You are in a wood and it is night. You can just see the moon through the tree tops. A cold wind is blowing through the leaves. You are walking down a path, and in the distance you can see the welcoming lights of a small town. But that is still far away, and you are alone in the dark forest.
Suddenly, you hear a snap behind you on the path. You spin around but you see nothing. Then there is another sound. The pad, pad, pad of footsteps. It sounds like a person at first, but then it seems like it is moving on four legs. You hear deep breathing, somewhere in the shadows.
What do you do?
That little scenario is something I use when people ask me how a role-playing game works. It is the art of entering the world of the imagination, seeing things in your mind’s eye, sharing a dream, and deciding what to do next.
When I played out that storyline with a friend of mine, she immediately asked me if we could do a role-playing game with her son, who’s ten. Being pretty much the same age as me when I played these games, I agreed and went home to prepare an adventure using my ancient, battered rulebooks.
I also had to buy a new set of dice in my local games shop, being horribly aware that I was some twenty years older than the other people in the store (including the staff).
Last Friday, we played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time in decades and it was a lot of fun. For my friend’s son, the first task was to drag him away from slaughtering strangers on Fortnite so that he could join us at the dining room table. Once he was there, with the powerful imagination of youth, he was soon caught up in the action.
Indeed, he was more than a little bit freaked out as it slowly dawned on my group of adventurers that there was something very wrong with the captain of the ship who was escorting them to their destination. This man, Boris, smelled like a damp dog. He had long scars on his arm and throat that you could see every time he hauled something over the side of the boat. He really didn’t want the mission to last more than three nights for some peculiar reason of his own. And when the third night came around and the full moon appeared, things started getting very hairy below decks…
As I was almost always the youngest in my gaming groups as a kid, I was very rarely the Dungeon Master, so it was an interesting experience to be the one who was running the show. It is amazing how the simple rules of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set allow people to create a huge adventure with a minimum of instruction.
It’s also wonderful to see how the characters are created through the game. Our group included a thief whose rolls on the night were pathetic. If there was a wall to climb, he’d fall off. If there was a lock to pick, he’d fudge it. From what I thought would be the ablest character, this poor thief became the comic relief as everyone groaned at his useless attempts to do anything. He also happened to be played by the dad.
TV shows like Stranger Things are introducing a new generation to role-playing, the joys of creating your own adventure and sharing an experience with your friends. Kids are seeing these games as an alternative to staring at screens for hours, which can only be a good thing. In fact, a major reason for the success of Fortnite is that you play it with your friends. Role-playing games are also something you do in a group, but in a more collaborative way.
Role-playing games can also have a massive impact on your later life. Among the people I used to play with, I am now a full-time author. Our old Dungeon Master used to design all his own maps and dungeons on graph paper. Today, he is a successful architect. Furthermore, despite tabloid scare-mongering of the time, none of us has become a worshipper of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies (at least as far as I know).
Role-playing is coming back, and we should welcome it. A world of adventure awaits.