Jul 06

I WAS A GOBLIN: Gifted Youngsters

FT9 comments • 1,225 views

I don't think we used any of these characters!There was a divide in role-playing between people who treated it as a small-scale, modular wargame and people who treated it as a way to tell stories interactively. (You could argue for a third type of player, who treated the games as a way to enact power fantasies, but those players still varied in the ways – rules or roles – they approached those fantasies).

I knew which side I was on without a doubt – the storytellers, the improvisers, the players who dreamed of creating a shared epic. Once, on some application form or other, I even listed under hobbies “interactive theatre”, which thank heaven I was never called on. What I didn’t grasp was how to actually do this. For a start the people I played with had varied motivations, but “creating a shared epic” wouldn’t have been high up for most of them. I never had too much trouble with ‘rules lawyers’, but most of my groups got a bit embarassed and shifty about actually playing their characters (and beyond the broadest stereotypes, so did I).

Added to this, as I pointed out in another post, was the fact that most existing fantasy epics were thoroughly un-shared: even when the hero finds themselves in a co-operative group, a standard Tolkienesque trope is for them to struggle to get out of it. What to do?

Comics provided one answer. I got into superhero comics a little after I got into roleplaying – and (not surprisingly) the hobbies went together for the two schoolfriends I played with too. So the release of the Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game was a bit of a godsend. MSHRPG – as it was clunkily known – was much frowned upon for being ‘simplistic’ but with hindsight it was a very well-designed game, with minimal rules and simple conflict resolution, designed to replicate the non-stop high-pace action of a comic. The loose ruleset had another advantage – it left a lot of open space for roleplaying. And the superhero genre is full of groups working together – it’s a much better template for RPGs than heroic fantasy.

Our particular favourite comics at the time were the X-Men and companion title the New Mutants – a ‘next generation’ of X-Men who went to school with them. UK newsagents had only recently started getting the X-Men, and the comic was the smash hit of the US market, having redefined the genre at around the turn of the 80s. The New Mutants, meanwhile, had a certain nerd hipster value, having recently used the collage- and cubist-influenced Bill Sienkiewicz on art, a radical and successful choice. Sienkiewicz had brought the best out of his soapy scripter, and the comics and characters had a deep appeal. They were an obvious choice for an RPG.

Our New Mutants game – a mix of characters from the comics and new ones created specially – took place over a long, two-night sleepover at the largest of our houses. We would have been 13 years old – later that summer all three of us would be going to different schools, two as scholarship boy boarders. If the idea of playing characters arriving at a strange school had a particular resonance, we didn’t push it. I was the referee, the others played a couple of characters each, and I played a couple more too. At first the game went along routine comic book lines – training, uncovering a traitor, fighting giant robots – but gradually it got later and later and we kept playing, slipping more and more into character. Some moral debate had arisen in the game – whether to kill a villain, or obey a teacher, or something – and the three of us were arguing, passionately, in character, until the creaks of worried parents on the stairs let us know quite how late we’d stayed up.

We never played a Marvel RPG again – the communal fan-fic intensity had been a spell and it was broken (and school would give us harder shells, quickly) (and the comics got worse). I forgot the details of the game quite soon but the feeling stayed with me – if I hadn’t been hooked before, I surely was now. The problem was, how to get back into that zone, especially playing in the more cynical school environment?

Postscript: A lot later I realised that the ‘zone’ wasn’t created by the game at all – it was the same zone any adolescent lands in when they stay up late and talk seriously. But the game surely catalysed it.


  1. 1
    Al Ewing on 20 Jul 2006 #

    I used to play the Marvel RPG on my own. (Arguably, I’m still doing it, albeit this time with the promise of a cash reward.) Occasionally I tell my RPG-playing friends how I’d surely join them if only they’d get out of this Anne Rice vampire game they’re mired in and into some good old fashioned Marvel Super Heroes…

  2. 2
    Pete on 20 Jul 2006 #

    My memory of the Marvel game was a tricky one between comics fans and those who only had a tangental knowledge of the characters. I think I only ever played once and annoyed the ref by insisting on rolling my own character (everyone else was playing pre-generated New Warriors or the like). But often in the game play when Speedball went to break someones neck, the ref kept saying that couldn’t happen as Speedball wouldn’t do that.

    I think i was very wary about playing licenced games after that, at least with fans of the licence (My love for the Ghostbusters game is undiminished though).

  3. 3
    Tom on 20 Jul 2006 #

    Yeah, I think for non-fans it would have played much better with completely new characters. With licensed games you have a ready made ‘world’, atmosphere etc. but also the perennial problem of fan fiction i.e. everybody has their own Absolutely Correct idea of how Speedball behaves.

    I hope the Speedball wimps are eating their words now he has blown up a grillion schoolkids, by the way.

  4. 4
    Pete Baran on 20 Jul 2006 #

    I was using Speedball as an example, much in the way Marvel are…

    Of course much of the joy of Licensed Games was to sit down with the stats and see once and for all whether the Hulk was stronger than The Thing.

  5. 5
    Alan on 20 Jul 2006 #

    Lor, i am going to have to jot down the “planned campaign that never was”

  6. 6
    Pete Baran on 21 Jul 2006 #

    Tom, can you run us through the powers of the “heores” illustrated here. One seems to be just being a dog.

  7. 7
    Tom on 21 Jul 2006 #

    They were deliberately rub. The dog one is Wolfsbane, who could turn into an wolf.

  8. 8
    pˆnk s lørd sükråt cunctor on 21 Jul 2006 #

    excellent name choice! like superman calling himself “full krypton breakfast”

  9. 9
    slideyfoot on 16 May 2020 #

    “Once, on some application form or other, I even listed under hobbies ‘interactive theatre'”

    Ha – with you on that. I frequently explain DnD as improv comedy with dice. I’ve run a number of games where I take that pretty much literally, which is why we end up with characters like ‘deer with Keanu Reeves face’ or ‘Coctopus, half chicken and half octopus’.

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