The year was 1983. I was either still seven or just turned eight. Due to the age difference between myself and my siblings, it was rare for us to really interact. Before my sister passed away, I was eleven years younger than my next closest sibling. My half-brother RealDoc and his sisters came to visit us during the summer and during some holidays, so the last thing they wanted to do in the middle of the Midwest was hang out with a little kid.
But sometimes they did.
RealDoc asked me if I wanted to play a game. Up until this point our playtime together was usually transforming a cardbox box into a spaceship control panel. He was impossibly grownup to me at the time, although now that I’m typing this out he couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. But it was a huge deal when he wanted to hang out with me.
“I’d like to play a game,” I replied, wondering if we were going to play Soldiers or maybe a card game like War. Maybe even Atari. Hell yeah. Digdug.
Instead he pulled a flat red box from his bag. There was a huge red dragon on the front. A single man stood in front of it. He was armed only with a sword and a shield, half clad in armor, and a large horned helmet.
“What kind of game is this?” I asked.
He lifted the lid, and it was like a light went on in my mind.
I was equipped with a rusty longsword, a family heirloom long neglected. I think I had a sack. No armor, no mount, hell I think my total net worth starting out was less than a gold piece. Armed with a crappy weapon and a handful of oddly shaped dice, I set out for the Keep on the Borderlands.
The rest is history.
This game sparked years’ worth of fun and collaborative storytelling.
All for one and one for all … unless you’re playing with a chaotic evil thief
Collaborative storytelling is my favorite part. You may be able to spin great yarns in your mind, but truly epic stories emerge when you put four to eight people in a room and shake them all together. The mix of backgrounds, expectations, fears and desires meld together into something that is absolutely unique and very often times hilarious.
It was eye-opening for all of the players to approach the same situation but come up with varying interpretations and strategies.
Game master: “You walk into the wizard’s chambers. There is a huge rug on the floor, leading up to an ornate bed with a chest in front of it. What do you do?”
DrFaulken: “I want whatever’s in that chest. I walk towards the bed.”
Game master: “Great. You fall through the rug into a pit trap (everyone else laughs). Roll a reflex saving throw or take 1d10 damage. What does everyone else do?”
Four other players, five different answers. I’m still in the pit, of course. Rarely does a single player have the best idea. Usually the plan is built from a little piece of each player’s mind, and in the end it doesn’t matter if it succeeds or fails. What’s awesome is that everyone (usually) works together. I thought the collaboration was just for melting kobolds into a pile of goo or retrieving the last holy relic of a forgotten civiliation. But it works in Meatspace, too.
Last week at work we were cruising along on a project. Everyone was working together, everything was ahead of schedule. Until we discovered that the computer system that we need to connect to is about as modern as a manual typewriter. I fell in a pit trap. “What does everyone else do?” our project manager said. Eight different ideas, one combined solution. We made our saving throw, so to speak, and the project continued on.
At least three out of eight of my team members are / were role playing gamers, so I wonder if that had something to do with it, or if humans just feel an innate satisfaction from working together to overcome a screwed up situation.
The time machine
I have the benefit of being able to play with a new group here in Minnesota, including my pals Ajar, ElJay, Domoarigato MrRoberto, and Sedagive?
The unique thing about this group is that Sedagive’s older son Gojira is also playing.
For the very first time.
I’ve said it before, and it is obvious to those of you who have them, but having kids around is like having a time machine. I was sitting at the table during a a one-shot “warm up” session, and it dawned on me that we just “opened the red box” for this incredibly bright, imaginative young man. Here we were, silently, perhaps subconsciously, welcoming him into a larger world of collaborative storytelling.
It reminded me of playing with The Captain™ and his family when I lived in Virginia. I literally saw their son grow up at the table playing D&D. He was twelve when our campaign began, and almost fifteen when I could no longer regularly participate due to my commute from Richmond to Washington, DC.
Observe my life’s camera zoom farther out. I am sixteen. Instead of scheming for a way to get beer or start trouble, my friends came to my house to play Robotech. I remember the shared nervousness as I ran my friends through a hopeless, kamikaze campaign again the Zentradi forces. A shriek of triumph as they did the impossible, and then a long face as yet another “squadron” player was shot down by alien invaders.
Another zoom, and I am twelve, designing character after character with my friend Joshua. Our shared appreciation of comic books and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role playing game enabled us to talk about the divorces that split both of our families, and how it effected us. I wasn’t able to appreciate how important that outstretched hand was to me in that weird time, but somehow in the jumble of dice rolls and character stats we found a way to talk about what we were going through.
One more zoom, please, and there I am with my brother. I found a magic sword in a cave swarming with giant spiders. I remember a sense of taboo as it was a “bastard” sword. I only heard my father use that term to describe people who defaulted on their loans at his bank, or those who tried to cheat our friends who owned cattle. I soon learned that a bastard sword described a sword that could be used with one or two hands. Role playing games sparked my interest in medieval weapons and in some small way influenced my education as a historian.
All of those moments and more have come flooding back to me as we introduce Gojira and Sedagive? to the world of role playing. Who knows what adventures they will embark on, both in the games we play or with the friends they’ll make huddled around nothing but some sheets of paper and a fistful of dice.
When was the first time you played a role playing game? How did it shape your life?