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]
“You don’t want to go over there, boy. Davor is running a game. You don’t want to interrupt him.”
“But I want to play!”
“You? Play D&D?” The man laughed. “Learn the difference between a kobold and a goblin. Learn the secret of the Quivering Palm. Kick in an orc’s door and kill him, just because I told you to. Come back then and maybe … maybe … you can play D&D.”
It probably didn’t happen that way, but as Maja tells the story, in its earliest days in Croatia, D&D was a little like the Mafia. “It was an underground subculture,” she says. “You had to know someone to get in.” One of her earliest boyfriends was a dungeon master and she wanted to try the game. He wouldn’t let her; he was afraid that she’d get too caught up in the story. I’ve heard of male gamers not wanting to play with girls before, but generally at an age where cooties are still a serious concern. The idea of a guy pushing his girlfriend away from gaming because she might enjoy it too much was a new one on me.
Maja finally broke through the mithral wall in 2004, when she met her current boyfriend, Daniel. The founder of Daniel’s group started out with 2E D&D when he was thirteen. After reading about people playing Dungeons & Dragons in a magazine article, he went to the café mentioned in the article and wormed his way into the group there. He then introduced the game to his friends, creating a tight-knit group that has continued for years. This remains a common model: a small group of pre-existing friends, driven by a DM who’s had some experience with the game and is willing to teach the others. Maja observed that a typical 30-year-old gamer might have been playing with the same group for 15 years. This may be reflected by a common stigma associated with gaming – that it’s a way to “avoid growing up.”
Some of the stories are familiar. The roleplaying pioneers of Croatia had the same trouble acquiring dice as their counterparts in Bulgaria and Slovakia. Each of Maja’s dice had a story; she’d stolen the six-sider from a board game called Man, Don’t Carry A Grudge. Two of the other players in my session – Zrinka and a second Maja – told me how they managed to pay their travel expenses to a local convention by using US friends as “dice mules” and then selling the dice at the convention.
If there’s a Gaming Mafia in Croatia, it should come as little surprise that it’s split into different families. The World of Darkness games of White Wolf have a strong following, but I’m told that there’s little overlap between them and the fantasy gamers. As for Dungeons & Dragons, according to my hosts the edition wars are over and Fourth Edition lost. The D&D community here has rallied around Third Edition and Paizo’s Pathfinder evolution in spite of the fact that Fourth Edition books are some of the few that can be found in stores. Magic: The Gathering, Warhammer, live gaming… All of these things have their own communities, and there are a few people like Daniel who manage to reach out and touch many of them. He tells me stories of organizing tournaments for Magic and D&D, and of writing a paper for the local live roleplaying group – a society that flourished for a time before splintering into a half a dozen competing factions championing different systems. The edition wars may have come to an end as far as D&D is concerned, but it seems that gamers will always find something to argue about. One thing that seems to be missing is any uniquely Croatian RPG system, a parallel to Bulgaria’s Endyval or Slovakia’s Dračí doupě; if such a thing exists, it never crossed my path.
While this paints a picture of a bleak past, at least some elements are improving. The growth of online communities provides a new way for players to connect with one another. There are annual conventions, and a group in Zagreb has started a series of weekly lectures. While Daniel fears that old players are growing out of the hobby and the new generation isn’t strong enough to carry on, Zrinka says that she’s seeing an increase in younger players. At the same time she laments at the difficulty of acquiring supplies. Even today, dice aren’t as easy to come by as she’d like, and game books are rare and sold at inflated prices. Stores that used to stock roleplaying supplies have abandoned these in favor of more reliable merchandise – Magic and Pokemon cards, Warhammer miniatures. Still, the internet makes it possible to acquire books from foreign lands, though at painful prices.
I ran my game on the second day in Zagreb. One of the players said that they have a DM who runs wonderful stories, but who doesn’t let them tell their stories. I soon found out what she meant, because they have stories they want to tell. While I’m running an adventure using pregenerated characters, the Croatians quickly make these characters their own. They put a lot of thought into their motivations and to the relationships. They created feuds that made the scenario considerably more challenging, as they spent nearly as much time sniping at one another as fighting their mutual enemies. They came up with elaborate details about the clothing their characters were wearing, and one player went so far as to seek out gifts she could take back to her siblings after the adventure (siblings were not mentioned anywhere in the character sheet).
While some of this took me by surprise, I had a wonderful time with it. In my opinion, this is the greatest strength of RPGs – the ability of the players to shape the story with the DM. I’d never considered whether the barbarian had siblings, but once she’d acquired the gift for her baby sister, I looked for ways I could work the sister into the story – to take this new thread and expand on it.
After the game, we talked more about what people enjoy about gaming. Some of the answers echo the experience I’ve just had. These players like to step into other people’s shoes, to try to imagine how other people might react in a situation or see the world. Maja mentioned that gender roles are very strong in Croatia, and that she likes being able to play a male character to explore different roles. The other women added that if they played female characters, their male DM would force them to make weekly checks to see if their characters became pregnant. Despite these challenges, Maja says that as someone who’s never truly fit the standard mold of the Croatian woman, meeting other gamers has been a boon – and that “gaming women are sheer wonder squeezed into a human package.”
On my last day, we drive to a national park. It’s a long journey, and along the way we pass a field of grain with strange, irregular gaps – crop circles made by drunken aliens. When I call this to Maja’s attention, she says “Oh, that’s a minefield.” While we’d talked some about the ancient history of the region, I’d almost forgotten about the recent conflicts. Now scars of war are all around us. The scenic village we stop at was leveled during the war, and rebuilt according to the traditional style to maintain its value to tourism. In the cities, new buildings fill gaps created by bombs. This contrast between old and new bothers Maja and Daniel, and Maja describes the flashy gas station in an old part of town as “a fist in the eye.” I think back to Maja’s comment about the thirty-year-old who’s been playing D&D for fifteen years. As a boy of fifteen, he’d have picked up the dice the year just a few years after the end of the war and Croatia’s declaration of independence. What’s now the flashy gas station would likely have been rubble. I look back to the comments one of the others players made about why she enjoys gaming:
“I love to be able to do things I usually cannot. To be a hero, to be someone else, to solve the puzzles, kill the monsters and save the day.”
It’s a common enough theme… what teenager doesn’t dream of being someone else now and again? But in a country broken by war, it’s easy to see how that dream of being able to do the things I cannot… to save the day would be a powerful draw.
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/.