February 12, 2005

Dream Park

Wow, it's been a while since I've done a book review. Ok, so today I'll review a fairly significant book in terms of SF history, "Dream Park" by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. This is significant not because it's all that good (it's good for maybe high school or college age readers who don't have the experience to see through all the gaping plot holes or dated references), but rather because it was the spark that started the IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society), which was modelled after the same fictional organization in this book.

In the book, a high-tech amusement park puts on live-action fantasy role-playing in a holodeck-style environment. It's popular television entertainment all over the world, so the funding is there to not only make for a lengthy, elaborate game but also so that there is plenty of prize money. Good role-players are paid like professional athletes (1970's salaries, anyway), which may be the hardest thing to suspend your disbelief over.

The book describes one game, which is a contest between two different groups to see who can play out a pirates-and-skeletons-and-treasure scenario more successfully. During the game, someone is murdered, and so rather than stop the game, the security chief enters the game to play, etc. So the plot is fairly busy and interesting enough. I would recommend this one for the setting, not the plot or the characters. It's a neat novelty story, and it goes by quickly. If you like it, there are two other novels set in the same world ("Barsoom Project" and "California Voodoo Game") that weren't quite as good but close.

When I was in college, I did some IFGS role-playing. I had a good-sized plywood-covered-with-foam shield and a bamboo (surrounded by pipe insulation) staff, and I played a Cleric (so I could advance faster and join the better groups ... few people wanted to play Clerics). I was a better fighter with my long staff than most of the fighters (remember, these are geeks we're talking about, myself included, though we weren't as bad as the SCA wackos, in our collective opinion), and I had a good time.

Within a couple of years, though, the game fees, membership fees, weapon costs and a couple of bad games (ruined by bad weather) dulled my enthusiasm. I stopped playing as a character and volunteered as an NPC for some games, and that was pretty fun, too. When I left college for grad school, though, I was done. It was a great experience because it provided an excuse for some fun road trips with several close friends.

Posted by Observer at February 12, 2005 08:42 AM

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I loved Dream Park when I read it in early high school, I stayed up until 4am to finish it in one day. This was back when I still played D&D and other pen and paper role playing games.

However, I always thought the SCA types were simply freaks, and was far too interested in women and other things to even consider that stuff in college. The only gaming I did then was computer games and the occasional one-turn-a-week Space Accountant campaign with some of my geekier friends.

I was a geek, don't get me wrong, but I had *some* dignity.

Posted by: Humbaba on February 12, 2005 11:03 AM

I was never tempted by the whole SCA bit. The IFGS chapter in Austin was populated by mostly very cool characters who were really smart, happened to like SF/F, and wanted to try LARP (Live Action Role Playing). Maybe that's the definition of geek, without the computer element, now that I think of it.

From the outside, I imagine we were pinning geek detectors left and right. Maybe that explains why I had a hell of a time finding a date when I was in college. :)

I should add that at the time I read Dream Park, I was about 16, and I would've put it in my top five. I really tore through it and loved it. I don't think it would withstand a rereading 20 years later, though.

Posted by: Observer on February 12, 2005 01:08 PM

I'm sorry, I still paint SCA geeks and LARPers with the same brush. When I see a fat guy wearing an Orc pig nose, armor, and a bastard sword slinking through the ravine part of Ravenna Park, it *totally* pegs my geekometer, regardless of which camp he belongs to.

I find it hilarious that LARPers would consider themselves above SCA types.

Dream Park definitely doesn't hold up to rereading, but I did catch more references that I missed the first time.

Posted by: Humbaba on February 12, 2005 04:03 PM

That's one big difference between IFGS and SCA. In IFGS, we didn't try too much realism. We didn't wear armor. Some wore costumes, but it wasn't required. Only shields and hand weapons were allowed. Spells were represented by thrown bean bags (i.e. magic missile). Ranged weapons were a real pain (rolled before-hand) since real arrows (not even foam) were not allowed, so those had to be role-played purely.

Anyway, there is definitely a pecking order among geeks. Which end you are on depends on your perspective. It's like a variant of the poker rule. If you are at a LARP event, and you can't tell who the biggest geek is, you're it.

Posted by: Observer on February 12, 2005 04:14 PM

Like that rule that every city bus comes pre-equiped with one freak of nature. If you look around and can't ID him/her, then you are it.

Posted by: Humbaba on February 12, 2005 06:11 PM

Shows my age. Dream Park came out while I was in grad school, and had already had to give up RPGs for the duration. (Besides, the fire in my apartment took with it my grand old first-edition D&D dungeon, whih probably had more hours invested in it than my dissertation.) Given that I started RPGs thirty years ago this July ...

The SCA guys just scared me. Oh, I would've liked to have got into the carapult construction stuff, but that ran its way very quickly. Besides, some of the SCA folks seem to think that feudalism was a *good* organizational concept, and that they are rather like big-corp execs, small businesses, and major sports franchise owners, it seems. I admit I never knew there was a difference between the SCAs and other LARPers.

The idea and tech behind Dream Park struck me as very cool, but in a not-in-my-lifetime sort of way.

Posted by: Feff on February 13, 2005 03:02 PM

I started playing RPGs 25 years ago, in 1980. (Sixth grade)

Posted by: Humbaba on February 13, 2005 03:24 PM

Okay, well for the geek in all of us. Check out the website.

It's what happens when gamers and fans design a theme park.

Posted by: Crusader_Magnus on March 13, 2005 07:16 AM

I finally have copies of all three books in accessible text format. I'd love it if they were narrated but synthetic speech has to do the trick. My father read Dream Park to me while I was in secondary school. There are a lot of fantastic concepts and ideas in all of the books and I'll be keeping my copies for life. The perspective of a chief of security is fascinating as are the many insights into the running of the park and psychology. I'm hoping Niven and Barns write at least one more Dream Park books.

Posted by: Michael Feir on November 12, 2005 09:09 PM

I enjoyed Dream Park immensely when it first came out, and I consider it good reading any time I've picked it up (maybe 4 times?). I don't worry about plot inconsistencies, I'm not there to analyze the damn thing... I just want an entertaining, and - dare I say it? - inspirational piece of pulp.

You see, I am a multi-platform gamer from way back; I'm a Renaissance Faire actor, I've done live-action RPG's, I've been in the SCA, and I TEACH the honorable art of the sword (I am also familiar with most ancient weaponry... it's part of the job).

The previous comments are a bit on the slanted side, considering that the SCA isn't a RPG. It is an organization for people to re-create the Middle Ages, in all it's facets. As for myself, I simply went to fight. It's great exercise, and an opportunity to test my skill against another's. For me, it was a very fun and convenient way to beat upon another human being with impunity, and the best part? We both enjoyed ourselves! ;)

As for Live Action RPG's, it can certainly attract the socially inept, but it has also been played by people in all walks of life. Also, to address the question of geek pecking order, SCA fighters are usually in shape, because this kind of fighting is quite strenuous. I doubt very much whether any LARP has that requirement. IF the SCA is considered a "geek" event, I suggest those who doubt attend one, and then judge.

Last, I would like to mention that I am NOT a geek. I am a nerd. The difference? Nerds get laid.

Posted by: David E. Chenot on March 5, 2006 11:42 AM