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My Life and Role-Playing

August 23, 2018

From Different Worlds #2 (1979)

Steve has designed many of Metagaming's MicroGames. among them: Melee, Wizard, and Death Test. His current big project is The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth. He says it should be out by summer of 1979.

Into the Labyrinth

My life and role-playing? I can't think of an easier subject to write on. I became involved with role-playing games just before they started to boom, and role-playing—in one form or another—takes up a good deal of my time.

The first thing I'd like to point out is that, in my opinion, most people define "role-playing game" in entirely too limited a fashion. When someone mentions a role-playlng game, the usual reaction is the D&D/C&S/Traveller/ RuneQuest/EPT/Monsters! Monsters! sort of game. Now that's definitely role-playing. . .but it is not the only kind, or even the most popular kind.

To begin with, most people who are reading this probably cut their gaming teeth on a role-playing game, years and years ago. The most popuiar board game ever developed in the US is pure role-playing. Yes . . . Monopoly. Consider: each player takes on the role of a cheerfully rapacious real-cstate tycoon, wheeling and dealing until he alone commands the board. The fact that the "role" is pre-ordained, and the same for every player, in no way lessens hs appeal. To quote Shelly Berman: "It's that thrill you get when you know you've wiped out a friend."

Monopoly is pure role-playing. It lets you do on the game board all the heartless things you’ll probably never get a chance to do in real life. That's why it's fun.

In a sense, almost any non-mathematical board game might be considered role-playing. Chess is a battle of armies, as is Go. But, to my mind, a "true" role-playing game must impose a more specific constraint on the players. In chess, you're just trying to beat your opponent. Even in Blitzkrieg. which is much "closer to reality," you're still fighting a hypothetical war, with no "personality" involved. But a WW2 game that let one player "be" Hitler, and another "be" Roosevelt or Churchill— now that would be role-playing.

Let me offer a definition of a role-playing game, fhen—one that will surely stand until it is shot down. A role-playing game is one that invites its players to take on a personality different jrom their own. Not "requires"—you can't really do that. Just "invites." But, at least in my experience, the better games are those played by the people who do take on that alternative personality—and the more successful you are at it, the better your play will be.

Furthermore, a game which invites role-playing seems to have a definite advantage. The role-playing doesn't have to be the "point" of the game; even as a subsidiary ingredient, it can still add zest.

Case in point: my own first design, Ogre, was a role-playing game. I didn't (consciously) realize it at the time —but that's exactly what's going on. One player takes the role of the Ogre. Not just an ordinary tank—but a gigantic, nearly unstoppable, murderously-armed killing machine of incredible power. An Ogre is not only capable of mass destruction—it's supposed to indulge in just that. Most gamers like tanks because they're powerful and dangerous. Not just to see one, or even control it—but to be the most powerful tank imaginable, and to be out on the battlefield, smashing everything that comes in your way—now, that's a role. The defender, too, has a role to play. Instead of being the epitome of all our dark desires, he's the archetypal "good guy." He has to stop a monster, and he can do it—but only through great sacrifice.

When some people tell me how much they like "being the Ogre" or "being the defense"—not "playing," but being —I know it's the role-playing that's got them, To me, that accounts for a lot of Ogre's popularity. Yes, it's quick, and the rules are relatively clean... but it's very simple, and contains one little bitty innovation (the one-unit side). Yet it's still very popular. I think it's the role-playing that does it. I know I'd still rather play Ogre, myself, than most other games, although by rights I ought to be tired of it. And, while I'm quite willing to be the defender, I'd much rather be the Ogre—especially against someone who thinks he has the perfect defense. Then I can play cat-and-mouse with his leading units, wipe out a heavy concentration when he finally gets it together, wattz all over his CP, and (if I'm lucky) hunt down everything he has left on the board. When we start, that defender may think he's playing a game—but soon it's real. He's out there, with nowhere to hide, and the Ogre's after him.

So—an "ordinary" wargame, with a premise that allows for role-playing, can be more fun and more successful. No wonder, then, that the "standard" role-playing games are becoming so popular. These are the games that let the players live out a fantasy or science fiction novel. It's a shame that so many of their fans don't really bother with role-playing at all.

That, I'm afraid, was the first thing that impressed me about D&D —and it's still true today, with that and almost every similar game. Role-playing goes right out the window. Every player is being himself, often in a most obnoxious fashion. Whether he's swinging a sword or a wand, every adventure is the same. Zap, slash, kill, loot. What did we find? Whoops, a random monster. A million hit points. Zap, slash, kill. A million experience points. Babble, babble, 27th-level Brouhaha with a Ring of Instant Permanent Total Monster Charming. *yawn* Whenever I see a fantasy game being played, I look in on it. I'm compulsive about it. But 95% of the time. that's what I see. I won't play in such a game, or stay within earshot if I can help it. A real role-playing game, played right, is a thousand times better. One where the GM isn't depending on random tables for everything, and where the players have developed their characters in an interesting and believable fashion, and are playing the game for its own sake, and not to see how many monsters they can kill and how many arguments they can win with the unfortunate ref.

For example, a hobby shop in Copperas Cove, not far from Austin, had an excellent C&S campaign going for a while. It had its own newsletter— everything. I never participated, due to distance, but I always heard stories about what was going on. The best tale that came to me was of a Samurai character. Another player-character had stolen his katana. The samurai swore a solemn oath to get his sword back. For a year (game time) he hunted the fleeing thief—and couldn't catch up with him. So at the end of the year the character committed seppuku. This was a good character— rather experienced, with a couple of interesting possessions. But he killed himself because he couldn't get his sword back. That's role-playing.

That player may have lost a good character—but I doubt it mattered to him. His samurai had lived a good life, and died an honorable death (which is far more important to a samurai). The role was fulfilled. He knew it, and his fellow players knew it.

An earthier example: When I do play a fantasy role-playing game (usually playtesting TFT: In the Labyrinth, these days), it's often with Howard Thompson. He prefers to play dwarves. And his dwarves are obnoxious.

His own conception of dwarves is as dumb, boisterous fighters with rather disgusting personal habits... and that's the way he plays them. Howard (as a dwarf) is likely to slug another character who disagrees with him, even if the party needs to be quiet. He'll urinate against the wall while someone is trying to negotiate with the goblins. He'll try to open a chest, fail, and pick it up and throw it against the wall. (When he did that, I was GM. The chest exploded. Everyone in the room was damaged except the dwarf, who made his saving roll vs. ST to avoid blast damage. The scum.) Naturally, the other characters were angry at Gimme... but the players enjoyed it. He was acting just like a dwarf. And when the fighting started, Gimme waded right in with his ax. He might be dumb and smelly—but he liked killing things, and he was good at it. Which was why the odious little twerp was along.

As far as I'm concerned, this type of game is only worthwhile if the players can create a new role and submerge themselves in it —meeting situations as though they were that character, rather than Joe Smith suddenly down in a dungeon. The intellectual challenge of formulating a new personality is interesting—and, once you grasp the idea, it's fun to be somebody else. You can try out new ways of dealing with life... without ever leaving your living room. You could find out something new about yourself — if you'll put yourself aside and let Thud the Barbarian be himself some evening.

I'm doing what I can to promote this kind of play in The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth. Players will not "roll up" characters—oh, I give them tables, but I encourage them not to use them. Instead, just think about all the different things that go into making up a personality, and pick what you like... then select ST, DX, IQ, spells, and talents to go along. To me, that's much better for real role-playing than rolling up attributes and then trying to do something with them. And players get experience points for acting in character, whatever they have defined that to be. Establishment of a persona, and skillful play of that persona once you've established it, is the whole point of TFT—not just killing things and grabbing gold.

The establishment of a specific persona plays a big part in another facet of my life these days—the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA, as more of you out there ought to know, is a medievalist group. We recreate the combat, customs, arts, crafts, sciences, and knowledge of the Middle Ages. The SCA is role-playing to an extent undreamed of by most gamers. When you join the Society, you choose a persona - a person who could have actually lived in the Middle Ages—and then you live that persona. At any SCA event— feast, revel, tourney, Guild meeting, or fighter practice—you dress, act, and talk in the proper "period" style for your new personality. Viking berserkers mingle with Renaissance courtiers, Scots clansmen, Huns, Byzantines, and Teutons. It's incredible. (Incidentally, anyone interested in joining the SCA should inquire around his local hobby/wargame shop, or at science fiction conventions — many SCAers are wargamers and/or SF readers — or check out the information at

I first became involved with the Society because of my gaming work. I was researching Melee, and I wanted to observe some actual combat. Unfortunately, you can't go down to the corner tavern and see a swordfight any more. The SCA was the next best thing. Although the weapons are made of rattan rather than steel, they are weighted and balanced just like the real thing—and SCA armor and shields are as close to the originals as time, money, and safety wilt permit. So I went to a few demonstrations and fighter practices . . . I made notes . . . I began to get interested . . . and one day I put on baggy Viking pants gnd a leather vest and left my notebook at home. Exit Steve Jackson. Enter Vargskol—a halfbreed Viking/Celt, always torn between the Norse way (an enemy is to be taken advantage of, and a battle is to be won) and this strange new concept called "chivalry.” I don't know where role-playing leaves off and schizophrenia sets in, because I'm Varg now for an average of two days a week—sometimes more. I know it's been a lot of fun, and I think it's been good for me as well —and if the mundanes think I'm a trifle peculiar when they find out what my hobby is, imagine what they'd say if they knew what I did for a livingl

To me, then, role-playing is much more than the newest fad in wargames. It's an ancient and honorable pastime, and a valuable tool for finding out about yourself and the world you live in. I hope to keep playing—and designing—role-playing games as long as there's a demand for them. I expect that will be a long, long time.


Thank you to Chaosium for working with us on the reprint of this article!

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