Roleplaying is something that I hardly ever write about, not directly. Since even today it is still a touchy subject in some ways, it’s difficult to write anything about it without the majority of the rest of society looking at you as if you are a weirdo, associating you with the typical stereotype of the High School roleplayer – coke bottle glasses, whiny voice, bad hygiene, etc. Part of this is due to the fact that most people simply do not understand roleplaying and roleplaying games in particular, and as is typically the case, one fears (at some level) what one does not know – hence the heckling and stereotyping.
I got my start with roleplaying at a very early age. It was shortly after my parents divorced in 1978, my mother was seeing a new man who eventually became my stepfather. I was introduced to this new “game” by my close friend who lived next door to me… it was called “Dungeons and Dragons”. I immediately became enamored with the game, and we would play it regularly at recess and lunch at school, and at my friend’s house.
My mother and stepfather didn’t understand the game at all, and were wary about it. It didn’t help that they were both devout christians – and were being fed all the nonsense, rumor, and misinformation about the game by the established clergy and religious community. It was only a few months later that they brought me into the kitchen and showed me an article in some religious magazine that explained how some college kid had been so taken by the game that he went crazy and disappeared into the sewers of some college (this was actually regarding James Dallas Egbert III and known as the “Steam Tunnel Incident“- the article was written before he was found to be living with friends – this incident was also made into a movie called Mazes and Monsters). Naturally, due to the bias of the religious organizations attacking the game based on the fact that there were “devils”, “demons”, and other evil creatures in it, the article was extremely critical and negative – and didn’t have the facts straight in the least, either about the game itself or the Steam Tunnel Incident in particular. I was informed by my parents at that moment that I was no longer allowed to play the game. I tried to tell them that said “demons, devils, and other evil creatures” where – obviously – necessary in a game where the players goals are to seek treasure and battle evil – but my arguments fell on deaf ears, as have the same arguments fallen on the deaf ears of the naysayers and religious organizations over the years.
What my parents didn’t understand, and what they – and the majority of the religious establishment and negative naysayers refused to understand or even consider – was that with our lives in such a huge state of turmoil, and me being only a kid at the time and not understanding any of what was happening, roleplaying for me – and at that time Dungeons and Dragons – was a huge outlet for my emotions. Of course, I didn’t realize this until much later, but this is the primary reason why many of us who play the game do continue to play it even into our 40′s. Playing Dungeons and Dragons, or DnD as it’s referred to, allowed me to step outside myself and channel negative energy into something that was at least mildly constructive… it allowed me to get rid of anger and resentment in this way through the characters I played. In a very real sense, for several years playing DnD kept me sane. Which, in light of the negativity portrayed by prominent religious leaders and organizations about the game – specifically that it skews the boundaries between reality and fantasy and makes young people more prone to insanity – is rather humorous. The fact that the majority of kids that tend to fall into playing roleplaying games are emotionally scarred for one reason or another tends to fall on deaf ears, and people simply do not want to accept the truth as to why they are drawn to them.
Being the rather rebellious teenager I developed into I of course ignored my parents decree that I stop, and simply began to play the game without them knowing that I did. At this point in time the game had been advanced to the next edition – Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or AD&D. I spent a great deal of my allowance and lawn mowing money on the books which I stashed in various places around the house so my parents wouldn’t find them. It was during this period that I started “running” games – or in the lingo of the game itself, “Dungeon Mastering” games. Some of these developed into long term “campaigns”, where the same group of people would play out their character’s progression and advancement through time in the game. I grew to enjoy Dungeon Mastering (or DMing) even more than just playing the game, because I could channel even more of my frustrations, anger, and other wild and lost emotions into the worlds I created. Naturally I was caught on several occasions by my parents with roleplaying contraband now and then, and I always got out of it by claiming it was a friend of mine’s book(s) or dice.
I was introduced to several other roleplaying genres during this period as well – some of which my parents ironically allowed me to play, such as Top Secret (a modern spy roleplaying game), Star Frontiers (a futuristic sci-fi game), Traveller (another sci-fi roleplaying game), and Boot Hill (a roleplaying game set in the Old West). I played all of these to a greater or lesser degree, but AD&D was still my game of choice at the time, and I played it with my friends as often as possible without my parents knowledge. Evidently they figured it out eventually however, because they finally realized that I was going to play it whether they wanted me to or not, and so right before my 16th birthday they suddenly “allowed” me to play it again.
One big issue I had during this period was dealing with people my age at school. With the same old anti-roleplaying game mentality that was prevalent in society at the time, kids would be incredibly cruel to other kids they knew played the game. Granted, the majority of these types were the actual stereotyped individual… but I was anything but. I was getting into music at the time, and during the mid ’80′s we were referred to as “stoners”. We typically went around in ripped up jeans, t-shirts with unbuttoned flannel overshirts with the sleeves rolled up, and long hair, sometimes ratted. I looked like everything but the stereotype. Because of the constant heckling and ridicule, I made it a point to ensure that no one outside my immediate circle of friends knew I played roleplaying games.
At any rate, all my frustrations with my early teenage life, my parents (which whom I had a stormy, volatile relationship with at best), and other issues were all channeled into roleplaying games during this period. Right after high school I started playing with a guy to DM’ed a campaign and I elected to play a mage, or magic-user. Into him I channeled all my negative energy. He turned out to be a very bad guy – he was hated by a couple of the other characters played by my friends.
But – and here’s the whole point of this – what would people rather have, a volatile, pissed off friend, spouse, or child… or one who controls their emotions and channels such strong emotions into a medium that actually allows them to use these emotions in a creative, thought provoking way? Is it better to bottle up these emotions, or spend thousands on psychiatric help or therapy that in most cases really doesn’t help in the long run… or to spend a few hours every couple of weeks letting out all those issues through a medium that allows these issues to be channeled and controlled in an environment that is fun and relaxed?
Over the years since I’ve been married I have not had the ability to get involved in roleplaying games nearly as much, and I can honestly say that I have suffered a bit as a result. The outlet I had in the past isn’t, or wasn’t there – and trying to fill it with something else just didn’t cut it. My wife doesn’t understand – and I don’t expect her to, since most people who’ve never really played these games even begin to understand them – let alone want to, mostly because of the stigma and mis-information surrounding them to this day. I just wish the stigmata of society about roleplaying games would mature, and people would understand why guys like me play them. I’m living proof that the allegations of most religious organizations regarding how roleplaying games affect or destroy lives is completely false – I’ve been playing these games for 31 years, and I have never gone psychotic, am not violent, have no severe emotional or mental issues or illnesses, and still think satanic worship and witchcraft is dangerous and – frankly – stupid.
Lately however, I actually have found communities online that play roleplaying games in a format I never considered – what is known as “play by post“. Essentially, the game is played on a forum. This eliminates the need to have players get together as a group. I’ve started on a few of these so far and am enjoying them immensely. Furthermore, I happened to find a program called Fantasy Grounds that is what is known as a “virtual table top“. This allows people to – essentially – play face to face across an internet connection, so there is no need to actually pick up and go anywhere. The price is a bit steep – but I think it’s well worth it due to the customization of the system you get, and what you can get out of it.
So I’m getting back into roleplaying games again, just in a different format that I had in the past. It’s enjoyable, fun, thought provoking, and creative… and what’s more the play by post method has the further benefit of allowing one to practice their writing skills.