There are many stereotypes attributed to role players, but the truth is that we come from all walks of life. We’re students and soldiers, programmers and prison guards, teachers and porn stars. I’ve resolved to travel across the world and play with as many different groups as I can – to find out what draws people to gaming, to see what we have in common and what’s different. I stay for three days wherever I go. One day I run a game for my hosts. Another day I ask them to entertain me, showing me the things they love or find inspiring. The third day is open. If you’re interested in being a part of it, contact me at [email protected].
July 4th, 2009. Ko?ice. The second largest city in Slovakia. Back in the US, people were setting off fireworks and waving flags. Here in Slovakia, I was sitting in a tiny bathroom staring at Michael Jackson. The King of Pop had been dead for just over a week, but today he was looking good. He was dressed in red and black leather, eyes hidden behind sunglasses. He was bad. You knew it.
The windowless room was just large enough for the toilet. One wall was devoted to Michael Jackson – a shrine of pictures from various concerts and albums, largely from his heyday in the eighties. The experience was somewhat like being in a coffin. I wonder if anyone has ever taped pictures of pop stars on the inside of a coffin; if you got buried alive, at least you’d have Michael to keep you company.
I bid Michael adieu and squeezed out into the flat. Four people shared the Soviet-era apartment. It was 21-year old Ivan who had extended the invitation to me; he and his older brother John lived with their mother Melina and their father, a doctor who was currently away on business.
My terms for travel are simple. I’ll provide a day’s entertainment in exchange for a place to stay for three days, and one day’s entertainment provided by my hosts. No stipulations are made about the quality of the lodgings; a sofa is nice, a bed is better, but I’ve slept on the floor in a number of places. Ivan had no guest room to offer, but he had no intention of giving me the couch. Instead, I was set up in the room he normally shared with his brother. Posters advertising various computer games adorned the walls, along with a larger-than-life image of Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid. A few Smurfs and Duck Tales characters could be seen hidden below the posters, remnants of the brothers’ childhoods. The family was equally generous with food. I was given more wine than I’d had all month, and an amazing array of meals. Melina portioned the food, and it always seemed as though I had twice as much as everyone else. I might not be Michael Jackson, but it seemed like the family treated every guest like the King of Pop.
I was here as a game master, and we got to that business straight away. Ivan summoned his gaming group – his brother John, and friends Aleph, Joseph, Martin, and Thomas. There wasn’t enough room in the tiny apartment for a game, but the family had acquired an extra room on the ground floor of the apartment complex, a space now serving as both gym and game room. Brother John had put posters from fantasy movies up on the walls to set the mood, and even went one step further; to my surprise, he had composed a theme song for the adventure, despite having no idea what the story would involve.
I’ve been running the same adventure around the world. I’ve run it over fifty times so far, and I hope to run it fifty more; it’s always interesting to see the directions different groups take, and how they approach the same problems. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll run it for you one of these days. But for that reason, I don’t want to spoil the story. The players were dedicated, and the game ran for nearly six and a half hours straight. While the adventure uses pregenerated characters, the Slovakians were quick to invest in them, latching onto the implied backstory and unique elements of each character. One interesting moment was when John and Ivan’s mother Melina brought down refreshments. Staring wistfully at the battle, she said, “It’s beautiful… I want to play.” I suggested that she join us, but her she was concerned about her limited English. Later she told me that it’s wonderful to have sons who have taught her so many new and interesting things – and how life is more “colorful” now than when she was growing up in the Communist era. Far from being concerned about her childrens’ hobbies, she had a clear sense of pride.
That night I talked to Ivan about his life and his experience with gaming. He was just a child when Slovakia became an independent republic in 1993. He grew up seeing Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon Five on television, and while other children chased each other around the playground, Ivan and his friends would gather in a quiet classroom and tell stories in which they were starship captains, with Ivan creating dilemmas and plots, challenges that the others would have to solve. There were no dice and no character sheets, but looking back now, Ivan realizes that just as the children playing Cops and Robbers in the schoolyard were playing a LARP, this was his first experience as a gamemaster.
Games continued to be an important part of Ivan’s life. He learned English by playing computer games – who knew that Leisure Suit Larry could find himself as a teacher? And then, in fifth grade, he encountered his first true pen and paper roleplaying game – Dračí doupě.
Literally translated to “Dragon’s Lair”, Dračí doupě was created in 1990. A gamemaster leads a party of wizards and warriors through fantasy adventures. Often abbreviated as DrDo, Dračí doupě has much in common with Dungeons & Dragons, but was written in the Czech language by local writers, and circulated long before D&D became available there. Enjoying a virtual monopoly, DrDo became quite popular; Ivan and his friends guessed that there were thousands of DrDo players in Ko?ice, as compared to a mere hundred or fewer D&D players. DrDo’s popularity was such that when the Dungeons & Dragons movie was released in the region, it was renamed “Dračí doupě”. Unfortunately, the people producing the posters didn’t bother to take out the ampersand, thus the Slovaks got to enjoy Marlon Wayans and Jeremy Irons in the cinematic masterpiece Dragon’s and Lair.
Dračí doupě was literally the only pen and paper game in town when Ivan was growing up, but he still loved computer games, and Baldur’s Gate introduced him to the enigmatic Dungeons & Dragons.
“D&D was something mythical,” Ivan told me. “You couldn’t get it in Slovakia. Maybe in Prague for double the price, or through someone who came back from the West. My perception of D&D was that it was some sort of perfect system – the pinnacle of roleplaying – and it was something I really wanted to read and play.”
His opportunity finally came in 2000, when he went to Prague. He found a game store, and with trembling hands took hold of his first true D&D book. But something was wrong.
“I wanted the advanced version,” Ivan said. The books he’d found were part of the new third edition released by Wizards of the Coast. Ivan wasn’t even aware that this existed; he knew his beloved Baldur’s Gate used the advanced rules, so clearly this was deficient. The shopkeeper was eventually able to convince him that this was the latest version of the game, but before even playing his first game of D&D Ivan had managed to become a veteran of his first edition war.
As it turns out, Dračí doupě has also suffered from edition wars. In 2004, the publishers decided to release a new version of the game – the Plus edition. As it turned out, their virtual monopoly over the local gamers now worked against them as experienced DrDo players rebelled against the change in the flavor of the game and simply continued playing with the old rules. In time, DrD+ picked up a new audience, but the majority of players still prefer the original, and the publishers have continued to support it. Seeking a solution, the publishers have announced the release of Dračí doupě 2 in 2011, promising “the feeling of DrDo with a completely new system.”
I’d run the game on my first day in Ko?ice, which meant I had two more days to fill. By the terms of my travel, John and Ivan were only obliged to entertain me for one of those days, but they had no shortage of ideas. The brothers had previously practiced fencing with the Langschwert, a long sword wielded in two hands, and they arranged for me to have a brief lesson with their instructor.
Later, we walked around the ruins of a castle in the hills above town, talking about fantasy fiction and the difficulty of acquiring American comics in Ko?ice. We visited a Bronze Age archaeological site, which proved to be a treasure trove of story ideas. On my last night, my hosts were shocked to discover that I was departing on my birthday. Within an hour they’d produced a cake frosted with a holy symbol from Eberron, along with a number of small gifts all the more touching for being entirely unexpected. I never expected to see Michael Jackson on July 4th, but it was even more of a surprise to spend my birthday in Ko?ice sharing cake with friends.
Keith Baker is best known for creating the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons and the card game Gloom, but he’s also worked on at least five games that you’ve never heard of. If you want to know more, check out http://www.bossythecow.com/hdwt/.