Thursday, June 22, 2006

Looking back at the Midnight game

Introducing some of my regular group to an old gaming buddy aside, last Sunday's Midnight game was noteworthy for 2 things: the Midnight setting itself, and the True20 system that Bill used to run the game.

Bill has been signing the praises of Green Ronin's True20 system ever since he got himself a copy of their Blue Rose a while back. The system's core innovation- the use of the Toughness save to dispose of tracking hit points- was an idea whose time I felt had come, and I was impressed with the look of the system in its revamp of the original superhero iteration in GR's Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition when I got finally got hold of M&M 2e last year. So I was really looking forward to getting a chance to try out the slimmed-down True20 system.

The first thing that struck me was the ease of character creation: Bill plumped for Midnight while we were chatting about his GM'ing plans, dug out his Midnight and True20 books, and with much less than half-an-hour's work I had the core of my fire-mage PC written up. All it took was some consideration of his background and a bit of tweaking of the character's various feats and I was good to go. After many years of working my way through points-build character creation I was suitably impressed. Here, I felt, was character creation like it was in the good old days: just come up with a basic idea, fill out the attributes, sketch out a basic background, et voila, you're off. A bit of old fart's nostalgia I know, but it was a nice feeling!

The combat system was quite remarkable. OK, we only had 3 encounters, and 2 of them were quite small. But all the same, they really were blindingly fast. This proved decisive in maintaining the tension of our flight through the village to the docks, because the combat system didn't bog us down in the game's mechanics. And that hardy last goblin, then the disabling of Tony's Barak and my own Erik were fine examples of the inherent uncertainties of the Toughness save: all it takes is one or two good saves from the puniest minion, or one or two bad saves from the PC's, and suddenly what seemed like a walkover can swing wildly out of control.

The True20 system more than lived up to its advance billing in this first brief taste then. I have to say that I'm looking forward to playing under it again, and to learning more about its wrinkles and its potentialities. You can be sure I'll be picking up a copy just as soon as I can.

Like I said the other day, FFG's Midnight is a classic fantasy setting with the twist that the Dark Lord's world-dominating schemes have proved successful, so that many of the familiar monsters and villains represent the forces of 'law and order' instead of the more typical threats to the status quo of the cheerier settings.

This premise is not a new one to me: it's that of the Shadowkings Trilogy, by Glaswegian author Mike Cobley, volume 3 of which- Shadowmasque- has just been nominated for a British Fantasy Award. However Midnight is the first time I've seen this idea carried through in an RPG with all the classic trappings (the world of Midnight is quite different from Mike Cobley's, which lacks many of the staple features of the fantasy roleplaying genre that appear in the game, eg. orcs and goblins).

I really rather like the effect of the 'Dark Lord victorious' theme in an rpg. As Bill pointed out to me, some of what is present in Midnight has already been seen in Call of Cthulhu, where the sheer implausibility of the horrors that the PC's confront mean that they are set on a path of subterfuge and likely conflict with unsympathetic authorites. Likewise, the Star Wars RPG's foreshadowed Midnight's theme of sedition and rebellion. Midnight is marked out, I guess, by rebellion being the utterly inevitable consequence of the very act of being a PC; by the breadth and depth of the oppressive powers of the evil overlords (which strike me as being more widespread and more completely in control than the Empire in Star Wars); and by the very plausible reality that the oppressors' inevitable acts of retribution against innocents mean that PC's will win few friends through their heroics.

All together these features of the setting have some interesting effects, some of which were seen immediately in Sunday's game. The first is to make a real landmark of that moment when the PC's step out of line and make their stand against the evil overlords- in other words, to provide a natural framework for dramatising PC's origins as PC's. I mean to say, I know that I at least experienced a real tension between my desire to get my character moving- on the one hand, and, well, fear of the consequences- on the other. Sure, I was milking this for roleplaying opportunties, but my disbelief was all-too-willingly suspended as my PC clung to his last hopes of what passes for normal life as a cringing subject of Lord Izrador in Ayrth. I certainly didn't feel anywhere near as cavalier about plunging heedless and headlong into the plot as has been my wont down the years I can tell you!

Whether it was our decisions not to investigate the fight that broke out in the middle of the night- a classic moment for PC's to step up and get stuck into some good thwacking if ever there was one; or our discussions of the implications of Aldric's killing of the orc, and then of our chosen course of action in response to this event:- these were all moments in the game when we confronted the nature of being and becoming a heroic character in a way that I found interesting and enjoyable. What was noteworthy about all this too was that it wasn't forced by some preconceived agenda. Sure, I had made up my own PC a few days before the other players, and so had had time to think about how I was going to play out the moment I knew had to come. But that was the point: this moment was an inevitable consequence of the nature of the setting, which made everything flow logically from embarking on a game of Midnight.

Another feature of Midnight that appeals to me is that it seems to render mostly meaningless traditional goals of power and glory in fantasy rpgs. Or, to be more precise: power and glory become more means to an end than ends in their own right. This seems to me to raise the bar on setting definitive character goals. And again this seems to flow nicely from the very logic of making the most of playing a game of Midnight.

I mean, I can imagine it would be easy just to run around engaging in acts of petty rebellion until the inevitable happens, and the innumerable forces of the Dark Lord finally catch up with you. And I guess you could just aim for high levels and as big a share of the swag as you can get away with without completely alienating the rebels behind whom you would be hiding. Or you can set out to define a meaningful goal- in the context of being caught up in a war that you essentially can't win within the framework of playing a Midnight campaign- and give it all you've got.

I certainly know what I have in mind! More anon, I trust. ;)
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