“Why do you spend so much time on this?” one of my close relatives asked. I was sitting in my family’s living room on a Saturday afternoon, with my notebook computer in front of me, and working on writing a DSA adventure.
Some of you may be wondering “What the heck is DSA and how can you write an adventure?” DSA is short for “Das Schwarze Auge“, a pen & paper role-playing game. The name literally means “The Black Eye” in German, but in German the term does not carry the meaning of injury (we call that a “blue eye”). I’m sure everyone knows examples of role-playing, be it little children playing family or computer RPGs (this is probably the most widely know example). There are many kinds of pen & paper role-playing, but it generally boils down to the players, one of them the game master, sitting around a table and describing what their characters do, with the game master describing the rest of the world (yes, that’s a lot of work). Traditionally, character profiles are written on paper, hence the name. Dice are used to decide whether difficult actions work.
Let me give you an (edited) example from our last session. DSA has a medieval-fantasy setting, you can find pictures of our group at Tak’s page over here. At the beginning of the quoted scene, the characters have finally discovered the supposed headquarters of a villain spreading a dangerous disease in the city, but the house looks empty from the outside. Parts in italics are what characters do and say, normal text player actions & quotes, bold is the game master (GM).
Morio: “I’m going to check if the door is open.”
Morio’s player: “I take a look at the door.”
GM: It is locked.
Morio’s player: “I pick the lock.” He rolls three 20-sided dice and checks the results. “Ok, I did it.”
Morio: “Hey, the door is open!”
Morio and Yoläus (the warrior) enter the house, the others follow.
GM: The house looks like it hasn’t been used in a while, it’s really dusty, and the furniture is covered with cloth.
Morio’s player: “Really dusty? Like a thick dust layer everywhere?”
GM: Yes. You can see tracks leading to the basement.
Downstairs, we discover a room with a desk and a terrible smell coming from an opening in one corner, on the desk are some papers, candles and an ink jar. It’s pretty dark.
Me (playing a wizard): “I have my staff light up.”
Edorian (the wizard) raises his staff, a flame emerges from the top.
Morio’s player: “Unless the candles have weird marks on them [note: we had been dealing with some cursed artifacts transmitting the disease], I’m going to pick one up and light it on the flame.”
GM: No, they’re just regular candles. But with the light you can see that the ink jar has marks like the ones you saw before.
I suppose everyone gets the idea. Of course, someone needs to come up with something to do for the characters: people to meet, places to see and problems to solve during the game. We call this kind of scenario an adventure, and on the Saturday afternoon mentioned above I was working on such an adventure involving an expedition to the ruins of an ancient temple.
Simple answer: Because it’s fun! However, on that day I had also read this article criticizing modern Science Fiction for frequently shallow plots. It isn’t about role-playing in any way, but the following quote got me thinking (translation by me):
We got used to not “doing by ourselves”, but rather “have someone do” – to consume. Or watch others as they do something. This applies particularly to the very exhausting process of thinking.
Original German: Wir haben uns daran gewöhnt, nicht mehr “selbst zu machen”, sondern “machen zu lassen” – zu konsumieren. Oder anderen dabei zuzuschauen, wie sie etwas machen. Insbesondere betrifft das den überaus anstrengenden Vorgang des Denkens.
Pen & paper role-playing is exactly the opposite, and that is what I love about it: I’m actively taking part in the adventure. I’m not just observing a story, like reading a book or watching a movie, or acting out a predefined script. As a player, I become part of the story and can change it, and as the game master I can create a whole world. Obviously players can easily act outside of what the GM expected them to do, and “No scenario survives contact with the players” is a well-known quote among those playing pen & paper RPGs, but that is not a bad thing: According to my experience, improvised scenes and spontaneous non-plot action are frequently among the most memorable parts of an adventure.
Imagining the world and people in the game, experiencing adventures together with friends, interaction between characters, and (as game master) coming up with a story are all very creative things. This creativity, and the fact that it is a great way to spend time with friends, are the two biggest reasons why I enjoy pen & paper role-playing.
Do you play role-playing games? Why? Or if not, would you like to try?