Austin Macauley reviews my passion for roleplaying games…

Between them they’ve poisoned, stabbed and bludgeoned to death dozens of innocent folk – yet they are still allowed to walk the streets.

One of their number openly admits to having garrotted someone last weekend, taking great glee in describing in grotesque detail exactly how he carried it out.

If it wasn’t all the stuff of fantasy, the Potteries would be a dangerous place to live.

The group in question are eight friends who meet up once a month in the city to lose themselves for hours on end in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Ranging in age from early 20s to late 30s, many have played it together since childhood and the game keeps them in contact with each other despite some having moved hundreds of miles away.

Their common bond is a passion for role play games – and Dungeons and Dragons is probably one of the oldest and best known examples of this pastime.

It’s one of hundreds of similar games and together with computer games make up one of the fastest-growing hobbies.

But D&D, as it known to players, is mere child’s play compared to a new game which has taken America by storm.

“Majestic” takes role play to a new level. Once you have signed up via the internet you can expect to be bombarded with funny phone calls, threatening text messages on your mobile and e-mailed instructions.

The idea is you are part of a suspense thriller with any number of sub-plots and conspiracies going on. Playing involves interacting with other players and those programmed by the makers – and it’s up to you to work out which is which.

Unlike D&D and PC games you can’t pack up or switch off. The only way to get out of the game is to solve the conspiracy or else ditch the mobile and cut the telephone chord.

At the moment there isn’t the technology to set it up in Britain, so for now we’ll have to make do with D&D, murder mystery weekends and the like.

So what is the attraction of role playing games? More importantly, what possesses people to play D&D – a game so entrenched in stigma?

When children first started playing the game in Britain in the early 1980s they were ridiculed by their peers, branded geeks and given a status previously only bestowed upon trainspotters.

But try telling that to Elton Hood and the friends who meet up at his home in Dresden every month.

The 27-year-old sports shop manager plays the game with a journalist, photographer, teacher, PR manager, fireplace fitter, pharmacist and someone who works in a music store. We’re talking about respectable people here.

“I only noticed the stigma after a couple of years,” said Elton, who started playing 14 years ago.

“As people were getting older it seemed to them quite a childish, sad, introverted game. I never agreed. It’s a social thing because you are playing with other people and have to work together to succeed.”

For the uninitiated, D&D involves creating a character for yourself with various skills and placing it, along with those of other players, in various “dungeons” – which could be anything from a forest to a castle.

The game involves progressing through each dungeon, picking up clues and treasure along the way and trying not to be killed off in the process.

It’s a game of guile, imagination and foresight, according to Elton and his mates.

To the outsider it’s a group of adults sitting round a board game over a weekend for hours on end pretending to be medieval warrior dwarves, wizards and thieves.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, the words warrior and dwarf are an unlikely coupling to say the least. Ask anyone who doesn’t play what they think of D&D and the word “sad” will be the most likely response.

Time for one of Elton’s mates to defend their honour. Step forward Martin Tideswell, a 29-year-old Sentinel journalist.

“People perceive it to be a bit of a nerdy thing to play and, to a certain extent, they are probably right and I don’t think that perception is ever going to change.”

So even the players themselves think it’s a bit sad?

“There are some people who take it a bit too seriously. At the tournaments you do see the stereotypical player. They will be male, aged 24-40, wearing black and they’ll be into heavy metal. They get into the character, put on the voice and really go overboard. When we play we don’t get into all that.

“We treat it like you’d treat a game of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit and get together with a few beers and play. People who don’t play probably wonder why – at our age – we’re still playing.

“At school there was a small group of us who played and most stopped when they grew up. But I’m hooked and I’ll probably never stop playing it.”

Honour partially restored, Martin tried to explain the attraction.

“The difficult thing to explain to people who don’t play is that there is no winner. When I was a kid my dad used to ask ‘So, who’s won this week then?’ But it’s not that simple. Your character can get killed off, but I have characters which I’ve had since I was 11.”

One of the group is designated as the Dungeon Master (DM) and they run and referee the game – deciding what happens to characters depending on what decisions they make.

Just for the record, Martin has just finished his stint as DM and a few weeks ago killed Elton. Well, killed his character anyway.

The memory is still fresh in Elton’s mind.

“We were infiltrating a temple of ancient gods to retrieve artefacts when we came up against one of the gods and some of us got killed, including me.”

Dealing with loss is all part of the game, says Martin.

“Losing a character is really upsetting – I know, that sounds really sad, but you really do get attached to a character. It’s not because you think they are real but because you have spent so long developing them.

“As a DM I strongly believe in killing people off. It’s the only way to have any realism. I’ve killed them with rock falls, poison, spiked pits, magic spells, a blade from out of the darkness – all sorts of ways.”

Given that far more people spend far more hours playing role play games on their computers – alone – perhaps the derision D&D receives is slightly unfair.

“If people played it I think they would see it in a different light,” reckons Elton.

“You expect a certain amount of derision of you tell someone about it. From my point of view the game helps me at work as well. Because I’m a retail manager I have to do training with people and that can often involve role play.”

We all indulge in role play in some way, even if it is limited to the confines of our own imagination in the form of dreams and fantasies. Could feeling of a need to escape say anything about our real lives?

Professor Ellis Cashmore, a sociologist at Staffordshire University, wonders whether, for some, role play is an alternative to going the whole hog and doing a “Reggie Perrin”.

“I call it the Reggie Perrin Syndrome. When I look at situations some people are in I think if that was me I’d leave a pile of my clothes neatly folded on Brighton beach and disappear with a new identity.

“Roleplaying games are the mildest forms of this escape attempt. There’s always an element of attraction about being someone else.

“Perhaps the theme park of the future will be like in the film Total Recall with memory embolisms.
You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything for the escape. They just give you the memory of whatever thrill you want.”

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