If you haven’t been able to figure it our thus far, my younger self purchased a slew of role playing games which saw little (if any) actual play around our gaming table. I’ve delved into the various reasons for that in previous installments of this feature, so this time around I’d like to discuss the flip side of that adolescent over-exuberance.
I blew a lot of money on RPG crap at a time when my cashflow was limited in the extreme. While I may have experienced agonizing bouts of buyer’s remorse at the time, however, I don’t regret any of my purchases. Every item, no matter how obtuse, over-complicated, or downright unplayable, provided a valuable learning experience that has served me well over the decades since. The variations between systems, the approaches to edge cases, the relationship between setting and mechanics — together they shaped my awareness of what kids today refer to as “the meta.”
At the time was something I looked at through the lens of an starry-eyed gamemaster with designer hoop dreams. What lessons could I learn? What concepts could I pilfer? What pitfalls should I avoid?
As I grew older and gained a little more insight, however, I realized what I learned could be applied to a wider perspective. Between all the number-crunching and comparative stat-crunching, my not-quite-deep dive into the RPG realm stealthily served up some invaluable lessons about writing and the creative process in general.
It was more than the familiar desire to translate tabletop adventures into scintillating (and profitable) prose. It was about stepping back and considering the relationship between individual components and the narrative as a whole. Is a character fully formed enough to be convincing? Does the framework fit within the boundaries of the story I’m trying to tell? When does rigidity feel constrictive and when does fluidity feel like a cop-out? Does this work? Or, more often, why doesn’t this work?
The group activity aspect of role-playing narratives has loomed especially large in my collaborative work, where the work has been better served by easing up on a specific personal vision and trusting in the ingenuity of the other folks at the metaphoric “table.”
These were the sort of considerations that didn’t tend to come up during the one class per month my English teachers set aside for creative writing exercises, where the main focus was on getting from Point A to Point B with brutal efficiency.
Even though I don’t write much in the way of fiction these days, the notion of writing as a multi-part logic puzzle remains as valid as ever.
Of all the game systems that passed through my hands in those days, none stoked these meditations effectively as Toon did.
Designed by Greg Costikyan and developed by Warren Spector (yep, the future Deus Ex guy) based on an idea by Jeff Dee, Toon was created to simulate the frenetic and free-wheeling world of classic cartoon shorts. Its offbeat subject matter and approach to game mechanics made it a minor legend, which is why I sought out a copy of the slim yet comprehensive rulebook in the fall of 1987.
Toon’s mechanics revolved around what geeks — in their urge to murder via dissection — have codified as “cartoon physics,” where the improbable was encouraged. Catastrophic failure was an acceptable outcome and player “death” was handled by a three-minute “time out” before returning with nary a scratch. The rules reflected the anarchic and consequence-free source material, where players were expected to act before thinking and the gamemaster (or “animator”) should adhere or abandon the rules as the narrative circumstances required.
It wasn’t quite as informal as the more contemporary class of “casual” role playing systems are, as Toon did have a skills ‘n’ stats at its core. They did share the notion of RPGs getting away from number crunching and fixed ideas of “winning” in favor of using rules as a framework to encourage a player-driven narrative instead of hindering it. Echoes of Toon‘s revolutionary ethos can be be found in scores of current and more traditional offerings, where every every “advice to gamemasters” section includes a bit about “if a player’s action sounds cool and fits the theme, then let the rules be damned.”
Toon‘s radical (to my fifteen year old eyes, at least) take on RPG mechanics may have insinuated its way into my neural pathways, but the concepts involved were a little too out there for my gaming group to handle. For us, the hobby was still all about dispatching enemies and collecting loot. It also didn’t help that none of us were huge fans of the game’s inspirational source material, and my attempts to rework it into a Hanna-Barbera “Mystery Teens” or Alex Toth-type adventure thing failed miserably.
I did get a chance to witness a group of Sci-Fi Club upperclassmen and alumni run a Toon adventure in college. I lasted ten minutes before the Monty Python quotes and dogmatic regurgitation of old Chuck Jones gags grew to toxic to tolerate.
Perhaps WOPR had the right idea, after all.