On Role Playing Games

The first completely joyful memory I have is the night that I played my first role playing game.

It happened during a formative period in my life.  My family left La Scie after the cod moratorium ended my dad’s bright dreams of becoming a full-time entrepreneur and sent him back to the classroom. Less than a year later, we left Grand Falls when his position there was given the old union bump.

So I was in my first year at a great big new school, Herdman Collegiate, in what at the time was to me a great big new city, Corner Brook, and I spent a good while not making any friends. As luck would have it, however, the guy with the locker next to mine eventually started talking to me a bit. After a couple of memorably stupid moments I eased into a social group of sorts.

A couple of the grade 11 guys within that group lived nearby, and one night they invited me to play Ravenloft. I didn’t have a clue about any tabletop game more esoteric than Scrabble. My memories are pretty hazy now, but I remember holding a character sheet in my hand in my buddy’s basement at the tender age of 14 (December baby and all that) and feeling a bit like I had made it home from the storm.

Roleplaying is a hobby, not much different from golf or curling in its way – you get a small group of buddies together, you play for a few hours at a time, you make some stories up. For me, it opened up a world of creativity for which I hadn’t had much use until then. It lead me into friendships that have, some of them, continued to reap rewards long after the games themselves stopped being the social centre of my life.

And I still play. Once a week I bundle up my binders and notebooks, my sketchbooks and character sheets, my dicebags and my iPad, and I make my way to someone’s house. For two or three hours it doesn’t matter how I feel about myself, my work, the many things left to do with my house, nor the duties life requires of me. The world disappears and is replaced by the territory of the imagination as I roll a few dice, chat, and occasionally tell a story.

The story is important to me. Role playing is generally seen as a nerdy activity, but it’s a lot more like theatre sports than other traditional nerd games. You create and play the eponymous Role of a character, building a shared narrative out of the bits and pieces of creative thought and interaction with your group. Each person at the table needs to share a little in that experience, and once in a while something profound can happen quite unexpectedly.

It’s fun to try to make those moments happen, even if you fail in the attempt. I probably like to run games more than I like playing characters these days. Some of that is about having specific preferences for how a story should be told; I like to have the kind of game wherein players tell parts of the story, and I like to have narrative flex in the overall action. Some of it is about my failures as an actor – I don’t consistently do the best job of bringing a character to life at the table. Some of it is a kind of jealousy that afflicts me in all domains – when I see someone doing a thing well, I often find myself wanting to be able to do that thing with the same aplomb.

Mostly, though, I enjoy the creative work of preparing a game. When I was acting, I liked learning the lines and grasping the character from the inside more than I did the applause. As a programmer, I like learning new technologies and techniques more than I like having built a product. And as a Game Master, I like writing bits of scenes, creating characters and coming up with pieces of their personalities and histories. I like making changes to my notes to make it easier to run the next session.

And I like exploring the territory. Just the other night I learned about West Marches and Hexcrawls, which are much deeper versions of the sandbox-style game I encountered years ago while being amazed by Mike Krahulik’s Dungeon Mastery. There are so many notes to crib, so many ideas to consider when you’re playing these games; the promise of never-ending fascination forever beckons.

As hobbies go, I could do a lot worse.