Friday, June 19, 2015

The games within games we gamers play

Humans, by nature, are competitive, just like all the other organisms, sentient or not, that inhabit this speck of dust in the vast cosmos that we call Earth. (If sentient beings lived on Mars, would they call the soil “mars” as we that live on Earth call it “earth”?)

It was competition that formed our species; the other hominids, the ones that did not learn to stand on their two hind legs, were eaten by predators they did not see coming in the tall grass. In most forms of gaming, it is competition. In boards and mini’s (my preferred abbreviation for “miniature figurines”), it is often a situation of 1 v 1; two players playing head-to-head or two teams going at it; i.e., a winner and a loser. The difference today is that if I defeat my opponent in a spirited game of, say, Samurai Battles, for example, I do not get to jump up and down on the corpse(s) of my vanquished foe(s), I can’t take all their stuff and steal their mate(s).

When I discovered wargaming, oh so many years ago, I saw in it the ultimate problem-solving competition that I did not find in chess or bridge. (I am an avid card player as well as gamer; care for some poker? Or cribbage, or pinochle, euchre, canasta, gin, big casino?) I was drawn to the intricacies and fluidity of problems-to-be-solved posed by wargames.

I have been playing wargames for more than 50 years; ofttimes, I find the games we play within the games we are playing to be an intricate dance of psych warfare.

Role-playing games are no exception to all of this. Never believe that they are not competitive; players vie with each other to get the best goodies, even in the most amicable parties. As a group, the party is contesting both the DM and the circumstances he (or, all too seldom, she) has presented the party with. The very basic problem of “What do we do next?” spurs our competitive nature as differing suggestions and opinions are put forth by the players.

I first stumbled on to this phenomenon while in college. (I was in college so long ago that while the following might sound preposterous in today’s social climate, it happened just like this.) It was the day of a long-awaited big mini’s battle. I had gotten into the habit of buying cigars that came in wooden cigar boxes that mini’s fit in nicely; if you bought the last cigar or two, you could have the box. (It was also how I developed a taste for a good seegar.) I had a large Joya de Nicarauga stuffed in my pocket when I arrived; when asked about it I joked that it was my “Victory Cigar” that I would smoke when I had won. It was just normal BS and braggadocio amongst buddies. Except it worked, in an unforeseen way. It was a hell of a game and we had been at it for over six hours with the outcome still in the balance. Despairing of getting the battle finished before I had to leave, without any fanfare, I lit the cigar (yes, children, this was way back in the day when you could smoke cigars indoors almost anywhere) and proceeded to work up a good coal on it and returned my attention to the game. You would have thought that Boney had just watched his Old Guard retreat, so profound a scare did my lighting up throw into the other side. They commenced to hurried whispering amongst, and second-guessing, themselves and soon their plan lacked any pressure as they began to become hesitant and made a couple of little errors that we were able to exploit. Three turns later we had beaten them soundly. To this day I believe they psyched themselves out.

The next year at GenCon I did the same thing in a mini’s game I had entered, and got the same result: sudden doubt and indecision leading to their loss.

RPG’ers are by far the most into playing games within games. My friend Gary was often quoted to the effect that DM’s rolled dice for the sound they make. He was right, in more ways than just that, as we often discussed. I plead guilty to using the sound of a wad of dice being rolled all at once when something like a barrage of stones or arrows is launched. I plead equally guilty to just picking up a die and rolling it for no reason in the middle of something; sometimes I mutter. Muttering is almost always effective. (For those reading this that plan to be in one of my games someday, know that I am not giving away all my secrets.)

The DM trickbook is nearly infinite; I know we all have our methods and devices for shaking up a party, whether to get them to pay more attention or to possibly think their plan through one more time. My f-t-f players soon learned to listen carefully to my adverbs and adjectives; I was never, ever completely arbitrary and never misled inappropriately. There is a ton of nuance in simple words or phrases such as appears, apparently, nothing visible, seems to and the like.

In the past 10 years it has been my privilege to attend some three or four dozen game cons all over the US east of the Rocky Mountains. I have developed a (thoroughly undeserved, in my opinion) reputation for slaughtering players; my TPK rate is somewhere north of 80%. As often as not, it is the game-within-the-game that ends up getting parties killed. Now I know that the style of play at cons is not much at all like the play in home face-to-face campaigns (I know of a couple online that have long track records). Their pecking order has long since been established; in con games there is a very subtle (perhaps so subtle most are unaware of it) striving for dominance in the form of party leadership. I have had players try to argue rules with me to change outcomes or mitigate circumstances in their favor—now it becomes PC’s v. DM. They might just as well howl their lamentations at the moon; I play OD&D where it works that way cuz’ I say so, being my world and all, doncha know?

This is a sorry note to end on, but touch on it I must. I refer to cheating. Now I have never been able to understand what cheaters, in particular RPG cheaters, actually gain from this. I mean, c’mon. Is using “funny dice” that have a predilection for a certain range of numbers any different than reloading the Autosave on a PC game when you lose a battle? Who wins, exactly? I never demand to see the die roll of any player at my tables; I trust them to not cheat themselves. They certainly are not cheating me. (After all, over 80% end up dead anyway, cheating or not. It is hard to cheat your way out of being paralyzed by a lich that had the initiative on you.)

I find it interesting to note that the first type of gaming in which I used a dice box was mini’s. No dice were rolled near the precious figures and diceboxes seldom had cocked-die results. Most importantly, everyone playing saw the roll and the result. Let the dice fall where they may!

Still don’t believe me? Go watch a game of Ticket to Ride and watch the maneuvering that goes on in a simple family-oriented board game. Games within games…I love it.

I’ll be playing until the day I can no longer remember the rules or roll my dice. (If ever I win the Lottery, I fully intend to buy a property that I can turn into an Old Gamers Home. Really.)

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