Holidays can do a lot of things for you. They can allow you to experience new cultures, taste new foods, meet new people and even, if you are lucky, relax. I've pretty much managed all four whilst I have been away in Tunisia and not always to my benefit.
The chance to live in an Arab country, even for just a week, has been illuminating. First off, it wasn't all that bad! Obviously we were in a tourist resort but I never once experienced any anti-western feeling. Indeed, it was a very international experience, with British, French, German, Italian and African tourists all mingling. I even found myself slipping into my pseudo-esparanto tongue mixing three parts English with one part French and one part German. Of course not everyone was nice. The place was crawling with 'vendors' - all willing to sell you rubbish for inflated prices - and bartering shopkeepers who start at ridiculous levels (£20 for a £2 toy) in a hope to catch a fool. Relentless is not the word for these guys and you have to learn a firm NO! quickly to avoid annoyance. It's not always that easy as they are masters of open questioning and many of them have bribed the hotel staff to have access to the actual hotel lobby, passing themselves off as hotel entertainment staff.
I think that one of the starkest things to understand here is that whilst not quite third world, the area we were in was very ... desolate. Broken buildings, dust track roads, barely functional cars and nearly no municipal sanatation. Dead cat in the street in full rigor mortis? No worries. Huge empty hotels overgrown? Of course! Aggressive taxi drivers that driver death traps? Par for the course. However on the other hand, we saw not one beggar, unlike at home. The prices for commodities such as fruit and fish are set by the government, as is the exchange rate of their closed currency. It felt contented and 'safe', safer than many areas in Newcastle.
I think what struck me the most was the desperate and predatory nature of their commerce. We visited the medina in Sousse, which was beautiful begat this 9thC ancient walled city contained was, essentially, a massive series of souvenir and fake stalls. Tat as far as the eye can see. It was hard to think that these people relied on gulliable tourists to make a living although that would explain their attitude and persistence.
Of course this probably isn't helped by asshole tourists. We encountered a delightful family from Glasgow who demanded they had their own regular table in the restaurant. We made the mistake of sitting in their territory once and the father exploded at the staff. Full on f-ing and blinding about the useless hotel, the crap staff and them 'fucking towelheads'. For his whining he got a designated table and complimentary water and our shared waiter got a bollocking. And Muppet Boy eyeballed me all week, clearly wanting to make something of it. Silly thing is, if he had asked, we would have moved. The waiter was awesome, laughing with the kids, charming Christine and telling me all about the food and the weather ( it was bloody hot - in excess of 42 degrees). On our final night, the muppets had their own table and we had flowers, table settings, water laid on and the full works. Right next to them. Oh how we laughed. Needless to say, he got his tip!
And I relaxed. No, really! No Internet. No phone. No tv. Well, no tv for the first five days and then we relented. One English channel, MBC Action, which showed subtitled (in Arabic) shows like CSI, Heroes, Bones, The Unit etc.
I read mostly, ploughing through four Dresden Files novels and some background reading on the reasons for the Anglo-Zulu War. I even put pen to paper on some outlines for DFRPG adventures and a BTQ campaign book. Most of all though, I had time and space to do nothing, with no real need to worry about anything, even if jut for a few fleeting days. Very cool.
So was it a good holiday? Of course it was. It was very different from my expectations and that was a good thing. I did reflect, as I was sat opposite the mosque in Sousse, watching a man trying desperately to sell photos with a sparrowhawk whilst listening to some Arabic drumming, thy in two week time, I will be in the middle of the USA, draping myself in American popular culture. It should be quite the juxtaposition, I think
ps. I wrote the above the night before we left. On the plane coming home, I was sat in front of two couple who whinged and moaned about EVERYTHING on their holiday, from the moment they arrived until the moment they left. It was like a comedy sketch - complaints about the foreigners not all speaking English, about them serving them foreign food, about the presence of flies, about the 'funny money', about the quality of everything, the lack of english TV channels, the heat, the sand, the rooms - even the way people looked at them around the pool. Remarkable.
In my life, I think it is fair to say that I have GMd far more than I have played in roelplaying campaigns. Therefore the instances where I actually finish a campaign as a player are few and far between. As a group, we finished Pendragon at a natural finishing point, but we didn't finish the campaign. We wanted to play the Great Pendragon Campaign but in the end we got to the crowning of Arthur. It was awesome, but fell short of our goal. This month, we finished our two year D&D 4e epic and I wouldn't be exaggerating to say that it left me a little speechless at the end.
The campaign itself has been documented here so I won't go into the detail of the story. Rather I want to discuss what I felt went on around the table and the way that this has changed the way I look at campaigns.
Regardless of how much you try to dress up the functions in new fangled terminology, the GM still informs much of the structure and the detail of a campaign. Andrew has done a superlative job here, conjuring a world with a deep mythology, engaging environment and stimulating characters in jaw dropping detail and morever consistency. Indeed it is that level of consitency that faces Ian and I, as the next two GMs (and Ian moreso that me, I admit) as the first hurdle. As a group, for ten years, I feel we have striven to raise our gaming barrier again and again. Andrew has really pushed it this time.
He doesn't get all of the credit however! I think everyone around the table contributed massively both on terms of creativity and also patience and willingness to stand back and let someone else have the spotlight when needed. The characters stories were told from humble beginnings to mythic endings because they were given space to breathe and grow. A willingness to find story level compromise when the obvious resolution could have caused undue conflict helped, as did a willingness to remember the themes of the story and the characters. Add to that a willingness to thrown some fuel onto Andrews bonfire through some brainstorming sessions and it all worked really well.
So how does this effect us? Well, for me at least, I get the feeling this may be the 'last great campaign'. As we grow older it's becoming increasingly difficult to get the timings right for regular games and committing a year or more to one game simply becomes more and more unlikely. I'm not for a moment suggesting that I won't play in any more campaign games, just that these long games may be a thing of the past.
I think it's also safe to say that we have firmly established our group style. I don't think this has come solely from this game but it has been crystalised. It would be useful for future GMs to reflect on this and see what worked so well.
I think one of the lessons that we can also learn, almost contradictory to that previous one is that we aren't as stuck in our ways as we thought! Figures? Maps? Battleboards? Two years ago we would have scoffed that they were worthless ephermra - now we love them. I don't care that my figure for Morn is some sort of uncommon bugbear, in my eyes he represents Morn, He Who Stood, the Unfettered God, Immortal Champion and Protector of Humanity. I wonder if we will be seeing figures and zone maps in FATEing Suns or Dresden?
Well, another page turns in the old roleplaying hobby - its an exciting period now, as we settle into a new game.