One of the great corny running jokes in the early days of gaming was the idea of a game in which people would play white-collar workers. The standard format of the gag would involve a bunch of dwarves or elves sitting round a gaming table making “saving throws against income tax” and suchlike.
The gag is a neat summary of assumptions about the gaming hobby. Firstly, it’s escapist, and enjoyable because of its escapism. But also, the people who play it are – or are going to become – accountants, computer programmers, admen, etc. There was very, very little counter-cultural about the early RPG hobby. It shared visual style and iconography with 70s head shops and underground comix but was a lot squarer, nervous (to say the least!) about the chemical and sexual pursuits the underground embraced, and it’s one of the few areas of late 70s/early 80s cultural activity where it’s extremely difficult to detect any kind of punk blowback.
The squareness carried over to the games themselves. D&D and most early RPGs aren’t simply games of escapism, they’re games of aspiration. D&D is an American frontier fantasy more than it is an attempted recreation of Tolkein – characters born under the innate democracy of the dice, using their abilities as best they may to make something of themselves. The rest of the gameworld generally admires the characters – they get rich, famous, powerful. They have Made It.
Not all games followed this model, of course. In Call Of Cthulhu, for instance, characters were ordinary 1920s people with ordinary skills, marked out by their gradual awareness of the Awful Truths about the world’s real cosmologies. This knowledge didn’t empower them, though, in fact it tended to hasten them to an early and horrid death. In the comedy sci-fi game Paranoia, players also tended to die quickly, victims of a universe just as hostile and absurd as HP Lovecraft’s. But in neither of these cases were the characters set outside everyday life – they just gradually discovered that the everyday life was a lot more inimical to humankind than they might have liked.
The White Wolf games – following the success of Vampire, they issued games based on werewolves, ghosts, fairies, etc. – were different. Here the characters had been – usually unwillingly – taken outside ordinary life, and found themselves in a situation where the mundane world became something to be rejected or actually preyed upon. The dynamic of the game had shifted from aspiration to rejection.
I had come to find the aspirational attitudes of games like D&D increasingly absurd – the constant, repetitive pursuit of experience points was fine in a competitive game but seemed pointless in a hobby which stressed co-operation and socialisation. But I didn’t like the White Wolf solution either – and this is almost certainly going to say a lot more about me than about the games, but here goes anyway.
Vampire seemed to appeal to particularly self-indulgent impulses in its players. Whether this was implicit in the game or just in the players I encountered, I don’t know, but the base assumption seemed to be that vampires were in general a superior breed, noble cursed outsiders who were more sensitive, tortured and perceptive than the common herd. Which just happened to be the same common herd who confronted the players as they emerged blinking from the game room every week.
So adolescent game-players like to feel different from other people, and enjoy metaphors that let them fictionalise their loneliness? Big deal. I thought I was cleverer than most people too. The thing is I didn’t turn to RPGs and science fiction just because they flattered my cleverness, I also turned to them because I was bad at sports and socially awkward. Being socially awkward, I was coming to realise, probably wasn’t something to valorise, especially if the only way to valorise it was to denigrate the social ease of other people as some kind of con or self-deception and reclassify them as a herd or mass.
(And, yes, the period when I was wriggling in annoyance over Vampire was also the period when I was first getting really frustrated with indie music. No surprises there.)
(It’s suddenly struck me that my attraction to refereeing games, rather than playing in them, must partly have been that they force a certain level of even-handedness and empathy on you, or at any rate they do if you want the gameworld to seem alive and convincing to your players.)
All this was just part of growing up, and if the only choices had been D&D or Vampire I’d probably have ditched the gaming hobby a lot earlier than I did. It was around this time, though, that I started realising that this squarest of hobbies had somehow grown a thriving avant garde. And it had grown in part from an element of gaming most table-toppers mocked and despised – live role-playing.
(The next instalment of IWAG will go back and look at LRP and my experiences with it – photos sadly not included)