Sunday, September 18, 2011

Roleplaying After the Fall

My elder son has become fascinated with post-apocalyptic things.  This is primarily because of the purchase of Fallout: New Vegas, which enthralled him for several months.  Then there was Fallout 3.  Then, for his birthday, among the many other video games, Bioshock.

And, somewhere in the midst of that, he decided that he wanted to stop the fantasy roleplaying we had been doing (we play Pathfinder, which is an evolution of the grandaddy of roleplaying games, D&D) and start some post-apocalyptic roleplaying.  Which meant that I had to go on a world-wide search for a good PA RPG.  We settled on Darwin’s World, which is a pretty neat system, and all the books are available via PDF, which means that you can just download a new book when you need it instead of having to go to the gaming store and buy it.  Which is convenient (if expensive).

Pen-and-paper (PnP) RPGs (as opposed to RPG video games) are an old love of mine.  I got my first edition (1e) copy of D&D when I was quite young, although I had no one to play with.  That didn’t stop me from poring over the books again and again until I learned all the rules.  Later, when my brother was old enough to play, I took on the role of game master (GM) and ran my brother through many homemade dungeons.  Ah, the days of graph paper dungeon making.  You do all that stuff on computers nowadays.

It takes a lot of effort (and time) to put together a world for roleplaying.  When I was younger, time wasn’t a problem.  The older you get, the less time you have.  This is partially because you have to do silly things like work for a living, but it’s also because your time sense slows down as you get older, which in turn makes time appear to go by faster.  This is something we all intuitively understand, but it turns out there’s actually a biological reason for it.  I heard on some NPR show that, by the time you’re 25 years old, you’ve already experienced about three-quarters of the virtual time you’re going to get in your life.  Which is depressing, if you think about it.  I try not to think about it.

But it definitely means that it’s harder and harder to scrape together the time to plan all that stuff out, if you happen to be the GM.  And, when you’re roleplaying with your kids, you’re always the GM.  It’s fun, and I’ve always believed that RPGs are educational in many ways, so it’s definitely something that you want to encourage in your kids, especially if you have some experience in it yourself.  But it’s very time-consuming, so we don’t play as often as he’d like.  Or as often as I’d like, really.

PnP RPGs are not necessarily better than video game RPGs—they have advantages and disadvantages.  When you play a video game RPG, whatever system the game uses is programmed into it by its creators.  This is good, in the sense that you don’t have to think about it very much—hell, you don’t even really need to understand it, or at least not the internal mechanics of it.  With a PnP RPG, you need to know the mechanics pretty well.  Which is more of a learning curve (although learning all that stuff is part of why it’s educational: the biggest question that comes up when trying to teach your kids math is “when am I ever going to need to know this in real life?” and PnP RPGs provide an answer for many of the math concepts that inspire that question), but when you have to understand the system thoroughly, it means you get to adjust it.  If there’s something about the system you don’t like, you just change it.  Of course, you need to understand the consequences of changing it, and you have to make sure you don’t break anything, and then there’s even more sneaky educational opportunities.  But it all takes time.

If you don’t know much about PnP RPGs, I’ll take it slow for you.  The first thing you have to know is that almost all RPGs make use of polyhedral dice.  A four-sided die is called a d4, a 6-sided (which is the one you normally think of as a die if you don’t play RPGs) is a d6, and so on, up to the d20, which is the largest die size used by the original D&D.  D&D 1e used all the dice, more or less equally.  It required that you understand quite a bit about various probability distributions and bell curves and stuff like that: almost everything I know about statistics, I learned from D&D.  After a decade or so, they decided to update the system a bit and then we had 2e (that’s second edition, if you’re keeping up).  2e wasn’t a whole lot different from 1e, at least in terms of simplicity.

Of course, the whole time that D&D was going through 1e and 2e, the rest of the RPG world was coming up with new systems.  The folks over at Palladium came up with the system that eventually led to Rifts, Steve Jackson invented GURPS, there was the HERO system that was originally designed for Champions, and of course White Wolf made a splash with Storyteller, which debuted in Vampire: The Masquerade and ditched all the dice except the d10.  And there were countless others—these are just a few of the more popular ones I’ve played.  Many of these systems were easier to use than D&D.  After changing owners a couple of times, D&D was ready for a big system change, with 3e, which introduced d20.

The d20 system is now very popular, for several reasons which will probably have to wait for its own blog post.  One of the big ones is that it focuses on the d20 (hence its name) for almost all its rolls, which right there makes it easier to learn than all the previous editions.  Darwin’s World started as generic d20, graduated to d20 Modern, then branched out into Savage Worlds and True20 rulesets.  So now you can get Darwin’s World in any of 3 flavors.  But the d20 Modern version is the default, which means that, if you choose to use one of the other two, you have to do a fair amount of converting from one system to another.

So even if you didn’t follow any of what all that stuff actually means, you can see that there’s a lot of work involved.  We chose to use the True20 version, because it plays a bit faster than d20, especially for combat purposes, and combat is where my impatient young scion tends to get frustrated the most.  So it seemed like a good idea at the time to try to streamline that.  I didn’t realize how much on-the-fly conversion I was going to need to do.

So that’s what my weekend has involved.  Last weekend was his birthday, so of course we were scheduled to do some roleplaying, and then I came down with a vicious cold that kept me home most of this past week, and we postponed.  Now, trying to get caught up with work and chores and family errands, I’m also trying to get caught up on roleplaying duties.  I just wrote a program to convert a d20 Modern stat block (that’s a laundry list of what a roleplaying monster can do) to True20.  It isn’t perfect, of course, but at least it’s fast.  Hopefully I can tweak it a bit as we go on.  And our gaming session tonight involved a lot of “wait, where did we leave off again?” and not so much “here’s what happens now!” but it was still fun.  And hopefully we’re now in a better position to do some more PA roleplaying soon.

But I wonder how long this fascination will last.  It’s held on for a while now, so maybe it’s a keeper.  I wonder when the last time I watched Road Warrior with him was ... we should do that again.  And I’m sure there’s some good PA books that I should be introducing him to, but it was never my bag the way it is for him, so I’m a bit underfunded in the recommendations department there.  I discovered there’s a radio adaptation of the seminal classic A Canticle for Liebowitz available; perhaps I’ll point him at that.

And I’ll keep on working at getting this new system down.  He deserves to have as many great memories of roleplaying as a kid as I do.

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