Dungeon, Dragons, and the World of Make-Believe: Why You Should Try Role-Playing Games
I want to talk to you about role-playing games. No, not the kinky kind, the ones where a bunch of people get together and pretend to be someone else for an evening, going off having adventures. Not online – though that can be fun – but face to face, in real life. Although RPGs are games, they are less about winning and losing, although there are victories and defeats. This is storytelling, structured playtime, where you and a small group of friends can become whatever you want, whether that’s wizards and warriors, robots and aliens, vampires, Jedi, or the disembodied spirit of a half-eaten pork pie.
You can be and do literally anything. Usually, to prevent someone from abusing this and dominating the story to its detriment, a framework of rules is built around the game to determine how difficult certain tasks are to carry out. These rules are typically represented by numbers and dice, the numbers corresponding to how good characters are at particular tasks, and the dice representing luck or probability. Roleplaying games, or RPGs, are most commonly associated with Dungeons and Dragons, the grand-pappy of them all. It’s a system which has evolved over decades, and which has spawned numerous conventions and expectations about what RPGs are like.
One tradition which has stood the test of time is having one player, usually called the Game Master, Dungeon Master or Storyteller, describe the in-game world, as well as all the enemies, allies, creatures and features contained within it. The other players act the part of the main characters, important folk who decide what to do, determine how the story goes, and often affect the fate of the world they live in. The GM also acts as the referee and creates challenges and obstacles that the other players must overcome.
RPGs usually involve elements like combat, exploration, and investigation, with different styles of game emphasising different aspects. A horror-themed game, like Call of Cthulhu for example, has a very different feel to D&D, and there are as many different games out there as you can imagine. Until relatively recently D&D had an image problem, with stereotypes of awkward nerdy kids in their parents’ basement supping on mountain dew and munching cheesy puffs. Then there’s the ‘neck-beard’ cliché, the fedora-tipping ‘nice guy’; socially inept, emotionally illiterate, with no idea how to relate to people. There are a few people who fit the clichés, but there are many others who don’t, and enjoy playing these games with their friends and have a lot of fun. Over many years nerd and geek culture are becoming more mainstream and acceptable.
Having said that RPGs still have quite a few barriers to entry. They can be intimidating to people who have never played them before; the rules can look confusing and complicated, and all too often are. Many games feature weighty tomes which are apparently required reading or at least need to be on hand so that rules lawyers can look up exactly how much weight a standard horse can carry without toppling over. But at their core, most games are simple or can be made to be. Usually, outside of combat, only the occasional bit of dice rolling is required. Most players learn by experience, and by actually playing the game, not by digesting the encyclopedic rulebooks. The best of these games are rules-light, drip feeding what is needed as and when it comes up, and the GM can make quick decisions to keep the game moving.
Then there’s the potential embarrassment about being an adult involved in make-believe. Do you have to put on a silly voice, or dress up in costume? Isn’t it all a bit weird? Although it is a bit of a leap from playing a board game or computer game to an RPG, as they are different animals, you don’t have to put on a silly voice or dress up (unless you really want to). The first time you play it will be unfamiliar, but you’ll soon get to grips with how things work. And more experienced players, and hopefully your GM, should help you.
The image of RPGs, and D&D, in particular, is beginning to shift. Some of this is due to nostalgia, retro rediscovery through appearances in Stranger Things and Ready Player One, sparking a new interest in the hobby. Partly the revival of what was, until relatively recently, a fading industry, is due to a re-examination of what RPGs are, and who they are for. Just as with the apparent death of cinema due to VHS, RPGs were thought to have been eclipsed by electronic alternatives like World of Warcraft. But these digital offerings are limited, and there are some things they can’t do, like improvise, bounce off the reactions of other players, or allow for an infinite number of creative solutions.
Board games and video games are constrained within the boundaries of the board, or the edge of the programming. Anyone who has played a video game in a theoretically open world will have come across the strangely impassable mountain range, the flimsy door that you muscle-bound hero for some reason just can’t open, or the tree stump that your character finds oddly impossible to jump over, despite usually leaping about like a rabbit in spring-boots.
RPGs don’t have that, as they are, in theory, limitless. Although bad games can be boring, cringe-inducing, or both, good games can offer a window back to the childhood joy of free-playtime, or a gateway into a kind of living TV show with drama, interactivity, and choice. They are exciting because virtually anything could happen next, as the players have real agency. When playing these games, the responsibility lies with the GM to try and get the pacing right, find the correct theme and style, and read the mood of the players. They need to offer a challenge without things getting too bone-crushingly tough. They need to reward the players without spoiling them. They need to try and be consistent, without slowing the game by getting bogged down looking up rules.
One of the most difficult things about running in RPG is trying to schedule a game. They take a reasonably long time to play – one session usually takes several hours. As people get older and have more responsibilities, finding a day and time to suit everyone gets tricky, and games can fizzle out if the will to keep them running isn’t there. There are ways around this, like trying one-shot games which are about a single dungeon, haunted house, or abandoned space station, which can be finished in a single evening. Maintaining enthusiasm and excitement by using cliff-hanger endings for each session can also work. If people are determined to keep them running, then they’ll make time for them.
Different types of players have different motivations. Some desire power and victories. Others are motivated by drama and narrative. Still, others want spectacle, maybe a pet unicorn, or to see a fight between two dragons, or something else entirely different. Making sure that these wants are satisfied as far as possible is the storyteller’s job, and the usual barometer is how much smiling and laughter is happening. If people are enjoying themselves, you’re doing your job right. The GM has to do a lot of describing, often making things up on the fly. The players will probably ask you questions you haven’t prepared answers for, so be prepared to wing it, have some random names on hand, and use player expectations to help you. Also feel free to loot from other media, as it will help you to build your world and populate it with things you would find fun to experience yourself. Being a GM comes with a bit of pressure, and takes work, but is its own reward. It’s your world, and the delight, surprise or tension as your players experience it can make the preparation time and effort in the execution worth it.
All you need to start playing is an idea, a few basic rules, some paper, pencils, and a handful of like-minded friends. Prepare something, start small, find the right people, forgive yourself any mistakes, and give it a go. Ideally experience a few games as a player yourself before jumping into the DM’s shoes, to get a taste of what it is like. If you’re a natural introvert, like me, it’s a great way to express yourself, try on other personas, and explore a myriad of different worlds.