An RPG noob in Auckland Pathfinder Society's court.
“Enchanté,” Keith Smith says, as I stretch out my hand to shake his.
Keith is a retired computer programmer, and a hobby photographer who specialises in underwater, glamour and astrophotography.
He’s also a Pathfinder fanatic.
Pathfinder is a tabletop role-playing game, (or ‘RPG’ in RPG parlance,) a derivative of 1974 fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons. In such games, players assume fictional characters (wizards, barbarians, elves) and act out a role within a narrative, which is often laid out by the “gamemaster”.
Narratives in RPGs can be highly flexible and creative, and are often made up by players as the game progresses. In Pathfinder, characters are represented by miniature figurines on a map. Their interactions with the world in which they exist are dictated by predetermined statistics, and players use dice to decide the outcomes of actions.
It’s a Thursday night, and we’re at the weekly Auckland Pathfinder Society meetup at the Orakei RSA. At the bar, 59-year-old Keith, who is wearing a grey NASA t-shirt with a greasy stain down the front, orders a jug of raspberry lemonade, with an extra shot of raspberry. His aviator spectacles have an ever so slight yellow tint, and his black cargo pants appear to be made of tracksuit fabric. I order a beer and we head to the back room, which overlooks Rangitoto Island.
In the room, a table is laid out with stacks of A4 paper around a laminated grid with map-like lines drawn on it in whiteboard marker. Various dice in different colours and shapes sit in small piles near what looks like a fishing tackle box filled with tiny figurines.
“Let’s get started, shall we?” Keith says.
Thus begins my foray into the world of RPGs, with Keith as gamemaster.
Role-playing games have been bubbling under the surface of the mainstream since the days of Dungeons & Dragons, but some say that recently they’ve seen a bit of a renaissance.
Earlier this year, Green Party leader James Shaw admitted he’d worked at legendary Wellington gaming store Mind Games, and was a huge D&D fan in the 1980s. "I think it's total geek chic these days - it's cool to be a D&D player again,” Shaw told the NZ Herald. "Not like 'cool' cool, more like Wellington Central cool."
Hicksville creator Dylan Horrocks has drawn a series of monsters from the D&D, and is currently working on a graphic novel about playing the game. He admits he’s a bit obsessed. “I could go on about this stuff forever,” he tells me via email.
Offshore, the animated/live/improvised TV show HarmonQuest, Dan Harmon - the guy who created Rick and Morty - plays a D&D-like RPG with various comedians (Aubrey Plaza, Patton Oswalt, Erin McGathy). Gamemaster and co-creator Spencer Crittenden is a long-haired, bearded, former Apple Store employee. It’s hilarious.
But for many, the idea of the game being reserved for greasy nerds in the garage, eating chips and smoking pot, probably with questionable personal hygiene, is hard to shake. Based on my former flatmates, who played a regular game of Vampire: The Masquerade, this stereotype is accurate.
Popular culture hasn’t helped that much with this. A nerdy group of boys in Netflix series Stranger Things play D&D, and use the game to describe what’s going on in their small Indiana town (the demogorgon, the mind flayer). Homer plays it with nerds for three hours in The Simpsons, James Franco discovers the game in Freaks and Geeks, and in Weezer song In the Garage, Rivers Cuomo sings about his 12-sided die and his dungeonmaster’s guide.
When it first came out in 1974, D&D was designed to appeal to a specifically male audience. Famously, the game’s creator Gary Gygax once told a journalist “gaming in general is a male thing”.
“It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.”
Rosaria Price was 17 when she played her first RPG, based around the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The campaign lasted two years. The 22-year-old, who works in a bookstore and is studying to be a librarian, is now vice-president of the America Club, a group of gamers based at the University of Auckland who hold weekly tabletop roleplaying nights.
It seems Gygax was wrong, when he said women were not into games.
“My first tabletop group was majority women and the group I'm in right now has a quite even split,” Rosaria says.
“I know as many female roleplayers as male ones, but I feel like the former group are a bit invisible since they don't feel as welcome in what is sometimes perceived as a male-dominated hobby. Tabletop clubs can come off as a bit of a ‘boys club’,” she says.
“I think young women tend to avoid them due to the very real fear of being harassed or looked down on. That wasn't my experience, thank God, but it is the experience some women have and that's really sad.”
Women, she says, are more likely to be introduced to RPGs through friends than through clubs.
“Most of my parties as a gamemaster through clubs were exclusively male or only had one other woman.”
Palmerston North player Rob Mildon, 40, who works in communications at the local museum, says the male-to-female ratio of RPG players has definitely changed since he began playing as a 12-year-old. He attributes this partly to the introduction of games like the gothic-inspired Vampire series, which are more political, social, and have stronger female characters.
Rob also says today's role-players are not as easy to put in boxes as they used to be. At his local gaming store, Nexus Games, it could be anyone who walks in the door to buy miniatures - cool teens, 20-something professionals, mums, students.
“A lot of people playing it are not who I’d expect to be role-players. There’s no stereotypical role-player these days that you perhaps could’ve identified 25 years ago.
“It’s a really diverse crowd. Their RPG nights are hugely popular, like, it’s enormous. They barely have room to contain everybody,” Rob says.
Rob has a core group of friends who meet up weekly to play various RPGs. Even when he lived in Japan for six months, he checked in via Skype.
“It’s an enormously flexible, welcoming hobby,” he says. “And it’s for everybody - you’ve just gotta find the style that suits you.”
Back at the Orakei RSA, Keith is reading aloud from one of the A4 sheets of paper: “The ramshackle tenement outside of Korvosa softly echoes with the sound of light rain as Venture-Captain Sir Canayven Heidmarch begins his briefing.”
I am sitting between him and Clive Barnes. Clive is an arborist with a shaved head, blue eyes, a long blonde beard and a heavily tattooed right arm. He is wearing a leather shoulder holster, and sips earl grey tea from a horn-shaped travel mug. His character in tonight’s Pathfinder Society campaign is an ifrit, whom he describes as being “a tall slim, fiery looking holy man with a large curved sword and fire for hair.” He has made the intricate miniature himself.
The two other players at the table have asked to remain anonymous. One is a nurse, whose character is potty-mouthed rogue called Marti (“She wears a big hat with a couple of playing cards tucked in the rim. She has short, dark hair kind of just hacked off with a dagger. She wears some leather armour - I’m not sure from looking at it if it’s not looked after or just made to look like it’s not looked after,” the nurse says of her character.) The other player is a soldier in real life, whose pre-generated character is a wizard called Ezren. Tonight, I’m a bloodrager called Crowe. Crowe is described by one of the other players as being a cross between Conan the Barbarian and the Red Woman from Game of Thrones.
Keith continues his spiel, taking on the character of Venture-Captain Sir Canayven Heidmarch:
“‘For this mission you will have to venture into the sewers beneath Korvosa. ‘Sascha Antif-Arah,’ he announces, gesturing to a haggard human woman who is past her prime but whose posture expresses a confidence and experience, ‘requires access to a particular vault. The society is going to help her.’ Sascha eyes each Pathfinder in turn then nods to herself with some satisfaction and steps forward gracefully.”
Keith then changes character, putting on a high pitched, squeaky voice:
“‘Some years ago my friends and I had made quite a name for ourselves around Korvosa, and our adventures earned us a considerable amount of gold. We stashed most of it in one of the Vaults after evicting the cult that had already claimed it.’"
Continuing to read from the script, Keith explains that our mission is to go into the sewers and retrieve Sascha’s locket. There will be some gold in it for us, apparently, but we may encounter some challenges along the way.
In 1979 in the United States, university student James Dallas Egbert III’s disappearance and subsequent suicide with a shotgun in 1980 was linked by the media to D&D. The 1982 movie Mazes & Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks, is a dramatisation of these media reports.
In a 1984 comic by Jack T Chick, D&D is linked to the occult and causes the suicide of a young woman who can’t face life without her character after she is killed in a campaign.
In a 1985 60 Minutes special on the game, the mother of teenager Irving Pulling blames his suicide, using his father’s handgun, on his playing D&D. She later forms Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), a group dedicated to lobbying against the game. Back then, the idea of kids hanging out together playing a game seemed to horrify people.
As a kid growing up in New Zealand in the 1980s, Dylan Horrocks recalls a touch of this moral panic reaching our shores. There was talk among some parents of D&D contributing to a friend's suicide, and concerns about addiction to the game, causing kids to lose contact with reality, he says.
“I had two friends who became born-again Christians in the 1980s, and both of them gave up D&D (at least one of them burned his books). In the mid-1980s, there was a flurry of American charismatic evangelist activity in New Zealand, with visiting preachers and my friends got caught up in that.”
According to D&D fan Tim Elphick, the game was banned at the Tauranga library in the 1980s. In 2006, then deputy-principal of Tauranga Boys’ College Rob Naumann recalled the controversy: "Ten years ago there was that Dungeons and Dragons and there was a lot of fuss around that and there was probably some well documented cases of people who didn't sit well with the game, who associated with the characters and couldn't let them go and couldn't divorce between the reality and the game but it didn't have the same impact as they thought.”
Two years later, the NZ Herald reported that evangelical Christian group Mercy Ministries was operating a clinic in Auckland. In Australia, the organisation shut down after it was accused of using exorcisms and prayers to treat eating disorders, The registered charity, renamed A Girl Called Hope in 2011, was reported to ask in its application form about “involvement in same-sex relationships or ‘spiritual’ pursuits such as Dungeons and Dragons”.
The reality of playing RPGs for Rosaria and her friends, however, is quite different. There is no satan worshipping or self-harm involved. Just tea, coffee, snacks and a bit of fun. She says feelings towards the game are more positive these days: “There's some talk, I think, about how easy it is to get disconnected from each other in the information age, and the rise of RPGs and boardgames into the mainstream is, I think, a response of sorts.
“Tabletop gaming is social - you need to sit down for a few hours and talk to each other to make it work, and I find doing that regularly is great for the mental health.”
“I just wanna have fun and kill dragons,” says Jason Edgecombe, a tall, bearded Tauranga man with a soft Canadian accent that accentuates his enthusiasm when he talks about D&D.
The 28-year-old father of one is on the autism spectrum and works as a mentor for kids struggling with similar conditions.
“When I started up my mentoring service, I was looking for different activities that were really fun and engaging, but that had a lot of positive and learning components to them,” Jason says.
“I wanted to help develop a massive range of social skills that these kids lacked - not because they weren’t intelligent, but because they needed to learn them in a different way.”
A bit over two years ago, Jason was looking to take on new clients and contacted an organisation called Asperger's Connection. Organisers said they were looking for a way to encourage kids to socialise, to get them talking to each other away from their computers and out of the house.
“I said ‘I’ve got just the thing for ya’.”
It was D&D, a game Jason has played since he was about 13.
He’s been running groups ever since, and now plays weekly games of D&D with about 25 kids in total in Tauranga and Rotorua each night of the week.
The benefits, he says, are endless. “You work on basic math and English skills, problem solving, critical thinking, group work and cooperation, social skills, research skills - it’s a pretty long list.
“I’ve seen some amazing stuff. The first time some of the kids have sat down to play, they'll be looking at the table, not speaking, not looking at anybody - these are stereotypically overly shy, introverted kids - and they’ve gone from that to yelling and laughing and talking animatedly, not being afraid to stand up for their opinion, argue sometimes.”
In 1991, when Steve Hickey, 45, first started working at Wellington store Mind Games, it was the centre of a booming D&D scene. The store had opened in 1986 in a tiny space beneath a cinema on Manners St, and was loaded with “so much cool stuff, my mind was blown,” Steve says.
In the five years he worked at the store (which had expanded into a bigger premises), the scene changed a lot, he says. At first. RPGs felt “pretty mainstream”. New games like Vampire had moved away from the swords and sorcery genre of D&D and brought in a new types of players. D&D had expanded into different realms - including Asia, the Middle East and outer space. Then, in 1993, trading card game Magic: The Gathering, was released, and instantly blew up.
“It ate up the mindspace of people who were interested in role-playing. A lot of people started focusing on building up their decks, spending their disposable income on the cards, and not so much on D&D rule books or adventures,” Steve says.
RPG companies followed suit and tried producing their own card games with variable success. Companies started going bankrupt.
Game developer Morgan Davie, 41, says the shops - like Mind Games, Pendragon and Mark One - that had kept New Zealand gamers supplied, fell to pieces in the mid 1990s. RPGs were no longer easy to get hold of. The makers of D&D went bankrupt in 1997, not long after video gaming consoles like Playstation had hit stores in 1995.
“New Zealand RPG people found their whole hobby disappear around them, and the hot new game was not pen and paper and dice, but on computers or consoles,” Morgan says.
Existing RPG communities were whittled down to the hardest of the hardcore enthusiasts, who kept the flag flying at places like Kapcon and through groups like the America Club. (Kapcon organiser Russ Kale says the “lone female gamer” stereotype is becoming a rarity, and the convention is growing more diverse in gender identity representation, including non-binary players.)
It wasn’t until the 2010s that the pendulum swung back to where it is today. Morgan believes part of this is a kickback at the shift of gaming culture, and culture in general, into the digital environment. “Originally [role-playing] was a way to step into a different world. It was a form of escapism. In the 1980s it was seen as being antisocial. Now it’s an excuse to get together with your friends in a way that is social and creative.”
From about 2005, the “indie movies of the RPG world” began to be published, Steve says. The games are more personal, and take advantage of newer, cheaper means of distribution via the internet. “Because they were fine about targeting smaller audiences they could be more experimental.”
The arrival of Kickstarter in 2009 changed things further. “A bit like having someone with an indie background direct a Marvel superhero film,” as Steve puts it. Games like this include supernatural monster hunting game Monster of the Week, feminist psychological horror Bluebeard's Bride, and Primetime Adventures - a game about creating a new TV show.
If you were in Matamata in October, you may have come across a rag-tag bunch of about 80 gamers and their families. The group descended upon the small Waikato town clutching stuffed toy dragons for two days of role-playing at PazioCon Oz 2017, from as far away as the US, UK and South Africa.
As part of the convention, Glen Irving and Paul Trani - both Pathfinder Society “venture captains” - had organised a night of gaming at The Green Dragon Inn at the Lord of The Rings set, Hobbiton. It was role-playing heaven, or as Paul describes it, “the acme of my organised play experience to date.”
US-born Paul, 42, is a pediatrician and he loves role-playing. He first discovered D&D at Scout camp when he was 11, and has played the game pretty much ever since - with the same group of friends through high school, then college and grad school. When he started working, he thought - in error - that he’d have to stop playing.
“It took me close to 10 years to shake that notion, and by the time I did that, D&D 4th edition had been surpassed by Pathfinder to be the RPG of choice for sword and sorcery fans.” (A fifth edition of D&D came out in 2014, and the game’s popularity, which had waned to near obscurity, was reignited).
When Paul moved to New Zealand in 2013 he started up the South Island’s only Pathfinder “lodge”.
“I love gaming. I love people coming together to slay dragons … RPGs help shy people be the fierce warrior they want to be, help isolated kids find a war party to go hunting with, and help everyone figure out how to do mental math really quickly.
“It’s an amazing game, and done correctly, can be something that brings the disabled into a group playing next to absolute strangers - I’ve been lucky enough to witness that.”
After battling several aberrations in the sewers beneath Korvosa (an otyugh, two darkmantles, a giant centipede, some kind of ooze monster and an aggressive mushroom) we successfully collect our gold, and Sascha Antif-Arah’s locket.
Keith, Clive and Glenn have been incredibly welcoming, helpful and tolerant of my constant questions about basically everything [as has everybody else I have spoken to for this story. Two interviewees have even sent me follow up emails with extra details].
My character Crowe has successfully Hulk-smashed his way into my heart, and I return home with a bag full of weirdly shaped dice, a new appreciation of my greasy flatmates and their gaming nights, and every intention to become a full-blown RPG nerd.