Hi! Anthony Pryor here, master of the nowhere near frequently updated enough site http://www.anthonypryor.com, and general gaming author guy. I’ve been working in the trenches of the rpg industry for a few decades now, producing material for Battletech, several incarnations of D&D, Talislanta, Song of Ice and Fire, various WotC, Green Ronin and Frog God games products and the like. My own blog is oft-neglected but I’m currently working on some articles about the odd world of fantasy paper wargames and also chewing down my fingernails awaiting the release of my first fictional trilogy by Permuted Press this spring. And here I am talking about utilizing Playmobil figures for RPGs, in a post that may prove far more bittersweet than anticipated, given its very sad real-world ending.
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you
— Ray Bradbury
When our good host asked if I’d like to guest blog here he suggested posts about using Lego figures for gaming, but said I could really write about anything I wanted so long as I kept it relatively family-friendly (which for me turns out to be harder than it sounds). I did recall a period of time about a decade or so ago when I, my girlfriend and daughter played a rather interesting campaign with a friend using a system and setting that he had come up with himself, using his vast, vast collection — not Lego, but its bitter rival Playmobil. The principles of the game and layout would be identical, as they all pretty much look and work the same way, so what I say about one pretty much applies to the other.
I gamed with a woman whom I loved then and still love very much, though our relationship is a bit different, with a daughter who saw her share of challenges and upsets and has emerged as a most exemplary and admirable human being, and with two men who aren’t with us anymore, both due to nearly identical heartbreaking tragedies. I do fondly remember sitting in Ben’s (as I’ll call him) living room playing with his vast and impressive Playmobil collection, but it’s never without a touch of serious sadness, and in the end this post is as much about that sadness as it is about our gaming experiences.
Ben lived at a big house with his then-wife, who was also a good friend of mine. They’d bought the place and intended to fix it up, but somehow life intervened and the place remained in a somewhat half-finished state for the duration of their time there. We did hang out there quite a bit, dealing with the blankets hanging in doorways, the slightly off-kilter cabinets and the long-neglected yard and just enjoying our time with friends.
Ben had lots of ideas, loved to play and was one of those guys who often seemed more like an overgrown, overenthusiastic kid than a grown-up man. He had ideas for card and board games, he ran some pretty intensive roleplaying sessions and took gaming quite seriously. There is always a dark side to those folks who seem to live just to laugh and have fun, and Ben was certainly no exception — in many ways I think his love for games and merrymaking served as a cover for a deeper sense of sadness and sometimes-severe depression. I think that I can be forgiven for not going very deeply into that side of things, given the people involved and all our shared history.
Despite those forays into dark places, Ben was a lot of fun to be around, so when he suggested participation in a new rpg of his own design, using those huge boxes full of carefully-organized Playmobil figures and scenery, I figured what the hell. Our group consisted of the aforementioned daughter, my girlfriend, and Ben’s bestie Paul, a person who ended up being more like Ben than any of us suspected or wanted.
Ours was to be a piratical tropical adventure game, and we started out in our little hometown as young people, having young people adventures. We picked our appropriate Playmobil figure, outfitted it with gear and gave it basic statistics. The advantages of using modular toys here was obvious — we had large, well-defined figures for our characters, and we could equip them with gear within the limits of what Ben had available, which was quite a bit. Despite the somewhat stylized design of our toy world, it was all very consistent, as if all created by the same set of circumstances, and within short order we had pretty much accepted it as reality, kind of like how you quickly get used to the cartoon universe when watching an animated movie or TV show.
Ben’s system was pretty freeform, which was great, but I immediately saw more advantages to using the toys — sizes and distances were consistent and to scale. Ranges and movement were easily measured due to the grid-like surface everyone was placed on. I don’t want to minimize how much work and energy Ben put into this — he had our starting village completely laid out with ground tiles, houses, trees, trails, animals, farms, fences… The whole bit.
Our initial sessions consisted of living as young folks in a rural village, doing the stuff that young folks do, before setting out on our grand adventure. We interacted with villagers, squabbled with other kids, got lost — the usual stuff. Ben was very good at giving people space and interesting things to do even though they were roleplaying a fairly mundane existence. The relationships between players was probably the most interesting thing that developed.
My daughter was 12, and at an age when you think that roleplaying consists of running around picking fights with people (more subtle roleplaying comes later I fear). Her character was the sister of Paul’s, while I’m not 100% sure exactly what my gf and my PC’s did (it’s been a while). My daughter took her PC around the town, throwing rocks at people and attacking random passers-by while Paul followed her around, trying to talk her into acting more civilized. The interaction was good since Paul really did get into trying to talk to my daughter, calling her “sis” and being very persuasive. I think she still went around throwing rocks at people, though. For the record, she’s a much more mature roleplayer now.
When our characters grew bored with life in a small town (or maybe we had a task that sent us away), we ventured to the colorful, cosmopolitan port city, which pretty much made Tortuga look like Salt Lake City on a Saturday night. And Ben definitely did it up well — a vast layout that took up much of the living room floor (yes, we played on the floor — there was no way this was taking place on a table), with huts, houses, trees, streets, a vast marketplace, a harbor with ships, a castle and a bunch of other stuff. It must have taken him hours to lay it all out and it was certainly an impressive set up.
We wandered about, once more interacting with the various colorful townsfolk, pirates and officials. In the marketplace we found a vendor selling brightly-feathered exotic birds and of course Ben had miniature birds of all types. We discovered that the birds had some kind of hypnotic power that made buyers fall in love with them and spend all their money buying them, but I’m not sure whether we got away from that particular trap unscathed.
Our session ended as we defended the town from pirate raiders, and once more the Playmobil system made the experience a lot more vivid. Ben had a couple of pirate ships loaded down with appropriately-equipped raiders, as well as town defenses like cannons and ballistae and lots of suitable defensive positions in trees, on towers and heights above the town.
I’m afraid I don’t quite remember how the conflict was resolved, and like many other roleplaying campaigns I’ve participated in, it didn’t go any farther. Family and personal issues began to intrude and we never did another session with Ben’s Playmobil system. The toys were returned to their big plastic tubs and the last time I saw them was among Ben’s personal effects in the aftermath of his death.
The Playmobil system was symbolic of a lot. It showed what a playful and creative man Ben was, and how even in adulthood he maintained connections to what made childhood valuable. I can’t say that Ben didn’t have his share of problems, but then I suppose we all do, and we all have our means of coping. In the face of the challenges of daily existence, we can still turn to the things that once made us happy and find the resources to go on.
At Ben’s memorial I stood and quoted a friend of mine who had met him a couple of times and said that he didn’t seem as if he belonged in this world. I think most of the people there agreed with me. Many had gamed with him and remembered his creativity fondly. I remembered that he was a man who used gaming and other joys of daily life to fend off the depression that always seemed to follow him.
Despite those darker aspects of his character I wish he were still with us, dreaming up new gaming ideas, playing with his vast Playmobil collection and probably annoying the hell out of us from time to time. Given what we’ve all been through since I think I could have found it in my heart to forgive him.
Perhaps if you are one of those folks who considers using Lego, or one of its imitators/competitors/evil twins in gaming, you can do so in memory of a very funny, very troubled man who caused a lot of trouble when he was alive, but also provided a lot of fun for the rest of us.