Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Role Playing Games, Part I

Please forgive my self-indulgence.  These next two blog entries are about as geeky and nerdy as can be. It's all about my history as both a gamer and as a member of the Church. It's also a setup for some things to come.

Way back in the day, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine introduced me to this cool new game he had just bought called "Dungeons and Dragons".  We were thrilled, and both started playing regularly. As a game, it was a totally new paradigm. It was based in your imagination. You pretended to be characters in a party of mideaval fantasy adventurers, and you fought and wizarded your way through dungeons, killing monsters and collecting loot.

It was also the first game I'd ever played where you didn't "win", because you just survived and grew. You could "lose" if you died, but you never really "won". Some of my friends would look at it and say, "how do you win?" because that's usually what people want to know about playing a game.  But in reality, in role-playing games, you win by having a great time making a cool story.

This was at a point very early on in the history of the game. As I grew up playing more and more, later editions of the game became more elaborate and thorough and brought with them more and more extensive rule books.

It was a large part of the reason why my high school and early college grades were so bad. I was more into gaming than I was studying. I was a total geek. The problem was that, unlike today, "geek" was not even close to "cool".

Not only did D&D get in the way of my schooling, but it clashed with my religion as well. As it became more popular, and more well-known, many people handled it badly (iincluding many of the players), and it often got a reputation as something evil, or satanic.

In spite of all this, I often look back at my gaming life and friends and say that it is what helped keep me off drugs. I was with a group where I was accepted, and my need for creativity, weirdness, and exploration was encouraged and valued. Who needs drugs?

Then I went on my mission, and served The Lord for a time. Not long after that, I moved myself out to Utah, and soon after that married life and adulthood (jobs, etc) filled my life with practical reality. There wasn't time to devote to finding a good adventure group and developing stories, dungeons, and adventures.

As I became more and more fully devoted to the Church and the gospel, looked back at my gaming life, and though I had many wonderful memories, there were certain things that nagged at me. These were things that also made me uncomfortable about D&D in particular, and even about role-playing in general.

The Focus on Fighting over Story and Character

All too often, our adventures degenerated into die-rolling slug fests, and the victors would be determined more by the dice than any really creative problem solving. The winner was the biggest, the baddest, and with the most plusses on his/her magic sword.

I had already been playing the game for many years before I had an adventure campaign that was truly based on storytelling. I wish I could say that I was the Game Master for that one, but I have to give props to Rick, who did a fabulous job of setting scenes and encouraging interaction and real character development, not just adding up experience points. That was, sadly, a rare experience.

It's true that this aspect of the game is more related to those playing it, but I also feel that the intracacies and detailed nature of the rules of D&D created a situation where storytelling was de-emphasized. The system also had greater rewards for fighting and conquest.

The System for Magic, Spells, and Dieties

I had three problems with the way Magic was handled in D&D. One was that each type of spellcaster had a list of detailed and unique spells that he/she could choose from. They each did very specific things, and nothing else. It was very clear to everyone playing, from the GM to the newest beginner, what each spell did. This didn't allow for much creativity on the part of the player to create clever solutions to problems and situations.

Another problem I had was the details of the spells as set out in the rules. Each spell could have a verbal, somantic, and/or a physical component, many of which were written out and listed in the rules. This kinda gave me a strange feeling as a member of the Church because it began to look like a magic instruction book to me. In my mind, I could dismiss it as "just a game", but that level of detail bothered me.

A third problem dealt primarily with the Clerical spells. These were the healing and other abilities that were granted to the characters by dieties. This was the internal religion of the game. In order to "charge up" their spell lists, the cleric character had to spend so much time each day meditating or praying to his/her chosen mythological diety. These were derived from all kinds of sources, and in many cases were even evil. Clearly, as a member of the church, having any of the players around me praying to a demon in order to get their spells was a bit disconcerting, even if it was "just in the game".

The Alignment System

Which also leads me to the next issue that troubled me which was the Alignment system. This allowed players to decide if they were going to be, essentially, good guys or bad guys. I can still remember a long, extended campaign adventure that I GM'ed of all evil characters. Eventually, role playing turned to mistrust and infighting, and several real-life friendships (of many years) were almost destroyed in the proces. At that point, I swore to myself that I would never play an evil character, nor to GM for evil characters again.

Part of the problem with the playing of evil or even neutral characters is that the GM is not always prepared to nor interested in implementing consequences for evil behavior. Even though killing people brings the wrath of other people, that can often distract from an existing story line, bog it down, or simply require additional tracking and effort. It's often easier to just let it go. As a result, players can have a great time being dominant and powerful, spreading mayhem and taking whatever they want with very little negative results. With the wrong GM, the game can actually teach that it's exciting and fun to be evil.

The Overall Complexity and Inflexibility

My final problem was the intricate detail of the rules. At first, it was fun reading through all of the spells and the monster listings (that was a completely bound book, in and of itself - the Monster Manual), in the end it was frustrating because the players could access it as well. If I threw a scene at them with a two Hobgoblins and twelve Orcs, they knew immediately the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. And, if I did something wrong, or made a judgement call, they were quick to point out that I had done it wrong, and that according to page 212 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, THIS was how it SHOULD have worked.

Ultimately, it was still a great game that I loved playing. But all of these things nagged at me over the years, and I finally decided that it was good that I stopped playing. Besides, I spent some time enjoying miniatures gaming, and then I discovered Magic: the Gathering, so I still was quite the gamer.

I was, however, not prepared for how to answer to the next challenge: My kids!


Mark has a lifelong testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church). Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his Dutch Oven blog.

Mark's Other Blog Posts: name post, name post,

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts with Thumbnails