On and on and on
Posted by Ron Edwards
As I mentioned in a recent comment, it might be hard to imagine, or for that matter to remember, that by the early 1980s, long-form role-playing was just hitting the state of an accomplished reality rather than an imagined ideal, enough to reflect upon and to wonder what it was for. Maybe not for everyone (a nod toward Prof. M. A. R. Barker, and two certain someones named Arneson and Stafford), but for the ruck-and-run of plain old nameless role-players, yes. Add to that the special intensity and relative freedom of playing superheroes, especially after an adolescence in the freewheeling comics of the 1970s. Now add to that the re-shaping of long-form comics, which by the early 1980s had become a new, franchise-driven, multi-title project, tied into the new direct-sales venue and the opportunity to define what collector and fan meant for a whole age bracket.
The last couple posts may have struck you as nostalgia. They may have given the impression of the dewy-eyed aging gamer, remembering yesteryear fondly, thumbing his crappy old long-forgotten purchases by the fire, talking about what was almost certainly same-old mediocre play by even more awkward compatriots than he was. “Yup, them old modules, real crackies, lemme tell ya.” Perhaps with a perfectly clear drippy-drop forming under his nose, capturing your attention by the mathematical precision of its expansion relative to your disgust that he’s not even noticing let alone wiping it. Perhaps about to shut up, finally, to fix his hand upon his cane with only minimal fumbling, then to stand, sort of, and toddle off.
Yeah no, as my midwestern friends say. This post is about those same modules I wrote about last week – but this time, to tell you what vortex of abomination opened in those days and mutated the whole-and-entire pack of role-playing into a nasty distortion which is still and now the new normal. Such that you don’t even know what vat you festered in, thinking it growth. “Gamer culture.” Culture is right! This is about how that happened.
Superhero adventures modules, later called scenarios, serve as a micro-example compared to the larger RFGA, Dragonlance, and TSR circumstances which probably play the biggest causal role. But they are a very good micro-example because they were disconnected from those and not trying to imitate them, unlike other titles and companies focused on fantasy role-playing. Now, work with one of my points from last time that these modules were both evidence of play and training for play, far more so than the core books. Let’s also skate past the absolutely initial adventures, the two Islands and a couple others, which were almost exercises in “look my character shoots lightning” and weren’t much more than skirmish maps. The ones that came right after were dramatically different, especially in characterization of villains and tons of dubious and suspicious supporting cast: a plethora of back-story, amusing and/or disturbing personal psychology, and tangles of sex and money.
And yet, at odds with those very things, they also present an absolute commitment to complete blocking of player inquiry and character abilities and moving forward to the next clue or next fight based on permission only. There is literally no way for a given adventure to proceed except via the GM moving the player-characters directly to a designated spot for a designated encounter with a designated “next step” outcome. All other stated action meets with full and mandated failure. The potential for emergent, unplanned interactions among all those nifty characters, let alone between any of them and a player’s hero, is flatly denied.
What really strikes me at this moment of review is the startling antagonistic treatment of player-GM interactions. Over and over, the modules’ phrasing clearly indicates that the players, by default, do not want to participate, and therefore their heroes must be enticed or forced into each step of the planned events, and that the players should “pay” via harm to their characters or be directly guilt-tripped should they require extra of either. It’s especially explicit in the Cliffe material:
The main suspects in this plot could also be interrogated. This would require a great deal of good role-playing on the GM’s part to properly confuse the player as well as not to supply him with enough information to deduce the proper murderer at this time.
Of course, the player-hero will not understand much of this when he/she sees the computer printout. It’s always a bit amusing to see a player deal with the frustration of attempting to decipher a possible set of clues.
There’s more, like chortling in-text about how the players will “want to rip the GM’s ears off” as if that were an accomplishment. The same assumptions or presumptions are implied or necessarily in place given certain text, throughout the modules across many authors, more and more with each passing year of publication. The players are characterized, sometimes including invective, as balky or overly-creative actors whom the director must muscle into obedience so the script may be properly shot. The modules are written by GMs for GMs in exclusion of the players, setting up the identity of the creator + GM + author pitted against the players + audience members – the former knowing “how it’s supposed to go” and “what to do,” exerting “control” over the latter’s presumed ineptitude and Brownian-motion play to produce reliable results. Thus the process of play – players say what their characters do, roll dice to see what outcomes ensue – is not trusted to achieve the proper goal of “author delivers story to audience;” therefore the alleged system, all the points-spending, the listed skills and powers, and operations of dice and numbers, is to be like the little kid turning his plastic steering wheel ’round and ’round in the back seat, going “pbbb,” as the parent drives.
Remember: these products are how people were trained to play. They are teaching texts, the scaffolding in the language of that profession – what you have a person do as they are in the state of learning what to do. What they scaffold is that your (the GM’s) creative commitment is under threat from players’ very presence. Therefore the creativity and personal inspiration a player may bring to character creation, in which lie the truly startling power of the early superhero RPG designs, are relegated to omega value, forced into irrelevance. That’s because the scenario is supposed to “go properly” regardless of which heroes are involved – the modules are, in that sense, absolutely modular, built for plug-and-play without regard for whether it’s Captain Zap or Mistress Midnight.
Two related points as callbacks to prior posts:
- No wonder people flailed so badly with Disadvantages – if they didn’t frame unique problems and situations in which the hero’s exact decisions were unplanned before play, then they had no purpose at all.
- No wonder so much play focused on maximizing the tactical effort during hours-long intensive fights on hex maps. It’s the only time the player actually gets to do anything (and no wonder they gravitated so fast to Killing Attacks, as the only way to do anything that does anything).
- The groups I played in, as well as others I read about, essentially redesigned combat to permit faster but also more unpredictable and idiosyncratic outcomes.
The next step is more profound: programmed saga play, for which Exhibit A is Dennis Mallonee’s The Coriolis Effect. This was “my” module, in combination with V&V’s Assassin, the foundation for my second major Champions game (see Going for baroque), a pretty fair adaptation of the Phoenix saga crossed with Doctor Strange.
It’s famous for a lot of things, including meticulous and clear prose, nifty character construction, the cover by Denis Loubet and gorgeous interior art by Glenn Johnson … but it’s a railroad. The intro, how Coriolis gets her powers, the romance, the backstory reveals, who dies when, who does what, the powers mounting out of control, et cetera … lockstep. This isn’t a manual for play, it’s a story to be read, and at the table, enacted. The player heroes have roles to play in it, primarily those of semi-active witnesses, with one of them potentially cast as the supporting romantic interest. Nothing to do with their own unique properties at all, which by implication means those aren’t even properties.
Again, it’s not a one-time adventure, it’s a saga, the exact analogy to the long-form editor planning of a comics title targeting maximum audience response. Holding it, you don’t envision “the next night of play,” but your dizzying sweep of going on and on and on, playing indefinitely, saga proceeding with stately force, as the players gratefully experience each new development and confrontation just as if they’d purchased the beginning of the next Maxi-Crossover – which if you’ll recall were just hitting their stride as the new way to do comics.
Using The Coriolis Effect turned into a different sort of learning experience for me, a reflective one – this, I found, is what you don’t do. Not when you have bull-goose loony players full of romance, proactivity, opinions, creative drives, and heads-ful of comics goodness of their own – and notably, the non-gamer players demonstrating the best of these. It took me about four years finally to discover the difference between filling play with high-potential characters and back-story events, and controlling the course of play going forward. There was literally zip-zero role-playing text available to me even to articulate that difference: in role-playing culture, by 1990, both of these had become mashed together to be called the story.
I say again, it was a small version of what had become The Way and the Light over at TSR, the foundation of the entire publishing line of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition – the Orthodox Church of Role-playing, with its catechism otherwise known as The Forgotten Realms. But the comics minority of the hobby is illustrative and trenchant. I’ve mentioned before that it represented a kind of second-start for creative story-production in this new medium, free from the creeping pink-slime franchise effects that were overtaking fantasy in the bookstores and at the gaming tables. Superhero role-playing had a chance to recover and recoup the blazing storytelling of the 1960-1980 comics era … then all of pop culture squashed it right into idealizing the worst of where the comics and fantasy had gone.
Of all things, the superhero comics themselves led the way, via The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Secret Wars, in principle everything I talked about in At corporate, they just sell paper, ‘Verse this, and related posts. Paul Levitz followed suit at DC, up to 11, given the latter company’s enthusiastic uptake of the maxi-crossovers into annual form. And there’s even an illustrative role played by Dennis Mallonee, as I’ll talk about in the next post. By 1989, I experienced the pain of turning to point to the comics for what I was seeking to do (not to emulate, to do) in play, only to find most of them hollow and barren.
By the time GURPS: Supers came around in 1989, “how you do it” was codified in full, and if I have one deep criticism of SJG’s publishing philosophy, it concerns the recognition of the middle road and adhering to the line running down the middle of it. I point to the module Deathwish, by Supers designer Loyd Blankenship, which refines that former crude clubbing of players onto a desired path into careful, relentless staging. It’s a railroad with particularly well-shined furnishings and handrails, studded with thespian moments of inconsequential bit parts to liven things up. It’s also curiously juiceless, with no discernible emotional or financial tangle, and whose villains’ personalities are completely interchangeable, even inconsequential. For something with “Are you ready to rock” and similar phrases emblazoned all over it, there’s no interest in, energy, of or position about rock-and-roll.
To my present point, it’s riddled with punishment events for players failing to live up to their prescribed roles and actions. It’s obsessed with adjusting the villains’ powers up or down so that every confrontation in play results in precisely the necessary outcome for the plot to move forward as planned. Click on that Debugging page, and keep in mind that its general spirit and purpose is echoed in small parts throughout the entire text.
By this point, 1989, I was making almost a counter-technique out of defying these modules in use. I was mining the hell out of them for back-story and the nifty mixed-up circumstances of the supporting cast, especially those supervillains which presented quirky soap opera, but deliberately paying no attention to their scripted series of events. It was even fun to combine two or three of them at random for extra-big messy context, which I then gleefully linked into the heroes’ Disadvantages. What would happen? Let’s play and see!
And too, there was one published counter-example that stands out in spades, which I could hang onto in desperate gratitude that someone out there was still trying: the Champions module Mind Games, written and illustrated by Scott Heine. I used the hell out of it in my fourth major Champions game (see Snakes and hotties), the one which served as my training ground for “hey, when I don’t railroad, it goes better.” That’s why its cover takes the lead for this post.
I didn’t use it entirely as written. I didn’t follow its inspiration from the X-Men, as I was weary of that title’s ubermensch-persecution themes and its precipitous downgrading in scripting. Nor did I really go for the mental/pyschic powers, having had quite enough of them lately (see MCI misdemeanors and felonies), so retooled the characters’ special effects. But I did make extensive use of the fantastic personalities, general back-story, and strong emotions that powers it … and most importantly, I deliberately made use of what it didn’t: fixed points of rising action and planned confrontations. All that material was there to be in play, not to be played. What would be played, would be discovered – depending on you, depending on the other people playing, depending on what the players’ heroes were like.
Tied to that incredibly important absence was the lack of author’s judgment: is Omen a good guy, or not? How much can the trainee kids be held responsible for their actions? Is the religion bent brought to PSI by a couple of its members its own source of evil or a chance for good? Is Simon Poe – however sincerely he repents – to be considered a monster? The text doesn’t even raise these verbally, but lets them reside precisely where they belong: in the potential for the real people playing to act as authors and judges on their own. All that trust I talked about above – that’s what makes this publication more than merely distinctive. It’s heroic.
It also turned out to be a last gasp. First FASA and then White Wolf were to take TSR’s publications-to-GM saga railroading into a whole new realm of high-end production of shelf space competition and sunk-cost consumer loyalty. The number of Shadowrun and Vampire modules built precisely on the lines of Deathwish are legion, and the normal was no longer new, nor was it an option or a “style,” it was how things were. By the mid-1990s, “system doesn’t matter” was the hobby mantra, and sequential programmed adventures were the new periodical-model of publishing. And at least some of you reading this knew what I eventually did about that. But by then, mid-1980s superhero role-playing as I’d known it – as the Strike Force players had obviously done; as Heine had obviously done – was long forgotten.
I’m approaching the close of my series comparing early Champions (1981-1985) and GURPS: Supers (1989) with reference to several contemporary games, preceded by Exhumed, still lovely my dear, Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, Dynamic mechanics, Where are you going, where have you been, Kill, kill, kill, Balancing what exactly, and Best with badness. I’ve got the upcoming one about how comics and role-playing danced with one another straight into hell, and the long-planned one which finally bitches & moans about Champions 4th edition.
Next: Recursion isn’t a river in Egypt (September 17)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on September 10, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged Alone Into the Night, Champions RPG, Deathwish, Denis Loubet, Dennis Mallonee, Glenn Johnson, GURPS: Supers, Loyd Blankenship, Mind Games, Organized Crimes, railroading, Scott Heine, The Coriolis Effect, Villains & Vigilantes, VOICE of Doom. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.