Monday, August 28, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ There's never a Commie around when you need one.

What I think the world needs is a good ol' fashioned Commie Threat. That's right. Communists! The Evil Empire! A worthy enemy, one that doesn't cause the ACLU to swarm like flies on a cow patty. Commies were the best thing going back in the 70's and 80's for us old time gamer people. They didn't bring charges of racial profiling or have the NY Times declaring that the unwashed (voting) masses of Middle America needed to understand and sympathize with some screwball religious fanatic's psychotic urge to destroy everything gamers hold dear.

Like... you know... us.

In the 70's and 80's Commies were the subject of a ton of great board games from SPI, Avalon Hill, West End Games and many other fine publishers of Conflict Simulations. Commies were manly enemies. They didn't drive trucks loaded with detergent and gasoline into buildings full of women and children. They had the balls to build a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons that, like the NATO folks (that would, could destroy as many earths as you could possibly imagine.

Being a person who grew up with the famous public school anti-nuclear explosion drills, the ones where we lined up alphabetically so we could properly exit the school into a radiation zone or where we ducked under our desks to keep the atomic firestorm from singeing our eyebrows, I had a great appreciation for threat and conflict. Being drafted simply made my appreciation more acute. But whatever you want to say about those days, pretty much anyone could agree that we all understood the lay of the land. War was about tanks and men in Germany. It was about Hunter/Killers and Boomers in the North Atlantic. It was about ICBM's, SAC, Star Wars, High Frontiers, CIA, KGB, free press or oppression. War and conflict, along with the resulting games, was a whole lot less about religious fanaticism and a whole lot more about building huge armies and machines and escalating things until one side finally ran out of money.

Whatever your politics and whatever your nationality, it's hard to argue that free markets, Ronnie Reagan and corporate investment didn't temporarily make the world safe enough for Bill Clinton to get elected and start fondling the staff.

The games of the 70's and 80's reflected that whole struggle. They were manly games. Games played on hex maps with tiny little cardboard chits. Even the non-war games tended towards the same levels of complexity and aloofness, read the whole history of Warhammer 40K to get a feel for how even Games Workshop adapted topical themes into a hugely successful franchise. In the 80's my store in Idaho sold several thousand bucks worth of GHQ tanks and armor miniatures to the M1-A1 training facility here in Southern Idaho. Tankers flew in from all over the country to play the same games we played in the store's game loft at night.

Man, I miss the Commies. Now we have all these panty-waist Euro Games and the subsequent arguments on sites like BGG where elite Euro gamers argue about dainty little things... like elegance and scalability. They build huge collections of drab, boring little boxes all packed with near identical painted wooden cubes and discs and they even sometimes show disdain for the roots of modern board gaming. As I have pointedly reminded you before, some of these people actually are concerned that their wives will not be happy unless they find games that include the little woman. Jaysus, just buy her a frickin' copy of that Lost Cities deal and tell her to get you another beer! For Chrissakes! It's not as if your life and hers will tumble into a frenzied and destructive spiral of lawyers and crying children if she doesn't get to play a frickin' game with you.

Actually, I take that back. I've read enough of the Euro Snoot threads on BGG to at least comprehend that some gamer's lives will crumble if Momma doesn't get her way. Whatever.

A week or two back Shannon wrote on this blog about the differences and similarities between adventure board games and role-playing games. In many ways what Shannon wrote made perfect sense. The whole genre of adventure board games, like RPG's, is a stunted path that ends in pretty much the same place any time you play... kill the UBG. Level up. Now, go kill the even more ultimate UBG. Level up. Repeat, rinse, repeat, zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

What Shannon made me think about was why I never really cared for most RPG's. In a nutshell, I didn't like them because they were usually no more than wimpy guys playing pretend at being non-wimpy guys. It's a rare role-playing session where anything even remotely resembling actual role-playing (and the accompanying intelligence) is displayed. Even in the early days when my old partner Ian and I began playing... back about 1979, the campaigns almost always devolved into people clamoring for XP's or arguing over who ought to really get the amulet, sword, armor or whatever other piece of imaginary junk the DM rolled up.

In today's RPG world there are several thousand pounds of manuals and player aids that add a veneer of respectability to role-playing. A thin veneer. That's because players tend to buy the manuals and study them so they can confound the DM and other players and end up getting the extra XP's and goodies so they can kill more bad guys and level up quicker. WotC is smart. They sell D&D the same way Chevy used to sell cars.... "Yep, you can have this new Impala for only $1700! 'Course, if you want an engine, a radio and some lights, it'll cost ya' a bit extra."

The creators of modern miniature games have taken expandability to even loftier heigths. When I was a top retailer for Games Workshop my numbers told me that if I sold you a basic 40K or Warhammer game for $60 I could expect between $500-1800 in income from you during the following 18-24 months. That's why I always discounted the basic games. WarMachine, Confrontation, CMG's, they all use the same tactic: sell the gamer just enough stuff so when he plays he gets his ass handed back to him on a dirty dish. He'll be back for more goodies, and soon.

I'm not complaining mind you... I've made my living from selling expandable products. From games to expensive cars to software. And while I understood why a company or government agency might want to add fax or PC capability for it's mainframe users, or why a Mercedes owner might want to add an electric shock module to the hood emblem, I always had a bit of a negative reaction to gamers who believed the solution for the hollowness they felt in their gaming experiences would be remedied by a new D&D book or a more potent 40K unit.

Role-Playing suffers the most from this issue I think. Because role-playing is mostly the same thing every session. It's about as exciting as...oh... I dunno... Puerto Rico. Yeah, role-playing is like playing Puerto Rico. Everybody knows what their job is and everbody wants to sit to the left of the newbie.


Except for one little RPG that West End Games published back in the good ol' days when gamers were men, and smelled like it, and when we had serious threats to contend with... like Commies and an invasion from Cuba. We also had movies like Red Dawn.... everybody together now.... WOLVERINES!!!!

And ABC did the Amerika mini-series. Milton-Bradley bought the rights to an SPI game called Invasion America and dumbed it down to create Fortress America. Tom Clancy made sense in those days. Along with Dale Brown and a few other military fiction writers. And West End Games had this guy working for them by the name of Greg Costikyan, who, among other accomplishments, designed the classic Creature that Ate Sheyboygan for SPI. With the talented crew at West End he also designed The Price of Freedom RPG.

I loved it. I loved it soooooo much more than Twilight 2000... even though Frank Chadwick (despite being a Commie) did some really cool things with Twilight 2000. But getting into the role of a NATO guy trapped in Europe after the BIG WAR and struggling to hijack a submarine so you could get back home to Alabama always seemed to be a little unrealistic to me.

But The Price of Freedom, now there was an RPG you could sink your teeth into. That's because it was theoretically taking place in the here and now. When you fired up a group of players for a POF session they could practically see the Cubans parachuting into the playground of the local elementary school. The weapons, the situations, the actions, the tools, they were things each and every one of us were familiar with. No magic swords, no stupid Orcs. Just shotguns, deer rifles and the pick-up sitting right there in your driveway.

I began running POF shortly after it was published and it was a huge success for our group. War gamers, miniature gamers and haters of all things girly and associated with fantasy came out of the woodwork to play. It helped immensely that what Costikyan had done was take basic and sound war gaming mechanics, add some RPG-like embellishments and throw in an enemy that was real and that you could go see on any large college campus... usually in the teacher's lounge.

The boxed set of Price of Freedom looks and feels like a war game. It has counters, just like a war game. It has various TO&E's, just like a wargame. The lists of military and civilian hardware were all very familiar, some of us even owned many of the weapons or had used them courtesy of Uncle Sam. Reading through the GM and Player books was like reading the best war game rules I had ever read. All the terms and mechanics were familiar. The rules describe terrain, movement rates, target acquisition and all the associated items that most gamers of the era could easily grasp. In short, it was a war game in role-playing clothes.

And the best part?

You got to play the ultimate character. Yourself.

Here's an excerpt from the Player Book:

Exactly what is so important varies from person to person: for some, it's family: for others, ideology: for others, their jobs: and so on. But when you threaten what is most important to someone, he will do whatever he can to protect it, and nothing will stand in his way. In game terms, the thing is the character's passion.

If that's not a recipe for role-playing yourself in a grim situation, then I don't know what is. And that's exactly what my main group of players did for nearly two years. With me at the helm, running the Soviet Overlords and their Cuban minions, sending out the Political Officers and KGB operatives, our group single-handedly mucked things up so badly for the Soviets in Idaho that they eventually decided that a few million acres of potatoes and a couple hundred thousand head of cattle just weren't worth it.

Costikyan also used an element that I liked and had only seen once before, in the Warhammer Fantasy RPG, the Hero Point. Every player began with one. Others could be earned at the GM's discretion. Hero Points allowed players to do things that real people in tight situations often did, despite all odds. If you recall Robert Duvall standing on the beach, watching his boys surf, exclaiming, " I love the smell of napalm in the morning", as bullets whizzed by him, then you understand Hero Points. I was miserly with them, but my players learned and they were creative. They were smart and they knew that in this RPG, if they died, then they'd have to play someone new... probably some pesky neighbor or the ex-wife's new boyfriend or some equally distasteful personnae.

In The Price of Freedom, you had a commitment to your character. You had a reason to survive. You were motivated to be intelligent, to lie, to be a cheater, to steal and to make things bad for the UBG's. You knew the only way to win was to survive and everyone knew that there was no Ring of Reincarnation in this game.

Overall, I think what West End created was close to the perfect role-playing game. A fantasy that was steeped in real life. It was better than Call of Cthulhu (which I admit, was very, very good) and it was a nice break from the only other RPG worth playing... Paranoia. Strangely enough, Paranoia was designed by, you guessed it, West End Games, and Costikyan had his hand in that one too.

We all know why The Price of Freedom had such a short life span. We won the Cold War. We outspent the Commies. They all became capitalists, eagerly trying to sell suitcase nukes and T-34's to anyone with a turban and a gold tooth. And so, the best RPG ever created quickly became a footnote in gaming history.

I'm not going to suggest that the same formula for an RPG would work in this modern world of ours. It wouldn't. The current war is all about truly evil UBG's. And this time... they have lawyers.


Clinton Smith said...

Just think how much sooner we could have won the Cold War by outspending the Soviets if we had ignored conservatives who argued for low taxes and instead let the tax and spend liberals go hog wild. Take it easy, D.W., I'm just joking! The liberals would have just wasted most of the money on un-cool, non-military stuff.

GrillTech said...

Ahhh the days of sweating in the loft above Dark Horse. Sweating for two reasons:

A - it was hot as He** in Idaho.
B - Wolf was running Price of Freedom.

As a player I can agree he was stingy with hero points. He was a great GM and when you came away from the table you came away with a gaming story that would enthrall both games and non-gamers.

Those are nights that will remain forever in my mental scrapbook of gaming. Thanks a a post that brought back incredible memories DW.

Shannon Appelcline said...

Although I'd agree with your assessment of adventure games as (currently) a kind of stunted field of development, all about killing the UBG, I'd disagree with that assessment of RPGing in general.

Yes, maybe D&D is still set up in that way, and although it might be the majority of RPG plays, it's the minority of RPG systems on the market. In particular what I call the "storytelling" branch of RPGs puts really heavy emphasis on roleplaying. Pendragon, Ars Magica, The Dying Earth, HeroQuest, etc.

I've played many RPG sessions where I scarcely ever picked up the dice and have sometimes gone through weeks of RPG campaigns without ever getting into a fight.

Pawnstar said...

Great article - I'm almost tempted to start RPG-ing again!

I never got to play anything like Price of Freedom (if you discount Fortress America). I only ever managed one game of Paranoia and it was run so well I couldn't get my head around what was going on and ultimately I was the first to break.

The trouble with adventure games is if you remove the UBG element you have nothing to stop the game from going on and on (just like a real RPG). You need that objective to make the game last for just one session.

Christopher Stogdill said...

Wolf-if you EVER think of running POF again I want in. Hell, I'll bring the beer and make a trip to the Army & Navy surplus for props. I know I have that Field Manual for improvised explosives somewhere....

Anonymous said...

"Man, I miss the Commies. Now we have all these panty-waist Euro 'Games and the subsequent arguments on sites like BGG where elite Euro gamers argue about dainty little things... like elegance and scalability. They build huge collections of drab, boring little boxes all packed with near identical painted wooden cubes and discs and they even sometimes show disdain for the roots of modern board gaming."

Well said. As I hang around on BGG, im starting to realize that the place is really populated by people who think gaming started in 1995 with Settlers. Folks with no knowledge of RPGs, or wargames, or even of miniature gaming, the precursor to all tabletop gaming.

The folks who are identified as eurosnoots could often be considered newbies to gaming, for the most part.

Does that make me a snoot of some sort?


GROGnads said...

man! I've been trying to unload THIS "dog" of a GAME for I don't know how LONG now. I've almost gotten 'nibbles' from many folks, yet they dissipate into the shadows or "fog", as it were. WHO amongst you-all wants to get into this`n? I've got a "Cleric's Revenge" as well, so don't delay, since you will want to "play", to your endless dismay, this, I do thusly 'say'!

DWTripp said...

Shannon is right about there being RPG's that focus on actual role-playing. But, having been in the dubious position of a purveyor of RPG's for 20+ years I will assure him of this - Besides White Wolf's creepy RPG's and the occasional Shadowrun surge, D&D accounts for 99% of what people play. That means what? I think it means that you can be assured of sales success by appealing to the lowest common demoninator of any given target market.

Does that make me a snoot of some sort?

I don't think so Steve. Recognizing that others have no taste and a high tolerance for unimaginative and repititive games only makes you a Snoot if you spend time pointing out to them what a bunch of losers they are.

Which means some might accuse me of being a Snoot... they would be wrong though. I'm actually an asshole. Which is a lot different than being a Snoot.

I'll email MrJohnson and Face if I ever decide to run POF again, Grogs can send me his copy if he wants to and I'm currently in shock that Clinton commented on my blog.

One other thing, Fellonmyhead mentions the one-shot adventure and the UBG... I think some imagination easily handles the problem with eliminating UBG's from the equasion. Not in adventure games per se, but certainly in RPG's.

Anonymous said...

"was a whole lot less about religious fanaticism"

I disagree with this one, DW. Back then, WE were the religious fanatics (In God We Trust on the money, Pledge of Allegiance to God and country, etc.) and THEY were Godless Commies.

Also, you ought to check out some of the new generation of RPGs - indie games built under The Forge model, like Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vinyard, Nine Worlds and a hundred others. They're a whole new breed.

Brett Myers

Anonymous said...

OMG I can't believe somebody else remembers Amerika! Kris Kristofferson v. Sam Neill with the former supporting a revolution and total freedom while the latter becoming a leader of a Soviet puppet "heartland" state. Given the Soviet sympathizing media, you only get one guess at which faction won in the mini-series.

Of course, Amerika was nothing compared to the SNL parody AmeriDa with Canada taking over the US.

Now if only I can get my brother to send me my copy of Fortress America...

Anonymous said...

My name is LW and I would like to create a new alt history RPG or comic series that's like the POF RPG but set in 21th century, if anyone is interested in helping out and helping me get a box set of POF RPG in NM version please let me know at


John DM said...

Ran into this post while I was looking for material for a ROF game I'll be running for my sons. I'm old enough to remember Amerika, and my boys love the idea of taking on the 80s era Russians!

Funny thing is, their best buddies are some devout Christian Russian (legal!) Immigrants down the street. Good thing they can separate the two concepts...

I agree about many RPGers; far more interested in having a fleeting moment of power in an otherwise low-impact life, better to break the GM and get the Ogre-Slaying knife +9 than finish school and build a life, withskills and a family.

Me, I like telling a kick-arse story, and I want YOU, the player, to kick-start our imaginations with me! Wanna ride?

So, what were some of those amazing moments, ROF players/GMs? I don't want my boys to drift away like they did with Savage Worlds! :)