Trouble at the office
or, A Tale of Two Anders
This little text was inspired by thread on Reddit about defining a minimal operational definition of what a roleplaying game is, which reminded me of a time when roleplaying was definitely performed, but possibly in a way that somewhat defied description and definition. Many roleplaying terms and conventions will appear without explanation. Write a comment if there is something you want cleared up. There is also reference to bodily functions.
Sometime in 1982, I think, I was in my upper teens, and in my early stages of 1) studying for a certified upper secondary school engineer degree and 2) getting into roleplaying games. Two guys, both named Anders, both alike in cleverness, were instrumental in my introduction to the latter. They got to know each other through me, but both of them were already into wargaming and had started experimenting with roleplaying games, or TTRPG as they are known today.
Anders F was in my class. He had a tactician’s mind, always looking for a way to beat the opposition. For the next few years he honed his skills and built up a reputation: only the bravest took his challenge for wargames. As a GM (gamemaster), he was still hard to beat, but always fair as a referee. He would give you as a player opposition that force you to work hard, but he wasn’t out to beat you. Favourite rules: a homebrew based on Tunnels & Trolls.
Anders V was a couple of years younger, and not in upper secondary yet at this point. He absorbed rules and converted them to mental models of play. He “knew all the chords”. He had all those folders full of worldbuilding and a tale that wanted to be told. He was never railroading, though: that was more my domain as a GM, unfortunately. AF’s characters might not always have had a name: AV’s characters always had a backstory. Favourite rules: AD&D.
One week I was away and missed play night on Friday. On Monday, when we had a practical block in shop before lunch, AF and I were assigned to set up a big turning machine to make thingies. As we started setting it up, AF told me about Friday. AV had offered them a mission (I would guess an exciting and well-prepared scenario) that took them through a remote village before the adventure proper started. There was no law enforcement there, but the Sheriff (think Wyatt Earp, not * of Nottingham) had an office and could be summoned if there was trouble.
The rules used at this point was DragonQuest, an early rival for D&D. In this system, you could play an Orc character, and three or four of the players, including AF, did just that — it was, I think, mostly because of an aversion to High Fantasy tropes. There was an issue with racism (speciesism?) since Orcs were generally distrusted. (Discussion of racism in a setting elided.)
We had loaded up the machine with metal and carefully started the cycle.
“<My character> needed to relieve himself”, AF said. “Empty his bowels. The villagers weren’t helpful. So I found this office, turned out to be the Sheriff’s office. The other boys helped me break down the door, and we shat in there. The others on the floor, and I on the desk. We used his papers too.” (I am trying, and most likely failing, to make justice to his matter-of-fact gävlemål dialect here. He would tell us, and being told we knew it had to be that way.)
And then, while we made thingies, AF kept telling me about how the villagers tried and failed to run them out of the village, and the Sheriff came riding with some deputies, and they couldn’t run them out of the village either. And so it went on for a while, with AV throwing increasingly stronger and smarter attacks on them, and the gang ultimately making a fighting retreat. The mission went unsolved.
We collected the finished thingies and cleaned up, while I thought about how hard it can be to define roleplaying when not even the people playing the game might be able to predict how a session might turn out. The tale that AF told me sounds crude, but in some ways it was also sublime. We are definitely talking about acting here, and about other players following the acting, and the GM making the game universe respond as would be expected. Bigotry was touched upon, and also the “Ooo, those awful Orcs” trope that stumped even Tolkien. And it was young guys, having learned the form of expression that is TTRPG, exercising their strong intellects to play up an event in another kind of life, in another kind of world. And they did it together, all the way through hours of quarrelling, brawling, and fighting in character. None of the characters in the game was ready to compromise, which made it a hopeless conflict. But all the players were participating in a give and take.
Derailing can turn out to be the best of things, the worst of things, or maybe both. Or, as AF disgustedly put it as we took the thingies to the teacher:
“When you gotta go and they won’t let you, that’s effed up.”