07 May 2007

Stranger in a Strange Land

After work on Thursday last I hopped on ye olde Chinatowne bus and eventually found myself back in my homeland of Northern Virginia, or NoVa. Friend Younce picked me up from the heart of DC's Chinatown (something like a four-block area, but I was smack dab in the middle of it [forget it, Jeff; it's Chinatown]) and drove me unexpectedly to an IHoP in the center of . . . well . . . Centreville. There, much to my pleasant surprise, waited friends Davey and Mark. I had not expected to have time to see them, given the weekend's unusual activity. We ate pancakes, and were generally rowdy. They threw us out, in fact. Not for the rowdiness, so much as because we failed to realize that their "Open 24 Hours" sign referred only to Fridays and Saturdays, and at midnight we showed no signs of slowing down. What can I say? That's how we roll. We bid le IHoP and Davey and Mark adieu, and Younce and I went to rest up for our adventure.

I mean adventure rather literally in this context.

So Friday morning we were up-and-at-'em, headed directly to the Costco to purchase absurd amounts of meat and dairy products. This took some time, and we ended up visiting a great many grocery stores, for we were working from a very specific list. Then it was down to Prince William Forest for to begin said adventure . . .

Camp Nerdly(TM).

Yes: Camp Nerdly. The brainchild of Friend Younce and several other role-playing enthusiasts, Camp Nerdly is exactly what it sounds like. For a whole weekend, some nigh-on-seventy nerds, geeks, dorks, dweebs and INSERT DEGRADING-CUM-CHIC TERM HEREs gathered in the woods and did what they do best. No; no, neither awkward conversation nor mind-bending computer programming. Something else. To wit: role playing. In a vasty variety of forms, excluding (as far as my experience goes, at any rate) only the sexual variety. (In part to supplant this unfortunate connotation, many geeks refer to it as "gaming" instead.) I was there. I participated with enthusiasm. Hi. My name is Jeff Wills, and I am a nerd. Now, how in the hell did I get here?

Let me give you a little background. I was, for some time, one of those kids that wasn't good at sports, didn't wear cool clothes and couldn't really parlay my wit into regular entertainment for my peers. I like to think I was a dork. Some may have viewed me as a nerd (much more of a lost cause), others as a geek (I seemed, but never was, really that smart, though), but I stick with dork. The glasses pushed me toward nerdlydom, but I also had this compulsion to jump around and perform that didn't quite fit with that image. So: dork. So were my friends (Yes you were! Don't lie! You know it!) and around age eleven or so, the games began.

We started with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game (very big at the time), and rapidly gave it up for Rifts. When I got into high school my social circle shifted and widened, and it became overnight sessions of Dungeons & Dragons and a game simply titled Vampire. Toward the second half of high school, I started attending these sessions less and less. My time was getting taken up more and more with after-school and weekend theatrical adventures, and by the end of my sixteenth year I was being exposed to (and enjoying the exposure of) girls, which can of course wipe just about any slate clean. There were a couple more-notable gaming adventures thereafter, but college was the final nail in the role-playing coffin. I would turn all my energy to training to be, and eventually being, a professional actor. For about a decade, that would receive almost all of my creative energy. R.I.P., Rifts. Dust to dust, Dungeons & Dragons.

Turns out role-playing games are immortal.

Either that, or I only slew my appetite for them with a boffer weapon.

You have to appreciate that, at Camp Nerdly, the nerds are hardcore. Hardcore! I'm not kidding. I spent a good deal of the first twenty-four hours intimidated as hell, and I will own up to it. It would be easy to claim that I was surrounded by weirdos that I had nothing in common with, to chalk my awkwardness up to their unfamiliar eccentricities, but such a claim would ultimately be a ruse, and not the clever variety. No, I was intimidated by them: by their insider knowledge and their sheer mental acuity and flexibility. One of the first "games" I witnessed actually arose out of conversation between two of the Camp's organizers, Dave Younce and Jason Morningstar. Before anyone uninitiated had arrived (aside from yours truly, that is) Younce invited Jason to tell the story of how he had slain the devil to earn his last name ("Lucifer" translating roughly into "the morning star"--I knew that much . . . from comics . . .). Off they went into a conversation worthy of long-form improvisation you might catch at Second City or Upright Citizen's Brigade, tying together ideas as though they had known the connections all along, and roping in passers-by to reinforce the tale. They didn't get to finish it, owing to Nerdly duties, but it was my first hint of how different this experience was going to be from any I had before.

When I last gamed, it was a pretty simple formula. One guy (or girl [yes-so there were girls!]) would sort of narrate a story that could change to a greater or lesser degree by the actions of characters, each of which was dictated by a player. Normally the objective was to win glory or overcome adversity for this character you were playing, which is in keeping with most teenager's power fantasies. The element of chance (Sure you use your vorpal sword, but does it actually injure the dragon?) was brought into play by attributing numbers to a set of skills the character possessed, and rolling dice to gauge whether or not those skills succeed in a given scenario. (You need to roll a fifteen to twenty to lob off a wing, and...you roll a one. Um. You pretty much just jacked yourself in the jaw.) Lots of control there for the one leading the game. If he (or she) don't say it, it don't happen.

The games I played last weekend, however, were completely unlike that. In fact, only one game I played had an established story going in. Almost every story began and ended with the players. Dice almost never came up as decision-making tools, and rather than goals of glory or redemption, they were of a good yarn. To sum it all up, I spent a weekend hiking, chopping wood and sitting down with accomplished storytellers creating really engaging, collaborative fiction. In brief, here's what I fell into:
  • Ganakagok - Man, did I luck out starting with this. It's a game set in an ancient Eskimo world, and we played it outside as the weather chilled and the sky darkened. Great stuff. Each person played a single, self-generated character, the game master gave us some elements to start off with and the rest was dictated by our choices and the drawing of cards specific to the game, each of which had an Eskimo word and various associations for it printed on it. We took turns telling our character's parts of the story, but each character could contribute within the system to another's tale. Blew my mind.
  • City of Brass - A more sort of established card game, this was set in the first French explorations of Africa, which sounds heavy, but included challenges to overcome such as "Cobras!" So it was wacky fun, too. Each player had a stock role to play ("Explorer," "Doctor," "Naturalist") and we played them to the hilt. Lots of fun, betrayal, and flesh-eating bacterium.
  • Inuma - Possibly my favorite, the first half of this game was a very effective system of building a world, or reality, starting with cultural standards (Alice in Wonderland, Professional Wrestling) and winnowing down to specifics. We ended up with a world that was an alternate dimension to our own, mostly water, with a sort of civil war between an oppressed, shape-shifting crow race and humans. AWESOME. We played in it after we built it, and I have rarely felt such a satisfying meld of understanding and discovery in improvisation.
  • Improvisation Workshop - Yes! Jason Morningstar and Friend Remi have had improvisational theatre training (which explains much of their skillz) and they ran workshops in it. It was great to experience this from the student side again after instructing all the Zuppa del Giorno workshops. I went in imagining I could relax into something I finally knew. I came out appreciating just how challenging the essentials of my chosen craft are.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard - This game is the one that had the most pre-planning, yet it still had a flavor of verisimilitude that some naturalistic theatre doesn't have. The world is a sort of fantastical/historical account of early Mormonism, in which the players play enforcers of the faith, or folks who root out evil in their midst. What's fascinating about it in the conflict system, which rewards one score-wise both for clever uses of character traits and for the experience gained from failure. Friend Younce ran this one, and his personal knowledge of Mormon history made it especially choice.
  • Zombies! (UniStat) - My last game of the run, this one was a very relaxed sort of system wrapped around a very fun concept. The world was a dystopian society inured in zombies, and the remaining humans have become super-powered free-runners, or traceurs, to adapt. Lots of action and dark humor to this one, as though punctuating my experiences with a reminder that it's all in the name of fun.
You may wonder what I take from all this as an artist, or someone professing to value The Third Life(r). I mean, the people who typically play role-playing games are comfortable enough to afford the free time and invest money in supplies. Can they be the teachers of artists? I argue yes, and for two reasons. The first is that gamers are participants in The Third Life, moreso for their apparent and supposed "disconnect" from reality. They build worlds, and live in them, and it doesn't get much more Third than that. The second is that this fun, this "escapism," is intense work that takes as much talent as skill. And good gamers make it look easy. They're storytellers in the best sense, not only believing in their tales, but living through them. You're in their world every time you pick up a book or watch a movie or simply daydream. At my best, I'm one of them. And after this weekend, I'm really, really proud of that.

I'm a gamer. And I roll 20s, bitches.


Jason Morningstar said...

Jeff, it was a pleasure to meet you and game with you! I really enjoyed getting to know you, and you acquitted yourself like a hero in our strange land. Your thoughts on the blog here are very illuminating - I rarely get to see through the eyes of an "outsider" (not that you are, you old Rift-head). Can you talk more about the Third Life, what it is, and how it might be connected to what we're doing? Either here or via email (ask Friend Younce)?

Unknown said...

Dice almost never came up as decision-making tools

Check that out! Among those you mentioned, only Dogs in the Vineyard uses dice-based resolution (though Inuma really does, too, right? They're just not numbered?)!

But I have to point out: the dice and cards of these games are used much more rigorously than in the old-school games you're talking about. I'm surprised to hear the "dice were almost never rolled" comment unless you mean that they were almost never dice. In Dogs, for instance, it's actually impossible to achieve anything without rolling dice.

Unknown said...

It was great to meet you, Jeff, and I really enjoyed playing Ganakagok with you (damn your superior looks!) You should hook up with NerdNYC's Recess for more of the same, quarterly, no further than Brooklyn!

- Alexander

Jeff said...

Jason: The pleasure was all mine, and I hope you guys keep up the Nerdly annual event. I'm bringing friends next time. As to "The Third Life," if you do a search on my 'blog for the term you'll get a detailed description of what I'm talking about. Hopefully I haven't misled you: it is neither a game nor an event (although, now you've got me thinking about that...), but a term I coined to describe living an examined life, or a life dedicated to something in addition to health and personal happiness. For me, this means the craft of theatre, but it could just as easily apply to game theory or llama breeding. There's home, there's job, and there's this other thing.

Joshua: Yeah, I was writing in a delirium of absorbing new game systems, and indeed, DitV is heavy with plot-dictating dice. I suppose I meant more that the stories and dramatic action were less dictated in general by rolls than I was accustomed to. I must admit, too, that I am writing here from a bias. I had the best times when we would all be eagerly throwing in suggestions for how a particular story was going, and someone had to stop and say, "Oh, geez. I think maybe we were supposed to (roll/draw/push in alligator teeth) for the past three choices."

Jeff said...

Alexander: No no NO! Pleasure = all mine. Your choices in that first game were part of how I started to clue in to the fact that I was in different territory here. "Wait: He's actually choosing his character NOT to be invincibly heroic? AWESOME." I'll be sure to look up NerdNYC's Recess.

Dave said...

Jeff, from what I witnessed of your Dog's game, you fit right in. That speech you gave was awesome and had me jealous that I wasn't playing in the game. I love the post.

Jeff said...

Thanks, Dave. I hope we get to play together some day, though you may find that my amazing public speaking skills are rather in compensation for my apparent inability to comprehend game systems. "Wait: I roll which dice? The triangular ones, you mean?" I'll hunt you down to play when Nerdly '08 comes around.

Anonymous said...

You used my line!! I'm so proud. Well done sir, well done.

We;ll have plently of time tonight for a firsthand recount of your adventures. :)

Remi said...

Jeff, I'm really sorry I didn't get a chance to play with you. Both Jason and Clinton have commented, completely independently of each other, about what a strong player you are and how much you put in to each of their games. See you at the next Nerdly!

Jeff said...

Thanks, Remi. I just kept hearing about how much your Agon session ruled, so hopefully our mightiness will combine at Nerdly '08.

Unknown said...

Jeff, when I try to distill the awesome that was Nerdly into a drink of pure awesome, you stand out as an ice cube. That is, awesome distilled and chilled. Yeah, that's right.

Oh, and how could you forget about all the dice in my game (Unistat)? There was a pile of dice the size of a human head in that game! Of course, we didn't use them all...but still...

Anyway, I was very happy to have met you. Now that you've got my contact info and I've got yours, I'll be in touch whenever I've got some gaming going on. Or, you know, a party or something less dorky.

Dave Y said...

Thanks for letting me convince you to come to Nerdly.

I think I get what you're saying about the dice - not that games didn't have them, but that their use is totally different from what you're used to. There's a massive difference in story-effect between "roll this die to see if the fireball kills you" and "roll this handful of dice, which we will use in various ways over the next several minutes" (that last was for both Dogs and Ganakagok, can't speak to Unistat).

Jeff said...

Okay guys: I'm sorry. Yes, there were lots and lots of dice. (Especially for UniStat.) I stand corrected. Nay, abashed! Youncey, however, encapsulates the emotion I experienced with actual words that mean something to other people, summing up in two sentences (and a paranthetical) what it took me hundreds of words to say.

Youncey rolls 20s. Or, in the case of DitV, 8d10s.

Unknown said...

Yeah, if I'm not excited when I reach for dice, I don't want 'em in my game.

Jeff said...

What if we made childish games our conflict resolution mechanism? Like that one where you rack your knuckles against someone else's, or playing chicken. They'd be Xtreme, and everything that's Xtreme is good.

Olle Jonsson said...

Thanks for taking the time to write about Camp Nerdly, as a new-comer to the circle.

I was in Copenhagen DK, and can only most vicariously enjoy the storytelling orgies. From very afar.

Jeff said...

You're very welcome, oreoreooreo. Who in the heck are you?