Campfire Burning returns to the Fireside, a selection of dice clasped in his hand and a single thought in his mind.
I’ve always been intrigued by tabletop role-playing games. I put this down to overdosing on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon as a child. Long before I knew what a D20 was, every Saturday morning I sat in front of the TV entranced by the adventures of Hank the Ranger and his reality-displaced friends. At school my mates and I spun epic tales of high adventure, casting spells and battering the make-believe demons that plagued our primary school playground. Later on I gorged my young mind on Fighting Fantasy books. These stories – that were told and illustrated in vivid, often grizzly detail – thrilled me, and all too often I’d stay up past my bedtime with a copy of The Citadel of Chaos in my hands, my nightlight by my side, and all three of us huddled beneath my duvet.
But as much as I loved the books there was always something missing from them. They let me choose my destiny, yes – but the choices themselves had already been decided by the author – by Steve Jackson or Ian Livingstone. What if I wanted to make my own choices? What if I didn’t want to avoid the daggerwyrm on page 143 by tiptoeing through its lair? What if I didn’t want to fight the kobolds on page 289 with my trusty sword of courage? What if I came up with other, better schemes that weren’t detailed in the book in front of me? What then?
In my early teens, in a secluded corner of a Virgin Megastore I found my first true role-playing game book. It was Palladium Games’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness. At the time, Turtlemania was still in full swing, and though I’d grown a little too old for the cartoon series this book, with a cover that harked back to the Turtles’ violent, indie roots, beckoned to me. Without even knowing what it was I forked over my pocket money and took the game home.
My first thought upon peeling back the shrinkwrap and opening the book was: “This isn’t a comic.” My second thought was: “Don’t dice only have six sides?”
Then, as I started reading, little by little my jaw dropped. No, it wasn’t a comic – it was something new, something I’d previously known nothing about, but that I was determined to learn.
RPGs. Role-playing games.
Even among other table-top geekery RPGs have something of a bad reputation. If you’ve never encountered one before, they’re a kind of improvisational theatre that’s like the games of make-believe we all played as kids, only with rules in place to determine everyone’s actions, so things don’t devolve into a massive scrap ending with someone being pushed into the muddy puddle at the end of the playground. They’re what karaoke might be like if people pretended to be pirates, spies, barbarians or some other fantasy figure instead of pretending to be Robbie Williams. Instead of massacring the hit song Angels, players are taken on a guided adventure by a storyteller – the Game Master.
The Game Master oversees the world the players explore. He controls every aspect of the game world from its weather, to its locations, to all the other people and creatures living inside it that the players might encounter. He describes certain situations, the players react to them, and the Game Master then responds to their reactions.
“You’re standing on a grass verge by the side of a busy intersection on a warm spring day. There’s a small clump of snowdrops protruding from the grass at your feet, and every time a lorry roars past the flowers sway, momentarily drawn into its slipstream. Across the road you see a doddering old man with long white hair, his clothes faded and dusty. He wears a pair of fingerless gloves, and in his hands he clasps some banknotes – his pension, maybe. As you watch he raises a hand, licks his thumb and forefinger, and peels back a note. He’s so engrossed in counting the money as he steps off the kerb and onto the road he doesn’t see the lorry bearing down on him.
What do you do?”
So, if you were in that situation, what would you do? Would you run across the road risking your own life to save the old man? Would you shout at him and hope he hears your voice over the sound of the traffic? Would you do something else?
If you were placed in this situation in real life there’d be many other factors influencing your decision. Maybe you’re not particularly strong or fast, or you’ve recently injured your knee and walk with a limp – in this case, running across the road to help probably wouldn’t be your first choice. Maybe you have particularly good eyesight and spot a hearing aid in the man’s ear, and therefore know that shouting mightn’t do any good. Maybe you know all these things but you try to run or shout anyway, just in case.
In a role-playing game, you base your actions and abilities on the kind of character you’re playing. Your character sheet shows you what your character’s capable of – his speed, strength and skillset – but what he does with those talents is up to you. A role-playing game’s action takes place inside the players’ collective imagination. Usually that means no boards, no figurines – nothing else except for the players, their notepads, pencils and erasers, and dice.
Ah yes, RPG dice. Those funny little polyhedrons that look so alien next to the six-siders that come with every copy of Monopoly. The dice are used in conjunction with your characters abilities to resolve actions in RPGs. Think of it like playing darts. If you’re stood right next to a dartboard, there’s no challenge involved in getting a bullseye. If you’re stood ten, twenty or even fifty feet away, then the chance of you hitting that bullseye changes dramatically. If you’ve had a lot of practise playing darts that’ll affect your throw. If you’re throwing the dart in a pub so raucous you can barely concentrate, that’ll affect it, too.
All the same, in spite of the distance, your experience, your hand-eye coordination, and how much you’re distracted, there’s still a random chance you might or might not hit the bullseye with your dart. That’s where dice come in. They’re the random element that tells you when you hit your target, and when you hit the last packet of KP nuts pinned to the naked cardboard lady.
I learned all of this and so much more as I read Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One of the wonderful things about RPGs is, unlike in other games, the only limit to what can happen is your imagination. Let’s go back to the scenario with the intersection. What if you’re secretly a superhero? What if you can fly at the speed of sound to scoop the man from the truck’s path, or use telekinesis to lift the truck off the road? What if you’re a secret agent, and the old man is a disguised enemy mole carrying microfilm in his dentures – film you could take once he’s been hit by the truck? What if you’re a time traveller come back from the future, and one way or another, the accident will change the history of the world?
What if you’re all of these things? What if you’re none of them?
Despite buying the book so very long ago, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness has remained, for the most part, unused. I bought a few more games after that, but since my teenaged years I haven’t played much in the way of role-playing games. As a member of the LMDS team I hope to rectify that. I want to talk to gamers, writers and designers from this most-maligned hobby, and share their opinions with you. I have some of their stories – I want more. I’ll take babysteps back into the realm of role-playing, and run my own adventures, and we’ll share them together, right here by the fireside.
For the moment, let this column be your introduction – and my re-introduction – to a world where anything can happen and the only thing standing between us and conquering the universe is a single roll of the dice.
So there you have it. Email Campfire Burning at firstname.lastname@example.org with your reminiscences on the RPGs of your youth and thoughts on what’s out there now. He’ll appreciate whatever you have to say, oh yes.