Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Kid in the Kid in You

I'm not sure what it is, really. The lost innocence of youth, perhaps, or wistful recollection of a much simpler (and therefore arguably better) time. But whatever it is, it struck me that there were some games that were based, thematically if not completely, on childhood.

I think this is ironic, but it can be hard to tell

And I think this is the proper use of irony too, none of that "rain on your wedding day" tepid crap. Follow:

The "roleplaying game" is one in which everyone site around and imagines their personas running through situations created by one or more people at the table. This is the quintessence of "roleplaying," at least; the specifics and mechanics are for this discussion at least irrelevant, so I won't be bringing those up.

Another way to describe it to the layman is "codified make-believe." It's "cowboys and indians" for a grown-up set that can handle the mental images of bullets and arrows tearing through bodies and the notion that not only can very bad things happen to good people, they can happen without reprisals—"frontier justice" can be a hit-or-miss proposition.

I stress the "codified" part because unlike the childhood version, the characters' abilities and weapons are all statted out to determine whether things hit and declare how much damage they can either do or soak up. The conflict resolution system eliminates the nasty, ugly shouted arguments of "I hit you!" "No you didn't!" "Yes I did!" "Oh no you didn't!" (Or at least it should; rules lawyering might be a good topic for a future column.)

So we have the first component of the ironic construction: late teens and adults sitting around and playing "make-believe," typically with a body of rules that no child would have the patience to deal with. That there seems ironic enough by itself now that I write it out, but as I alluded above, there's a further twist.

And that twist is games in which the adults playing a children's game using a typically adult ruleset have children as player characters.

We can take it even further if we so desire: That twist becomes a möbius strip when the adults playing that children's game with an adult-biased ruleset play children in a game with adult themes.

Some games provide childhood as an option. Some games mandate it. And some games, though almost discouraging playing children, tug on the heartstrings and resonate with one's inner childishness.

If This Is Your Youth, Then You Had A Crappy Childhood

Monsters and Other Childish Things, by Arc Dream, was the first such game that came to mind. The player characters are all children, and could be in high school, grade school, or anywhere in between. The title "monsters" are the children's friends—every player character gets some form of otherworldly eldritch horror that could terrify most sane people with their wide variety of reality-bending powers. And that otherworldly eldritch horror is the player character's closest friend.

Little Fears is about adults who are blissfully unaware that the children are fighting a war against nightmares beyond time and space. The monsters in this one are working decidedly against the children, and by "working against" I mean "feeding on," more or less. Not surprisingly, the player characters are the children.

Grimm takes the children completely out of their not-very-comfortable lives and thrusts them into the untamed wilderness of fairy tales. As you likely gathered from the title, these are the fairy tales that tended to be more than just lurid morality tales—those things could get nasty, ugly, and bloody. If you don't know what I'm talking about, consider the original tale of Cinderella, in which at the end the wicked stepsisters had their eyes plucked out by birds. Yum. What a world for kids to grow up in, right?

I can think of a worse one, though: There's this indie called Kidworld, a post-apocalyptic setting in which those adults that weren't killed by the plague are now blind and at the mercy of those brutal, vicious little guttersnipes. The good news is that you'll likely start out playing one of the children, with your youth and sight. But how long will they both hold out?

We have to jump back a few years for this one: R. Talsorian Games had a fine run with their "Cyberpunk" series (not only the genre, but title). However, they saw how their players played those games, and tried to come up with a variation that would keep them relatively resource poor and crank up the desperation of their situation. What began as the question "What would the children of these 'cyberpunks' be like?" culminated in the game CyberGeneration.

And even before that, there was a game called Alma Mater that sought to recreate the high school experience, in its oversexed, drug-addled, and rock-and-roll-deafened glory. That game didn't make much of a splash, and whether this is fortunate or not is left to future generations who may stumble upon it, sample its rampant immaturity, and run screaming in the other direction.

There are others, but these were the first ones that came to mind. These are sufficient to illustrate the point. These are also enough to show why you don't see more of these: In order to make a game about something interesting, there must be some sort of conflict. And RPG conflict tends to be fantastic and cranked up to 11, with contrast and vibrance maxed out. Running children through such things feels a little bit like feeding kittens into a wood chipper.

Did it have to be this way?

Let's take an even more lighthearted example: Teenagers From Outer Space. This one tapped into two different cachets to stay afloat in the RPGers' collective unconscious: Childhood and anime. It sought to model the high school experience through the goofy, uniquely distorted lens of "Japanimation." Even there, conflicts had to happen to keep some sort of plot moving forward. And if it wasn't from some form of monster or large-scale threat, from parents, from teachers, from the lunch lady, from classmates who wanted the same [$oppositeSex], or your [$oppositeSex]friend who thought you were looking at other [$oppositeSex]s, then it was from your homework.

Conflict is a necessity. Without conflict, the game will meander. Conflict sets up barriers which the players (not just the characters) will seek to overcome. And such barriers are best placed between the players' characters and their goals.

I question the wisdom of tarting it up with those extra fantastic elements, though. Thinking that a conflict is "lame" because it doesn't have some element of horror, sleaze, or anime mania, without recognizing the drama inherent in it from the child's point of view, is the first step toward marginalizing any genre. Sticking all those foreign conventions on an experience which every player has gone through in some fashion obscures as much of that experience as it adds.

But what if the lady doesn't like Milk Tray?

I also have to consider the possibility that people are playing these games specifically for the fantastic elements, and not for the chance to create an alternative childhood. Maybe theirs was traumatic enough the first time? Or maybe theirs was so bland the first time, that the only way they could be convinced to go back there would be if there was some excitement? Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse.

Childhood, On a Whim

Those games mentioned above require the characters involved to be some age of children; they wouldn't work with adults. There are, frankly, more games which can kind of accommodate children, by virtue that any game which doesn't require adults can allow them. In the same way, any game that doesn't require children can allow adults.

That means it's possible to dream up campaigns in the likes of The Old Standbys (GURPS, HERO, etc.) — in fact, for HERO consider the PS238 setting: Superhero elementary school.

Hey! You're Doing That Thing Again!

As I said before, the conflict is unavoidable. The fantastic elements, such as those PS238 is rife with, seem to make the conflict more palatable.

That said, I've mentioned The Generics. And the great advantage of a good generic game is that you can create any setting, no matter how off-the-wall gonzo it may be... or how mundane. If you want to relive (or inflict) the childhood experience as it more likely happened, I think it'd be easier to build it yourself the way you want it rather than wait for someone to build it for you.

And it's the story you're after, right?

There are other choices. Many story games—shock, Primetime Adventures, Dread, and Universalis come to mind first—should be able to tell a story with children as the main characters.

Some of those have issues (joke at shock's expense intentional)—for instance, Dread is a horror setting. It represents a story in which characters will be eliminated. And shock is explicitly a hard science-fiction setting. Those stories will get differently weird. (But now that I think about it, hmm.....)

Universalis is, in theory, a science-fiction game, but it can be adapted to other forms. Of those four, Primetime Adventures is the easiest to make work for kids. One of the campaign samples in the book was designed by children about children.

Some are more ...problematic when dealing with childhood or related themes. Sorcerer comes to mind. There are enough out there, appropriate and not, that you'll have to consider them on a case-by-case basis.

The "Build-Your-Own Quisp-Fueled Flashback" Kit

Enough of those games that seek to draw the inner child out! Let's talk (at last!) about those games that try to reach the inner child where he lives—in the inner.

And the first one I thought of was, naturally, Cartoon Action Hour: a pastiche, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of the half-hour toy commercials of the 1980s. The fact that you're playing adults (rather capable and likely beefy ones, in fact) doesn't even put a dent in the fact that the universe around you is a four-color cartoon with two-color morality, perfect for little children to watch in their pajamas. The adult players who play the adults in this child-friendly world? Please put on a fricking shirt—yes, you the player and your character, mmm'kay?

Here's a strange bit of trivia for you: CAH is not the first game to try and mock cartoons.

Yes, obviously, there's Steve Jackson Games' Toon which was intended to emulate more classical cartoon hi-jinx, where animals stood up and maybe wore clothes and nobody thought anything of it. (You the player? Shirt. Put on. Now. Just sayin'.)

But less obviously, there was a supplement for Big Eyes, Small Mouth many years back titled—I kid you not—Cute and Fuzzy Cockfighting Seizure Monsters. This was a game that attempted to either mimic or mock (likely both) the Pokémon cartoons of the day.

And even before that was the even more obscure ACE Agents. It was published by a company called Stellar Games in 1992. And while the introduction said it was a send-up of a wide range of flashy spy fiction and cartoons, the fact that the enemy organization was called "P.Y.T.H.O.N." suggests it took more than a few cues from a specific cartoon series which ran from 1983-1987 (thank you, CAH reference list). It was a 40% serious, 60% mocking take on the sort of government agency which, for PR and merchandising reasons, really did decide to give its agents fancy-shmancy code-names and costumes and record their exploits for broadcast.

The Licenses of Childhood

Those were more or less unlicensed takes, which sought their own paths. If you want something to tug on the heartstrings of your inner child, also consider the games based on actual licensed properties of your childhood. These can be comic books (like Judge Dredd, Marvel Super Heroes, or any holder of the DC licenses), regular print-type books (like Lord of the Rings), anime (like Bubblegum Crisis or Robotech), television (like Star Trek or Doctor Who), or movies (like Star Wars).

The Self-Insertion [Fic|Fix] for Gamers

Can't find your childhood thrill? I mentioned the Generics above. Why not try creating your own tribute to your childhood for other players to experience?

Yes, seriously.

It might even be fun.

Take what source material you have, read through or view it again, pick a generic system that supports the kind of play you're looking to create, and get to writing.

Admittedly, it's not exactly a simple step. It might even be considered work. But in the end, you might help other people experience the joy that you once felt. And you get to relive the material again through the telling of its stories.

If you're not sure how, then yeah, I could try writing an article on worldbuilding. But that's for later.

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