RPGs: Great Genre, or Greatest Genre?

Escapism: Role-Playing Games: a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.

Just to be clear, i’m talking about the ones with polyhedron dice, miniatures, and character sheets with strength, intelligence, armor, hit points, and the like.  You know, the kinds that nerds play.  Not any bedroom antics or therapy techniques.
 
Like CCGs, there are a lot of role-playing games, or RPGs, out there.  A LOT.  Here’s a sample but this doesn’t really scratch the surface.  There’s games based on intellectual properties like movies, television shows, and literature.  There’s games of all sorts of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, horror, cartoons, espionage.  There’s a game called Boring RPG.  There’s a Japanese RPG called Families that is about the lives of homemakers (they like “slice-of-life” games over there).
The video clip above is in reference to what is undoubtedly the first of all role-playing games as we know them today: Dungeons and Dragons.  When i say all, i’m not just talking about pencil-and-paper dice games.  i mean ALL RPGs.  If you’ve played any sort of video game, board game…any sort of game with characters whose stats and abilities grow over time through playing in a persistent world, then you can thank D&D for that.  As a side note on the video clip: a true D&D aficionado will notice an error in Keith Stat’s speech.*
The creator of D&D and subsequently RPGs in general was Gary Gygax.  It was actually him and Dave Arneson who originally designed the game but Gygax is like the Stan Lee of RPGs: he wasn’t the only one responsible, but he’s the one who wound up synonymous with the concept.  Gygax passed away in 2008 and that was a sad moment for me.  i didn’t know him personally or anything, but it’s strange when people who quasi-shaped your life die.  i’m sure it will be equally or more weird for me when the aforementioned Stan Lee is gone too.
i was first introduced to D&D much as i was to CCGs – by my older brother.  In the mid-1980s when i was in about 5th grade or so, i started flipping through his Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks and wondering what i was looking at.  There was a lot of terrific fantasy artwork on the covers and interiors: people wielding swords and magic, fighting monsters, exploring dangerous environments…sort of like the stuff i was pretending to do with my friends.  If only my family knew how many times we delved into open drain pipes or traversed the eroding shoreline of Lake Erie near where i grew up…but don’t blame D&D and Tom Hanks for my behavior – i was doing that stuff before i’d ever heard of RPGs.
My brother had the classic “red box” set of rules, which was like the original game, as well as the follow up rules for higher level play:
 
 
Boy was i hooked.  i used to sit by and watch him play with his friends while they rolled dice, made graph paper maps, fought monsters and villains, and collect treasures and riches all night long.  It wasn’t too long before i got my own friends to start playing.  i’ll never forget the first time we played.  My friend Paul was the Dungeon Master.  While exploring an underground complex, we found a treasure chest.  We opened it up and out popped a white dragon.  i distinctly remember both my friend Aaron and me reacting with disbelief.  Not shock like “uh-oh we’re in trouble now!”  More like an incredulous feeling.  We went with it, but that was a lesson in continuity for sure.  Obviously we’re talking about a game with fantasy elements, but it’s still got to maintain some semblance of internal reality.  True, there’s magic involved.  But still…a full grown dragon emerging suddenly from a small chest?  Come on.  It wasn’t too long after that when Paul lost interest, so Aaron and i continued gaming with only the two of us.  We took turns DMing and we both had our own characters too: Zorax the thief and Mordecai the fighter.  If i recall correct, eventually they wound up taking a trip to the Abyss and defeating every named evil overlord in the Monster Manual, who all happened to be having a sit-down meeting at a conference room in hell.  After that, there was only one place left to go:
 
 
That’s right.  They became cosmic gods.
 
 
From that point, wow…i’ve played or at least read through the rules of i can’t even tell you how many different RPGs.  For some reason the rulebooks always fascinated me and i used to read them casually like they were novels or something.  Let’s see there was: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Rifts, Talislanta (where my obsession with coffee began), Robotech, Elric!, Vampire: The Masquerade (and the other World of Darkness series), The Wheel of Time, Paranoia, Toon, Gangbusters, Call of Cthulhu, DC Heroes, Champions, Marvel Superhero RPG, Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplay, Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, Villians and Vigilantes, Shadowrun, and probably some more but that’s all i can think of right now.
i bet if you ask anyone who’s ever playing a tabletop RPG who no longer does, they’d tell you every once in a while they feel an itch to do so again.  It’s definitely a bug that has infected quite a few people.  As we get older and more settled in our lives, the opportunities to game seem to grow more and more distant.  Setting aside many hours at a time on a regular basis to get together with a decent sized group of people can be pretty difficult.  A couple of times over the years i’ve joined some gaming groups but, at least for me, it doesn’t last too long.  You start missing a few get-togethers and you’re pretty quickly out of the loop.  It’s also challenging to get a group of disparate people together whose only connection is through this game and not get bogged down with disagreements, long discussions, debates over the rules, and different playstyles that can make a session very drawn out and boring.
For example, the most recent experience i had with RPGs was a few years ago.  My friend Brett and i responded to an ad posted at the comic book shop from a gaming group looking to expand.  For a while it was pretty fun because both the guy who ran it and his wife were our age and they were unabashed geeks with a garage dedicated to gaming.  They had a huge table with a grid pattern for mapping, thousands of miniatures and set pieces, every D&D book printed, and a good size group of about a dozen people.  But after a while we realized that every Friday night when we got together, we barely did anything.  One guy was a “rules lawyer” who had to flip through books to reference rules every time someone took an action.  One guy got progressively more drunk as the night went on.  Everyone had different ideas of how they wanted to play, and logistically, waiting for a dozen other people to take a turn plus the DM to handle everything else took a really long time.  So for instance we could spend 3 hours on a single encounter, but each person only really got to participate maybe 5 or 6 times.  Pretty boring.
Overall though, my experience with RPGs has been one of great fondness.  Like CCGs, they are a lot about the numbers and maybe the logical part of my brain responds to that combination of numbers and imaginative elements.  It’s almost like a practical way to organize or explain fantastical things.  And again, it’s about storytelling.  More specifically it’s group storytelling.  All the players are active participants in creating a larger-than-life tale of heroism with drama and danger.  i’ve always liked collaborating with other people more than working on something all on my own.  i suppose the exception is this blog but this is just me rambling, something i could do for quite some time as readers will know my dislike for brevity.
Another thing i like about RPGs is that, in the context of a game, there is a clear goal and a clear obstacle to that goal.  So often in life, and especially in our modern era where there are so many problems, people get lost and discouraged just trying to find some way to start tackling them.  But in RPGs there is always the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) that defines everything that is wrong with their world or situation.  Defeat the BBEG and normalcy is renewed.  So as it pertains to escapism, maybe that’s the lesson we can take away from RPGs.  Not that we should slay the perpetrator of wickedness, but maybe that we should really make an effort to identify what is the root of a problem and find new or creative ways to overcome it.
It’s healthy to escape from our world into one of your imagination.  Just don’t linger there too long and forget that you’re there to learn, and grow, and bring something back to make the real world a better place.
Before i go today, here’s a short clip of Gary Gygax in cartoon form from the show Futurama.  Originally i planned to have this at the beginning of this post, but damned if i could not find a clip of just the part i wanted.  In the episode, when the characters meet Gygax, he introduces himself and rolls a pair of dice to determine his feelings about the meeting.  According to the die roll, he was pleased to meet them.  But all i could find was this clip of the show’s creators talking about Gygax, and there’s some snippets from the show too.  If anyone has a link to just the part i’m looking for, let me know.  Thanks, and thanks for reading!
Oh, and also please notice i’ve added links over to the right.  One of them is called “My Personal Atonement” and there is a new post today, as there is every Wednesday.  It is a powerful account that i hope everyone checks out.
*Wet Hot American Summer is set in 1981, when the AD&D 1st Edition was current.  In that edition, Druids are a subclass of Cleric with their own spell list.  There is no 5th level Charm Spell on that list.  There is a 2nd level spell “Charm Person or Mammal” that is available upon reaching level 2.  It’s power is not affected by a druid’s character class level however.

 

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