The RPG Book Club

Few games carry a stigma like role playing games. You tell people that you play chess and they think that you’re an intellectual. You tell them you play role playing games and they assume you’re a socially awkward Satanist. At least, that’s been my experience.

I started playing role playing games in the 1980’s during the height of the anti-RPG fervor. Everyone from tele-evangelists like Pat Robertson to made-for-TV movies starring a very young Tom Hanks cast the hobby in a terrible light. Seriously, if you’ve never seen Hanks in Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, find it and watch it. Not only does it dramatize the public’s misperception of Dungeons & Dragons (which was inspired by a misinterpretation of real events), but the production is cheesier than a warehouse full of cheddar.

I simply don’t get it. Getting together to play an RPG is almost identical to attending a book club. The primary difference is that book clubs gather to discuss the latest chapter, and role players gather to write it.

The plot and setting in a role playing game comes from an “adventure” or “module”. Modules are set in a particular game world and describe an event of great importance. Like a fine novel, these events will test the characters’ strength, wisdom and will.

Take Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, Heart of Darkness for example. Not only is this a great read and a completely respectable book club choice, but this book would make a fantastic Dungeons and Dragons adventure. (Hey, if Francis Ford Coppola can move the story to Vietnam and re-title it “Apocalypse Now”, I can place it in a fantasy setting.) The adventure could go something like this:

Your small band of adventurers has been called to the palace for an audience with the king. You learn that without the king’s blessing the captain of the guard – a man named Kurtz – has taken over a village just across the border of the neighboring kingdom. The king cannot send in his army for fear of sparking a war between the kingdoms, so he needs to send in a team of mercenaries – in other words, you – to travel to the village by passing through increasingly more dangerous lands and bring Kurtz back. Dead or alive.

Now that I write that, I realize that would make a seriously cool premise. I wonder if anyone has used it as of yet…

In the old days you could buy any number of pre-written adventures. While you can still occasionally find them, these days many companies rely on the Game Master – the player who serves as the story’s narrator – to create the adventure themselves. The quality of the story telling varies on the strength of the GM, but that’s no different than novels varying in quality based on the author.

Once the setting is determined, characters are added. Role playing games contain two different kinds of characters – players and non-player characters (NPCs). The players take on the lead roles. They are the change makers. The adventure’s success or failure is entirely up to them.

Each player has unique strengths, abilities and weaknesses which is noted on their character sheet. All of these characteristics – strength and weakness – are equally important. Smart gamers don’t ignore their character’s weaknesses. Nothing is more boring than an invincible character. Take Superman for example. Originally his only weakness was kryptonite. The writers painted themselves into a corner with this limitation. Suddenly every mook robbing a bank had to have a hunk of kryptonite or Supes would just sweep in and fly them off to jail. Eventually lightning, magic, high pitched frequencies and others were added to Superman’s weakness list, but it still isn’t enough for me. This is why I believe Batman will always be a more interesting character. Batman has human weaknesses. Batman bleeds.

The rest of the world is populated by NPCs, which are played by the GM. These characters run the gambit from barkeep to the big bad antagonist and their henchmen. Just as a talented author will give their background characters life through a backstory or believable motivations, the GM can make a living and breathing world through these characters. The best GMs create multiple adventures in the same setting that reuse the same NPCs. Over a series of adventures, the players will become familiar with these characters and suddenly this fictional fantasy world gains a sense of permanence.

Ok, so you have the setting and characters, what’s with the funny shaped dice? No book club needs funny shaped dice. True. But as I stated above, nothing is more boring than an invincible character. Rolling dice to determine the results of an action adds a layer of chance to the game. This allows even the best player/character to experience failure now and again. Without the dice – without this opportunity for failure – playing an RPG would only be a storytelling exercise. For me, dice takes it from being a predictable narrative to an exciting experience. It makes it a game.

As far as the dice shapes go, different situations require different ratios for success. You wouldn’t want to roll a single 6-sided die for a weapon that does a maximum of 8 points of damage. It’s faster, simpler, and just makes more sense to roll an 8-sider and keep the game moving forward.

Dice, guides, modules… RPGs sound so involved. And they can be, especially if you’re really into them. But while role playing games take effort and commitment, so does reading. And just like the book club, if you miss a week and you skip a chapter, it will take time to get back up to speed. But if you do your part and continue the story week after week, you will be rewarded with deeper insight of the adventure on the page – or in your imagination.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved