I’ve been happily playing board games, in one form or another, since I was a little kid. Watching TableTop has reminded me just how much fun it can be to play a well-designed board game (or card game) with a group of friends. But as much fun as I have playing board games or card games–or video games, for that matter–nothing comes close to the experience of playing tabletop role-playing games.
I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in 1980 by my friend Luke Johnson. We were in fourth grade. I played a dwarf fighter who died from a magical trap. It was like getting hit by an amazing drug. I was instantly hooked. Soon after, a high school kid who went to my dad’s church ran me through an adventure, then decided he was giving up RPGs and gave me all of his game books, which was very much like a heroin addict saying, “Hey, I’ve decided to quit cold turkey. Want all of my leftover smack?” In middle school, I bought and played D&D, Gamma World, RuneQuest, Traveller, Boot Hill, Top Secret, Champions, Villains & Vigilantes, Tunnels & Trolls…and it just went on from there, into high school and college and beyond, up to today.
What is it about RPGs that I love so much? Why is it that no matter how much fun I have playing other games, nothing gives me the satisfaction that RPGs have?
It’s because I’ve really been playing them all my life, long before I ever knew about Dungeons & Dragons. During recess in elementary school, I would lead my friends in games of “superheroes,” where we made up our own superheroes and pretended to save the world from supervillains and natural catastrophes. In pre-school, my friends and I used to pretend to be the Six Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman, and other TV show characters, making up our own stories and play acting as our heroes.
Role-playing games are about getting together with your friends and playing Let’s Pretend. There may be some game tactics involved, there may be elements of competition, but it all boils down to playing Let’s Pretend. Imaginary characters in an imaginary situation, and from this comes collaborative stories and experiences. It’s really nerdy improv. It’s fiction writing for extroverts with ADD. It’s collective dreaming.
Sadly, it’s not as easy to get my friends together to play regularly these days. We’re not in grade school or college these days. We’re adults with full-time jobs and family responsibilities that take up a lot of our time. It’s been months since the last time I played an RPG. Getting together once in a while to play a board game or card game is logistically much easier. But that just wouldn’t be as satisfying to me, so I keep trying to get a game going or get in on some friend’s game. Because it’s not just about getting together with friends, it’s not just about having fun playing a game, it’s not just about rolling dice or calculating your chances of hitting an orc with a sword, it’s about dreaming out loud with fellow dreamers.
That’s a special kind of magic.