigilantes tournament game which ended up being a fascinating experience.

The game was crazy. First, instead of rolling up characters at random, we were tasked with building ourselves under game rules. The gamemaster had a few simple tests of dexterity and strength to force people to justify giving themselves high attribute scores. Then he assigned powers secretly to each of us. And then the game started, at the convention, with an attack by aliens (I think) which involved some sort of dimensional portal which gave us superpowers. I ended up with a force field that I couldn't control--it came up automatically whenever someone attacked me--but as long as I was in physical contact with someone else, we were pretty much invulnerable, so I tried to play that aspect as well as I could.

We were whisked through another dimensional portal to a space station in the far future, where we battled more aliens in a quest to stop... something, I don't remember what. I do remember the bad guy took off through another portal, so we chased after him and were transported to a grassy field on a farm somewhere...

Where we discovered that we were bunnies fighting for our lives, only instead of battling aliens with blasters, we were trying to escape a dog and a nasty barbed wire fence. We fought our way through the bunny adventure only to be whisked through another portal where we were now medieval knights of the Round Table...

On a very silly quest for the Holy Grail (adapted from a D&D scenario published in the July 1981 issue of The Space Gamer). I didn't win the ultimate prize for the tournament--a signed novelization of Escape From New York by Mike McQuay (who would years later become one of my best friends and inspire me to try writing fiction for real)--but I had fun.

Quick McQuay story: I remember hearing a rumor, or perhaps it was McQuay who told me, that John Carpenter wouldn't speak to him anymore after the novel came out. You see, Carpenter's movie is a straight-ahead action film. It's got a satirical sense of humor, but the action is played pretty straight. But McQuay apparently couldn't bring himself to write the action with a straight face, so he added an element that is never mentioned in the film--namely, that all the characters in the film have suffered brain damage from nerve toxins used in a big war with the Soviets. In other words, the reason everyone acts the way they do in the film is because they are all, from the President to the warden to the bad guys to Snake Plissken himself, bugfuck crazy.

So anyway, after the big tournament game was over, I played some other stuff as well. There was a game of Steve Jackson's Undead, and there was my introduction to Dean's World.

Dean was a local gamemaster who I ran into at a few conventions. Older, gray-haired, diabetic and frail, yet the guy ran an incredible game. I was never exactly sure what system he was using. There was some sort of system, I'm guessing because we did use character sheets and dice, but the rules were all in Dean's head. His games took place in a multiverse with different planes at war with each other, and where you could have modern-day mercenaries battling aliens battling ninja battling superheroes battling wizards battling vampires, and it all made sense and flowed effortlessly from Dean's seemingly limitless imagination. I played with him at two or three different conventions, and I don't think I ever saw him flip open a single rulebook, nor use so much as a single written note to jog his memory.

That weekend had a huge effect on me. A couple of years later, I ended up stealing the dimension-hopping V&V scenario for an adventure I ran during a Halloween party at my apartment (including an episode where the players turned to bunnies), and I'm pretty sure my plans for a multi-planar war in V&V were at least partly inspired by Dean's World.

The entire weekend was an exhilarating blur, topped off by my introduction to another game I'd never heard of, The Morrow Project. That game was memorable in its own way, namely as the biggest clusterfuck I had ever encountered around a gaming table. And yet, it was fun enough that I later bought the rules and orchestrated an equally huge cluster of my own as a GM a couple of years later.

But that's next week.


Marc Carlson said...

Did the V&V rules translate into Bunnies and Burrows?

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

Not that I remember. It seems as if we didn't really use stats and character sheets for our brief foray into rabbithood (it was only an hour or two of game-time), but basically confronted the challenges more as logic puzzles ("how are you getting him out of the trap?" "How are you avoiding the sleeping dog?"). And looking back at my few notes from my own game, I seem to have done the same thing with my Halloween game.