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The Five Greatest Glories of Gaming
by Steve Darlington
Ask people what they most like about roleplaying, and the answers you'll hear typically include things like "creating characters", "entering another world" or perhaps "rolling dice and killing things". Well, not me. Here, then, is my list of the top five best and coolest things about this amazing hobby of ours.
#1 - Just For the Smell of It
I'll admit it: I'm an ink sniffer. I have been since I was back in first grade, when we used to get papers copied on those old duplication machines which used methylated spirits - yummo. Back then, we were doing enough liquid paper a day to kill your average crack whore. Ah, the innocence of youthful drug addiction.
These days, of course, it's a lot harder to get my fix of exotic chemical oxides. But there's one source I can always count on: RPGs. Being low-volume, high content prints, RPGs have used a lot of ink since the beginning, but as books get more and more pretty, this has increased exponentially. I almost passed out when I smelt the gorgeous Metabarons. And from the hype about Nobilis, I cannot wait to wrap my nostrils around it. I'm not going to PLAY it, but man, do I want to smell it.
Part of this is the collecting drive, the desire for nothing more than newness of a new RPG. The excitement of hugging it to your chest as you walk home, then tearing it open and thrilling to all the NEW STUFF is forever linked (because smell is linked to emotion and memory more than any other sense) with the smell of a new game.
But it's not just the newness. The truth is, every game has its own unique smell. The appropriately powdery papery smell of Cthulhu. The brassy scent of LUGTrek. The magaziney aroma of Aberrant, the plebian perfume of Palladium. Though the shininess may fade and the pages may bend, games never lose their smell. And smell, as I said, is the key to memory. Get a game under your nostrils and you suddenly remember the first time you read it, and all the times you studied it and played it, and the feel of it all comes rushing back. It's true of all books, but RPGs, with their heavy dyes and artwork, take it to the next level, and man, it's a beautiful thing.
#2 No Tie Needed For the Temple of Evil
Again, I'll admit something: I'm a bit of a slob. Check that - I'm a lot of a slob. Sure, I can and do dress up when I need to, but most of the time, I can't be bothered to do anything more than slap on a shirt and pair of shorts. I've been barred from various local cinemas no less than three times for arriving in bare feet and if my mother saw the number of holes in the shirt I wore out in public today, she'd be horrified.
Like I said, I CAN dress up, but I usually can't be bothered. I'm a simplistic guy; I don't like to bother with complications and affectations if it can at all be avoided. So it's truly a wonderful thing that roleplaying has to be one of the most casual hobbies in existence.
Think about it - what do you need? A pencil. Some paper. Your dice. And if you're going diceless, you don't even need that. The only thing that can compete is a game of cards - which is another reason I like cards so much. But RPGs are far richer and far more complex than card games and go so many more places. Sure, the GM has to buy and bring the rulebooks, but for the players, all we really need is our imagination.
No need to dress up, no need to wear a tie or a clean shirt, or even put on shoes. Most of us are geeks anyway, so the concept of fashion standards is laughable to begin with. I once knew a guy who would play just in his boxers. Back at school, when I was afraid of my dice being stolen, I'd carry one single D20 in my pocket and we'd play as we walked around the school grounds. Once you get set up, it's the game that fits in a matchbox.
And every week, when I go to get ready to drive over to my friends' house to game, I'm struck by the fact that this process of 'getting ready' takes two seconds: grab dice, grab wallet, grab keys. It takes me more effort to prepare to go to the corner shop for milk. And that, my friends, is a thing truly to be celebrated.
#3. My Dice are My Passport
Dice are cool in so many ways, and I love them dearly. But what I love most about them is they are a singular and immediately identifiable badge. You see a D20, you instantly know you've met a gamer. Undeniably.
Sadly, it can often be hard to find them otherwise, because our hobby doesn't easily slip into conversation. I remember one time, when I was at university, I'd known some statistical friends for about a year, but beyond integrating the odd distribution together, I felt we had nothing in common. Then one day, while sorting through my bag, I put my dice on the desk, and one of them said, "Hey, why've you got your dice here?".
Boom. Instant connection.
That eventually led to a short but very fun D&D campaign, but more importantly, it led to us having a lot more to talk about. We realised, you see, that we shared a special knowledge of which few others even know, and that we'd shared experiences that bind all gamers together. We've had characters die from bad dice rolls, we've experienced the thrill of the crit-20, we know the sheer joy that only character gen' can bring. And we can bullshit to each other for hours about 3rd Ed Vs 2nd Ed.
And this works around the world. My parents went to France a few years ago, and on the outskirts of Paris my mother spotted some kids playing Magic. So she felt confident that they'd be smart enough and speak enough English to help her find her destination. She banked on them being polite, intelligent geeks, and she was proved right.
Sure, maybe we aren't all the best examples of human beings, but I know for a fact that if I found myself alone and lost in a strange country, and then spotted a group of people rolling some strangely-shaped dice on a table full of papers, I would instantly relax. No matter where you are, a flash of a dice means you're among the worldwide brotherhood of gamers and thus share a lot more than just a polyhedron. You see the dice, and you instantly have a connection. You're among gamers; you've come home.
#4. Yet Another Massive Forty-Pound Brain
That's "contrived solution", "setting", "defining clichés" and "in the middle of things".
A while ago, I was having an in-depth discussion about television shows with some friends on-line. During this, they had cause to comment on my vocabulary, and request translations of what I thought were simple concepts like deux ex machina, diagesis, genre tropes and in media res. They asked me where I had learned such terms, and I realised that the answer could only be roleplaying games.
At the age of twelve, Paranoia taught me about deux ex machina and Star Wars taught me about in media res. Both of them also taught me more about crafting story and character then any English class I ever had. Not to mention providing me with teaching, organisational and personal relationship skills that a million personal development classes would still fail to impart.
Gamers are smart. Not just well educated, but smart. Yes, we all know that D&D 1st ed taught a million eighth-graders to deal with vocabulary most college graduates would struggle with, and that every second gamer has a degree (either really or effectively so) in medieval combat or comparative mythology. Yes, we know our history and mythology deeply, but let's also look at the breadth of our knowledge.
Most gamers tend to have decent maths skills. We often have researched medical or police procedures, human physical limitations or sociological development. We typically know enough physics and engineering to critique any sci-fi concept. Collectively, our historic knowledge is incredibly vast, as is our knowledge of culture and literature. Post to the RPGNet forums and you will quickly learn such things as who created the pulp-hero The Spider, how the samurai meted out law and order or when the first anime films were released in the US. Heck, at my game last week we were discussing Marlowe's The Jew of Malta for no apparent reason. No other hobby can boast this same constant desire for research, this same insane glut of knowledge, because EVERYTHING is source material to a gamer.
And what's more, we know how to apply our knowledge. Gamers can argue about the fine and subtle differences between pulp and 'four colour' story-telling modes, and when this separation first occurred in mainstream media. We design characters and universes every day so we constantly have cause to wonder and propose how nature might affect society, history and humanity. We're intimately acquainted with different levels of reality and perception and we know how to manipulate them and how to apply psychological techniques to evoke emotional responses. We know a lot about everything (or we know where to find it, which is the same thing, according to Harlan Ellison), and we're constantly breaking it all down and reassembling it to create endless new settings and characters and stories in the furnaces of our massive ever-churning game-making machines - our unique gaming brains. Gamers aren't just well informed; we are thinkers, creators, analysts and philosophers.
Well, some of us are, anyway.
#5. Laugh and Your Group Laughs With You
The Great God Rilstone once spake:
"Genre based RPGs codify and articulate unstated genre assumptions, which the player (who is, we assume, not clever enough to spot these assumptions for himself) uses as a matrix to create a shared narrative that in some sense resembles the original genre. The process of articulating assumptions tends intrinsically towards satire."
In other words, RPGs - and the people who play them - are inherently funny.
The best humour, after all, has to be intelligent. You have to be smart to see the rules well enough to know how to invert them humorously. Roleplayers understand, recognise and play around with more genre and narrative rules before breakfast than most people do in a year. Add this to our encyclopaedic knowledge of literature and film (both comic and otherwise) and we're built for satire.
Then there's also the fact that RPGs involve multiple levels of reality, something trippy and cool in and of itself. But this level of abstraction that allows us to step in and out of worlds wherein different rules apply raises the opportunity for humour exponentially. In a very real sense, an RPG is much like an episode of MST3K, with the movie plot happening to our characters, while we play the bots up above. Only hopefully our movies aren't quite that bad.
The point is, as well all know, RPGs are funny things to play. It's rare a session will go without the inclusion of running gags, humorous asides, geeky references and, of course, riotous laughter. It's not uncommon for GMs to ban Monty Python references at the table, but this isn't to remove the gags. Rather, it's to demand a higher level of originality in the jokes. After all, the GM deserves a high standard, because he has so much to worry about. That's why there is no moment in roleplaying so beautiful as when you make the GM laugh.
Thus, as much as us GMs sometimes wish it were very much otherwise, the jocularity tap cannot be shut off, and we can never escape this simple truth: we have here a hobby perfectly primed for humour. Laughter is intrinsic to any roleplaying session, and it rings loud and long down the convention hall corridors. And that is a truly wonderful thing.
So let's recap: we've got a hobby full of books that smell really nice, and beyond such cool books, we need no tools and no ceremonies to have the time of our lives. Those of us who play form a shared brotherhood across the whole world; a group of people who are highly intelligent, imaginative and quick of mind. Thus we are also very funny people playing inherently funny games.
I know it, and you know it, but it's damn cool to sit down once in a while and remind yourself just how true it is: this hobby of ours, it really kicks some serious freaking ass. Hoohah!
Steve Darlington is the founding editor of PTGPTB.
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