Guest Writer: Matthew Stephen Sunrich
-This article was made possible with a gift of a review copy, QWERTY and rolling natural 20s.
Gaming reached an interesting plateau in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the Satanic Panic, role-playing games were more popular and more controversial than ever. Many players, facing opposition from parents, educators, church groups, acquaintances, and even complete strangers, resorted to secreting dice and manuals in and out of their homes and schools, giving the hobby a sinister yet compelling aspect. Gary Gygax’s 1985 ouster from the company he helped to create left a bad taste in the mouth of many players, but the industry surged forward nonetheless. After all, there were numerous options for play, and many great things were going on. It was an exciting time. With the Internet as we know it over a decade away, a sense of community grew among local gamers, resulting in a variety of innovations in both the amateur and professional spheres.
It seemed as though everyone wanted to get into the RPG market. Of course, as history has shown time and again, this always causes gluts that negatively impact the industry. (One of the primary factors that led to the end of comic’s Golden Age, for example, was the sheer number of books on the racks. Readers, faced with so many similar options, couldn’t decide what to buy, and the over-saturation of the superhero genre led to a dissolution in interest.) After all, how many fantasy roleplaying games do we need? It’s understandable that some game designers wished to take a different approach to sword and sorcery than the Dungeons & Dragons rule set had, but new and potential gamers were unlikely to be able to tell the difference between one system and another when browsing the shelves at a game store. It just caused confusion and frustration.
With this in mind, I’m going to examine the first issue of Adventurer magazine. Launched in 1986 by Mersey Leisure Publishing and running for eleven issues, it was one of several gaming magazines endemic to the United Kingdom. With several publications in this vein already out there, one has to wonder what compelled Mersey Leisure to throw its hat into the ring. Of course, it’s not hard to understand why someone would want to produce a magazine about gaming. As gamers, we all find the idea of contributing to the hobby very appealing. It’s fine to be “just a fan,” but adding something of value, making your mark, being an active participant, is an alluring prospect.
Adventurer is without a doubt an attractive magazine, with a beautiful cover and interiors featuring striking illustrations and attractive layouts. Comparing it to the publications of just a few years earlier, one can easily see how things have progressed. Gone are the days of articles printed in typewriter courier font accompanied by drawings hastily scribbled in the margins in Sharpie. Gaming magazines had entered the big time.
I guess the important question to consider when assessing it is, what sets it apart from other, similar magazines of the period? In terms of appearance, it’s appealing but not remarkable. Thus, we have to take a look at the features.
Leading the pack is “The Black Tower,” an adventure for either Rolemaster or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It becomes clear early on that this is only the first part of the adventure and that the eponymous tower does not even appear in the material presented here. This is certainly a good strategy on the publisher’s part to get you to purchase the next issue(s), but it’s not a great thing from a gamer’s perspective. The dungeonmaster/gamemaster would have to decide whether to go ahead and run the first part and postpone the rest until the rest of it came out or to just wait so the whole thing could be run in one session. That said, it’s a solid, if short, adventure, and some options are provided for wrapping things up without the forthcoming installments. These kinds of things, to my way of thinking, make for fun reading, but whether or not they’d work well on the tabletop is debatable. Game design is one of those things that a lot of people want to get involved with, but when it comes down to working out the details, which have the potential to be tiresome, the level of interest decreases. If you want to please players and gamemasters alike, you have to be willing to resist the temptation to cut corners.
The two standout features are “White Fire,” a Call of Cthulhu “mystery” and the article “How to Become a Method Role-Player” by S. Rawlinson.
Unlike “The Black Tower,” “White Fire” comprises a complete adventure, and it’s a well-designed and intriguing adventure with fantastic diagrams and illustrations. Like most adventures for this system, it is set in the 1920s and involves aged tomes containing arcane knowledge. The players should ideally know as little as possible about the Cthulhu Mythos, presumably because Lovecraft-inspired stories tend to follow the same basic formula, and ignorance of this pattern will obviate metagaming. Of course, players of this sort might be hard to come by, as the Cthulhu Mythos and its trappings are integral to gaming and fandom in general. Nonetheless, there is a lot to like here. I have never played Call of Cthulhu, and I am curious about how it works. It’s clearly very different from, say, Dungeons & Dragons, as it does not involve fighting monsters (you’ll go nuts if you do, after all), although a large proportion involves exploration.
Live-action role-playing became really popular in the late 1990s/early 2000s and continues to this day. Its practitioners constitute a peculiar subset of gamers because it is, by its very nature, a game of improvisational acting. As such, a lot of actors find it attractive. Effective improvisation is not something that just anyone can do, although skills do tend to improve with practice. The idea of integrating Method Acting into a live-action RPG session is a peculiar concept, to say the least. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Method Acting is a school of performance in which the actors put an unusual amount of effort into getting into their characters. They effectively strive to “become” the character, often by subjecting themselves to whatever the character is experiencing. For example, Dustin Hoffman stayed awake for three days during the filming of Marathon Man to immerse himself in his character, something Laurence Olivier famously found strange. Another extreme instance can be found in the 1999 Japanese horror film Audition. In a particularly revolting scene, the psychopathic Asami vomits into a bowl, which she then gives to her mutilated human “pet” for sustenance. Because the actress who portrayed her followed the Method, the vomit was reportedly real.
It’s hard to imagine how this would relate to a fantasy game, unless the actors plan to actually stab each other with swords, which is not a very good idea. Similarly, casting “actual” spells could prove problematic, if you believe what Jack Chick had to say on the matter in his Dark Dungeons comic. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rawlinson’s offering explores what would be required to take things to the next level in a tabletop setting rather than a live-action one. He argues that the Method applies to tabletop role-playing in a somewhat less intense manner. In fact, many modern players do this already. It simply involves getting into a character by developing its background and trying to get into its headspace. Rather than just playing the character in the loosest sense, the Method role-player should try to come as close as possible to becoming their character. Again, Chick warned us against this (“I don’t want to be Elfstar anymore. I want to be Debbie.”), but what’s life without a little risk?