Saturday, July 17, 2004

Role Playing Games I Have Played

Yesterday I talked a bit about role playing games. I have to admit that I played very, very many I was younger. And I must also admit that I have fond memories of my time spent playing them. I can remember most of them fairly clearly.

Oddly enough, while AD&D was the first role playing game I ever played, my memories of AD&D games aren't as clear as those of other games. Like most people I played a succession of characters. When it came to fantasy role playing games, the group of people I played with came to prefer Rolemaster. What set Rolemaster apart from AD&D was that it had many more character classes (classes are something like the character's occupation or profession) and an extensive skill system. This allowed players to create characters who were unlike any other characters in the game. I remember my favourite character in the game. He was an elvan "noble warrior," a class of fighters with special ablities. His name was Thorne and he was a deadly character. I also GMed ("Gamemastered" or refereed) my own Rolemaster campaign for a few years. I think I enjoyed GMing it almost as much as I enjoyed playing it. Rolemaster was published by Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E. for short), which went out of business a few years ago. I think that was unfortunate, as they produced some good games.

Our group of role players never did get too much into science fiction oriented games. We did play Traveller a bit, but none of our campaigns lasted very long. When it came to science fiction role playing games, I preferred I. C. E.'s Spacemaster. Our Spacemaster campaign only lasted about six months. I played an escaped replicant (think Blade Runner) who became a pilot. I had a good deal of fun playing that character, particularly ducking the corporation who legally owned me.

For some reason we had much more success with the Western genre, around which Boot Hill was based. I GMed a long running Boot Hill campaign as well as played in a few Boot Hill games myself. And I had some favourite characters came from that game. One was Captain Adam Caine, a Texas Ranger who could be aptly described as the Old West's answer to Dirty Harry. Caine was not only fast on the draw, but deadly accurate too. His partner was Captain Eben (short for Ebeneezer) Able. Caine and Able's relationship was something like that of Doc and Festus's relationship on Gunsmoke. They were always taking digs at each other, but always the first on the scene when the other needed help. Another character I played in Boot Hill was on the opposite side of the law. Jason Hammer was a gunslinger and an outlaw. He was fast and accurate with a gun. Unfortunately for him, he never pulled off a succssful crime in his life. This was due to his partner, John Tyler, who was strong as an ox, but not particularly bright. Hammer would come up with a scheme and somehow Tyler would figure out a way to spoil it. Somehow, despite Tyler's stupidity, they both evaded the law.

The longest campaign I ever GMed, and perhaps the longest anyone GMed in our county, was a Daredevils campaign. Daredevils was a game devoted to adventures of the sort found in the old heroic pulp magazines and movie serials. It was published by Fantasy Games Unliimited. My games essentially played out like a pulp novel or movie serial, compete with cliffhangers. The heroes of the game belong to the Curran Detective Agency (ran by Maxwell "Max Dog" Curran), who regularly faced an array of criminal masterminds and supervillains. I think I may have enjoyed Daredevils more than any other game I GMed.

I also enjoyed a game named Chill, even though our campaign did not last that long. Chill was based around the horror genre. My character was Vladimir Stanislav, a former KGB agent who had the misfortune of encountering a werewolf on one of his missions. He defected to the United States and joined a organisation devoted to investigating the supernatural. Despite this, he was more James Bond than Fox Mulder and carried an array of gadgets he had kept from his days as a spy.

Of course, when it came to horror, very few games are as scarey as Call of CthuluCall of Cthulu was based around the mythos created by writer H. P. Lovecraft. While in many games the challenge is just keeping one's character alive,  the challenge in Call of Cthulu was simply keeping one's character's sanity. In the world of H. P. Lovecraft, there are gods, demons, and even forbidden books that can drive one mad. My character was a private investigator often in the employ of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. He was often out of his depth when investigating cases, but he at least knew what to avoid. Perhaps becuase of this he kept his sanity when many of the other characters in the game had been sent to the mental hospital.

We also played role playing games devoted to superheroes. One was Champions, in which we had a few long running campaigns. In one the various players played a rotating roster of characters, ranging from White Lightning (think The Flash as a drunken womaniser) to The Meteor (what if the Silver Surfer was a down on his luck actor). Another was set in a world in which every single conspiracy of which one can think was real. In that game I played a character called The Black Blade, who wielded a sentient (and, unfortunately, evil) sword. Loving comic books as much as I do, I enjoyed Champions a lot. We also played another superhero game called Villains and Vigilantes. My character in it was the Cat Lord. The Cat Lord was the King of the Cats. He not only had the abilities of a cat, but he could shapeshift into any feline that ever existed and, naturally, he could talk to cats. He was a fun character to play.

I played many more role playing games. In fact, I am not sure how many I have played in my life. I do know that I enjoyed most of them. I cannot say my time was wasted playing them. I honestly think they helped exercise my imagination and even made me a better writer. Indeed, there are times when I do miss role playing.

Friday, July 16, 2004

To Play Is the Thing: Role Playing Games

In my youth I played a good number of role playing games. A role playing game is a game in which the players create fictional characters, each with their own histories, personalities, and motivations distinct from their own. Another individual, the game master (GM for short), controls the imaginary enviroment in which the player characters exist (anything from a Tolkienesque fantasy world to World War II Europe), from playing non-player characters (NPCs) to creating the settings for adventures. The game master also acts as referee for the game. I suppose a simpler way of defining role playing games is that they are like improvisational dramas with rules. In many ways they are simply modern, adult variations on the old children's games of "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and Indians."

Of course, the most famous role playing game is Dungeons and Dragons. It was also the first. Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D for short, has its roots in a medieval wargame called Chainmail. First published in the late Sixties, Chainmail gradually developed the characteristics of a role playing game, such as scenarios in which a greater emphasis was placed on the heroics of individual characters than troop maneouvres. Further moving Chainmail away from the realm of wargames and into the realm of role playing games was the additon of a fantasy supplement to the rules in 1971 (including rules on magic). By that time David Arneson and Gary Gygax and others at TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) actively began developing what would become Dungeons and Dragons. It was eventually published in 1974 and it took the wargaming world by storm. Other role playing games, such as Game Designer's Workshop's sci-fi game Traveller, appeared almost immediately. The success of Dungeons and Dragons led TSR to revise and expand the rules, resulting in the publication of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D for short). AD&D proved even more sucessful than the original D&;D.

It was about this time that I discovered AD&D. In 1981 my brother went off to college. When he returned on Thanksgiving break, he introduced me to the game. It was not long before we had our own group of players. It was also not long before we started playing other games: Boot Hill, Traveller, Daredevils, Call of Cthulu, Rolemaster, Champions, and others. In fact, we would eventually abandon AD&D. I GMed a Daredevils campaign that lasted 10 years myself, as well as long running Rolemaster and Boot Hill campaigns.

It seems to me that we were not unique in taking up role playing games as a hobby. In the early Eighties, AD&D and other role playing games became a bit of a fad. I have no statistics to back this up, but I suspect that 1984 may have been the peak of the role playing fad. I seem to remember more new games coming out at that time than any other. Of course, it seems that most new pastimes pick up more than their fair share of detractors and role playing games were no different. In 1984 Jack Chick started publishing his notorious tracts preaching the "evils" of role plaing games; among his claims was that they teach kids to use "real magic (which is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds...)." Another detractor was Pat Pulling, who claimed that her son had committed suicide because a "curse" had been placed on him n a D&D game. She founded a group called Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons (B.A.D.D. for short). Like Tom Chick, her claims regarding role playing games were wildly inaccurate and spurious at best. In 1990 her career ended when sci-fi writer and game designer Michael A. Stackpole published a long and detailed essay called The Pulling Report, which debunked all of her claims regarding role playing games.

As a role player myself at the time, I have to admit that I was infuriated by role playing games' detractors. I still am. Role playing games do not teach children "real magic." Role playing games do not lead people down the primrose path of devil worship. Role playing games do not lead to a life of crime. In the nearly 20 years that I role played, I have not seen anyone destroyed because they role played. Indeed, of the people I have role played with, one became a police officer, one became an osteopath, one became an archaeologist, one became a writer (myself)... You get the picture. They are all well adjusted individuals with respectable careers and most of them have families of their own. I suppose that taken to the extreme, role playing games could be a bad thing. Certainly, an individual who gets so caught up in the fantasy of role playing games that he or she lets his or her responsibilities in real life slide would not have a happy life. But then this holds true of anything, whether it is golf, watching movies, or playing mahjong.

As the Eighties passed, the role playing game fad gradually faded and the games went with it. Many role playing publishers went out of business as fewer and fewer people played the games. White Wolf re-energised the field when they introduced Vampire: the Masquerade, although I am not certain that role playing games have ever been as popular as they were in the Eighties. No doubt, the introduction of video games, computer games, and such MMORPGS (Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs--role playing games played online) as Everquest, played a role in the decline.

At any rate, I enjoyed my time spent role playing and I am none the worse for wear. I have some very fond memories of playing AD&D, Daredevils, Champions, Vampire: the Dark Ages and other games. I think role playing games helped strengthen my imagination, improved my ablity to develop plots, and improved my ablity to develop characters. I do think that they made me a better writer. Even though I don't role play any more, I don't regret one minute I spent on role plaing games.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Yellow Submarine

Last week I got Yellow Submarine on DVD. It is one of my favourite movies from childhood. I remember that CBS used to show Yellow Submarine every July 4th. Naturally, I watched it every time. In 1987, Yellow Submarine was released on VHS. One of my friends had a copy, so I was able to see Yellow Submarine for the first time in years. As a young adult I was still impressed with the film, Indeed, I was able to appreciate many of the jokes that went over my head as a child.

Of course, the version issued on DVD in 1999 was not the version released on VHS here in the United States in 1987. After Yellow Submarine was released in the United Kingdom, it was decided that the movie ran too long. As a result, two sequences were cut for the American release. The first sequence to be cut was one in which The Beatles met their counterparts from Pepperland, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The other sequence was the one involving the song "Hey, Bulldog." This was the version that was shown in American theatres, shown on American television, and released on VHS in the States in 1987. The 1999 DVD release, both in America and in Europe, is the original British version, complete with the Beatles meeting Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band and "Hey, Bulldog."

Having watched the movie repeatedly since I got the DVD, I can say that it stands the test of time. If anything, I can appreciate it more as a middle aged man than as a child or a young adult. When it was released, Yellow Submarine was a bold departure from any animated film that had been made before. Each sequence was done in a slightly different style, ranging from the "Eleanor Rigby" sequence, which drew upon actual photos of Liverpool and real people, to the Pop Art style of the "Only a Northern Song" sequence. Yellow Submarine was the first animated feature to draw upon the Pop Art of the day, psychedelia, Op Art, and many other modern artistic styles. It was also the first animated film with a rock soundtrack and the first animated feature with characters based upon real people (The Beatles). Today, Yellow Submarine still has a unique look; no other animated film looks quite like it. Of course, if one does not care for Pop Art or Sixties psychedelia, he or she might well find the film more annoying than enjoyable. Fortunatly, I like both Pop Art and psycedelia!

It has often been said that Yellow Submarine has a loose narrative and I have to admit that to a large degree this is true. That having been said, however, while the narrative may be loose, it is also a strong narrative. As John notes in the film, The Beatles' adventures aboard the Yellow Submarine are reminiscent of those of a Mr. Ulysses. Yellow Submarine is the Sixties equivalent of The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and Gulliver's Travels. I suppose students of Joseph Campbell might consider it another variation of the Heroic Journey. Beyond its literary roots as a modern odyssey, Yellow Submarine is rife with satire. Many of the characters and situations are satircal looks at various aspects of pop culture and Sixties society. Of course, Yellow Submarine is also very much a comedy. Indeed, like The Beatles' films A Hard Day's Night and Help!, the jokes are almost non-stop and of all varieties. The one-liners range from Henny Youngman style jokes to puns to literary references to injokes involving Beatles songs. If one has a low tolerance for non-stop one liners, I suppose he or she wouldn't like the film. Fortuntely, I like non-stop one liners.

Finally, I have to admit that I am a bit mystified as to why they cut the sequence in which The Beatles meet Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the "Hey, Bulldog" sequence. In the case of the meeting between The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, it does explain some things that were a bit of a mystery in the American version of the film. As to the "Hey, Bulldog" sequence, it is a very funny and well done sequence, remniscent of both silent comedies and the cartoon shorts of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I must also point out that "Hey, Bulldog" is probably the best of the four original songs written for the film ("Only a Northern Song," "All Together Now," "It's All Too Much," and "Hey, Bulldog"). Indeed, "Hey, Bulldog" has always been one of my favourite Beatles songs! At any rate, I don't see that these two sequences make the movie run longer. If anything, they add a good deal more enjoyment to an already enjoyable movie.

I loved Yellow Submarine as a child. I still love Yellow Submarine. If you have never seen it, I remcommend that you do, especially if you love The Beatles, Sixties Pop Art and psychedelia, or animated films.

Monday, July 12, 2004

The Decline of Poetry

I wrote a new poem over the weekend. I will not be publishing it here as I do not believe that I am a very good poet. I'm not going to embarrass myself with my poetry. Of course, I have to admit that I have very little use for modern poetry. In most cases it does not look like poetry to me at all. There is no rhythm (or at best very little rhythm), no rhyme, and often no reason either. It usually looks to me like prose that someone has simply typed in an odd fashion (that is my personal definition of free verse). I've often thought that the 19th century was the last century when poetry of any quality was written.

I have no idea of where the idea of poetry without rhythm or without rhyme originated. I suspect it might have been with Walt Whitman. Whitman used a very loose rhythm in his lines. Sometimes he used rhymes ("O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;/The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won..."). Sometimes he didn't (I sing the Body electric;/The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;/They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,/And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul..."). I tend to like Whitman's poetry when his rhythms are a bit tighter and he utilises rhyme. I tend to dislike Whitman's poetry when his rhythms are loose (or non-existent) and he does not utilise rhyme. Unfortunately, it seems to me that Whitman's poems with loose or non-existent rhythms and without rhyme have been the most influential. At the very least, it seems to me the majority of modern poets follow their lead.

Personally, I would rather modern poets look to Lord Byron or Edgar Allan Poe for inspiration. Both Byron and Poe were masters at rhythm and rhyme. And they were both capable of the most beautiful imagery to be found in poetry. If I were to create a list of the greatest poems of all time, both Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" and Poe's "Annabell Lee" would rank in the top ten.

Of course, I don't want it to sound as if I believe that rhyme is all important to poetry. In the poetry of various ancient, Germanic peoples, alliteration rather than "end rhyme" was used in poetry. The perfect example of this is the Old English poem Beowulf . In the original language it is absolutely beautiful. Another example is the collection of Old Norse poems known as the Poetic Edda. These poems are absolutely beautiful in the alliteration used within them and in their rhythms. Like the poems of Byron and Poe, the poems of the ancient, Germanic peoples have structure.

Indeed, I suspect that the reason poetry is not as popular as it once was is that, at least to me, it seems as if most modern poems have very little, if any structure. Among the ancient, Germanic peoples, poetry was probably the most popular art. It continued to be popular into the Middle Ages, into the Renaissance, and well into the 19th century. It seems no coincidence to me that poetry declined in popularity in the 20th century when "free verse" became the norm. I very seriously doubt that many people today read poetry at all.

My hope is that a new Byron or a new Poe will arise, someone who does not write in free verse, someone who writes real poetry. Maybe then future poets can throw off the legacy of Whitman and poetry will once more become a popular art.