Friday, June 26, 2009

Jones the Cat on Gaming

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while – since shortly after we acquired our new kitten, Jones the Cat – but actually having a kitten around the house made me that famous extra bit busy that knocked this journal off the bottom of my high-priority list for a few months. My apologies; I’m going to try to get back into posting regularly again now that she’s been spayed and the stress is slowly wearing off. I’ve got a few things stored up that need to be given voice.

Jones the Cat is not named after T. S. Eliot’s Bustopher Jones, nor is she named after Ellen Ripley’s cat from the Alien franchise. I admit to being pleased by the unintended relationship with the latter.

Jones is named Jones the Cat to distinguish her from Reverend Jones, Jones the JP, and Jones the Prize Cabbage (which describes both his hobby and his personality). If you’ve not seen The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, it comes highly recommended. While it is at its core a romantic comedy, I suppose, it is also a really great look at how a village is a living entity and not just a collection of shops and an inn. So in that regard it might even have some roleplaying application, for fellow dungeon masters.

I’m writing about Jones because she’s unexpectedly taught me a great deal about gaming in the five months we’ve had her, and I think her lessons are worth spreading around. She has shown me that cats are consummate and capable gamers, and that I had forgotten a great deal about what that means.

Lesson 1: Frugality

Expensive toys are boring toys. Crumple some paper into a ball, and you have some real entertainment.

This is really the big one. Miniatures and map tiles and three-dimensional molded plastic dungeon walls are certainly very attractive, but they’re also expensive. Certain year-old popular roleplaying games are trying to convince you that you need these things to play, these days, and this could not be further from the truth. I think the jury is still out on whether combat visualization is necessary at all, even in new games, but assuming that you ascribe to the school of thought that it is, coins make perfectly good markers for characters and monsters. A piece of white paper with an inch grid drawn on it is sufficient for laying out most combats. I know there are dungeon masters out there who agree with me on this one: how many times have you painstakingly drawn a detailed, complex field of battle on a wet-erase mat only to have the entire battle use only the tiny open space in the lower-left corner of the map?

Remember that anyone can draw bushes and rocks, or use household objects to represent them. Remember that using a quarter to represent that orc isn’t any more disruptive to immersion than using the giant dire badger you got in the randomized booster of miniatures. Remember that, worse come to worst, you can even design your own rules.

I haven’t even touched on the absence of need to purchase pre-published modules and adventures, because I’ve always been a homebrewer, but it is just as true as the above that you can come up with your own stories. Money is strictly unnecessary to being a gamer.

Lesson 2: A Change in Scenery

If I drop the mouse here, it is a field mouse. If I carry the mouse over here, it is a rock mouse. If I bat the mouse into here, it is a cave mouse.

This rule applies more to wargaming than to roleplaying, but the same basic thought applies to both. A unit of soldiers changes entirely based on where and how it is fielded. Keep your mind open and your terrain modular, and the smallest number of miniatures can participate in an infinite number of sorties and conflicts. It’s not necessary to own multiple different large armies and several different detailed tabletops for the purposes of playing a wargame. Change the circumstances, and the same pieces can be rearranged into limitless combinations, each one sufficiently different from the last to be entertaining.

Lesson 3: Do What You Love

Play, play, play. Eat, eat, eat. Poop, poop, poop. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Play, play, play…

This is the lesson I have found most difficult to learn. Life is short. If you’re going to play, play. If you’re going to write, write. If you’re going to design, design. Better yet, do all three, when you feel like doing them. Being happy is just about the most important thing in the world.
It’s unfortunate that we do not have the same kind of leisure time that cats do – we have to look after ourselves. We have to work so that we can eat, and be clothed, and keep a roof over our heads. But that is all the more reason why we should use the time that is our own to do what we love, and have fun. Because if we work, and then come home and work more, what are we really accomplishing except our own misery and the misery of those around us?

Do what you love. Easier said than done, but worth striving for.

Lesson 4: Get Plenty of Sleep

I’m not tired, I’m just resting my eyezzzzzzzzz…

This is one we should all pay special attention to. No matter how good an idea staying up all night to game seems to be, it never quite works out. Playing without sleep sucks. Gaming, like most things, requires a certain amount of focus that is quickly lost after you’ve been awake for 16 hours. Caffeine only delays the inevitable and ultimately makes it worse. If you’re going to pull an all-nighter with your gaming pals, make sure you catnap in the afternoon or evening. It may feel like a waste of your time, but it’s going to be a bigger waste of everyone’s time if you’re falling asleep at the table. Dungeon master or player, or even if you’re just playing Halo, no one appreciates a gamer who can’t pay attention and stay focused.

Sleeping now means you can play later. It’s an exchange. Don’t short either activity.

Lesson 5: Hallucinate

This apartment is filled with bloodthirsty paper balls, bent on my death. I must destroy them.

This is the rule that fuels the others, and it should not require much explanation. You would not be a hobby gamer if you did not have an imagination, so use it! If something stops being fun, change it! Make up new rules, or a new situation, or new characters, or a new twist – a new anything! It doesn’t matter how stupid or insane it seems to you – you are predisposed to find your own ideas dumb, and you should not let that stop you. If it sounds like fun, it probably will be.

Remember being a kid, and running around the woods with a stick, pretending it was a sword? I’m not necessarily recommending that you join a live-action roleplaying game, here – the good ones are few and far between – but ask yourself why you think people who LARP are freaks, and reconsider those opinions. Try to tap into that childhood mindset and make it active again. Be willing to experiment, and more importantly to get hurt. When you fall down you can always get back up again. Get crazy. No one ever created anything of value by thinking like everyone else.



So much for the stress wearing off. Jones' keen gamer instincts have helped her to circumvent all five protective measures we've taken to prevent her from pulling out her stitches. I've already had to rush her back to the vet once. We're hopeful that her duct-tape-enhanced Elizabethan collar will hold until she gets the stitches out on Friday, but it is difficult to be optimistic in light of her terrifyingly advanced problem-solving ability. If anyone's reading this, your thoughts and prayers would be appreciated.

No comments: