My Life with Games (part 24)–XXXXtreme Street Luge

Thrill to the awesome exploits of the XXXXtreme street luge community*. Cruise tracks and pull radical maneuvers just like your favorite sliders*. Experience the high-riding life of fame, fortune, and adventure*! Look vaguely like Vin Diesel!

“This may be the best thing ever posted on a livejournal*.”–Elizabeth Shoemaker

*back cover text is almost entirely made out of lies

–the back cover text of XXXXtreme Street Luge.

When I started this series, I wasn’t expecting to write about XXXXtreme Street Luge. For that matter, I had totally forgotten about it and its impact on my life. And, really, why would I be writing about a game that I played exactly one time?

But last Saturday, suddenly, I remembered XXXXtreme Street Luge, and I knew. I knew that I had to write about it.

What is a roleplaying game?
What is this game?
How do I play?
What is this book?
Who am I?
What am I doing here?
Why are you holding a knife?

–the opening text of XXXXtreme Street Luge

XXXXtreme Street Luge is a roleplaying game designed by Ben Lehman (of Polaris fame). It is freely available at his website. In fact, you should just go read it now. It’s just 12 small pages. No, really! The pages are the size of 3×5 cards. You’ll finish it in no time. There’s even a picture! Of Vin Diesel!

(I knew that would do the trick.)

Back? Good. Doesn’t look like much, does it? But I think that it’s a brilliant game. Or, at least, a game that figures large in my emotional understanding of myself.

So, I’m going to break the game down for you as a way of getting at my point. (And because I know that some of you decided to skip reading the game.)

You all play street lugers who look vaguely like Vin Diesel. That’s actually how you create your character. Of the seven stats, you pick three in which you are like Vin Diesel. These are rated as 8s. Everything else is randomly generated with a six-sided die.

(Note: there are special rules for playing this game if you are, in fact, Vin Diesel.)

You also have fame, which is equal to the number of people who think you’re famous. You start with a fame of 1, because your mom thinks you’re famous.

Oh, right. You’re also supposed to pick three goals for your character that have nothing to do with street luge. These are things like “Get a better job than my current soul-sucking one” or “Get a date with the pretty girl from Accounting” or “Finish writing my novel” or whatever. We’ll come back to these in a bit.

The game is then played in two phases: luge and bullshit.

Permit me to explain.

During the “luge” phase, you play out a post-luge hangout at someone’s house. You’re all laughing and talking about the latest race, which one of you won. The point is to share little snippets of retrospective about the race.

That’s right. You don’t play out the race. You play out the telling of the story about the race. You then draw cards to determine if your stories earn you prestige, which is temporary renown, which can turn into fame. So, that’s cool. More fame means more people thinking you’re famous for being an amazing street luger!

Of course, if you don’t gain any fame, then you lose a point of fame, because you’re obviously a washed-up has-been.

Then, during the “bullshit” phase of the game, you focus on the rest of your life. You choose one of your goals and try to achieve it with one of your stats. This requires drawing three cards and having their values all be less than your stat value, which can be up to 8, if you recall. If you manage this feat, then you succeed at that life goal!

Then, back to the luge phase.

Now, a couple of twists. If you have the highest fame, you’re allowed to use your fame to accomplish a goal instead of using one of your stats. That represents getting your fans to help you accomplish your goal. So, it’s good to be the king, right?

And then there’s the other twist: dropping out. You can decide to quit street luging. This means that you aren’t around for the post-luge banter. This means that you’re not earning prestige, so you’ll begin to lose fans. But, instead of drawing three successful low cards to complete a goal, you only have to draw one. Your days in street luge are over, but maybe you can finally finish your novel.

Whoever completed all three of his goals first is the winner.

dedicated to all the dudes on the Forge
–dedication from XXXXtreme Street Luge

I’m pretty sure I played XXXXtreme Street Luge in the summer of 2009. (Yeah, for those of you keeping track, that’s the period of this blog post.) But it was definitely the closing of an era.

The Forge was folding up. It was a long slow process, but it was inevitable. The diaspora of the community was dispersing some of the best people to parts unknown. The discussion wasn’t as sharp as it had been. The life and joy were disappearing.

It was the death of a scene. Even if you’ve never been involved in hobby gaming, surely there’s been some scene that you’ve been a part of. Something that was wonderful and vibrant and beautiful and…you know…important. A part of your life. And then, one day, you woke up to find it slipping through your fingers.

And you even wonder if it had ever been as important as you once thought.

And that’s exactly what XXXXtreme Street Luge is about. It is a critique of the Forge scene, circa 2008. It is sending up the scene in all kinds of ways. The “luge” phase is about posturing in Actual Play posts .The fame mechanic is about micro-fame in a niche of a niche. I particularly appreciated this bit from the frontmatter of the game: “This is an ashcan, which is indie-gamese for ‘I didn’t do any playtesting.'”

Unfair? Maybe. Incisive? More than I care to admit. Funny? Well, yeah, though in that uncomfortable way that really true things can be funny.

And, still, whenever I read the rules about dropping out, it hits me in the chest. Hard.

Because maybe we were all lying to ourselves when we thought that we were changing the world. Maybe we just had stars in our eyes and folly in our hearts. Maybe we were just too idealistic. Maybe we valued this thing too much.

Maybe I valued it too much.

But I didn’t want to let go.

I still don’t want to let go.

And XXXXtreme Street Luge stands in my mind, forcing me to face hard questions. Do I love the games? Or do I just love the acclaim? Am I actually engaging with my life? Or am I just hiding from it?

But it refuses to answer the question. Because the game holds out the possibility that it can be done. Sure, it’s really hard, but you can actually achieve your goals through street luge. You don’t have to give up one to have the other. Maybe you really can have it all.

And I was planning on ending here, but I think I’m going to go one further.

Because, while I’m willing to own my past faults, I’m not willing to allow the world to define what is valuable, either. There are many who would look at what I love as being a waste of time, before they return to their own games of business, politics, and success. Is climbing the corporate ladder–or growing an organization–really more valuable than my design? Or is that just another way of looking for micro-fame, just in a different niche of a niche? Why is crafting a thing of beauty not considered “serious”, but yielding your identity to achieve organizational fame is somehow acceptable and “important”?

I have learned that people get defensive about topics, not because they have strong beliefs in those areas but because they want to have strong beliefs in those areas. I want to believe that what I do has value. Maybe one day I’ll believe it enough that I can stop defending it.

Lest I wrap with self-pity or melancholy, I’ll close with this. The Forge Midwest convention was this last weekend, and apparently people were playing XXXXtreme Street Luge. From all accounts, they were having a blast.

Because, really, who doesn’t want to look like Vin Diesel?

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7 responses to “My Life with Games (part 24)–XXXXtreme Street Luge

  • benlehman

    This is very insightful, and I think the first time someone has actually laid out what the game is about.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Thanks, Ben. I appreciate it. I wasn’t sure if the fact that Vin Diesel was an important part of the point (what with his being the patron god of gamers and all), or if that was just part of the initial idea.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Also: I’d totally play XXXXtreme Street Luge again.

    Finally: I was under the impression that XXXXtreme Street Luge gave us the initial layout for the Apocalypse World playbooks. Can you confirm or deny that?

    • benlehman

      Hah I totally missed this response until now.

      You’d have to ask Vincent. I remember he said he was working on a project that took some inspo from XSl but who knows?

      The Vin Diesel thing was about the weird idea that, like, since Vin Diesel played D&D, it was now “cool” and if we could somehow all be like Vin Diesel, we’d be respectable. It was a big deal at the time of the writing. Funny to think that the game has outlasted that joke.

  • Vicky

    Well thought out. You and your family are one of my role models for what it means to be a real person and it is because of how you think through your life and how you live it with no apologies for who you are. So glad I know you!!!

  • Elizabeth Otulakowski

    “Why is crafting a thing of beauty not considered “serious”, but yielding your identity to achieve organizational fame is somehow acceptable and “important”?”
    I have felt the same way. I have wondered, “Why is my dream not considered “good enough” to others?” It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I guess we’ll just have to encourage each other to keep making beautiful things in our own way using the gifts God has given us.

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