Here at Coaching for Geeks, our tagline is “Turning geeks into superheroes.”
Of all the geeky pastimes out there, probably the most geeky is the hobby of tabletop roleplaying games. From the publishing of the first and most venerable RPG rule set, Dungeons & Dragons, in the seventies to the recent explosion of live-streamed and podcasted sessions of games online, we geeks have been gathering around kitchen tables to go on adventures with our tabletop roleplaying game friends for over forty years now.
Roleplaying games offer one of the most powerful ways for geeks to become superheroes: Creating larger-than-life alter egos who head off on adventures, taking on impossible challenges and battling incredible opponents.
Yet with any great power comes great responsibility, and whether by accident or good intent, it can be quite easy to mis-use your geeky powers to cause your fellow gamers misery and woe. Here, I’ll talk about two dark paths that you could be treading unawares – and what (or rather who) to keep in mind so that you can stay on the road to superheroics.
Obsessing Over Books and Paraphernalia
We geeks into tabletop roleplaying games love our books and our character sheets, our miniatures, our maps and our dice (most especially our dice). Who wouldn’t? When done well, they’re almost works of art in themselves. (How many of you folks would be happy to leave a copy of, say, Tales From The Loop on your coffee table?)
As such, it’s tempting to look at books and paraphernalia as being what RPGs are really all about. I myself have had two or three bookshelves dedicated to RPG stuff. For a while, Cyberpunk 184.108.40.206., Jovian Chronicles, Heavy Gear and West End Games’ Star Wars were my biggest wallet-drainers (I do sometimes miss having a shelf dominated by the back-and-yellow striping of the Heavy Gear books). My crush? Big Books. Thick, weighty tomes of roleplaying game fodder, even for systems I wasn’t into (like that huge Beyond The Mountains Of Madness adventure, and I wasn’t much into Call of Cthulhu). Right now I’m eyeing off Star Wars: Force and Destiny on my FLGS’ shelf.
Then there are the accessories. Vinyl mats that you can draw maps on. Pre-made maps. Miniature figures. And let’s not get started on all those wonderful dice: jewelled ones, metal ones, ones that look like sea mines.
But that way lies a villain’s doom; while buying RPG product keeps the industry going, obsessing over books and accessories it could end in nothing but an empty wallet and a hankering to hold off on organising a game until the next batch of supplements come out, just in case there’s some cool new feature your players will be clamouring for, or until you can buy and paint the miniature that represents the adventure’s monster / Big Villain.
Losing Yourself in Rules and Visions of the World
There’s another side to having tons of books on your shelves.
Some of the biggest RPGs out there contain fantastic worlds with big themes and memorable characters presented in evocative text and glorious art. Dungeons & Dragons, the big kahuna of the scene, has had several over the years, from Greyhawk, Dragaonlance and the Forgotten Realms to Eberron. (And who could forget Ravenloft and its ruling vampire, Count Strahd von Zarovich?) Then there’s the Third Imperium of Traveller, the decaying 1920s of Call of Cthulhu, the dark fantasy-cyberpunk future of Shadowrun and the sixty-second century of Heavy Gear, on top of licensed settings like Star Wars, Star Trek and The Dresden Files.
And then there all those fantastic rule systems in tabletop roleplaying games. Races, skills, rolls to hit, damage dice, hit points, equipment lists, spells, starships, mechs from powered armour to earthshakers as tall as buildings.
The problem with these is that we geeks, who tend toward the obsessive, can get lost in the visions these worlds inspire and the wonderful interlockingness of those rules.
We fall in love with the nations, the landscapes, the NPCs and monsters, the often glorious toys (whether Stormbringer or a Yamaha Rapier), and while we anticipate the opportunity for our players to encounter these things through their characters, we dread the possibility of them changing them (and if the RPG is based on an existing fiction we already love, it can be even worse). [Dork Tower: “I kill Gandalf.”] This sort of obsession can lead to the ultimate villain move: The game master tying the player characters down to a railroad and running them over with the train of your precious story.
When it comes to the rules that govern those interactions, there’s the fear that we’ll forget something, get something wrong, upset a carefully crafted balance between challenge and risk that winds up favouring one player over the rest (or, worse, causes the dreaded Tee Pee Kay). We all know that lawyers are some of the worst villains out there, and of RPGs this is no less true; at the end of the dark path of rule obsession is the dreaded fate of the Rules Lawyer, a creature who leeches all the fun out of the tabletop roleplaying game hobby and renders sessions down to page-flipping and red-faced arguments.
What’s for Superheroes? The people at the table.
It is so easy to think of an RPG as being the above things. After all, when you talk about Monopoly, what often leaps to mind is the board, the fake money, the houses and hotels and, of course, the cute playing pieces.
But while owning rulebooks and dice means that you technically own a game, we sometimes forget that a game is only a game when it’s being played. To do that, you need other people. And that’s where you get to be a superhero.
See, what marks a superhero isn’t just the exceptional skills and powers they wield. It’s the people they wield them in service of, the folks whose day they save. Then there’s the knock on effect that someone using their extraordinary talents to help people they most likely don’t even know can have on a community.
Game masters – the hosts, masters of ceremony, adventure-sparkers, rule moderators and multiple-character-actors – get a handful of folks together to kick-start their imaginations with the superpower of our own, then use the rules of the game to help everyone get their part in the story of adventure they’re all telling.
The rest of the players get to riff on that act of imagination by creating alter-egos of their own who answer the game master’s call to adventure, allowing the players to get to be the heroes of their own story.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that; to see people as one of the necessary pieces of equipment that makes Our Game come to life. (I wonder if there’s something of that at the root of the toxicity in online video gaming – but if so, it’s a topic for another article.)
But a roleplaying game really hits peak enjoyment is when everyone respects everyone else around the gaming table, whether old friends or folks who only just met, and plays to and with them.
If you don’t use a rule right or slip into a moment of obsession over your precious imaginary world? Well, guess what? Superheroes are at their best when they’re only human, when despite their powers, the best call they can make under pressure turns out to be wrong.
You’re going to forget details, play a character differently from what you’d imagined, flub a rule. Because what really makes a superhero is when they make mistakes and keep going anyway. If your tablemates know you stuffed up, they will forgive you the mistake.
Be a Superhero. Get your friends together and play a tabletop roleplaying game.
The technology of the modern day has made it a lot easier to get together with fellow RPG hobbyists, even if you’re geographically challenged. I live in the tropical North of Australia, several hundred kilometres from a major city, and I’ve been running games for folks in the UK, US and Canada since last year (and even turned a few of those sessions into a podcast).
Sure, you may not find the right mix of folks at first; just because you’re all gamers, it doesn’t mean you’ll get along with everyone. But keep at it, even if it means trying games that you’re not sure you’ll like.
When it comes down to it, books and rulesets, dice and fantastic worlds are all secondary to what tabletop roleplaying games are really all about: saving the day of the people you’re playing with from the real villains: Boredom, Dullness and Drudgery.
And who knows? Maybe focusing on your people and sharing play with them will lead to you spending less on books and dice!
Rob Farquhar – saving the day of the people he plays with, one game at a time