Saturday, August 1, 2009
"Hurry up. Make a move."
Dan shakes his head, eyes narrowed in concentration. "I'm sorry, but this is an important decision. Do I pick the wealthy skeletons, the flying tritons, or the swamp land elves?"
'What about the pillaging orcs?" Lisa asks.
"There's always the wealthy sorcerers." John adds.
Five minutes later Dan finally settles on the fortified trolls. The four of us stand around a colorful game board covered in an array of iconic pieces that would make all but the most soulless gamer take notice and drool. The game is called Small World, the objective is to score points by taking it over with different races, and when they die out through attrition, to pick a new race.
I launch an invasion of commando amazons, then as they go into decline I decide to invade with a horde of mounted rat-men. The board shifts and changes as waves of invaders charge in from the edge of the board, overpowering the previous races from before. Lisa, Dan, and John battle it out, vying for supremacy as I quietly amass power by holding large swaths of territory.
I am convinced that I am ahead.
When it is time to score points, I'm in last place.
I'm starting to think Small World is a stupid game.
We play a second time. This time I go with pillaging dwarves, switch to mountain walking giants, and finish with sea walking sorcerers. I'm convinced I'm losing.
Turns out, I finish in first.
Now I know Small World is a stupid game.
I am currently in Centerville, VA at the Wintergreen ski resort. It may not be Veil or Aspen, but for Virginia it's about as good as you can find, and the golf courses and trees are beautiful. A dozen of us have rented a house with three floors, a corporate board room table (with white board) and six bed rooms to hold a "gamer's retreat" over a four day weekend.
The objective: play as many games as possible.
The goal: win.
Via the power of Facebook, I've reconnected with people I haven't seen in nearly 20 years, people I knew in college. We belonged to the Guild, a role playing group that mostly preferred playing dungeons and dragons to getting drunk.
Although some people like Robb and Tony liked putting those two things together.
Actually I think Robb and Tony did just like getting drunk.
Meeting people you haven't seen in 20 years is a strange experience, they are neither friend nor stranger - they stand within the crossroads of the heart. Mike, Dan, Tony, Robb and Lisa - most of them are married, and most of them have kids.
But no matter how much they've changed, I've known them from before. I've known them as gamers. When it comes time to play a game, that's when the true personality emerges.
Mike is still thoughtful and even tempered, until someone crosses him in a game and he explodes in a fit of foul anger, then settles and quietly plots his revenge.
Tony is still just like the cartoon character the Tick, smiling brightly as he makes bold moves.
Lisa is content to let others fight it out while she secretly amasses power, playing as much for fun as much for the win.
Dan always plays for the win, maximizing every move for it's utmost potential, analyzing every possibility, trade and combination until he achieves a moment of zen.
Robb still likes to run around and shoot things and pretend to hit people. I'm not surprised he runs a school that trains actors how to to fight with swords and mimic hitting people.
There are other people I meet for the first time: John the Lawyer, Robb the Professor, Garrett the Corporate Defender, and Art the Entrepreneur. I do not know them, but we share a common bond - we're gamers.
Games lie throughout the house. Diplomacy, Settlers of Catan, Knights of Catan, Lost Worlds, Space Merchants of Venice, Puerto Rico, Talisman, Wiz War, and decks of Magic The Gathering. Dungeons and Dragons rule books are scattered everywhere, but these gamers haven't made the switch to 4th edition - they continue to play 3.5
Whatever happened to Monopoly and Risk? We still play them, but we prefer games where no one can get knocked out early and the race to win is close to the end. Modern games are more about strategy, cooperation, and deal making then they are about dice rolling.
Plus new games have all these really cool pieces.
Whether the game is old or new, good games all have one important element. They allow you to cheat and betray your "friends". Winning a game is great, but depriving an adversary of the win: priceless.
In MLB everyone loves to hit a home run, but when professional outfielders are interviewed many admit that they prefer to snatch them away from someone else.
It's human nature to screw others. It feels good.
But the soul of this group are role playing games, games that invoke intuitiveness and imagination, where a dice roll is more then just numbers on piece of plastic but a sword cleaving through a dragon's hide courtesy of the imagination.
The characters a player creates and the decisions that character makes better reflect the personality then a battery of personality tests. D&D isn't just a game, it's where true natures are revealed.
The first game we're asked to make up 14th level characters for a one shot adventure. Fourteenth level is powerful in D&D, akin to Luke Skywalker starting out as a jedi without having to whine for two movies in-between.
With all the rules, feats, extra skills, and magic items added on over the years, asking an experienced player to make up a 14th level character from scratch with no guidelines is like asking Frankenstein not to make a monster.
Robb creates a force missile mage capable of firing bolts of energy that would blow apart walls.
Lisa makes a multi-class ranger cleric with large amounts of versatility.
Mike plays a noble guardian.
Dan makes up a barbarian, but when he is unsatisfied with the final build (damage resistance doesn't stack) goes back to the drawing board and creates a club shattering fighter in order to achieve zen.
I forgo power to play something fun. I play a drunken monk.
Garrett is the dungeon master. We have nine players, which is a huge group for D&D and I quickly realize that this game isn't about the role playing, it's about the beat down. What good is making the character capable of punching a fist through a wall unless their is a wall to punch through?
I'm not having fun.
But unlike board games, role playing games are not so much about the mechanics and the rules as they are about the story teller. The next game is run by Art. He tells us to make up 4th level characters, or red shirts. While they are not nearly as powerful, I have a blast.
This time I create a multi-class fighter pirate named Jack Hawthorne. Teaming up with Tony, who in true Tick fashion makes up a brute fighter named Carlos, the two of us trick, bluff, and fight our way through the better part of an adventure. We push prisoners off of cliffs, trick demons into pits, both lie and fight our way past guards until we are finally overpowered by an evil priestess.
Being a cowardly pirate, I surrender. I'm also pinned in a door and can't move, so my options are limited. Tony fights to the end and dies in true Tick fashion, but not before taking out several thieves.
It's the most fun I've had playing a game in ages. Art is puzzled. "But you lost. You got captured, and Tony is dead."
I shrug and tell him to forget about it.
It's not about the win. It's about the game.