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  • Andrew Davidson

Why I Came Back to Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Are you comfortable? If not, grab a hot cup of green tea and your favorite spot on the couch and get comfortable; I will need you on this one for the long haul...

In the eighth grade, a classmate introduced me to the world of Dungeons & Dragons—a tabletop pen-and-paper game that takes place in the collective minds of all members involved. After nearly a month of hounding my classmate—during class, mind you—about how in the world such an unstructured game could possibly work, I gathered with my classmate and his friends about four or five times over the course of a year and played Dungeons & Dragons. Looking back: Frankly, my first charge into the D&D fray was a joke. Similar to other sugar-filled teeny-boppers, we spent 95% of the time goofing off, getting sidetracked, chomping down on snacks, gossiping about Mindy from third period who never wears a bra, or spending hours upon hours changing aspects of our characters by spending experience points or “tricking out” some of our weapons.

Despite my recollection of these events with ostensible negativity, at the end of the day, D&D was a game I thoroughly enjoyed (what little I actually experienced, of course). After one play session—if you can call it that—I traversed to the local fine and friendly bookstore and purchased a player’s guide for Dungeons & Dragons, version 3.5. Unfortunately, akin to having a friend with benefits, we hit it and quit it. Like your friend with the benefits, our interest waned more and more each time we gathered to play. Can you blame us? We grew up, and moved on with our teenage lives; although, in the back of my mind, I held a shining thought: I love Dungeons & Dragons.

In my early-20s, I was approached by a fellow coworker. We worked at a call center, isolated from the world for eight or more hours a day, day in and day out, in cubicles. If you look up the term “soul-sucking job” in the dictionary, there is a picture of that job (I know what I did, go with it). If you’ve ever watched the movie Office Space, which I highly recommend, then that would be a comical version of what my life was like trapped inside my cubicle.

My coworker leaned over my cubicle wall and whispered: “Hey dude, what’s happening… Have you ever heard of a game called Dungeons & Dragons?”

Bingo. Yahtzee.

I joined his group and rolled up my character the very same evening. I was excited. I was a prize fighter returning to the ring. Unfortunately, the group was comprised of individuals who worked the graveyard shifts at their place of employment. Our sessions would start around midnight, Saturday night (technically Sunday morning), and go until seven or eight in the morning, where we would drive to the local diner for breakfast and to discuss our recent play session. For those of you still following along, this commitment required me to spend Saturday nights staying up all night, completely throwing off my sleep schedule. We had a Dungeon Master—or DM—who performed his duties at a mediocre level. The real kick to the dragon’s nutsack was the player count. Unbeknown to others, each player brought their girlfriends, who showed a marginal interest in playing and taking the game seriously. The DM allowed for a player count of nine. Nine! Nine!!

So. Much. Down. Time.

Our overnight sessions contained so much free time - not interacting with the game - that I could have driven myself home, prepared a seven-course meal, eaten it, cleaned up, and driven back before I would be needed to make any significant contribution to our narrative. The down time became a significant problem. So much of a problem that a SECOND DM was added to our group to manage the narrative and keep all the players engaged in something. If memory serves, I attended the Saturday overnight D&D group about…three times. My physical fortitude could not withstand the shifting of sleep. I would sleep all Sunday only to be awake Sunday night ensuring my zombie-like countenance at work Monday morning. I dropped the group like third-period French class—even though it was hard to let braless Mindy go. I disliked the entire experience. Driving home from the diner, on the way, I vowed never to play Dungeons & Dragons ever again—spoiler alert, even as I write this I have made good on my vow.

I spent almost two decades moving on, living my life, and not playing Dungeons & Dragons. Until 2020… I began to realize and peek behind the curtain to glimpse the evolution of tabletop roleplaying games. During my long hiatus, game designers got wise to the ubiquitous problems with roleplaying game systems Dungeons & Dragons use. These games, I call non-traditional roleplaying games. Games such as Fiasco, Weave, Icarus, Kids on Bikes, Genesys, Star Wars (Fantasy Flight Games), Alice is Missing, Dialect, and Junior Braves Guide to the Apocalypse. The previously mentioned games promulgated and showcased three major aspects:

1. Most of the previously listed games operate on an episodic time frame, meaning the narrative happens in chunks, rather than eight hours of sitting around in real time to resolve ten minutes of an epic battle in-game time.

  1. 2. Each game listed is designed to be narrative-driven: less math, multipliers, charts, and spreadsheets.

  2. 3. Each one, for the most part, is easier to learn, easier to teach, and faster to play than Dungeons & Dragons.

These games are wild! There’s Fiasco, a game where players act out scenes in a movie, to Alice is Missing, a silent roleplaying game where communication is entirely limited to group text messages. These games—especially Weave and Genesys—awoke within me the sleeping dragon lying dormant for many years. As I already mentioned, these games rely, more or less, on narrative and less on fickle rules and skill checks—not to say that they are completely eliminated, but take a backseat to whatever keeps the narrative moving.

Many games such as Alice is Missing, Icarus, Fiasco, and Dialect are unique, as none require a DM. That means everybody is a player; everybody has a part in the story. The players work cooperatively to tell a cohesive story. Now, that is not to say these games are not really games at all but mere ideas of games. The aforementioned games implement event cards, aspects, or motives, to keep pushing the narrative but never killing player autonomy.

Many of the games completely changed what I thought I knew about roleplaying games. Games such as Fiasco require nothing but a bit of set up and then lights, camera, and action! In Fiasco, players create motives and relationships to other players and then act out scenes where the story takes a turn for the worst at some point during the game. I don’t think I’ve played a game of Fiasco where my character didn’t end up dead.

Then, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Roleplaying game. Here is a game system that feels as close to Dungeons & Dragons as it can get, and yet, be an entirely different animal all on its own. Gone are the days of pass/fail skill checks. Star Wars utilizes a “narrative dice” system where players can succeed at a cost or fail but with an unexpected benefit. While I refuse to go into exactly how the dice work, for me, Star Wars was a game changer—and yes, by all means, pun intended! Fantasy Flight’s Genesys system runs on the Star Wars framework—narrative dice and all that jazz—but allows players to insert their own theme. The Wild West. Cold War spies. Unlikely Superheroes. Adventurers in a science fiction world. A modern-day mafia family. Whatever you can think of! The Genesys system gives you the house, you provide the furnishings.

My days messing about with Dungeons & Dragons are so long gone they’re not even on the horizon in my rear-view mirror. And, with a smirk on my face, I am proud to be out of that world. When there are far more exciting and innovative ways that game designers are experimenting with, all while staying under the umbrella of a roleplaying game. Through the use of technology and changing the way players roll dice, Dungeons & Dragons looks like a Gateway 2000 Computer—you’ll never stop being amazed why people still use it. I understand people have an incredibly unhealthy connection with Dungeons & Dragons, but they limit themselves to a fairly exciting world of new and amazing games! Before I leave you: I have always been a fan of giving credit where credit is due. Without my experiences with Dungeons & Dragons, I would not have anything like Alice is Missing or any other roleplaying game on my radar. For that reason—and that reason only—I tip my hat to D&D.


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