We Can Be Heroes.

Several things have come up lately that have made me reflect on my adolescence playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games with friends. This is something I’ve written about before. Several years ago when I learned that a version of D&D was available online—trying to compete, I guess, with World of Warcraft and other online RPGs—I made the case that it was the face-to-face interactions that mattered. It was sitting at a table with each other and laughing about stupid stuff that sometimes wasn’t necessarily related to the game that mattered. And we were a group that came together through slow accretion. New people came in because somebody knew somebody. There’s a longstanding stereotype of geeks and nerds as socially isolated, but D&D was one way we found common ground. It was a way we got together.

And if an argument started we could all step back and take a breath. We could take a few minutes to cool off. This was especially true in the winter. Some of my favorite snow days were spent fighting orcs. Or dealing with other challenges. We didn’t limit ourselves to D&D. There were RPG modules built around everything from Prohibition era gangsters to Ghostbusters.

A recent Washington Post article takes a slightly tongue-in-cheek, not to mention illustrated, look at the rising popularity of D&D. An interesting feature of it is the growing number of women getting involved which is a great thing. I had a few friends who were girls who’d join in an RPG once in a while but none of them ever became regular players.

Source: Washington Post

Source: Washington Post

The article made me think about something I also thought about while watching Felicia Day’s web series The Guild, about a group of people brought together by an online RPG whose lives then coalesce in the “real world”.

The series is very funny but I think it also unintentionally highlights a problem with online RPGs. The players choose at the outset to be idealized versions of themselves. They could have chosen anything, really, at least within the game’s parameters.

And that’s the downside. There are fun things about online RPGs, although I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to call them “role playing” games. In the D&D and other games we played around a table there were literally no limits. Anything could happen and we could be anyone. Once in a marathon session I was Gilbert Gottfried for three straight hours. My throat was raw but it was worth it. No one made me impersonate Gottfried, or even asked me to, and by the end my friends found a way to make me stop, but that’s another story. It was a decision I made and I committed myself to it even when I started to think it was a really bad idea, which happened about fifteen minutes in.

Sometimes games would also start with the Dungeonmaster, or game leader, handing out character sheets. These were lists of attributes but also sometimes included personality descriptions that would go on for pages. We went to conventions where we’d play with strangers and would be judged by how well we played the character. I was a woman, a fat guy, an annoyingly hyperactive talking, walking tree. Did playing these roles give me any insight into what it would be like to be someone not me? Maybe not, but it certainly didn’t hurt that for a couple of hours I thought about what it was like to see the world through vastly different eyes.

It was good training for acting, especially improv, which one of my friends chose to pursue as a career. (One of these days I hope to visit Atlanta and catch a show at Dad’s Garage.)

It was also good training for life. The complete freedom of the games also meant we could explore philosophical, even ethical questions, subject ourselves to thought experiments and consider consequences. Some people at the time worried D&D was leading kids into drugs and Satanism. Actually the bigger danger is it was leading us to math and Shakespeare. And it wasn’t a way of escaping life. It was part of our lives.

Source: Goodreads

To come back to the idea that we could be anything that is what makes it so great that more women are getting into D&D and RPGs. I know women didn’t always feel welcome at D&D gatherings. That’s changing, but slowly. In her memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) Felicia Day says at least one producer didn’t believe she wrote the script of The Guild because “girls don’t play video games”.

When I was very young a lot of adults told me I could be anything I wanted to be. And then I got older and got into RPGs where I literally could be anything. And that’s a possibility that should be open to everyone.

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  1. Jay

    I don’t know the game, or any RPG, or really any video games. But it doesn’t take an RPG in particular to have you sitting around a table with friends.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s a great point–people have lots of reasons, or no reason, for sitting around a table with friends. And my friends and I did a lot more than play games. The games just happened to be how some of our friendships started.

  2. Ann Koplow

    This post is yet another reason why you’re one of my heroes, Chris.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      As someone whose stock and trade is words it always pains me slightly to say “Words can’t express…” but words can’t express how happy that makes me.

  3. Sarah

    Sorry for this delayed comment…I’m so behind in my blog reading and writing this week! This has been a crazy month so far, and it’s only going to be more hectic. Anyway, now that I’ve just ranted on your page about how busy I am, let me comment on your post. 🙂 I’m intrigued about D&D. My husband was really into it back in the day–he has boxes and boxes of the ‘stuff’ that’s used to play the game. Embarrassingly enough, I really have no idea how it’s played. It’s one of those things that I’ve heard of a million times but strangely know just about nothing about. But, you’ve just made a very good case for it in your post and it sounds like a lot more meaningful way to spend time with people rather than sitting around and…watching TV. (Unless it’s good TV, of course, like Game of Thrones or The Bachelor.) Anyway, I’m going to go ask Todd how the game is played. See that? You’ve just sparked a conversational topic for my husband and I. I have a feeling he’s going to drag out all of his boxes of game equipment and show it off. 🙂

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Oh, there’s definitely nothing wrong with sitting around watching TV. And all the stuff–the books, the dice, the little metal figures (for the really serious), the, er, pencils–was a way of providing a frame but could just as easily be thrown away. If I may quote The Pirates of the Caribbean, they were more like guidelines.
      I’m kicking myself for not putting this line in the post itself but RPGs are really just a form of collective storytelling. It’s as simple as someone saying to you, “You’re in a forest. You see a clearing.” And you’re free to approach the clearing or go in any other direction you choose.


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