Saturday, 14 May 2011

D&D Encounters – RPG for beginners and lessons in what not to call a room full of gamers

In the name of researching information for my dissertation on stigma and Fantasy publishing, I have contacted publishers, interviewed editors and sent questionnaires to readers of different genres. But last week I decided the time had come to look into a different corner of the Fantasy market, that of the Fantasy gamer.

The generalised stigma surrounding Fantasy, Science Fiction and, to an extent, Horror (if the stigma exists, and I think it does), by which I mean the negative perception of SFF books (eg, they’re for children, they’re escapism, they’re wish-fulfilment, they’re badly written), also includes the negative perception of the readers themselves. I think many people who scorn the genre (please step forward by the way, I need you) still have this image of the ‘geek’ in mind when thinking of SFF readers.

That is, the spotty teenager/middle-aged man still living with their mother, with a deep lack of social skills and an unhealthy pallor earned from late nights spent basking in the glow of their computer screen, barking orders at their elf-self that’s done more exercise going from one end of the tavern to another than they’ve done in a year.

I blame television. Obviously, this is blatant stereotyping; it’s negative and, let’s face it, plain mean. Why is it a bad thing to enjoy gaming, online or otherwise? Who cares if some of those people who enjoy gaming also enjoy wearing their hair as long as their beard and t-shirts that say ‘What Would Leeroy Do?’

There are different sectors of the gaming world. There is LARPing – Live Action Role Playing (people who run around the woods acting out Fantasy battles and what not). MMORPGs – Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (role-playing video games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, etc). MMOG – Massively Multiplayer Online Games (online poker, puzzles etc). And there is RPG – Role-Playing Games (complex board games like Warhammer, Dungeons and Dragons, etc).

Of all of these, I felt that RPG was the one where I could find a bunch of like-minded people together in the same place (as opposed to distributed all over the world), and speak to them face-to-face.

However, when I emailed a shop that specialised in RPG, I didn’t expect the following response:

Me: *explains project and asks for help*

Store: Sure! But the best way is to take part in a session. We have D&D Encounters for beginners, we’ll set you up a character.

Me: ?!

Store: What would the slightly gothy version of yourself be like?

Me: ?!!!! *Out of my depth* A cross between Tyrion out of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and… Buffy? But that’s probably not what you meant.

Store: That’s exactly what I meant ; )

So that’s why I cobbled together my questionnaires and, with younger sister in tow for support (she wanted to be Xena – we were clueless), embarked on a three and a half hour gaming session, the majority of which I spent completely bewildered.

To cut a long session short, there was a lot of background information the others on the table knew that we didn’t (not to mention incomprehensible in-jokes that provoked rounds of laughter we politely joined in on). This is because there are whole books published on the universe, including a number of regular publications that reveal new characters, abilities and locations, and a considerable online community fostered by DCI where you can swap stories, build characters and buy their countless, expensive player products.

D&D Encounters is, not a dating for geeks as the name might suggest, a series of weekly ‘epic encounters’, and ours was called ‘Dark Legacy of Evard.’ You can find out more here – and more details are released weekly so that gamers everywhere can take part.

I was Luusi, the human slayer. Our Dungeon Master was called Ian. Dungeon Master Ian, an ex-academic with long grey hair, explained the rules as we went along with supreme calm and patience. Our fellow gamers were similarly patient and helped us make our moves, looking past our expressions of confusion. There were just so many numbers and variety of dice involved. I rolled a D20 and a D10 (for damage, obviously), but one man declared something incomprehensible before throwing five different kinds of dice onto the table and making his move. The rest of us were suitably astounded (or at least, I acted suitably astounded to hide my lack of understanding). When I was first up I rolled a crit, which drew gasps, but I felt only panic, and had to fight the urge to say ‘Maths. Very dangerous. You go first.’ However, I didn’t want to look weird in front of the gamers.

The gamers consisted mostly of middle-aged men or boys that still looked teenaged, with hair in lots of exciting lengths and arrangements – and for the most part were lovely. There was an element of seriousness involved, such as when DM Ian was voicing the parts of the characters in the inn, although when he ducked behind his cardboard barrier to eat his pasta salad, this diminished somewhat. But mostly it was a relaxed atmosphere. There were tables set out where different games were taking place, and people came in and left when they pleased, bringing sandwiches, pizzas, more pasta salads and cans of pop along with them. The atmosphere was relaxed, safe, and you could tell people felt at home.

But then the time came for my questionnaires to be handed out. Suffice to say that I learned a few lessons. Namely: to check my grammar and to never use the word ‘geek’ in a room full of gamers (particularly in a questionnaire full of errors). My questions were openly mocked. It was like being back in high school. Essentially, I’d entered their inner sanctum, disrupted their gaming session, and demanded they answer questions about what it’s like being called ‘geeks’ and ‘steriotypes’ (sic). I think I would have mocked me too.

Having done a session, I only have admiration for the sheer volume of information the players are aware of, and their mathematic ability. I mean, doesn’t a die only have six sides? Any more than that and I'm lost.

Fun fact: the feedback from my questionnaires indicated that gamers don't equal genre fans, and it's a misconception that they are automatically going to be as geeky as, say, me about SFF fiction.

For a keen gamer this place is amazing. For an enthusiastic beginner (sans questionnaires), they're going to get a great welcome. Although this was one lair I don’t think I’ll be invading again.


  1. A great article and an interesting take from someone like yourself that sits outside of the Circle of Enthusiasm. I think your comment about it being a safe haven almost for the gamers that join in is telling, and something I would agree with. Having done a few things like this in the past - comfortable and friendly atmospheres are all I've really experienced. That does often bring clique, in jokes and a sense of nervousness initially when first joining in. However, it's something that like all things, is overcome soon enough.

    Hopefully you'll look back in the future and realise this wasn't your last game. :)

  2. You're very sweet to say this - if only you'd been there to fill out my questionnaire! I should spellcheck it and send it to you :)

  3. I'm sorry that you felt mocked in anyway. I guess the lesson to take away is that 'Gamers' are just people too, and therefore are flawed like everyone else. That's no excuse for how you were made to feel, more just an unfortunate fact. Had I realised the exact nature of you questions I would have been much more careful as to who I would have handed them out too.

    I think the thing that so few people realise is that within the 'Gamer' stereotype there are a myriad collection of subtypes all with there own oddity's and they have their own issues with the other types. Trust me, as the guy who sits behind the counter being friends to them all most days I get to see this in action. If that makes me the biggest geek of them all psychoanalysing them all then so be it!

    In short I'm sorry you were made to feel bad or belittled in anyway and I can only apologize on behalf of the less sensitive people who frequent Fanboy3.


  4. Hi Ross, I appreciate your response. I hope my post pointed out that the stereotype of 'geeks', 'gamers' and the science fiction and fantasy 'fan' is mostly a misconception. That's the purpose of my dissertation, to look at ways of shedding light on the stereotypes, seeing where they originate from and looking at ways of revealing the truth about people who enjoy science fiction and fantasy, and the genres themselves.