Thinking Outside the Box? What Box?
I’ve been messing around with RPGs since I was twelve. I started Game Mastering when I was thirteen, but didn’t really get a chance to play them until I was fourteen. I’ve been around the block with a few different games… D&D (original, advanced, 2nd edition advanced, 3.0, 3.5, and 4), Traveler (original, GURPS Traveler, multiple home-brew variations), Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Chill, Mekton (original, 2nd edition, Zeta), Mechwarrior, Cyborg Commandos, Toon, GURPS (2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions), Stormbringer (original edition), Space Opera, Villains and Vigilantes, Call of Cthulhu (original, d20), Champions (2nd, 3rd, 4th, New Millenium), Cyberpunk (2013, 2020, Cybergen, 203x), Star Wars (d6, d6 second edition, d20, Saga edition), d20 Modern, Mutants and Masterminds (original, 2nd edition), World of Darkness (2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions, mostly Mage), Exalted, Aeon Trinity, Aberrant, Adventure, Marvel Super Heroes (original), Iron Crown (original), Paranoia (original), Middle Earth Roleplaying, In Nomine, Dream Park, Feng Shui (original), 7th Sea, Cthulhutech, Bureau 13, The Morrow Project, Sengoku, Rifts, and numerous home-brews. I’ve even written a couple, one of which was sell-able (so far).
If that seems like a lot, well, that’s thirty years of gaming experience. I can (and have) run RPGs in my sleep. While I have degrees in Communications and Christian Education, I’ve also tailored a lot of my collegiate elective courses around running better games, whether I knew it at the time or not. I took classes in small group dynamics, interpersonal communications, oral interpretation, statistics, and creative writing, for a start. After that, every class you take becomes another notch in your RPG belt; algebra, the popular literature of Fantasy and Horror, even all of my art classes just kind of worked around to being a part of the hobby that I love, and now the career that I love as much as the hobby.
As much as I love to run games, I love to play them. This was actually a problem, early on in my gaming career. You see, I started out being painfully shy and terribly reserved. I had a very hard time finding opportunities to game, and I had a hard time expressing myself in games. Heck, if it wasn’t for the guy who sat next to me, alphabetically, in my home room on the first day of High School, I may never have actually gotten to play. Fortunately for me, he was more open and forward and had just moved into the state, and was looking for a D&D game. He had one put together in a couple of weeks; we met in my basement and my life was never the same.
Still, my playing was kind of gray and drab. I had a lot of stuff in my head, you see, from years of reading my father’s extensive sci-fi and fantasy novel collection, but I didn’t want to overstep in game. I got attached to my characters and tried to protect them; they mostly ended up being horrific cowards. Some of the better GMs I had did some good work in bringing more heroism out of me, but I continued to be reserved. Then, I read the greatest thing I have ever read, before or since, in an RPG.
In the original player’s handbook for the game Paranoia, there is a page early-on with a picture of a character hanging from a helicopter and shooting. The caption under the picture reads “Put on a good show, and the fates will smile upon you.”
It’s true. It’s true for so many reasons. I was sitting down at a table and rolling dice, narrating the actions and choices of a fictional character. There was no reason, then or ever, to play in a reserved manner; fortune favors the brave. When I play any game, these days, I play my characters like Douglas Adams wrote Ford Prefect in the Hithiker’s Guide books; FIRST you dive out the window, THEN you figure out how you’re going to land safely.
When I GM, I encourage that level of play from my players, as well. We’re not there to write a paper on investigation, we’re there to have a story to tell that will last the rest of our lives. I fully expect to be sitting in a rocking chair at the age of 80 and saying “remember that time that my Jedi took out that Eclipse Star Destroyer all on my own? Oh, the GM is probably STILL bitching about it…”
The key to these strategies in RPGs is to regard standard thinking and tactics as anathema. You know… The Box. The box made out of standard, rational, and limiting expectations… that’s what I stay out of. Heck, there are times that I simply refuse to believe in the existence of the Box.
“You’re carrying a Lucerne Hammer into the dungeon? You know that’s fifteen feet long, right? Well, ok, you’re going to be walking sideways down a lot of these corridors.”
“That’s fine. I’ll keep it tied across my back… width-wise.”
“Sounds kinda dumb, but ok. Oh, wait… you’ve hit a trap door!”
“Well, suck. I’m a fighter, I’ve got next to no reflex save. Oh, wait… the whole square opens up under me?”
“Yes, the whole square.”
“The whole ten-foot by ten-foot square?”
“Yes the whole ten-foot by… oh, dammit…”
“Yeah, my fifteen foot Lucerne Hammer will catch me nicely, there. Could someone help me up?”
“You find yourself floating up to the ceiling. You’re stuck up there, on the twenty-foot-high ceiling, while your companions are being attacked on the floor.”
“Oh, I am? Let’s see, my character is about six feet tall… awesome.”
“Yeah… I attack the monster.”
“How are you doing that?”
“Lucerne Hammer. Fifteen feet long. If I do an over-head swing, I’ve got more than enough reach to hit a seven foot monster standing twenty feet over my head. Heck, I can call a shot for his groin from here.”
“Well, all right… but then he’ll be attacking you.”
“With what? Did HE bring a Lucerne Hammer into the dungeon with him?”
“God damn it, Scott…”
In truth, the DM that I did that to wasn’t really all that upset… when you have a good DM, even when they’re trying to murder your character with the original Tomb of Horrors, they’re just as happy as you are when you find a creative way to beat a difficult situation. I’ve gotten those reactions, though, and worse, when a GM has laid down a sure-fire doomsday situation and I’ve walked around to the other side of it using the corridor he thought that no one noticed.
This is one reason that I will always prefer paper and dice RPGs to computer RPGs. Sure, more modern computer RPGs often try to give players options, but there are still a limited number of paths through any situation. Often, there are critical decision points where there is only one course of action available. In a paper-and-dice game being run by a properly flexible GM, you don’t see these as often; particularly in more recent games. The imagination of the player can trump an awful lot of concrete difficulties. Or, you know, use concrete on their difficulties…
“The bad guy is totally invulnerable! We can’t damage him at all… and if we don’t stop him, he’ll release the doomsday plague!”
“Can we talk him out of it?”
“No… we’ve tried!’
“All right. I’m going to need three tons of concrete mix.”
“We… well… are you going to drop it on him, or…”
“No, I’m going to cover him in it. Then I’m going to reinforce it with rebar and put another ton or so on top of that.”
“Um… he says he’s willing to talk now…”
“Yeah, I’ll bet he is. Go ahead and back the trucks right up there. Open wide, bee-yatch!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. If a GM is trying to go for a very specific flavor of game, I’m very happy to stay within that flavor. If it’s supposed to be kind of desperate, I’m all for a game full of tension and drama. I just try to keep myself aware of options that the GM may not have considered, and I try to use them appropriately. Sometimes, a game is all about combat, and that’s fine… that can be fun too. Because it is all about having fun. There are basically two different times to really eschew the Box.
Firstly, if the GM is open to a certain amount of inspired improvisation, and is having as much fun watching you find clever and entertaining ways to bend their scenario into a pretzel as you are doing it. That’s a good game, right there, because everyone is into the creation of a story, rather than a set of rote challenges.
Secondly, if the GM is simply trying to murder the party, or hold them impotent while the GM dominates the session. That’s not necessarily a good game at all; I’ve been that GM in the past, and it was never as much fun as I thought it would be. In that case, shooting the thing that the GM would never expect you to shoot or filling the dungeon with cows is not only permissable; it’s a creative player’s duty. Either the GM will get the idea that maybe everyone is there to be awesome, and it’s wrong to flex GM “awesomeness” at the expense of the players, or the GM will quit running, and someone else can try to run a better game. In either case, the majority of people involved in the exercise win, in my opinion.
Life is too short to be stuck in bad games.
When everyone at the table laughs so hard that someone spews soda out their nose, and/or you’re telling the story of the game for years afterwards, then everyone has won. That’s the thing I really love about RPGs… sure, you could play it competitively, so that only one or a few people there win, but it’s entirely possible (and in my opinion, preferable) to play them cooperatively, where everyone wins.