Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gaming in the Enchanted Isles, or Part Two: Why Game There?

In our first thrilling installment, I discussed some of the reasons why a person - or, at least, a gamer - might want to explore the Enchanted Isles in some way beyond the route provided by the board-game.  Although I implied that rpging would be a interesting way to do that, that isn't quite the same thing as saying why you would actually want to use Wizards as the basis of an rpg campaign.  I'm not sure that there is anything like a full answer to that, but I can explain some of the reasons why I want to game in the setting.

The first is tone.  As I discussed previously, the game has a very strong tone that makes the Isles feel distinct.  I use distinct here very deliberately rather than unique, because they are not the latter.  The borrowings from Tolkien are many and, unlike OD&D, much more than just names on which to hang monsters.  The influence from Le Guin is a bit less strong, but potent nonetheless.  Indeed, the feel of the Isles is almost the point where Middle-earth meets Earthsea.  For example, the idea that violence is not a a solution to spiritual problems comes from both sources, even if they are represented rather differently in LOTR than the Earthsea books.  

All game settings, whatever their origin, have to find some place of balance between freshness and familiarity.  There is no right point of balance, of course; it's something each group works out in each game, but it does have to be worked out.  Go too far toward the familiar and you feel as if you are just rehashing tired cliches; too far toward the fresh, and you risk losing any sense of confidence.  The former point is pretty obvious, I think; for the latter, go check out the scores of threads at in which people proclaim the brilliance of Nobilis or Transhuman Space and then say, "Now what the hell do I do with this game?"  Much like the topoi of oral-tradition poets, recognizable tropes are places for the players to hang their imaginative hats (if that metaphor isn't too wildly mixed to make sense).  

I think the tone of the Isles strikes an attractive balance point.  The spirituality of Tolkien without the concomitant baggage of both backstory and end-story is appealing i.e. it would be fun to play with Elflords, making magic with the music of stars, without knowing that this guy has 300-pages of convoluted family history and gets killed at the Battle of Dagorlad.  Le Guin's poetic magic is also great fun, but it would be nice to play it without the various constraints or the authour's occasional politics.  And the tone is broad enough - maybe with a little help from the GM - to accomodate more types of game play than the airy-fairy stuff that the above might suggest.

Alert, hypothetical readers might well wonder if this tone isn't grossly at odds with the Sword & Sorcery genre the authour frequently bathers on about.  And, of course, it is.  Wizards is Epic Fantasy in most of its glory.  It is not a setting where scoundrels plot money-making schemes from back alleys of baroque city-states.  For one thing, there is only one city in the whole setting and Torwall isn't really much of a city.  For another, you can't play a scoundrel.  Or a rogue.  Or a cut-purse.  Instead, the game is about the battle for Good and Evil in the cosmos which mirrors the internal, spiritual battle of men (or Men to use the game's fervent capitalizations).  It's about doing good deeds and learning to become something better.  It's not anywhere near S&S; when you want to play that, go visit the lands under the the Dying Sun.  ;)

Which brings me to another reason to use Wizards is the premise.  The game gives you the Big Story right up front: the Evil Spirit seeks to finally take over and corrupt the Isles; go stop it.  And it gives you some basic directions on how to get involved: stop being a schmuck, join a Magical Order, and become powerful enough to assemble the Sacred Gem.  And then it pretty much leaves you alone.  Game play on the board literally places you somewhere random and asks "what you do next?"  I don't know about you, but that sure sounds sandboxy to me.

The first rounds of the game are spent deciding (or randomly wandering and not deciding) how to join an Order.  Do you try to enter one of the forboding Sorcerer's Towers or journey to the Sacred Circle or do you randomly bump into a High Wizard and get initiated?  Nothing actually requires you to join any Orders, except that you know you can't get anywhere in the game otherwise (not necessarily true in an rpg though, he says in a bout of foreshadowing).

Subsequent rounds forming the bulk of the game involve the characters picking up various Task cards, which are, in essence, adventure hooks.  In every game I have ever played, I wind up with far more Tasks than I could ever complete and thus each game is unique in that you almost never do the same things twice.  In the board game, of course, this has a down-side in that the Tasks are really so much useless flavour, but that isn't true if you were playing an rpg (look! more foreshadowing).

The end-game is supposed to revolve around collecting the MacGuffin and thwarting evil.  But, again, nothing forces you to.  As the game goes on, Evil will begin to pick up strength and, starting on the third fortnight, will commence attacking vulnerable territories.  The assault can be staved off by completing Tasks, but Evil will keep coming back and usually with more force.  So, if you want to win, it's obvious that you ought to level up and get the MacGuffin, but if you would rather just Transport around randomly, dispelling Demons (and gaining points in the process) like a reenactment of the Gospel of Mark, then you can (I should know, since I have often done that, invariably resulting in me naming my character "the Goddam Sheriff").  And in an rpg....

Finally, one a little less rational: there's just something attractive about turning evocative board games into rpgs.  I don't really know why, unless it's the fucntional yet attractive maps, since maps are important to most gamers.  Jeff Rients at Jeff's Gameblog has written about this for the Minaria of Divine Right.  JB at B/X Blackrazor discussed it in regards to the Pern of DragonRiders of Pern.  And Aaron at A Paladin in Citadel has written more posts on Magic Realm than any other human being in history.  So, I feel I'm in good company here.

Also, I'm not just speaking hypothetically in all of this.  You see, I myself have adventured among the Enchanted Isles already.  But that is a story for our next installment.

1 comment:

  1. there's just something attractive about turning evocative board games into rpgs...

    ...I feel I'm in good company here.

    Definitely. And yes, I've followed with great interest both Jeff's and Aaron's ideas.