Monday, September 03, 2007

Gaming and Art

I recently saw the movie Stardust, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I usually appreciate Mr. Gaimon's work, and this was no different. There were a couple of places in the movie where I was genuinely moved, which is something I look for in a movie. I know that Miss Reed had difficulties with it in places (having read the book), and I can see where she is coming from (I haven't read the book, but I have read books made into movies. Like she said, the closer to the book, the more difficult it is to recommend it. If its terrible, one can merely right it off). However, I really enjoyed it, because it gave an excellent look into Fairy, in the properly Tolkienesque sense of the word, from his famous lecture “On Fairy-Stories.” It was a movie that I pleased to be able to see in the cinema as opposed to on the small screen. Even my wife was happy that she was able to see it on the big screen. In many ways film is an art-form best appreciated in a cinema. Although I appreciate the revolution provided by the VCR and furthered by DVDs, many films are better on the big screen.

After the film was over, I turned to my wife, and observed, “That is why I role-play. The feelings this movie evokes are what I am trying to capture in the games I run.” Unfortunately, as a story-telling art-form, role-playing is a regrettably imperfect one, partially from its war-gaming roots (with attendant emphasis on combat. Even RPGs designated as “story-telling” devote an entire chapter to combat), but mostly I think from the collaborative nature of the beast. As a Gamemaster, it is not my place to tell a story, merely to provide the bones of one for my players to tell. As a player, dialogue that is moving or dramatic in a movie or book is stilted and ridiculous when said in a living room at Wymount Terrace. On the other hand, because of the participatory nature of role-playing, gamers have a chance to come closer to adventure than with books or with movies. All these genres have a vicarious thrill about them, but I think it is closest to home in role-playing. However, at the same time most of my role-playing games end up being a little bit silly, I suspect because it is so close to home. When you play, you usually don't want it to hurt. Real life has enough pain. And yet, pain is part of what makes life so sweet. A role-playing game without pain is hollow, and ends up resonating as much as a cartoon.

Perhaps I am being silly. After all, these are games. Perhaps by designating role-playing as an art-form, I am giving it too much credit, and exalting it beyond its station. The purpose of gaming is to entertain. However, other media, many of which started out primarily for the purpose of entertainment (comic books and film are two good examples here), have tackled heavier stuff and attempted loftier goals, with varied levels of success. Can role-playing be art? As a Gamemaster, I have attempted to say something, while at the same time retaining my players enjoyment, with varying levels of success. I try for grand, but usually end up with merely fun. Which is okay. I do not wish to say that my role-playing experiences were anything less than enjoyable, for the most part. I was just musing on the nature of role-playing and its place in the story-telling art. Certainly some companies which produce role-playing games would have you think so, and there is a new “indie revolution” in role-playing, which like most indie revolutions manages to combine actual innovation with the most pretentious codswallop you've ever had the bad fortune to read. Remember, playing Sorcerer will make you a better human being.

At its core, of course, none of this matters. I was, however, musing, which musing also led to the list below.

My top 5 favorite role-playing games: (In no particular order)

Legends of the Five Rings. I am actually not as into this game recently as I have been heretofore, and yet there is no denying that it was an important role-playing game in my life. I loved exploring Rokugan, and my post-marriage gaming was centered around this game. I don't need much of anything else, as long as I have bushido in my belly. L5R is no longer my favorite role-playing game, but I still find I occasionally enjoy exploring in the world where honor is a force more powerful than steel.

7th Sea. A different kind of honor. A different kind of steel. Swashbuckling role-playing at its finest. Seriously, in terms of game design this is one of my favorites. People love this game. When I was still Provo, I merely had to mention that I was thinking of running this game, and I would have people coming out of the woodwork wanting to play. People whom I never knew had the slightest interest in gaming would wonder if I was going to play, they would like to as well. People I don't even like would volunteer to play, unfortunately ruining the game for my friends (especial apologies to Pseudonymous Joe. I owe you a game). This game has everything. Fencing, fighting, revenge, true love, miracles. . . Dramatic stories of true heroes, nifty fighting styles, Renaissance politics wrapped around an extremely intuitive system. The two main rulebooks are pinnacles of the game designers art, with subsequent books of varying quality. I don't know if a role-playing game can jump the shark, but this one certainly seems to have. I am actually thinking about doing capsule reviews for all of the 7th Sea books, but that is a subject for another post.

Castle Falkenstein. A role-playing game of literary Victorian fantasy. This game has the distinction of being one of the first games I really ran in campaign, although it suffered from the problem that all my campaigns suffer from. Everybody wants to play, and I am no good at saying no. This game had 11 players before it was finally killed by the end of the semester. It is however, a tremendously fun game, with a unique card mechanic (which is unwieldy in play), and my favorite magic system in any game. Gentlemanly Masonic Wizards having literary adventures are right up my ally.

Star Wars d6. My first role-playing game. It's Star Wars. Really good Star Wars. Pre-Prequel trilogy Star Wars. There is nothing for Crunchy Star Warsy goodness like the old d6 game. There isn't a whole lot more to be said.

Ars Magica. This is the johnny-come-lately on the list, but is a fast riser. I love the combination of real world history with mighty magic. This game is different from 7th Sea or Castle Falkenstein, in that instead of having to beat off players, I had difficulty in finding players. I was almost going to start with my best players, back in Provo, but that never materialized. I've never actually played this one yet, but I have hope someday.

Honorable mentions go to GURPS, Earthdawn, Fading Suns and Mutants and Masterminds.

I apologize to my non-gaming friends, but this what I was thinking of recently.