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Once Upon A Time:

Shepherd Without a Flock

By Steve Darlington

In which the author recalls the lost and lonely years of a solitary young gamer.

"OK. So do I get to be the Dragon Master?"

It made a lot of sense at the time. The game was called Dungeons & Dragons, there were two of us, so if he was the Dungeon Master, I was pretty sure that left just one job for me....

The scene was the school library's AV room, I was in grade six, and the rules of D&D proved too complex for my friend to explain in one lunch break. We returned to our Talisman, but our appetites had been whet for evermore.

This article is dedicated to my sister Sharon, without whose long-suffering patience I might have given up role-playing years ago.

Cut to: a blistering hot summer day in the middle of January. The monetary component of my 12th birthday present creased in my sweaty palm, my father had driven me all the way into the city, to Napoleon's Military Bookshop. Back then, it was the only store in the city that sold Talisman stuff, which is what I was there to buy. And yet, for some reason I chose the red box sitting next to the Talisman expansion set, the one with the bright red dragon on the front and the outlandish claim on the back that it would allow your fantasies to become real. As I pressed the heavy, dice full box to my chest on the way home, somehow I knew, I knew that I'd found something special. Something that would change my life.

I read the books like they were venerable tomes, pouring over them till late at night, my sense of wonder and excitement growing with each new page. As I read the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I felt like I was learning some sort of magic, an arcane and mysterious art that only a few could know. It was a forbidden art as well: the DM's Guide was the first book I had ever read that warned its buyer not to read it! By the time I'd reached the end of both books, I'd designed a dozen characters, mapped out a dungeon and designed an adventure. And I'd been converted to role-playing for life.

This is where I hit a rather large snag. Playing role-playing games requires other people. And here I was, in gaming ecstasy, desperate to share my experiences - and alone among unbelievers. I had no choice but to convert others.

I didn't have much luck. Most people didn't want to spend an hour learning a game with two books full of rules. They didn't understand the concept of playing a character. Even the few friends I got to at least try it didn't care for it or didn't get it or didn't think it was worth it. I was really stuck. As a result, almost all the games I played over the next two years involved me and either my best friend Dan or my hapless little sister. Or if we were really lucky, both. To survive the standard modules, we generally had to play three characters at a time. I remember once Dan and I tried to role-play the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy between the two of us. It didn't work.

Unusually, I discovered D&D before I discovered Tolkien. I was half-way through The Fellowship before I realised halflings and hobbits were the same thing!

So my interest in role-playing waned. I had yet to get interested in fantasy fiction (Tolkien drove me away for a few years), I was bored with hack and slash scenarios and I was getting increasingly frustrated by the lack players. I began to ask myself whether there was any point in having such a great game if I could never get enough people together to play it properly. Suddenly, SSI games like Champions of Krynn and Heroes of the Lance became far more interesting, not least because you always had six characters with which to work. And so D&D went into the drawer; dusty, but not forgotten. I still knew role-playing would change my life, I just needed to find the right form, and the right people.

The right form came in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This was back in the late eighties, a good year or so before the TV show came along and made them famous. I hadn't heard of them, but didn’t care because the game was exactly my kind of thing: giant humanoid household pets packing uzis and doing kung-fu kicks in the name of justice. It was comic-book fantasy butt-kicking at its best, exactly the kind of thing I was into at 13. Once again I was back into role-playing in a big, big way.

I zipped out character after character, designed adventure after adventure, immersed myself in the background (I even saw the sequel with Vanilla Ice!). And then I hit exactly the same snag again - no players. Again I had to convert, and this time, a few of my friends were interested. Maybe I knew more nerds, or maybe they were older, or maybe it was just the appeal of the movies - whatever the case I now had two, sometimes three steady players. We played most lunchtimes, assuming we could avoid the gangs of bullies. And we had some mindless monster-bashing fun, for a while. But then we started to grow up. Nerdy things like RPGs made you too much of a target, and nobody cared as much as I did. Handball and soccer took over our lunchtimes, and I was reduced to the odd game with Stu on the train home. And only then if we caught the same train, and managed to avoid the bullies there too.

Eventually, I gave up TMNT as well. Oh, I never lost my joy in the setting, or the zap I got from making characters or designing scenarios, but I gave up actually playing the game. Too few players, too little interest, too few reasons for me to go on trying to play good games. TMNT went into the drawer as well, and once again I was stymied. But I still didn't give up hope. I still believed that role-playing was something good, and it would change my life. Someday. Maybe.

Mostly though, I felt annoyed. I felt like I'd been cheated out of something. I'd found the perfect game, but never found more than a handful of people to play it with me, and almost no-one to play it properly. And despite my best efforts over that five years, I'd never had one decent game, mostly because I'd never found any decent players. People who had heard of the damn thing, who were into it, who cared more about their characters and the game than they cared about wringing another magical weapon or orc-bash out of me. Players who were willing to actually PLAY what I would GM, with exactly the same enthusiasm. But I had never found them, and so gaming had never lived up to its potential. Without players, I was nothing; I was a shepherd without a flock, a priest without followers, a sad git with a rule-book, a twenty-sided and a few washed-out ideas.

I'm sure this tale is a familiar one to many who were the first in their community to discover the game, and had to take on the GM mantle at an early age. It’s just one of the problems with RPGs: unless you know someone who plays, your introduction into the game will require not just playing, but recruiting many kindred spirits to do likewise, and then running the game for them. It's not easy, and it can be really rough, especially as many young role-players don't have a large social pool to choose from. If role-playing was any less entertaining, it wouldn't be worth the trouble.

But my story does have a happy ending. A few years later, I became friends with someone who, lo and behold, knew what role-playing was. More than that, he played regularily, and he invited me to join! The next weekend I was raining death from above as Lupis the Ranger and having the time of my life. I've been playing with most of those guys now for more than 3 years, both as a GM and a player. Sure maybe they aren't all quite as enthusiastic as me, but they're there, every week, and we play. We role-play. And I've since met even more who play - and play hard, and often - and joined other goups. Now I'm GMing more than ever. I got myself a goddamn flock, and it feels great.

Paranoia is a game set in a fascist futuristic society where the characters are persecuted and killed with wild abandon.

And with them, I'm going new places, trying new things, reaching new heights of role-playing. And against all expectations, role-playing has proven to be something incredible, and it HAS changed my life. But every now and then I remember what it was like to have slack or non-existent players. And in those times, I pull my copy of Paranoia off the bookshelf and dream about what I could do to them...

Steve Darlington has been gaming for over ten years, and lists his favourite games as TMNT and Paranoia. When not gaming, he edits this magazine or writes articles for this magazine. Occasionally, he does some real work.

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