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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I really like Call of Cthulu but my characters somehow always end up having really mundane experiences. I played a game once where I was startled by a stray dog, maybe saw a book move in the library, and was plagued by bad weather.

Gave me chills just reading about it!

No love for Pathfinder, it is outselling D&D using their own tossed aside 3.5 system. Check it out!

I'm in the middle of a fantastic game of Scion. I tried pathfinder and Exhalted as well, I love tabletop games.

There are these great new things called 'computer games' guys. Just saying.

For years I have been trying to convince my friends of this, and it annoys me that they would rather spend hours starring at a screen playing a predetermined plot line when they could be playing a really interesting story line / adventure.

I ran a CoC campaign for years, and one night one of my players brought his wife along. During the game I had the players crawling though a narrow tunnel with myriads of spiders and other creepy-crawlies creeping and crawling over them and inside their clothes, nothing danagerous, it was just for atmosphere. During this I noticed my friend's wife seems to be really getting into it, and I'm thinking that she's a really good roleplayer.
So I was disappointed when she didn't turn up next game. It turns out the poor woman had two phobias, enclosed spaces and spiders, and she really was terrified, and actually had nightmares for a few nights after the game.
My proudest moment as a CoC GM :)

Spent many happy hours playing both Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing and Vampire: The Masquerade. Wish there was time for it now - I much prefer playing than orchestrating events, and it's hard to convince people to put the time aside to be a DM/GM...

Hard to find people who are good GM/DM material. It's a tough mix to get right. You need someone with a rare mix of abilities (able to create a multi-layered narrative that has something for each of the player's characters to do and yet maintains all the tension, emotional-impact, twists and action-sequences that modern consumers have come to expect from the average movie/ able to act and ad-lib convincingly on the spot/ complete understanding of the rules and universe/ an authoritarian presence without a megalomaniacal personality/ a sense of humour/ a ferocious imagination/ able to remain calm under pressure/ an innate sense of justice/ time-management skills/ and the ability to manage people). Seriously, with that sort of skill-set why would you waste your time on friends and acquaintences rather than simultaneously run a Fortune 500 company and a film studio? It goes without saying that I was a majestic GM. Unfortunately I played Rolemaster and Unknown Armies, so I spent a lot of evenings in empty rooms looking at a door, waiting for it to open.

And this is exactly why table-top gaming has a bad reputation amongst muggles.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was a big part of my youth. 7 buddies huddled around a table on the quest for lost treasure! Golden days ! I miss 'em.

Hahaha I bet

Hahahahaha

Yeah but you're not in the same place,and u can play against people you've never met or ever will. D&D was fun, the few times that I've played it. You can't sit in your stained skivvies when you play d&d. Well, you can, but it's very rude

My friends told me about vampire the masquerade, and I was awesomed by it. Yes knowing about it made me more awesome. But they told me just as they quit playing. They let me have all the books and stuff, but I ain't no GM, so I gave it to a friend, one with whim i played d&d and shadowrun. Why not play with him and his friends? Well because he worked all night and slept all day and his friends had bad hygiene. A vampire and his ghoul minions? I don't know, and Katrina destroyed the game and everything else anyway. Bummer

That might be the funniest thing I've ever heard on the internet. It actually reduced me to tears!

Nice article man.

Has there ever been a shadowrun tv show or movie? Or any other show or movie with trolls and junk in a futuristic setting? It needs to happen. It should've already if it hasn't.

I really think tabletop gaming is coming back strong in full force. With the release of the new Gygax magazine, the new affordable Dwarven Forge dungeon sets, the detail of Reaper miniatures, and The Pathfinder RPG (D&D 3.75) check out the beginner box set. You have the new Star Wars RPG coming out this spring by Fantasy Flight games, and then you have the re-release of 1st and 2nd edition books of Dungeons & Dragons. Also you have D&D 5th edition due out in a couple years, things are looking bright for tabletop RPG's. Happy Tabletop RPG day.

My friends and I got bored with the usual constraints of races in D&D. We did a "random" campaign. We chose our races out of the MM and rolled to randomly determine our classes. Since there were only 2 of us PC-ing, My friend has a rakshasa ranger and an assamar weretiger paladin (chaotic version from one of the Complete books.) I wound up with a kobold rogue (the most normal of the group) and a troll wizard. It certainly makes you expand your horizons taking a class at the roll of the dice.

I fondly recall playing classic D&D at a school club started by a trainee English teacher. When he left we carried on, and it was a marvelous way to spend a rainy afternoon. We even tried the BubbleGum Crisis role-playing game that came out and loved it. I still have the books, which were essentially an encyclopedia of everything BGC, fusing two of my greatest passions in one splendid package. Sadly that all came to an end as everyone drifted off into other hobbies, but I really wish more kids would play D&D to develop their linguistic, teamwork and problem-solving skills. It certainly wouldn't hurt them in the workplace.

I've found that modern video games have ruined tabletop RPG for me in that they move at a much slower pace. Also, getting older leaves me with less free time as other responsibilities intrude so I want my gametime to be packed.

A good compromise for me seems to be tabletop board games (designer games in the Settlers of Catan mode). These hobbiest games give me the social interaction with other players face to face that tabletop RPGs do but are better for small doses of time.

I've been a computer gamer and roleplayer for more than two decades and until we invent a holodeck, videogames will never, NEVER, rival RPGs for scale, freedom, challenge, creativity, hilarity, excitement and, of course, socialising. Just saying.

I started in my teens on (A)D&D, but, now many years later, I think D&D is a poor place for new players to start. The classes, races and alignment concepts are just too darn restrictive - you never really get to play the character you have in your head? What do you mean I can't pick up and swing this mace just because I'm a Druid, what is it? Mjolnir?

I'm all about classless systems these days. Games where your character is a collection of skills and personality traits. My group are playing GURPS (Discworld) right now, but I've been GMing Savage Worlds (Deadlands).

Nice article though, and you're right it is a hobby that has been stigmatised for too long. It's cheap, harmless, educational, creative, fun and social - what's not to celebrate?

Those pics bring back so many good memories.

Running my girlfriend's nephews through a Pathfinder (the best D&D variant in my opinion, and the #1 selling RPG right now!) campaign. Ages 11, 15, and 21. They all love it!

<3 <3 <3

Very true I always love when people think video games have anything in common with TableTop related. Video games are a far cry away from pen & paper and board games in general. The problem with most people is they want instance gratification with every activity they do, they no longer possess the virtue of Patience or put effort into anything thus why the hobby is almost nil next to video games.

This comes from someone who has just played video games since I was a kid.

Great article. RPGs are great fun. I've always loved the storytelling and there are some moments in a good game that are truly memorable. Great fun when you have good friends to game with.

Best Regards,

David L. Dostaler
Author, Challenger RPG (free)

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