Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons @ RPG Club: Revealing Truths, Dispelling Myths

by Clare Kapin

6:55pm Monday night Joshua Lithgow walks down the steps and through a narrow corridor into a dark room located in the middle of the Humanities Hallway on campus at UC Irvine. The classroom is poorly lit having no windows, contains numerous rows of seats, and has mathematical equations chalked onto the board near the front of the room. Josh, a tall, dark haired, muscular guy wearing cargo pants and a dark sweater, quietly slumps down into a seat toward the back wall. The meeting begins at 7:00pm. As members begin bouncing down into the room, they become louder and more restless waiting for the role-playing games they have come here for to start.

But first, Scott Betts, President of the Role Playing Games Club, speaks and everyone quiets down. A tall, lanky guy with long-hair under a beret walks up to the podium. He speaks, in a surprisingly loud and clear voice, and says that Rady’s Children’s Hospital in San Diego has sent the club a letter thanking the club for donating a Wii Fit Plus with accessories to the Foundation’s Child’s Play. The hospital touched on how donations, especially during the holidays, positively affected the lives of the children staying there. He then moves on to a new topic. Next week the club would like to hold a board game night. They joke that it will be like a potluck, where every game is like a delicious dish. Scott asks for hands to see how many are interested. Most are. Then he moves to the side and gives members a few minutes to recruit players to new games they’ve set up. The club contains roughly around 80 people, making it easy for members who are interested in starting up a new game to find people who are interested without even stepping off campus. It’s now 7:25pm, the noise increases and people anxiously begin to jump to their feet. Scott takes the hint and dismisses them so that they have time to find their groups and search the Humanities Hall for an empty classroom.

As members disperse, Josh locates Patrick, Brandon, Gabe, Tomas, and Carey. The diverse group, which includes one graduate student, and 5 undergrads with majors as different as sociology, mechanical engineering and biology, leave the dark meeting room and hunt for a smaller classroom that has chairs and a large desk. The first two classes rooms they peer into have already been snagged by other RPG club groups, but the third room looks empty. There are about 25 chairs with attached desks scattered about the plain white room. Everyone but Patrick pulls up a chair to the wide desk at the front of the room. Patrick, the Dungeon Master (DM), takes his place at the podium and sets up his Internet module, a tool that holds an adventure scenario. The Internet module is basically the modern version of the D&D books people used to follow in order to DM an adventure. Now the books are compiled online it’s faster and easier to mix up adventures or activities or monsters for that night’s game play. As Patrick puts it, “the module is a framework, it says the players encounter these people, here is how you set them up and here is what happens if things go nuts. And for challenging moves you roll dice to see if it meets the difficulty. D&D is a game of percentages.” As Patrick is setting the module up, the players pull out their stat sheets colorful multisided dice. Every player has at least the basic set of dice composed of 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12, and 1d20. (1d4=1 die with 4 sides)

Each player has his or her own character that they create. Although Josh is familiar to text-based role playing games, where he wrote fantasy stories online, he was new to the table top role playing games that the RPG club offered. What initially drew Josh to the tabletop role-playing games were all the rules, statistics and options available to him. He loves all the, “nitty gritty details about the games.” Beginning fall quarter, he was walked through the steps it takes to build a Rogue. More experienced players usually take newer players under their wings and explained to them the basics, showing them how to set up, roll dice for their statistics and how to build a character. When it comes to building a character, players have a wide selection of options. There are characters that deal magical damage like Sorcerers, Druids, Wizards and Invokers, characters that fight and heal like Bards, Artificers and Clerics, or ones that do mainly physical combat damage like Monks, Assassins and Rangers. Although there may be three or more different types of characters that do physical damage, each class has different characteristics. Monks, for instance, spend years training and perfecting their physical strength so that when they attack they can withstand anything thrown at them. While Assassins are more stealth oriented. They strike from the shadows to avoid retaliation. And Rangers, which can be either archers or blades-men, are very attuned with nature and work a lot with the surrounding plants and animals. Players have a great deal of freedom when building their characters as roles and qualities are pretty flexible.

Patrick continues to set up and players who have brought their laptops with them, pass around YouTube videos and clips of TV of The Office that they found particularly amusing. Finally, Patrick lays out the mat on top of the desk in front of the players. The 24” by 30” mat has a grid with 1” squares. This is where the DM draws out what the surrounding environment is in marker so that players can tactically locate and move their characters. He places multiple colorful miniatures of monsters and characters on top of the mat. Each player picks out a corresponding miniature for their character so that they can visually see where their fantasy character is on the mat/board and in relation to other characters or enemies. Now everything is in place, Dungeons & Dragons: “Scales of War” can commence.

Almost immediately, everyone’s faces perk up. Josh and Gabe had a long day of classes and studying today. It’s midterms week and they’ve been looking forward to this break all day, this time to let loose and go on an adventure. Patrick places four Orcs in the middle of a roughly drawn out cave on the mat. The players now calm down and focus on the danger in front of their characters. On the one hand, they can relax because they’ve entered a new world, one where homework doesn’t exist. But on the other hand, a wrong footstep could spell disaster. They all roll a 1d20 to see how will go first. Tomas rolls the highest. Going clockwise around the table they all take turns maneuvering their level 3 characters into positions of attack. The party is composed of well-rounded group that includes an elven Cleric (healer), a human Warlord (healer/fighter), a human Invoker (controller), a human Swordmage (defender), and a genasi Avenger (fighter). Once they’ve all taken a turn the 4 large Orcs, which are all duel-wielding battle-axes, charge at the 5 adventurers. The players and the Orcs exchange strikes. Josh’s Invoker unleashes a Sun Strike against one of the Orcs, he rolls a 17 on his 1d20 and targets its reflex. The DM checks the monster’s reflex total and compares it to the Invoker’s roll. Since the Invoker’s roll is a higher number than the monster’s it hits. The Invoker then rolls a second die to determine the amount of damage done. The attack was high enough that it bloodies the Orc and allows the Invoker to push the Orc 3 spaces away from the party. Josh clenches his fist rapidly in victory, as this is the first damage done of the night.

Josh hasn’t always had such good luck with his character’s attacks. The first character he made, a Rogue, died during one long encounter. His group was fighting gnomes when one of the gnomes freaked out and decided to make a run for it. Brandon, the youngest member of the team, decided that he wanted his character to chase after the gnome and kill it before it escapes. The rest of the party kept telling him to let it go and to stop worrying but Brandon quickly dismissed their advice. The gnome led Brandon’s Swordmage into another room where two spider people called Ettercaps lay. Forced to catch up and help out the Swordmage, the group had to forgo taking a resting period, which would have recharged their abilities after their last encounter. Intrigued by the Ettercaps, Josh sent his Rogue to the frontline to stab the beasts, but in the next turn the two large spider people carrying heavy hammers both attack the Rogue and get critical hits on him. Not yet dead, Tomas’s Warlord uses his last heal on the Rogue, giving it 9 hit points as opposed to zero. With the boost of confidence from being healed, Josh sends his Rogue straight back out the stab, and just like before the Ettercaps charge him again, but this time they instantly kill him. Annoyed at being placed in that situation to begin with, Josh knew that for next week’s game he would have to create a brand new character. For convenience Patrick levels up his new character so that it’s at the same place as the rest of the party.

Despite the fact that his character died, Josh states that he’s very pleased with the way his new character turned out. He decided on an Invoker. “Now I get the opportunity to try out something new and it actually turned out for the best.” Now that he’s got a feel for playing D&D, when asked if he would rather play a role playing game online or with a group of people at a table he stated that he much preferred to play with people in person. He explained, “Now that I've had a chance to play with people in person, I find it to be MUCH more enjoyable. Since you see each other face-to-face, and you drive the pace of the action instead of the computer's real-time, there is less emphasis on strictly focusing on the combat at hand and more on the camaraderie of the people playing. Jokes are passed around, snarky comments are made, and it's a much better experience all around.”

In the game with the Orcs, though, they now must put all silliness aside and seriously contemplate their next moves. What strike the character’s use dictates what defense it targets. Possible targets: armor class (ex. blocking with a shield), fortitude (ex. resisting a shove), reflex (ex. dodging a magic missile), and willpower (ex. resisting a psychic blast). The Avenger uses a second power to move the Orc even further and push him down the stairs. The Orc, however, stands up and charges the Warlord. Battle pursues. Patrick smiles as he has the Orcs clash swords with the party.

Patrick Thatcher, a tough looking guy with wire rimmed glasses and short, curly blonde hair is the DM of the game and Vice President of the RPG Club, has been playing role-playing games since he was seven years old. He reminisces about the past, stating that, “my babysitter first brought over a Tolkien themed role-playing game to keep me and my little brother occupied for hours.” He then got hooked on Dungeons & Dragons because it was all the rage and a logical progression from Tolkien. His brother and him fell in love with the game, but his parents weren’t happy about it. His parents banned D&D in their household, arguing that it was “evil and demonic.” Patrick believes that his parents developed their views because they are conservative Christians. He also notes that, “it is poorly understood by the whole population. People still aren’t enthralled with it. They assume it is associated with cultist activity. D&D has a power about it. Kids play it nevertheless, I played it in the library.”

One Evangelical Christian sect that still believes that Dungeons & Dragons players are practicing cult oriented activities has a website led by Jack Chick. CHICK.COM publishes web comics and articles by Jack Chick and his followers. One article that completely demonizes Dungeons & Dragons, stating that it, “violates the commandment of I Ths. 5:22 ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil.’ Much of the trappings, art, figurines, and writing within D&D certainly appears evil-to say the least of it.” William Schnoebelen, author of the article “Straight Talk on Dungeons & Dragons” then goes on to write about how the games often contained, “authentic magical rituals.” He justifies his argument by saying that he used to play Dungeons & Dragons himself from 1973-84, for over 11 years as a “witch high priest.” Patrick laughed as he looked over this article, “witch high priests don’t even exist!” he yelled in a frustrated tone. Even more anti D&D than the article is the web comic that inspired it. Drawn by Jack Chick, it opens with an innocent display of seven people sitting around a table playing Dungeons & Dragons. But then two of the players discuss how one of them cast their first spell the previous night. She used a “mind bondage spell” on her father to get him to buy her $200 worth of new D&D merchandise. In the midst of that, the DM kills off one of the player’s, Marcie’s, characters and then you see Marcie’s mom talking to one of her friends saying, “I’ve been very worried. Ever since her character in the game got killed, it’s as though a part of her died.” In the next box you see her friend screaming as she walks into Marcie’s room and finds her hanging from the ceiling with her feet off the floor surrounded by a large dragon figurine and D&D miniatures.

Although Josh too was initially upset at the loss of his character, he quickly cheered up when he built his new cloak wearing Invoker. It channels Godly power directly through its body and it casts Visions of Blood on the Orcs. The Orcs have blue-grey skinned, faces like warthogs with teeth protruding from their jaws, and bodies like Arnold Schwarzenegger during his buff years. They wear spiked armor, have skulls strapped around their waists, run with open mouths and their long battle-axes held high. Josh’s group has been slowly killing off the Orcs, but two still remain. The Invoker’s Visions of Blood lowers the Orcs’ defenses allowing Tomas to jump in and throw magical javelins to finish them off. Smiles light up all the players’ faces. Tonight’s battle was tough, but enjoyable. Pretending to be someone else and fantasizing about a combat between themselves and evil Orcs from another world for a few hours gave the players a sort of satisfaction. Most adventures last around 2 to 3-hours, Patrick likes the party to have to combat encounters per night, each lasting around an hour.

Patrick, who’s seen numerous D&D battles over the years, states that one of his favorite encounters has to be when he fought a Rust Monster Nightmare. Normal Rust monsters are about the size of a large dog and they survive by eating metal. They are the bane of adventures. The monster is designed to eat your armor and armor is nearly impossible to replace. It is easier to revive the dead that replace items. After centuries of consuming magical goods Rust Monsters have metamorphosed, they now look like massive sandy-brown scorpions with long spikes for tails, having grown to the size of an elephant they have become even more of a pest. The Rust Monster Nightmare that Patrick’s group encounters is slightly more intelligent than the rest. He sort of befriended a human that brings him magical items to eat. Patrick’s team of adventurers need one of the magical items the human is about to feed the RMN in order to perform a ritual, but the human wouldn’t surrender the item. Instead he turned to attack and called out for the RMN to help. The Rust Monster Nightmare eats the party’s swords, but they still manage to fend him off and defeat the creature. However, to get all their magical items back they have to cut off the RMN’s organ that stores all of their weapons and then remake them from scratch.

These intense games that combine story and combat in a variety of fantasy settings was designed by Gary Gygax and sold in books beginning in 1974. In a New York Times’ article, writer Seth Schiesel describes the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax, as a man who grew up in without siblings, many friends, television, or Internet. Devoid of such entertainment, Gygax turned to books. Schiesel reasons that from these books Gygax “discovered a fantastic world of sorcerers, maidens and trolls. He discovered loyalty and betrayal, cowardice and courage. In those books he realized that his mind had the power to transport him beyond barriers of class and religion, race and income. In those books, he realized he could be anyone.” And with that, the basis for Dungeons & Dragons had been formed. Also, in this article, Schiesel interviews a gaming parlor manager in NYC, Eric V. Smykal, about the practicality of playing D&D. Smykal explains, “learning to put yourself in another person’s shoes emotionally is something that everyone has to learn eventually. It’s part of learning to be a human being. Gamers do it for fun.” Josh would agree with Smykal’s point that social aspect of D&D is critical, as he has expressed that D&D is “very useful in learning social skills, since having a conversation with your fellow players is a non-negotiable necessity, and learning to get along is important.”

It’s about getting along with all types of people. Although many people believe that gaming is a male dominated world this isn’t entirely true. Tomas McIntee, the tall, athletic looking guy with long curly brown hair and an equally long beard, who plays the Warlord in the group, gives his take on females in D&D. He says that he knows a lot of girls that have tried to play the game, but they get discouraged when the group they’ve join just isn’t a good fit for them. He noticed that it happened often, not only to girls, but since there are fewer girls in the clubs, he says it’s a more noticeable issue with females. This isn’t to say that all girls get discouraged from playing. Carey, the Avenger in the group, proves that there is still a female presence in the game. Not only that but Carey also plays in another D&D game at 11pm on Mondays her female friend Jula, right after her game with Patrick and Josh. Within the 80-member club, there is a small but strong group of female participators.

It’s almost 11pm and Josh’s battle has drawn to a close, most of the players that aren’t too sleepy or don’t have another game to go to, head on over to Jack In The Box to eat and chat. It’s a hangout for the RPG club, as most groups congregate there and rave about the epic battles they’ve just encountered while munching on cheeseburgers. Josh joins one discussion and rants about an incident that occurred a few weeks ago in their game. Josh’s Invoker and Gabe’s Cleric were hanging around in a bar talking to different adventuring groups when they came across one party that didn’t want anything to do with them. The head of the party was a tall elfish looking woman with a large scar across her body. Josh sends his Invoker over to ask her how she got her scars. The woman, in a flash, pulled out a dagger and points it towards the Invoker’s nether regions. Josh, fearful for his character’s life, desperately had his Invoker try to talk the woman into lowering her hand, instead she moved it closer to his private areas. Finally, the Invoker is left groveling on the floor, before the woman turned to exit and signaled her party to leave. It’s moments like those that are part of the reason Josh enjoys playing D&D. One can never tell what awaits them in the next moment, except maybe the DM.

Reporting Notes:

- Lengthy Interview with Joshua Lithgow

- Interviews with two other members

- 3-hour observations of meetings/games on Monday nights starting in February

- 30-minute observations of the group at Fast Food restaurants on two different occasions

- Obtained letter from Rady’s Children’s Hospital at an RPG Club meeting

- Role Playing Games Club’s Facebook page for events

- Chick.com for articles and web comics

- Dungeons & Dragons Compendium online for character information

- New York Times article on Gary Gygax

- New York Times article on Dungeons & Dragons origins

- Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manuel book

- Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook for core rules

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