There’s an inherent tension in my tastes when it comes to adventure gaming. On the one hand, I am drawn to stories of high adventure and pulp action. My favourite novels are high-paced tales of action heroism and somewhat ridiculous feats of James Bond-like derring-do. On the other hand, I tend to gravitate towards low-powered ‘realism’ whenever I come to the gaming table as a Game Master.
This post is, I think, a cry for help. I am sitting on the edge of this tension right now.
Last night I ran the first session of a new fantasy game set within the very medievally-inspired Harn with the lowest powered characters that I can ever remember asking players to deploy. We gamed using GURPS at 50 character points and it was a good session, by all accounts. The heroes trudged through muddy roads and were genuinely spooked by finding a mauled deer carcass and bear tracks. Hardly the stuff of the pulps but it does feel immersive and engaging.
This afternoon, I am reading Savage Worlds and dreaming of playing with the Friday Night Roleplayers in the incredible world of Rifts, created by Palladium in 1992 and re-presented to the gaming fraternity last year in the updated Rifts for Savage Worlds setting. This is the antithesis of Harn: super-powered, high-tech, high-magical heroes who are fighting to save humanity from the threat of extinction. Heady stuff.
Is it that I just don’t know what I want? Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me.
I dream of bringing to life the narratives I enjoy the most: Sven Hassel-esque World War II heroic raids mixed with Wolfenstein-style attacks on evil Nazi super-science bases; zombie-hunting in the post-apocalypse of a cyberpunk-inspired tech-noir near-now; daring espionage with highly-trained operatives in arctic climes, blowing up government experiments in human cloning.
Stuff like that. Crazy stuff. The most pulpy movie stuff that my father used to complain about being “so unrealistic” when I was a kid. It’s like an act of imaginative rebellion.
Yet when I sit down to prepare or run such a game, I panic. The colour drains from my face and I start to worry about what players will make of my over-the-top crazy mash-ups of ridiculous films and trashy novels. What am I revealing about myself? And I start to worry about the skill system being too broad or the powers being too powerful.
What’s an aging Game Master to do when his hobby exists at two extremes? Certainly, the middle bores me. The mainstream of generic fantasy sends me to sleep. Give me the zero-to-not-really-a-hero realism of my own interpretation of Harn over the Forgotten Realms any day.
But dare I enter the fantasy worlds of my fourteen-year-old teenaged imagination that wants to pit cyber-warriors against dragons and Nazi super-zombies against Soviet sleeper agents in the post-apocalypse of a 1946 that never was? Or other crazy stuff?
Like I said, I think I need help. One question is whether I am alone in this tension. Does anyone else out there wrestle with this conundrum? I can’t believe it’s just me. But what would it mean if it is?