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25 September 2017Last updated
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Friday explores the boom of role-playing games in the UAE

When they said the geeks would inherit the earth, they were right. Shreeja Ravindranathan explores the boom of role-playing games in the UAE

Shreeja Ravindranathan
6 Apr 2017 | 11:37 am
  • Source:Anas Thacharpadikkal/ANM Image 1 of 5
  • Source:Anas Thacharpadikkal/ANM Image 2 of 5
  • Teamwork and a complex system of rules distinguish tabletop playing from board games.

    Source:Anas Thacharpadikkal/ANM Image 3 of 5
  • Live Action Role-Playing, better known as Larp, creates immersive worlds based on fandoms.

    Source:Anas Thacharpadikkal/ANM Image 4 of 5
  • Professional Larpers in Abu Dhabi last December.

    Source:Stefan Lindeque/ANM Image 5 of 5

There is nowhere to hide: hedged in by eerie marshlands riddled with treacherous quicksand and murky bogs on one side, and the ruins of an ancient, cursed graveyard on the other, the levitating fiery skeletons who have been raining fire and brimstone on us for hours have finally trapped us. I’m the last woman standing. The healer is too wounded to heal, as is the dwarf-cleric; our valiant Barbarian ran screaming (gruffly, of course) into the forest a while ago and the rest of the entourage has fallen – not dead yet, but as good as if I don’t defeat these undead creatures. Time is running out and the tension in the air it so thick it melds with smoke and smog from the battle. As a last resort I cast a scorching magic missile at the chief skeleton – my last and final weapon.

Will it annihilate the monster?

Only the dice can tell.

Welcome to the universe of tabletop role playing games – a geeky hobby whose popularity in the UAE is going through the roof. It’s a hobby that lets a journalist become a powerful sorceress armed with a quarterstaff, a dagger and cool runic tattoos for three hours. A hobby that allows you to do anything.

‘Well, not ‘anything’. Only if it makes sense in the world of the mythos,’ our Games Master Jérôme Devie says, pointing out what gamers call ‘the rule of cool’. I’ve joined him and six other members of the Gulf Role-Playing Community (GRC) at the Geeky Lizard – a gaming store in Jumeriah’s Al Ghazal mall.

The mythos we’re in (well, imagining to be in) today is the medieval, magical high-fantasy world of Pathfinder Society, a popular table top RPG system that’s an offshoot of Dungeons and Dragons. When the twenty-sided die I roll on a map strewn with hand-painted miniatures (the monster resembles Stranger Things’ Demogorgon) of each character lands in my favour I’ve saved the mission, my cheering fellow players and vanquished supernatural evil from the fictional town of Rose Haven.

Five-hours in I learn why the force (of addiction) is strong with role-playing games, and why the GRC is a 600-strong community of hobbyists.

Six years ago it was a different story when Omar Ismail, the Emirati founder of the GRC, headed out to Dubai’s first comic con dressed as a wizard in a red kandura to enlist more players to run RPG games amidst his group of friends. ‘You need at least five people, and with the UAE’s transient population of expats it was hard to do back then.’ The Middle East Film & Comic Con, which returns this weekend, helped beam up the scattered geeks of the UAE.

‘It’s the multicultural nature of the UAE’s geekdom that makes it so rewarding to be part of,’ explains Andrew Marrington, an Australian academic who’s part of the game today. Our group today is a microcosm of the GRC’s racial diversity: American Wendy Farmer (35), Indian Pravijay Prakash (27), Egyptian Tarek Fadel (32) and Frenchman Jérôme (42) are the other players.

We’re seated in a cabin inside the Geeky Lizard resembling a makeshift medieval inn with scrubbed wooden furniture, a solitary lantern and Loki’s crown and staff hanging on a wall, debating the factors that have suddenly made geek chic, and not the niche subculture it was. Mainstream film franchises like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and Netflix’s sleeper hit Stranger Things have turned the tables. Last year, in the UAE alone, there were two geek culture conventions, in addition to the MEFCC, which is in its sixth year: PopCon, a popular culture convention, and Ani:Me a Japanese manga art festival, were both hits.

The Geeky Lizard’s proprietor, Emirati Omar Sharif reminisces about the time his dad confused his request for manga (comics) with the mangoes in their fridge.

Outside of this cabin these self-proclaimed geeks are well-showered, sociable, articulate trade analysts, marketing professionals, tech executives and school teachers. That’s part of the reason, Jérôme says, the stigma associated with gamers has been somewhat overturned: ‘People like us who grew up playing these games in the ’80s and ’90s are now adults with respectable jobs who still play and are normal.

‘Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when we were growing up, there was this hysteria that gaming was a cult turning people funny.’

Celebrities who’re anything but the geeky stereotype, like Vin Diesel, Drew Barrymore and Dwayne Johnson, have spread their love for the game and reappropriated the once disparaging term ‘geek’.

‘Even today, people mostly associate us with the basement-dweller stereotype,’ rues Omar Ismail. ‘They jump to conclusions and fill in the blanks because they’ve never given us a chance to explain what we do.’

Tabletop role-playing, explains Omar, is a simpler concept than it’s made out to be: ‘one person, the storyteller or games master (GM) sits at the head of the table and tells a story and everybody else picks one character in that story. The GM gives you the consequences of your action and you choose what to do.’

How different is it from board games?

Teamwork and a system of rules set them apart, Omar says. ‘Board games usually have a restricted, simpler set of rules and are individualistic, whereas RPGs are interactive narratives where everyone works towards a common end goal, which is mostly, if not often, good triumphing evil.’ RPG also has an intricate scoring system with encyclopaedia-sized rulebooks where each character attribute is given a numerical value added to the points the dice show.

Then there are the dice themselves, which, apart from creating tension and factoring in luck and probability, are unique creations: Pyramids, eight-sided octahedrons a 20-sided die make up a set of seven.

Tabletop role-playing has its history in war-games of old where generals controlled miniature armies on a table as part of strategy and planning. ‘That inspired game designers like Gary Gyjax and Dave Arneson to expand it a multiplayer format and weave storytelling into it to create a game called Chainmail,’ says Omar. ‘Its most famous sequel is Dungeons and Dragons, which became the rage in the ’70s.’

In an era where mainstream television and videogames still had to catch on as pastimes, the appeal of role-playing games held logic. Tabletop games were the blueprint for computer games, Omar says. So what caused this rudimentary format’s resurgence in today’s internet era, where there are massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft, in which people around the world play the same video game together communicating, over headsets and webcams?

‘It’s the original social network. There are real people at the table,’ Pravijay quips and this holds a kernel of truth coming from an avid computer gamer himself. Computers are a huge part of the lives of all the gamers today: Omar Ismail studied computers and artificial intelligence in university and Tarek is a techie.

Jérôme says: ‘We go camping, play archery, attend each other’s’ birthdays, have diners.’ Omar was best man at the wedding of a couple that met at GRC games.

‘Moreover, computer games are restricted to the way they’re programmed; role-playing games make you improvise and think on your feet and most importantly be imaginative storytellers,’ Tarek adds.

This is especially true for the Games Master. Jérôme paints vivid mental imagery of the grave danger we’re in: ‘Ah, there’s traces of brown moss around the cabin, the same moss that killed the Druid!’ He flails his arms about sweeping away the wounded character’s miniature action-figure. The visual he creates is like reading a book; everyone imagines it a little differently, hence their experiences vary, whereas videos games are like a film: everyone watches the same reality.

It’s this possibility to visualise freely that gravitates these video gamers towards table-top games.

Wendy ham-acts by cowering under her cloak in fear and Andrew establishes his barbarian character’s hulking presence and brute force by talking in a booming voice and thumping thunderously on the table at intervals and Pravijay’s rogue’s wisecracking riposte has all laughing out loud. Letting imaginations run wild is fun.

Imagination can also come to life – hands wielding physical swords and voices issuing loud battle cries that echo in the night air – in another format of role-playing called Live Action Role-Playing (LARP).

LARP is the wheelhouse of Claus Raasted, the Danish founder of world’s largest (and only) role-playing production company, Rollespilsakademiet (The Roleplaying Factory), which creates immersive worlds based on original stories or established fandoms like Harry Potter and Downton Abbey.

Claus was in Abu Dhabi last December to conduct a month-long session of LARP at Yas Waterworld called Legends of Arabia. On a cool winter night, I and 40 other people found ourselves dressing up in brown thobes, abayas and headscarves to resemble members of four medieval pearl-diving Emirati tribes – the Falcons, the Daabis, the Vipers and the Camels – and set off on a quest around the waterpark to restore the colossal pearl that has been cursed by water-djinn Butariya.

We’ve entered a cave and suddenly a spray of mist envelopes us. The cloud blinding and wetting us momentarily, we then open our eyes – thwarting our path is a shapeshifter. We know it’s all pretend but the suddenness of his menacing appearance, blood-red cloak, horn-like turban, kohl-smeared eyes and quicksilver movements slinking up behind unexpectedly send a frisson of fear up my spine. The children and other women in the tribe shriek.

The costumes and acting are par-excellence; Rollespilsakademiet doesn’t use the term ‘production’ lightly.

However, when the bandits appear and we lunge and thrust fake rubber swords to fight them I can’t help but feel ludicrous. This is childish.

‘Exactly,’ laughs Claus as I tell him this after the two-hour session during which the pearl has been restored and the fractional tribes have united, electing a leader through an actual vote cast by participants. ‘We’ve been raised to believe that play is childish and must be outgrown, except when it’s structured, like sports. But what do we do in our spare time? We watch TV and movies where people are playing [characters]!’

LARP lets players live out the characters that miniature counters represent in tabletop games, and physically enact and speak their actions in the real world (often themed), wearing costumes and make-up. Growing up, Claus was an avid tabletop gamer (Dungeons and Dragons and Shadow Run were his gateway games) who graduated to LARP as it allowed him to ‘use all five senses and co-create instead of passively consuming. LARP is where you pretend to be someone else, doing something else, somewhere else’, he says.

And that is the crux of all role-playing, both tabletop and live-action – the escapism.

‘It’s one of the benefits,’ shrugs Wendy. Considering the horrors our world has endured in the last several years, why wouldn’t [escapism] be an attractive hobby? This is partly why the tabletop industry has taken off in the last two years.’

‘Why do we watch Titanic, knowing the ship sinks? It’s because we want to be moved, to be transported and learn about different viewpoints and ourselves!’ Claus adds. During the Legends of Arabia LARP, the participants’ vote deciding the ending isn’t scripted – it creates a sense that their choice and actions matter.

Omar explains how it’s also wish-fulfilment: ‘In these games you can bring changes, in yours and the lives of characters others play. Some people tend to gravitate towards their own attributes or play someone completely different.’

The role-players in LARP fit this rule too – one of them is a neurobiologist who LARPs to learn how far our brain can be tricked into believing a fantasy is reality.

Andy Staples, Venture Captain of the UAE Pathfinders’ Society, and a journalist at Gulf News, has been playing for 30 years and assures me that role-players can differentiate between fiction and fact. Not all who role-play are lost: ‘No, we don’t fly into a rage or get depressed when our characters die. Yes, most tabletop games last for 6-7 hours per session and can continue for years. We feel the same emotions you would if your favourite character in a book or TV series died.

‘If you enjoy the fantasy more than your real life, then there are deeper issues at play.’

One of Claus’ Harry Potter LARPers enjoyed her four-day stint as a wizard so much, it made her realise how dissatisfied she was with her real life; she moved countries and changed jobs.

Role-playing also imbues invaluable soft skills in gamers: Andy picked up a love for writing by scripting narratives as a GM, the complex scoring system honed his math skills and inspired him to become an economist. GMing has helped Omar, a stand-up comedian, refine his improvisational techniques, and Tarek adapt to off-the-wall ideas clients throw at him. Jérôme’s after-school games help point-and-click internet generation students with long-term planning and patience.

But most of all it’s just wholesome creative fun and easy to participate in: LARP unfortunately hasn’t caught in in the UAE after its one-time appearance. Pathfinder Society games are hosted every week at the Geeky Lizard and are easy to join. Or stop by MEFCC today – the GRC has a booth there and are happy to help you become one of them.

The sixth edition of the Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) started on April 6 and runs until April 8 at the Dubai World Trade Centre; from 10am-10pm. A single- day pass costs Dh100 at dubaiplatinumlist.net; visit mefcc.com. To join the Gulf Role-Playing Community visit gulfrpg.org

Shreeja Ravindranathan

Shreeja Ravindranathan