Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sympathy for the XP

Before I heard of Dungeons & Dragons I was a utter video game nut. From 1979 to 1982 there was nothing I lived for more than shoving quarters into video games wherever I could find them - pizzerias, roller rinks, grocery stores, and (of course) shopping mall video arcades. I cannot listen to Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" without thinking of that scuzzy bar outside the Marlboro Yacht Club where I used to dump every quarter I could find into their "Super Galaxians" machine. There actually is no "Super Galaxians" game but somehow they had rigged the machine to put five ships behind each quarter, which for a fourth grader perpetually strapped for cash was the best thing in the world. Nothing mattered more than affixing my initials to the top spot. Once or twice I even managed to do this without unplugging the machine first.

Then came September of '82 and my very first game of D&D. Even though I was stuck playing the cleric - the party heal bot - I was smitten from the start (note to former self: if you charge .25 cents for a Cure Light Wounds spell  every one will think you're a dick but at least you'll have a lot more to blow on Galaxians and Asteroids and Omega Race and Sinistar and Star Castle and Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr and GORF and and - where was I? Oh yeah....)

And D&D had points. Experience Points. Just like points in a video game they were thick with the prestige that comes from a long line of zeroes but instead of gaining an extra ship you built a more powerful character - providing you survived long enough to accrue them. Once I learned this I was off like a lythcathrope wemic. I was a monster among munchkins, tallying up every single piece of silver and copper I could snarf, letting not even the meekest of kobolds escape without milking its blood for precious XP. And, of course, I also fought with my friends. The rule in our group was that whoever scored the killing blow on a creature gained its XP - all of it - I never sank so low as to be one of those fiends who just sits in the back, lets the rest of the party do all the work and then slips forward to poink the beast with a dagger and suck up its XP. However, we did have one of those guys in our group and if you were to look at my 6th grade year book you would find his face scribbled out with a ball point pen, in red ink no less.

Yeah. I did that. And thirty two years after the fact, you know what? Fuck that guy. He stole my green dragon kill. He can BURN IN HELL! You hear me Pete? BURN IN HELL!!!!!

Anyway. Somewhere in the summer of '83 or '84 I took swimming lessons at the local rec park and after lessons were over I began playing Star Frontiers poolside with a completely different bunch of guys. Star Frontiers is a bit like D&D in space but there are no experience points, no levels to climb through, and absolutely nothing to gain by blasting a creature to pieces with laser fire (although admittedly we did an awful lot of blasting creatures to pieces with laser fire). It was also the best gaming experience of my childhood.

With Dungeons and Dragons the dreams the game inspired were amazing, but the reality was a pencil/paper/dice variant of dodge ball. It was fun, the kind of fun that comes from watching someone in ill-fitting shorts take a big red rubber d20 crotch shot and fall to the gym floor twitching. However, as anyone who has played dodge ball knows it's only a matter of time before you catch a ponger yourself and go down in a bundle of mind numbing pain. That's the nature of the game. With D&D there was and still is just too much single-minded focus on ones character and that character's level progression and how it can be weaseled forward at a more rapid rate. With Star Frontiers you felt free to roam and explore and interact with the inhabitants of the worlds you encountered. The game actually felt like traversing the galaxy with your friends tow, always in search of excitement.

Flash forward ten years and I become a college student. I am serious. I am dedicated to my studies. I am eager to see how my actual life will unfold and what it will become. I am not interested in fantasy worlds or the lives of imaginary beings, but I have friends who are and - being the hopelessly nostalgic person that I am - I agree to sit in on a few games of D&D. Admittedly, there were a few good ones, especially during my freshman year when I stumbled upon an exceptional DM, but most of them were terrible and as gut wrenching as catfishing a neo-otyugh.

I also had grown to become a very philosophical person. I could care less about the complex ideologies of certain German philosophers (whose names now escape me even though I had to memorize them for class, I think one of them may have been Peter), but I took great delight in burrowing into things to learn the true story behind the facade or at least an appetizing assumption. In doing so I unearthed a theory that experience points are a hold-over from D&D's origin in war gaming. In most old-fashioned war games a miniature on the battlefield doesn't represent a single person but a unit of fighters. Those who haven't yet experienced battle are your Greenhorns while those who have are your Veterans. It is generally believed that because they have experienced battle and survived that your Veterans are better fighters than your Greenhorns. They exist at a higher level than the other units on the battlefield and thus are more valuable (although we never truly know how they managed to survive so many battles. It could be that they were actually sucky fighters who were just very crafty at getting the more zealous greenhorns to do all their fighting for them, like a certain dastardly sixth grader I used to game with. Yeah, I'M TALKING ABOUT YOU PETE!!! DAMN YOU TO HELL YOU LITTLE BITCH!!!!!!!!). 

In this context it all makes sense. If battle is all the game is about then experience points make sense. But. Battle is not all it's about. Dungeons and Dragons is about adventure and exploration and character. It's about characters who start off with interesting back stories and detailed personalities which  are slowly whittled away and pressure cooked off until the character conforms to the pattern of a streamlined stereotypical fighting machine because God knows it really is just one freakin' battle after another in a world where the only way to make yourself a better person is to kill off as many creatures as you can and loot their booty.

I remember sitting in CCD and having a friend of mine ask our priest what was wrong with D&D. In his Irish brogue the priest replied with something like, "oh because it deals with demons, devils, witchcraft and the casting of spells, none of which the Church condones." But you could tell from the pained expression on his face that he had no idea what the game was about and really just wanted to speed the Q&A along so he could go find himself a stiff drink. If he had known the game he probably would have focused on that central core of corruption - that D&D teaches us that the way to get ahead is to kill things and take their stuff. Of course, in defense of the game, this is also the central core message of nearly all of human history.

The Bronze Age. The Iron Age. The Roman Empire. The Medieval Age. The British Empire. America's Expansion into the West. Wall Street. Main Street. Pennsylvania Avenue. It just goes on and on all around the world. It's not the way we want it to be, especially when we live in the crosshairs. Otherwise it's great to be rich while you're young, and killing people and taking their stuff sure beats work when you can get away with it. Our prisons are overflowing with people who thought they could do just that.

Flash forward another twenty or so years and we get to the Now. I am a grown man in middle age. I build websites. I program databases. I still pursue my original dream of being a novelist, but I do so in the same way that I still lift weights - not in the hope of becoming something great but simply trying to keep what I have from slipping away any quicker than it inevitably will. It has been almost a decade since I last played D&D. I was riding the twenty year nostalgia trolley and I played the game like an adult in the company of adults. We played it Star Frontiers style. There was no talk of experience points. We simply leveled up every now and then and it was totally awesome.

Gaming hasn't left my life. In my off hours I have been designing a universal system called the MRK which will hopefully be done later this summer. And, as you might expect, one thing about it which I've never been happy with is the matter of Experience Points. The MRK has something like them called Effort Points. The GM tells the players its time to advance a level and the effort points are there to control just how much change a character can go through. Which leads to yet another long standing beef I've had with D&D and other RPG's. I don't believe in random abilities. Why do we have schools? Why do we have gyms? It's so people have places to go to make the effort required to improve what one wants to improve. That is where everything we are comes from, but it is nothing that can be absorbed from something you have killed. It can only be earned.

Which all sounds good and noble. It also sounds like a death sentence for a game. Think of pinball. Would you play it if all the game had were ringing bells and flashing lights but no scores quickly ticking up into the millions? Think of classic arcade games, simple three scene image puzzles. Would they ever have been as successful as they were without the top ten initial screen to tell us who the best players around are? Think of your job, your crappy shitty job. Think of how much harder it would be to do if you worked in a communist system where there was no income, no quantifiable measure of self-worth to judge yourself and others by? It's no wonder the USSR fell apart.

Deep in the dark heart of the human psyche is a little fire breathing dragon that desperately needs to be the better than everyone else when it simply can't be the best. And that is what the experience point is all about.

Think of Star Frontiers, now just barely a footnote in the annals of gaming history. Meanwhile D&D is about to release its fifth edition and be showered with money by hundreds of thousands if not millions of fans around the world.

Now tell me.
Who killed the Kennedys?

No comments:

Post a Comment