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This Gaming Life: Hooks in You
I’ve been thinking about how best to explain role playing games to people since the night I got home from my first session in 1979. Still not quite got it figured out. Luckily for me, it’s not something that comes up very often, but a job change usually prompts a casual enquiry into hobbies and pastimes at some point. It’s not like I’m ashamed of the hobby or anything, honest I’m not, it’s more a case of not having the patience or the vocab to properly explain it in a way that isn’t, well, a teeny bit embarrassing. The near ubiquity of computer gaming has eased the way quite a bit, but I don’t feel quite right comparing my weekly game to that of a Call of Duty session. The differences might well be invisible to the neophyte, but to me, they’re stark. RPGs are way too big a deal to trivialise with cack handed parallels to Angry Birds.
Looking back to the rule books I was first exposed to, I think they did a pretty good job of defining this (at the time) bizarre new way to play games. I opened my RPG account with AD&D, though not the Players Handbook. My first actual full read of the game came from the red basic book included in the magenta Otus illustrated box, edited by Tom Moldvay. Yeah – l read the credits. What struck me then wasn’t so much what RPGs were about, as what they weren’t about. Having been brought up in the early 70s on a diet of Mousetrap, Cluedo and Monopoly with very occasional forays into more cerebral fare like Chess and Diplomacy, the differences presented by RPGs were frankly mind blowing.
Stated as a list, RPGs defining attributes were as bonkers then as now, and it’s what I used in attempts to explain the things to my bewildered parents. No wonder they didn’t want to join in. Here’s what I knew then:
- There is no board.
- There is a referee, and everyone else works as a team.
- There are no winners or losers.
- The game never ends.
Each one of those instantly relegated every other game in my bedroom cupboard to junior status. Rolling a dice just to pogo your tiny metal dog on towards a railway station? Ha! Clearly for squares, OAPs and the feeble minded. Even the classics of card gaming and parlour efforts like backgammon were tossed onto the metaphorical bonfire of Pre D&D Life for me. I wasn’t looking back after that thank you very much. It’s that four strong list of RPG USPs (unique selling points) that still keeps me engaged after all this time. Yes, yes, I know that every single one of those rules has been broken in the years since, but broadly they still hold true.
The ‘no board’ rule has probably been broken more than any other, with miniatures in use from day one really. Plenty of my favourite games have been all ‘theatre of the mind’, and the radio play has often been used as a touchpoint when attempting to explain the whole shooting match. Even so, there has always been something very off putting to regular folk about the idea of a game that is purely conversational. That just sounds like a party game at best, like where you slap post-it notes on foreheads and play guess who. At worst it sounds like amateur dramatics in fancy dress where everyone speaks in a funny accent and someone probably tries to get off with you. This is the image that still pops into people’s heads when they hear the term ‘roleplay’ in isolation. A little bit pervy.
The referee. And look, I’ve ret-conned it to sound all grown up and professional like. We all know it’s Dungeon Master, a sobriquet we’ve been saddled with since we learned our polyhedrals. Could it be any worse when paired up with the ‘roleplay’ word to the uninitiated? Even shortened to DM it doesn’t completely take the sting out of it. It just sounds stupid, always did. Subsequent games jettisoned the term in short order, with the term Game Master gaining traction as the default. It’s still not really right is it? It always reminds me of those signs you see saying ‘Polite Notice’ where it’s supposed to make you think there’s a veneer of officialdom about it. Saying GM is so close to saying DM as it’s hardly worth making the transition in your head. Many of course don’t, and you still see DM used generically even today. Never mind the nomenclature though, what about the role? Back in the day there was a saying that the GM was God, based on their ability to always have more elephants they could drop on uppity players. I never subscribed to the saying on that basis, but I absolutely respected the skill, judgement and sheer charisma of the early GMS I played under. I use the word ‘under’ explicitly and deliberately. I really did worship these guys and learned so much at their tables. The ability to actually run one of these games, where the rules were multi volume hard back books? Incredible. I could think of no higher calling.
Actually, now I think of it, the physical rulebooks were another USP. Most regular games had a pamphlet tucked under the board, and that was often discarded along with the bag and the receipt. In fact, I’m not sure I ever saw anyone actually possess a spanking brand new board game, they were always battered by years of wet family Sundays and caravan outings. Either way, the rules to all games were passed on by Chinese Whispers through eager relations on high days and holidays. In fairness, D&D was a bit like that too, but to the casual onlooker, the RPG appeared to be like a correspondence course in medieval literature. I didn’t actually learn D&D from reading the books, but I loved owning them and studying them. You didn’t do that with Frustration.
The no winners or losers thing was a bit of an eye opener for me. It blends into the last USP about how the game never truly ends. It’s because of the open ended nature of gaming that you never really finish it, and that’s why there are no winners. Even if you did reach ‘the end’, the emphasis was on the journey. That was the (experience) point. Or so the books said. The reality was that character death was ever present back then, and I’d certainly call that losing. On the flipside there was levelling up and the acquisition of powerful magic items, which you could certainly call winning to some extent. I guess the real differentiator from regular gaming was the collaborative nature. The idea of not trying to beat the other people round the table was new, and as someone who has always been rubbish at traditional games, something to be embraced.
To this day I quail at the thought of telling people I’m trying to impress that I like pretending to be an elf at weekends. I always end up overplaying the game element and downplaying the make pretend. It’s such a palaver when you try to get into the nitty gritty that I usually secretly hope they’ll just drop it and move onto the safer grounds of TV and sport. But sometimes you catch a glint in the eye of the polite enquirer, something that tells you they might be worth the big sales pitch. I just wish we had some kind of handshake so that I don’t embarrass myself to the veteran gamer who’s been trying to find a way to sound me out since he noticed my d20 roll out of my bag in the gym. If I do go all in, I do still fall back on those four big points, the one’s that blew my mind as a kid, and continue to do so to this day.
No matter. It’s not so much about evangelising for me now, it’s more about knowing what is was that drew me into RPGs, and what keeps me playing now. The fact remain; I have no board, I am the God at the end of the table, I’ve read all the rules, and in this game that never ends… (whisper it) everybody wins. And no, you don’t dress up. Unless it’s a LARP, and that’s a column for another day.