Thursday, February 25, 2010

Web 2.0 and tabletop roleplaying #1: the past

A big day for all concerned?
World-historical anniversaries are all very well but today also happens to see my 400th post here @RD/KA!, so I've been racking my brains trying to think of a topic suitable to highlight this latest small landmark in my bloggery. What could be more apt I decided, than a subject which has its roots in my halcyon days- the 1980's; about which I wrote right back when this blog was but a stripling; which represents furthermore one of my major unfulfilled aspirations as a roleplayer?

Phase 1: "When ah were a lad..."
My fascination with what Web 2.0 can offer tabletop roleplayers is rooted in experiences predating the invention of the World Wide Web itself. It all began, naturally enough, with Katana: Sword Against Evil™, that renegade ninja who has set out to destroy the Evil that spawned him.
(Graphic via Trends in the Living Networks)

A team-playing ninja?
Katana's early career took place in a typical student roleplaying circle: a large and fluid pool of players with plenty of time on their hands; resulting in appearances alongside a mixed cast of characters, the most regular of whom went by the name of Wildcat. We used to style these games after the old Marvel Team-Up comics. Earnest as we were in our search for strong characters and satisfying stories (regular readers might remember just how large Katana the PC looms in my life) we would talk a lot about character development: after games, in the pub, and so on.

No, not quite!
Eventually this roleplaying circle drifted apart, as it had to when people graduated and started getting jobs, the usual kind of thing. In particular: Katana's GM- Bill, left Edinburgh; so that Katana's later adventures were restricted to Bill's occasional visits. One consequence of all this was that Katana's later adventures were all solo runs. We were maintaining a steady snail mail correspondence at the time (how prehistoric is that?!). Soon we were exchanging snippets about Katana: staging little vignettes, feeding each other plot ideas and so on.

Fun as this was in its own right, Bill and I soon realised that it was bringing unexpected benefits to our roleplaying:
  • We were able to hit the ground running so to speak; ie. our games began with events already in motion, shortening the routine setup and enabling us to approximate the narrative technique in medias res without running the risk of railroading; all of which heightened the drama, naturally enough.
  • Our games were more focussed: the read and review facility of our writings meant that we both had a better idea than normal of what we wanted from each particular session, and of where we were going with it.
The result was some great roleplaying- including Katana's Finest Hour, but that's another story.

Parallel development?
Readers familiar with HERO might recognise that what Bill and I were doing bears some resemblance to blue-booking. A resemblance there certainly is.

The phrase 'blue-booking' first entered the roleplayers' vocabulary in 1988 in the highly esteemed HERO supplement Strike Force, by Aaron Allston: simply one of the biggest names in roleplaying design and writing of his day. Phil Masters' definition linked above also notes some of the possible pitfalls of blue-booking; points amplified in a thread- The Pros and Cons of Blue-Booking, over on the HERO forums (the OP there gives a more detailed account of blue-booking's origins than does Phil Masters). I'll return to these issues later.

Phase 2: Caught in the web
A long time coming
I owned my first computer in 1990: my dad's old Amstrad PCW 8256, that quirky little all-in-one machine sold by the even 'quirkier' Alan Sugar. The PCW 8256 was primitive even when new and 5 years old when I got my hands on it but the potential of the computer word processor was still obvious. I fired the PCW 8256 some 6 years later when my dad passed on his old IBM compatible PC- with a 'monster' 44 Meg hard drive and a processor which could double-clock to a mighty 18MHz(!), and which ran WordPerfect IIRC. I never really got the hang of WordPerfect and always missed my trusty old LocoScript.

I'd heard about the internet and the World Wide Web by this time, naturally enough. An 80's Cyberpunk fan, I even had some notion of what it might be its capabilities. But despite poking around on it at a friend's workplace once or twice, I really knew next to nothing about it. It wasn't until 1999 that I finally bought a decent net-capable PC, which for some strange reason came with Lotus Word Pro pre-installed: my first fully featured word processor, at last! Still fondly remembered because of its excellent bulleting/numbering and its unique little formatting tool- both never equalled in my experience, Word Pro was left behind with some regret when I discovered how terrible are its tables and spreadsheets.

Soon enough, I went cable broadband. I was in!

First fumbling steps
The powerful tools Word Pro put at my disposal were quickly put to use developing HERO character sheets, GM's combat sheets and other goodies. I was imagining too all the amazing things I could do with a fully featured graphics package of the sort that was then quite beyond my means: GIMP and the Open Source as we know them today were then in their infancy. Meanwhile my adventure gaming ecommunity activity was devoted to tabletop miniatures gaming sites, especially The Bolter and Chainsword: the ideal home for this fan of 40K Space Marines.

Then in March 2002 Bill launched his Trollslayer Yahoo group, to be followed shortly thereafter by It didn't take me long to realise the potential of web-hosted mailing lists and online document storage for roleplayers, especially for a group dispersed as our old Edinburgh crew is. Character sheets could be stored online so that you no longer need worry about forgetting them; GM's could store their secret information in private folders- enabling them to travel light; meets could be arranged; plotlines could be seeded; scenarios could be reported on and their implications discussed; players could interact in downtime- you can see where that's heading I trust dear readers:- the possibilities seemed limitless.

Before long I had started my own Yahoo group: the HERO System Resource Group. Moribund for several years now, the HEROsrg can hardly be called a great success, and Yahoo groups were clunky even back in 2002; but the few months' lively activity it enjoyed proved a few of my points to my satisfaction: in particular that centralised apps of the sort that were to flourish as Web 2.0 social networking could serve to rally dispersed groups of roleplayers to tell their 'fish stories' and to prepare new games. Not a complete failure then.

A grinding halt?
Just over two years later- back in August 2005, I fired up "Roll dice and kick ass!", not long after I'd started my WFRP2 Ashes of Middenheim campaign. It was obvious that this was going to provide material for my bloggery: in fact WFRP2 was the subject of the very next post I made after the four with which RD/KA! opened- covering Interaction, the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention held in Glasgow that month. As old hands here @RD/KA! will know, AoM did indeed provide a lot of material: as of the time of writing a total of 42 posts- just topping 10% of my total, appear under the 'my little old world' label; 41 of these are AoM related.

Strange to relate though- when you consider all that has gone before: my very first AoM campaign report- following on directly from the one about the WFRP2 basic rules linked above; this post includes the following statement:
"I mean to say: this particular corner of cyberspace is not going to be a campaign resource base for myself and my players- a Yahoo or similar group is much more suitable for that purpose it seems to me. Nor do I intend this blog to create some kind of online environment in which me and my players can do game- blogs might be good for that kind of thing, but so also should be bulletin boards, and there is already one devoted to WFRP, so that base seems to be covered right now."
So, I set out eschewing exactly what it was that most interested me about the online environment and roleplaying, from the get-go? And on my own blog? Sheesh. The reasons I gave at the time might retain some merit but all I can say now about my perplexing decision is that I got exactly what I asked for: occasional chatter in comments to my stories of each session notwithstanding, no one used the web for any game-related purpose during the campaign, myself included.

Which brings us more or less up to date. The subject of what exactly it is I am looking to achieve by bringing Web 2.0 to tabletop roleplaying; the resources available which might be adapted to these ends; and how I hope to be able to make this happen: all that is for another post. ;)
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