Left of Arc #4 – Role playing games

This is probably my fourth attempt to write about RPGs. I’ve been trying to find the best way to get across how I feel about RPGs, and to be fair.

So some months ago I was invited by a friend to join in with a Dungeons and Dragons game in setting he had created. The aim being just to meet up, have a laugh and throw dice. Sounds simple enough. I was initially hesitant at joining the group, but it was my old gaming buddies and I didn’t want to miss out. That and I hadn’t thrown any dice for soooo long.

The first few scenarios in my friend’s campaign were fun and interesting. Most of us were just going with the flow and enjoying the different gaming experience. The biggest difference for me was trying to get into, and “act”, the character I was playing.

Even though it was probably self-imposed, there did feel like there was an expectation to properly get into the game and role-play; who could role-playing the best became a bit of thing. Possibly controversially, I think I lay some of the blame for that with the Critical Roll series of streams. Critical Roll are a cast of very talented voice actors, and so are use to playing a character and it very well! Most of my group had watched nearly, if not all, the episodes (of which I think there are several hundred) each lasting 3-4 hours. I don’t have that sort of free time, nor inclination to sit through all of that, so I have only watched one or two episodes and a few highlight reels/funny compilations. I sort of got the sense that perhaps we were trying to recreate Critical Roll’s success, which was a pressure I didn’t want – again probably self-imposed stress. Still I pressed on, content to play the game in my own way so long as it didn’t impact the group.

So I tried a few ways of “acting” my character as the group became more engrossed in the world of DnD, all of which felt uncomfortable and alien. Our group chat quickly became about the latest fully painted model that would be our next opponent, or fancy dice recently purchased for the game, or the glossy looking players handbook sat in front of someone… and I’m looking around and wondering why am I feeling adverse to all of this clearly positive energy about the group?! What’s wrong with me??

I even started to somewhat dread going to the next session for fearing that my pleasant façade will fail and a grimace be taken the wrong way. My old gaming buddies had largely moved on from their tabletop (TT) days, it seemed, and were now RPGers. This is the impression I got, but it’s not wholly true; my friends still occasionally play a TT game, for example. I simply couldn’t figure out the strong, and rapid, appeal of RPG’s.

Despite the negativity I feel, I still shelled out £20+ and spent many hours of sculpting and painting a model for my DnD character, so I must be enjoying it. In DnD, the combat is fun once you finally land a blow, which can be tricky, and the last session I attended (I unfortunately missed one since then) my character’s cold resistance gave me the upper hand in fighting some sort of ice dragon/beast/thing. Even the sitting around in an inn and moving the story forward with dialogue can pique my interest. But I’m just not buying into the DnD hype. And it seems to be a growing thing among the long-term community.

Perhaps it’s just because of my aversion to fantasy settings, especially the like of DnD and so on. For some reason it just doesn’t click in my head. Possibly because I can’t relate it to anything. Although fantasy settings such as Game of Thrones I can, despite, ya’know, dragons. I guess with that type of fantasy there are no wild and wacky species and it’s about humans, with very human traits, dealing with other humans – so essentially the intrigue factor is what hooks me. Sci-fi is much easier for me to work with because I think I can trace a line (or two) as to how that world might come to happen. 

But despite all of this apparent negativity, I find myself looking at other RPG rulebooks and being extremely tempted to buy them. All of them sci-fi of course, but them being: Elite: Dangerous, Star Trek: Adventures, and A Time of War (the battletech RPG).

Elite: Dangerous, for the none computer gamers or for those that didn’t grow up in the early 90’s, is the latest in a line of open-galaxy space-faring game play where you pilot a small ship and do what ever the hell you want. The latest PC game is fantastic and the RPG book has me tempted simply because the game is great. But, and it’s a big “but”, it’s an open game with very little actually happening. There’s very little politic intrigue, alien super-threat, dark mystery, or what ever. So there’s very little I feel I could actually draw upon and make interesting campaigns out of. Some Game Masters (GM) would disagree as that’s the sort of open world where their imagination can run riot, and great for them. Perhaps I’m not particularly imaginative…

Star Trek Adventures is not a recent find as I’m a massive Trekkie at heart, having grown up with pretty much all the series and films (Kirk is my favourite in case you’re wondering, followed very very closely by Sisko), and I have kept an eye on this book for some time. Now middle-aged, I have periods of craving a healthy dose of Trek. With a recent bout of craving, I’ve been looking at Star Trek Adventures squarely in the eye and wondering “what if?”. I even got the free starters pack to get a feeling of the game before committing. Why simply not commit? Possibly because I don’t think I’d know what to do with it! There is so much background, history and character to draw upon, that I would be spoilt for choice in coming up with a campaign or random session. But is the beauty of Trek not in the moral and ideological discovery and development that permeates the show? How do you emulate that in a non-cheesey fashion? After all, Capt. Picard very calmly orders his senior officers into the conference room to “have a chat” after just being threatened by the Borg. No Jean-Luc, only because it’s Star Trek do you have time to fanny around chatting with Guinan who will tell you, and already has told you, to get the hell outta there! Bloody do something already! ahem… So would players be happy with less frequent action? My group probably wouldn’t. I also don’t know if I could do Trek’s technobabble any justice, nor do I believe that my group could confidently spout technobabble on demand, decent or otherwise…

And as for A Time of War, well it’s Battletech isn’t it? And you may have guessed at my sheer love for all things Battletech by now. However, whilst I would have no problem coming up with scenarios and campaigns, it’s kinda niche and bloody old. The rules sound a little too clunky when compared to modern RPGs, and the Battletech developers are focused on expanding and improving their TT range. That and A Time of War is about characters who are out of the  battlemech cockpit, although it’s not impossible to figure a way around that. But in a world that’s all about battlemech combat… it seems like it could be difficult to introduce Battletech virgins to A Time of War.

So as I type I realise that I think I would prefer to GM as opposed to being one of the players, not that I think I have any confidence to pull it off or do the role justice. But I think I would enjoy helping the players to move the story along, to develop their characters, and to create for them what could be their greatest achievements and biggest downfalls. Enjoying the story that they ultimately end up writing, because as any DM/GM will tell you, the players will go in directions you simply didn’t expect nor plan for!

I also wouldn’t want to run another RPG and take away from my friend’s DnD story, as he’s spent years working on it. Indeed what we’re playing is background to a book he’s writing.

I also realise that a lot of my negativity is actually a little bit of snobbery. There does seem to be a separation between TT, RPG and board gamers that borders on infection control. Or at least that’s what I’ve experienced in the clubs I go to. I remember one RPG that downed tools and simply looked at me as I approached them to see what they were doing; it was an awkward few moments. But equally when playing a TT game with a friend we would look down on the nerdy RPG group sat in the corner being raucous and loud, suddenly disturbing the whole room, and it was a big room.

So perhaps TT and RPGers need to intermingle more. Certainly in the clubs I’ve been to. Board gamers seem to be more welcoming, probably because board games are more enjoyable with the maximum number of players… even if they sometimes don’t have enough pieces!

What does all of this rambling mean? Not a clue if I’m honest. Will I continue playing in my groups DnD game when I move closer to my old and very active club? Probably. I’m intrigued as to where the story will go and I feel an odd loyalty to help my friend bring his story to life. It does mean I’ll have to put up with “nerdy” DnD fanboy talk and showcases, but it’s with friends and it’s a positive thing. After all, I remember an old Sergeant of mine telling me to “embrace the inner geek”, and he was an avid wargamer.

Yes, I realise there is a difference between geek and nerd. It’s a old source of banter in my household as to which one am I…

There’s problem more I could talk about but I think I’ve subjected you to enough text-wall in this post!

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