Thursday, February 26th, 2009
A strange group of people sit around a kitchen table, chattering and snacking on chips and Cheetos. They talk about history and rules; bitch about politics and life. One by one, they each place a hand-painted figurine upon the hex-squared map that covers most of the tabletop. Then, as the last miniature is placed, the Game Master begins the arcane ritual. Through the magic woven of words, the group is transported from this mundane living room to a land of terror, trial, and triumph. The Game begins.
So, my fellow Adventurers on this world of Earth – what wisdom can be gained by gaming? I have been a Game Master and player from the dawn (well, technically speaking, the mid-morning) of D&D. I have laughed and loved, cried and raged at the casting of the dice. I learned of love and life from cooperative fantasy role-playing.
So now, I’ll step out from behind the Game Master shield that hides the dice and GM notes (or in my case, the laptop computer screen with the dice rolling program and text editor) to share some of what I’ve learned over the years.
Get a Good Group
D&D requires the willing suspension of disbelief that the two-hundred and twenty pound man is actually a delicate Elf Maiden and that the tiny lead figure on the board is actually a huge, ravenous Wererabbit with nasty, sharp incisors. However, it isn’t just the storytelling ability of the Game Master or the imagination of the players that makes for the best role-playing experiences. It is the dynamics of the group.
The real magic of a Fantasy RPG occurs when everyone in the group is intensely involved in accomplishing a quest. All of the characters are using their skills and wits toward a common goal, and the energy and excitement build with the events in the game. If the group is too small, the energy never develops. If some of the players are cracking jokes or reading the latest Phil Folio cartoon, the energy is dissipated. If you have too many people at the table, everyone is waiting impatiently for their chance to do something in the game, and the energy is charged with frustration.
Everyone in the group must be involved in the story. They all need to have skills to contribute to the whole. That’s why traditionally D&D parties consist of a carefully balanced mix of character types. It means that each player has something different to contribute to the game.
So what does this have to do with real life?
Life is not a solo computer game. You are surrounded by people you need to interact with. If you want to really enjoy the experience of life, you have to find people you care about and do things with. These are your real friends.
Nor do you want only friends who are just like you. The greatest synergy in an RPG comes from everyone having something different to add to the game – the Priest chants a protective spell as the Warrior swings his glowing great sword at the Fiery Demon. The Troll Hunter sends his rhinoceros – named ‘Preposterous’ – charging at the Demon’s minions to bowl them aside (er, well, he would if we were playing the World of Warcraft RPG).
No two people in real life are alike, and yet we all have things in common. Many of my best friends have widely different political views and outlooks on life. We come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. We vehemently disagree on many topics. (Rabid Republicans, devoted Democrats, and leftish Libertarians all playing together at the same table – scary thought!) And yet, we travel for miles and waste hundreds of dollars to get together every once in a while to play a game together.
More than that – we learn from one another. I know more about the “War of Northern Aggression” than I was ever taught in school as the ‘Civil War.’ I have listened to first hand experiences from Vietnam War veterans. I know how hard it was to grow up black, brilliant, and poor in an inner city where everyone else looked down on you because you were smart. My friends are experts on many things I never thought about before.
When we game, we put aside our differences and, through the power of imagination, work as a team to accomplish great deeds. The things we have in common in real life – intelligence, creativity, and the love of the game – make our disagreements irrelevant. What we have in common is more important than how we differ. Yet, because we are so different, the game evolves through interplay of our varied thoughts and opinions. The game goes places none of us could have originally imagined.
Life is that way too… You never know where your road will lead or what you will find there.
Don’t Go it Alone
One of the worst ways to break up a game is to have people go off in separate directions doing their own thing. There was the time long, long ago when Corey and I were dual GMing a marathon Halloween Night dungeon using the original “Ravenloft” module by Tracy Hickman. We had eight players at the table. One of them was someone we had met recently when we ran a tournament game at a convention and awarded him the grand prize for role-playing.
Ravenloft is a moody, Gothic horror game set in a place much like Mordavia in Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness. (Coincidence? I think not.) I was dressed as the Gypsy Fortuneteller who guides the player characters into the game. The table was lit by candlelight. The characters were all trapped in this land of mists and shadows. The only way to escape it was to first defeat Strahd von Zarovich, the Vampire Lord.
The players were all experienced RPGers and the party soon entered the darkened castle of the Vampire. That’s when the newcomer decided that his Half-Orc rogue wanted to do some scouting all by himself.
Bad adventuring decision. Even though we tried to discourage him, he insisted that his character would do just that. Still, the GM’s aren’t there to force players to act a certain way. We just set the scene and tell players the results of their actions – wise and unwise both. So Corey and I took him aside in a different room and played it out.
The lone rogue soon got caught by the Vampire. He was charmed and then dressed in an illusion of Strahd and ordered to sleep in the Vampire’s coffin. As a result, the rest of the party murdered the Half-Orc thinking that he was Strahd, while the real villain got away. They only learned of their mistake after the game was over.
We can Make it Together
The moral of that sad story is that no one should go wandering through the dark unknown by themselves. While you seldom run up against Evil Undead Overlords in the average city (Los Angeles being a notable exception), you will sometimes find yourself caught up in events that are unpleasant and could have equally dire consequences. You need someone at your side.
Corey and I met when he ran a D&D game at a WesterCon Science Fiction Convention. We’ve been together ever since. We work together, play together, and sleep together at night. We also have our occasional arguments and disagreements. (It’s Wednesday –where’s the blog? Um… I… er… the werewolf ate it?) We’ve been through the Sisyphean Nightmare of working 12 hour days for Game Companies who then released our precious creations still riddled with bugs. We have been through periods of time with no work, little money, and no work potential. We’ve also shared the best moments of our lives in the birth of our son, the release of Hero’s Quest, and the creation of the School for Heroes.
The important point is that we do things together. We seldom go off adventuring alone when it comes to important things. We talk to one another and let each other know our deepest feelings.
So when you find the person who is your perfect complement – do what you can to make that relationship last. Treasure the personality traits you share, and value the differences. Be a team rather than a boss and employee. Do things together that you both love. The bonds formed by shared happiness can last a lifetime.
The Play’s the Thing
Clearly, the shared experiences are the best experiences. When our oddball playing group comes to the climax of an exciting adventure, we all feel empowered and thrilled by what we have done. Likewise, going out to a movie together and sharing a meal and discussion afterwards can be a great time. (The movie doesn’t even have to be a good one – we spent hours mocking the inconsistencies and bad science of Jurassic Park.) These shared times make life richer and more fun.
Bruised, battered, and beaten, the last adventurers stand before the dark altar. Most of her acolytes and the rest of the party lie dying on the cold marble floor. As the High Priestess of the Spider Goddess Lolth begins her final incantation, the Mage and Cleric look at each other grimly, and cast their last remaining spells.
The ceiling above the Priestess softens into mud in response to the mage’s arcane gestures. The High Priestess laughs exultantly, knowing that pitiful spell cannot stop her ritual. She has won!
Or has she? The Cleric completes his incantation – Dispel Magic – and the mud hardens into rock once again. Encased in stone, the High Priestess – and her smile – are frozen forever, her ritual stopped. The party has triumphed where any one individual would have failed.
So if you want to have a life that is full of adventure and great times, find some good friends and do what you can to stay together. Our gaming group is scattered for miles across several states, and sometimes years pass between games with our friends. However, we have all been friends through the decades and still enjoy playing together.
With friends like these, the fun will last a lifetime.