Happy 4 – Role Playing

Beauty is in the eye

Len O’Grady is an artist, colourists, comic book artist and dedicated gamer. Among other things he works at every child’s dream job, “colouring in” and is more than capable of doing it in between the lines. I couldn’t even tell you half the stuff he’s worked on so just take a trip over to his website and have a look for yourself. The guys good. BTW the article on Cypher a week back featured some exclusive art from a number of years back (16) he did for me at a games con.

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Anyhoe on top of this Len is a dedicated role player and I caught up with him (online) to ask him to tell the nice people at home what it’s all about and why he obviously loves it.  He was good enough to take the time to answer some of my questions and send me on some of his tasty art work.

Role playing, what’s that all about?

Role playing games, as the name suggests, is a story telling game where a group of players take on the personas of characters and have adventures set for them by one special player, a narrator if you will, called the GamesMaster. The most well known game of this type is Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, but if you’ve ever played a fantasy game like World of Warcraft or Skyrim on a console or PC, you’ve played an RPG with a machine as GamesMaster. The rules of a game like this define the basic parameters of the world the players will inhabit, with dice providing the random element. Players can be a Wizard like Gandalf, a Vampire Hunter like Van Helsing or a Gangster like Tony Soprano, depending on the genre and type of game you all want to play. It all comes down to a group of friends hanging out, eating pizza and throwing some dice about while telling each other a story

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How did you get involved in gaming?

Well, I was around twelve, and had just devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was given my first Fighting Fantasy book- it was basically a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure solo game books where you flip around numbered paragraphs and try and get to the end without meeting a gruesome fate. Fighting Fantasy was a bit different in that they had a very simple game mechanic that allowed to to fight monsters, gain treasures and magic artifacts- you were interacting with the story. You have to remember that this was rural Ireland in 1984- no one I knew had anything beyond a Sinclair, so this was a revelation. I’d seen copies of Dungeons and Dragons in the Toy Shop in the Crescent Shopping Centre, but hadn’t paid them any mind- the concept was just outside my experience and the books were way too expensive. It wasn’t until Corgi Books brought out an RPG called Dragon Warriors that things really took off, once I got my head around the concept that you could make a story for your friends, that was it. I think we met a few months later when a Games Club was launched in Limerick. I set up my own group out of my English Class in the Crescent every Wednesday afternoon, playing in Middle Earth, Arthurian Britain, and a Horror game called Call of Cthulhu. Luckily for us, Ireland mostly missed out entirely on the “D&D is a form of Satanism” furore that swept the US, spearheaded by religious zealots and various prigs. As time has proven, all their various claims have proved to be utterly false, and more often then not based in demagoguery and the desire to make a quick buck from rubes.

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What is it you enjoy so much about role playing?

It’s the social aspect- you get to immerse yourself in a world of the shared imaginations of your friends and create memories as vivid as any you actually experienced. There’s an element of the oral tradition, that need to share a really good yarn with others around a campfire. You get to be take on another persona, solve problems, employ strategies and deal with social situations. I’ve seen deeply shy, introverted kids just blossom, learn useful social skills and sharpen their numeracy and literacy. I’ve seen kids avoid going down some dark paths and make bad choices by gaining a love of reading and history while creating adventures for their pals. Now the kids I played with have kids of their own and are rediscovering the hobby again with fresh eyes. It’s a hobby of imagination, so by definition it’s not passive, it’s powered by participation, is fired by quick thinking. At it’s best, it makes better people.

If you could pick one rules system what would it be?

Okay, that’s tough- games go through fashions and fads as much as any cultural phenomenon, but if you were to press me, I’d have to go for the Top Two: Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. Both offer excellent introductions to the games, though I’d have to admit that Pathfinder’s Beginner Box noses ahead by dint of the wealth of material it offers- there’s literally months of games in there. Now, if you were to ask me what my favorite Rules System is, that’ll be Castle Falkenstein- a Victorian Fantasy Game that’s a cross between The Prisoner of Zenda and The Princess Bride. Players create little journals where they keep their characters, and play with decks of playing cards with each suit representing a facet of the character (dice are disreputable, the province of foreigners and scurrilous ne’r do wells). You get to play dashing Hussars, Mad Scientists, Sidhe Ladies and more, all while chewing up the scenery and twirling mustaches- it’s immense fun you’d be amazed by the one-liners people can come up with.

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What’s the most memorable event in a game you’ve played?

Now you’re fishing- I could talk of Tayto, the Ogre Slaying Mage and his misadventure with a shape changing Mimic, but no one needs to hear about that. To be honest, there was a game I ran with Dave Stafford out of my flat in Rathgar in the late nineties- the party got split into to groups- and God bless him, Dave took over and ran both groups at once, jumping from scene to scene with a fifteen minute timer, ala. The Empire Strikes back. It was insane- during our fifteen minutes off, we discussed how to handle our dilemmas, so had no clue what was happening to our friends half a continent away. Then the timer went beep and it was on like Donkey Kong. Things got seriously epic by the end- we saved a kingdom from being destroyed from within by brain devouring psychic monsters and our friends defeated an vast supernatural army led by giant cannibal hags; and there was excellent chinese food. One of our friends was completely new to the hobby, and his wife later told us that he used to dream about his character having adventures- it just gave a massive adrenaline shot to his imagination, and that’s hugely gratifying.

In the age of high technology do you think roleplaying still has an audience?

Oh, absolutely- the age of austerity has raised all boats when it comes to tabletop games, and RPGs are no exception. A console game runs to about fifty quid- you get maybe a few weeks out of it and then it’s on the shelf or down to the shop for a pretty poor trade in. I have games I’ve run and played since I was a teenager- you just need the rulebook, some dice, pencils and paper, and you’re good to go. Everything else, the playmats, the miniatures, the other supplements, these are entirely optional; what matters is the human interaction- that’s the engine that runs a role playing game. Every option available in a console game has been anticipated by it’s designers, so by definition is limited. Pen and paper RPGs have no such restrictions- being a GamesMaster means being able to roll with the zany left field stuff your players throw at you- that’s where some real exciting stuff happens- utterly unrepeatable but unforgettable. I just have to say to you- Mersen the Bard, seducing the barmaid- and Wham! you’re right back there with me, even though that game we played is about twenty five years ago. That’s something technology is going to be hard pressed to emulate, that sense of a shared experience crystallized in the mind’s eye.

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What would you recommend to people who want to start Roleplaying?

Baby steps- if you’ve played console games like Skyrim or even Zelda you’re already half way there. The cartoon Adventure Time had D&D in it’s DNA, and Dan Harmon, has had a few great D&D episodes in his show Community.

The best thing is just how easy it is to start playing now- Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of D&D, offers the basic rules for FREE. It’s bare bones and without all the flavor text and copyrighted material, but it’s all there for players. On top of that, Wizards is in the process of rereleasing their back catalogue digitally and at a very reasonable price, so if you’re returning to the hobby, you can pick up your iPad and get cracking. If D&D isn’t your thing, DriveThru RPG offers other genres and game systems, many for free and covering all ages, from very small kids to old veterans.

So pick up a copy of the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set and remember what the hobby’s creator, Gary Gygax said;
The secret we should never let the GameMasters know is that they don’t need any rules”. Just play it through and expect to get better next time. Take a look at this comic based around a weekly session of D&D- it gives a pretty good flavor of a typical game

A phenomenon that’s popped up over the past decade is that of games being recorded for Podcasts or for sites like Twitch. The better ones are:
Titansgrave
Critical Role
HarmonTown
Nerd Poker
The Adventure Zone
and the granddaddy of them all that Wizards of the Coast put on: Acquisitions Inc.
Apart from Titansgrave, these have varying degrees of adult language and themes, so check them out before passing them your kids

Don’t worry about getting everything right or being self conscious- concentrate on having fun and making sure your friends have fun too- it’s a game with no “winners”, the winners get to survive for the next adventure and watch their characters become more heroic and powerful- maybe become legends themselves. it’s really just cops and robbers with an actual plot and a mechanic to say when you’re dead- don’t sweat it and have fun.
Thanks Len.

Brilliant!

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