Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Putting things off, one thing at a time

If I have one true gift in this world it is procrastination. I'll put my putting-things-off skills against any and all comers. I'm so good at procrastinating, I can even get behind schedule on my Facebook games. Don't try this at home, kids. And definitely don't try it at work or you'll be having some unfriendly conversations with your supervisor.

As evidence of my prodigious skills, I am actually procrastinating on six different projects at the very same time. I'm currently blowing off writing two live action games, an iPhone application, and a novel. I'm failing to play test another app and not getting much marketing done on yet a third (except the last two are both mostly the same). To round out my list, I'm behind schedule on marketing the novel that put me near the map.

What am I doing? Besides watching Farscape re-runs, reading back issues of X-Factor digital comics, and playing Castleville on Facebook, that is? Well, at least I'm writing this blog. In fact, I am about to check one of my longest over due commitments off my to-do list. Yes, Dear Reader (and to you especially, Mr. Smith) I am pleased (and somewhat surprised) to announce my long-awaited thoughts on Once Upon a Time in Tombstone.

For those who came in late or just don't remember anything from last year, Tombstone was a live action game I played down in Maryland back in October 2011. It was a big deal for me because, unlike most games I'm playing these days, Tombstone was a weekend-long game. I love the three day form, it offers more complicated stories and more time for character development without the commitment of a full campaign.

I also think that more people are willing to go for the epic fail and a glorious public demise in a weekend than they are in either a campaign or a shorter game. I'm a big fan of character loss in live action games. There's a difference between the player winning and the character winning. One of these days I'd like to see a villain's character sheet that plainly states the character's goal is to get caught by the good guys for the opportunity to give a 'This is how I did it' speech. I love giving those speeches. And there's nothing like being the guest of honor at a hanging to get the whole game to pay attention to you for a minute or two.

Which brings us back to Tombstone. I knew from the start my character was going to come to a sticky end on Sunday afternoon. The character sheet that I had received weeks before made that much clear. It's wonderfully freeing to know the time of your own demise. For example, I knew that no matter how much of a bastard I was all day Friday and Saturday, I was invulnerable. They couldn't kill my character because I was fated for that on Sunday sometime after High Noon. The worst they could do to me was try to throw me in jail. And did I mention that my utter bastard of a character was also the Tombstone County Sheriff? The Game Masters were very, very good to me and I thank them for that.

So while the majority of the game was scrambling around trying to solve mysteries, mend broken romances, discover hidden identities, and avenge themselves on the man who shot their Pa, I was able to wander through it all with a smug smile on my face and a song in my black heart. I drawled venomous honey in equal measure at the lawmen who wanted me in jail and the outlaws who wanted me dead. It was great fun being a man in the middle. My character wasn't as bad as the bandits who terrorized Tombstone, but he was blackmailing and bullying his business partners, smuggling rotgut hooch to the Indians, swindling half the town with a bogus silver claim, and tricking a Russian millionaire into thinking he had shot an Indian for sport (yeah, we stole it from Maverick, that's part of why it was so much fun). And there might have been some dark secrets in my past about conspiracy to murder the previous Sheriff (Tom Destry, Sr.) and frame his best friend (Washington Dimsdale) for the deed. I was a bad, bad man. My character was an amalgamation of Bill Cobb from Silverado and Behan from Tombstone. This was a choice villain and the game's meta-mechanics allowed me to ham it up without fear of wrecking anyone else's game or prematurely ending my own.

The writers also had a nice mechanic to represent the endless vistas and ranges that are the staple of many a Western. A good-sized function room was devoted to County Land. Two dozen different parcels of land were represented by masking tape boundaries and printed signs. A pile of chairs and a long table in the back corner comprised the bandits' secret hideout. I went there once or twice in character, but my Sheriff really didn't get along very well with the bandits. I did manage to score a few hundred dollars by offering to suppress some wanted notices, but that was mostly just for fun. The real money was in crooked railroad deals and duping Russian millionaires.

There was so much going on in the game that I was barely aware of 80% of the plots. The continuous hustle and bustle of the bulk of the players was a fantastic back drop to my own triumphs and tragedies. A good game provides its own dramatic canvas the same way a good novel does.

More or less smack-dab in the middle of all of this criminal fun was the big poker game of Saturday night. I'm always seriously ambivalent about any kind of game-within-a-game mechanic in live action. Even if it's my favorite game in the world, it still drops a player out of the action and steals valuable plot and role play time, not to mention the havoc it can cause other players whose plots are hung up until they can talk to your character. I am pleased to say that the poker mechanics worked unusually well for me in Tombstone.

First off, the mechanic for playing poker was mostly 'play poker.' This may sound like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised. A big part of the appeal to live action games is being able to feel like you're doing something you can't do very well in real life. Between that and the lamentable fact that it takes a long time to finish a game of poker, a lot of game writers choose to either dramatically simplify the game rules or replace it with an entirely different mechanic. Tombstone chose a middle road; they gave limited-use game powers that could improve a hand but the basic betting, bidding, and bluffing was pure poker.

The other thing I really liked about playing cards for an hour or two was the table talk mechanic. Some characters had special abilities that forced other players to reveal secrets, motivations, and knowledge across the table. I didn't have any of the abilities, but I sure had my share of juicy secrets. Being forced to reveal my nefarious plans was a big surprise, but I was comforted by the knowledge that I couldn't die before my time and that - as Sheriff - I was all but immune to jail time as well. What were they going to do to me? Nothing, that's what. Much like the movie villains I was inspired by, I swaggered boldly through a town full of people who knew I was dirty but couldn't touch me. This was live action gold, Dear Reader.

I eventually went bust in the poker tournament, which was just fine with me, I was ready to go back and mingle some more. Besides, all the people who knew the details of my dirty dealings were still 'trapped' in the poker game. Can I get a good old-fashioned villainous laugh? Mwah Ha Hah and so forth.

Sunday morning brought me to my last hurrah, and quite a hurrah it was. I got to lounge around in the street outside the Shootout at the OK Corral, I got to gloat about having managed to purchase the most valuable parcel of land in the entire game, and got to drawl yet another vaguely creepy threat to my business partner, flashing my smug and toothy smile all the while. For maximum drama, it was important to hold up my 'nothing can touch me' attitude right up until the last moment.

That last moment came when a combined posse of the Earp Brothers, Tom Destry, Jr., Sheriff Washington Dimsdale and a disguised (and mostly reformed) Jesse James came to call me to task for my crimes. I leapt to my feet and drew my trusty six-gun. And Destry shot the gun out of my hand. Well that simply wouldn't do! But fortunately I had a second gun which I promptly drew. And Wyatt Earp shot the gun out of my other hand. Golly, this was getting old fast. As luck would have it, my occasional partner in crime, Johnny Ringo was in the crowd and he managed to throw me his spare gun without anyone noticing (in character, anyway). I deftly caught Ringo's shooting iron (in character anyway) and pulled it up, ready to shoot good ol' Dimsdale the reformed-and-lovable town drunk right in the heart. And Doc Holiday shot the gun out of my hand.

Moments like this are why I play these games. If I'm going to lose, this is the way I want it to be! They took away my County Sheriff's badge and threw me in my own jail. The writers of Tombstone had cleverly put the jail cell right in the center of game space, so lots of people came by to talk to me and to ask me what I was doing in my own jail cell. And I, in classic hammy villainous tradition, got to wax on about how I was going to get the no-good-do-gooders who did this to me.

I got my trial in a speedy fashion. The good guys wanted to convict me of killing the previous Sheriff, but the writers had made me too wily and they couldn't pin it on me. The only crime they could prove was my old smuggling hooch to the local Indians operation. Fortunately for justice's sake, Judge Roy Bean had no qualms at all about sentencing me to hang for hooch smuggling; an elegant solution to the lack of murder evidence, we all thought.

And so we come to my hanging time and my brief minutes of undivided attention. I stood on a chair and held the noose in my hands. Sadly, the length of twine that served as noose prop was way too small to go over my big fat head, but there is an amusing picture of me wearing it like a tiara somewhere on Facebook. I ranted. I gloated. I confessed to everything and I cursed the men who had brought me down. In short, Dear Reader, I was in my glory. Losing is a lot of fun when you do it right.

My story may have been over, but the rest of the game wasn't. I did a quick and dirty costume change and hung around game space as Generic Townsfolk and watched the inevitable and over-the-top gunfights, duels, and knife fights that comprised a large chunk of the game's dramatic conclusions. There was plenty of steely-eyed staredowns, mustache twitches, bluster and bravado followed by a whole lot of shooting and at least one harmonica solo. In short, it was epic. Thanks once again to the writers, game masters, assistants, and players who worked and played together for one magical weekend, once upon a time ... in Tombstone.

And now I think I have procrastinated enough for one evening. It's high time I got back to writing Feast of the Minotaur for Intercon L. Or maybe I'll watch a little more Farscape first ... ?

Chelmsford, MA
February 1, 2012

1 comment:

  1. "I'm a big fan of character loss in live action games. There's a difference between the player winning and the character winning."

    Preach it! Some of my best game experiences have been death scenes. (Including one you arranged for me, as I recall.) On the writing end, seeing what Mombi the Wicked Witch did with her (doomed-to-fail villain) role in The Future of Oz was hugely enjoyable.

    (This is Alexx, by the way. Having trouble with the "Comment as" function...)