I sat down awkwardly at the end of the table. I’m kind of the new guy here, and not the most outgoing of personalities, so something new is something I’m not used to. I’m Bugsy Brown, a thief, a mechanic and weapons expert with mob contacts. I’m not the strongest in the lot but I’ve got half a brain on my shoulders. In fact we’ve all got different strengths and abilities so while the process of robbing this bank seems almost impossible there is a way. I’m sure we’ll crack this.
So the others are chatting about breaking into this vault and making off with everything without being captured or seen. Suggestions such as explosives and kidnapping are tabled while the time of the robbery, day or night, could yield success or disastrous results. All the while I’m just hanging back, taking things in and getting myself acclimatised to what’s going on.
This was about ten minutes in. I’m sitting there, listening and cracking jokes because that’s how I cope in these situations when I wonder when the hell do we start? Then somebody asks me a question and I realise planning began the moment I arrived, and I’ve been sitting here the whole time doing nothing. So I make an effort to get involved and we devise a plan; kidnap the bank manager and get the code to the vault. But do we make off with the vault or open it inside the bank? It’s Saturday morning at this point, going on midday, so we have to get a wriggle on.
We plan ahead by procuring transport while I try, and succeed, in gaining the usage of another gangsters powers. One thing every heist has in common is that success and failure is more or less a game of chance. I get myself to the top floor of this bank, but there my luck runs dry. I’m confronted by this bank worker, and it takes a moment for me to realise I need to cover my tracks, but when he asks what I’m doing all that comes out is this little whisper of “uhh, nothing.” If I’d tried a little harder I could have gotten past, but instead I’m caught, and my attempt at a flash-bang doesn’t have the desired effect. I flee the building.
I was really annoyed that things hadn’t gone my way, but I was committed. I wanted to finish my part, so I returned for another session. Armed with nothing but my wits and some augmented powers I head for the banks front entrance. Two guards patrol the street, but no problem; I render myself invisible and approach them. With a whole lot of luck my telekinetic abilities blew out all but one of the lights lining the street, distracting one guard and leaving the other vulnerable. I dispatched the two with my scythe and made my way inside.
Instead of a covert operation I’m met with a barrage of bullets. I dive for the closest coverage but still take three shots to my mid-section. I’m alive, but in a bad way. My back-up isn’t coming any time soon either; one is stuck on the second floor and the two who were looking to shut off the power in the sewer system beneath have run afoul of a giant reptilian-like creature.
My only hope is our vampire ally, who is still on her way. But once she arrives her insane powers will make things very interesting…
Ok, so I’m not really Bugsy Brown but I am the guy sitting nervously at the table, and the others are in my Diploma course. We aren’t robbing banks or getting shot, and those supernatural abilities are just written on my character sheet, but we do get to plan and watch things play out. Whether we’re successful or not remains to be seen. Bugsy’s destiny is in my hands, so to speak and this game system makes me feel every bump in the road.
I’m playing Neither Hero Nor Villain, a table-top game. We’re a crack team of robbers trying to rip off the Mafia in Manhattan, 1929. This time we’re committing a faux robbery on the bank, after which we’ll break in again when they least suspect it. Oh, and we’ve less than twenty-four hours to pull this off or we’ll miss our chance.
Unfortunately, though we are in control of the general direction of the game, we’re not in total control of the outcome. Everything comes down to the roll of a dice, and while I did have lady luck on my side I’ve learned that a perfect game is a luxury and just one slip-up can be costly. My first two rolls are brilliant and get me to the top floor of the bank, but my next rolls are woeful and I’m caught. Those brief words with the bank worker did happen, only it was me and the game master sitting across the table from me. At the time I didn’t realise it but if I had convincingly acted my part I might have actually gotten past him; instead I was forced to use that failed flash-bang.
That was my first tabletop gaming experience, there have been two so far, and it’s been a major cultural shock. Isn’t this a nerd’s game, played by virgins and those that dwell within basements? Yet I look around the table and I see people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying this like myself. My original thoughts were to show up, play my part and learn what I needed for this article, but in the space of thirty minutes I was immersed. The story, the planning and the roll of the dice all had me on edge, but this couldn’t be right. A bunch of people sitting around, rolling dice, playing characters and acting out a fantastical story while focussing on strategy and being intellectually challenged. Isn’t this supposed to be really nerdy and stupid?
Well, that might be true for those who prefer straight-forward shooters like Call Of Duty. For my classmate Thomas Moore, the creator of Neither Hero Nor Villain, it’s everything he could ever want in a game, and more.
“I suppose the main reason why I’ve enjoyed it so much is my background as a fantasy writer and as an actor, doing a lot of community theatre. It’s kind of a combination of both, you get to play out a story, you get to invest in a character, and at the same time you’re also trading off with other players. You’re getting to improvise a story as you’re going along.”
“With the improv, whatever idea you have you can immediately jump in and make that reality. With role playing games there are a few more structures that restrict what your ideas can be. And anyone who’d know doing any kind of improv or creative writing session when you’re a little more constricted, you’re a little more creative anyway.”
“If you call the game master or dungeon master the director it almost does become like everyone’s sitting down while they run through some improv session.”
Tom, who has been playing since 2010, cut his chops on the most legendary tabletop game, Dungeons & Dragons, while briefly studying at Deakin University. Though his tenure there didn’t last long Tom values the time as he experienced D&D, learning more from the Deakin gamers group than the course itself.
“That was just a general group event; they were running three simultaneous games of D&D. That was the first time I’d ever played and I got really invested in it.”
“There were bits and pieces of other things I learnt, mostly through those groups. I was on the council’s for both the gamers of Deakin and the student theatre company. So I learnt more organisational, planning and event skills through those groups than I ever learnt in drama or creative writing.”
Though Tom has great affinity with nerd culture he comes across as anything but. He’s an intellectual, first and foremost, who knows his history when it comes to theatre and writing, and that’s one of the great aspects of table-top gaming. It’s dominated by a certain demographic (“nerds”) but can be played by anyone, and it attracts all different personalities that come through in the way the player approaches the game.
Labels such as story-tellers, with which Tom identifies the closest, define the groups that play these games. There are explorers, who will ignore the main quest in order to discover the world and actors love becoming their characters. Then there are power gamers who love building stats and slayers who just want to get into it and kill everything. There are even the watchers: players who are happy just to sit back and watch the show. Tabletop gaming doesn’t just cater to one type, it caters to everybody.
Tom says this is one of its best aspects, as though there is great strategy involved in playing it’s not necessary to be successful, so there are no restrictions on who can join in.
“Certainly that’s what for me makes a fun game. You don’t have to be that wise to get invested in an RPG you just have to let yourself enjoy the story.”
Tom’s own game is a perfect example of this diversity. Neither Hero No Villain breaks the mould in that it’s not fantasy-based but adapted from a series of novels he’s been writing since 2008. The game system has gone through a number of overhauls, all in the name of perfecting game play, with a rulebook that has blossomed from forty to seventy pages.
“It’s still evolving, because every time I play through and I discover something that doesn’t quite work or I think of something that I think would be more enjoyable I go back and I start adjusting things. I’m up to producing the fourth edition.”
As for how he got the dice rolling, it’s an amalgamation of different, already established systems. Tom has used them as foundations and built upon them in order to create a game that’s unique, giving his players the kind of gaming experience he would like them to have.
“I’ve used D20, which is the core system that D&D uses and I’ve also taken the background mechanics from 13th Age. I adjusted it slightly because my game involves modern day, theirs is a fantasy, so there’s a lot variability to my system.”
“To achieve certain effects that might not be possible with the power you have, you need to come up with some way within the world of the story to achieve your goals, even when there’s nothing that explicitly states that you can.”
“When you’ve got certain abilities you can use and certain ones you can’t then how do manipulate those abilities to become a lot more effective? That’s really been the core of the system that I wrote.”
The planning is forever continuous, so the only way to find the kinks is to get in there and play through. They show themselves eventually. These games have a set beginning and ending but everything in the middle is up for grabs, meaning the possibilities as to where the game can go are almost endless.
“In the game we were playing, I had set up this whole bank heist situation and as they’re sitting there playing it and Penny goes “well why don’t we go talk to the mob, see if they know anything about these Brooklyn Brothers guys?” and I’m like, “fuck, what do I do now?”.”
“So as they’re sitting there chatting I’m just typing up two or three sentences apiece on two mobsters so that when they go and find the cafe, which I had to come up with on the spot, I had characters there that I could jump into. And later on, Penny was actually asking me “how did you know I was going to go and talk to the mobsters?” and I was like “I didn’t, I came up with that after you said that”.”
In a case of life imitating art these infinite possibilities don’t just exist in the gaming world. The creation of this experience in fact opens the door to all kinds of real-world opportunities. Tom has spent a large amount of time making his dream a reality, and he has no intentions of stopping here.
“One of my dream jobs is with Wizards Of The Coast (a gaming company that produces D&D), so I hope that having this fully-realised, fully fleshed out RPG that I’ve created from scratch will help build up a resume.”
“In transmedia (another class), we’re supposed to come up with a story that plays across multiple platforms. One of the other students is producing her own card game. And I was helping her out and I came up with these huge, expansive rules, and she was like “there’s no way in hell I can make any of that”, which is fair enough. But when the assignments finished I’m totally making it.”
“I’m still going to keep writing novels and hopefully I’ll be able to get some of those published. But a day job working as a game designer for non-computer games would be the top of the list, basically.”
There’s a lot of social stigma involved with playing tabletop games, but it’s on the side of ignorance, and for Tom it doesn’t faze him anyway because he’s doing what he loves to do. I admit I had an uninformed opinion on the people who played these games, as well as the quality of the game itself. But I have no shame in saying I have pleasantly been put in my place thanks to this experience.
If you’re quick to judge I say think again, because whether you realise it or not tabletop gaming isn’t confined to nerd culture. You’ve probably partaken yourself and just don’t know it. With origins that date back to the 6th century Gupta Empire of India tabletop gaming has seeped into all different facets of gaming. If you own an Xbox or PlayStation you’re a gamer. If you’ve ever played chess or solitaire you’re a tabletop gamer.
It’s a far more social activity than a group Skype call or Facebook conversation. You’re there, with people, attempting to solve these challenging puzzles that require planning and method. It doesn’t require you to stare at your phone or computer shooting haphazardly. That, especially in gaming, is a rarity today.
Amazingly it’s the social aspect of table-top gaming that has Tom enamoured, and rightfully proud, of his efforts.
“The best thing I find is not how much fun I have playing the game; it’s how much fun other people have had running their own games. My friends have run games with other people and reported back to me saying how much fun they had, how easy it was for the players to understand, which implies that it’s not only a good system it’s a good rulebook. And that’s really exciting for me.”
The assumptive mistake that’s often made is that this is just a silly past-time but the culture around tabletop gaming is one that’s steeped in captivation. It drags you in, and you find yourself immersed in this world where everything comes down to chance. Two hours of total exposure has left me living proof, which just shows how appealing this can be to everyone. It is welcoming of everyone and tests your greatest assets in order to achieve success, so what’s not to like?
Call them crazy if you will, they’d be the first ones to agree with you. As Tom aptly describes his attitude towards it:
“I get a little bit passionate about this shit.”