The siren blares, the sun has barely poked a sleepy eye over the horizon, and you and your friends are already there on the field, hoping that today won’t be the day. It’s war, my friends. General Campfire is here to rally the troops.
“You are God and this is the universe you created. It took six days to find light in the darkness, place galaxies in the heavens and raise life on the planets you scattered about them. On the seventh day you rested, and dreamed for untold billions of years.
Today is the eighth day, the day on which you finally awaken.
Go anywhere. Do anything. Be anyone. The universe will react accordingly.
You’re in a room. You hear a beeping sound: an alarm clock on the cabinet next to your bed. Everything is dark.
What do you do?”
I ran an RPG. I did! It was a game of my own devising, the sum rules of which are written above, and though I didn’t run it for very long I did learn something very important from the experience:
Being a Games Master is hard.
Most of us gaming fellows play unaware that we’re bang in the middle of a great gaming cold war. On one side are metronomic robots: the dedicated war-gamers who play campaigns for days at a time and flip out when they discover the map of Italy they’re trying to invade has a section of concave shoreline where it should be convex, convex, damn it – you’re doing it all wrong! I bet Mussolini never had to work under these conditions.
On the other side, all flounce and forsooth are dedicated role-players who keep handy supplies of lightning bolts masquerading as bean bags, whittle their ears to points and spend their days in the woods hitting each other with foam battle-axes and running away from badgers they’ve disturbed with their lute playing.
If these descriptions sound like lazy stereotypes it’s because, with clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right I’m stuck in the middle with you guys, where all the fun is. There’s nothing wrong with a little war-gaming or role-playing in moderation – in fact I’d heartily encourage both. But these extremist gamers don’t have ‘moderation’ in their vocabulary except as:
“moderation, verb: to preside over.”
One lot’s obsessed with recreating historical war campaigns in bewildering detail while the other enacts ongoing battles to determine the fate of fantasy worlds. One lot never leaves character while the other never leaves their basement, and both sides have catheters fitted to their nether regions and wee baggies of urine strapped to their inside legs. Let not the call of nature interfere with the call to battle!
Yes, yes; it’s a very lazy stereotype I know. The point is, us moderate gamer types who don’t mind playing a bit of Memoir ‘44 alongside our Pathfinder campaigns try to ignore that there are people who fit these stereotypes, and to a frightening degree. Maybe we’re a little self-conscious about it, and overexplain to our unimpressed co-workers that, yes, I do have a model tank in my cubicle and yes, it is from a war game, but gaming’s okay! It’s normal! You don’t have have to be a nerdy obssessive to play games! Look, the tank means nothing to me. I’ll throw it into the bin like a normal person, and as soon as you’re gone I’ll take it back out from under the banana peel where it’s fallen and see the cannon barrel’s snapped in half and wail to myself Oh God, what have I done, I’m so sorry, toy tank, I’m so, so sorry!
And you already know, don’t you? You know which side you’d pick if the cold war ever turned hot.
The guy above – who’s totally not me, by the way – would be a war gaming commando. He’d go to war equipped with pencils, protractors and set-squares. He’d delineate targets based on line of sight from his gun barrel to the centre of the square his enemy is standing on. He’d wait hours for his turn to roll around, all the while coldly plotting the demise of anyone within a 13.8” range. His best friend is a calculator. His wife is a calculator. His favourite game is The Campaign for North Africa.
The Campaign for North Africa isn’t a game: it’s a prison sentence. It’s playtime is upwards of forty days – that forty days of consecutive play. You can grow a beard in the time it takes to play a game. Women’s legs start looking like kebabs that have been rolled around on a barber shop floor. Tellingly, even the guy who designed it has never finished a game. It’s meticulously, ridiculously detailed: you don’t just keep track of the planes you have in the air but also the pilots flying them. Infamously the game contains rules concerning the water Italian soldiers use to cook their pasta.
The war gamer doesn’t sleep often – to him sleep is a sign of weakness – but when he does, he uses the map that comes with The Campaign for North Africa as a duvet.
But like I said, that guy isn’t me. I ran an RPG. It was a game of my own devising. And if push came to shove and war erupted I’d take a potato peeler to my ears and hey-nonny it up with the rest of the lads in tights because in this gaming civil war I’d be a LARPer, and proud of it.
We have women in our army. You see that wargaming woman with the hairy legs up there? She doesn’t exist. No woman has ever played The Campaign for North Africa out of anything other than hipster irony, but we have them here on the freeform RPG side: buxom wenches serving flagons of mead (or Mountain Dew, if mead is unavailable), pale and gothic wampyr with a kink for crushed velvet, who wear so many silver charms they chime when they walk; bow-toting Amazons who, okay, are a little obsessed with George R.R. Martin, but if walking on my knees and calling myself Tyrion suddenly makes me attractive then maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least they’re not obsessed with Himmler.
Maybe this all sounds like drooling adolescent fantasy but isn’t that the point? Maybe everyone in our army is a little goofy, a little warty and a little crooked of tooth. Maybe we all wear glasses so thick our eyes risk catching fire every time we venture out in daylight. Maybe our waking lives are so crushingly depressing we want our dreams to carry over into the real world, where we can be Skulldar the Conqueror or Morlia the Witch-Maiden and see new realms in every forest, and magic in every beanbag.
Our game is a game of our own devising. We laugh at your mundane mortal rulebooks – and our laugh is tinkling and musical, and not at all like the asthmatic snorting you might expect it to be. We abide by rules, but they cannot be bound in anything as mundane as the common tongue. You may find the seeds of our philsophies in Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade, but we’ve progressed beyond attributes and scrawled down skill sets. We play characters when we go to work, have our hair trimmed and shop in Budgens; this fey being you see before you, with a +4 sword of bludgeoning with blood trickling down his earlobes? This is who I really am.
Is what I’d say if there was a gaming civil war. Which, understandably, I hope there bloody isn’t.
And the rest of us get on with our games, moving pieces, having fun, never taking things too seriously until it’s too late, when we realise “Crap, we just bought every D&D Essentials book in the range and we don’t even have a group to play it with.”
“Damn, we just shelled out £30 for a card to help power our new World of Warcraft deck.”
“Hell, it’s six in the morning, we have to go to work in an hour and a half and we’ve spent all night following eBay auctions for first edition Blood Bowl expansions.”
Or in my case, “Dear Lord, I created and ran my own role-playing game.”
Gaming’s a slippery slope, my friends. Let’s hope it never spills us into war.
Which side are you on? Let the General know, he’ll inform you where you’re posted. Email Campfire Burning at firstname.lastname@example.org, soldier!