RPGs: This happy breed of men!

An article in which Steve considers whether he is an atypical board gamer, or just a typical role-player.

“This happy breed of men, this little world.”

You hear lots of griping from board gamers don’t you? When you think about it. We all have our little moans about the various aspects of the hobby we dislike. Beyond personal preference about the kind of games we would rather play, of course. Everyone is entitled to like and dislike various styles and systems. However, there are a few threads that seem to weave their way through a board gamer’s lexicon and find their way into conversation. Some of us have made it our life’s work to rid fellow gamers of these supposed horrors. I was going to write this article to tell you they aren’t all that bad, really, when you get down to it.

That’s what I thought at least. Then I started talking to more and more board gamers and realised these various things bothered more of them than I first suspected. I started considering that maybe I was an atypical gamer, since few of these things particularly bothered me. Certainly not enough to try and buy only games that eradicated these evils totally from my gaming sessions. Then I looked at each one in turn and realised that the reason these things didn’t bother me was because each of them are present in roleplaying games. Some of them are fundamental to the experience.

I shall try to highlight just a few of those exasperations and reason why they aren’t such an issue to roleplayers.

Long games

Twilight Imperium 3
Twilight Imperium 3. Source: Fantasy Flight Games

Quick, quick, check the box! The gaming group is coming over tonight and they must play at least four games and two of those need to be light ‘fillers’ so we get to clear our heads before diving into the next marathon 45 minute session. Okay, okay, I jest slightly. But we’ve all heard this, right? Players who flat out refuse to play anything that might require them to concentrate for more than 90 minutes – which in my book constitutes a good ninety percent of the best games on the market. I understand that not everyone is a serious gamer and some people like light experiences in a fun social setting. But checking your watch and counting the remaining number of turns to make the point about a game that has overstayed its welcome seems bizarre to a role-player.

Let’s put that into context. Role-play sessions can last as long as the group want them to. Some may chose to play for an hour or two and call it quits. But that isn’t really the point. By the hour mark you’ve really only just got into your stride, found your voice and got the dice warmed up. Imagine sitting down to watch the Star Wars saga and turning it off after 60 minutes of Phantom Menace. You did? Okay, well, just imagine what you would have missed out on if the prequels had turned up first. You’d never have sat through episodes two and three and therefore missed out on the sweeping majesty of Last Hope, the roiling tumult of Empire and the playful adventure of Jedi. Essentially, I am happy playing long games because it allows me time to get into role and get my head into the mythos of the game’s world. Plus, there’s that fantastic moment of climax and relief when you roll the final dice and take that final Victory Point after four hours perched on a kitchen chair!

Luck-based games

I mentioned dice, which makes it an appropriate moment to talk about luck. I’m afraid I honestly don’t understand why some gamers need to mitigate all sense of luck from a game. “It must all be about tactics and clever play or the whole experience is null and void because the other side didn’t win fairly” … meaning, “I lost unfairly.” I’m poking the sleeping dragon, obviously, I’m sure no one is that much of a sore loser.

Star Wars RPG dice
Star Wars RPG dice. Source: waveyourgeekflag.blogspot.com

Its hardly any surprise that a role-player would be okay with luck. Much of what an RPG session is revolves around decision making and a good DM will do his or her best to facilitate the players’ choices and help the story along. No player wants to run head first in to battle, their 19th level half-orc, battle-axe aloft, fangs gnashing, spit flying, staring down the mighty dragon that lays at his mercy, only to roll a 1, slip over and snap their arm as their weapon pings harmlessly off the dragon’s lolling tongue. I mean, the other players will laugh for a few seconds. Probably quite hard. But that dragon is going to get up and start doing some major harm given the sucky timing of the critical fumble. No role-player wants to be on the pointy end of that scenario. But that is part of roleplaying. If you don’t like luck then you can go play with a dice-less system. But honestly, I think most RPGers would happily roll as many polyhedrals as they can get their hands on, of all shapes and denominations, and they might just roll a 1, sure. But they might also roll a 20. And then watch their little eyes flash with delight!

Long set-up times

“I can’t play that, it takes longer to set up than it does to play.” And of course my company is not interesting enough to hold your attention while we do so? These are the same people who never go fishing or cook their own meals. I’m ribbing again, of course. I understand that some gaming sessions are limited on time and space. However, if neither of those two things are an issue, then what is the problem here? I find the more into setting up the game I get the more intrigued I am about possibilities and actions awaiting me.

It is true that from the second session of a role-play game onwards, the set-up time is minimal. Find dice, update sheet, pour out Mountain Dew. Good to go! But during the first session(s) character creation can take some time, especially with new players or a DM unfamiliar with the system. Neither of those two things are ever truly a problem and character creation is often one of the most fun things about the whole experience. I mean, which role-player hasn’t sat at home with their pencil and paper and made a few characters for no reason? You learn so much about your character and role in the world and the adventuring group, that its often part of the adventure itself. View long set-ups as a chance to learn more about your fellow gamers. You know, that ‘social’ bit that comes with social gaming. Besides, as Theodore Roosevelt said: “Nothing in the world is worth having or doing unless it means effort.

Downtime between turns

If long set-up times are problematic, then some folk will have you believe that downtime is the devil himself. Are we really that selfish as to suggest that when playing with 5 other players we can’t possibly wait for our next turn? “Find another game, its been fifteen minutes since I picked up my cards or placed a worker”. You could…oh, I don’t know…

  • Make everyone a drink or fetch some snacks
  • Engage in other players’ turns, watch their tactics, follow the game
  • Read the rule you’ve got wrong every turn and had to clarify
  • Get absorbed into the artwork and read the flavour text (it’s not there just to fill up the card)
  • Talk to other players

It’s possible that this bothers me the least whilst infuriating others the most. Mainly because RPGs don’t really have downtime. Unless you are slaves to the initiative track, if I need to take an action then I’m not that bothered whether its my ‘turn’ or not, I will take an action. Meanwhile, I have my character sheet to check or a player handbook to consult to work out the best strategy. Also, I’m constantly talking to my fellow gamers about tactics and options, sometimes we even laugh and have fun. I’ve always made the same purposefully impertinent remark: there is no such thing as downtime during a game, just a dull gamer.

Player elimination

No, wait, this is the devil. I meant this one. Oh, how gamers tell stories of such woe when they’ve just played a game in which they were eliminated early. Hint: play better next time. At the Battle of Waterloo, did Napoleon say, “Wait a minute, I can’t be out of the game yet, there are six more rounds!” Of course he didn’t, he’s Corsican, he would have said: “Attendez une minute, je ne peux pas être hors du jeu pourtant, il ya six tours de plus!” Or words to that affect, you catch my drift.

Risk box cover
Risk. Source: screenrant.com

There have been many occasions when I’ve needed to sit out a long role-play session because I carelessly got hacked to bits during an early combat encounter or drank a green potion I should have been more careful with. It never really bothered me. Since my earliest gaming experiences were RPGs, I think I learnt from this and being eliminated from a game has never been much of an issue. There are still elements of the game to think about and decisions to be involved in. Benevolent gamers will almost always allow you to look through their cards, be the banker or help them move their pieces around – childhood flashbacks of Christmas Monopoly games are running through my head right now. Only a bad player elimination game will fail to hold an eliminated player for the rest of the session. In an RPG (given a decent DM) it should rarely be the case that a player is eliminated. When it does happen, and it should from time to time otherwise there would be no true threat or peril, the player can always turn to the front of the core book and begin making a new character to turn up at the next tavern.

Video games

I think this one is more a society misconception, rather than a gamer one: “a board gamer doesn’t like video games and vice versa”. They are as different as my niece and nephew, but both hold affectionate places in my heart, even if I care for one more than the other – the games, I mean, not my niece and nephew. But some cardboard gamers show open distain for video games, calling them solitary pursuits and coming across as slightly technophobic. Others make clear their resentment towards a clearly more popular medium and lament the suppression of what they view as a more worthy hobby. More worthy, I presume, because you have to be able to read to play a board game.

Football Manager 2012 screenshot
Football Manager 2012, Source: FM Base

My view is that video games are fun. I am hopeless at console games that requires speed, stealth of dexterity of movement. I can’t shoot a pistol straight, I zigzag planes and karts and I normally always fall off small ledges. That effectively ruins the majority of video games I like to play. But there’s something in the action and storytelling that appeals to me as a role-player. Actually, the two games I have devoted stupid amounts of my time to are Pokemon and Football Manager – one a turn-based card simulation and the other an Excel spreadsheet in a pretty coat. Even so, I can tell stories and fight evil beings (and there are no foes in all of gaming more evil than Manchester United at Old Trafford on a cold, wet, Monday night).

Semi co-operative games

Even those who like fully co-op board games seem to be more reticent to heap affection and praise on their semi-co-op cousins. Why? So I admit there are some ropey semi co-ops on the market, which doesn’t help the argument but likewise doesn’t prove the point. The fault is with the game, not the concept. Semi co-ops should create unease and plant mistrust, whilst ensuring players need to communicate and concede things to each other. The chance of a traitor playing against the group or the tension of secret goals should make for compelling game play. I am a huge fan of Shadows Over Camelot, in fact its probably my favourite board game, so I may bring some bias to the table.

By nature all RPGs are co-operative. But an ingenious DM will always plant just a tiny shred of doubt into the minds of the players that all is not as it seems. What is the unreliable rogue thinking? What is the true motive of the soft-spoken, Elven ranger? Why did the cleric choose a neutral alignment? And then there’s that NPC bard who keeps hanging around and singing ballads about us while disappearing when we need him most. He’s mightily suspicious. Oh, the drama and excitement caused by presumed double crosses! The player to your right didn’t mean to throw a 1 but the player to your left just discarded a decent card and hoped no one noticed… dun-dun-dun.

High-cost collectibility

Krosmaster Arena miniature collection
Krosmaster Arena miniature collection. Source: pianetahobby.it

Okay, so I kind of get this one. I’ve been stung by the CCG fad and I collect various LCGs, X-Wing and Krosmaster. I had various Warhammer armies as a boy. I know the cost of being a gamer. But isn’t there something to love about collectibility too? Maybe its not for you or your budget. Maybe all companies that produce collectible or expandable game systems are money-grabbing gits. But slotting those new cards to bolster a much-loved deck or augmenting your army with a hot-off-the-shelf blister figure is probably what makes Fantasy Flight such a force to be reckoned with.

Many popular RPG systems come at a high cost and with a collectible factor. It is true you can play Pathfinder or Call of Cthulhu with just a core rule book and some dice. But that’s not even half the experience! Pathfinder have several ongoing monthly subscriptions for core books, modules, campaign settings, card decks, maps, miniatures, novels… you name it, Paizo produce it for Pathfinder. And it makes the game so much better. It also looks great on a gaming shelf. I have no issue with collectible game systems because if the game is good and the new additions are quality components and books, then the game just keeps getting better and better. RPGs may be costly but they really are the ultimate investment if you’re looking for replayabillity – another gaming buzzword.

Party games

Among this list, I suppose this might be the biggest issue I have. Some party games feel, well, kind of naff. There are others that I consider to be great fun (One Night Werewolf, Cards Against Humanity, Trivial Pursuit, Ghost Blitz). I am talking about games that require a large party, rather than games one might play at a party (charades, pass the parcel, musical statues). Of course party games can lead to embarrassing situations and uncomfortable interactions with other people. Made worse when those people are your own family. I sort of get why serious gamers don’t like party games.

However, if you’re not prepared to be a touch foolish, put on silly voices and stomp around a little, then you shouldn’t really consider joining an RPG session. They are the closest true gamer experiences you are likely to have that create those flushed feelings you get playing parlour games while wearing paper hats and nibbling cold turkey sandwiches. And we love them all the same. After all, while most of us are introverts, RPGers are often frustrated actors, writers, poets and dreamers, looking for an outlet. As a side note, next time you play One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Zombie 15 or Pandemic (anything that requires frantic communication really) everyone should commit to doing it in character. You’ll have fun despite yourself. Trust me.

My personal conclusion is simple: if the game is good and the experience has value, then nothing else bothers me. I do understand why some of these things are issues for some players, although I don’t think I see the merit in all of them.

Once again I started my post with a quote: “This happy breed of men, this little world.” This one’s from Richard II – the Shakespeare play rather than the actual king. (I doubt anything Bill attributed to any of his historical characters was actually espoused by the person themselves). While dying, John of Gaunt (Richard’s uncle) gives his breathtaking vision of England. He refers to a happy breed of men, the envy of less happier lands. I’m going to steal those words and use them to describe role-players (the envious lot are the board gamers, obviously) and while he’s at it, Gaunt nicely sums up what we’re all thinking about the RPG worlds our characters inhabit:

This sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden.