Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Tabletop Roleplaying - or Tales from the Basement, part 1.

So, as if anyone did not know at this point, I am a big ol' nerd. I'm going to talk about one of my biggest nerd loves in the whole big wild expanse of the universe, tabletop roleplaying.

I should preface by saying that I was not like most teenagers - I don't mean that in a dystopian-YA-Fiction kind of way. I was pretty straight shooting, straight edge. I had no interest in drinking every weekend, or fucking around, or getting high. I preferred to stay at home and read or to get together with my friends and go to the movies. I was shy and kind of awkward. I was sort of a loner, even as a child. Books were my escape, and writing my creative outlet -  I liked to write short fiction.

When I was 15, my then boyfriend introduced me to some nerdy friends he had just met, and invited me to come with him to roleplay in one of their basements. I was skeptical at first, being a naturally shy person,  but I loved creative stuff so I decided to give it a shot. I don't think I knew what to expect, but I remember being very nervous. I had met some of these people at school, but only in passing.

We showed up on a Friday evening to the host's place, RageOfTheNorth (ROTN). We went down into his ancient basement (complete with coat-eating furnace), and I was greeted somewhat distrustfully by the nerds within. There were two couches haphazardly placed around a giant table (probably a worktable at some point). There was a ledge being used as a bookshelf, with dozens of shiny, hardcovered books lining it. There were papers and sketchbooks scattered everywhere, and the table was littered with pop bottles, dice, and pencils. There was a second nook area that housed ROTN's computer and source of music, as well as stacks of VHS tapes for the tiny TV nestled in the corner behind the table.

 I was the only female to come play, and they weren't used to having a girl around. There was Saganaki, Antipositron, Christmas, Skipper, Mr Pims, and ROTN - and then me and my ex Mr Psycho. The name of the game was Changeling, and we would be playing faeries. I thought it was odd for a bunch of teenage guys to be sitting around in a basement pretending to be faeries, but I rolled with it.

It was hard to integrate at first. Some of the guys (Christmas and Skipper, and to some degree Antipositron) were very resistant to having a female in their male sanctum. They treated me with disdain disguised as passing politeness, but I knew they had expressed that they hated having me there, because I was a girl, and an awkward teenaged one at that. I don't think it was a bad as it can be now, the default misogyny or expected reward-girlfriend-itis, but it was definitely there. That made things very awkward - I had a thinner skin back then, and took a lot of their words and actions to heart (I also had a lot of then-undiagnosed depression and anxiety issues, which I am sure helped feed into that awkwardness). Eventually as time went on I became better friends with Mr Pims and ROTN, and I broke up with Mr Psycho (who stopped coming to gaming sessions shortly after), and those people kind of faded out when it was apparent that they were the only ones who had an issue with me. I don't think they lasted a year, and they had been there for years before me. What issues they had with me I will never know or understand, but looking back - whatever issues they had with me, whether it was because I was a girl or they didn't like me or whatever - they were their issues. They never brought up their concerns with me, they just kind of left. 33 year old me would have probably called them and had words with them to see if we could work out our differences, but 15 year old me just internalized the guilt and moved on.

We had a few others come and play (Redrod (who was as capricious as fire, there and yet not, immaterial) and Cookman (a friend I inherited from my ex, who had a very obvious crush on me that made things consistently awkward), mainly), but the core became myself, ROTN, Saganaki, Mr Pims, Antipositron, and Cookman. Eventually Saganaki and I started dating (and still are, 17 years later), Navy-Mike (a new friend of ROTN's whose sarcasm was almost as legendary as his temper, who has turned into a straight up awesome chill dude) joined, Cookman left in a blaze of glory (for the best, really), and a few others faded in and out. There were fallings out, reconciliations - pretty much normal life for young adults like you see on all the shows on the CW, except with more arguments about successes and killing characters.

Little did I know what this world would bring for me.

We lived for the games. We breathed and slept the games. We would show up at ROTN's place on a Friday night, and not leave until Sunday, stopping for brief naps on the couches and runs for food. Summers meant Cottage Week, going out to ROTN's family's cottage in the sticks and sequestering ourselves to game - for a solid week - only breaking to BBQ and have bonfires on the beach. We played on the old White Wolf chat rooms, after school in the computer lab, some of the earlier MMORP games (though text based).

We were very fortunate to have a few very gifted storytellers, who wove tales and stories that enraptured us. We started with Changeling, progressed into Werewolf and Mage and Vampire. We became emotionally invested in the stories, we learned and grew and emotionally developed from those stories. We, as fully grown adults, still talk about these characters and stories fondly. We have a bond, still unbreakable in a lot of ways. We grew up together in that basement - and that bond still exists. We have all grown older, some of us got married or moved to further reaches, some of us have had children - but even through all of that, we all remain solid. We can count on each other, and that bond was build on the backs of some books, a few sheets of paper, and a whole mess of d-10s.

 The first character I ever made was an Eshu biker named Starr Tajarli. The story we were playing with that character ended quickly - I think I played her for 3 or 4 sessions - so she didn't really get fleshed out too much. Afterwards, I decided to make a new character for the next story, a chipmunk pooka named Beth Tamias. I played Beth in some capacity for more than 10 years. I actually played her on the White Wolf chats, she is still listed on this website (Drome was played by Saganaki, Wolfgang by Cookman). Beth was fun to play, and she is almost a template for how a good character can change and grow. I still have her original character sheet in my folder of character sheets, complete with her almost 300 xp and chocolate stain. She was the stepping stone, and showed me that real characters are flawed and difficult and stupid, just as much as they are skilled or strong or beautiful. Putting on someone else's skin and trying to think contrary to your own instincts - it's difficult but so interesting.

The main thing about these games is that very little is needed to run them - a few books, some pencils and character sheets, and a variety of dice. A good storyteller with some great ideas. The whole basis of the game is social interaction, acting skills, and critical thinking. People often talk down about these types of games, but for some people who are very awkward or have poor social skills, these games can be a life saver. They teach quick thinking, creative logic, and social interaction in a safe environment. It is essentially improvisational theatre.

Roleplaying is not for everyone, unfortunately. There have been people who have tried and decided that it was not for them. That is okay - not everyone can see the appeal. Those of us who do connect with it seem to do so on a deep level, and that can often inspire the best characters or the funniest situations. We sweep more people into it as time goes on, and while some fade, the ones who stay burn bright.

I have been roleplaying in some capacity since I was 15. I game every week - one group is currently a Dungeons and Dragons campaign (my first!), the other we just finished a Werewolf story and are moving into Exalted very soon. We play D&D around a card table and in overstuffed couches with our newer group, but the love of the game is still there. We still use technology and FaceTime ROTN and FlashParade in to play games, now around a kitchen table, now for only a few hours every few weeks. Growing older and having families and responsibilities changes the dynamic, but I don't think it will ever change the love we have for the game.

This has sort of turned into a love letter to my friends, and rightfully so. These are people who are quite literally family (and, in some cases, are actual family). Thinking of these people brings a smile to my face, because the good times always outrank the bad. I can name 2 dozen times that I looked at ROTN and thought 'I love that dude like a brother' because of something he said or did. I can think of the joy I have as he and his wife (and my very hard won friend) Flash Parade build their family. I can thinking of every good time I have had with Mr Pims and smile. My life is that much better because of Saganaki, who I love more than words can express. I can think of every night spent sitting in that basement, breathing in god-knows-what, rolling dice and being enraptured by whatever story is being spun, and feel that my life has meaning because this hobby has shaped my life and my family.

Here are some excellent resources for those of you who are interested in starting a game:

Gnome Stew - a blog written for GMs by GMs.
Obsidan Portal - I would say this is the quintessential game site out there - you can find local games, organize your own campaigns. We use it in a few of our campaigns.
Learn Tabletop RPGs - a really great site on teaching the basics!
Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana - being released today (June 2), it comes from the same folks who do TableTop (Geek & Sundry). 
The Adventure Zone - a D&D Podcast filled with hilarity as they play live on podcast.

I will also point out that Community did 2 D&D themed episodes - they're a good watch (and where most of the images from this post come from).

I would love to hear about your roleplaying experiences! Favourite characters, favourite systems, best memories, etc!

I want to shout out to both of my troupes - Saganaki, D, ROTN, Flash Parade, Bird-Man, Ethankyou, SpoopyBunny - you guys are awesome. Thank you.