The Computer Is Your Friendly Lovecraftian Letter Carrier Who is a Bullshitting Baron in Disguise (#RPGaDay 2017, Day 1)

Note: Yeah, this is a day late. I’d written it a few days ago and scheduled it for yesterday at noon, but somehow scheduling’s broken on my WordPress installation. I’ll be publishing today’s post (#2) in a few hours.

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?

I’m going to say it’s a toss-up between three: Paranoia (the XP edition) and Michal Oracz’s De Profundis, and James Wallis’ The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Here’s why:

Sometime in 2016, I became fascinated with Paranoia. It’s not a surprise: in 2015, I went digging after Skyrealms of Jorune for the same reason: I remembered seeing old ads in Dragon as a kid, and the curiosity came flooding back. The difference was that as an adult, with access to the internet, I could find out what the hell those games were all about.

As I looked into Allen Varney’s edition of Paranoia (published by Mongoose, back in the oughts), I found a game that really excited me. Though it has the potential to be downright hilarious, it’s not so much a comedy game as it is a satirical game: it mocks a lot of the po-faced, hagiographic things people say about RPGs, while also mocking a lot of the worst tendencies of players, gamemasters, and game group social dynamics.

And yet it also manages to be a semi-coherent setting with dystopian feel and comedy to burn, and with rules—albeit counterintuitive ones of a social nature, for any new player or GM—that can be mastered and used in-game. (It’s not the die-rolling rules players need to learn, but the treachery, bootlicking, and Alpha Complex survival rules: it’s a social game, in other words.) It’s smart, it’s funny, and it’s darkly brutal. It’s probably also given to one-shots run for people playing pregenerated characters, which is why I’m probably nuts for having collected the complete XP line in the space of a few months: will I really need that supplement book about the Underplex? That second expanded equipment guide?

(I guess it depends how you define “need”: it’s one of those RPGs you can read for enjoyment. I imagine that is partly because the XP edition started out as a love letter to a maltreated game, and ended up as a group love letter to a gloriously resurrected one. Plus it made good business sense to make gamebooks that are even more explicitly than usual barred from player purchase and perusal to be entertaining for the minority of GMs who will end up reading and buying them—thus ensuring repeat customers for later supplements. And, well, what can I say, I hunted hard and found most things at very good prices, many of them the last copy in stock with the sellers I got them from. The XP line is very hard to get now, so I wanted to get things before the prices skyrocketed even higher.)

I’d honestly love to run a whole campaign of Paranoia, starting out with a deadly Classic vibe, and, as characters get culled and other survive Red Clearance level, maybe transitioning to a more Straight vibe, where the stakes get higher and the tone gets darker, as they progress slowly to higher clearance levels. I have the Paranoia 25th Anniversary edition hardbacks for IntSec and Programmers, which in the 25th edition line are their own games (though basically compatible with the XP line except for a few small things), so it’s also possible—and would be very fun—to run a group through a series of clearance levels, with the campaign culiminating in a game of High Programmers.

So why am I not playing it? I’m dubious about the likelihood that I’ll be able to find players who could (a) adapt to the way Paranoia is played, and (b) would be willing to? Not in my town, but maybe in the next town over. Still, I’m likelier to return to my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign when I do start playing again this fall: it’s easier to get people to play Lovecraftian/Hammer Horror flavored D&D than it is to get them to try a weirdo, deadly, dystopian comedy RPG where their characters are so prone to dying that they’re issued with sixpacks of replacement clones. That said, I think I’m going to try get in some one-shots, open for newcomers and interested parties, and I think Paranoia is going to be one of them.

Oh, and I really want to find someone in South Korea who’ll print me off pinback buttons with the various Mandatory Bonus Duties role icons, so players running Troubleshooters can pin them on and keep track of what they’re supposed to be doing besides, er, shooting trouble. I also eventually want to print off some handheld laser blasters (of course terribly unergonomic ones) with swappable pop-on (or screw-on) laser tubes, color coded by clearance level. Props, I think, might just be one key to a great Paranoia game, if only because they signal to the player’s brains that they’re definitely not playing D&D anymore.)

Then there’s De Profundis. Even while I wasn’t playing RPGs, during a long period spanning most of my time in South Korea, De Profundis still somehow got onto my radar. Epistolary Lovecraftian RPGing? You play by writing letters to your friends, in-character, about weird, unnatural (imaginary) events that you’ve noticed going on around you in your real life? Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun. I even know some gamers who’re also writers and who would probably do a great job playing it. There are no real rules to learn, just creativity and imagination and, well, occasional letter-writing.

So why am I not playing it? I’m busy, they’re busy. We’re almost all writing books or at least working on writing projects of some sort, too, so it’s hard to devote writing time to RPGing. I love the concept, but I think for writers, it might need a bit of tweaking. Maybe videos uploaded to an unlisted group channel on Youtube, or a private Facebook group? A Wiki page, maybe, or a group blog?

I love the concept. It should be easier to get together than a regular gaming group, since not everyone needs to be in the same place, or free to participate at the same time. But so far, I just haven’t managed it. I suppose I could just try the one-player game Quill, which seems to be the same idea, except you play alone. But that somehow doesn’t have the same attraction as letters going back and forth…

Finally, I’d really like to be playing James Wallis’ The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Some people would argue it’s less an RPG and more a game involving creative bullshitting and storytelling. Even if we were to agree that not all RPGing involves creative bullshitting and storytelling, I love the kind of RPGing that does, and I think this game would be wonderfully fun.

Of course, I haven’t got a copy of it—though I know where I could get a copy of the 2nd edition at a reasonable price, and the 3rd edition is in print—but there’s also the question of who I could play it with. Again, small-town South Korea isn’t really crammed with people eager to try experimental story games. But I wonder if people would go for it, if you didn’t tell them it was a “story game” but just said it was a game? I think a lot of people could get into it.

That said, I think there’s one more barrier for entry: you’d need people who know at least enough history to know who, say, the Prussians were. As I understand it, the game involves historical bullshitting, and given that, I think the real challenge would be finding people with both the willingness and wit, and the basic general knowledge to be able to tell stories in a historical milieu that would be interesting and fun to listen to and complicate.

Then again, I suppose there’s always the argument that one could modernize the game: instead of Baron Munchausen, you end up with Uncle Fred and his tall tales, set in some other time period—World War II, or maybe the Great Depression, or the criminal underworld of 1970s Chicago…

Who knows. Maybe it’d work?

These are, of course, just a few of the systems I’d like to try play or run. Others near the top of my list include Tales From the Loop (which not-coincidentally is on the way to me in print form); a mashup of Gamma World/Mutant Crawl Classics; a campaign of Wraith: The Oblivion (now that I’ve reassembled my collection of the game series); and a season or two of Blades in the Dark, a cool-looking Apocalypse-powered game my friend Justin says he’ll someday run so I can try it. Oh, and Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, and some homebrewed Cypher-system game I have kicking around in my head (which fuses Jorune with some other planetary romance game settings and concepts). I’d even play in a Numenera campaign if someone started one up locally, to be honest.

I’m curious about Puppetland, too. And I enjoyed Dread enough that I’d like to try run it again, if I ever get the chance. I’m curious about Mage: The Sorcerers’ Crusade, less for the setting and more for figuring out how in the hell the magic system is supposed to work. (I find the worldbuilding overwhelming and vaguely dumb in parts, so I’d likely want to dispense with that and use a few competing factions instead of the splats used in the main game, though.) Oh, and I think I should someday try some edition of Call of Cthulhu, at least as a player, and at least once, seeing as I never got the chance before. Oh, and…

Wait, if I keep listing off games, this post will never end.

So I’ll tie this off now, noting that at the moment, Paranoia, De Profundis, and one or another version of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen kind of end up at the top of the heap for me… At least today. Ask me next week and I might say something else entirely.

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