Ahead of this week’s Comic Con, we ex­plore the rise of ta­ble-top gam­ing in the UAE.

When they said the geeks would in­herit the earth, they were right. Ahead of this week­end’s Comic Con in Dubai, Shreeja Ravin­dranathan ex­plores the boom of role-play­ing games in the UAE

Friday - - Contents -

here 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 is 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 Jumeirah’s Al Ghazal Mall.

The mythos we’re in (well, imag­in­ing that we’re in) to­day is the me­dieval, mag­i­cal high-fan­tasy world of Pathfinder So­ci­ety, a pop­u­lar tabletop RPG sys­tem that’s an off­shoot of Dun­geons and Dragons. When

the 20-sided die I roll on a map strewn with hand-painted minia­tures of each char­ac­ter (the mon­ster re­sem­bles Stranger Things’ De­mogor­gon) lands in my favour, I’ve saved the mis­sion, 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 Es­mail, 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 amid 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 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 self­pro­claimed geeks are well-show­ered, so­cia­ble, ar­tic­u­late trade an­a­lysts, mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als, tech ex­ec­u­tives and school teach­ers.

That’s part of the rea­son, Jérôme says, that 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 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 Es­mail. ‘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 and a 20-sided dice 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 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 Es­mail 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 din­ners.’ 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 are 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 video games are like a film: ev­ery­one watches the same re­al­ity.

It’s this pos­si­bil­ity to vi­su­alise freely that grav­i­tates these video gamers to­wards tabletop 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, Rolle­spils­fab­rikken (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, we – me plus 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 en­velops us. The cloud blind­ing and wet­ting us mo­men­tar­ily, we then open our eyes – thwart­ing our path is a shapeshifter.

‘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 movies where peo­ple are PLAY­ING [char­ac­ters]!’

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; Rolle­spils­fab­rikken 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 past 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 Es­mail 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 six to seven 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, while the com­plex scor­ing sys­tem honed his math skills and in­spired his in­ter­est in eco­nomics. GMing has helped Omar Es­mail, 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-and­click 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 on in the UAE af­ter its one-time ap­pear­ance. But 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) runs un­til to­mor­row 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

PHO­TOS BY ANAS THACHARPADIKKAL

Team­work and a com­plex sys­tem of rules dis­tin­guish tabletop play­ing from board games

Live Ac­tion Role-Play­ing, bet­ter known as Larp, cre­ates im­mer­sive worlds based on fan­doms

Pro­fes­sional Larpers in Abu Dhabi last De­cem­ber; be­low, film fran­chises such as Lord

of the Rings, and celebrity fans like Dwayne John­son, have help pop­u­larise gam­ing

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