Here at Press X or Die, we tend to focus on the video part of the gaming hobby- those which you can actually press X during, if you will. Board Meetings (written by my friend Johnny Niska) was a welcome breath of fresh air though, and I was wondering if you might entertain me in a little discussion of another side of gaming- that of dice and character sheets and grids. I speak, of course, of pen and paper RPGs. But first, I’d like to tell you a story.
Back when I was in high school, my friends and I used to run a Dungeons and Dragons group at our local tabletop store. The owner gave us store credit, and in return, every Sunday we ran some DnD for anyone who showed up for it- as few as five people, as many as a dozen on occasion. Given that we were unable to choose our players, many of them ended up being younger kids- some of them, I am quite were annoying little twerps that I’m certain their parents dumped on us every Sunday just for a few hours of quiet. Because of this, we started referring to it as “DnD Daycare”.
One Sunday, we were running a session that was almost really good- we had seven players, including myself and two friends, and then our DM, who was a friend of mine. The other four players were decent enough people, except for one. This one was a… maybe eleven year old kid, my memory fails me, but he was a hyperactive snot who found his amusement in being as big a pain in the ass as he could to anyone nearby. One of those, you know the sort.
Anyway, our group was, for story reasons, actually two groups- two separate teams of adventurers hired to do the same job. We encountered each other, scuffled briefly, and then realized our goal was the same, and joined forces. All of us, except for one. Indeed, it was our trouble customer, the eleven year old, who was playing a rogue who, according to his own description, “dressed in all black, with a black hood, and a black face mask on his face but his eyes are glowing”. This despite the DM informing him that the campaign was set during the middle of summer.
This rogue, as the rest of us were making our peace with each other, refused to involve himself with the group, not offering his name or any details of himself, and not promising to not try to kill us again. My character, a no-nonsense frontier scout, was about ready to set upon him when our leader declared that we should stop for the night, and sleep on it, letting cooler heads prevail. We tied up the shifty rogue, to ensure our safety. Then, as is traditional in DnD, we set up night watch, and as it just so happened, my scout had first watch.
The shift was almost completely uneventful, until near the end of his watch, my scout spotted the rogue sneaking around the camp with his daggers out. He asked him what he was doing, and the rogue attacked. After a surprisingly brief fight, my scout subdued him, and tied him up (again). Then, staring at the helpless rogue, curiosity got the better of him, and he reached down, and pulled off the would-be assassin’s mask.
It is at this point that the rogue’s diminutive player declared “The exploding runes explode.” After several confused minutes of no one having any idea what he was talking about, it was discovered that he had written on his character sheet, without telling anyone, that his character had magical runes tattooed on his eyelids that would explode with magical force if viewed. Despite being wildly out of the reach of a first level character, our DM, after a bit of negotiating, agreed. He rolled a die for the result, and then announced “Your face explodes in a column of ash. The scout is unharmed. Well done.”
In the hysterical laughter that ensued, the kid threw away his character sheet, and stomped away from the table.
As much as this story doesn’t end well for the boy, it does illustrate the biggest thing that tabletop gaming has over video gaming- freedom. It was a revolution when video games started including open worlds that let the player do as they wished, but even now, they cannot hope to match the possibilities a game like DnD can offer. It’s the difference between playing through a pre-built world that can only react in the ways it was coded to, and a universe made on the fly from the imagination of another person.
What video game would have allowed me to tie up another player, or for that player to slip out of the ropes and try to sneak away? Would WoW have allowed you to get explosive tattoos? And these are fairly pedestrian examples of what you can do, as well- I’ve had players smash train tracks to crash a train, explode a boat to fake their own deaths, and burn down a village just to distract from their failed pickpocketing attempt. Heck, once, during a villain’s “this land is rightfully ours, dammit” speech, the players nodded, and decided that, yes, the villain did have a fair claim to this land, and they were now on his side.
And while I hate to encourage it as a DM, because it makes me scramble to create, half the fun is not just doing whatever you feel like, but watching your DM try to keep up. Imagine a train that you can steer anywhere you want, and there is a man always just a few feet in front of it, laying new track for wherever you’ve decided to go. That man is the DM, and sometimes, it’s worth it to turn things on their head just to see him furiously try to build a new track.
There’s this stigma attached to DnD, and all pen and paper RPGs- by all means, play more than DnD, but it’s a good place to start- that I don’t really understand. People think of it as being too far gone, something that no normal person would ever do. “I’ll do anything but I won’t do that.” It’s nonsense. There’s nothing evil about it, and there’s no reason it has to be deeply nerdy. It can just be a bunch of friends messing around, and having fun.
I have introduced many people to pen and paper RPGs, and not one has regretted it. Sure, they didn’t all become regular players, but the core experience is just fun, for anyone who can enjoy a game. If you’re nervous about how much there is to learn, if you don’t want to step into some kind of nerd “deep end”, or if you just “know” that you won’t enjoy it without having tried it… well, maybe let go of some of that and give it a shot. There are more misconceptions than conceptions out there about this game, and it bothers me to see a whole hobby done such an injustice.
Oh, and that kid? Even with how mad he was, he was back the next week to bother us anew. And he was back the week after that, and after that, braving dragons and hellfire and the dreaded trap-riddled staircase, all with a smile. Because the game is just fun, and you’re going to want to come back to it.
Originally published for Press X or Die on September 6, 2012.