August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:
Today’s question is this:
Which RPG is the easiest for you to run?
That really depends on what we mean by “easiest,” doesn’t it?
If we mean “least difficult to implement the rules in play”:
Early editions of D&D, or the modern variants and retroclones based on them. Long experience has hardwired a lot of stuff into my head, and the aesthetic of the game is similarly settled. These days, for me, LotFP is the system I use for that.
If we mean “easiest to get excited about, and then sit down and do the prep for”:
Whatever I’m excited about. Lately, it’s been postapocalyptic mutant adventure and historical dark fantasy/weird horror games, but I’m also tempted by lots of other games.
If we mean “least preparation required”:
My experience suggests GMless, pick-up/low-prep games like Fiasco and Dread require the least prep, for obvious reasons.
None of those questions are particularly compelling, though, so I’m going to suggest a different spin on the question. What if we mean “easiest because it most closely matches your temperament, inclinations, and experiences”:
Aha, now we’re arriving at something interesting.
It’s an interesting question because really, it involves a little soul-searching. I think my answer to this question links up well with the second above: my temperament and experiences have predisposed me to be interested in dystopian, postapocalyptic, and weird historical games.
Why historical? Because I love the researching, and I love using history as a springboard. Not in the lazy way where, lo and behold, Lord Byron is a Vampire! More in the way that someone like Kenneth Hite digs on history. I wade into it up to my hips, and I revel in playing games with history—what happened when? Are we sure that really happened? Why did it happen?
(Come to think of it, this is probably what appeals to me about Ezra Pound’s poetry: as Leon Surette notes, The Cantos are suffused with the idea of history being crammed full of—and in many ways shaped by—countless occult conspiracies.)
I’d probably credit this tendency in part to reading
The Man in the High Castle at a certain point during my university studies: it was a kind of revelation to me, the kinds of games that could be played with history. IT would be difficult to emphasize enough how much of a revelation the book was to me at the time.
But I’d probably also credit a lot of the… uh, yeah, let’s be honest and call it what it was: the junk that I read in middle and high school. I read so much junk. Alien abduction accounts and Whitley Streiber’s Communion books. Stuff about Edgar Cayce. A smattering of New Age junk, but also some Helena Blavatsky, though I never got very far (it’s unreadable). The Seth Material (Jane Roberts is the credited author on
most of that, though she claims the material was dictated by an ancient spirit named Seth…. uh, sure.). I also got into Lovecraft just a few years later, and was reminded of the Erich von Däniken I’d read as a kid, as I’ve mentioned before.
All of these books posit a bunch of weird, bizarre, sometimes essentially magical stuff that apparently happened during (or throughout) history, but about which nobody seems to know anything now. I guess that a few encounters with conspiracy theories in all their loony glory made me realize that while conspiracy theories are dumb, conspiracies can be fun tools for stories.
And what about the postapocalyptic and dystopian? Well, I guess that’s a mix of the human tendency to pick a scab, and my own pessimism about the world. I grew up in the 80s, when there were frank public discussions about the fact we could all die in a nuclear holocaust.
I remember seeing something—I think it was on C-Span, which, yes, we had on cable up in Canada in the 1980s—from a Senate committee meeting where an expert explained just what would happen in the case of a nuclear explosion in a city: how this close the epicenter, you were lucky because you’d just be vaporized; at such-and-such distance, you’d die of burns in X minutes; and how far enough away, it was the fallout and radiation sickness that would kill you. I got the impression nuclear missiles were aimed at every major city in the world, and that was when I first understand humanity is collectively insane… just plain batshit insane. My old man found me hiding behind the boiler in the basement, embarrassed because I was in tears at the horror of it all.
I think I was twelve or so.
I wonder how many other people have untold stories like that? Maybe more than we admit to ourselves: I’ve seen the look that people get when one mentions The Day After or Red Dawn or, for the Brits, Threads:
The Cold War was a terrible thing for a lot of reasons, but I wonder most these days about the psychological effect it had on families, on children growing up in the shadow of the End of the World. I’d hazard a guess and say the literary legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, and his currently popularity today, owes a great deal to the psychic traumas of growing up in a world were cosmic horror was a real facet of daily life, actually.
Which, I guess, is why it was also a time of fun, crazy post-apocalyptic games and stories. Gamma World, by the time I was buying and playing it, was goofy and fun, with mutant plants available as a player character race. Twilight 2000 ads haunted me in the pages of Dragon and so did ads for Paranoia—haunted, because of course I had no way of getting my hands on these post-apocalyptic games.
There’s something soothing about playing a game based on the destruction that awaits us all, I guess. I mean, this is a time when elementary schoolers were sagely advising one another out on the playground about where nuclear bombs would land if Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system actually worked, and being that I was in Saskatchewan, we figured that was where it’d be. No hokey nuclear attack preparations drills for us: everyone knew we’d be either dead or dying, or marooned in the wilderness without food or water, if things went this wrong.
But like I say, I did manage to get my hands on Gamma World—the much reviled 3rd edition—and, well, I’ve talked before about how that game went. I’ll add, though, that I wonder if that game’s popularity at my school had anything to do with a shared anxiety about the end of the world we’d all heard so much about. By imagining a world after the end of the world, and populating with it powerful, adventuring beings—beings we could control, and whom we could have fun controlling—it gave us a way of sitting in a room with that anxiety in a way, so we could get used to living with it. It was a way of building up a psychological defense mechanism other than just ignoring it and pretending nothing was going to happen.
We had a blast. It was loads of fun… like Disneyland, but with radiation, hostile mutants, snippets of Mad Max thrown in, and tons of insane, over-the-top combat.
Perhaps I have this on my mind now because, as I write this (ahead of schedule) it’s the morning (Korean time) after Trump’s latest round of blustering about meeting North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen… and power!”:
Then again, we were all in a Catholic school and had been raised with a Catholic background, which is a hothouse of apocalyptic ideas, too—especially back in those days when Medjugorje mania (and the vague hints people gave that Mary had hinted at the impending end of time) had caused some people to decide the end of the world was coming, including one of the priests in our little city, who rambled on about Mary and Medjugorje constantly in sermons… something I’d forgotten about until talking with my friend Justin about it recently.
We got it from all sides, I think, though of course if you seriously, literally accepted Catholic doctrine, I suppose maybe you had a little bit of psychological defense mechanism benefit. But most of us seemed to get more out of imagining ourselves in the role of survivors—even cypress trees and hyperintelligent wolves and, yeah, even sexy humanoid mutant tigresses—rampaging across the wastelands.
Unlike many, I never got to play Aftermath or Palladium’s After the Bomb or Rifts, and I haven’t even seen a copy of the various recent The End of the World games from Fantasy Flight (though, despite mixed reviews, I’d like to). But I can say that the idea of a postapocalyptic games appeals to me on a deep level, and is easy for me to imagine and put together—at least if it’s set in our world—and I think that’s because the idea of a big-A Apocalypse has been there rolling around in my brain, gnawing away at me since childhood.
All of our brains, really. It’s probably why we’re handling the worsening news about climate change so poorly, as a society: after all, we’ve been through this all before, right? We worried about nuclear war so long, and it never happened, right? All we had to do was wait it out, right?
Actually, we got lucky. More than once, too. And luck isn’t going to repair climate change, or fix our toxified ecosystems, but I imagine a lot of people just don’t really get the difference because they defaulted to that specific coping mechanism. A hot war in the later 20th century might have been catastrophic; but I wonder if the Cold War and the mentality it gave us won’t ultimately contribute to something much more catastrophic?
Anyway, I think that’s why postapocalyptic games (and anything involving cosmic horror) appeal to me now: because The End still looms large on our collective horizon, whether or not we’re willing to admit it, and it seems pretty obvious that on a collective level, we’re cluelessly and helplessly at the mercy of forces with no mercy.
Er, downer, so, I’ll try t end with something a little more upbeat:
Since I started working hard at writing fiction, my capacity for schadenfreude has increased a fair bit. I still can’t watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (the show usually makes me feel ill, somehow—the stupidity, I think, is what’s so off-putting to me), but while it’s GMless (and nobody “runs” it) a game of Fiasco is like spreading butter on toast, for me. I love to play hateable, despicable characters who, even if they have reasons for everything they do, deserve every little bit of awful that’s coming to them in the end. I guess that also means I’m a better GM: players are more enthusiastic to catch and punish my villains now, and maybe that’s because those villains are served up in a thicker gravy of motivations and flaws.
They have reasons for what they do—very good reasons that somehow lead them to terrible, stomach-turning conclusions that might not be wholly wrong… but at wholly unconscionable. It takes a certain degree of schadenfreude to construct villains that are going to deserve whatever fate they get, but still aren’t really much different from the rest of us non-villains; it’s those two or three steps further they go that get them banished to another dimension, run through with a sword, or tossed into a bottomless pit, and you have to be willing to say, “Well, you slung the rope over the tree branch, what did you think would happen, there, villain?”
I think I’d really like to run a short-term game with a party of evil characters, now: but it’d be like Fargo or Burn After Reading. That, I think, would be a blast to run, as long as the PCs weren’t too horribly smart or competent, and along as the players committed to playing the characters that way. I think a game or two of Fiasco would be a good way to drive home the idea of the game.