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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Importance of Games Part Four

In the wake of Gary Gygax's death last year, my friend Walaka suggested a friendly game of Dungeons and Dragons. He had missed out on the role-playing experience growing up and the death of D&D's famous founder was a good reason to finally give it a try. I still had an old box of outdated books, a set of translucent red multi-sided dice and a crapload of miniature lead figurines. And tucked away in an old peechee, I found a grand and glorious campaign I wrote in my twenties but never played. To those unfamiliar with the parlance, a "campaign" is a series of adventures that all string together and connect to a single story arc. The adventures are all set in the same land and feature the same characters. So armed, I told Walaka, "Game on!"

Approaching the game of Dungeons and Dragons as a 34 year old is a vastly different experience. In my youth, we reveled in the bloodlust of vanquishing foes. There were clear cut evildoers out there on the steppes, in the moors, moldering down in dungeons or ensconced in their mountain caves. They were all stirring up trouble and needing a good smiting. Our games revolved around combat tactics and buffing up our characters with better skills and increasingly spiffy monster-slaying gear. But my view of "evil" as a preteen boy and as a 34 year old social worker differed radically. The most central dynamic in D&D is dice-rolling combat. Armed conflict is a must, but it was much harder to justify/motivate characters to engage in slaughter as an adult.

The campaign I wrote in my twenties was much more about chaos and order than about good and evil. It was about redemption and tradition. The objectives put before the players were more about getting factions to cooperate than razing the land of evil influence. In short, we were playing a Democratic adventure, rather than a Republican one.

Since I knew the rules and had a campaign all written and ready to go... I served as the Dungeon Master. This means I had to forgo playing a character. Instead I was responsible for setting up the world around the players and posing challenges for them to overcome. One of the biggest struggles I had was painting an enemy worth killing. As children, we needed no reason to slaughter a party of orcs. They were bad guys and we were just doing our job as adventurers. But this group included several first-timers, an uncommonly balanced gender ratio, and a lot of pacifistic vegetarianism!

The most horrific scene I described was in an aside conversation with a pacifistic and spiritual kind of player. I described the war crimes being perpetrated by a desperate clan of isolated dwarves in need of spiritual redemption. I told the story of "battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster." This was the sort of theme I could identify with and enjoy exploring. In order to properly motivate her to care about the atrocities that were being committed I had to go into lengthy detail about decapitated heads mounted on pikes... guts strewn across craggy mountain passes... women and children hunted down and burned alive as examples to the enemy horde. But I found it nearly impossible to adequately depict the workaday evil of the old familiar rogues gallery. Kobolds, ettercaps, gnolls, giants, and troglodytes were all there... but mostly they became enemies by proxy as they were embroiled in conflict with the group's allies.

It was much more palatable for me to illustrate our own weakness or capacity for corruption than to point the spotlight at some evil "other". I don't know if this reflects a more nuanced (more mature) view of good and evil, or if I was just unwilling to play into "demonize and execute" strategies. Either way, I'm totally not voting for John McCain.

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At 8/06/2008 10:44:00 PM, Blogger lowcoolant said...

McCain will eliminate income taxes for anyone making over $90k per year, outlaw homosexuality, and take us straight into World War III. I don't understand your reluctance.

So games are important because they allow us to learn about ourselves by seeing the contrast between youth and maturity?

Evil is indeed nearly impossible to pin down. Two armies square off, they're both thinking the same thing - we're the good guys. That gaming session was like Twelve Angry Men.

At 8/13/2008 12:54:00 AM, Blogger If you can't tell, my name is Bob. said...

Ok, let me get this straight...

You pulled out a campaign you wrote in the late 90s, blew it off, and commenced? So these orcs were waiting for a good decade to continue their war on you and your ilk?

...I bet their "Mission Accomplished" banner had some dust on it!

At 8/13/2008 11:42:00 AM, Blogger John said...

Fergawdsake Bobbo.
Orcs don't get dusty! They live in a cryogenic freezer stored in an alien spaceship until they're ready to be used again! Sheesh. Don't you know anything!?


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