I became an avid role-player in high school. I loved the fantastical elements, you got to be a part of the movie instead of just watching it, and its main appeal was the enjoyable excuse it offered to get a group of similarly goofy friends together on a regular basis. Even at our most dedicated times my groups always spent about one third of the time playing the game and the other two thirds just enjoying each other’s odd-ball company. The rush of video games, enhanced by actual interaction with flesh and blood friends.
For my first couple years of high school the platform of choice was Dungeons & Dragons, the gaming system most people start with and many hold to. Set in the world of medieval fantasy you create your characters choosing their race, such as elf or dwarf or human or centaur, then select a class, such as warrior or magic user or bard. You then have a starting budget of points to assign to their traits, such as strength or dexterity or intelligence which will affect how successful you are at your class, and a budget of coin to equip them with weapons and supplies.
The person running the game has the maps, details, and potential enemy stats whether they have created them themselves or purchased them in a kit. They describe the situation, often with the aid of drawn maps and figurines, and the group decides how to proceed. Challenges are attempted by rolling dice of varying numerations, from four sided to twenty sided determined by your gear and abilities, thus injecting the power of random chance into the mix. Your plan might be brilliant but you can still screw it up, through dice rolls the fates are the arbiters.
Victory earns you experience points you can use to enhance your character’s stats and coin you can use to improve their gear, and occasionally magical treasures capable of doing both. Defeating difficult enemies can be invigorating, being defeated by them can be devastating. Again, the rush of video games…
The one main criticism which tends to be leveled against Dungeons & Dragons is the game tends to be primarily combat and not much else. The rewards are earned by slaying the monsters, it’s the way the game system is structured. A good game runner can infuse a great deal more story and creativity into the adventure, especially if they have a creative group of players to work with, but it is true most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns do end up being essentially a hack and slash tour of mythical beastiaries. Still a lot of fun, especially with a good group of players, but it can get a bit two dimensional, more ‘roll-playing’ than ‘role-playing’.
In the latter half of high school I ended up joining a different group which used the White Wolf system of role playing. The main setting was in the modern world but with a supernatural underworld comprised of were-creatures, magic users, and vampires. Games usually focus on one of the supernatural races but with a great deal more freedom of choice with regards to classes, clans, and affiliations.
When creating your character you still have a starting budget of points to assign but instead of numerical stats all attributes and proficiencies are ranked by number of dots. Instead of only six primary characteristics this system has nine primary attributes divided between physical, social, and mental as well as thirty different abilities divided into talents, skills, and knowledges. You start with a beginning budget of dots to assign to the attributes and another budget for the abilities.
The number of dots represents how many ten-sided dice you will get to roll when attempting something during the game, the fates still use dice as arbiters of chance. The difficulty of the task, ranked two through ten, is set by the game runner and the number of dots represents how many swings you get. The more success rolled the grander the achievement and rolling a one is an automatic fail, a ‘botch’. These cancel out any successful rolls from your total and if they outnumber the successes the number of remaining botches determines how badly things fall flat.
This more diversified system leads to a much broader experience of game play. Whereas combat consumed 85–90% of our time in Dungeons & Dragons it only represented about 20–30% of our time in White Wolf games. With the White Wolf system there was much more room to actually play a role and to use something other than your weapons to solve problems.
We had an exceptionally good game runner who ended up crafting a rather epic quest for us which set us up as a reimagined round table comprised of representatives of many different supernatural races and no clear delineation of good or evil. It was a game we ended up playing for over a year and a half and still didn’t actually complete.
I very much enjoyed my time spent playing Dungeons & Dragons, and am still close friends with several guys from that group, but the story teller in me felt much more at home with the White Wolf system. Another important enhancement in that White Wolf group was it was equally made of up boys and girls.
Different personalities bring different dynamics to the games and our group was an absolutely fantastic assortment of lovely creative weirdos. One in particular, Jess, had a tendency to check out at times. Her attention would drift from the game going on around her and she would just sit there quietly doodling on her character sheet or any other handy pieces of paper. Her character sheets always wound up being rather stunning works of art, just for the record. Then she would eventually snap back into herself, quickly get an update on what was going on in the game then proceed to send her character off on a random yet still very ‘in character’ adventure.
The Winnebago incident was one such adventure.
Her character was the spoiled daughter of an immensely rich corporate family who, after an inciting incident, found out she was the direct reincarnation of King Arthur. We all had primary weapons or totems we had to retrieve as part of our awakenings and yes, hers was Excalibur. We had an enchanted round table which connected our items of power, and our group, which manifested as a small magical dragon only we could see that accompanied us on our travels occasionally granting us aided powers such as the ability to teleport the group back together should we ever become separated.
For our more conventional travel needs we had used Jess’s character’s diamond credit card to purchase a Winnebago, perfect for shuttling the seven members of our group around especially as one of us had become a vampire and needed to be shielded from daylight. Kim’s character was a frail looking fourteen year old so we also occasionally carried her around inside a large zipped up hockey bag but I digress.
During a calm moment between large events Jess decided to take the Winnebago for a drive all by herself, it was hers after all. The only trouble was her character, in keeping with being extremely spoiled, had never put any dots at all in the driving skill. She might have half-heartedly watched other people drive but her character had never actually driven herself so every step of the process required a roll of dice combining her moderate natural dexterity with absolutely no driving skills whatsoever.
Her first roll to get the Winnebago started was a roaring success. Escaping the parking lot of the San Francisco hideout we were laying low in, another solid success. She navigated the surrounding streets without any worrying rolls and even managed to make her way up onto a major highway with the dice all lovingly on her side. Once she was up on the high way the fates changed tune.
Being on the high way increased the difficulty so not only did she fail to roll any successes but a single botch joined the fray. This resulted in the Winnebago veering into neighboring lanes. She made another roll in an attempt to regain control of the unwieldy vehicle but the botch returned, and brought some friends. Things quickly went from bad to worse and she wound up causing a multiple car pile-up on the high way.
Desperate to avoid further high speed trouble she charged for the next available off-ramp. The botches continued so while the Winnebago did manage to make the exit it did so careening out of control and punching a couple of the cars in front of it off the ramp, through the guard rail, and sailing out into the air.
At the bottom of the ramp she attempted to regain control but was met with more botches and the Winnebago, which no longer had any breaks and only minor capacity for steering, became a rolling meteor of wreckage and death as it churned its way up onto a sidewalk. In one final bid to seize control of the horrifying metallic missile the dice threw her a reprieve and she was able to keep the vehicle from roaring into a busy intersection. Instead she sent it crashing into the big front display windows of a department store at the base of a high rise condo building.
Using one of the abilities granted by her supernatural race, that of the ancient highland fae, she was able to magically leap from the wreckage before it crashed. She sailed high up into the air to land on the balcony of a thirteenth floor apartment. Strangely enough the stunned and profoundly confused man who lived in the apartment was not willing to let the strange woman who had just suddenly appeared on his balcony in to use his phone. Desperate to get back to the group, and away from the unfolding disaster at the base of the building, she eventually managed to force her way in using Excalibur to pry the patio doors open and to sap the man unconscious. Good or bad choices, those rolls worked out just fine.
In that moment, her sentient sword which was the symbol of justice and nobility decided she was no longer worthy to wield it and went dormant. With a link of the chain broken our round table also went dormant stripping our little dragon of all its powers, including the ability to reunite us all through teleportation. And as the table connected all of us, and our items of power, the rest of our weapons and totems also powered down. Not all the way off but significantly reduced.
We retrieved her from the source of her panicked phone call, circumventing the emergency response unfolding on the ground floor, and bandaging the poor apartment owner’s head before slipping away. We then spent several months of game play embarking on a sudden side-quest to redeem her in the eyes of her sword, which led to one member of the group becoming cursed and another developing a full on paralyzing phobia of the very magics we needed most, before we could return to the main quest we had been pursuing.
We all love Jess deeply, and again her character sheets were works of art, but she definitely did make things interesting at times. Months later in that same game there was another incident involving the captain of a pirate ship.
Whenever she would suddenly sit forward and ask “So what exactly is going on at the moment?” we would all offer our game runner looks of supportive empathy and begin clutching our own character sheets with anxious protectiveness.