THE FIRST GAME I EVER GAMESMASTERED: ZAIBATSU, 2002

One hot summer day in 2002, we played ZAIBATSU, a game of cyberpunk espionage in a Gibsonesque-but-updated future.

This is part of the RPGADay project – Day 2, actually. Here’s a link to the full list. I won’t be writing a blog post every day, but I am for this one.

GIBSONESQUE

The first game I ever saw being played was Vampire the Masquerade; I was sitting above Games Workshop Carlisle waiting for the 5am bus to take us to Games Day 2000, and some of the older guys were playing it. It blew my mind. I fell in love with the idea that there was a game where you could do… anything. Warhammer suddenly felt so limited in comparison.

My friends weren’t so in love with the concept of roleplaying games, so I had to strongarm them into taking part. (I spent much of my youth convincing my friends to do things that they didn’t necessarily want to do.) One hot summer day in 2002, we played ZAIBATSU, a game of cyberpunk espionage in a Gibsonesque-but-updated future. It’s still available for free, online, on the same Angelfire website that I downloaded it from.

It’s a game of car chases and experimental laser rifles; of seedy deals and bleeding-edge biological upgrades to your body and mind; of street gangsters, hustlers and crooked doctors. It was Johnny Mnemonic, basically.

I lived in Portugal at the time and we survived off a rubbish dial-up internet connection, so I would get my fix of roleplaying games by searching for them online then copy-pasting them into Word documents and slowly, over the course of days if they were long enough, read them offline. I read a lot of crap, but ZAIBATSU was… well, it was better than most. It was easy to understand, at least: a simple system that had you roll 2D6 and look for seven or less. It worked.

CHANGING

However, I immediately started changing the game.

“Okay,” I said, as we sat outside on the patio, “so we’re gonna use the rules as written but you guys also get two COOL points.”
“What do COOL points do?” asked Chris, one of my two players.
“They let you do cool stuff.” I said. “Like, you know. Make shit up.”

You can see a lot of my game design principles in that early interaction.

CAT BOX

We played. It took roughly forever. We didn’t have D6’s, so we used Chris’ poker dice that had some but crucially not all numbers on them, so we had to remember which symbol was which number as we went along.

The mission was from the back of the book – a Brazilian climate change scientist is presenting his findings on the emissions of a certain company at a symposium tomorrow, and it’s the operatives’ job to kidnap him until the mission is over. The opening scene consists of infiltrating his hotel and escaping without attracting too much notice.

They charmed their way up to his floor, rendered him unconscious, and realised that they had no way of sneaking him out.

“I look around for something to stuff him into,” said Iain, the other one of my two players.
“Uh,” I say, scanning the text for information and finding none. “Uh. Okay. I’ll make it up. Roll a dice. The lower you get, the worse the thing you find.”

He rolled a 1, and our elite operatives smuggled the scientist out of the hotel in an oversized cat box. I maintain that this is one of my best ever decisions as a GM.

FUN, AT LEAST

You know? I’ve run worse games, than my first. I’ve run disjointed plot-train messes. I’ve lost it halfway through sessions, halfway through campaigns, and had to call off the whole thing and either retcon it or just abandon ship and watch it burn.

This was fun, at least. We had a car chase. We had the players remembering that they’d stuck the scientist in the back of a stolen police car, and having to go find him. We had SWAT raids, and Iain used his COOL point to survive a laser blast to the chest that would have killed him otherwise. It took… five hours? About two hours longer than it should have, really. We played until the sun started to go down.

NONDESCRIPT BAD GUYS

We didn’t play again. I kept trying to get my friends to roleplay because I loved it so much, so dearly, and we arsed about with some stuff for a while to no real end. My childhood was not one of six-year campaigns that stretched throughout high-school; we had one session in a hotel room in Lisbon where, using my basic knowledge of Vampire the Masquerade, the players made very silly characters and had a fight in our local shopping centre.

There was one session, in a system of my own creation (a terrible system, might I add, real dreck) that hit a real roadbump when the guards in the bank pulled their guns and Dave said “But bank guards don’t carry guns in this country” and I said “Well, shut up, these ones do” and the narrative authority rather got away from me and it was half five in the morning so we all just went to bed.

There were a series of linked bullshit games using the same Zaibatsu system, hacked to pieces, in which some Nondescript Bad Guys took over the school and it was up to Us to save it, which mainly consisted of duct-taping people to wheely chairs and pushing them around the campus. It ran for… three weeks? People would just turn up and play, and I’d make stuff up as we went along, not writing anything down.

Then I went to Uni, of course, and I met people who actually wanted to do roleplay – not as a passing fancy, something to do other than kicking a football around at lunch; not as a favour to me, or a way to shut me up – but people who cared. People who cared more than I did.

Christ, people who cared about 20 levels of feat choices in Dungeons and Dragons.

I was home.