Tabletop Roleplaying: The Nerdiest Post of the Year

A few weeks back, Liam and I were up in Austin to bring a sick iMac in to the Apple store. After having spent an hour driving up and facing a similar return trip, it seemed silly not to poke around town a bit more before returning. I thought for a bit about what was inexpensive, close by, and would be fun for both of us, and hit upon The Dragon’s Lair, a wonderful games & comics shop that I enjoyed visiting periodically during the time I worked in Austin. The store had moved to a new location since I was there last, but my GPS was fortunately more up-to-date than I was, and brought us directly to the new front door.

Having never been to a store like this, Liam’s eyes bugged out as he surveyed the wealth of comics, games, books, toys and miniatures. He immediately latched on to an immense Heroscape setup, created with the combined parts from several hundred dollars worth of kits, and peppered the players with questions about how the game worked. As Liam learned the intricacies of plastic figure combat on plastic tessellated hex terrain, I wandered over to the section of Role Playing Game books.

Role Playing Games are (for those of you who actually had dates in high school) essentially games where you take on an alter ego and proceed through a series of adventures as this in-game persona. The games are run by a “Game Master” who is responsible for describing the game world and what’s going on therein, while the players tell the GM what they want their characters to do.¬† There’s often a lot of rolling of funny-shaped dice and consulting of tables of numbers approximately seven times more complicated than those used to get Apollo 11 to the moon. There are a truly astounding number of these game systems, specializing in every sort of adventure from time travel to exploring dungeons to being a spy to werewolf vs. vampire battles. The most popular, however, are Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS.

I had recently read Wil Wheaton’s series of posts about running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for his teenage son and his friends. (Wil Wheaton, for those of you who don’t know a Dalek from a dilithium crystal, played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and has subsequently grown into a fine writer.) Wil waxes eloquent about the fun that they had together playing the game, working together to essentially tell an adventure story together. (Note to grammarians: yes, I split the infinitive. Bite me.) Since I’m always looking for ways to engage with the kids, I thought that one of these Role Playing Games might be worth learning about and trying out together.

After spending a happy 90 minutes poking around the store, watching various games-in-progress, and (inevitably) buying a bit of candy, we headed back home. En route, I asked Liam if he’d be interested in playing an RPG together, to which he responded with an enthusiastic affirmative. I did some searching around on the Internet and asked a few friends for their input, and eventually decided to try running a game using GURPS. While it’s a bit more rules-heavy than D&D, it had two advantages that were compelling: 1. It can be used to run adventures of any sort, not just the swords, orcs, and dragons stuff that D&D focuses on. 2. There’s a “GURPS Lite” book that has enough information to run a basic game and which can be downloaded for free — an important consideration since I wasn’t yet sure what level of appeal this would have for my crew.

I had hoped that there might be a decent premade adventure that I could use for our introductory session, but I had no luck finding something that really fit the bill. Instead, I spent a couple hours designing a small dungeon crawl that would provide opportunities for exploration, combat, a bit of acrobatics, and some diplomacy, and which was small enough in scale that we could complete it in one session. I also found an invaluable tool called GURPS Character Sheet which streamlines character creation by doing most of the number-crunching for you.

Since I knew from my preadolescent time with D&D that these sorts of games are more fun with more people, I enlisted my oft-times partner-in-crime Jason Young to come down and play with us. Maggie and Abigail¬† jumped in as well, so Saturday morning found the five of us gathered around our big table with two laptops, a pile of paper and post-its, and an improvised Game Master’s screen made from scrap cardboard I pulled from the recycling bin and cut up.

Liam created a big, dumb stalwart fighter character with a terrible temper and impulse control problems named Spiritman. Abigail’s character was Esme, a nimble archer. With a bit of help, Maggie created Zoey, a Barbie-pretty sword-wielding elf. And Jason created Gront, a gruff but loyal dwarf he roleplayed with relish.

The adventurers began by stocking up on supplies at the local general store. Because Abigail had chosen a “fear of crowds” disadvantage for her character, I told her that she had to stay at the edge of the town and wouldn’t let her talk while the other players bought the gear. (Disadvantages such as these allow one to improve your characters in other ways, but can be awfully inconvenient at times!) They then ventured into a nearby cave the mayor of the town had comissioned them to explore as part of a land survey.

The cave, as they eventually discovered, was the mostly-abandoned lair of a group of bandits that had operated out of the area in years previous. I had spent a fair bit of time thinking about how such a place would be laid out, so was quite gratified when, as they explored the corridors, Jason/Gront wondered aloud “What is this place? It’s obviously not just a cave. It seems to be designed to be very defensible.”

As they made their way through the darkened halls (lit by a throwing axe wrapped up in branches from a bush and set aflame, since they had forgotten to buy torches), the party tripped over traps, discovered secret corridors, and fought with a brace of rats that had taken up residence in the abandoned Great Hall, stopping only for the occasional real-life bathroom or homemade pizza break.

The interesting thing to me about tabletop RPGs, and the reason that people still play them in the era of World of Warcraft and its ilk, is the unparalleled flexibility one has with a human being running the game. At one point, several of the players’ characters had fallen into a pit that was just a bit too tall for them to climb out of. Having forgotten to put rope on their shopping list, they resorted to stripping the leather pants from one of their characters and using them to extend their reaches and help each other up. It was a very clever solution which wouldn’t have been possible in a computer game, but which I was able to handle on the fly without difficulty. (The dwarf lost his grip and fell, getting a bit banged up when he crashed to the floor below, but everyone else managed the ascent without difficulty.)

After making their way through much of the redoubt, the players came upon the former leader of the cutpurses that used to operate there, now an old recluse who rarely ventured out from his dusty underground domain. Because of his extreme loneliness, he forbade their leaving unless they agreed to come live there and keep him company. The party had the opportunity to fight him, to lie and say they would return, or to agree to move in and make that their base of operations for future adventures. Somewhat to my surprise, they overcame their enthusiasm for battle and agreed to report back to the mayor with a fabricated story about the dangers of the cave and to return to live there.

After misleading the mayor, we wrapped up for the day, six hours after we started. Maggie wandered off a few hours into the session, but Liam, Abigail and Jason all had a great time (as did I). Getting to do something that involved with the kids was delightful, and I was really pleased to see that it held their interest so well while putting their creative thinking (and occasionally their math skills) to the test. They are both enthusiastic about playing some more; Liam especially has already been asking me to put together another adventure for them. So, from a parenting point of view, I count it a solid success.

As a gamer, I did find GURPS a little bit cumbersome, but not too bad given the degree of flexibility it provides. For our next go-round, I think I will go ahead and purchase the basic books and a GM screen, which provides ready access to many of the tables and calculations one uses in play. I’m a bit torn on whether to create more adventures from scratch, or whether to try to repurpose something from a D&D module or another source. (Converting such things to the GURPS ruleset is a bit of work, but not generally too bad.)

And as people who like to build stuff, Jason and I are both intrigued by the possibilities of casting our own miniature characters and dungeon pieces from plaster and lead. (We used post-it notes and graph paper for this first session — functional, but not the height of gaming panache.) The one thing that gives me pause here is that this has the potential to be a terrifically time-consuming hobby. But if I can be spending that time happily and productively engaged with my family, I’d say it’s well worth the investment, even if it does mean I add yet another chapter to the already overlong tome of my nerdiness.