Introducing Project Awesome
Warning: this post contains lots of references to obscure roleplaying games.
First, I should write a little bit about myself. My name is James Graham and, among many other things, I’m a bit of a geek. I first got into tabletop roleplaying when I was 8, not long after discovering The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. The first game I ever owned was 2nd edition Runequest, although like most other people my age the game I first played properly was “red box” Dungeons & Dragons.
I’ve been playing RPGs intermittently ever since. For anyone interested, my main games essentially boiled down to: Golden Heroes, Judge Dredd (which in turn got me intothe 2000AD comic), Call of Cthulhu, Middle Earth Roleplaying System (not that I ever got my young head around the rules), Warhammer FRP, DC Heroes and Vampire: The Masquerade. I sort of stopped gaming in the mid-90s when I was studying in Manchester, started again when I moved back to London and continued when I moved to Leeds, stopped when I moved down south again and have had a number of false attempts to get games up and running over the last eight years. Although I haven’t been “seriously” into RPGs since leaving Leeds a decade ago, I’ve kept a hand in and have continued to buy the odd rulebook - particularly the gorgeous strokey kind. :)
So that brings you more or less up to date. This blog marks a real attempt to get back into RPGs but to do so by adopting a slightly different approach. And this blog post is an attempt to explain why.
What I’ve noticed over the past couple of decades is that the idea of what an RPG “is” has diversified wildly. Vampire: the Masquerade encouraged its players to adopt a more literary approach, with its focus on theme and mood. In the late 90s I got quite into Hogshead publishing, ostensibly because they were publishing Warhammer, but very quickly because I was interested in their more experimental games such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the frankly perplexing Nobilis.
Savage Worlds was a bit of a revelation to me. Although ostensibly a mainstream RPG, it has a number of interesting elements such as it’s stripped down rule system and the way it differentiates between “Wildcard” characters (including the PCs) and, um, cannon fodder. But the most exciting games which I’ve come across over the past year have been the ones which place the greatest emphasis on collaboration. These are, in order of discovery, Starblazer Adventures, ICONS and the Smallville RPG.
What’s exciting to me about these games is almost diametrically opposite to how I’ve been playing games for the past 15 years or so. My theory was that, as a busy, working person and no longer a teenager, the only games I had time to run were ones using published settings and scenarios. I don’t have time to develop my own ideas and, frankly, in the past have had very little success at doing so - so why delude myself and try to do it when there are so many published campaigns out there?
The flaw in that line of thinking is that even the most brilliant of published scenarios is only as good as the GM, and very rarely does anything go according to plan. So, as GM you very often end up ad-libbing anyway to fit around the dozens of awkward decisions your characters have made from having the “wrong” character balance through to simply insisting on going left instead of right. Far too often these books are not a crutch but a handicap as you desperately flick through the book trying to work out to what extent you’re going to screw up everything else if you allow the players to kill off that crucial supporting cast character who is set to play a pivotal role in future scenarios. You very quickly learn that the only way to get round all that is to get the right mix of improvisation and preparation - which is what you’d have to do even if you weren’t using a published campaign.
But there’s still my struggle to come up with ideas I really like. What’s more, how do you ensure that the game you play is something your players want to play? Big advantage of adopting a more collaborative approach, at least in theory, is that the game you come up with is something your players all have a stake in and actually have an interest in.
Then there’s the problem with, who you play with. In the good old days, I was quite content with meeting a bunch of people at a club or online and playing a game with them. I’ve made a number of good friends that way down the line. But it does tend to mean you are fishing from the same pool; other roleplayers. And when you get to your late-mid 30s, that pool tends to be rapidly diminishing unless you are happy with playing with a bunch of teenagers.
The people I most want to roleplay with are my friends, many of whom would not under normal circumstances be interested in gaming. If I want those people to play with me, I need to find a way of making it more appealing for them. In Chris Birch’s introduction to Starblazer Adventures, he was at pains to emphasise that it was a game he had had a lot of success in interesting his non-RPG friends to play. That appealed to me.
I’ve already had one attempt at collaborative world building which a couple of old friends of mine attempted online last autumn using the rules laid out in Starblazer Adventures. We made a lot of progress and it is something that at some point I’d quite like to return to, but it was a very slow process as it depended on everyone essentially taking turns. It was very difficult to come to a conclusion about anything in a way that we’d have probably managed to do quite quickly if we’d been in a room together (or, note to self, thrashed it out on Skype or a Google Hangout).
However much I admire Starblazer Adventures though, when I came across Smallville I was smitten. This wasn’t because I liked the setting; I gave up on the TV show at around season 3. What appealed was that this was a game which adopted a radically different approach to gaming compared to anything I’d seen before.
A great many RPGs still reveal their war game origins. Dungeons & Dragons is still, at its heart, a set of tactical combat simulation rules and even quite modern games lend as much rulebook space to combat as they do to every other kind of contest.
Smallville has a whole section on resolving tests and contests, but the rules apply as much to chasing someone down a street or having an argument as they do to having a fist fight. Instead of being a game focused around tactical combat, this is a game in which the characters relationships and ideals plays as important a role in the game mechanics as the ability to fire a bow and arrow. In short, the system is wedded around the sort of tropes you would expect to see in an ensemble based genre TV show. Of course that applies to Smallville, but it is very clear (especially once you read the rules in the Watchtower Report expansion book) that the system could be used to simulate any similar TV show, from Buffy and Angel through to (with a little tweaking) Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. That’s quite appealing to me and, I’m hoping, to the gaming virgins I’m hoping to interest in my new game as well.
So, in a nutshell, this is my idea: get a group of friends together, some of whom have played RPGs before and some of whom have not, find out what they’re interested in, get them to come up with a setting collectively, create some characters in that world, and have a play. A lot could go wrong. This could all fall apart at the first hurdle if we can’t even agree what the game should be about. On the other hand, it is just possible that we might be able to come up with something both original and personal which we’ll get excited about and want to invest in. This blog is intended to chronicle this attempt, wherever it may lead.