Monday, June 16, 2014

Roll of the Dice: An Introduction to Tabletop Role-play

Are you looking for a new experience that challenges your creativity and your intellect? Are you interested in a type of game where players cooperate with each other against their environment?  Are you bored with Monopoly? You may be a good candidate for tabletop roleplaying,   also known as pen and paper role-playing.
Playing Morrow Project at our church
The best-known  tabletop role-playing game is Dungeons and Dragons, a game plagued by stereotypes of pimply adolescent males dragging their two-dimensional characters from room to room of a 'dungeon' defeating predictable monsters.  Thankfully the quality and depth of tabletop roleplaying has gone far beyond this trope.
 Unlike in online roleplaying, tabletop role-players gather together in person. There is no computer required (although one may be used by the game's facilitator or game master).  Players roll dice or use other means to determine such things as the outcome of a battle, or whether a character is able to convince someone to do something in his favor.

For the Love of a Character 

In my late 30's I was introduced to a game master  who was running a role-playing  game known as 'Harnmaster', which I've later come to describe as 'Dungeons and Dragons goes to college,' due to its emphasis on detail and realism.  He helped me create a character that was as rich and three-dimensional as any character in fiction that I've ever read; a young priestess of a goddess of chivalry, who had spent her adolescence as a slave in a brothel. Further, he gave me a world to play in; the island of Harn, with its many cultures, religions, and intrigues.
It can be difficult to explain the appeal of tabletop gaming to someone who has never done it.  Being involved is not the same as watching on the sidelines – it’s an entirely different experience when you’re making the decisions and viscerally experiencing the outcomes.
In trying to describe quality tabletop gaming to people who are unfamiliar with it I have developed two analogies. One compares it with theatre, the other with fiction writing.
Have you ever been in rehearsal for a play?  There's this period when everyone is just starting to get into character and is playing with the concepts of the play and what it's trying to say. Everybody’s having fun, because at this stage, perfection is not expected.   Then opening night approaches, the tension sets in, the play goes on... then it's over.
Now, imagine that that fun part of rehearsal could go on.  No opening night, no stress, no ending - just you and your friends playing your characters and a plot that is ever unfolding.
For the second analogy, imagine you're writing an epic novel with friends. Each one takes the point-of-view of one character and adds to the story by writing about what their character does. One writer, called the game master, is in charge of describing the world and the minor characters, intrigues and situations the characters will encounter within that world.  This analogy is not that far-fetched, in fact. The Dragonlance Series was written based on a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Why So Many Rules? 

... only an environment that is fundamentally rational, has a high level of internal consistency and is carefully maintained can give the feeling that one is involved in an epic.
                              -N. Robin Crosby, the creator of Harnmaster, 1988.
In any game, there are rules that make it possible for everyone to have fun.  This is especially true of tabletop gaming. Remember when you were a child and played make-believe?  Do you remember why you stopped? It may have been because someone said, "I shot you, you're dead!" and someone else said, "no I'm not. You missed."  Having no way to determine who was right made it impossible to keep playing.
For this reason, good roleplaying has rules and limitations.  Most use dice to make the decisions, with the odds weighted according to the abilities of the characters and the difficulty of the situation.
The enforcer of the rules is the gamemaster (or the Dungeon Master, as they are called in Dungeons and Dragons).  He or she not only oversees the dice rolls and the rulebooks, but makes sure no character is so powerful that they overwhelm the other characters and make them unnecessary.  The main purpose of the gamemaster is to make sure everyone has fun so that the game can go on.

You sold me on it. Now what? 

If you want to find a group to role-play with, a good place to start is your local game store.  Many game stores host tabletop roleplaying games,  and may have bulletin boards to help gamers connect.  Another way is to go online.  There are several sites that are designed to bring role-players together; one such is at­.   Another good source is , where you can find groups that meet in person for almost every purpose imaginable.
One night the lights went out. We kept playing.
Can’t find a group?  If you’re brave, you can start one.  Becoming a game master requires, first of all, that you choose a gaming system and study up on the game mechanics – basically the way decisions are made.  Secondly, you need a setting – the world of the game and the scenario the characters will be starting in. Thirdly, you need to find a group; either sell the storyline to your friends, relatives, or co-workers, or advertise for players online or through your local media.

Final Thoughts

In the end, tabletop roleplaying is simply cooperative storytelling.  It stretches the imagination.  It allows people to come together to create something profound and amazing, blended from the talents and eccentricities of the players, and the characters they create.  It is addictive and fun.  It provides a form of social bonding.

Speaking of social bonding:  that gamemaster that introduced me to gaming?  We were married about a year later and are now approaching our tenth anniversary.  He runs two games every week now, which I play in.  

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