Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: Playing The Ace Pilot on the Tabletop

Since I'm still thinking about the adventure of being a fighter pilot, specifically in that mode of the Ace Pilot (or part of a squadron thereof), I'm turning now to the gaming end. Specifically, the role-playing game end of things, and by that I mean the tabletop. Playing a fighter ace in a videogame is easy, depending on the details behind the game's design and intentions thereof; on the tabletop it's much harder, and that is in large part due to it NOT being an immersive medium of sight and sound.

Playing a pilot, and trying to get those visceral thrills you get even in the written word--remember, this archetype of adventure began in the pulps about a century ago--out of a medium build around back-and-forth between you and the Game Master is a difficult thing to achieve. Most of the games in this category are not built out of the real-time pace of decision that real air-racing or dogfighting demands.

Tabletop RPGs are the children of tabletop wargames, which do NOT have that frentic pace of decision; people attracted to the medium aren't necessary looking for that either, or to the attention to detail necessary to truly get the experience wanted out of it. Therefore, there is a bit of an expectation mismatch that has to be settled out of the gate if you're going to make this work.

And no, you can't just pick a game and call it good. I've had terminal ditherers playing Feng Shui and Exalted, so mechanics alone do nothing. That means it's on you, Mr. Game Master, to pick up the pace and put the pressure on; in order for the experience to be satisfying, the player must feel an approximation of what his man would actually feel. Yeah, you do need to know the rules well enough to make this work, but that doesn't mean it's all about legalism and math-magic malarky. You need that familiarity to know what calls to make, and when to make them, so that player feels more or less pressure at the table.

Furthermore, since tabletop RPGs are routinely focused on groups playing as a team, you had better pick up your plot-threading game. If those other players are also pilots in their own craft, good; they get their own subset of the same action. However, if they're with the pilot then they need things to do that are useful and relevant; this is where co-pilots, gunners, etc. come from and--again--is on you Mr. Game Master to make the magic happen.

So, when you need to do so, fuck the rules. Fold, spindle, and mutilate the turn order to best fit emerging events as they occur while maintaining total table engagement. Give the players just the information that their character could possibly acquire in that moment, and don't let them dither (however, let the players help each other out; insisting that players can't play the game when their character isn't present is such bullshit- just put a limit on the time depending on what pressure to act that character ought to be under). Be bold; if they dither too much, they forfeit and do nothing that turn- move on. (And yes, people really do freeze up like that when the shit hits the fan, so it's believable and realistic.)

Finally, depending on the specifics of the genre you're aiming for, adjust how damage/injury works to hammer home the point about dangerous such action is to their characters. Even a non-fatal, but significant, hit ought to take them out of the fight- either by being forced to withdraw or by setting them up to get finished off a crash or a follow-up attack. Remember: being an ace pilot doesn't make you immortal- that's some Narrative Logic bullshit, and such logic always undermines the visceral life-experience potential that tabletop RPGs present.

I'm using a Star Wars video as an example, but this applies to playing a Macross game, or being Aerospace pilots in BattleTech, doing your own take on the Flying Tigers, or attacking zeppelins over London. Your players may aim for being Poe Dameron, but often can and will end up like Jek Porkins or Hapless Clone Pilot #1138- and that's part of the game. Sigh, shrug it off, and go roll your new guy so you can get back to the fun fast.

1 comment:

  1. On the side of minis and boardgames, there's quite a bit of options. XWing, Wings of War, Attack Wing, Tail Feathers(Mice and Mystics), to name the most accessible. There are more detailed games regarding altitude and orientation, if you're willing to play much longer games.