Fantasy Role-Playing Games

Thursday, September 20, 2007 0:31 | Filed in Books, Gaming, The Pickards

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy role-playing games. Which probably isn’t what you’re thinking.

What I mean by fantasy in this case is a semi-medieval setting, with castles, knights, crossbows and swords and suits of armour, only with added wizards, goblins, ogres and dragons. And what I meant by a Role-Playing Game (RPG) is a game where you sit around with your mates with sheets of paper, dice, pencils — and usually beer — and talk about which orc you’re wanting to cast your fireball spell at. Dungeons & Dragons is the classic example of a fantasy role-playing game.

It’s also a game traditionally associated with teenagers and young adults, probably because after that people have more demands on their time and sometimes think that now they’re grown up, they’re not allowed to have an imagination, or even fun, any more.

What is it?

Basically, D&D is like a free-form, team version of the gaming books I discussed a couple of days ago. In practice, you takes your group of mates, and allocates one to be the GM (or DM). This person is normally the one who knows the rules best, is capable of holding a narrative and can improvise when necessary (because it’s somewhere between a rules-bound game and team based storytelling, a good GM will know when to bend or ignore the rules to improve the story).

The GM needs to describe everything the players encounter; decide how they will interact with the players, decide on tactics and strategy for the monsters (but remember he’s not trying to beat the players; he’s playing with them), and decide how monsters and other characters will react in a variety of different circumstances.

A good GM can make a game. A bad one will break it. I was usually GM for my groups because of my knowledge and in-grained understanding of the rules, plus the fact I enjoyed it. Whether I was good or bad I’ll leave to my former players to decide (but I was good, really).

Also, the GM has access to information not privy to the other players (what is the source of those scratching noises behind that strange, lichen-covered door, for example), and so you will generally find that one person takes on the role of GM for a group, and that the others act as standard players throughout that campaign (which may last anywhere between a single gaming session of three hours, or twice a week for six years).

Basically, the GM will tell the players what is happening, and what they see, and the players will tell the GM how they intend to react to it: will they open that lichen-covered door? Will they call out, to ask if there is anyone on the other side? Or will they stand back a couple of yards and cast that fireball spell…

What would you do?

I hope you didn’t choose the fireball spell. Turns out that if you didn’t want to be caught in your own fireball’s blast radius, you’d have needed to have backed a good bit further down the corridor…

Generally, when the players decide what they want to do, you’ll assign their actions a probability of success (either off the top of your head, or according to some pre-defined rule) and then either you or them will roll a die to see if they are successful.

As the player characters solve more puzzles and defeat more monsters, they accumulate experience points which can be ‘cashed in’ to improve their characters skills, fighting abilities, range of spells or similar. Therefore the longer a character has been going, the more powerful they will have become, and also the more customised by the person playing them they will have become. You can develop quite an emotional attachment to “Geoff the Barbarian” after a while…

The Dice

RPG dice come in a variety of shapes and sizes and indeed this is one of the ways you can tell whether or not someone is a ‘gamer’. If they have a box of dice somewhere in their house of assorted shapes and sizes.

I have:

  • Three pyramid-shaped four-sided dice
  • Twenty-two standard six-sided dice
  • Eleven eight-sided dice
  • Nine standard ten-sided dice
  • Two ten-sided dice marked in tens from 00 to 90
  • Eight twelve-sided dice
  • Fifteen standard twenty-sided dice
  • Eight twenty-sided dice marked from 0-9 twice

Another gamer giveaway is the use of ‘die notation’. It’s a bit unwieldy to say “roll three eight-sided dice and add four” (particularly if you’re going to be doing it repeatedly over the course of an evening) so the gamer would usually say “roll 3d8+4″ instead.

If you’re wondering how come I’ve managed to get almost eighty dice, it’s because I’ve been accumulating them for some time. I picked up my first Dungeons & Dragons (the red-boxed ‘basic’ set) in 1983 shortly after my eighth birthday — which obviously came with some dice — and they’ve just sort of accumulated ever since…

Roleplaying Across All Of Time And Space

Roleplaying games are available across a variety of genres and playing worlds: you can invetigate horrific otherworldly entities in the 1920s, should you choose to play Call of Cthulhu game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos; you can play a Hobbit in Middle Earth Role Play; play the classic Dungeons & Dragons or the simpler equivalent Tunnels and Trolls; you can solve crimes as a Mega City Judge in either of the Paranoia, and this is only a subset of the games that I myself owned.

…and that’s before mentioning the “Fighting Fantasy” role-playing game, based on the game books I was discussing the other day. Or Dragon Warriors. Or Palladium. Or GURPS. Or Cyberpunk. Or Elric (as in “of Melniboné” and the Michael Moorcock novels). Or Runequest. Or that one I can’t remember where you were a superhero. Again, all games with their own rule systems that I owned.

There was even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG long before there was a kiddies cartoon series or a film. This was one of the — seeming few — that I didn’t have.

Role-Playing Today

To some extent, the traditional pen, paper and dice RPGs have been deposed by the higher-quality computer games available today, because with high-powered computing and broadband it’s possible to play games across the internet which you don’t need to be described to you — because you can see the graphics — because you can still interact and form teams with other real people (or rather, with the characters controlled by real people) because the in-game communications are sufficiently sophisticated; because you still have the opportunity for in-game development and to improve your character.

All great fun to play, no doubt.

But I’ve still got my Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks around somewhere, and I’m missing it a bit. Is anyone up for a game?

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4 Comments to Fantasy Role-Playing Games

  1. Joe Dolson says:

    September 20th, 2007 at 2:00 am

    Sure. It’s been years….

    You got a good way of working this across international boundaries?

  2. Rich Pedley says:

    September 20th, 2007 at 10:21 am

    I’m getting worried, because a lot of your hobbies/interests are similar to mine. This is scary.

    I’ve played various fantasy type games over the years, and even some Live Action ones as well. Call of Cthulhu became a Friday evening game some years ago, but I moved. I miss those games.

  3. Chris Hunt says:

    September 20th, 2007 at 10:44 am

    “That one I can’t remember where you were a superhero” was probably Golden Heroes, or possibly Villains & Vigilantes or the Marvel one that TSR did.

    Played a lot of RPGs myself. How about Traveller – I remember collecting lots of those little black rule books, but hardly playing it at all. Or there was Bushido where you could get more from ritually disembowelling your character than from killing the monsters. Or post-apocalyptic games like Gamma World & Twilight 2000 which perhaps seem the most fantastical in the post-cold-war world.

    D&D’s the all-time classic though. And all of them beat any possible technological alternative – a bunch of mates around a table collectively creating an imaginary world is just so much more fun.

    Right, I’ve got my dice, my squared paper and my lead orcs, when do we start?

  4. JackP says:

    September 20th, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Okay then, we just need to find a way to play this across international boundaries, then…

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