Tabletop Roleplaying Games, or: How I stopped worrying and started saving the world

By Mariusz Murawiński

KALISZ – It was 2:59 p.m., Friday, when I impatiently looked at the time. I cleaned my mailbox of inquires and finished all my weekly reports and other assignments. All my work was sorted out beforehand to make sure nothing could possibly disturb me after work. As soon as the most desired 4 o’clock hit, I made a hasty exit from my office. Usually, at this point, I would already be cursing the traffic jam outside the company building, the depressing view of the city where I have lived all my life, an old truck blowing thick grimy exhaust into the front of my car as I drove along a road that is under construction, now going on seemingly forever.

But not today. Today is Dungeons & Dragons Day. Today we are saving the world.

I arrived home and started preparing everything. Two years of playing led us to this exact moment, where we are facing the final boss who threatens the existence of a whole world. A world, crafted from the ground up by our Dungeon Master, with its own history, legends and lore. When I first experienced role-playing, it was almost like a drug. Suddenly, I began to feel every single detail described by our Dungeon Master: The wind caressing my skin as we sailed through unknown seas, the scent of herbs as we walked into a tent belonging to an apothecary who supplied healing potions, the noise of patrons inside a cozy inn, a gathering for drinking and celebrating. Suddenly, all the grimness from my life began to float away.

Finally, the fateful hour arrived. We met online as we all live far apart from each other, coming from different realities and going through different paths in our lives, yet sharing the same hobby, the same passion. We waited impatiently for our Dungeon Master to begin, with our character sheets (and snacks) ready, waiting for him to begin this final battle.

Roll investigation ability check….

Tabletop Role Playing Game (TRPG, for short) is, in theory, a very simple idea which was first created in the 1980s. It’s all about collaborative storytelling. Each player creates their character, setting up their skills, abilities, background and motivations. Afterward, your job is to pretend that you are actually that character, embarking on a journey through all kinds of settings, anything from a classical fantasy to a horror-suspense happening in L.A. Noire, all the way to 40,000 years into the future with galaxies to explore. The Dungeon Master’s duty is to narrate the story, to guide the players through it, and to provide all kinds of support to make the game enjoyable for everyone. All of this is backed with hundreds of prepared systems and adventure materials which can be easily modified for the players’ enjoyment.

In order to begin the journey, you basically need only a group of friends who are willing to play, a handful of dice, a good deal of imagination waiting to be unleashed, and preferably a book with the system’s core rules. Many of the most popular TRPG systems offer free supplements, allowing you to test out the game before deciding to buy the whole rule book. It’s even possible to create your own system (often called Homebrew in the community), using the free supplement, and shape it to your needs, with enough time and creativity.

You must gather your party before venturing forth….

TRPGs are built around imagination, and when it comes to imagination, the sky is the limit. You can play a character of any gender, race, skin color, height, body type, sexual orientation, and basically anything and everything else. You can be an evil anti-hero who despises law and order, but has a good sense of empathy when needed. You can play a noble knight who, from time to time, enjoys some gambling or flirting with other party members, and often ending up in trouble. The options are endless, as long as you are able to communicate your ideas with your fellow players and the Dungeon Master.

The same idea of free imagination applies to obstacles that happen during the game.

Massive locked doors stand in your way. What do you do?

A fighter may attempt to break down the doors with an axe.

A barbarian may attempt to shred the doors to splinters with his fists.

A thief may attempt to lockpick the doors.

A bard may start singing, and make someone behind the locked doors to open them.

A monk may try to drop-kick the doors open.

A wizard may simply roll his eyes and blow the doors into space with a fireball.

There are thousands of other examples of how such a simple obstacle can be overcome. And the more complex the issue is, the more rewarding it feels when you come up with a solution, especially if you are to work things out together with other party members. Sometimes you can’t achieve everything by yourself: A dumb barbarian will have great issues to read a magical book, while a wise, elderly wizard may not be able to move a boulder blocking the path.

You need to work together!

Roll Initiative…!

Tabletop Roleplaying Games are becoming more and more mainstream, especially in the United States, as celebrities like Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, and Stephen Colbert began showing their love and support for this once niche medium. Something that once was a form of entertainment that people were too embarrassed to admit to (“What do I do in my spare time? Oh, I hunt dragons as an elf ranger…”), now has become a hot subject that inspires people to give it a try. Renowned novelist George R.R. Martin mentioned in an interview that he first tested his storytelling skills as a Dungeon Master before putting his passion into writing.

The TRPG we know now is also much different from the first versions of some 30 to 40 years ago. The rules are now more streamlined, and the math behind it is easy to grasp, making it a more player-friendly experience for people who never had any contact with this kind of entertainment. Still, popular rule books like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer contain roughly 300 to 400 pages in order to fully grasp the RPG system. But, as Mike Mearls, a lead developer of Dungeons & Dragons games, put it: “If you told me that a game that has a 238-page rule book would have grown to the size it’s grown in the past five years, I wouldn’t have believe it. How in the world of computers and video and mobile games does this stand out?”

Roll a constitution saving throw…!

Things weren’t always all rainbows for TRPGs. Back in the eighties in the U.S., tabletop games were strictly considered nerdy things played by weird anti-social types in their parents’ basement. In an age when everyone aimed to be “cool” and “rad,” there was no place for people who enjoyed fantasy and roleplaying. To make things worse, the U.S. was going through a “Satanic panic” at the time. Such games, whether computer or tabletop, came under fire; worried parents feared such avenues were corrupting young minds with horrid values.

Some forty years later, such accusations are simply met with a simple: OK BOOMER.

Here in Poland, TRPGs never looked better, especially after the great success of The Witcher games, but, unfortunately, they still have a long way to claim a place in the mainstream. Many people, especially the older generation, still consider this kind of entertainment as childish and an unhealthy escape. Fortunately, TRPG events have become more common; Pyrkon conventions are particularly great, where everyone can explore all realms of these games. Things are especially easier over the internet nowadays, as there are many dedicated sites – like roll20.net – which allow people to simulate a tabletop game. After, you simply need either Skype or Discord for voice communication (sometimes a camera is also quite handy), and you are ready to play the game with other participants, just like you would in person.

You roll a natural twenty…!

With this growth in popularity, TRPGs became a valid career possibility for some people. Players are streaming their games live for others to enjoy, generating money either through views or merchandise. Groups like Critical Roll started out as a bunch of friends playing in their living rooms after work, before becoming one of the biggest influencers of tabletop games in the U.S. Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson were invited to their shows, gathering a massive community of dedicated fans. It’s another great example how it is possible to turn your hobby and passion into something than can generate a stable income.

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