Table-top RPGs: When I “got it”

I’ve played table-top RPGs here and there most of my life. My brother and a friend got started playing Iron Crown Enterprise’s MERPMiddle Earth Role Playing. They were both huge fans of Tolkien, and my brother got me started on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well. So of course I wanted to play a game set in that world.

This was in the days when it seemed everybody in the evangelical church “knew” thatDungeons and Dragonswas like a gateway drug to all Satan’s deceptions. You start playing that game, and next thing you know, you’ll be flying on a broom throwing fireballs and summoning evil spirits… or so the traditional wisdom said.

So D&D was out of the question. But a game based on Middle-Earth had to be okay, right? Of course it was!

We played MERP for a while, and then we switched to BattleTech, a futuristic game where your characters pilot 40-foot-tall humanoid destruction engines, pounding each other with lasers and missiles across a hexagon battlefield. My brother usually ran the games… I’m sure both systems had some term for what they called that person, but the common term from D&D is “Dungeon Master” or DM.

Years later, I found myself sitting at a table with a few friends from the Chapel who were interested in a casual RPG group. I had picked up the newest rulebooks ofD&D, by now freed from the fear that these books were instant portals to the deepest levels of hell. It turns out, if you read through the books and talk to people who play RPGs, all they’re doing is cooperative social story-telling. The devil’s work, indeed.

I had a grand plan in mind to start off the new group’s adventures, and I was both nervous and excited about what it meant to be a good DM. You have to be able to come up with a fairly interesting setting, then communicate that setting, then adapt to all the ways the players will find tobreak everythingin that setting. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The players fought some bandits that had set up a “toll” on a busy merchant road. They learned where the bandits had set up camp, and decided to pay a visit. This was all pretty mundane, but we had several players who had never tried an RPG before, so it was an easy way to start learning the rules. The team decided to approach the camp, and developed a plan. Some snuck around behind the camp, climbing up a sheer cliff face. Some stayed hidden in the trees on the outskirts of the camp, ready to rain arrows and magic down on the bandits if needed, and the main “voice” of the group strolled right into camp with my wife’s character to negotiate with the bandit leader.

At this point, I’m just having fun, playing the part of the surly bandit that my friend is trying to negotiate with. What might the bandit be thinking? He’s trying to trick me, he’s some heroic type… but he makes a good offer, and the money might be worth it. Plus, me and my crew, we have this fellow and his friend completely outnumbered. So if he tries anything, he’s going to get beat down fast.

Then my friend says to me, out of nowhere, “I attack the fire.”

What?  I probably did a double-take. “You what now?”

“I attack the fire. It’s a pretty big campfire, right?”

“Yeah…”

“I want to attack it,” he continues. “I don’t know how hard it would be to do this, but I want to basically swing my warhammer like a golf club and knock the burning wood and embers into this guy’s face.”

My mind is racing, trying to figure out what happens next, and my friend rolls a die to see how well his character does at this attempt. He does pretty well. I’m excited, because I never would have expected this.

My player asks, “So the fire is pretty well scattered, right?”

“Yeah…” I answer, probably with a cringe for where this is headed.

“So… these are all human bandits, right? And you said it was a pretty dark night when we were coming to the camp. So this is the only real source of light. And none of us are humans… all of us havelow light vision.”

We had a dwarf paladin, a few elves, and a halfling (more or less a Hobbit). According to the rules, all of them could see in dim light as well as you and I can see during the day. My human bandits… not so much.

The glorious battle I had planned turned into an epic slaughter in seconds, starting with the fateful phrase, “I attack the fire.”

That pretty much sold me on being a DM. It’s great to set up a world or a story, to describe a setting or a mission… it’s even better to set all that out and see how the players will break it and make it theirs.

That sneaky devil… clearly his trick worked. (/sarcasm)

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