03 June 2009

Nerd Herding


I'm bad at it. Twice last weekend I was asked to help round up groups, and I failed in interesting ways both times, including by mis-hearing responses that were in the affirmative.
One of the aspects of Camp Nerdly that I appreciated for the first time this go, my third go (see also 5/12/08, 4/11/08, 5/8/07 and 5/7/07) were the many cultural overlaps between stereotypical nerd culture and stereotypical camping culture. Both require an enthusiasm for making life a greater challenge, amongst other specific conditions that supposedly "normal" people would fear or disdain. Both involve improvisation, moderated with a healthy dose of research and acquired knowledge. Both generally associate with high-calorie foods. Both environments typically eschew the strictures of social norms such as fashion and strict codes of hygiene. So yes, camp is an excellent place for fellow nerds to gather, and be unabashedly nerdish.

I am one such nerd. In point of fact, I don't think of myself as a nerd per se; not because I find the term derogatory, either. Rather, I think specifically of a "nerd" as someone very intelligent and good with details. I am not very intelligent, at least not in that way, so consider myself something more along the lines of a geek, or dork. Spaz, too -- which I have fortunately parlayed into a rewarding career as a physical comedian. At least, it's philosophically rewarding, when in no way else.

Despite my self-imposed sub-nerd status, I am allowed (nay: encouraged) to ally myself with other nerds on an annual basis at Camp Nerdly. I just did so last weekend, getting my yearly dose of straight-edge, pure gaming. "Gaming" in this context, by the way, refers to just about any actively challenging effort that is endeavored largely for the sake of fun and entertainment. It was a special occasion in several respects, owing to the fact that Expatriate Younce was in attendance, all the way from Leeds. (That's in England.) I have a funny sort of response to gaming. Expatriate Younce actively encourages it, as do other friends of my hometown, while Wife Megan and many of her circle, at best, do not understand its appeal. So I have some strong influences on either side of the debate as to the relative value and appeal of gaming. Then I get to the actual gaming, and have a response similar to when I've been away from a rehearsal process for over a month: "Oh crap. I have no clue what I'm doing here." Of course, I gamely (see what I did there?) fake it until I catch up again. And how do I feel about gaming? Well.

The first game I played on arrival this year was a collaborative board game called Pandemic, and I have only good things to say about it. Clinton R. Nixon was the gamer who introduced it to me and my fellow novices, and we had a great time discussing strategy in trying to clear the world of four rampaging diseases. We also got our butts handed to us by the game, which only serves to make you want to play it more. Sadly, I never found another opportunity. It's way more interesting to play a board game that is both collaborative and difficult to beat than it is to play something like Monopoly, wherein a winner is guaranteed and somebody's going to regret buying real estate.

Next that night was a session of A Taste for Murder, run by another favorite gamer of mine, Jason Morningstar (perhaps cool names are indicators of future nerdom...?). We gathered at "The Castle," de facto cabin for any games likely to involve more adult themes, and we possibly made those themes more adult than they were intended to be. A Taste for Murder seems meant to be a story-telling game with a fairly strong and regular dice element, where the "winner" of scenes is determined by competitive rolls. The setting is like an Agatha Christie novel, and you choose your characters based on family and estate relationships, trying for a broad range of class/status. In the first act of play, the relationships are built up and controversy well-established. It culminates in MURDER. In act the second, the player of the murdered character plays the detective on the scene, and the back-stabbing begins. We played it a bit grotesque, I'm afraid, for the genre. Not enough class warring. I played the rebellious son of the estate, and all audio was recorded for the game's creator. Well, some. We kept running down batteries. It was a good game. If I ever play it again, I'll focus less on winning the game, more on building my character.

Saturday morning started out with a game called Sons of Liberty, a role-playing game that used playing cards to drive the game function. Essentially, playing chosen patriotic figures both real and imagined (much of the imagination having something to do with steampunkiness), I and two others played a card game against the house ("the house" in this game represented by one Mr. Jeff Hosmer), using our hand at a given moment and the resulting win or loss to narrate how that particular struggle against the Tories went down. In most cases, it went down to the ground, and Hosmer trounced our sorry, albe-they rebellious, butts. I played a saucy cross-dressing Frenchman, hungry for rebellion (non-historical, btw). It was a fun game, and collaborative in its own way. The balance between card play and role-play landed heavily on the card side, but this created a very urgent dynamic that was also fun. Imagine playing Spit, and having to make up a whole team-written fiction, simultaneously.

The early afternoon was my most undecided slot, yet ended up being the most overall satisfying experience of the weekend in terms of gaming. Kagematsu is a unique role-playing game in many ways. The game has most of the players playing the women of a feudal Japanese village, trying to woo and/or seduce a ronin who has wandered into their town, in the hopes of finding love and saving the village from some great threat. The history of the game itself is unique; dreamed up by a male-to-female transsexual who was contemplating female identities, and since carried through a fairly extensive development by her friend -- and Nerdly attendee -- Danielle Lewon. In our game, a woman played the samurai, and I and three other women (including Danielle) played the women of the village. My character was a very young, innocent girl who loved the nearby mountains and cultivating bonsai. We conceived it all as taking place in a fishing village, one haunted by the spirits of the men lost at sea, and the story ended up being amazing. To make a long story short(er), this young ronin, out to prove himself, was variously wooed by very different women, none of whom wanted to tell him the problem of the village for fear of scaring him off. He eventually does confront the ghosts . . . and fails. Throughout this game, this growing story, we were moved. Some of us to tears. It was amazing. It was magic, nothing short of it.

My follow-up was similarly strong in narrative, although less of it was created out of thin air. Montsegur 1244 takes a very cool, tiny section of history and makes a game of it. You are given a very specific setting, choice of two characters (a primary and secondary) and play through the story of about a year within a community that now-a-days we might be inclined to call a religious cult. Your church, town, stronghold has broken off from the church and set up a rather different set of beliefs, principal among them that earth, life, is in fact a kind of testing hell. It can be transcended, and those who do are religious leaders known as "perfects," who try to guide their people out of the cycle of imperfect, passionate living, into true existence. With pre-established characters, setting and scenarios, the game really takes a lot of the burden of narrative structure away from the players (something we appreciate in Zuppa del Giorno when trying to build a play from improvisation) but there's plenty of room to play in the cracks. I played a quasi-heretical patriarch and a young orphan boy, and the highlight for me was a scene played out with Mr. Jason Morningstar, who was once again running the game. We had a negotiation scene that crackled like good theatre for me; he may have missed his calling, that one.

Finally that day, after dinner, was a Jeepform free-for-all, run by Jason (people will say we're in love), Remi Trauer and Emily Boss. I wrote a bit about Jeepform last year after my first experience with it, and it still intrigues me. Essentially, it is a very interesting hybrid of improvisatory theatre and role-playing gaming. It has its own philosophy, and makes efforts to stand apart from both forms (as any self-respecting hybrid ought). This year was a somewhat more technical exploration of the methods and tactics -- as opposed to last year's straight gaming -- and one which eventually descended into Absurdist madness. Each of the leaders led us through a different Jeepform trope, all three in the context of superhero fiction. This was, perhaps, a contributing factor to the eventual eruption of silliness, as people (read: nerds) had a ton of clever ideas about how to riff on comicbooks. They tried to tell us: The best choice is an obvious one. And we tried to listen, but by the time we got around to the fourth section -- a trial held in a strange, WH40K-inspired universe -- the gaggy gloves were decidedly off. I was as guilt as any, and it was a little too much fun to stop. Yet the surprising virtues I observed about Jeepform held true. People were taking turns, not interrupting, and a story was gradually developing on its own.

There was much discussion after that, rather late into the night (late by fresh-air standards, anyway), about gaming and improvisation and story-telling. There's something about people being excited to talk about that which is oddly fulfilling for me. I went to sleep feeling quite sated.

Sunday mornings at Camp Nerdly are often hungover affairs, but not the usual variety. People are bushed from all the thinking and playing of the day before, and many elect not to play anything at all, but there is a slot for gaming between eating and cleaning up the site. Mark Causey filled my slot (hey now) with a little game called GHOST/ECHO. It was reminiscent of my first year and Nerdly, when I discovered just how much fun it could be to create a whole fictitious world from the ground up. Of course, as an improviser and writer, I do this all the time, but I take it for granted somewhat. It's a means to an end. Putting it as the primary purpose makes for some lovely synchronicity, especially when its collaborative, and thereby synergistic. GHOST/ECHO offers nothing but variables, an idea for context ("aetherpunk," says the ad) and a device for conflict resolution and lets the players make the rest up. It would be a tricky terrain for someone unused to working without rules, but for someone like me who knows roughly what to expect, and just wants to run free imaginatively -- a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.

And like that, it was over. Some mopping, some laughing codas, a bus ride for me and the next day Expatriate Younce was bound homeward as well. My annual alliance with 50+ smart, creative thinkers done for the year.

When I was too young to fully appreciate the sentiment, someone mentioned to me the following axiom: When you are young, you love someone because you need them; once you have lived, you find true love when you need someone because you love them. I knew I was too young at the time I heard it to fully appreciate it, but there's nothing to be done about that. We all grow in our own time, and can only listen to the advice we are ready to hear. Yet I remembered it, and whereas it concerned me, made me worry about the nature of this or that relationship, when I was younger, now it is a comfort to me in all of my loves. When I was a kid, and started gaming, I loved it, and I really needed it -- for interaction, to work out my own fears and ambitions and to feel accomplished. And now, I love it. It wakes me up, engages me, gives me ideas and allows me to make the big picture the priority. I'm made happier by having it a part of who I am and what I do. And that's a great feeling.

2 comments:

Graham said...

Thanks for the write-up of A Taste For Murder. That's useful.

You're definitely meant to have adult themes. It's known as "The Incest Game" among my friends, because of the regular appearance of incest towards the end.

Graham

Jeff Wills said...

You're most welcome, Graham; thank you for the rad game. (There's a cover quote for you.) I don't know if Jason debriefed you yet or not, but we got to incest QUICKLY. Thereon it was rather a lot of brutal murders and implied bestiality. Sorry to say a lot of that was my doing. I should have read up on class war a bit more (animal love a bit less?).