I was indulging in some serious spring cleaning over the weekend, including sorting through the contents of my “important stuff” box. In there I found, to my surprise, this tube of polyhedral dice. They’re cool dice: nice design, and I particularly like the way it includes two D10’s in different yet complementary colours, one printed with 0-9 and the other with 00-90 so you never need get confused about those D100 rolls ever again. The tube is also sealed: those dice have never been rolled in anger. Finding them I was torn between pleasure at a rediscovering a small, forgotten nerd treasure and sadness at what they represent.
The fact they were in my “important stuff” box gives you a clue as to how I felt about them when I put them away. Only *really* important stuff goes in that box. My birth certificate, passport, driving license and university certificates are in there. So are a selection of cards and postcards from close friends and family members, some deceased, a carriage clock my grandfather made by hand from scratch and a personal letter from my idol, David Attenborough. Clearly those dice had a significant meaning for me when I put them into storage. And the meaning is simple - it was a set of dice that I’d purchase for use in an AD&D campaign that never happened, and it turns out that planning that campaign was the last role-playing I ever did, putting a lid on the genre that turned me on to hobby gaming, and dominated my life for over a decade.
I was originally inspired to re-activate my interest in RPGs after a dormant few years in which Magic: the Gathering took over by the release of some of the silver anniversary products and WotC making some older material available for download. I grabbed a copy of the original Dragonlance campaign modules but didn’t end up planning to use them. I’d had bad experiences trying to run Dragonlance in the past and the problems with the railroading and story-driven nature of those modules are well documented. Instead I did my favourite trick when planning a campaign: I chose a vague, overarching theme and story arc and found modules and scenarios from magazines that could be tweaked to fit. In this case I fancied doing some horror-style gaming and formed a sequence of adventures, the centerpiece of which was the Mere of Dead Men series from Dragon magazine. And after that, my enthusiasm for the project flat-lined and I was sad enough to put those special dice away in that special box. A few moths afterwards I gave away my entire collection of AD&D material to someone I worked with who still played, and gave myself entirely to miniatures and board games.
The reason was simple. I was sick of the unfulfilled promises that RPGs hold out to gamers, few of whom will ever see the level of excitement, realism, imagination and interaction that RPGs are supposed to provide.
Let’s make something clear before we go any further. The problem here is not with the games themselves, or the people who design and publish them. The problem is with the players. Or more specifically the problem is that very few of the people who play RPGs have the skills necessary to make the most of the medium. We all know that gaming attracts geeks, and that geeks tend to lack somewhat in social skills. And yet social skills are the absolute cornerstone of what an RPG should be all about. It requires the players to immerse themselves totally in another character, another person, a feat that only trained actors regularly attempt and even they sometimes fail and that’s without the additional burden of the character being in a fantastical time and space with physical and social laws totally different to the ones we learn in the present day. The job is arguably even more arduous for the games master since they also have to convincingly take on the character of everyone the players interact with, and at the same time present the skills of a master storyteller, weaving together plots and sub-plots into a dynamic and compelling narrative but without the benefit of being able to controls the actions and choices of the major protagonists! And the problem is even more acute because having just one person in an RPG group that lacks these sorts of skills can result in the sort of pedestrian, humdrum experience that was the mainstay of my RPG history.
I include myself unhesitatingly amongst the vast majority of gamers who can’t measure up to these high standards. I didn’t act as a player that often and when I did, I only paid lip service to the character templates I started out with. As a GM I perhaps did a little better, but as I made clear earlier on I never wrote my own material, preferring instead of tweak pre-publish adventures and modules to my own ends and only managing to do convincing NPC portrayals for the most important recurring characters in the story. On both counts I lacked severely in imagination, falling back time and time again on well-worn fantasy and sci-fi tropes. Yet it’s clear from articles I’ve read over the years that for a tiny, tiny minority of people - often the selfsame people that write and publish the games - everything comes together and it all works. Characters make proper, compelling decisions in tune with their personalities. Games masters create convincing worlds from scratch and put the players through genuinely original narratives. The group as a whole confronts and works through interesting social situations that, in spite of being imaginary, bring up and explore genuinely important and emotive issues of morality and politics. But for most of us, that’s a pipe-dream. For most of us, all it is is number-crunching, treasure acquiring and imagining ourselves as our favourite characters from our favourite two-dimensional pulp fantasy stories.
When I was a teenager I played in and ran far too many of those two-dimensional campaigns. I put up with it because I didn’t know any better. I kept believing that the sort of real characterisation that I was reading about would emerge spontaneously with practice and without any real effort. After a few years, one of the guys I used to play with kept coming up with more imaginative and often very funny character templates. I particularly remember a halfling priest who worshipped the god of food and regarded it as a holy rite that everyone in the party eat three square meals a day, and would go out of their way even in the most difficult or unlikely situations to ensure that this happened, in spite of the delays and dangers that activities such as searching for fresh cooking ingredients in the depths of the underdark would entail. A far cry from the level of realism that the magazines promised but still that was, bizarrely, the first nail in the coffin of my love of RPGs although I didn’t see it at the time. I just remember being a little frustrated because the other players - and me in particular - just couldn’t seem to match his imagination.
At university I had the time to get myself involved in a number of different gaming groups. In a couple I was a player and they followed the same two-dimensional routine as all the other games. But one, in which I was a GM, was different. Nothing to do with my skill in running the game though. Instead, to start with, we simply hit it off as a group and enjoyed spending time together, downing beers and rolling joints (both things that most RPG groups would frown upon) and keeping on playing until we just couldn’t think straight anymore whereupon we’d just chat and laugh late into the night. And the group began to develop its own narrative, with an “evil” faction and a “good” faction who came to loggerheads more and more frequently as the campaign progressed. Eventually the rivalry between the two groups became the focus of the campaign and I was doing little more than providing a backdrop against which the players could scheme against one another. The game virtually ran itself. And it was fantastic: everyone had a wonderful time. University being what it is we eventually had to go our separate ways and, flushed with success, I gathered a few local players and started again but I couldn’t re-capture that magic. It was back to the same old two-dimensional campaign with a bunch of nerds who played cookie-cutter characters and took place in a filthy house lined from floor to ceiling with Star Trek videos. I cut that short after only a few weeks and didn’t think about gaming again for several years. And when I did I got suckered in by that same promise of complex, emergent social gameplay and adventures beyond my wildest imagination, did the planning and then, only then, reflected on my experiences over years of gaming and decided to give it up for good.
I’ve toyed with it again on occasion. In particular I got briefly enthused by the idea of running some Vampire; the Masquerade after my girlfriend expressed a vague interest. But I was put off by my inability to write anything more detailed than a basic story arc and the manner in which the published material consisted almost entirely of stupidly detailed background material and virtually no adventures, exactly the opposite of what I wanted. I’d always hated the way in which RPG settings had to expand endlessly into new detail and then, eventually, find some way to reboot, all in the name of selling more copies of rulebooks and source-books and that, in retrospect, is another reason why I gave them up. A board game offers me a level of stability that an RPG never can - you might get the odd expansion but they’re rarely required to enjoy the game properly and I still find myself treating expansions with undeserved suspicion.
And ultimately I suppose they also allow me to get some of my fantasy fix because their more tightly structured rules and narrative deliver story-like adventures in a much more reliable manner than their looser role-playing counterparts. What you loose in richness, you gain in reliability. But I wonder if that long-lost desire for something so vast, something so open-ended, something so genuinely social and immerse that I originally hoped RPGs would deliver when I first delved into them isn’t in some way behind my legendary dislike of so many adventure-styled board games which can never quite measure up to what I’m looking for. Perhaps nothing can ever fill that void.