Apparently I have been accidentally playing tabletop RPGs my entire life.
In April, I signed up to play The Republic at GX Australia. It’s a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG), developed by my friend Ashton McAllan (with Vincent Baker and Mark Redacted), and it was the first TTRPG experience I’d ever had. Well, maybe.
There was something about GX and its inclusive atmosphere that encouraged me to sign up to play in a TTRPG session, something I don’t typically do at conventions. Dedicating a few hours of my very hectic convention time to such an experience is difficult, for starters, and playing a social game for the first time in a public setting with no idea who you might meet can be nerve-wracking.
Before putting my name down, I felt confident that this was not only my first time playing a social, non-digital game at a convention, but it was also by my first TTRPG experience. In some ways this was true; in others, I quickly realised, it was not.
It was certainly my first pen-and-paper RPG, where you gather around a table with 20-sided dice and tell a free-form story based on a negotiation between yourself, other players, and the game master. But as we started working out the details on our character sheets, I realised that I’d done something similar before.
When I was a kid, I found an awesome game in my parents’ cupboard called HeroQuest. I used to flick through the books, putting the figures out on the board and making my own maps from scratch with all of my favourite creatures and traps. My mum would photocopy the blank map page from the quest book and let me draw my own designs, and write the stories that went with them. One of these was about ‘Hawthorn the Alchemist’ - I still have the yellowing notepad paper covered with blue biro scribbles. I must have been about seven or eight when I wrote this.
I remember playing my ‘campaigns’ with my dad. I also remember them being incredibly unbalanced and broken - and giving one of the games a test run with friends recently definitely proved that. But it was my first foray into trying to create an enjoyable game experience in an existing system, and to write a premise that accompanied it, and I’m pretty impressed with little-me for giving it a go. Turns out that I was not only playing TTRPGs are a kid, but I was also GMing them.
And this isn’t the only type of roleplay storytelling I was doing as a kid. When I was in late primary school and early high school, I was ‘RPing’ on forums like Neopets, and then via MSN Messenger with my best friend. In fact, for a while there I was organising what was essentially a ‘campaign’ based in the Harry Potter universe. In many ways, it was like any other pen-and-paper RPG, but it lacked the combat. To some people, that might mean it couldn’t possibly be a game, as it was missing what many people feel is the most important part of something like Dungeons & Dragons, but I disagree (as do I - Ed). We were creating stories where we explored the space and met NPCs, and - on the fly - I figured out where we might go and what we might see; I was doing everything that I love most in the TTRPGs that I play now.
Because I do actually play TTRPGs now! After The Republic in April, I started playing D&D regularly with an interesting collection of people, some of whom I knew before we started, while others I met through their characters. I never expected to find myself playing D&D, especially after conversations with Adam Koebel (co-author of Dungeon World) at GX Australia about the inherently combat-focused nature of the system, but here we are. And in many ways, I’ve been enjoying it so far.
Part of the reason I’ve had so much fun with the game is because we have modified many aspects of the system to suit ourselves. I’m lucky - I’m working with people who have similar priorities to me in terms of what’s important in a roleplaying game, and what’s not. We focus heavily on the storytelling aspects, even at times when the game system might not encourage it.
We actually have three campaigns running simultaneously in this group now, and I’m DMing one of them. Drawing maps, and filling spreadsheets with character information and location descriptions has been reminding me of my HeroQuest and Harry Potter RPing days. Running my first session felt just like figuring out what happened next on MSN Messenger. It was all very familiar.
D&D is often seen as the default TTRPG - it’s the one most people have heard of, that regularly appears as a pop culture reference in television shows or movies, and that therefore a lot of people play first. I can see how it happens - it’s the first TTRPG I’ve started playing regularly because it’s what this group was planning to try. But it definitely isn’t the only system, and it isn’t necessarily the best.
It doesn’t particularly suit the campaign I’m working on, but I’ve been adapting it to suit my needs. I’m also looking forward to trying other systems to see how they differ, and maybe finding my own ideal combinations that work with the worlds I want to create. While D&D might focus too heavily on combat and micromanagement, and might limit players in ways other systems do not, it’s also hard to analyse and compare it having played within it or used it to direct my own campaigns, so I’m happy to be experiencing it.
Playing - and running - TTRPGs feels very new to me, but also feels like something I’ve been doing forever. I have a better understanding of balance now than I did when I was eight, and am also better at preparing story in advance than I apparently was in early high school - I’m sure my players are appreciative on both counts.
The similarities between the activities I engaged in as a kid and ‘real’ tabletop roleplaying is obvious now, but it wasn’t in April. It’s interesting to me that I could have spent so much time messing around with HeroQuest (so many afternoons) and planning RPing sessions (for literal years) without realising the parallels. I feel like I have been playing TTRPGs for a couple of months, but also decades.
I wonder how many of the others I used to RP with never realised that we were playing games, and that these games were just as valid as D&D, or digital RPGs, or the FPSs that our peers were obsessed with. I wonder how many others have since tried out a TTRPG and realised they weren’t unfamiliar at all. I wonder who might now.