Imagine you’re a kid in a city on the brink of war. It’s night and you’ve got a gun. You don’t know how to use it, but a couple of meters away, you glance a figure standing in the rain. He’s a criminal, he’s drunk and he has something you need to save the world. What do you do? Do you try to mug him? Will you shoot him? But watch out – he is armed and if you don’t succeed, he will get very angry…
For a couple of months, me and K. had the pleasure of participating in what was perhaps the most unusual RPG I’ve played. A friend of ours and one of the members of our D&D group, Barbi Markovic, is an accomplished author. She also grew up in Belgrade in the 1990s during what became to be known as the Yugoslav Wars. Recently, Barbi had the idea to write a book about the world of her childhood and youth. The unusual thing is that in order to explore that world, she decided to make an RPG out of it.
We were part of one of the two groups playtesting that RPG. Rules-wise, Barbi used the mechanics of Tales from the Loop as a base. I’ve never played it before, but it worked quite well.
However, at the heart of this enterprise was the story. Barbi gave us a comprehensive introductory text, which delineated the social world we would inhabit as children and youths: the different subcultures and tribes, the ethics, codes and manners, as well as the hopes and fears that shaped the people living in the city during a violent and unstable time. Growing up in Austria in very sheltered circumstances, it kind of shocked me how alien this world felt, with its strange codes and casual violence.
Fortunately, not everything was bleak, as the story soon took a turn into the fantastic – we had to help repair a time machine whose malfunction caused us to be stuck in an unsteady loop, unable to escape the 90s. Barbi is an excellent game-master who managed to give us the impression that we could do whatever we liked without losing the story’s threads. The other players were also enthusiastic, full of ideas and a pleasure to play with. We experienced a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from tense and dramatic moments to banter and laughter.
In fact, the scene described above was one of the best RPG moments I’ve had in all my life. When we stumbled upon the main antagonist in the night, armed with a gun, suddenly everything was possible: We felt like we could end our quest there and then, but we also were afraid that if we failed, the consequences would be severe.
In my experience, such moments of pure possibility are actually quite rare in RPGs. Sure, there are situations when things can go very well for the characters or they can go pear-shaped, meaning that characters die, but normally, the story is not fundamentally affected by that and everything is soon back on tracks. After all, the GM has spent lots of time preparing and is invested in the story. It takes a very good GM to really go with the dynamics of the situation and to make space for moments when everything is possible.
I’m glad that I had the opportunity to take part in Barbi’s collective memorial work. At the end of her project, she will publish a novel and an RPG book. I’ll let you know as soon as they are out!