The Talk: A Gamer Is Born

By Eric A Jackson

I’m a mentor for our local library’s Young Adult Table Top Gaming Club.  I’ve been introducing, coaching and supporting 12 to 18-year old’s the joy of roleplaying games for more than a decade.  Every year in September fresh faces appear along with veterans from previous campaigns. These new players are frequently drawn in by current players, but others have heard about role playing games through older siblings, parents, peers and even <gasp> from the library webpage.   

On the first day they listen to the veterans chatting enthusiastically about magical items acquired, class options for a new character, sneak attacks and attacks of opportunity and proficiency bonuses and…and…and… it’s all too much. Suddenly they seem overwhelmed, start looking for the door, making sure they have their personal items nearby and looking at their phones to begin texting their parents to come and pick them up because they have no idea what these people are talking about.

That’s when I start “The Talk”.   

As a kid you played make believe or pretend, right?   Aliens and Space Rangers, Miss Spider’s Tea Party and Dora and her Explorers.   You told the story of how you tracked the alien criminals to their secret lair using your wits and a sample of the DNA from the blood of one of the space bank robbers.  You discussed the dryness of the imaginary scones and lauded the invisible sweet cream frosted cakes.  You saved (stuffed) animals with Diego and made up new songs with Backpack.  If you’ve played these games, you’ve already roleplayed. 

At this point I look for confirmation that these types of things are touchstones in their lives.  Some folks come to the game without the common language of play.  Others look embarrassed or worried about admitting to something so “childish” (12 to 18-year olds are very serious about not looking childish) When this occurs, I stress that all the folks here love to pretend and that lots of folks, including adults like myself, regularly get together to pretend.   For almost all starting gamers, just knowing there are others who want to pretend is enough to get them to stay.  At least, for the next part of “The Talk”

But then you invited friends to play with you.  Maybe Elizabeth wanted to break down the door to the alien’s hideout while you wanted to sneak in.   Maybe Faris preferred the sweet tea (okay it was just water) in the green plastic cups over the red ones.  Possibly Deon thought your song would be better with fart sounds.  Assuming you didn’t just pick up your space helmet/ tea set/ stuffed animals and go home, you learned to tell a story together.  You discussed the merits of stealth, your love of Earl Grey and your considered opinion that fart sounds make all songs better.  In doing so you shared your world with your friend.  That’s a pretty awesome thing to share.

Experience with unstructured play time, particularly in peer groups, is not something most new gamers have spent a lot of time on.  School, Scouts, 4-H, Boy and Girls clubs, Town Sports, Summer Camps (and all the other various organizations and structured programs) usually have a goal that is decided upon ahead of time by an adult and is monitored for progress and (almost always) judged against a standard.

Gaming allows an almost unique experience in building a story that is defined by peers, not an authority figure.  The idea of collaborative storytelling sounds awesome, but because the experience is so unfamiliar to most of the new players, they have no idea where to start. Game rules give us the structure to start. Back to the talk…

A shared story is one where everyone agrees on what is going to happen.  But with a bunch of people that can be hard. 

Let’s say you’re playing Space Alien Bank Robbers vs. Space Ranger with Maria and Elizabeth.  And let’s say that Maria is playing the part of the Space Alien Bank robber.  You try to pick the lock to her evil lair and she says:

“That lock is protected by a BJ29 anti-lock picking system that zaps anyone who tries to pick it!”

“That’s okay,” says Elizabeth, “I’ll just blast the door with my Q-36 space modulator!”  <Pew! Pew! Pew!>

“ No wait!” you say! “ My R2 unit can override the anti-lock picking system!”  <Beep, Beep, Boop, Beep, Whirrrrrrr!>

“Shazbot!” curses Maria “I’m setting the self-destruct device to my evil lair!”   <Booooooooom! >  “You’re all dead”

You and Elizabeth together “No we’re not!”

All three stories include your friends, but how do we decide which is the best one?  How do we resolve whose part of the story gets told ? One way is we could “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to see whose idea wins.  In gaming we decide by rolling dice (I then show off sparkly polyhedrons for maximum effect) and a set of rules that helps us resolve which story action we use.  This allows us to build one story that everyone can agree on and enjoy.   

There are a lot of rules (I illustrate by showing stacks of books), but all of them are designed to help us tell the best story together.

Rules are the most daunting part of introducing new players to the system.  Few new gamers come to the game with their own books and fewer still will read through all the rules.  It’s important to emphasize that the rules are there to help us tell the story WE want to tell.  I’m particularly forgiving about rules with new players and find that as players seek to improve their characters THEY will start enforcing the rules on the DM’s monsters (and each other).

So, what sort of story do we want to tell together?

This is the most important thing I do, I offer choice.  Educational programs like the ones I listed previously are incredibly valuable (I’m a high school teacher when I’m not volunteering at the library) but they rarely allow for self-direction.  Once the players realize they are in control of their experience, they are all in.  And that’s when the magic begins.