Saturday, April 5, 2008

They're Living the Dream

A month ago, when Gary Gygax passed away, I posted these thoughts about the role that Dungeons and Dragons, his creation, had in my life and in the lives of other geeks out there.

To this day, many of those who played the game think back on it with great fondness, even fascination. In that post, I linked to an author at National Review who said, "...I've long harbored a secret notion in the back of my mind: Wouldn't it be awesome to get a game going again?" And the truth, I suspect, is that most of us who were involved in the game have thought something along these lines at one time or another. I remember a bunch of us from my church youth group and associated hangers-on (mainly college age, and some young marrieds) getting together one night and playing a scenario for several hours. This was back in the late eighties--and for most of us, it was years after we'd last done anything with the game. Some of us had just said, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." and everyone else said, "Yeah!" and it just went from there.

The fascination with this game, of course, is that it's a story--and it's a story that we're involved with. We can joke for example about the housewives who get themselves hooked on soap operas, but in some ways that's a similar phenomenon: after watching enough episodes, you know the characters, you care about them (or loathe them with an intimate loathing), and you want to find out what happens to them. (Actually, I think the social phenomenon of gossiping exists for exactly the same reason.) Dungeons and Dragons wasn't a game like, say, chess: in chess, there may be drama, and there's certainly an intellectual beauty and satisfaction to the game, but you never wonder what happens next when the game is over. There's no, "...and the heroic King's Knight's Pawn went on to become a squire, ultimately acquiring vast lands and earning a name for himself as Thane of Northumbria." That just doesn't happen; when the game is over, that's it. Whereas when you've read or watched a well written story, you wonder about what happens to the characters. And if it's a really inspiring story or movie, you find yourself wanting to visit those lands, if just for a little bit. Dungeons and Dragons allowed people to answer the question, "What if...?"

Well, when I was a bit younger I started to be exposed to other ways in which people were answering the "what if" question. One way was through the various Renaissance Faires around the country, in which people essentially establish a large, Renaissance-era marketplace--filled with shops selling clothing, glassware, weapons and armor, toys, food, and all kinds of other stuff one would have found in markets in the days of Queen Elizabeth. And this can be fun--my wife and I attended one in the early years of our marriage, although (alas) not in costume. This provides a good environment in which to immerse oneself, when one wants an imaginative escape.

And then there's the Society for Creative Anachronism, which aims at a slightly different audience: those who like to feast, joust, and dance as though they were medieval nobility. When I was a kid, I was most interested by the tournaments, in which people would show up with realistic-looking (and highly padded) armor, and with foam-padded weapons, and beat the tar out of each other--according, of course, to the rules of a highly persnickety protocol and code of honor that required the participants to acknowledge when they had well and truly been struck, and to continue the fight accordingly (say, without the use of one's left arm. 'Tis but a flesh wound!)

But while the immersive atmosphere of these kinds of events has an appeal, there's not necessarily a plot to these events. You go to these things to enjoy the company of your fellows, to learn about the time periods involved, and even to engage in some physical play (dancing, sparring). And for many people, that's enough; but for a big chunk of the original D&D crowd, it's not. They want plot. They want their "fights" to mean something; to move them closer to achieving a goal, or to unraveling a mystery, or to deposing a wicked king. They don't just want, say, to do courtly dances; they want those dances to occur in a setting rife with intrigue....

So it's perhaps understandable that the Live Action Role Playing (LARP) phenomenon would arise. Alas, I wasn't introduced to any LARPers when I was younger, or I may well have become a total geek.

There's a very interesting photo essay over at Wired magazine reporting on this phenomenon. It describes a New Jersey-based LARP organization called Live Action Interactive Role-playing Explorers (LAIRE). Basically, think of it a little like live-action Dungeons and Dragons; people dressed up as various classes (fighters, spellcasters, that sort of thing) and races (elves, dwarves, humans, goblins) go on missions together through the forests of what happens to be a large Girl Scout camp; fighting off goblin raids and ogres with both swords and spells (and yes, they have rules for live-action spell-casting combat, which sound very interesting the way they do it--it quickly turns into a battle of wits), while looking for treasures, and consulting powerful wizards and lore-masters for information, and so forth. And they have an arrangement worked out where everyone has to spend five hours a weekend as a "goblin" or other generic villain, so that everyone else gets their chances to fight the goblins and prove themselves heroes.

Any chance I would sign myself up for something like this?

Um... No. I'm a Daddy. My wife and I can count the number of times we've been in a movie theater on the fingers of two hands, since the Pillowfight Fairy came to bless our lives. I have no justification for dumping the kids on the wife and riding off for one weekend a month.

But... One day the kids will be older. They may someday decide they'd like to do this sort of thing. Should that happen, I'm in. :-)

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