Every week as a kid I'd guide my peeps though a death-trapped maze in Dungeons & Dragons, have my players tangle with The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in TSR's Marvel Super Hero RPG or encourage them to blast stormtroopers in the mush courtesy of West End Game's take on Star Wars.
When Dungeons & Dragons first exploded in the public consciousness back in 1974 it wasn't just considered the domain of nerds. The game was attractive to a whole cross-section of backgrounds, ages, professions and interests (if not a variety of genders, regrettably).
In 1975, the game was even featured prominently in Jon Freeman's book The Playboy Winner's Guide to Board Games:
"Dungeons & Dragons...is far and away my favorite game. It is appallingly addictive: I know several enthusiasts who spend more time at it then they do at work. Nonetheless, while its appeal is wider then I once believed possible, it is not for everyone. If you find fairy tales hopelessly childish, playing until 4 a.m. unthinkable, exercising your imagination difficult, and 'play acting' a bore, you are obviously not going to be happy with FRP (fantasy role-playing) games. If, however, you were interested enough to read this far and don't find those caveats daunting, D&D may be one of the most exciting discoveries of your life."
Freeman's love for the game is obvious, but his insistence on adopting those awkward "caveats" is exactly what earned pen-and-paper role-playing games their scarlet letter of geekery. I've played D&D (and their ilk) many times over the past thirty years and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that:
(1) The flavor of D&D is entirely dependent on the person running the game. It doesn't have to be an infantile high-fantasy wank-fest that plays out like a bad fusion of Masters of the Universe and My Little Pony. It can be a combination of Flesh + Blood meets Evil Dead meets The DaVinci Code if you want it to be.
(2) I have NEVER played the game until 4 a.m. EVER. I had a strict curfew as a kid and as an adult my lame ass has to be up (and reasonably mobile) every morning @ 7 a.m. sharp. Apparently Monsieur Freeman thought that the only way to play these games was to organize weekend sleep-overs.
(3) Exercising your imagination is required, but this is no more strenuous then activating your mind's eye while reading a good novel and then thinking up fun and creative ways to fuck around with the plot.
(4) 'Play acting' has always a point of contention for me. Yes, you can speak in the voice of your character if you want, but if aren't aiming for an Oscar nomination then you can simply say: "My character asks the blacksmith why he's acting like such a douche". Having said that, while running the game, I tend to adopt all kinds of kooky voices and accents just because I'm a shameless ham who's middle name might as well be "Toupie".
So, largely due to the vaguely aberrant behavior associated with role-playing games, the entire hobby got lumped in with wearing fake Spock ears and eschewing a regular regimen of personal hygiene.
This is all kinds of funny to me since I think it's super geeky when dudes talk pornographically about power tools, debate whether or not Rollie Fingers was the undisputed pioneer of modern relief pitching or willingly venture out in public wearing nothing but purple body paint, a g-string, an oversized foam novelty hand and a beer helmet.
I guess it's just a matter of what society deems "acceptable". Just bear in mind that this is the same society that deemed Jack and Jill acceptable enough to be green-lit.
Curiously enough, most of us don't seem to have an issue playing D&D when we buffer the experience with an X-Box controller or a keyboard. After all, what is Dragon Age, Kingdoms of Amalur, The Elder Scrolls, Baldur's Gate, The Witcher, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft, Kingdom Hearts, Neverwinter Nights, Diablo and Dark Souls if not D&D rendered digitally and bereft of face-to-face social interaction?
So, because of all the stigma, I dropped out of RPG's for the longest time. But when Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films captured the collective imagination of my friends back in 2001 I leapt at the chance to (re-)introduce D&D to them. Since I was working full-time back then, I convinced myself that I didn't have time to world-build from scratch. So, not knowing any better, I picked up the 3'rd Edition starter box set which was available at the time and let my players rechristen the pre-gen characters lurking inside:
(As a side note, I've always thought that the cover to this thing was kinda ridiculous. Shouldn't these clueless morons be facing the other way? Okay, maybe they're running away from the massive adult red dragon in the background, but if that's the case, shouldn't there be four adventurer-shaped holes in the door like in a Road Runner cartoon? Shouldn't they look completely shit-baked instead of supremely confident? Hmmmm, maybe the dragon's actually a member of the party. Exactly how grossly overpowered was the Dragonborn race when it was first introduced? Oh, well, whatever....)
The six quests included were kinda 'M'eh' but I had fun knitting them into what passed for a cohesive campaign and my players seemed to have a ball with it. But even with everything served up to me on a cardboard platter, I still felt like work. Mainly for three reasons:
(1) For the last adventure I added a sixth player against my better judgement. I should have trusted my instincts: it proved to be one player too many.
(2) I'd never run anything other then my own original adventures before. Trying to adapt someone else's material always seemed unwieldily. No matter how "prepared" I was, I always felt like I was forgetting something or shortchanging the source material.
(3) Although the rules contained herein featured a lot of logical evolutions over my familiar (and beloved) red box D&D and AD&D, it still felt oddly foreign and, as a result, kinda cumbersome.
So, the game fell dormant for me again until last year when I resurrected the campaign in order to give us all a sense of closure. This was the first original adventure I'd crafted for my campaign and, looking back on it now, I fear that it was hideously linear, restrictive and rail-like. Once again I feared that my beloved past-time would fall by the wayside.
But then something miraculous happened. I started reading the tireless RPG blogs of Zak Smith, Jeff Rients, Michael Moscrip and many more. In doing so I had an epiphany.
My illusory mental blocks melted away. Turns out, I didn't have to settle for the most recent iterations of D&D just because it was the more "up to date" or "evolved" product. Regardless of what edition I played, I didn't have to mindlessly adopt every single rule. I could jettison the rules I hated and adopt the ones I liked from any edition! Hell, why not explore options completely outside of D&D?
I know this probably sounds kinda elementary to a lot of you, but until you see someone do this in creative, effective and easy-to-run practice, it all seems like intimidating theory.
So, last month, I hand-picked four gaming friends who I thought would, at the very least, make for an interesting group. I assembled this fellowship (hereby dubbed "The League of Paper Champions") for three main reasons:
(1) To determine what RPG experience they'd enjoy the most.
(2) To discover what game was the most fun and easy to run.
(3) Based on the two previous answers, I want to know what system game is most likely to hit the
table in the future.
I kicked off the first of four experiments in role-playing this past Saturday.
In the next entry you'll actually hear what happened.