Breaking into the role-play realm

Tabletop role-playing games depend on imagination and math skills

Tabletop role-playing games depend on imagination and math skills.
Tabletop role-playing games depend on imagination and math skills.

This weekend, eight members of the Queen’s Speculative Gaming Society (Q-Sigs) will spend hours inhabiting the fantastical realm they’ve shaped for the past three months.

The Q-Sigs club caters to tabletop role-playing games where players invest in fictional worlds, create one-of-a-kind plots and control invented characters.

“It’s a very niched hobby [that] people don’t know about,” Q-Sigs President Mackenzie Collins said. “It has a lot of untapped potential.”

Role-playing games incorporate imaginative and interactive elements.

“It’s a lot of thinking on your feet and problem-solving. You need to be creative and collaborative,” Collins, ArtSci ’14, said.

Members of Q-Sigs are currently playing Dark Heresy, which is part of the Warhammer 40,000 series.

In Dark Heresey, players take instruction from an inquisitor, who sends them on missions that include killing gangs and combating corruption.

Dark Heresy takes place on a three-dimensional board, which the players create themselves. The players’ characters are represented by figurines, whose fate is often determined by the roll of a dice.

Q-Sigs members painted the figurines themselves.

While you might not have heard of Dark Heresey, other role-play games have received ample publicity.

According to Collins, Dungeons and Dragons is a good example of a role-playing game, but isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the genre as a whole.

Dungeons and Dragons was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It was first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). Its been translated into over a dozen languages and is now sold in fifty countries.

“The Dungeons and Dragons creator is very well-respected, but the medium has extended to be more,” Collins said.

Role-playing games allow for unlimited variety.

“If you want to have a giant, sprawling epic with lots of different characters that can be good … but usually it’s best to only have four to six members,” Collins said.

He added that the group dynamic doesn’t generally breed conflict.

“It’s like co-writing a novel with five other people.”

Like any form of fiction, role-playing games encompass all genres.

“They can be very violent, but they can also be more light-hearted,” Collins said, in reference to romance role-playing games. “There’s a game where you play as a samurai and defeat a monster … each woman is trying to gain the love of a samurai.”

Fantasy and science fiction are the most popular genres though, Collins said.

“You can make up anything. It doesn’t have to be fantastical … but that’s more common,” he said. “You can have advanced and intense stories and interpersonal conflicts rather than just combat and conflict.”

The storylines of fantasy role-playing games may differ, but there are common clichés, Collins said.

“You meet in a tavern. That’s the stereotypical role play beginning,” Collins said. “You introduce the world at the beginning of the game. You introduce who you are and where you are … if you’re playing in modern day you tell characters where you’re living.”

Players create a character sheet prior to the game’s beginning. This card holds integral information about the character that helps players keep focus.

“It holds the statistics and information about character … the character concept, how the rules of the game translate,” he said, adding that the gamemaster often discusses their vision of the game with members in the weeks prior to the game’s start.

Put simply, the gamemaster creates the world, Collins said.

“[He] creates all characters who aren’t players,” he said. “He creates the world and the players live in it … [he] creates a crisis for them to respond to. You design the world and the crisis.”

However, the gamemaster’s powers can only extend so far.

The personalities of role-play characters depend entirely on the creator, Collins said.

“They have … their own motivations and their own goals, their own strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “They all want their moment in the sun.”

Character creation borrows heavily from the world of creative writing, a world that isn’t new to Collins, an English minor.

But the world of role-play doesn’t just rely on the imagination. Collins said role-playing games also require math skills.

“It’s an intersection of three interesting things — the game aspect, with dice and probability, the acting and the story,” he said.

A character’s statistics are either determined randomly, via the roll of a dice, or by a system of point allocation.

“You’ll have 50 points, for example, that you’d have to distribute to qualities like strength, dexterity, intelligence,” Collins said.

These qualities determine how capable a character will be of accomplishing a certain feat, such as climbing a steep cliff, Collins said.

In Dark Heresy, statistics include weapon skill, ballistic skill, strength, toughness, agility, intelligence, perception, will power and fellowship.

Role-playing games demand attention to detail. Those seeking to play the specific series Pathfinder, for example, adhere to a strict set of rules.

“It’s a specific game line. It has a core rule book … it tells you how to make a fantasy character and how to make a plot,” he said.

In addition, those wishing to take up role-playing games as a hobby should expect a dent in their bank account.

“If you’re starting from scratch and have a group of friends together who’ve never played before … you’ll want to get a book that’ll be between $30 to $50,” Collins said. “I’d say its around $80 for startup. But it’s unlimited creative potential.”

Certain members of Q-Sigs own Dark Heresey rule books, but Collins said they aren’t mandatory.

“It’s handy to have a book to have an introduction and get yourself started,” he said. “You can do anything … but most people want a little more structure.”

Collins doesn’t usually require the assistance of a rule book — he’s been playing tabletop role play for nearly four years.

“I wanted to do it eight years ago, but no one wanted to, or knew what they were doing,” he said. “I did one or two juvenile attempts.”

Currently, Q-Sigs members engage solely in tabletop role playing games. But they’re looking to expand.

Live-action role-playing (LARP), where players physically personify their characters, is similar to tabletop role play, Collins said.

Members of the club are hoping to start LARP soon.

Spaces on campus like the Red Room in Kingston Hall are options for LARP settings, Collins said.

“With LARP, not everyone can be the main character. It depends on the scope or scale of the story,” he said.

Connor Fitzpatrick, ArtSci ’14, is also a member of the club. He said he enjoys the surprise that’s inherent in role-playing games.

“It’s like an improvised play, things can happen to you but there’s no director telling you their motivation,” he said.

“This generates a whole lot of creative potential.”

The club started their current Dark Heresy plot in October.

“The three-hour session … is like an episode of it, per se. The overarching plot thread continues,” he said. “It takes months and months and months.”

An afternoon with Q-Sigs

I wasn’t expecting such intense focus when I attended a Queen’s Speculative Gaming Society (Q-Sigs) practice last Sunday.

Upon my arrival, players were already consulting their notes and listening in rapt attention to the gamemaster’s update of where the story left off.

The question “Should we destroy the book” was repeatedly thrown around the table, clearly reflecting a significant and contentious plot line.

However, when I asked a member what the game’s plot entailed, I was told, “It’s pretty ridiculous. I can’t even begin to describe it.”

I was embarrassed, to say the least — I soon saw how my ignorance would have made my participation in such an intricate game impossible. This game had been ongoing for weeks.

I felt awful interrupting with what were, retrospectively, silly queries regarding how the game worked. My personal intrusions were downright unwarranted. It seemed almost unsportsmanlike to break the players’ unwavering and impressive concentration.

Magic markers were employed by each member to draw a detailed map of the game’s setting.

Aside from the map, other materials included dice and tiny detailed figurines — some were men, some were warriors.

I left after an hour, still confused about what I was watching. The game would continue for at least another two hours.


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