Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beginning of the Ditlana, and remembering a voyage never completed...

April 10th, 1912 to April 15th, 1912

Every year on this date, the flagstaff out in front of our little house flies a red swallow-tail pennant bearing a single white star. A very similar pennant flew from the foremast halyards of R.M. S. Titanic on this day in 1912, and stayed there until the early morning of April 15th. It was, along with so many, lost at sea on that date.

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The Tsolyani have a custom of urban renewal, 'Ditlana', where cities and towns are razed and rebuilt; I'm in the midst of the same process, as I rebuild and renew my game room and game storage to better reflect this brave new world we live in.

Over the past year, and perhaps even a little before that, I've been looking at how and why I do my games, and how I can best reflect the way modern gamers play and game. It's been a difficult process; a lot of 'modern' gamers have no idea about what gaming was like back 'in my day', and we really don't have a lot of 'gamer culture' in common. Back then, it was customary for games to be part of extended campaigns - the term of art now used for RPG games originally came from the referee'd / GM'd map campaigns common in the historical miniatures genre. (Read Jon Peterson's "Playing At The World" for more information on this, if you would like to know more.) Here in the Twin Cities, the staff at The Little Tin Soldier Shoppe would announce that there would be a new campaign based in some historical period, and people would sign up to be commanders and then buy, base, and paint the units needed for the campaign.

When I discovered Tekumel, I started buying and painting the 25mm tall Old Guard miniatures, with the idea that I could run campaigns based in the Professor's world-setting. Bitter - and I do mean bitter - experience of gaming at The Tin and at the University of Minnesota Conflict Simulation Association mandated that I have all of the needed figures and scenery that would be used in such a campaign; it had been my unhappy discovery that the French would not be appearing at the Battle of Waterloo because Marshall Ney forgot that we were having the game that convinced me of this. (We sat around for six hours before the player remembered to call anyone...)

So, when I first started my current game group back in 2002, I sort of assumed that I should follow my old policy and make sure that I had all of the needful to hand for games. Sometimes this has worked brilliantly - see also my post on the recent "Then Darkness Fell" game, or have a look at my Photobucket page to see games where things worked out well. "Sometimes, the magic works..."

"Sometimes, it doesn't..."

Over a decade ago, I started building a modular set of city walls and towers, with the idea of being able to run sieges; I have a huge collection of siege engines and equipment, and it just seemed like a good idea to have something to attack. The set was made of nice stout wood, and hand-carved with stonework across the half doze towers (with removable decks) and the five running feet of wall. I was pleased; I had built up quite the little wood shop in the basement, and I love to build stuff.

Sadly, tastes had changed over the years amongst gamers; hand-crafted terrain and scenics like mine have become 'down-market' and 'tatty'; the current vogue is for 'PROFESSIONALLY BUILT" / "PROFESSIONALLY PAINTED" "OFFICIALLY AUTHORIZED FOR USE WITH (GAME NAME HERE)TM", "COLLECTABLE! SURE TO INCREASE IN VALUE", and "OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED AND APPROVED FOR AUTHORIZED TOURNAMENT PLAY!" commercial products. I got a lot of this at one of the local game stores, The Source Comics & Games; it's one of the reasons I don't game there anymore (My games also don't sell enough comics, apparently, and don't have enough of a commercial tie-in to be worth the store 's time and space.) or, frankly, shop there much either.

I lost interest in my hand-built set; I got very discouraged by the very negative reaction I kept getting from the shop staff about my work. The problem, I gathered from what they told me, was that I  didn't have "enough product placement" in my games; the most bizarre comment came while I was paying for a reasonably-sized purchase of 'NAME BRAND'TM miniatures for a 'NAME BRAND'TM RPG. The guy behind the counter told me that the 'OFFICIAL NAME BRAND - TM - RPG SOCIETY'  was playing the game back in the game room of the store. I politely said, "thank you, but I don't happen to play that game", and the guy asked me point-blank "Then what are you buying these figures for, anyway?" in the kind of voice usually used by harried Customs and Excise officers who have been presented by the traveller with a suitcase full of contraband merchandise. I felt very lucky that I didn't have to present a note from the shop owner permitting me to buy the figures; it was that kind of conversation.

For some reason, I can't imagine why, I started to lose interest in gaming there and in building things like the city walls. They have been sitting in the basement, untouched, for some eight years now...

So, through the kindness of the owner of another local game store, I got two complete sets of the GW 'Fortress' walls and towers for games. These look very nice, and are very handy despite being a real pain to build. (Big plastic parts = large beam clamps) I can still run sieges, and I have much better 'product placement' with a strong 'commercial tie-in'. I hope it makes somebody happy, at the end of the day.

Now, I should say that in addition to the storage shelves n the game room proper, where I keep all of the 'ready use' gaming stuff, I have a little shed out back in the yard where I keep all of the large and little-used items. I can store 40 large plastic tubs out there, and I've now purged the modular city walls and towers - it took three 55-gallon trash bags for both the wall set and the little modular gladiator arena, but I did win back ten tubs' worth of storage space. I'm very happy with that; I now have much better storage for all the resin scenery and terrain bits I get (cheap!!!) from the pet store, and more room in the game room itself.

The arena set, which I built about ten years ago, was also one of my hand-made items; it was 30" by 60" in the usual configuration, and I had gotten all of the basic building and painting done. We had one very lovely game with it, where our Vriddi fought a duel with a number of upstart nobles, and it never got used again. The problem, for me, was no spectators in the stands - there are no seated figures that look Tsolyani available. I had thought that adding canopies over the stands would disguise the lack of people in the seats, but while this would look quite good it would never survive a day with gamers leaning over the thing to get at the figures in the arena proper.

And, since it would fail the same 'standards test' that the walls failed, I added the arena to the trash. No sense saving something that never gets used, I thought "Never reinforce failure!" is an old military maxim, and so the two failed dead-ends of model-building have been disposed of. If and when I come up with a viable solution to the arena problem, my thirty or so Foundry gladiators that I use for Tekumel will fight their battles on a sand-colored sheet of cloth. They look good their, and eventually I think of something.

I always do, it seems...