After 40 years, popularity of tabletop gaming rises despite high-tech competition

After 40 years, popularity of tabletop gaming rises despite high-tech competition

July 29th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Samuel Thompson, Caleb George, Caleb Kvale and game master Josh Kvale, from left, examine a map of Faerun, a fictional Dungeons & Dragonsthe Chattanooga Public Library.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

The "Monster Manual" is a supplemental reference book for Dungeons & Dragons that details monsters and beasts.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Miniatures placed on a map of the Dungeons & Dragons setting can help players visualize where their characters are in relation to other players and monsters in the game.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Sam Kertay rolls dice to determine statistics such as strength or intelligence as he creates a character for the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons during a program at the Chattanooga Public Library.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

ROLE-PLAYING RHETORIC

Want to sound like you know what you're doing in a role-playing game session? You had better understand the following terms:

Game master: The person who serves as the game's referee/narrator. He or she describes the setting and directs the actions of the monsters and other entities the players encounter.

Campaign: The world in which the players' adventures take place. Can be in a published campaign or a setting created by the game master.

Race: A character's species, e.g.. human, elf, orc, dwarf, gnome, halfling.

Class: A character's occupation or specialization, e.g. fighter, rogue, wizard, bard, cleric.

Alignment: The character's moral and ethical disposition, e.g., lawful good, chaotic evil, true neutral. This reflects what motivates his or her interacts with other characters or their reactions to different situations.

Ability scores: A measurement of a character's physical and mental attributes, e.g., strength, dexterity, intelligence, constitution, charisma and wisdom.

Hit points: A measurement of a character's vitality. Character injury, death or incapacitation will result as hit points are reduced through combat or other sources of harm.

Experience points: Awarded to players for various actions, from combat and quest completion to overcoming a difficult task. Characters become more advanced by accumulating experience points.

PC/NPC: Acronyms for characters controlled by players (player characters) and the monsters and people controlled by the game master (non-player characters).

Miniature: A small model used to represent players' characters and monsters on a game map to determine position and movement during combat. Players typically personalize their miniatures by painting them.

D20/D12/D10/D8/D6/D4: Dice with various numbers of sides that are rolled by players to determine the success or failure of everything from swinging a sword to the effectiveness of a bribe or remaining hidden.

Saving roll: A dice roll, usually with a 20-sided dice, to determine whether a player avoids various attacks or damage.

Natural 20: Rolling a 20 on a 20-sided dice. Usually results in automatic success of an action, such as a supremely nimble dodge or an extremely damaging attack.

Botch: Rolling a 1 on a 20-sided dice. Usually results in absolute failure of an action, sometimes with horrific consequences, such as an attack injuring a friend or causing a spell to backfire.

Loot: Rewards, usually in the form of items or money, that players receive for completing quests, slaying monsters and through exploration.

START AN ADVENTURE

Interested in joining a local role-playing session? Here are a few options for assembling a fellowship:

• Create a free account to game online in your web browser through Roll20.net.

• Connect with fans of games in different settings by joining the Chattanooga D&D Meetup group at Meetup.com/Chattanooga-D-D.

• Gamers regularly post open sessions on sites such as NearbyGamer.com, RPGGameFind.com and Forum.RPG.net.

• Dicehead Games (200 Paul Huff Parkway, Cleveland, Tenn.) hosts weekly RPG nights. View a schedule at Dicehead.com/events.htm.

On a blue-sky summer afternoon, 10 teens are gathered on the second floor of the Chattanooga Public Library, sitting around a pair of tables littered with books, sheets of paper and pencils. The big-screen TV behind them is dark, and the video game consoles connected to it as lifeless as the unplugged "Ms. Pac-man" arcade cabinet a little farther down the wall.

The atmosphere is relatively quiet and their expressions are studious, but these teens aren't participants in a "Breakfast Club"-like summer detention for delinquents. They're preparing for their first adventure into the tabletop role-playing universe of Dungeons & Dragons.

But first, they have to decide who they want to be.

In Kyndall Trickett's case, her chosen alter ego is Allora, an elven wizard with a dark streak and a penchant for "killing stuff."

"Why not? I like elves because they're really strong but also pretty mythical," explains Kyndall, a 15-year-old human from Ohio who has spent her summer break in Chattanooga visiting her aunt.

Later, Allora and characters created by the six other participants in the library's Introduction to D&D class (the others in the library are the class organizers) will explore a monster-filled environment in search of fame and fortune.

To some, the idea of teens ignoring their Xbox 360s and Playstation 3s in favor of a style of gaming that first became popular the '70s and '80s might seem like a surprising anachronism. Yet D&D and other tabletop games have persisted for 40 years in the face of increasingly sophisticated competition from high-tech forms of entertainment.

And in contradiction to its long-term, stereotypical association with social outcasts crowding together in dank basements, D&D and other role-playing games increasingly are becoming a mainstream activity. In a 2000 survey, Wizards of the Coast - the current owners of the D&D universe of products - estimated that 5.5 million people in the U.S. regularly play tabletop roleplaying games.

Tabletop gamers, new and old alike, say they are drawn to the freedom of a game system that doesn't limit their choices. Whatever they want their characters to do generally is allowed and, as a result they say, the experience feels more "real" than playing a video game, in which the world is like a beautiful cage - vividly portrayed but also limited by its programming.

D&D games are built around fluid decision-making and reactive storytelling. Players embark on adventures under the direction of a game master, who alters the narrative in real time in response to the their actions. There are no cutting-edge graphics, surround sound or slick cinematics to drive the story forward. Typically, the most advanced piece of technology on the game table is a mechanical pencil for taking notes - hence their nickname as "pen[cil]-and-paper games" - and the only soundtrack is the clatter of the dice players roll to determine the success or failure of their actions.

So even though the library questers' adventure has been sketched out by event organizers Samuel Thompson, 19, Caleb George, 16, and Josh Kvale, 17, there's no telling what will happen when players begin making decisions.

"Tabletop games give you more freedom," says Thompson, who was introduced to D&D seven years ago through his parents. "There are certain things your mind can do that a video game can't."

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE GAME

Tabletop gaming's roots stretch back to the wargames of the 1800s, when players first began moving miniature representations of troops around a map to act out battle scenarios.

To many gamers, however, the genesis of modern pen-and-paper gaming was in 1974, when the first edition of D&D - originally called simply The Fantasy Game - was published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., a company created in Lake Geneva, Wis., by designer Gary Gygax and his business partners, Don Kaye and Brian Blume.

In its first year, TSR sold out its initial run of 1,000 hand-assembled copies of the D&D rule book. A year later, the company sold 4,000 copies. By 1977, an updated rule set, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was released that dramatically expanded and refined the rule set. In 2008, Wizards of the Coast released the fourth edition of the D&D rule set, and the company currently is testing a fifth iteration, according to a timeline by Wizards of the Coast, which purchased TSR in 1997.

The initial success of D&D spawned other tabletop game publishers. In 1975, Games Workshop was founded in Britain and published the popular Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 campaign settings in 1983 and 1987. In 1991, White Wolf Publishing set up shop in Stone Mountain, Ga., and created the World of Darkness line of games, a modern game world in which players create characters based on mythological creatures such as vampires and werewolves.

Former Ringgold, Ga., resident Sean Patrick Fannon was introduced to D&D at age 11 through a 1977 article in the magazine "The Gamer." He since has played games in dozens of different settings, created materials for The Champions, a superhero tabletop roleplaying universe, and written the pen-and-paper encyclopedia, "The Fantasy Role-playing Gamer's Bible." Last year, Fannon founded his own game publishing company, Evil Beagles Games, near Huntsville, Ala.

Regardless of the game's setting, tabletop role-playing offers a chance to immerse oneself in a universe to a degree that isn't possible in other media, Fannon says.

"It's another life you live in a world apart from the real one," he says. "You have a role to fulfill, a personal story to tell, relationships that matter, challenges that you must overcome, victories to celebrate and defeats to lament."

GATEWAY TO ANOTHER WORLD

For many gamers, D&D serves as an introduction to role-playing, but once they get the pen-and-paper bug, many say they often are drawn to try out any of the dozens of alternative settings that are available.

In 2005, Chattanooga blogger and writer Natalie Green, 29, married Joshua Green, a longtime fan of D&D who also regularly serves as a game master. At first, she says, she didn't understand the appeal of an activity she thought of as "really dorky," but once she gave it a try a year later, she discovered that the ability to act out a role appealed to her background in theater.

Green and her husband later tried the superhero-based Mutants & Masterminds setting and eventually moved on to Warhammer, which Green's husband now plays exclusively.

Like many tabletop gamers, Green also has played massively multiplayer online role-playing computer games such as "Everquest" and "World of Warcraft." Sitting at a keyboard, however, pales in comparison to the face-to-face interaction of gathering around a card table and acting out a story with friends, she says.

"[Tabletop gamers] feel like they're allowed to be a different person," explains Green, who stopped role-playing when she became pregnant in 2009. "You can't really be a dwarf; you can't really be a hobbit; you can't really be a wizard; but you can at the table. I think that's really liberating for people."

Tabletop adventures can conclude after just a few multi-hour gaming sessions, but some campaigns can persist for years. For groups with long-running games, Green says, it's not uncommon for players to become emotionally attached to their characters.

"During one of the campaigns I played in ... my brother-in-law's character died and ... I just straight up cried," she says. "I don't think you get that when you're playing a video game."

CELEBRITIES & CONTROVERSIES

Although it has remained a relatively underground activity since its inception, tabletop gaming occasionally has surfaced in the cultural mainstream, where it sometimes has been shone in a less-than-positive light.

In the 1980s, D&D drew fire from various religious groups, which accused the game of promoting satanic worship, witchcraft and other occult activities. Following the suicide of her son in 1982, Patricia Pulling of Richmond, Va., founded the activist group Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons. She also wrote an anti-role-playing pamphlet, "Dungeons and Dragons," with chapters covering topics such as "human sacrifice," "spell preparation" and "negativism."

William Schnoebelen, a self-described reformed "witch high priest" and "hardcore satan[ist]" also campaigned against D&D. In 1989 and 2001, he wrote a pair of articles - "Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons" and "Should a Christian Play Dungeons and Dragons" - in which he accused the game of promoting a "law-of-the-jungle kind of morality" and "prepar[ing] the player for thinking like a magician."

Anti-D&D fervor eventually died down and, with the recent growth of nerd culture through blockbuster comic book films and the growth of the video game industry, role-playing has been embraced more positively by pop culture, serving as a plot device in TV shows such as "Futurama," "Freaks and Geeks," "Community" and "The Big Bang Theory."

Fans of role-playing say that, despite prevailing stereotypes about those who participate in tabletop gaming, the pool of gamers is more diverse than some people assume.

"You will discover every mode of dress, every body type, every profession, every social norm you might find in the world," Fannon says. "Gaming appeals to the imagination, and everyone has the capacity to imagine."

Many celebrities, including comedians Mike Meyers, Patton Oswalt and Robin Williams, have admitted to being tabletop gamers. Action superstar Vin Diesel is a longtime role-playing fan and described D&D as a "training ground for imagination." He later penned the introduction to the book, "Thirty Years of Adventure: Celebrating Dungeons and Dragons."

In a 2004 essay about his introduction to D&D as a seventh grader, talk show host Stephen Colbert writes, "I ... was instantly hooked. It allowed me to enter the world of the books I was reading. I put more effort into that game than I ever did into my school work." In 2011, he also issued an on-air shout-out to "any half-elf thieves who are joining us tonight."

Local comedian Joel Ruiz started playing D&D with his older brother 16 years ago. Like Colbert, Ruiz says the experience of creating and thinking like his characters helped him hone skills that have proven vital to developing his routines.

"It was the first time I got to interact with something that used a lot of imagination," he says. "Playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons stuff got me into storytelling and plot development and characters without realizing it because I was so immersed in the world."

BLURRED LINES

In recent years, the division between pen-and-paper and video games has become increasingly permeable. The latest edition of D&D simplified and streamlined the role-playing experience to ease in players who were familiar with online role-playing computer games such as "World of Warcraft." Conversely, a pen-and-paper role-playing game set in the "Warcraft" universe was published in 2003, with a second edition following in 2005.

Chip Quarles III, a carpet pad inventory coordinator for Shaw Industries in Dalton, Ga., played "World of Warcraft" for years. When he discovered last year that the online game owed many of its conventions to tabletop role-playing, he decided to start a campaign using rules from the second edition Dungeons & Dragons.

"It [D&D] is the ultimate gaming experience; it is no-holds-barred fantasy," Quarles says. "I think there will always be a cult following for tabletop. I love video games, don't get me wrong, but I love tabletop more."

To some players, the appeal of pen-and-paper role-playing is the sense of pure escapism.

Hunter Whitlock, 18, has played D&D for years with a group in East Ridge. He graduated in May from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School but, for the last few years, he says he has struggled with personal and family issues. Having a place to go and portray someone with none of those problems was crucial to getting through that period, he says.

"It was a good way to relieve stress. It took my mind off other things," says Whitlock, who now is working at Office Depot. "I don't know where my life would be without everyone I met there and the stress relief I get from ... that little moment where I don't have to be me."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.