Starship Week sets the controls for the heart of Windsor and Warsaw

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We got to the end of Starship Week but still had a day left, which I’ll chalk up to the weird time disconnect that happens during faster-than-light travel. Kind of like when you travel through space for six millenia and when you get back you find out they’re still not out of Final Fantasy sequels. In any case, it leaves me a free day to explain that the moral of Starship Week can be found entirely in one story I could have told you at the beginning and saved you a whole bunch of time and screenshots.

After the jump, I hope you don’t feel mad or cheated.

When I was a kid, I lived outside Detroit, Michigan and thus part of the economy of the Detroit area in the late seventies and early eighties consisted of selling me role-playing games. It wasn’t a particular big part of that economy, but the part it takes up in my memory these days is roughly equivalent to the combined space occupied by Lee Iacocca, the DeLorean automobile, the 1980 Republican convention, the Vincent Chin trial, Bo Schembechler, and anything that may or may not have happened in 1984 at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. One small corner of that memory space is behind one of those velvet VIP ropes that game journalists have to get through before they can talk to John Carmack. Except that these ropes lead to something that actually happened in Canada, and in this case it’s the part of Canada that actually lies south of America. Like I said, the past is all screwed up.

Windsor, Ontario used to be known in the Detroit area as the place you could drink before you were 21 and the place you could gamble if you weren’t in Las Vegas.* Just across the river in a foreign country, for a young kid who carried polyhedral dice around for safekeeping, it was mostly known as where my friend Paul lived with his family. Paul’s parents and mine were friends from when we all lived in Poland, and after we moved to the States his father eventually moved to Canada to take a position at the University of Windsor. Every month or two, we’d pile in the car and drive to Windsor for the day, and while the parents discussed important Iron Curtain issues and what the heck was going on with this new Polish pope, Paul and I would play role-playing games. And we’d talk about them.

One of our favorites to talk about was Traveller. We both loved science fiction, and although we enjoyed TSR’s Gamma World, it was a bit too cartoony with the giant rifle-toting rabbits and the positive/negative mutations table. Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera was sort of a rumor. Tri Tac Games’ FTL: 2448 and Fringeworthy were tiny print runs and unknown to us then. We didn’t actually play a lot of Traveller, but we did talk about various things we imagined and what they would be like in Traveller terms. Because we were kids, we had a lot of imagination. Because we were kids, we had an imperfect understanding of the political situation of the time. Because we were both a certain kind of kid, we made a role-playing game out of it.

We imagined a scenario in a far future based on the distant past which reflected the contemporary world. On the northwestern bank of the Vistula River in Warsaw is the old Warsaw Citadel, a tsarist-era fortress built for the benefit of Warsaw’s Russian garrison and which has held a long list of famous political prisoners, including Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, and Rosa Luxembourg. It was (sadly) a crucial German strongpoint during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. By our time it had become a museum, although my friend asserted that during the imposition of martial law in 1981 the Communist police had again used it as a detention center. In any case, we knew it and what it looked like. We also had a map, albeit an imperfect mid-seventies government-issue version included in a comprehensive street map of Warsaw.

warsaw_citadel

And we had a pad of graph paper.

Over the course of many visits, we sketched out a scenario: in the far future of Traveller times, the Imperium had a military base in Warsaw and its secret police used the Citadel to house Solomani** political prisoners. To set the story in the far future, we decided that the cell doors would probably make futuristic sliding door noises. During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the fighting had all been on the western bank of the river, with Russian forces controlling the smaller (and older) suburb of Praga on the eastern bank. In our new world, Praga became a “free city” of the Solomani uprising. You were a political prisoner held in the Citadel. You had to break out, then find your way through the heart of the city and then across the river to Praga. That’s as far as we got. Then who knows. Maybe you had to go back in time and kill Hitler.

We eventually developed it enough that it seemed like a great scenario to play. We would talk about where players would go, and just described the gameplay like we were walking through the streets that we knew by sight. The Citadel is north of the Old Town, and we planned a trip through there, past the old Belvedere Castle, through the University of Warsaw, into the heart of the city center, and then across one of the southern bridges. We noted locations where there may be police patrols, and identified likely spots for snipers. We sketched out potential locations of major combat on graph paper just for gameplay purposes, but for the most part, we stashed NPCs in locations we knew well, and planned gunfights like it was an action movie. Looking back on it, I don’t think we had much of a “story” in it. The story was the trip, and our goal was just to build a futuristic place where we could discharge plasma weapons.

Of course, we had a problem if we ever wanted to “play” our scenario together: we both knew the whole premise and layout. So instead we decided to run it as an event at the University of Windsor’s game convention one winter. Or summer. It was so long ago I honestly don’t remember. But I do remember that our “gimmick” was going to be that we were co-gamemasters, and we were going to run it as two guys taking you through a futuristic version of a “realistic, present day Warsaw.” This was back before you could just buy a plane ticket and go anywhere you wanted, or just find the webpage that showed the real-time street video of some small town on the Dalmatian coast that otherwise would have been as inaccessible as Neptune. At least to everyone there, a trip through a spaced-out version of an Eastern Bloc prison escape run by two people who knew the terrain seemed pretty exotic. I think we had eight people who sat down to play.

One of the players was the dearly departed and very-much-missed Erick Wujcik.*** Erick grew up in the metro Detroit area and along with Richard Tucholka is one of Michigan’s main contributions to the development of gaming. He spent a lot of time organizing and participating in gaming conventions, large and small, and was involved with the gaming club at Wayne State University, a large public university in the heart of Old Detroit and which must have had some contacts with its fellow geeks across the international border. He helped found Metro Detroit Gamers. We didn’t know him personally before the game, although his reputation preceded him, and we were excited to have him play with us.

metro_detroit_gamers

We ran the game, which I am sorry to say I don’t remember all that well. I know we had such a firm grasp on the setting that we basically ran it from memory. The advantage we had was that we could freely discuss what we were going to do right in front of the players because we just spoke Polish to each other. “We should make them specify what order they’re going through that gate.” “No, that will give the trap away.” “Well, disguise it by giving each player a little sketch of what he sees based on his position in the convoy, and make them clarify where they are in order to give them their unique description.” “Oh, great idea!” Etc. While the players just sat there, wondering what terror we were cooking up for them. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

I vaguely remember everyone thanking us at the end for the inventive adventure, although I could have invented that memory myself. I think it was part role-playing game and part performance art. I even believe we had a grand finale in which everyone who had made it to the end got killed by a pulse laser. Like in Russian literature, a happy ending just didn’t seem appropriate.

This is the part of the story I can’t really source, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. My friend ran into Wujcik many years later in the Detroit area, or one of his friends did and then told him about it. You can see how sketchy the sourcing for this is. But the truth as I believe it is that Erick told my friend or his friend that he remembered the “two crazy Polish guys” and their Traveller adventure. Furthermore, he described how ominous the whole thing felt, with two guys running an adventure while periodically conferring in another language nobody understood, the length of the discussion seeming to correlate to the level of danger about to confront the party. He specifically recalled one very serious-sounding conference followed by everyone being instructed to roll dice, and then the announcement by us to one unfortunate player in a flat, secret policeman tone, “You’re dead.”

I sincerely hope we weren’t quite that arbitrary in the game, but since I remember the story about the event much better than the actual event, maybe we were. I’ve read a lot of accounts about how Erick was a tremendous storyteller, and I’m slightly mortified that as a teenager I subjected a 30-something-year-old game designer and accomplished storyteller to some kind of polyhedral Cold War Iron Curtain morality play, complete with unpredictable and arbitrary acts of fate. I guess you game what you know.

But Erick didn’t seem put off at the time, and in his recollection he said it had “felt real” in a way that probably couldn’t be duplicated. I hope that’s true, and that he enjoyed playing with us, and didn’t feel his afternoon at the game convention was just a Pluto-Marxist beatdown. But the whole thing came to mind as I was writing these pieces for Starship Week, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what might make someone want to sit through a three-hour pen-and-paper version of a KGB interrogation. In the end, it’s probably because the thing you get out of the Crazy Euro Gamemaster experience is the same thing you get looking at the edges of a role-playing game map, or waiting for a shark to appear out of the sea, or a spaceship out of the void: the trip to the edge of the unknown, where you’re looking out and just have to find out what might be there.

I thought of this when I played Spacebase DF-9, a prototype from Double Fine Production’s game prototype extravaganza Amnesia Fortnight 2012. For ten bucks (or a lot more if you want to get a signed, specially produced package) you can download five prototypes that Double Fine produced over a two-week period last year. I’m fascinated by game prototyping, because it has that innocent, almost utopian appeal of a wonderful idea without the deflating limitation of technical reality. It’s almost like paying for a game advertising campaign, without the actual game.

space_base

Spacebase DF-9 is one of these: a kind of musing on the possibilities of a space station in a SimCity-like structure. It’s not much more than bare scaffolding in the prototype version. But as I listened to Chris Remo’s catchy riff cycling over a bunch of lines and dots that were attached to the idea of a space station by little more than a title and a premise, I started imagining. The game could really be anything. Just add some space pirates here, or a black market there. You could build the universe by gradually revealing items that came through in trade, or characters escaping from the Imperium as Solomani agents, or whatever the rebellion-du-jour is. In this way, your encounters are all deposits in the bank of game setting.

Because in a way, to some extent, you’re always chasing setting. I forgave Arcanum all of its buggy mistakes because somewhere in there was a world I wanted to be in. Just like I wanted to be in a futuristic grey Iron Curtain metropolis patrolled by evil robo-Communists in battle dress. Not really. But the chance to think about stuff like that means you’re always looking for a place to put your stories. And it’s important to give those settings a bit of leeway, so that no matter what happens there are more places to explore, and more things to learn. That’s what makes the interstellar void so appealing: not just that anything can come out of it. But that more and more can keep coming.

I think that’s the real message of Starship Week.

*The legal drinking age in Ontario is still 19. Detroit now has its own casino.
**The “Earthmen” of Traveller
***I won’t shortchange Erick’s memory by trying to encapsulate his professional biography in this small space. If you’re not familiar with Erick’s work, just search for it. He has his own Wikipedia page, as well as a memory page here.
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