Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.
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RPGs (Role-Playing Games) and Me

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"‘Well, at any rate, the Dormouse said—’ the Hatter went on, looking anxiously round to see if he would deny it too: but the Dormouse denied nothing, being fast asleep. ‘After that,’ continued the Hatter, ‘I cut some more bread-and-butter—’"
"‘But what did the Dormouse say?’ one of the jury asked. ‘That I can’t remember,’ said the Hatter."
Microbadge: 2022 RPG Geek Play-by-Forum Initiative participantMicrobadge: Solitaire WargamerMicrobadge: Live and let liveMicrobadge: I speak SpanishMicrobadge: I completed the 2022 VGG challenge: played 25 video games or played for 250 hours
For all my blogging verbosity, this is a topic I rarely touch upon. And it's simply because it has so rarely been any part of my gaming life. Yet, it has been there--ever since 1973 or so--and maybe it's worth a few words.

I was an avid wargamer all through high school. If I didn't actually play board wargames every day, I certainly thought about them day and night and even did some wargame-related doodling during class. By 1973 (my HS graduation year), my friend Lenny and I had gotten a wargaming club going, and we held what we called mini-conventions twice a month, in two different northern-California cities.

Mostly we played board wargames, but several club members were into miniatures. And miniatures, back then, were mostly history-based. The Napoleonic era was probably the most popular, although Ancients were starting to catch on. A key leader in our club, Bill Butler, was into Ancients and introduced them to me.

One day, another club member turned to the Fantasy Supplement at the back of the Chainmail medieval miniatures rules. He said something like, "Wouldn't it be cool to have knights fighting orcs or ents or dragons?" I smiled politely and turned away. To me, that wouldn't be so cool. I was big into military history, but I never read fantasy fiction. I wasn't even much aware of it. I thought fairy tales were something we had all left behind in childhood.

A short time later, maybe because I'd bought a copy of Chainmail, I got a letter from the author, Gary Gygax. Among other things, he asked whether I'd tried the Fantasy Supplement and what I thought of it. I gave my personal opinion--that it looked childish and I didn't think there'd be much interest in it among wargamers. (As everyone knows, Gary went on to create Dungeons & Dragons from the Fantasy Supplement, and that changed the gaming world forever.)

* * *

For the next ten years, I remained enthusiastic about history-based wargaming and continued to ignore D&D and fantasy fiction. But around 1984, my curiosity kicked in.

By then, RPGs had become such a huge phenomenon that I couldn't steer clear of it. The rulebooks were in the bookstores I visited, and the Avalon Hill Game Company (publishers of most of my wargames) got in on the act and produced some fantasy and science-fiction games. They even came out with a Heroes magazine to parallel their long-standing house magazine The General. That did the trick for me. I subscribed to Heroes, bought the RuneQuest RPG rules, and even started reading fantasy fiction.

However, I was living by myself in an apartment, and I had no friends who were into gaming. I'd long-since left the wargaming club behind. On rare occasions I played games with people I knew, but I was far from having a regular gaming group, and I didn't even want that. I've got a big streak of "lone wolf" in me, as the title of this blog indicates.

So I read the RPG rules and started dreaming up ways of designing scenarios around them. I read the Dune series and the Lankhmar series and other suitable works of fiction. I went to a Renaissance Festival and learned who Tolkien was. But since there was no practical way for me to play a tabletop RPG (I'd have had to contact a group of strangers and go way out of my way to do it), I looked for ways to do it solo.

One way was easy: choose-your-own-adventure books. I spotted a couple of those in a bookstore one day, so I took them home and played the games. It made me realize I could create more such games for myself to play solitaire. Or to share with a friend once in a blue moon, if that opportunity arose.

Also around 1984, I got my first home computers. One was just a game console--Intellivision; another was a freebie I'd picked up, a Timex Sinclair. I started teaching myself BASIC and fiddling around with these newfangled contraptions. Next I got a TRS-80, which had a normal keyboard and felt like my first real computer. On that, I played an early text-based RPG, Empire of the Over-Mind. Never got far into that game, though; it stumped me and left me frustrated.

* * *

Fast-forward another ten years. By 1994, I was used to having a home-computer system and playing some pretty good games on it. A few of those were RPGs of the actual D&D variety--the Gold Box games. I was married now, and my wife had played some D&D in college. We played together on the computer, rolling up three characters each to make a party. That was my introduction to D&D (except that, some years earlier, I had bought the D&D basic rules and read them).

I still considered myself a wargamer, though, and military history was my main thing, both for reading and gaming. I took a liking to the game Gunslinger, however, and I dreamed of expanding it into a man-to-man-level game that could be set in any period of history or could even have a fantasy or science-fiction setting. In preparation for realizing that dream project, I started collecting all the skirmish-level wargame rules I could find. The idea was to study them, try them out a bit, then synthesize them into a game of my own design.

In the process, I learned that someone else had already done what I was setting out to do--maybe. Within the GURPS RPG rulebook was a whole section on one-on-one combat (also published separately, IIRC, under the title Man to Man). So I got a copy of that book and pored through it.

I loved the fact that it was "universal"--not tied to any particular genre or historical period or literary work. That left things wide open, so I'd be able to design scenarios based on anything at all--even on something I dreamed up myself. But I only wanted to simulate combat skirmishes; I wasn't interested in writing whole stories or playing them out. As an old wargamer, I was focused on the point where wargames meet RPGs--combat.

Yet, as I read the GURPS book, I found myself pulled more and more into a desire to be playing a whole game, not just part of a game. And from an RPG point of view, combat was just part of it.

Meanwhile, I had also bought a fantasy board game, Magic Realm. I'd tried teaching it to myself, and then I briefly tried teaching it to my wife. She didn't like it, mainly because of the rather abstract combat system. But since MR is perfectly good for solitaire play, I started imagining ways to combine it with GURPS-style combat. Maybe I could create some kind of hybrid game.

Well--big dreams. I imagined all that and started into making it a reality, but my motivation dried up. Partly it's because I was torn: I was a wargamer forcing myself to cross over into fantasy fiction, but I still didn't want to let go of military history. And there just isn't time for everything. I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

Furthermore, I still had no gaming friends, so it was silly for me to be working on something that would likely require a group to play. I'd have to make the game suitable for solitaire. And if I was only creating it for myself, I wasn't sure it was worth all the effort.

* * *

OK, let's fast-forward another twenty-five years or so and get right up close to the present.

Not only did I abandon my game-design project, but I got out of board wargaming too. It got to where it seemed like too much trouble to set up and play wargames solitaire, and that's the only way I was doing it. PC gaming was much quicker and easier, and maybe more suitable for a solo gamer like me.

But for a long time, I resisted PC gaming too. I resented the ever-increasing encroachment of computers on my life. So I looked for simpler alternatives--maybe solo-friendly wargames that were simple and "just for fun," unlike ASL and other complicated ones I'd been into before.

I ventured back into board wargaming with that in mind, but I found myself collecting games rather than actually playing them. And I hate having a bunch of games just sitting on shelves. If I wasn't playing them, what was the point? (To this day, I still have a closet full of games I need to sell or give away or something.)

So, back to PC gaming it was. Once I had a laptop and an internet connection, I was always checking my email, reading news, and doing other things on the computer anyway. Why not also play a game when the mood struck?

I really got into that when GOG came along. I'd never had the patience or know-how to fiddle with DOSBox and other emulators, but now all my old favorite PC games were readily available again--and more convenient to play than ever before. I've been in gaming heaven ever since.

It also gave me a chance to catch up somewhat on RPGs. They'd come a long way since the Gold Box days, but the newer games passed me by completely. I'd never heard of Baldur's Gate, for example.

So I played Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape, and other cRPGs. I suppose it gave me a better taste of what RPG gaming is like, but I knew it wasn't the same as the face-to-face experience RPGers were having back in the 1980s when I was just reading the RuneQuest rules and trying to imagine what it was like.

Was that something I really felt bad about missing out on? Hmm--yes and no. Because I've been so enthusiastic about gaming all my life, it seems odd that there's a whole world of gaming I've hardly ever set foot in. But on the other hand, I'm not big on social activity. I like people well enough, but most of the time I prefer to keep my distance from the crowd and just do my own thing in my own space. So no, I wouldn't want to form or join a gaming group and schedule time to sit around a table playing an RPG.

Besides, I never followed through with reading science fiction or fantasy fiction. I read a little more, off and on, but I never found it all that appealing. When I'm not reading military history, I'm usually reading a classic novel--Dickens or something like that. Nor have I ever been a movie buff. I watch fewer movies than just about anyone else I know.

Hence, I'm largely unaware of many of the stock scenes and tropes that recur throughout popular entertainment. When someone says, "Remember what so-and-so did in that famous scene in the third Star Wars movie?" I usually don't have any idea--even if I did see the movie once upon a time. My limited knowledge of popular culture sometimes makes me an odd duck in any everyday conversation. I've just never cared about all that superficial entertainment stuff.

And what about gaming? Isn't that superficial entertainment? For me, it's not. Or at least I tell myself it's not. When I hear the word game, my mind immediately goes to chess, bridge, and the like. I think of deep strategy games that challenge the brainiest people in the world. To me, mastery of such a game is something to aspire to. I'll never achieve mastery of any such game, because I lack the smarts, the discipline, and the tenacity for it. But I still dream of mastery. And working at it, even on a novice level, somehow seems worthwhile to me.

So, anytime I play any game, I convince myself that I'm doing something important. It may be entertaining, but the purpose goes beyond that; the purpose is to exercise my mind or get me to think outside the box, pay more attention, be more creative, or something. The entertainment is just incidental.

* * *

Nevertheless, just the other day I noticed an annual new-player drive in RPG Geek. And I got a nudge to jump in and give it a try. It's a play-by-forum affair, right here in the Geek, so it's easy to get into. And who knows--maybe it'll give me a better idea of what I missed back in the 1970s and 80s.

Maybe it'll also give me a clue as to why, around 1988, my wife said I wasn't doing it right when I briefly tried leading us through a stock intro scenario from the GURPS rulebook. My impression then was that she remembered D&D, from her college days, as involving a lot of rich storytelling and improv acting, and I wasn't consistently "in character" enough to suit her. To my mind, it was supposed to be more like Magic Realm, where the mechanics of the game design automatically create the story.

The few times I've played MR, I've periodically sat back and pictured what was going on storywise, and I was impressed with how well the game could simulate actions and incidents taking place in the fantasy world. But I didn't see any need to actually play a role--give my character a name and personal background and immerse myself in all the detail of what he or she might be going through. I was perfectly happy with the "sketch" that emerged during game play.

And in the cRPGs I've played, I've also tended to rush through from battle to battle. I get annoyed with inventory management--having to walk back to a store to get more potions or upgrade my armor or whatever--and the dialogue almost always seems trivial to me. Because, as I said, I basically think of all games as a form of chess, my main interest is in building skill and learning how to win. I appreciate all the concurrent entertainment, because it lightens the burden of learning and working to win, but I still get impatient with all the walking around, side quests, dialogue, and inventory upgrades.

So, we'll see how this new gaming adventure goes for me. I've been avoiding cRPGs lately because they're too long; I'd rather get in many shorter strategy games than one long RPG. But I'll be curious to see how I behave in a game with other people--and what a "real" game feels like to me. It could go either way: I might shrug it off and conclude that it's not for me, or I might get hooked on it and want more.

One factor in my favor, I think, is that I've always been big into story writing in one sense--the writing. I can't help but write a lot. If I'm not blogging, I'm writing something else. And an online friend once told me, "Every time you play a game and post something about it, it comes out as a story." So yeah--I do write my own story, I guess. I just don't populate it with other characters and imagined scenery and dialogue and such.

Anyway, there it is--a new gaming venture in store.
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