Why tabletop RPGs offer the best geek night in

Feature Gareth May 29 Mar 2013 - 08:43

Requiring little more than pencil, paper, dice and imagination, RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons are the perfect geek night in, Gareth writes...

Tabletop role-playing games have always come attached with a certain stigma; a stigma that denounces them as something little boys do in their bedrooms before they realise there’s such a thing as girls. Being an acolyte of Warhammer 40,000 in my youth (or 40K to its legion fans) I know of the alienation such hobbies can bring. Sure, I’d felt the thrill of rolling back-to-back sixes to take out my cousin’s entire terminator squadron with eye slit shot after eye slit shot (he retaliated by destroying my Eldar War Walker with a trainer… a Reebok Pump if I remember correctly) but as the years rolled on, the obvious isolation this path of painting miniatures and rolling 20-sided die would lead to became apparent to me.

Whilst most other boys in the local newsagent were hiding top shelf magazines within copies of Shoot, I was surreptitiously buying my copy of White Dwarf sandwiched in-between dad’s Auto-Trader and Mum’s Crochet Weekly. The truth was, nobody wanted to know about how I’d spent all weekend replacing my Howling Banshee Exarch’s Shuriken Pistol with a Chainsword.

All the other kids cared about was how Jimmy Jackers had necked a bottle of Dr Pepper ‘down spiny park’ and violated the air – and any nearby girls – with a gargantuan belch. I wanted to tell them that Jimmy Jackers’ belch was no match for the bloodcurdling cry of a Howling Banshee. Things couldn’t go on like this forever. Soon enough, a decision had to be made: Space Marines or friends? 

Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and the landscape of tabletop role-playing games – and fantasy and sci-fi in general – is a very different one indeed. Partly due to the rise in the popularity of video games – in particular, games such as Oblivion and Skyrim – and partly due to the Mount Doom-sized success of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy at the box office, the bramble-covered road fantasyphiles once trod has since become well-worn and respected.

You only have to look at the blistering success – both in viewing figures and industry accolades – of Game Of Thrones to see that. If ever there was a time for one to broaden their fantasy horizons, it surely must be now.

First of all, if the only reference point you’ve got for tabletop role-playing games is Warhammer or Hero Quest, fold it up and put it back in the airing cupboard. The truth is, proper tabletop role-playing game really aren’t for kids. And by ‘proper’ what I really mean is expansive, in both the figurative and metaphysical sense of the word.

Take the HP Lovecraft inspired – and more disturbing than a Cyberman in a tutu – Call Of Cthulhu. In this horror role-playing game, players investigate unusual happenings, leading to encounters with strange creatures from other dimensions – and we’re not talking He-Man: Masters Of The Universe, more a level of hell created by the love-child of Stephen King and The Ring’s Hideo Nakata.

The game’s main conceit revolves around garnering knowledge; knowledge you’ll need to outwit or defeat your foes. But in studying and combating these otherworldly, and often horrific, beasts each character inches ever closer to madness (as represented in the gameplay by ‘sanity’ dice rolls).

As a result, Cthulhu rarely offers up a happy ending; characters often meet grizzly ends or find themselves descending into a mental maelstrom of existential angst. A disturbance which can, and often has, bled through to the player (I’ve actually been involved in a game where the campaign has been called off because one of the players couldn’t handle the horror). All in all, not one to play with the kids at Christmas. 

Along with Cthulhu, there’s cyberpunk fare such as Shadowrun, the Wild West-themed Aces And Eights and superhero based Mutants & Masterminds… and this really is a mere glance at the available tabletop role-playing games out there. There are simply hundreds of them, catering to all your imagination needs from time travel to killing puppies for Satan. However, to argue the point that tabletop role-playing games offer a real humdinger of a night in for adults of all ages, I’m going to stick with the granddaddy of them all: Dungeons & Dragons.

Firstly, and predicatively, D&D offers a cheap alternative to the pub. Expense wise, you only have to buy a set of three books per group (the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the wickedly named Monster Manual), get your mitts on some Dungeon Tiles (about a tenner) and some figurines (although matchsticks and pennies or, the best option, Lego figures will easily suffice).

Secondly, if you run a regular D&D night it can become a healthy distraction in your life. In the same way a football fan will look forward to the weekend’s fixture, you’ll find yourself ruminating over who the traitor of Akmar is or whether or not the orb you found in the treasure chest at the end of last week’s session is indeed the Orb of Dragonkind, needed to banish the army of spectres back to the Shadowfell for good. It certainly makes a welcome change from worrying about the water bill.

But the above two reasons could be levelled at many a cheap hobby. But what sets D&D – and tabletop role-playing games in general – apart, is the real sense of community you’ll feel with your team mates. Of course, your characters become a band of brothers and sisters (and controllers and defenders and strikers… although let’s not get into that too much) and so too do you, the players, become as tight as the buns of a loincloth-wearing barbarian. The game’s mechanics are largely responsible for this. 

Unlike a lot of videogames, which purport to be the ultimate ‘sandbox’ experience, Dungeon & Dragons really is. You can do anything and go anywhere. Want to swing off the chandelier and kick the cave troll in the face? Go for it. Fancy having a pop at pulling a mermaid using your wit and charm? Why not? (just make sure she’s not a sea hag).

A player’s imagination and a character’s fate are only oppressed by the roll of a die and the consideration of the Dungeon Master (that’s the guy who controls the world, tells you what rolls you need to make, narrates the story and commands the ghosts and ghoulies). But that’s just the tip of the D20-shaped iceberg. Before you even roll a die, you have to decide your character’s ethical (law or chaos or neutral) and moral (good or evil or neutral) alignments, that act as a kind of code under which your character will behave.

So, for example, a thief could be chaotic good; he’ll steal but he won’t kill. Another thief, however may well be chaotic neutral; he’ll steal and if a death occurs whilst he’s nicking, so be it. And lastly, another thief may be chaotic evil; he’ll steal and kill anyone who gets in his way without a second thought. This structure is not only useful in the ‘field’, it’s applicable with regards to who you’ll trust and what quests you’ll take on.

Spending so much time thinking in your character’s boots, as it were, means that making choices as them soon becomes second nature – and because of this, an attachment forms. Not necessarily an emotional or intimate one (would you want to go for cocktails with a golem?) but an attachment nonetheless. An unconditional bond; it’s a bit like having a dog, to be honest. 

You begin to feel responsible for them, the decisions you make not only affect the outcome of the game, they also affect the story of your character – a character you’ve grown to care for, sometimes for years at a time. Put them in perilous position after perilous position and they’ll probably end up dead.

Yes, there’s of course reanimation rituals and Lazarus style potions on the battlefield but if you’ve got yourself a particularly stern Dungeon Master there’s a very real possibility that if your allies don’t roll the ten or more required to pull you from the jaws of the man-eating Tangler Tree, that is, I’m afraid, where your journey will end. There’s no continues or turning back to the page your thumb’s stuck in and taking the left turn at the junction as you do with Fighting Fantasy books. Oh no, if the DM decides you’re a goner, you’re a goner.

But there’s something so much more about being part of a tabletop role-playing game night than all the above – it’s bloody good fun. I can honestly say that I’ve had some of the greatest times of my life playing D&D – and not just because I killed a red dragon pretty much single-handedly (I collapsed a house on its head, it was pretty damn cool), nor because I became to love my foolhardy, accidently rakish, semi-perverted wizard with a penchant for woodbines and elfish women, Shergar. No. It was because of the fact that every time I packed my Player’s Manual and pen and walked the couple of hundred yards up the road I knew that what awaited me there was a warming cup of tea, a plate of Jaffa Cakes and, above all else, a night packed with great storytelling, even greater laughs and raw and emotional escapism.

So the next time someone sheepishly asks you if you want to go throw some D20s and be an Orc for the night, don’t say you’re washing your hair, grab that imaginary sword and step into the world of tabletop role-playing games.

You can read more from Gareth on his website.

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