Above and Below; Young and Old; Indie and OSR:
Every opposition reveals a tendency toward unity.
“The Golden Age of SF is twelve,” said science fiction fan Peter Graham, tongue firmly in his cheek. There’s little doubt the period following John W Campbell Jr’s assumption of the editorship of Astounding magazine in October 1937 formed much of the popular conception of what science fiction is: a Sense of Wonder evoked by the priapic spaceships of young boys.
The same tension between childish and childlike shapes much of the general opinion of roleplaying games. You can make escapism meaningful by at once lowering the participants’ emotional defences and critiquing social change.
Golden Age Adventures for the DayTrippers roleplaying game furnishes the means by which to do this. Science fiction stories by Poul Anderson, Peter Bailey, Philip K Dick, Paul Ernst, Harry Harrison, Henry Kuttner, Alan E Nourse, H Beam Piper, Robert Sheckley, Edwin K Sloat, R F Starzl, Jack Vance, Floyd L. Wallace, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Manly Wade Wellman and Hal K. Wells are broken down into sixteen adventure modules suitable for use with DayTrippers or other science fiction roleplaying games.
I’m particularly fond of Dick and Sheckley, and was delighted to make the acquaintance of Weinbaum’s famous alien ecosystem story A Martian Odyssey (1934) through Golden Age Adventures. The book also features art by Gennifer Bone, Allan Dotson, Chella Faithe, Tod Foley, David Guyll & Melissa Fisher, Enmanuel Martinez, Danny Prescott, Eric Quigley, Philip Rice, James Shields and Brannon Wright, along with this beautifully-judged cover by Robert Petillo:-
Constituent pieces of each story are laid out ready for use during play. “Regions” might contain “locations” and “McGuffins” and involve either “non-player characters” or alien “lifeforms” or both; relationships between these elements are shown via arrows and descriptive phrases on “plotfield” diagrams at the beginning of each module. These allow the person facilitating the game to (a) preconceive what might happen in the story, and (b) improvise without losing track of any of the ingredients of the playset:-
The DayTrippers GameMasters Guide suggests harnessing the “unconscious content” or “bleed” of the players to improvise a more meaningful outcome to the story. I like this idea. It offers you an opportunity to structure a narrative to capture some of those ephemeral and emergent properties of a roleplaying session that make it feel “magical” – something that in my probably-not-as-humble-as-it-should-be opinion is all too commonly misunderstood by “traditional” and “story” gamers alike.
The conjunction of this concept with the way the stories are laid out in Golden Age Adventures prompts three basic questions:-
- What is a story?
- What is a roleplaying game?
- How does a roleplaying game produce a meaningful story?
People tend to believe they can answer these questions with their preferences – “I like this type of game” or “I’m into science fiction” – or by deciding on the structure of the game before they begin, but a roleplaying game – any roleplaying game – is about surrendering your preferences in order to have them improved by collective input. You can achieve this by “immersion”, by “flow”, or by giggling uncontrollably when your friend is hit in the nu-nu by an Orc, but if you don’t begin the game with an impulse to be generous you’re not giving the other players much to work with: “trust and love” as game designer Jason Morningstar puts it.
It’s common among the story gamers I’ve met to confuse narrative with story, and getting one’s own way with equality of input, and among those used to running games on a traditional model – with a Gamemaster – to say things like “you need the right players to make this game work”. These are just ways to formulate an underlying anxiety about how the game will turn out. If you’re worried about (a) allowing a GM to make decisions on your behalf, or (b) ceding control of the narrative to the ‘wrong’ players, then you’re missing the point. Games wobble and fail all the time: it’s the putting them back together again that creates the meaning.
Meaning comes from story – which it is to say something that bears the actual stamp of being human while masquerading as fiction. I don’t mean scene after scene in which roleplayers try to force affects they’re not really interested in, or prop up plot-driven characterisations, or meet expectations; I mean the reason we play: loss, recognition, surprise. You can use generic formalism to achieve this – Hitchcockian McGuffins, romance plots and so on – but we are all of us, deep down, waiting for the miracle to occur – not for the plot or the next piece of narrative but for the story.
I find DayTrippers’ structuralist formulation of what story is to be fairly persuasive – not least because it relies as much on anthropology and literary theory as on RPG theory:-
- Anthropological Narrative
What people tell themselves about their history and values and so on: “we’re story gamers”, “the fact our game doesn’t have a GM means we’re on the side of equality for all”; or “we belong to the science fiction community” and “being geeks means being affiliated with certain aspects of popular culture”. This is an abstraction of a series of stories and statements about what this set of people would like to see happen, which in turn becomes a theme of the games the people like playing.
This combines the thematic narrative above with the event-driven narrative below.
- Personal Narratives
The people playing the game do and say things to relay the anthropological narrative, ideally in ways they weren’t quite expecting. These narratives are an abstraction of change relative to the person or group: they are given meaning by the interrelationship of the anthropological narrative and the emotional content of those playing the game. This is story.
Things like random tables – there are a range of these in the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide – also enable the “inruption” of significance. It wasn’t until I played Lamentations of the Flame Princess that I realised how much sense a well-timed roll on a random table could bring to a roleplaying session. Those wedded to the idea of either a game with a GM or one without, or never the twain shall meet between story game and one from the old school renaissance have seemed a bit resistant to the creative agenda of DayTrippers. The explanation I’ve given above may seem a bit convoluted but it really isn’t – it’s just coding what we’re doing all the time in roleplaying games a bit differently.
The method of organising the sixteen stories in Golden Age Adventures allows a GM or a group of story gamers to combine three aspects of play traditionally separated from one another in the description of how roleplaying games work. You can:-
- Let Go
The apparent (and I believe illusory) polarities of “leave it to the GM” and “choose the terms of the end-game before we begin” each truncate the possibilities for (a) improvisation and (b) being surprised in a way that supports the logic and sense of the story. It might seem strange to prepare for a one-shot in order to improvise one or more surprising outcomes but all narratives do this: it is the editing process that provides the conscious decision to tease out the unconscious meaning. In a roleplaying session the players and/or the GM edit as they go.
If I were playing these stories with people who identified as story gamers and who therefore wanted clear mechanisms by which to affect the outcome of the story, I’d probably edit the Character Development Scenes from the DayTrippers Core Rules to offer means by which to do this. This is an approach more reminiscent of the New Wave of science fiction than that of the Golden Age – authors very often used to swap “inner” and “outer” space to counterpoint and then fuse personal and societal change – but hey: these are tools that enable you to run the game however you like.
There is a truth that goes beyond words: science fiction worked that out two centuries ago and, even more weirdly, saw its twentieth century prognoses about the effect of space travel on human psychology arrive in ways nobody expected. Personal change is societal change, there are more than two genders and traditional structures underpin even the most innovative of story games. Our most beautiful moments are made of unconscious thought. Golden Age Adventures goes to the heart of what a shared narrative is.