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Roll to see if you suck

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s 3pm on a Sunday, a time when men my age are usually doing yard work, playing with their children, drinking beer/and or watching a football. I feel like I should be doing almost any of these things right now. I am not.

An ex-girlfriend calls and asks what I’m doing with my day. “Oh, just seeing some friends,” I say vaguely, which is true enough. What would be far more accurate is to say that I will be playing a game involving pencils, paper, and dice, and no, it’s not Yahtzee. This game, unlike Yahtzee, will require me to say things like “hang on, I think my elven-forged blade has a +1 damage against orcs.” A sentence that, when spoken aloud, assures that no one within earshot will ever have sex with you.

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The demonic tools Satan uses to warp your children

Yes, I’m playing Dungeons & Dragons. More to the point, I’m not playing that specific game, but another game like it. I’d tell you the name, but you’ve never heard of it, neither had I, and neither of us care. The game I’m playing (a fantasy involving people with psychic powers in outer space and, at my insistence today, Fro-Yo) is, like Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as a Role Playing Game, or RPG in gamer-geek argot. Don’t confuse this with military-geek argot, in which RPG stands for “Rocket Propelled Grenade.” If you do, you’re likely to either A) hand a soldier a hardcover rulebook with the picture of a gruesome monster on it when what he really needs is an anti-tank weapon or B) become very confused about why everyone in Black Hawk Down is SO concerned with playing Dungeons & Dragons in the heat of battle.

Anyway.

A girlfriend of mine once asked me to explain the concept behind RPGs to her once. Women: never ask a man to do this if you ever wish to find him sexually attractive again. Men: if a woman brings up a question like this, immediately toss a bright shiny object to distract her. If that doesn’t work, start talking about football until her eyes glaze over and she walks away.

An RPG is a game with no object, no rules, no end, and no way to win or lose. In fact, it stretches the definition of the word ‘game’ to the breaking point, beyond it, and then back again until the definition has wrapped around itself in a mobius strip of logic that leaves you wondering “why the heck are we doing this again?” To anyone unfamiliar with the world, it just looks like guys sitting around talking while checking numerical values in hard cover books or penciled in on sheets of paper. Occasionally, someone will roll some absuredly-sided dice, sometimes consisting of four to eleventy-billion faces.

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Roll 3D20 to see if you suck.

Both the results of these dice rolls and the rules written within the books are somewhat arbitrary, and open to even more arbitrary interpretation by the person running the game. This person (alternately referred to as the “Dungeon Master,” “Game Master,” “Story Teller,” “Keeper of Lore,” and “Only guy willing to spend fifty dollars on a rule book, so he gets to tell us what to do all day,” though sometimes we just call him “Matt.”) Here, for example, is a sample of our exchange:

Dungeon Master: “The tires have been shot out from under your car. Give me a Dexterity roll to see if you get it under control.”
[Player proceeds to toss the worst combination of dice possible]
Player: “Do we all crash and die?”
Dungeon Master: “Nah. Let’s say you all make it out of a horrific crash that totals the car but leaves all with only minor injuries.”

It’s like that. The rules, such as they are, are to give the players something to read while they’re not actively involved in the plot of the game. It also lets everyone pretend that they’re not really just sitting around playing make-believe, but are involved in a legitimate social activity with its own paraphernalia and collectors items. How else is a company supposed to make money off this crap.

In a typical RPG, each player takes on the roll of character in a story. Think of yourself playing Master Chief from Halo or Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, except that instead of playing a little graphic cartoon on a TV screen, the character, like your sex life, is all in your head. You control your little imaginary friend by relaying your commands to the Dungeon Master, who will usually respond with dialogue like “your character crosses the street without incident,” “your character’s attempt to handle a firearm has led him to shoot himself in the foot,” or “I’ve just decided a twenty ton safe has landed on your character, because you ate the last of the Cheetos.”

Of course, the system is open to abuse, particularly when you have a player like myself who likes getting all smart-alecky. For example:

Game Master: “Okay, you’ve chased the villain to the nearest space port. What do you want to do while you’re there? Tony?”
Tony: “I’m going to check with the port authorities and see if I can determine when the villain left, if anyone recalls any information about who was traveling with him, and whether they remembered anything else that might aid us in our quest.”
Game Master: “Great. Jen?”
Jen: “I’m going to spend the down time making sure I’ve healed all the members of our party from our last round of combat.”
Game Master: “Okay, let’s say you accomplish that in short order. Vagabond?”
Vagabond: “I’m getting a Fro-Yo.”
Game Master: “What?”
Vagabond: “It’s a little character trait I’ve decided to give myself. My character will always hit the frozen yogurt stand whenever possible.”
Game Master: “Yeah, fine, whatever. You’re eating Fro-Yo.”
Vagabond: “Wait wait…I want to try to use my Charisma to charm the salesperson into giving me my Fro-Yo for free.”
Game Master: *sigh* “Fine. Give me a Charisma roll.”
Vagabond: “One success, two failures.”
Game Master: “You fail to charm the salesperson and are forced to pay full price for the fro-yo. MOVING ON…”

The fact that all of the action is taking place in your minds instead of on a TV screen, playing board, or a field with short grass and cheerleaders on the sidelines, can lead to some misunderstandings. You might, for example, spend four hours in which your character has been locked in a room, all because you neglected to tell the Game Master that you want to have your character search under the bed for a secret passage. The Game Master neglected to mention the presence of said bed in the room, although he swears up and down that he did, the end result being an entire afternoon in which you did nothing but ask another human being “are you SURE my character doesn’t have a chainsaw on him?” forty seven times.

When we were kids, we knew that playing these antiquated tabletop games with nothing more than pencils, paper, and dice, was horribly inefficient and illogical, that someday, video game systems would have the requisite graphics and processing power to allow all of this to be done by a computer in ways that were far cooler than we could imagine. Games would have complex, mysterious and emotional storylines, or at least would have conclusions more original than “Thank you for saving us, Mario, but our princess is in another castle!” And it all came true.Today, literally tens of millions of virgins, not all of them from South Korea, spend the majority of their waking lives playing in the World of Warcraft. There is no doubt that the games the kids play today are far cooler than any tabletop game I played as a kid.

So why play an inherently complicated game with arbitrary rules when I could enjoy the coldly logical world of Warcraft, where at least there are graphics, where all the boring dice rolling is replaced by random number generated subroutines and the computer takes care of all the silly statistics for you? I mean, if you’re going to be a geek, shouldn’t you want to be a geek with the coolest toy?

I should, feel complete shame at wasting a Sunday playing make believe with other adults. Even World of Warcraft players stare down their noses, their impossibly-rendered, beautifully-pixilated half-elven noses, at us. Book and pencil role playing games are the geekiest of the geeks, the ghetto in a world dominated by the rock star, massively multiplayer online role playing crowd.

But for all that, the old Dungeons and Dragons role playing game is still a human activity. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the oldest human social activity, the one where we all gathered around a campfire to listen to a friend tell stories of heroes who slew dragons. Aside from stand-up comedy and impossibly hipster venues like “The Moth,” these games are the only surviving manifestation of something humans used to do everyday, at the very dawn of time. And unlike an evening at Caroline’s, it only costs me a bag of Cheetos to get in.

Also, there’s Fro-Yo. There’s never enough Fro-Yo in Warcraft.

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