We pry up the underbelly of geek culture with a crowbar and dive in to see what's it's really like. This week: Tabletop Roleplaying Games, and the people who play them...
You might notice that there are a couple of pictures of dragons throughout this article - we didn't draw them, but they're the sort of art that appears in roleplaying books, and we thought that they looked pretty. Thanks to publishers Paizo for sending 'em over.
First, a story:
Looks like you brought a wizard to a dragon fight, pal
FHM is on a train. It's out of control. Someone's jammed the mechanisms and turned them all the way up to full, and we're trapped. We find someone who might have answers.
We kick him hard in the ribs, feeling something crack under our steel-capped boot, and drag him to his feet. - then kick open the back door of the train and push his terrified face ever closer to the track.
“Tell us what you know!” we scream. Our heart races. He looks up at us wide-eyed, and... well, he doesn't really. He doesn't exist, so he can't.
We're actually in a flat in Stratford, not on board an out-of-control magical train. We're sitting around a table, eating Doritos and drinking instant coffee with not enough milk in, but here we are shouting in the imaginary face of an imaginary man. It's not your ordinary Sunday, certainly.
We're playing a tabletop roleplaying game called Pathfinder, you see. We thought we'd give it a go, meet the people who play them, and find out why. Let's get back to the start...
We didn't take any pictures of the game, because we're idiots, so any pictures of people are pulled from the internet. But this is Bryn, and when he's not teaching Physics, he's a FUCKING WIZARD
There are six of us, overall, sat in the living room – four blokes and two girls, which helps dispel the myth that this is a boys-only pastime somewhat. We all take control of a fantasy character - we've been entrused with a Rogue, which is a cross between a thief and a murderer. Bryn plays a bow-wielding fighter.
FHM: So, Bryn, who are you? What do you do?
My name's Bryn, I'm a teacher (I teach Maths and Physics in a 6th form college) and I'm 27.
FHM: Neat-o. So, how did you start out roleplaying?
I've always been quite nerdy and unashamedly so (though not everyone I roleplay with is). I loved fantasy books and sci-fi as a kid, I played board games, which evolved into wargames (Games Workshop, mainly) along with a lot of my friends at the time who gave up pretty quickly, but I carried on and then that evolved into roleplying... I quit for a while, then got back into it at University.
FHM: And what's so great about it?
A lot of reasons, it comes in a lot of different forms. I like the escapism, pretending to be a magical hero in a different world - I find computer games a bit restrictive at times, with roleplaying there's more freedom; you can do whatever you want. You can build a character to be as strong as they can be.
FHM: Kind of like fantasy football, then, but with Wizards in?
Kind of, yeah. And here's the fun in creating amazing fights and conjuring images similar to movies. My other major hobby is improvised comedy (I perform with a group called Fat Kitten Improv) and I find there's a lot more overlap than you might think.
Lydia, or "Lyd" as she's known to her friends, likes to drink out of fishbowls. God knows what's in there
We start out with a quick description of the world this is all taking place in (a bit like the way Lord of the Rings takes place in Middle Earth and not, say, Sidcup) – we're apparently in a world called Eberron, and we're on a magically-powered train heading towards one of the big cities for a grand meeting on something or another. It was all hard to take in, but Lydia seems to be having problems with it too.
FHM: We're glad we're the only ones not getting all of this. How long have you been playing?
I played a lot of games as a kid, including trying D&D once aged 12. About a year ago some people I knew through comedy and theatre convinced me to give it another go and it was awesome. I've probably only played about 5 times total, but would like to play more.
FHM: Is it difficult to play if you don't necessarily know what's going on with all these rules (we pick up an inch-thick rulebook to make our point)?
At first I was overwhelmed and irritated by the rules, and I still don't like having a list of numbers stand between me and what I want to do. But a good game is run by people who want to allow you to do whatever, and they'll bend and invent rules to fit, so it always feels like the rules system is helping the story rather than trapping you.
FHM: What makes you come back to the games?
I love hearing and telling stories and sitting up talking nonsense with wine and food and friends. Roleplaying is like that with violence and magic. The stories get a bit bigger and stranger than "Me, and a mate walked into a bar..." or "that TV show I watched last night, did you watch it too?"
No idea who the guy on the left is, but that squinting dude on the right is Aaron
Things go wrong on the train fairly quickly. We're accosted by bandits, which we start fighting in earnest by rolling dice, adding some numbers from our character sheet, and looking to get over a certain value - stuff that's normally handled by the computer behind the scenes, really. We're a bit stunned by what we can do, though, as we can do... well, anything. We watch as Aaron summons a leopard on account of playing a holy magician, which is apparently fine.
FHM: Nice, um, leopard. It really mauled that bandit up something rotten.
FHM: So you're a fan of freedom in games, yeah?
I really enjoy like the freedom to do cool shit that you can't do in a video game. If you can think of it, you can usually do it in an tabletop RPG... it's liberating. And it's fun, too.
FHM: Cracking. We'll let you get back to your leopard.
This is a map which shows the fighting, and where all the characters are. The "M" in the top right represents where we trapped an escaping enemy in a window and broke his legs with a frying pan. We don't know where the leopard is
This is Mary, holding a superior dog. Look at that little bastard
The fight goes on for a little while - maybe around forty minutes in real time - as people move their characters around the map and try to shank as many bandits in the ribs as possible. Our Gamesmaster Anil is using some fairly evocative description, and we're getting into the cut and thrust of it, when Mary's character creates a pool of magical grease in the middle of the train and makes everyone fall over.
FHM: Thanks for that. So, grease, eh?
Yup. Best spell in the game. Makes things fall over. I once killed a T-Rex with a Grease spell... really, I can't stress enough how useful it is to make floors and items slippery.
FHM: Do you play a lot of Wizards, then?
Almost exclusively - with the odd dip into Sorcerers, Warlocks or Psychics for variety. I like being able to cast spells because you can hack reality apart and put it back together again. There're so many spells available that you can do pretty much anything imaginable.
FHM: How about a spell that... uh... makes a sexually deviant carpet appear out of thin air? There's surely not a spell for that. That'd be ridiculous.
(thinks for about five seconds) Well, it's possible, but you'd need three spells to do it. If you wanted to make it fly, it'd be five. Maybe nine, actually. I'd have to check the rulebook to be completely certain...
FHM: It's fine, really. You know a lot about pretendy magic. What do you do for a day job?
I'm an SEO Sub Editor for a fancy newspaper. You know, one of the proper ones that I can't mention.
There're a lot of people who do fairly impressive jobs that roleplay. Just, you know, a lot of them hide it.
We fight crime, briefly
Here are some drawings we did at the game. They're not great, but hey, at least we made an effort right
The fight ends, and we discover a body in a distant carriage – a prominent researcher has been murdered, but not robbed - and no-one knows who did it, or why. We question the carriage full of people using a mixture of threats, intimidation, swearing, and more threats and, piece by piece, uncover the mystery behind the killing.
We couldn't do that in a computer game – not the way we're doing it, anyway, with one of us distracting a bishop whilst the rest of us go search his room, steal his loose change, and try on his fancy hat – which is kind of refreshing. And it's fun, too, to be able to sit around with people and chat and tell a story together. And we're not even drunk.
This is Anil, our Gamesmaster. As you can see, his other interests involve posing with cider
The adventure rolls on - it takes about six hours in total, or the length of a standard single-player FPS campaign, for reference. Anil is the man in charge, or Gamesmaster - he writes the plot, plays all the characters that we're not, and decides what happens when.
FHM: So, Anil. Why do you write games for people?
Originally, because it gave me an imaginative outlet where I got to see my friends. As I've got older, it's opened up a better understanding and appreciation for games, how people interact and how stories are told. I guess my favourite thing about it is the relationship-building, both in-game and out-of-game, making it one of the best social activities - I have made so many good friends through this sort of thing.
FHM: And you just come up with them yourself?
I do! Although there are published adventures that you can buy, with maps and things, if you don't want to. I like writing them, though.
FHM: Do you play other games, too, aside from Pathfinder?
Yeah - there're lots of different games we play, aside from Pathfinder, or Dungeons & Dragons. Like Scion, where you play modern-day children of the Gods, or Fiasco, which is a great quick game to play in the pub - it's basically a Coen Brothers movie that you make up yourself. That and board games, you know, all the usual.
We kicked arse, it turns out
We solved the mystery - turns out it was a gnome. Never trust gnomes. They're too short by far. But doing it was more fun than we imagined it would be.
If you'd like to try out a game, it can be a bit tricky because often groups of mates – like the one we joined this time – just email each other privately and start a game.
Not sure what this guy's deal is, but he has a big dragon, so be nice
You can use sites like MeetUp, Google Groups and Nearby Gamers to try to find a group locally, and ask them nicely – that's how a couple of the players we spoke to got started in the hobby when they moved to London – but we reckon the best option you've got is to find a friend who looks like they might play and asking them if they wouldn't mind doing a game for you. Chances are they'll be able to, or they'll know someone who can help you out.
All art provided by Paizo