On Geekery, Part One: RPGs aren't just for blowing things up.
Before we go any further, lemme point out that to my other on-line friends, I'm the weirdo hardcore gun guy. I'm the shooter, the guy who does Kali and Jeet, the dude who's spending money on new guns and dehydrated food instead of new books, and who's always babbling about the Second Amendment whenever it comes up. I might be one of the geekiest Glocktalkers, but at the same time I'm kind of "out there" to my actual geek friends, too.
I walk a lonely road, torn between two worlds, and fully belonging to neither one! (okay, okay, I just wanted an excuse to use the "Ender" smiley)
But I'll admit it, not all my hobbies are as cool and macho as TwoBlackBelts. Role playing games and wargaming aren't, in modern culture, what you crazy kids call "hip." They're still wildly popular, mind, and thanks to the success and popularity of video gaming (console games in particular) they're getting more and more mainstream...but the actual act of reading rulebooks, rolling dice, and all that, is still terribly nerdy to quite a few people.
That said? It's crash course time, just because I'm bored and maybe I've still got half an audience.
Role playing games, or RPGs (not to be confused with rocket propelled grenades, to all you quartermasters out there!) are the more controversial of the two. Sadly, they're best known when a crazy person plays them. All those "Satan-worshiping" druggie punks in the 1970's that wandered in steam tunnels or killed their family? Yeah. That's how Dungeons & Dragons got famous. That cult of teenagers in Florida a few years back? Vampire: The Masquerade is another RPG I've often played, so thanks for that media coverage, kids.
In an RPG, you're basically a kiddo playing Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers again, only there's rules. How many times did young Dragoon point a finger at a childhood friend, shout, "bang," and then...oh, right, sorry. No gunpowder back then. Uhh, crap. Okay, let's go with Sam Spade or someone else, I guess. Anyways, when any of us were playing as kids how often did we "bangbangbang" at our neighbor kid or brother while we were all running around, and then the game deteriorated into a shouting match of "Got you!" versus "Nuh uh," until someone got punched? Or maybe when the neighborhood kids got together to wack each other with sticks right after someone read something about King Arthur, did the kids fight over when you'd gotten hit enough to be "dead?"
Role playing games use dice and rulebooks, to cover that sort of thing. When you make up a character you want to play, you set down on paper how strong they are, or how fast, or how tough, or how good they are with a gun. Then, when it comes time to shoot at a bad guy, you know what your odds are, you roll some dice -- just about every RPG has wildly different rules, so I can't give specifics of the die roll -- and you know if you hit or missed.
Some are pretty complex, with firearm handling rules based on FBI shootout statistics, ballistic gelatin results, medical association data about gunshot wounds and their effects, with all sorts of special rules to handle caliber, hollow point versus normal rounds, etc, etc. Some RPGs gloss over all that to keep the game moving a little more quickly (and because gun guys are in the minority in the gaming world), or go into just as much focus on swords and other medieval weaponry, or go into even more detail about the equipment available to put on a fifty ton robot-tank that you drive into battle (just as a "for instance").
RPGs give you the chance to take over a character from a movie and actually make decisions for 'em, instead of hollering at the screen that Frodo is so stupid for going that way, or that James Bond totally shouldn't trust her just because she's got a nice rack, or that Luke Skywalker probably should use the Force like Obi-Wan says. In point of fact, there are RPGs based on all three of those franchises I just rattled off (off the top of my head, trying to think of popular movie characters) -- Lord of the Rings and Star Wars were some of the first RPGs anyone put together once the idea caught on, and both games are still pretty popular today.
So how do you play 'em? Well, aside from sacrificing the cat and laying out the pentagram just right, it's all pretty easy (that's a joke, folks!).
You get four or five friends, you decide on a night of the week, you munch on some pizza and drink some soda, and then the fun starts. Most of the group cooks up just one character apiece, and runs that person. They'll roll dice or get points to spend to determine what the character can do, pick out some skills and abilities to round the character out, and probably have to figure out what sort of stuff the character has -- a shotgun in a zombie survival game, a horse if they're a medieval knight, a starfighter if they're in a science fiction game -- and eventually they'll be all set.
ONE guy, though, has to run the game. Like the director and producer and set designer and everything else all rolled into one, from a movie set, he's the one that runs everything in the game that's not those four or five player-characters. He normally has a big story idea in mind ahead of time, and he takes care of describing the game world to the players, acting like everyone they run into in the game world, and working like the referee when there's a fight or something and it's time to sling dice. He's got a lot of extra work compared to everyone else, which is why most folks prefer to play instead of run. On the bright side, traditional gamer etiquette is that he gets his pizza and snacks for free, so that's a plus.
"I'm just here for the pizza."
When the action starts, each player decides what his character is going to do -- how they'll talk to the folks they interact with, what they'll do when a fight breaks out -- and then the game master interprets all that with the rule book, you roll dice to see if you succeed or fail, and, well, that's the game. The point is just to hang out with your buddies and have some fun, while telling a cool story in the process.
So, anyways, there ya go. There's nothing wicked or supernatural about it. The folks who go crazy and run around in steam tunnels are the same folks who go crazy and shoot up their school; they'd do it with or without an assault weapons ban, just like they'd do it with or without a D&D game book in their hand. Invariably, the folks who do something crazy and blame it on an RPG would do something crazy without that RPG in their lives -- it's just a convenient scapegoat, like a video game, rock and roll music, the Second Amendment, or religion. Crazy people do crazy things, and the occasional RPG doesn't add to that in any way.
There are gaming conventions all the time, perhaps the largest of them is GenCon, in Indianapolis every year. 28,000+ gamers all hang out together for four days and nights, straight...and there's less of a disturbance to the local community than your average rap concert would get in just a couple hours. Dozens of gaming conventions a year go off without a hitch, while sport fans riot over soccer, burn their towns down because the Lakers won (or lost), and while pro athletes run dog fighting rings, rape folks, murder, do drugs, etc, etc.
Comparing the geeks and jocks outside of school, and in the real world? And maybe I think I'm pretty glad I ended up on this side of the line.