Most Surprising Game — #RPGaDay2015, Day 4
Man, the days just fly by around here.
I’m not going to bitch about Autocratik, since I barely know the guy, but it’s a little weird to go from the strictly defined criteria of the first few entries (“Most anticipated forthcoming,” “Favorite game of the past year,” etc.) to the rather ambiguous “Most Surprising” by the fourth entry. I had gotten quite used to the rails I was riding on, only to find myself pondering which direction to go with this new category.
Should I venture into territory of games that I assumed would be good, only to be surprised at their general awfulness? Or do I toss the ring at games I picked up for a larf, only to really enjoy them? Moreover, should these be current, relevant games (as the first three entries were generally required to be) or old relics plucked from the used bin at some increasingly ephemeral local gaming store? When should this game have surprised me? Recently? Back when I first started gaming? I mean, if we’re going to dig back through the mists of yesteryear, my threshold of surprise was a lot lower and easier to overcome, in comparison to my current jaded self.
Most Surprising Game
Let’s try this: The game I’m going to talk about is the game that has, most consistently, surprised me in terms of what the normal interpretation by the fans has been, in comparison to how I, myself, have interpreted the game.
The immediate question to resolve with this is how I define my terms. For the purposes of this entry, let’s assume that you’ve picked up a game of some sort or another. Let’s say it’s some iteration of Star Wars, be it original WEG D6, Wizards’ D20, or FFG’s DWhatever. You’ve seen the movies each a dozen times (except for the prequels, because seriously…), you had licensed sheets and pillow cases, and there may be a couple of Ralph McQuarrie posters on your walls. You regularly toss around favorite quotes, and the back of your closet hides a half-dozen broken lightsaber toys, rent from mock battles in the back yard. You know this stuff, backward and forward.
Naturally, when you sit down at the table to game, you’re going to build sagas of desperate odds, implacable and technocratic foes, and weird samurai mysticism. You know, the stuff you loved from the movies. One player is going to build the world-weary smuggler, another has the sheltered aristocrat, and a third has the wide eyed idealist that may or may not be an ace pilot in his spare time. There will be droids, starships, and guns. It will be recognizable.
And after you’ve played for a time, you start investigating the internet fan community. And none of it makes sense.
They’re playing Star Wars, but it’s not anything that you properly recognize. For some reason, they’re focusing on vampires, and most of their session notes make references to Meg Ryan movies of the mid-90’s, rather than science fiction. They’ve all chosen to set their games on a single planet, involve themselves in small retail concerns, and most of the actual role-playing involves their attempts to define their relationships in the face of a changing landscape of career options. None of these careers involve shooting guns or flying starships.
I’m not saying any of these games would be bad. But if I just got through a marathon of science fiction movies, capped off by the battle of the second Death Star, I’d have a hard time trying to reconcile any of these campaign ideas with what I want to play in a Star Wars game. These ideas belong in some other game that would be better suited for that type of play. I mean, play what your group wants to play, but there are better vehicles for such things. And none of the source material supports any of these ideas.
This is how I feel when I talk about Exalted. When I first picked up the original edition, it was a strange, barren land where the society was forged from a broken empire and the heroes of all the myths and legends had been killed. The implication was that they had made deals with darker powers, and their servants had risen up to destroy them, leaving a drifting and rudderless world of regional powers poised on the brink of unnecessary war. The default assumption was that the player characters were the lost heroes reborn, saddled with a destiny they couldn’t possibly fulfill in a setting that sought to silence their ambitions. Second Edition shifted a little bit of this around, but there was always the sense that things in the First Age had descended into madness, but the plots of the Sidereals and Dragon-Blooded legions were an overcorrection that doomed the world to a different misery.
For my part, I always ran my games with a heavy dosing of Greek Tragedy, as the mythic hubris of the Solars had caused the destruction of their great empire and works, and it was the role of the newly reincarnated heroes to try to forge a new world without the mistakes of the old. All of this bases on the mythic underpinnings of the game itself, which draws from the mythic traditions of the different cultures of the world. There is a lot of Western mythic tradition within the pages of the Exalted main books, but there is as much that draws from Japanese, Chinese and Indian sources as well. This is a game about gods and heroes, where the Solar Exalts play some version between Hercules and Sun Wukong.
This is not how the internet forums tend to run this game, however.
Exalted, for better or worse, used a lot of anime influence for their artwork. This attracted an audience of gamers, but these players and GM’s never seemed to dig beneath the surface to see what the game itself was concerned with. Instead of seeing the mythic structure beneath the initial impression, most forums appear to have stuck solidly with the anime ideals and used the game to run their favorite Naruto or Sailor Moon fanfic. All too often, horror stories would emerge from the different forums to talk about how one person’s experience of the game ran into how many quotes the players could wedge in from a particular anime or what ridiculous overpower build they could get away with. There was no divine consequence for their actions (as I would have inflicted in my games), and the characters were encouraged to play at being irresponsible powermongers because it was cool.
People will play the game they want to play. I understand that. But I feel a bit like the character of Mugato in Zoolander, like I’m the one taking crazy pills. People in the forums talk about how their characters are wildly overpowered this way or that, and I can only shake my head. The great and epic game that I ran, back in the day, had the player characters hedging their power against the grim outcomes that they saw lurking on the horizon. I once made the object of an epic quest turn out to be an artifact of world-ending potential. (The Five Metal Shrike. Look it up, if you’re so inclined.) My players’ reaction was to lock it away in a box to make sure that it could never be used, either by them or against them. This was an item of ultimate power and potential, and they saw how it could all go so very wrong.
And this is what is so surprising about this game for me.
The precepts of the game are spelled out in great detail, and there is little question to me as to what the central themes of the game happen to be. But none of these ideals translate into the normal experience of people playing the game. And judging from the drafts I’ve seen of the 3rd Edition rules (“The Most Playtested Game Ever Written,” my ass), the designers have no idea either.