Ever heard of roleplaying games or interactive storytelling? Roleplaying games can be lots of fun and help build creativity and imagination for kids. In this article, Author Adan Jimenez of the Sherlock Sam Series from Monster Under the Bed share with us how this 40-year-old hobby is great for kids.
Roleplaying (RPG) games are comes in many form. They include: the sword and sorcery stylings of Dungeons & Dragons where heroes hack dungeons and kill monsters for treasure and fame; the weird western settings of Deadlands where Ghost Rock is more precious than gold and cowboys duel with guns and magic; and the futuristic cities of Cyberpunk where augmented men and women battle on the streets of Night City and netrunners battle nightly within the servers of the world’s megacorporations. This is but a sample of the wide and varied world of roleplaying games, and there is something for every taste imaginable in nearly every setting imaginable. I have played many roleplaying games in my life, including the three mentioned here, and they have all had some things in common: cooperative storytelling, dice and mathematics, and enhanced teamwork and planning.
(A note: There will be a few examples from the long-running Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition campaign the autohr had the privilege to be a part of for eight years in this article, so a special shout out to the guys and gals of that campaign, and the greatest Game Master who I have ever played with, Hal Johnson, author of Young Adult novel Immortal Lycanthropes (buy your copy today!).
Every roleplaying game has a game master (GM) who runs the game and a group of players who play characters in that game, known as PCs (player characters). The GM plays every character that doesn’t belong to a player, known as NPCs (non-player characters), and sets up every confrontation and “story hook” (this includes things like a news broadcast, a mysterious letter slipped under a door, or an NPC crying for help; anything that might get players interested enough to go do something about). Basically, a GM knows everything that’s going to happen in the game, except for one crucial thing: what the PCs are going to do in response.
Players are responsible for everything about their PCs, including their creation. Besides doing the mechanical things like rolling dice for statistics, players must also decide what their characters are wearing and carrying (appearance), decide what the mindsets of their characters are and how they will react in any give situation (psychology), and write convincing and elaborate histories to convince the game master and other players that their characters are behaving properly (background). In essence, players are creating characters the same way they would for a story.
After creation, when the game proper starts, that’s when cooperative storytelling really begins. A GM will describe the setting the PCs find themselves in, along with any story hooks he or she has inserted, and then ask the PCs what they’re going to do. The players must then decide what to do, and they have every option open to them, including the obvious story hooks, but also something entirely different. GMs must have backup plans ready in case the players decide not to do any of the things he or she has put in front of them.
Hal really wanted us to go to Constantinople, littering our feet with story hooks (sometimes literally). Our party refused because we had been badly mangled the last time we followed one of his story hooks and began traveling west through the Mediterranean on a ship. His backup plan consisted of shipwrecking us and having us fight through increasingly more dangerous islands full of Greek mythical creatures (including Minotaurs, giant bronze automatons, harpies, sphinxes, and Gorgons). After months of this, we were ecstatic when we were finally rescued by a merchant ship traveling to, you guessed it, Constantinople (ecstatic may be the wrong word; there was definitely a lot of groaning).
This is the magic of cooperative storytelling. The GM may build the world and populate it with creatures and characters of his or her own design, but the interaction with the players is where all the fun comes in. Nobody knows how the story will turn out. And even the greatest of interactive video games infused with cooperative storytelling, Mass Effect (of which I have gushed extensively about before), cannot hold a candle to the cooperative storytelling found in roleplaying games.
Dice and Mathematics
Most roleplaying games have an element of chance, usually in the forms of polyhedral dice. Players must throw d4s (dice with four sides), d6s, d8s, d10s, d12s, d20s, and the occasional d100, or 2d10s (two dice with ten sides each), which serve the same purpose, whenever the GM asks them to. This serves to show whether or not whatever action the PC took was successful. For example, when a warrior character in a game of Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition wants to stab a dragon with his sword, he must roll a d20 to see if that hit is successful. Depending on things like the dragon’s toughness (represented by its Armor Class), the PC’s training and ability with a sword (represented by THAC0, which means ‘To Hit Armor Class Zero’ and pronounced ‘thay-koh’) and any bonuses in play (whether magical or otherwise), the roll will have be of at least a certain number. If this confuses you, don’t worry; it confuses a lot of first time players, even those who are well-versed in other roleplaying games. But what this means is that players are furiously adding and subtracting these various numbers before they roll, so they know what the magic number is. And this kind of math happens a lot. Players need to add and subtract on the fly while trying to decide how best to proceed with any given task. Players may choose to go with the option that has the best odds, or they just want to find exactly how hard something is going to be to pull off and then do it anyway because it might make the story more interesting.
These kinds of math skills are fairly basic, but the speeds at which they are calculated are not. Players have to keep many numbers straight in their heads and add and subtract appropriately as situations arise, weigh the options and their chances of success, and then decide on a course of action. And all this tends to happen before the GM has had a chance to fully describe his fearsome giant or lich king. And this will happen dozens of times in a single gaming session, thousands of times over the course of a long campaign. Adding or subtracting incorrectly could prove disastrous for your intended action.
While sneaking up on a palace guard for a quick and clean backstab kill, I forgot to take into account the extra layer of defense provided by the guard’s armor, which made its Armor Class higher than I had calculated. I rolled my dice and my thief character snuck up, thrust his dagger into the guard’s back, and made a clinking sound against the armor, hurting the guard not at all and alerting him to our presence. We ended up having to fight our way out of the palace, abandoning our mission in the process.
Enhanced Teamwork and Planning
Many players think of roleplaying games as the players versus the game master(GM). While this is not technically true ( the GM controls all NPCs, friends and foes alike), it often helps to think of the GM as the enemy, especially when planning what your team wants to do next. It’s best to assume the GM never has your best interests at heart, as that’s clearly the case anyway. This means you have only your players to rely on, and together you have to defeat whatever obstacle the GM puts in your path next with careful planning and pinpoint execution. Occasionally players have to just wing it and hope for the best, but even this seemingly random execution has its long-ingrained planning. Players know what they are supposed to do in the game, so even when something catches them off-guard, the party can function like a well-oiled machine.
Planning can begin as early as character creation. In a game of D&D, for example, it’s not smart for a party of just warriors to start adventuring. Sure, this party is likely to be able to defeat anything they encounter, but they’ll have to rest up a lot in between battles, they’re going to find a lot of traps the hard way, and God help them if they come up against something that can only be damaged by magic. No, the best party is a well-balanced party. You need a warrior or two to engage a creature directly and soak up the damage, a mage and cleric for support magic, as well as magical damage and healing, and a rogue to look for traps, backstab enemies when they least expect it, and occasionally give the party some five-finger discounts from the local provisions shop. Players decide which character types they’d likely have more fun playing, and then decide amongst themselves who is going to play what. If a new player joins after a campaign has already started, the experienced players might suggest which class is more likely to be accepted by the adventuring party.
Our party varied over the years as players left and new players joined, but we were never without a few warriors, a few clerics, a mage or two, and a rogue. It would have been suicide otherwise. The one time we went into battle without our cleric and mage because we wanted to finish clearing the dungeon and we thought it would be a relatively easy fight, it ended disastrously. Death and dismemberment were the words of the day, and our mantra from then on was “Never split the party,” a mantra known by many gamers, and its wisdom trusted whether it was learned the hard way or not. Hal merely laughed at us, cruel man that he is.
Playing roleplaying games with my friends taught me a lot of things, chief among them how to tell a story. Hal is a gifted storyteller, and he managed to be one even while herding the cats that was our party. My fellow players came from different ages, different parts of the world, and different walks of life, and the beginners were able to easily start playing and planning along with seasoned veterans. And remember, all of this happened in our heads. There was no computer screen for us to look at when Hal described a setting or a creature. We had to imagine it all, and it made our imaginations stronger.
On top of that, Hal’s D&D world was set in the real world, in the year 988 AD, and I learned a lot about history from him, especially as our party was occasionally a part of it. The history books will never mention how instrumental the Intrepid Heroes were in securing an alliance between Kiev and Constantinople, but trust me, that was totally us.
This article was originally posted by Adan Jimenez, on Thursday, 25 Jul 2013, on MUB. All rights belong to Monsters Under The Bed.
Rocco Pier Luigi