Back in 1977 I was reading our local newspaper – this was pre-Internet, so there was probably nothing on television – and I ran across an article talking about new game that was just released.
As I recall, the article talked about role playing and becoming a character and fighting monsters and saving the day. It was the first article I saw about a new game called Dungeons and Dragons.
I remember *begging* my mother to please, Please, PLEASE take me to get this game right now! I was undoubtedly relentless in my whining and my pestering. But, in the end, or at least pretty soon afterwards, I was the proud owner of what came to be called The Basic Set or the Blue Box.
In the box was a 48-page rulebook and a set of polyhedral dice that were multi-colored and felt pretty cheap. But, for all of that, I was certain that I held in my hands the keys to a new world of adventure and fun.
Now, the truth is, to my 12-year old brain, the rules were confusing and difficult to understand. In fact, the whole notion of how this new “role playing” game was played was not at all clear. And, of course, this being pre-Internet, there really wasn’t anyone I knew to ask.
Over the intervening years I bought some of the modules (“Keep on the Borderlands”) and the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. These were fun books that were filled with the potential for adventures and great deeds, monsters and quests.
My best friend and I would play the game, just the two of us and taking a great deal of shortcuts. Often our game sessions took place starting on a Friday night and would go late in to the night or early morning. We would purchase 2-liter bottles of soda and chips and just go where the adventures would take us.
I was not aware of any gaming groups at my school and I certainly didn’t have the self confidence to seek them out so most of my gaming was done surreptitiously and below the radar as much as we could.
Eventually our gaming sessions died out as other interests became more important.
After high school, role playing games became just a fond memory and that’s where I thought it would stay. Until just a few years ago.
At the time I was working downtown at a small company and I saw that every Wednesday night several guys would stay late and it looked like they were playing RPGs (Role Playing Games). There were dice and minis and GM (Game Master) screens covered with tables of information and sheets of paper filled with more data. When I wandered by there was a lot of laughing and it was clear they were having a great time.
I asked around and found out they’d been playing for a while. A bit later, I let one of the players know that if a spot opened up, I was interested in playing.
Soon, I got to join the weekly game and it was a fantastic time.
Several of the players had been playing since they were kids but had managed to continue playing through high school, college and on in to adulthood, so they’d accomplished something I’d failed to do.
I have had such a wonderful time playing in those games. For the first time ever, for me, I got to play as a player with my own character. Back when we were kids, I was sort of a player and sort of a GM/DM (Dungeon Master). I have no idea how we made that work, but we seemed to.
But now I got to be amazed and engaged as the story unfolded and I determined how my character would behave and react to the circumstances unfolding around me.
Somewhere in there I had an epiphany about RPGs that had eluded me as a kid. It was the mystery bit that explains why role playing games were so much fun and made me wish I’d managed to stay involved in them as an adult.
Those who RP (Role Play) know this already, but for those who don’t: Role Playing is nothing more than interactive story telling. In the story, you get to play a part in the story and you get to help steer the outcome! The dice are just ways to help make decisions. You might decide that in a given circumstance your character would leap up on a table and swing across a room on a chandelier and then leap heroically on to an altar to save someone from being sacrificed. And with a good GM, you can try to do exactly that. But, because jumping on the table could go poorly and swinging on a chandelier is risky and leaping from that to an alter involves some acrobatics or athleticism, some dice rolls can help determine whether you land gracefully on the altar with your sword out or if you accidentally let go too early and then flail in the air to land at the foot of the alter and twist your ankle and possibly stab yourself in the foot. Both are possible outcomes from the same intent and both can take the story in interesting and exciting directions.
This idea of interactive storytelling, of steering the outcome of the story and feeling invested in the story and character are things you can feel with a good book, but it’s still a static story on rails and you only feel as invested in the character as much as you can someone who you are watching go through their adventures.
The old Choose Your Own Adventure books had an element of self-determination in them. “If you choose to open the door to the Spooky Mansion, go to page 12. If you choose to go around the building and enter through the even scarier cellar, go to page 16″. Strangely there was never an option to use your common sense and simply go home and read a book. In any case, those were fun as a kid but there really wasn’t any character there, just a thin shadow of yourself only as substantial as you could overlay on the text. There certainly wasn’t any character development.
One of the strengths of RPGs is the ability to take a bumbling early character who couldn’t do much of anything exciting and interesting and try to survive the adventures that would come to not only overcome the odds but to advance and become more skilled, learn to do even more exciting things and become more capable and heroic!
What’s not to like about that? It certainly scratches an itch for me that I’d either forgotten or just buried in too many years of being an adult.
As this is a group of guys, there’s also many jokes involving bodily functions and some innuendo. Plans are made as we talk and try to work out the best way to slay the dragon, defeat the evil necromancer or safe the world. There is always a great deal of laughter as we talk about what we think we should do next and play out the battles and interactions and see how things come out.
Folks can definitely get attached to characters they’ve lived through for months and even years. By that time players have invested that character with a personality, not necessarily their own, mind you, but a personality and goals and they have an opportunity to play as someone who gets to behave in ways that we will never get to in the real world.
So I’ve had the opportunity to play for these last few years and I’ve participated in half a dozen campaigns and different gaming systems. I’ve never taken the lead and filled the role as the GM/DM. I’ve been a bit afraid. It’s intimidating to be that central story teller. You control the pace and to a great degree determine just how the story unfolds and, ultimately, how much fun a handful of folks have over the course of weeks and maybe months.
A bad GM is not fun to play with. A good GM weaves a story, sets the scenes, resolves conflicts, provides impetus to the story and is able to deal with whatever half-assed ideas a group might choose to execute. I didn’t (and don’t!) know if I’d be successful in that role.
But, it’s time to find out. In roughly a month I’m going to GM our group with a new gaming system called Dragon Age RPG. It’s not as complicated nor laden with decades of experience or rules as something like Dungeon and Dragons (which is still going strong!). The game comes with a number of pre-made stories that I can work with to start to learn the skills of a GM. And the group I play with will be patient with me and, I’m sure, help make sure I have a successful outing as a newbie GM.
I’m very much looking forward to getting the opportunity to do continue something I first started doing when I was 12 and last did when I was probably 15. So, get ready guys, it’s time to roll those die and see what happens!
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