McSweeney’s had a column competition recently, and I figured I’d enter with a sort of memoir tied into roleplaying games and all that, focusing around the different Gamesmasters I’ve had. It wasn’t one of the winners because McSweeney’s attracts actual writers, or at least writers that they prefer to me. Here it is anyway – a fairly candid account of my first year at Uni tied up in a weird blend of cyberpunk ultraviolence and misdirected hero worship. I might carry on for a bit with them, if it all goes well.
1 – James, SLA Industries, 2005
James was a strange guy, but he wore it pretty well. Where other geeks would retreat into themselves and use that strangeness as armour, he wore it like a cloak. Like a peacock wears feathers.
He shaved half his head. He never cut his left pinkie fingernail, letting it grow long and almost curl at the end – something which I’m told, years after the fact, is either a Chinese expression of middle-class success or a means of playing certain Indian instruments. I imagine he had his own reasons.
He took Stage Lighting as a course at University and then dropped out. He ate curry out of large metal bowls on his lap and wore prisoner-style jumpsuits with serial numbers printed on them and he danced like his hands were trying to kill him and, somehow, he had girlfriends. Unlike many of us, James had the ability to meet women and then kiss them without much time passing between those two events. Minutes, even, rather than months.
James was my very first Gamesmaster. His roleplaying game of choice was SLA Industries, an impenetrable tome of 1990’s Scottish Cyberpunk.
A roleplaying game is, essentially, a cross between a communal storytelling session and an excuse for the socially backward to interact on a semi-regular basis. Much in the same way that normal folk might go to a bar or watch sports with one another, we schedule regular jaunts into fantasy worlds and invite out friends along for the ride. We still end up in a lot of bars, though. Some of us even watch sports.
One player (the Gamesmaster) is in charge. They imagine a story in their heads – generally one with lots of fighting in, as combat is often to roleplaying games what sex is to porn – and, rather than create their own protagonists, they invite the players to run rampant in the narrative instead. Dice are rolled to determine the success of events; it’d be no fun, after all, if everything went in favour of the players all the time.
The three main flavours of roleplaying game are Lucky Dip Fantasy (Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder), poorly researched Sci-Fi (Traveller, Rifts) and Supernatural Horror (World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu). SLA Industries, released in the early nineties, sat firmly in the poorly-researched Sci-Fi section but would occasionally brush up against Horror on a good day.
Players work for the titular organisation as Operatives under the employ of Mr Slayer, a gangly besuited alien of indeterminate origin who brings planets into his nightmarishly grey World of Progress. The Scottish influences prevail throughout: on the core planet, it is always raining. Everyone is on drugs. Unsubtle anti-Thatcherite messages are barely concealed in the text. Imagine Trainspotting fingering Blade Runner at a party while Nine Inch Nails watches intently and you wouldn’t be far off.
James threw himself into it, despite the lack of new material published in the twelve years since release. His back pocket held a notebook full of scrawls detailing his version of the world, and a complex relationship web in biro on A4 paper provided the meat of the interactions between important groups. I caught a glimpse of it once, briefly, before he hid it from view. I never learned what part we played in it, or if we were on it at all.
I mentioned the system to him in passing as something that I was interested in playing, and he said that he was running a game and could fit me into his group, if I was interested. (Most groups have a maximum size limit depending on how comfortable the Gamesmaster is with large numbers of people – it’s generally around four or five) I agreed almost instantly and tried not to sound too excited about the prospect. He gave me a lift to his house that afternoon in his rusted car.
James didn’t have carpets in his living room – if he did, they were long-hidden under piles of books, comics and magazines. Supplements for what seemed like every game system ever written were stacked high around the (disused) fireplace, spilling through the room and covering the floor. I generated my character, sat half on a sofa cushion and half on a stack of musty 2000ADs.
Character generation consists of assigning a fake name and an imaginary face to a bunch of numbers on a sheet of paper in an effort to create an interesting persona with which to explore the Gamesmaster’s world: those numbers determine their strengths and weaknesses, and influence those aforementioned dice rolls. Most people hate having to do it; I love it. I love the purity of the character and their abilities before they have to make contact with someone else’s reality and get sullied into something collaborative.
For some games, the creation process is deliberately streamlined and very straightforward; for SLA Industries, it was a two-hour-plus affair in which you had to invest three hundred and ten points into no fewer than one hundred and seventy-three different categories. These ranged from Strength, Demolitions and Torture all the way through to Lip-Reading, Sleeping Aptitude, and Sewing. It’s not the most ridiculous ability list in the industry, but it’s up there. Knowing where to put your points so to create a worthwhile character is a valuable skill and one that I definitely did not possess.
I played Smoke, a Brainwaster – a sort of psychic alien with racial eye-markings that look a lot like mascara in retrospect – and I named him “Smoke” because they all had names like that in the book and I honestly thought it sounded pretty badass. Smoke was an intrusion specialist and hacker, with the psychic ability to create big blades of ice on the end of his arms that were only marginally stronger than knives. Knives, though, rarely melt.
I waited for the other players, drawing my character in the margins of the refill paper that stood in for a proper, printed-out character sheet. He ended up looking a bit like Robert Smith. I wasn’t happy with it, but James said it looked better than anything he could draw, so it stayed. The others arrived, eventually. While I was nineteen and fresh out of Secondary School, most of them were, well, older than that – ginger-bearded Cactus, grey-haired and leather-bound Kev, Andreas who drove a car (and thus gave everyone lifts) and The Girl.
The Girl wore too much black lace and smoked so much it looked like ash would spill out if she cut herself. I can’t remember what her name was. She played the violin, and her character was a hacker, and I fancied her in that way that nineteen-year old boys fancy pretty much everyone.
Helen, maybe. It might have been Helen.
I was something approaching a mascot, or a lucky charm. We would meet every Wednesday, pick up vodka from Lidl (a budget European supermarket which is like a gulag but for food) and drink it mixed with bottles of coca-cola. We would smoke weed, and order greasy kebabs, and occasionally James would have run out of Jobseeker’s Allowance money so I’d buy him dinner out of my student loan and he still owes me, I think.
We would be sent on a mission every week, each written out in pencil on photocopied Official Hunter Sheets that James would create in the first half-hour while the other players sat and talked to each other and I desperately tried to fit in. Each would have an objective on them, and sometimes they had a twist. More often than not they contained a room full of people with guns that would try to kill us.
I spent some of my character points on a motorcycle. The first mission took place in a residential house. The second took place in a sewer. Week after week, James would deny me the option to use it in any way – not deliberately, mind. I don’t think spite came into it, just a powerful lack of empathy and a keen understanding that the game was about refusal, not empowerment. I nearly got to drive it to a nightclub, once.
I wanted Smoke to sneak into places and hack computers; James would give us an open door and a room full of men to shoot. Computers would come with massive warnings emblazoned all over them, because they were all company property, and to tinker with them meant death by bureaucracy.
Picking up enemy weapons meant death by bureaucracy. Throwing explosives meant death by bureaucracy. Ordering extra equipment meant death by bureaucracy. Getting a taxi meant death by bureaucracy. He developed hold music that he’d hum, grinning, while we stared at him after asking for something from the company. It was his way of telling us to fuck off. In my first session he took me aside and proceeded to reel off, in-character, the various fines and penalties inherent for not handing over evidence in an ongoing investigation for a full ten minutes.
Despite all this, James wasn’t bad at his job. He knew all about our characters, and how to hurt them, which I think was the closest he came to letting us choose what to do. He never faltered over rules, or let scenes go on for too long, or paid more attention to one player over the others. I truly believe that behind his eyes the entire world clicked together like clockwork in a watch, and we were just cogs, perhaps more brightly-coloured than the others, in the machine. The game was written to be episodic, to deny player choice, to get characters hooked on drugs and deeper in debt to the company and stuck as wage-slaves for the rest of their short, dirty lives. Looking back, it was a smart piece of satire. At the time it was hard to get the joke.
But we did keep turning up – or I did at least, a wide-eyed undergrad caught up in the slipstream of this charismatic dropout. The Girl left fairly early on. I don’t know why. James didn’t seem upset. The surviving players made combat-focused behemoths and stomped around fights absorbing bullets like a sponge. I didn’t; I stuck to my weak, spiky-haired psychic with useless powers and an even more useless motorcycle stored under a dust sheet in a garage he could ill afford, and stood at the back of combat waving my gun around trying to make the right noises.