Tabletop roleplaying: How my least grown-up hobby might be the most adult

September 1 2016 | Guest post by Sami
"Roll well don't die" shirt from Etsy seller MementoCatStudios
"Roll well don't die" shirt from Etsy seller MementoCatStudios

Tell people you're into roleplaying, and they either assume you mean something sexy (which is fine, YKINMKBYKIOK, but not what I mean). Or that you mean those lame work training exercises where one of you has to pretend to be a disgruntled customer (also not what I mean).

Very occasionally, someone will have heard of Dungeons and Dragons, but even then, in most cases, they are still imagining teenage boys rolling weird dice, and crunching incomprehensible numbers, allowing them to beat an orc to a pulp. Whereas that is technically correct, it's not really my experience of roleplaying…

I'd always counted myself a bit of a geek, and I liked fantasy and sci-fi books, TV shows and movies, but I didn't actually try roleplaying until I was 18. I'd got a summer job at a bookshop, and the guy running the sci-fi section ordered in the books for Dungeons and Dragons third edition, and was trying to get a group of people together to play on a regular basis. I'd just started seeing a guy who I knew had played these games as a kid, so I shyly asked if I could come along, and bring the boyfriend with me. I didn't expect to like it, to be honest, dwarves and elves weren't really my thing, I just thought it might impress my date.

In the end, I didn't play Dungeons and Dragons very long. A customer of the shop that had come along wanted players for a game called Mage: The Ascension — a story about modern wizards warping reality in a world much like our own (think The Dresden Files, or even the Matrix). One session in and I was hooked.

I made up a character that reminded me of a colourful neighbour in my student digs, and I spent most of the next week thinking about this person I'd invented. I thought about her parents, her family, her faith, her loves, her life, and then set her loose in a world where she, and a ragtag band of friends (my boyfriend and the other players characters), were trying to save reality from incomprehensible horror. Yes, we did roll dice, but we were collaborating on this fantastic story of humanity, and horror, and magic, and consequences. There were dozens of laughs, and even a couple of tears, before the story was told, and then I couldn't wait for the next one to begin.

There are advantages to my odd hobby…

It's been 16 years, and I'm still playing roleplaying games. I've ran my own games, telling my stories, and played in dozens of other people's stories. I've been aliens, gods, pirates, vampires, warriors, priests, poets, fairies, and yes, elves and dwarves. I've made dozens of friends, some lifelong. I married the date from that first night, and that customer was my best man. We're still playing games together.

A commitment to meet once a month, or once a fortnight, or once a week for a game means I stay in touch with some of my best friends, and what's happening in their lives, better than I could do on Facebook or Twitter alone. Setting aside actual-face-time for friends seems to be something that people struggle with, and I'm grateful to our shared games for facilitating that.

I've met some really interesting people I never would have met otherwise, and I've roleplayed with models and medical doctors, army officers and and university academics, prize winning novelists and plumbers. Plenty of people come into the hobby as from being sci-fi and fantasy fans, sure. But others get the bug through cosplay, amateur dramatics, live roleplaying (which is a whole different animal), or other subcultures like steampunk.

If you think tabletop gaming might sound like your thing, how do you find out more?

Most gaming groups that actively want new players will have an online presence. Try searching "tabletop roleplaying" or "RPG" in your local town. University and colleges often have their own clubs that are open to members and non-members. If you're concerned about safety, pick one that meets in a public space, like a bar, meeting rooms on campus, or a shop. Message them first and ask them what they play – some groups are more traditional than others and may have a narrower list of games they choose from. Don't worry if you've not played before and are unsure how it will work, or you only played in a dim and distant teenage past, most groups that are recruiting will be happy to teach newbies the ropes, and older players will tend to have acquired plenty of spare weird dice and books, so you shouldn't need to spend any money before you get started. If going into the situation blind is too nerve racking, you can watch real plays on YouTube like this one from Garblag Games (and Wil Wheaton is probably a good place to start), and most groups are fine with a newbie watching rather than playing their first couple of times.

I'd never try to claim I'm not a geek, I'd go so far as to describe myself as a nerd on many topics, but I do get irritated when people suggest my hobby makes me antisocial or somehow withdrawn, when in fact it's fantastically social and imaginative. What did they do last night? Boxset binge and Candy crush? I got my friends around a table, and we dreamed and imagined together. We talked about life and death and love and loss and loyalty, about what it means to be human and what it might be like to be something more.

OK, and occasionally we do roll dice and beat up an orc.

  1. Love all of this! I got into gaming in college, took a break for a number of years (not many gamers in the great state of Wyoming), and got back into when my hubby and I moved to Colorado. Love getting together with friends every week. I have even just started learning to GM games myself.

    Another great place to meet new players and friends, as well as try new games, are gaming conventions. Sometimes they are built into nearby comic cons (each one is different) and some cons are specifically for the gaming community. For anyone in Colorado check out Tacticon (around Labor Day weekend, and this year in Colorado Springs), Genghis-con (sister con to Tacticon that is held February-ish), Mile High Con, and there are a few others. These places are great to try out new gaming styles within the same world, new systems (we found Savage Worlds at a con and LOVE the system), new players and old, and small publishers trying to get their name out there.

  2. Yes! I don't think we've done Mage but we've done several different systems including several D&D editions. Star Wars, Fate, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, several others I can't remember …. I'm happy being the most noobish one at the table (I didn't start doing table top till I was probably 20 or so) because I know the guy who usually DM's will answer any of my questions or just do the math for me because it's so reflexive for him at this point. We had a regular weekly group going on and off for …. five years? Which also included the time period when my husband and I married. The game finally got put on hold just before our baby was born after doing a few one shots to wind thing down. We've talked about starting things back up – we host so babysitting won't be an issue – but schedules haven't worked out yet. In particular, I'm not sure I'd be up for gaming for three hours after the baby is in bed because the baby does not understand the concept of sleeping in and thinks 4 or 5am is a great time to get up for the day. I do not agree!

  3. While I've only played one RPG, in the sense of rolling dice, I have known a lot of gamers. I even know Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jackson_Games – the GURP guy. I have seen the weird teenage boys who, during breaks from the game, would come and inhale the con suite's food. Some of them not really teenagers anymore…

    I've also know a few LARP players. I might enjoy that more if I were healthier because I always enjoyed playing "pretend" games as a child. And I wasn't playing house, I always wanted adventures… I have had friends who would play with me over the years, but its harder to find "playmates" when you are 60+

    Never do anything you don't want to explain to the paramedics.

  4. I've wanted to get back into tabletop rp for awhile now (long story short, when my ex and I split, he kept the friends that had been our d&d group), but have been having trouble finding a new group. The few that I found online and tried weren't good fits (one was very stats-orientated, with no interest in story, and the other was just creepy and uncomfortable :/), but I'm still looking.

    So, I guess if any of you offbeat rp folks know of fun groups in the Boston, MA-ish area who might be recruiting, could you toss up a link?

    • You might try some of the local gaming stores. They may have different groups running during the week or know of regulars who are looking for someone to join. Sadly I know no one in the Boston area or I would add links.

  5. There are even role-playing games that are one-night-only type games, and are great for getting people to understand the concept if they don't want to commit. (Look up One Seven Design for some examples – I've played Lasers and Feelings and it was hilarious.)

  6. One of my favorite things about tabletop roleplaying games is that, when folks are sitting around a table airing their fantasies and letting their imaginations really collaborate like this, you learn things about them you'd never learn in any other setting. That's why a lot of my closest friends are folks I've gamed with.

    Also, I got over my fear of public speaking by learning to GM. So that's another awesome bonus.

    At the risk of sounding even geekier… it's really interesting to me that the rule sets and meta-storylines of different games lend themselves to meeting different people's needs. (Prime example: it sounds like for you, D&D's archetypal character classes and "kill the monsters and take their stuff" plot wasn't what you needed. But Mage the Ascension, with its flexible magic system and focus on consequences, really fired your imagination!)

  7. I'm a professional tabletop RPG designer, so it's always exciting for me to see people getting welcomed into the hobby. Especially since there is a bit of a stigma attached to it and, unfortunately, there are lots of gamers out there who like to be gatekeepers (although thankfully those types are getting crowded out as RPGs grow more popular).

    One of the things I like to emphasize is that the realm of tabletop role-playing is growing more and more interesting subgenres, and folks who tend to think of RPGs in terms of D&D-style "the players are tough adventurers who go on a dangerous quest" paradigm might be surprised by just how many variations there are out there. Things like Avery McDaldno's "Monsterhearts," (http://buriedwithoutceremony.com/monsterhearts/) for instance, is an intense game about being high school students getting into serious high-school drama. You happen to be monsters (literal monsters: ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, and more), but you aren't monstrous; it's a game that plays out a deep metaphor about coming to terms with a self-identity that's different from everyone around you.

    There's also Ross Cowman's "Fall of Magic" (http://heartofthedeernicorn.com/product/fall-of-magic-scroll-edition/), which takes the "fantasy adventurers on a quest" trope and strips away all of the conflict: there's no adversarial game master, no combat, just a beautiful map to explore and the story that happens as you fill in details about the places you go. And that map is very beautiful by the way… "Fall of Magic" is a living argument for game components as works of art.

    Jackson Tegu's "How we are like the storm" (http://www.photographsoflightning.com/how-we-are-like-the-storm/) is and intensely personal and very grounded story about exploring a relationship. It's also a game whose central action is drawing on each other. Literally, draw icons on each other's arms to represent your life experiences over the 10 years your characters have spent apart. It's for two players and, perhaps, unsurprisingly, works very well for couples.

    On the other end of the scale is Ben Robbins's "Microscope,"(http://www.lamemage.com/microscope/) which does away with the concept of "playing characters" almost altogether. Instead, the players gather around a timeline of a fantastical place, and the players take turns dropping in world-changing events over the course of millennia, to create an epic history. It's the only game I know where you can say "And then the entire planet explodes," and that's not, like, a huge deal… it's just a new wrinkle people need to work with.

    And that's just scratching the surface of what's out there. Even if you don't think that going on an adventure is for you, there's probably something out there which will scratch your gaming itch.

    • Indie games with unique mechanics that serve bizarre and wonderful story ideas are my favorite! Thank you for this list! "Microscope" sounds a lot like "Dawn of Worlds" – do you know that one?

      I think my favorite game experience I've had so far was GM-ing a game called Dogs in the Vineyard (http://www.lumpley.com/dogs.html). A game of moral choices and religion set in a weird west version of frontier Utah. Wouldn't be for everyone… but wow, what an intense storytelling experience that was! One of the players afterwards compared D&D to a Saturday morning cartoon series, and said DotV was more like a movie. A really Good movie.

      • I had not heard of Dawn of Worlds, but I like the look of it. I love that you end up with a big dense map that you can either use as the backbone for an exploration-focused game or just frame and hang on the wall.

        Dogs in the Vinyard is pretty awesome. Also, while I haven't had a chance to play it this way, I have been told that it is one of the best Old Republic-era Star Wars games, if you replace the players' guns with lightsabers.

  8. Haven't tried the Mage system, we're mostly a Pathfinder group (or couple of groups, since we have two games running right now), but I've tried a couple other systems. The Marvel game we played for a while was sort of fun, and we started one in a platform I don't remember, kind of a western with magic thing which I really liked, but guy running it got too busy to keep planning.

    My husband loves to GM the games, but I've never caught that bug. I really like aspects of playing that I never expected, like being a more outspoken player, taking the lead with some characters. And yes, even killing an orc or a goblin now and then.

  9. I love hearing the stories unfold and being around roleplaying, but I've never really gotten into playing (I've tried a few games, it just isn't my thing) BUT the hubby loves it. So often we host, and I cook (which I love) and listen to the stories unfold as everyone else plays. It's win-win.

  10. I just wanted to say my experience is similar to yours. I started gaming when I was 19, and it's always been about the stories and the characters and the dynamics. I've played D&D (many editions), 7th Sea, Werewolf, a syth-combo World of Darkness Game, more D&D, Firefly RPG, Demon…. The monthly game night I most recently played with was an incredible way to stay connected to those friends. Now that that game has petered out, I find that I really miss it, and I don't see those friends as often.

  11. I'm fairly new to the D&D world (I started getting into it just a handful of years ago), but I LOVE it. I also share a birthday with the late, great Gary Gygax so I guess it is in my blood. My friends and I try to get together every week or two to play. We bounce back and forth between 3.5 and 5eds and have dabbled in Pathfinder. We run one of any number of campaigns, depending on how many of us are able to make it that night. I believe we have 3 different campaigns going right now. We don't usually do one-offs, we'll just start a campaign and play it until that particular group of people no longer is able to get together and it just sort of fizzles out. We all have particular characters that are near and dear to our hearts– a character my fiance built as a joke is now one of our favorites (it's kind of a love-hate relationship) and he has even cosplayed as this character, as I have with my personal favorite, who was also the first character I ever played. When we host, we will serve meals that fit the theme, such as roast chicken and crusty bread that we eat with our hands, a hearty soup or stew, or meat pies served with mead.

  12. As a life long gamer who started playing RPGs in the late 70's, though the Satanic Panic, though being called more names than I could ever hope to count, all I can say is welcome to the struggle of trying to explain roleplaying. Just be happy people can look stuff up on the internet, 30+ years ago there were no such readily available resources to help explain RPGs.

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