Saturday, April 18, 2009

They see me rollin'

I was a slothful child. I enjoyed watching television and movies, reading books and comics. My mother urged me to get a hobby. Sports, art, music... anything to get me out of the house and off my ass on days without school. The thing that held me back most was the fact that I didn't want to be the one kid at whatever congregation of other kids somewhere who knew absolutely nothing about the reason for convening in the first place.

Years after my mother had already given up on me, a friend of mine suggests I join her new boyfriend and her in a game I'd only ever heard of on the tube.

That's right: I was introduced to the exciting world pen and paper RPGs. Now look at these people oozing sex. Yeah, I know.

You may have heard the term Role-Playing Game (acronym fun time!) related to videogames. Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Fallout, ... all games in which you can customize a character's abilities and skills and have a different experience each time you play, depending on how different you make your guy/gal and the choices you make for him/her.

A video game RPG has -- best case scenario -- a beautifully realized world, with a couple of possible paths your character may take and a whole bunch of options for character building.

In a pen and paper RPG, you sit around with some buds and everyone assumes the part of a character. One of your friends will have to assume the position of Game Master (GM). He's playing every dude in the world you guys encounter, friend or foe. He comes up with the story and sometimes has to be a referee on the fly, when the rules don't cover a certain situation.

As you can see on the picture above, all the players have a sheet of paper. This is aptly named a character sheet. Their characters are represented by miniatures and placed on a grid. That's usually something only reserved for fight scenes. If you're not locked in combat, everything's pretty much resolved by conversation or role-play, if you will. No dice need be rolled in that case.

Best case scenario in a pen and paper RPG: it's a fun mix of board game, improv theater and storytelling. Unless you have cool props or a very good artist as a GM, you'll mostly have to put your imagination to use in conjuring up fantastic landscapes, but in my opinion, that's part of the charm. It's all extremely silly, of course, but not much sillier than playing videogames or looking forward to the third sequel to a movie about a teenage boy bitten by a radioactive spider.

Alas! All is not joy and mirth in the land of make-believe! Quite the contrary to relatively linear video games, there's a huge amount of input from the people you play with in P&P. There's a much bigger difference in replaying the same adventure in P&P with another group of people than by restarting a videogame and making a different guy. Like with any group activity, there's good teams and bad teams. Here are some ways a group can fuck up. Asterisk-marked ones are those I've experienced personally.

1) Players don't show up/show up late.

2) Players express disinterest quite rudely: ie. start playing video games, texting, watching tv, or even fall asleep*.

3) Some players study the rules so intently that they make characters who can pretty much end combat encounters by themselves (this was especially a concern in previous editions of the most popular P&P game Dungeons and Dragons). These players are usually the ones that kind of forego the role-playing aspect of the game. Many times, not always, will be working in the IT sector.*

4) On the other end of the spectrum you've got the snowflakes: my character is so special and dramatic and goddammit I will talk and talk and talk about my character and you fuckers will LISTEN because he is UNIQUE and AMAZING.

5) The game's meant to be a story you all partake in. Some GMs don't agree. Dude's got an awesome story and you're all lucky to be in it, bitches. This guy'll intterupt his players to allow himself to hog some more spotlight. Listen to these two non-player characters talk to each other some more!*

All in all, I'd say the Pen and Paper RPG will be going the way of the comic book in the next ten years. You have to be a certain... kind of person to even come into contact with it, and the majority of them ain't the slickest. I remember browsing through books at the local gaming store with a friend, who was explaining the pros and cons of some system or other. A guy who was almost but not quite invading our personal space started to chip in, slowly encroaching on Poland in the meantime. Description: overweight, bearded, ponytail, bespectacled and not particularly pleasant smelling. Perhaps the only time I've ever literally backed away slowly in disgust.

Unlike comic books, which can actually be purchased at your supermarket or bookstore, P&P games are still extremely niche entertainment, and they ain't gonna come out of hiding soon. I give it five to ten more years, maybe.

Oh, and since you stuck it out based on that title:

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