Not So Grand Experiments: the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese

I’ve said it before: bad games are often more educational than successful games, and if that’s the case it stands to reason that catastrophic failures can be downright enlightening.

Games like the Battle of Chuck E. Cheese.

I wasn’t the GM this time just a player, and not even a regular player, just a one-time visitor from out of state. Except for another guest player and one regular player (who we were visiting and was how we got invited to play) I had never met any of the other players or the GM.

Sometimes being an outsider gives you a unique perspective. Other times it just paves the way for a total culture clash. As you probably guessed, this game went badly. Very badly. But why it failed, and how it had a (perhaps accidental) kernel of untapped awesome, may make it all worthwhile.

The Setup

The game is Shadowrun and the regular characters, we quickly see, are classic runners, bad-ass mercenaries, street samurai armed to the teeth and operating outside the law, living and dying by their reps, yadda yadda yadda. Including us two guests there are a total of seven players at the table plus the GM. Not a small group.

I’ve only got passing familiarity with the system, but that’s okay because the GM has pre-made characters for us guests. I’m handed an arrogant, sarcastic smarter-than-thou dwarf sorcerer. Hmm, says my danger sense, this could be trouble. Playing an obnoxious character with people you’ve never met before can be tricky — you want to make sure they know it’s the character, not you, being a jerk. It also seems like an odd choice for the GM to throw in since it’s so potentially disruptive, but I gear up for the roleplaying challenge.

The Job

The game starts and all the characters are offered pretty handsome pay for what they are told is a zero-risk job. That’s right: no danger whatsoever. Too good to be true, right?

We all go to the address, which turns out to be the Shadowrun-world equivalent of a Chuck E. Cheese: it’s a family fun center, complete with a pizza parlor, video games and a lazer tag arena. Eyebrows go up.

It’s after hours and the place is closed, but some suits meet us and give us the briefing in the back room: they’re developing a new lazer tag game based on the exciting life of the mercenary shadowrunner, so they want actual shadowrunners (aka us) to playtest it and give feedback. We’ll be fighting each other but all the weapons are fake (flashlight guns and foam katana) and harming the other players is strictly verboten. It is a high paying, no danger job, just as advertised.

Logistically player-vs-player combat is a clever way to solve the big party problem: since we spend all our time fighting each other everybody gets more play time than if we were fighting an external enemy. Very smart.

The Twist

The suits rattle off a long list of do’s and don’ts. Just a minute, asks my arrogant dwarf, do we get a bonus if we win? No. Well do we get docked pay if we lose? No again. What if we break this long list of rules? Do we still get paid? Yes, we still get paid the full amount.

Light bulbs begin to go on above my head. I’m keeping my cards close to my vest but I’m thinking to myself that this scenario is absolute genius. I’m expecting that either:

A) we start normal, but then the second plot emerges. The whole thing is a trap, or something goes haywire and the system turns against (a la every Danger Room and Holodeck plot known to man) and then we have to deal with this new threat unarmed and ill-equipped.

Which would be okay, but better yet:

B) we start normal, but the whole thing breaks down as people start cheating left and right or just ignoring the rules and doing whatever they want. Think about it: all these hardcore street mercenaries are put in this faux combat, and there is no reward or penalty for winning or losing so it becomes all about character interaction. Suppressed personal grudges within the team come out. It’s all roleplaying, even roleplaying whether you follow the completely absurd rules or not. Do tempers flare enough that people start actually attacking each other? We can only hope.

I’m really hoping it’s B — it’s a character gold mine. Just as danger forces people to band together to survive (a la West Marches), an absolute lack of danger means people can turn against each other with utter abandon. You can roleplay petty without penalty.

As we are split into teams and lead into the combat maze, I am secretly excited. Being an obnoxious dwarf suddenly makes a lot more sense. This, I think, is going to be awesome.

next: part 2, in which my expectations turn out to be totally wrong

    Ben Robbins | November 20th, 2008 | grand experiments | show 2 comments