But hang on. Is that actually true? My friend and Mirabilis co-creator, Leo Hartas, was telling me about the campaign he ran recently for his son Inigo and pals. It sounded amazing. A ship that sailed on the treetops of a measureless forest, hurled off course when apocalyptic storms swept down. Descending by rope below the canopy, the players encountered shoals of exotic birds darting like fish between the trunks. And something lurked there in the darkness, in the hidden depths of a wood that no human had ever penetrated.
Great atmosphere! Inigo and his friends ate it up, and quite right too. Fantasy is at its best when it shades over into fabulist areas like that. Michel Tournier or Mervyn Peake rather than screeds of yawnsome sociology about orc tribes. Fantasy needs to have a dash of the dreamlike and the strange about it. Like life, in fact.
What about the rules? No rules, Leo told me. Or only a very rudimentary and largely improvised system. Roll a dice and see what it suggests. Carried along by the story, his players didn't want to break the spell by having to do lots of number-crunching and book-keeping.
I know that role-playing isn’t commercial these days. Sales are maybe 5% of what they used to be in the early ‘80s. People would rather log in to World of Warcraft. It’s easier.
Except… Inigo and his mates play WoW, but they were still up for the face-to-face experience and real immersion in the story that an RPG can give you. So I think that part of the reason that role-playing games and gamebooks have faded away is that they’re just too bloody complicated. “Roll two dice, add your stamina score and compare with the opponent’s modified defence factor.” Blah blah blah. It’s an extension of homework.
And why? What’s the point of such convoluted rules if the aim is to have a shared experience of improvised story-creation? You want some kind of rules. Enough to ensure a grandstanding player doesn’t hog all the fun. But those rules don’t need to look like an end-of-term maths test.
Role-playing got stuck in the same sucky whirlpool that comic books did. As sales started to tail off, publishers tried to pump more money out of the remaining customers by narrowcasting – making the experience more and more focussed on a tight hardcore group. But in catering to that group (who probably did prefer a combat system based with modifiers for every different weapon type) they made role-playing far less attractive to the casual crowd. And thereby accelerated its demise.
Arguably this problem is what the whole retro-clone movement set out to solve. But as to that I would say: to become simpler and regain the freedom of inspiration: move forward, don't look back. I was there for Dungeons & Dragons the first time round, and slogging around a dungeon with a half-elf in saggy tights was always pretty lame. Really, one dungeon expedition is quite enough, then you need to move on. What was exhilarating in the early days was the spirit of improvising adventures, of having fun as a group unfettered by stacks of rules. That comes from the players and the setting, not the mechanics - though the wrong mechanics can sure get in the way.
In The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn and Hal Iggulden wrote of role-playing:
“There are few inventions of the twentieth century that can combine entertainment with imagination so well. In a very real sense, it is a training ground for the imagination and, in particular, a school for plot and character.”
I would love to see the Iggulden brothers create a simple, cheap, accessible role-playing game that (like Dragon Warriors back in the mid-1980s) would be sold in bookshops and that would attract a whole new generation of players. A game that wouldn’t be all about arithmetic and dice-rolling but that would put the focus on imagination, acting and a shared narrative. And hopefully nary a mention of orcish tribal customs.