Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Clicking Sands of the Apocalypse

Although I’ve mentioned him before in this blog, I completely forgot to mention Mr. Ron Edwards in yesterday’s post-apocalyptic post, specifically RE’s contribution to the PA RPG genre, i.e. the Clicking Sands.

For those that don’t know much about Mr. Edwards, he’s a college professor and professional game designer as well as a fairly brilliant RPG theorist. He’s one of the Big Brains over at the Forge think-tank, and his articles on game design should be required reading for anyone serious about writing an RPG. As a point of full-disclosure I’d have to say I agree with more than 90% of his ideas.

Ron is definitely in the vanguard of independent RPG publishing, a movement that I see as a kindred spirit to the OSR. Unfortunately, from what I’ve read around the ‘net, it appears that most Old Schoolers are derisive of Ron and his ideas, and that he is fairly dismissive of the OSR. Oh, well…I stand for something higher than both, myself (the possibility of spreading the RPG hobby as fun method of creative expression, imagination broadening, and community building) so I’m going to take from both sides of the debate.

One thing RE has admitted to more than once is his own love of fantasy RPGs (see his essays on the Fantasy Heartbreaker). If he doesn’t particularly buy into the OSR’s “recreation of the wheel,” it would appear he still has a fondness for RPGs that facilitate exploration of a mythical/fantasy environment. In fact several of his games deal with “fantasy/pseudo-medieval” settings/characters: Elves, Trollbabe, and the Sorcerer supplement “Sorcerer & Sword.”

It is from this last that I find one of the cooler and inspiring Post-Apocalyptic settings: the Clicking Sands. Based on the idea that the best post-apocalyptic fiction is extremely similar to the best Sword & Sorcery fiction (in the far future, high technology has become so lost and obscure as to seem like occultic “black magic,” and most survivors in the wasteland are using their swords and wits to overcome the radioactive dangers in their path), the Clicking Sands provides a very bare bones PA setting to run a Sorcerer game, allowing one to do an unholy Story Now game session against the backdrop of the Ruined Earth.

[note to self: The Ruined Earth is actually a great idea for the title of a Post-Apoc RPG…must get to work on the new book!]

Now though I own Sorcerer and the three supplements penned by Mr. Edwards, but I’m not going to bother explaining the system in this post with its Kickers and Bangs and Relationship Maps, etc. Suffice is to say that the game system is fairly solid for creating a hard-hitting, premise addressing, in-depth exploration of a soul-crushing story (albeit sometimes with redemption in the resolution). However, as with the other PA games mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mr. Edwards fails to satisfy MY itch for post-apocalyptic game play, precisely because it neglects those two inherent parts of the PA genre: grim survival and community building.

Oh those things might be present as BACKDROP to the game. Hell, depending on the way folks structure their Kicker, it may even be part of the premise addressed by play itself. But it is NOT inherent in the game system anymore than it is in, say, WEG’s Paranoia. The point of play in Edwards’s game is to create a story, one set in a PA world with an S&S theme, but a story regardless of all else.

And that’s just fine…that’s HIS deal and he does it well. I want a different animal of an RPG.

Part of what drives my particular gaming expectations is my experience with long-term play versus short term. This probably deserves its own separate post, but I’m still going to touch on it here. While games like D&D and Gamma World are not specifically designed to facilitate the creation of story, “story” (or perhaps “an epic saga”) still has the possibility of developing out of long-term, episodic play. Like a long-running serial drama…say 14 episodes of Firefly or multiple seasons of Kung Fu just to give two very disparate examples…even though individual episodes are connected by little more than a recurring cast of characters, the television series is still ABOUT something, something which can only be observed from a distance over time. I suppose this could be called “theme” but it’s MORE than that. As players (and game masters) explore the characters and setting they’ve worked together to create, something gets expressed out of the imagination.

In the long campaigns of my youth, this theme often came down to “love and betrayal.” What was so loved that one would put oneself out of convenience for it, and what could drive a person to betray another, even a long-relied upon companion or lover? Sure we might start with some little sub-plots (oh, my 1st level character was an orphan, or my 1st level character’s wife was killed by assassins, or whatever) but over-time and interaction with the other PCs (and the NPCs that would enter the campaign) these little “ideas” fell to the wayside as we got down to our own developing in-game relationships.

Sorcerer (and by extension The Clicking Sands) does not wait for this natural evolution t o occur over time; as stated, Mr. Edwards has a game that facilitates a narratavist creative agenda (i.e. “we want the story NOW, not later”) and so starts off in the thick of the drama. Which is fine for a one-off “adventure” (a Sorcerer “game” usually concludes in 2 to 4 sessions), but not as satisfying to me as the continuing adventures of beloved characters.

Now that may just be me and my inertia, MY unwillingness to “let go.” But I ain’t the only one out there: anyone notice they’re coming out with a second “Sex & the City” movie? What the hell is THAT going to be about? Talk about not letting go!

So, anyway, impractical as it is for me in my current place in life, I prefer the long-term, long-running campaign to the short one-off games. In fact, I almost always approach the gaming table with the attitude that “this game could last forever if we let it.” And that especially holds true for a post-apocalyptic game setting where the “fun” of play is not just fighting off the mutants (grim survival) but the raising of society from the ashes (community rebuilding) which is best observed over time. The Clicking Sands, with its need to get to the “fun” story immediately, misses this mark and thus leaves me with the same thought as yesterday…I need to design my own damn game.

The Ruined Earth…it’s kind of a catchy title.

: )

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