Entry for April 24, 2007: More about gaming

Friends, I hope you’ve had a good week. To continue the topic I've been posting about, I like role-playing games because they provide a forum for socializing, encourage creativity, and allow for an escape from mundane concerns. Back in college, Prof. Libby Tucker's excellent "Folklore and Fantasy" class covered the reasons that genre entertainment remains popular.

For most of the past 25 years, I've served as Game Master for numerous games, many of which were set in my own fictional universe. However, as adult responsibilities of work, relationships and family, and time management increased, many of my circle of acquaintances burned out or drifted away from role-playing. Even I have stopped running for a year or two at a time, but I've always come back to the hobby.

"Dungeons & Dragons," now in Edition 3.5 by Wizards of the Coast Inc. (WotC, the successor to TSR), is the baseline because of its wide availability. Most of the gamers I've met in New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts are at least somewhat familiar with the fantasy rules, which grew out of tabletop wargaming about 30 years ago. While not everyone likes the race/class/level system, I've always been able to find players who know it without too much difficulty.

My D&D3.5 "Vanished Lands" heroic fantasy campaign setting takes place about 3,000 years ago on a subcontinent somewhere near what's now Central Asia on an alternate Earth. A million square miles have been mapped, more than 350 Player Characters have explored them, and years of history have been created in the process!

My second-favorite rules have been the Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS), now in its Fourth Edition, by Steve Jackson Games Inc. During graduate school, I considered the multigenre alternatives to "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" 2nd Ed. (the edition of that time). GURPS 3e had well-researched historical and subgenre sourcebooks, as well as an elegant 3d6/point-based system derived from Hero System/Champions and different from the complexities of RoleMaster and AD&D2.

Sure, I played "Storyteller" in the 1990s, like many other people, but Steve M.R., Tim M.B., Jim J.D'B., and I used GURPS for successful superhero, steampunk, space opera, and time/dimension travel campaigns. Since then, we've experimented with "rules-lite" games such as Risus, FUDGE, and True 20 — a streamlined derivative of D20, which is based on the D&D3.5 Open Game License.

Support for GURPS 4e has been relatively weak, and my fellow gamers in Boston generally prefer D&D3.5 and D20 "Mutants & Masterminds" 2nd Ed. scenarios (the latter is related to True 20, since both are published by Green Ronin). Of course, we share some interests in other genre media, such as comic books/graphic novels, movie and television serials, and anime.

As mentioned before, all of my campaigns have been connected, from the fantasy D&D3.5 "Vanished Lands" to the steampunk alternate history of GURPS "Gaslight Grimoire" to the present-day GURPS "Supers/Powers: the S.J.I." and D20"M&M"2e: "Drake's Port" superheroes. The D20 OGL led to a boom in gaming not seen since the early 1980s or early 1990s, when I tried both D.C. and Marvel Superheroes games.

Even my "Top Secret: S.I."/GURPS "Espionage"/D20 "Spycraft" 2nd Ed. and cyberpunk/fantasy "Shadowrun" missions are connected, and my GURPS "Vortex" space opera — one of the first settings I created, based on short stories written with Carlo R. and David I.S. — is tied into the multiverse-spanning GURPS "Voyagers II" collaboration! For science fiction, the venerable "Star Frontiers" is a favorite, and GURPS/D20 versions (some fan-written and unofficial) exist of "Star Trek/Prime Directive," "Traveller," and "Star Wars."

Every Tuesday night, about six to eight of us have been meeting in my basement to continue the "1,001 Arabian Nights"-style of "the Broken Chains," the latest party in my D&D3.5 "Vanished Lands" campaign. For the past seven years, the Boston-area groups have mostly played D&D3.5.

Alas, not all is well in the secondary worlds of role-playing. Competition from computer games, rising publishing costs, and changing tastes have taken their toll on our hobby, which counts a few million practitioners in the U.S. As I've noted on various message boards, I still prefer the socializing of face-to-face, pen-and-paper, "pizza-and-dice" role-playing to the "hack-and-slash roll-playing" of multiplayer online games.

On the other hand, as I've found with "City of Heroes," the ability to play real-time tactics with friends in other cities is certainly appealing, and I hope that the virtual tabletop technology that I'm now troubleshooting with Dexter V.H. and Byron V.O. will eventually improve and converge. Finding time for good in-person, nonlinear, collaborative storytelling and worldbuilding is still my preference, and my challenge.

In other bad news for gamers, Paizo and WotC announced that they will discontinue the influential and widely distributed "Dragon" and "Dungeon" magazines. Many critics have blasted the move on the Internet, but it was likely necessary due to the same financial pressures driving much publishing (and journalism) online and may be signs of major changes at WotC and the industry as a whole.

The ending of WotC's licensing of the D&D "Dragonlance" setting and the upcoming D20 "Star Wars: Saga Edition" RPG may also be harbingers of the much-debated D&D Fourth Edition.

Finally, I'd like to note the passing of TSR game designer Tom Moldvay, who joins artists David Sutherland and Keith Parkinson in my fond memories of early AD&D adventure modules. Next time: on Boris Yeltsin, travelers, and genre television!