Friday, 16 July 2004

To Play Is the Thing: Role Playing Games

In my youth I played a good number of role playing games. A role playing game is a game in which the players create fictional characters, each with their own histories, personalities, and motivations distinct from their own. Another individual, the game master (GM for short), controls the imaginary enviroment in which the player characters exist (anything from a Tolkienesque fantasy world to World War II Europe), from playing non-player characters (NPCs) to creating the settings for adventures. The game master also acts as referee for the game. I suppose a simpler way of defining role playing games is that they are like improvisational dramas with rules. In many ways they are simply modern, adult variations on the old children's games of "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and Indians."

Of course, the most famous role playing game is Dungeons and Dragons. It was also the first. Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D for short, has its roots in a medieval wargame called Chainmail. First published in the late Sixties, Chainmail gradually developed the characteristics of a role playing game, such as scenarios in which a greater emphasis was placed on the heroics of individual characters than troop maneouvres. Further moving Chainmail away from the realm of wargames and into the realm of role playing games was the additon of a fantasy supplement to the rules in 1971 (including rules on magic). By that time David Arneson and Gary Gygax and others at TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) actively began developing what would become Dungeons and Dragons. It was eventually published in 1974 and it took the wargaming world by storm. Other role playing games, such as Game Designer's Workshop's sci-fi game Traveller, appeared almost immediately. The success of Dungeons and Dragons led TSR to revise and expand the rules, resulting in the publication of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D for short). AD&D proved even more sucessful than the original D&;D.

It was about this time that I discovered AD&D. In 1981 my brother went off to college. When he returned on Thanksgiving break, he introduced me to the game. It was not long before we had our own group of players. It was also not long before we started playing other games: Boot Hill, Traveller, Daredevils, Call of Cthulu, Rolemaster, Champions, and others. In fact, we would eventually abandon AD&D. I GMed a Daredevils campaign that lasted 10 years myself, as well as long running Rolemaster and Boot Hill campaigns.

It seems to me that we were not unique in taking up role playing games as a hobby. In the early Eighties, AD&D and other role playing games became a bit of a fad. I have no statistics to back this up, but I suspect that 1984 may have been the peak of the role playing fad. I seem to remember more new games coming out at that time than any other. Of course, it seems that most new pastimes pick up more than their fair share of detractors and role playing games were no different. In 1984 Jack Chick started publishing his notorious tracts preaching the "evils" of role plaing games; among his claims was that they teach kids to use "real magic (which is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds...)." Another detractor was Pat Pulling, who claimed that her son had committed suicide because a "curse" had been placed on him n a D&D game. She founded a group called Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons (B.A.D.D. for short). Like Tom Chick, her claims regarding role playing games were wildly inaccurate and spurious at best. In 1990 her career ended when sci-fi writer and game designer Michael A. Stackpole published a long and detailed essay called The Pulling Report, which debunked all of her claims regarding role playing games.

As a role player myself at the time, I have to admit that I was infuriated by role playing games' detractors. I still am. Role playing games do not teach children "real magic." Role playing games do not lead people down the primrose path of devil worship. Role playing games do not lead to a life of crime. In the nearly 20 years that I role played, I have not seen anyone destroyed because they role played. Indeed, of the people I have role played with, one became a police officer, one became an osteopath, one became an archaeologist, one became a writer (myself)... You get the picture. They are all well adjusted individuals with respectable careers and most of them have families of their own. I suppose that taken to the extreme, role playing games could be a bad thing. Certainly, an individual who gets so caught up in the fantasy of role playing games that he or she lets his or her responsibilities in real life slide would not have a happy life. But then this holds true of anything, whether it is golf, watching movies, or playing mahjong.

As the Eighties passed, the role playing game fad gradually faded and the games went with it. Many role playing publishers went out of business as fewer and fewer people played the games. White Wolf re-energised the field when they introduced Vampire: the Masquerade, although I am not certain that role playing games have ever been as popular as they were in the Eighties. No doubt, the introduction of video games, computer games, and such MMORPGS (Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs--role playing games played online) as Everquest, played a role in the decline.

At any rate, I enjoyed my time spent role playing and I am none the worse for wear. I have some very fond memories of playing AD&D, Daredevils, Champions, Vampire: the Dark Ages and other games. I think role playing games helped strengthen my imagination, improved my ablity to develop plots, and improved my ablity to develop characters. I do think that they made me a better writer. Even though I don't role play any more, I don't regret one minute I spent on role plaing games.

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