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.