From the Vaults: Oxford in the Larger World of Roleplaying

628x471As the Archivist, I have a box full of old editions of the Nightflyer back when it was a print magazine. While I was organising and clearing out excess copies, I started reading them and found some very interesting articles. As I thought the society might appreciate seeing what people thought was interesting and important in past years, I’m going to be posting some of these ancient articles over the next few weeks. First up: a depiction of OURPGSoc’s characteristic roleplaying style from 10 years ago.

By Hanbury Hampden-Turner, Michaelmas 2004.

One thing that several visitors to Oxford have mentioned is that they do (or do not) appreciate the ‘Oxford style’ of roleplaying. It should first be pointed out what an achievement it is to get such a distinctive group of people together that such a description is possible. Many clubs and groups don’t seem to have much in common with each other, and it’s common to get a society without any common identity at all. At least part of this must be down to the Oxford society game, an institution that, whatever its faults, means that large numbers of members role-play with each other in the same game every year. That’s not common in the wider world, and leads to a far greater cohesiveness than we would otherwise have.

But it has other effects as well. One of the most popular comments, for good or ill, is that Oxford people are loud! The set up of the society game means that influence is roughly equivalent to how many people listen to you, and being confident and boisterous is far more common that it might be in a tabletop. In one of the Oxford-Cambridge joint games the players were city leaders discussing the defence of the city against a threatening horde. One of the Oxford players asked if he could make a speech, and his Cambridge referee agreed. His comments as to what dice he might roll were made to an empty chair as the player climbed up onto the meeting table, sword drawn, and started to roar about pride, guts and glory.

All of which made him a target. Out Cambridge colleagues were carefully and methodically working behind the scenes, trying to intrigue, support and counterplot, and setting yourself up as a n obviously influential figure was to their minds a recipe for disaster. Most of the memorable performances that day were from Oxford, but the careful behind the scenes plotting was dominated by Cambridge. In the end their characters probably achieved more, and our characters were more distinctive personalities. Our Cambridge hosts, much to our surprise, declared the former to be a more important measure of skill at the game.

A judgement I suspect most of us would disagree with. But it must be admitted that Oxford players make notoriously bad co-conspirators. Keeping one eye on a good story, and one eye on a good portrayal of an often badly flawed character, an Oxford player often ends up with characters that effectively self-destruct. In the Thieves’ Guild society game, a secret PC conspiracy called the Chimera came to light when one of the members made a full public confession and then committed suicide during a meeting. Suddenly the hunt for the rest of the members of the conspiracy was on. As one player said to me, “yes it’s very dramatic, but you can see why my character didn’t join them, now can’t you?” I would suggest that there’s no point having secrets unless they come out, and no point having a conspiracy unless it is uncovered, but others might argue that there is no point having a plan at all unless, at least on some level, you want it to actually succeed. Is it better role-playing to contrive to fail? As one player of a detective memorably said: “I don’t really investigate anything, I just lead the police around until we find out whose turn it is to confess this week.”

While the commitment to the plan might be in doubt however, the plan itself is another matter. Oxford plans are marvelous creations, intricate, detailed, and above all unusual. Above all, that is, including such minor details as practicality, realism, and downright good sense. One vampire game I played in had a character arrange for a hoax fight in an alleyway, to draw in a passer-by, to mug him, to get his driver’s license, to visit the police yard, to claim a clamped van, so he could drive it around. This plan was explained to me while the player was sitting in the minivan we’d hired that evening for less than thirty pounds. In all the society games I’ve seen, more characters have died from exploding food than in combat. Again I think this makes for far more interesting games, but it can be a problem. Some genres rely on a clean, simple and fast flowing style. Gangsters probably shouldn’t be getting into the rival gang’s nightclub posing as health and safety inspectors, and elder vampires should be fearing bands of desperate or vengeful kindred, not vanfuls of thirsty transgenic mutant fanged ghoul ostriches.

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