Saturday, June 12, 2010

Armor Class Zero

I'm 42 years old, and I spent the 1980's immersed in imaginary realms accessed through the agency of dice, graph paper, little lead miniatures, and books of tables, charts, graphs, and garish artwork. I'm talking about role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Gamma World, Traveler, and Champions. I have a friend in Thailand (he's not Thai) who used to play such games but who thinks that the advent of computerized gaming makes the paper and dice gaming obsolete. I couldn't disagree more.

For those thinking, “Wait a second. I came here to read about permaculture, re-localization, peak oil and the like. What's all this fanboy geekery?” All I can tell you is that I'm composing these sentences  while seated at my desk inside my room here in the Inn at the Ecovillage Training Center and that the gaming mania behind this week's blog musings has swept through the ETC population like a mutant cold virus through an elementary school. ETC staff, apprentices, and even guests of the Inn have contracted the bug.

It all started down at the Hippitat, an earthbag and cob cabin with a living roof. The Hippitat is located on the periphery of the ETC grounds just off a trail that leads through the woods and down to the creek. It is a favorite place for people to gather, sit and collect their thoughts. I was sitting with three of the new apprentices enjoying the nature vibe. Sean and Havana ( I call them the “the Wonder Twins”) have taken up residence in the Hippitat, and I was there along with Paul (the first C-Realm listener to take the plunge and sign on for a full two-month ETC apprenticeship) breezily engaged in free range conversation when a mosquito landed on Sean's arm. I pointed it out to him, and as he swatted at it he said, “He can't bite me. I have armor class zero.”

I asked Havana and Paul if they got the reference. Havana did not, but Paul had played the very popular computerized role-playing game, Baldur's Gate, which used the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules, and so he was familiar with the notion of armor class. For those of you still in Havana's now-sullied state of pristine ignorance, armor class is a measure of how hard it is to strike a blow against a character or monster in a Dungeons & Dragons game. Someone in street clothes has an armor class of ten, and adding different combinations of armor, shield, and magical items lowers one's armor class. Someone wearing full plate mail armor with a big shield has an armor class of 2, so Sean's claim to having armor class 0 was quite the brag.

I explained armor class to Havana and then lunched into a long-winded, spontaneous rant about the virtues of face to face, paper and dice games versus computer games that claim the mantle of RPG (role-playing game). At it's heart, a session of paper and dice role-playing amounts to the cooperative telling of an adventure story. Each player provides the thoughts, speech and actions of one character in the story, and the GM (game master) describes the setting and plays the parts of all of the people and monsters that the player characters will meet in the course of the story.

Some gamers would take issue with my characterization of a role-playing game as an exercise in group story-telling. For some people, like my friend in Thailand, role-playing games are about killing monsters, collecting treasure, and gaining experience points in order to make one's character more powerful and capable of taking down ever more powerful monsters. These are the power gamers, pejoratively known as munchkin gamers.

The rules to some games are absurdly complex for anyone who isn't an amateur actuary, and the more complex the rules the “crunchier” the game is said to be. Crunchy games lend themselves to rules lawyering where players who have spent countless hours pouring over the rule book(s) deploy their command of game minutia in an on-going contest of wills with the GM. For folks who take this approach, the computer is a godsend. Rolling dice and comparing the results to tables to determine the outcome of any action or event that has even a hint of randomness to it can mean that players spend hours rolling dice, consulting tables and rules-lawyering to play out what amounts to just a few minutes or even seconds of in-game time. Turning the dice-rolling and number-crunching over to a computer lets the power gamer accelerate his progress and exterminate beasties and bad guys in a fraction of the time it would take using paper and dice, and without the needless physical proximity to other humans.

As I wove my tale of conjuring up collaborative fantasy adventure stories, Havana said, “I think you'd make a good GM.” I thanked her and mentioned that I did run a few games when I was in my 20s and that it was a good time.

Then Paul asked the question that started the avalanche. “Is there any possibility of actually experiencing this kind of game here?”

I said that I would be willing to run a game, but the problem was that I didn't have any gaming materials with me, and as gaming companies have learned to tap into the typical fanboy's obsession with “collecting” in order to get them to spend outrageous amounts of money buying multiple rule books and adventure supplements, starting from scratch could be a spendy proposition.

This dampened spirits a bit. None of the appretices were at all keen on spending money on this project, and so I said I would put out some feelers and see what I could find on the cheap, or even better, free. I posted something to my LiveJournal asking for leads on low-cost, rules lite games. Rules lite is the opposite of crunchy. Games that play lite and loose with rules are better suited to actual role-playing and collaborative story-telling than are crunchy games, which lend themselves to rules-lawyering.

I already new about GURPS, the Generic Universal Role-playing System from Steve Jackson Games, and I knew that GURPS lite could be downloaded for free, so I downloaded it, but even a quick inspection of the paired-down GURPS system let me know that it was still way too crunchy for my purposes. I wanted something that would be easy for me to run and easy for novice gamers to grok and get into quickly.

A friend I haven't seen since 1996 wrote to me to suggest SLUG, which stands for “super laid-back universal game.” I read through the one-page rules summary and decided that while I got the appeal of the game, I wanted something just a bit crunchier when it came to combat and magic.

Continuing my quest for the optimal balance between ease of play and satisfyingly crunchy battles I found a game called Prose Descriptive Qualities. The PDQ Core Rules are available for free download, and it comes to all of 12 pages. Reading through them and surfing around for supplemental materials I ended up paying to download Questers of the Middle Realms starter bundle. QMR is a sword and sorcorey game based on the PDQ core rules, and it is very light in tone and pokes good natured fun at the conventions of fantasy literature and gaming. Players take on the roles of familiar fantasy characters like elves, dwarves, orcs and short folk who in this game are called Hoblings (Get it? Hobbits/Halflings?), but each of which is subtly twisted to confound expectations.

 I spent a grand total of $12.45 on the downloaded material. (The money actually came out of my PayPal account, so sponsors of the C-Realm Podcast can rest assured that their contributions to the podcast continue to serve serious ends.) I spent another $16.00 at Office Depot getting my downloads printed out and buying binder clips. I also printed out the GURPS Lite rules, which accounts for about half cost of printing. I spent another $5.00 at Dollar General for notebook paper, pencils, and dice. The dice are the familiar six-sided dice that one would use for Monopoly or craps, and a pack of 5 cost me $0.75.

I spent some time with the printed materials and generated a few NPCs (non-player characters). I then sat down at the kitchen table with permaculture apprentices Joel and Will. I gave Joel the character sheet for Shemp, the placid orc herdsman, and I put Will in charge of Father Fester, the half-Hobling healer and priest.

The purpose here was just to get some practice with the combat system, so as a total throw-away scene I told Joel and Will, “You've both come into town and ended up standing on line waiting for tickets to a show. Two goons cut in line in front of you. What do you do?”

Will, speaking for kindly Father Fester, who concerns himself with the well-being of widows and orphans, said, “I take out my dagger and stab him in the throat.” The fight went on for several rounds, and as it progressed, more people gathered in the kitchen to watch and listen. The fight ended with the two goons fleeing the scene and kindly Father Fester attempting to plant his dagger in the back of a retreating goon. That brief glimpse of the game excited the assembled spectators, and now they're all keen to get started.

In most games, you build your character through a combination of random dice rolls and the calculated expenditure of points on abilities and skills. After the character has been optimized for game mechanics then some token effort might go into providing a touch of backstory. In PDQ, the reverse is true. The character starts out as just that, a character, whose qualities first take form in descriptive prose and only later get “statted out” and converted into numbers to interface with the game mechanics.

Thus far, Merry, the ETC innkeeper has put the most obvious care and effort into envisioning her character, Aralia, the daughter of Marachma, a wealthy Veribah merchant of the desert oasis town, Jewel in the Sand in the land of Ar-Karap. She sent me a 550 word description of Aralia via email. As is typical of a good RPG, thoughts of the characters and upcoming adventures already play a leading role in the imaginings of the staff, apprecitices and guests here at the ETC, even though we have yet to play our first session. “Yes, yes,” says the impatient reader. “How does this answer to the concerns of someone reading an Ecovillage Training Center blog?”

How about this? When peak oil sets in, and the lights go out, you can have a marvelous soulful time listening to live accoustic music and singing along, but at some point, it might be nice to take a break from Kumbaya, heft an imaginary battle axe, and cleave the skull of an orc, hobgoblin, or ghoul who really has it coming. You don't need a computer or an internet connection. If you've got paper, dice, and an idea of how these things go, you don't need to spend a cent. I still remember the details of D&D sessions from 1981, but I drew almost a complete blank the other day when someone asked me about my master's thesis which I left undefended in 1996.

RPGs are definitely not cool, but they RULE!


  1. Thanks KMO!

    I started getting into D&D when I was 11. It was the dice which caught my eye first - I feel sorry for you that you're only using 6 sided dice, but I guess that was probably a plus for immediate starting.

    Unfortunately for me, my family moved overseas for 2 years and in the new location I couldn't find anyone to play with. I started collecting all the texts for my return home but when I got back to Australia at age 14 the boys were much more interested in girls and "being cool". A full set of D&D texts which never got played with :-(

    If I was there I'd be in with you for sure!

  2. Seems to me that you have brought much to The Farm and the ETC, KMO. I agree with you completely that this kind of fantasy rpg is most definitely group story telling. I think you will also find that it becomes theatre as well. It sounds like that may have already begun.

    And this is most certainly going to be a necessary part of successful post peak living, so I think this is a perfect ETC post.

    For the record, were it possible I would have been the first C-Realm listener to take part in the 2 month apprenticeship. Not to be all competitive about it...

    Peace and comfort.

  3. Actually, I keep urging ___________ (insert name of large media company I work for here) to develop a permaculture-based RPG, with requisite fantasy elements as an overlay; but so far, they haven't gone for it. Nonetheless, I think playing with a few simple low-cost (renewable) elements beats our coal-fired Internet-enabled subscription-based MMORPGs any day, and it's good practice for building those interactive community skills in the spirit of play.