Roll that dice - I'm dragonmaster
By Nick Hallissey
It's a sunny afternoon in Rayleigh. I'm munching on some poppadum-flavour crisps and battling four slavering ogres in a distant forest. Life couldn't be better.
Welcome to the world of fantasy role-play, where knights are bold, rogues are sneaky and the king is up to something sinister.
Along with a posse of brave cohorts, I was being introduced to Dungeons & Dragons. Forget stereotypes of geeks huddling in dark corners and talking about elves. While a certain amount of elven discussion is involved, this pastime is sociable, accesible and downright fun.
The last time I'd encountered role-play was when I was 11. It was the late Eighties, when the hobby was just beginning to take off for the first time.
My own explorations of the phenomenon consisted of playing half a game at my mate Andrew's house before going to play football instead.
So when I heard that gaming is not just alive and well but flourishing, and regularly played by grown-ups, I thought it was time to pick up my battleaxe and return to the fray.
I soon discovered that it's not about big boards and little figures. It's about books, information sheets, skill and, in the end, sheer dumb luck.
Our Games Master was 22-year-old Chris Lovell, from Rayleigh. A seasoned player, chris spends his spare time either gaming in the real world, or playing online with people around the globe.
Alternatively, you might find him playing it out for real in Laindon woods, in full orc costume and armed with his collection of ornately-constructed latex swords.
The first thing he explains is the enormous pile of dice in the middle of the living room table. Some are your bog-standard six-siders, but others have crazy shapes and any number of sides up to and including 20.
"You have different dice for different things," he says.
"Among gamers, they're status symbols, to an extent. If you've got lots of nice dice, that's a good thing." The key ingredients for a gaming session, Chris says, are a steady supply of meat pasties, sweets and cans of fizzy drink.
In our case we've opted for crisps and a few beers, but the effect is much the same.
Chris controls the game and plays the part of every character that isn't one of us. He has created an entire game scenario, and will present us with plot developments as we go along. How we react to them is up to us.
When there is a significant plot development, such as an ambush, each player takes turns to decide what they will do.
That applies to every swish of his or her sword, or every attempt to cast a spell, meaning a three-minute battle can take up to an hour in real time.
Our first mission is to choose our characters. See the panel to find out what we came up with.
Chris then sets the scene. We are a troop of adventurers who have been summoned to the court of Lord Atalii.
His kingdom has been plagued by raids from the neighboring land of Ramal, and now his daughter, Lady Sara, has been kidnapped.
He wants us to get her back. We now have to decide whether we trust what the king is telling us. He's certainly paying us handsomely - 100 gold pieces each.
We remain sceptical, though, and our doubts are fleshed out when Chris introduces us to a courier, who warns us i hushed tones not to trust the king.
He claims something is amiss. There is no way anyone from outside the kingdom could have abducted the Princess from her heavily-guarded chamber.
He also suspects the king has ulterior motives. Perhaps we are being spun a line to legitamise a war. Sounds almost alarmingly true to life.
Throughout these early stages, we have been learning about rolling the dice. We roll to discover things like whether we can believe the courtier, and whether we can detect evil magic in the ether. We've also learned to be cheeky and demand more cash from the king.
Eventually, we decide to follow the courtier's tip-off, which will take us to a stabling inn, a day's ride north, where he suspects "something is going on".
Along the way we are ambushed by four ogres, and our first battle begins. During the melee, Paul conjures up a ball of flame while Ben goes wading in with his sword.
I've got the best gizmo, however. I use a spell to summon a celestial bear, which goes mental and tears a chunk out of one of the ogres.
Sadly, another one of the attackers -whose actions are all rolled by Chris - comes up with a high number and manages to lamp my bear with a tree-trunk. Alas, poor bear.
Eventually, and largly thanks to resident rogue Jo, we see off the nasties. Checking their corpses, we find a suspicious note alerting the ogres to our arrival. Have we been set up?
Arriving at the inn, we enter our second battle - this time agaist a much cleverer ogre mage. He's a real bad dude with a nasty habit of making himself invisible.
Luckily, I can do a spell which removes invisibility, so now that we can see him again, the others wade in and our friendly barbarian David finishes him off.
Entering the inn, we hear the sound of sobbing, and the rogue discoveres a young girl lying among a pile of slaughtered bodies. When we ask who she is, she replies that she is the handmaiden of the Princess.
There's our cliffhanger. The game had by that stage gone on for three hours, largly due to the novice nature of most of the players. Had it not been for other commitments, though, we would all have been keen to continue.
Indeed, we plan to do so as soon as it is convenient.
"That's the beauty of an extended game, or campaign," says Chris.
"Games can run for months, or even years, depending on when the players can get together. Obviously I've got an overview of what is going to happen and what secrets the handmaiden is going to reveal, so I can just keep that ready for next time."
The sheer cleverness of the game is overwhelming. Your fate is determined to some extent by your ability to think creatively and your knowledge of the game's possibilities. But in the end, everything comes down to the dice, and to the information sheets which can boost or reduce the number you roll.
There's no denying it's complicated, but you get the hang of it. It's also theatrical. You can either say "my character suggests that he doesn't entirely trust this man", or you can act it: "grrr, barbarian hate man, barbarian smash man with club, grrr". You can also get variants with different settings - everything from space adventures to murders in Victorian London.
So if you've a yen to lose the hundrum shackles of the day, I can think of few better ways to get away than to head off on a role-play session with some of your mates.
. One of the journalists was a damn good artist and actually drew out some of the characters and combat scenes as we were playing. Three of the sketches were protraying various characters, with the following supporting text:
David took on the role of a half-orc barbarian, a dim-witted, but deadly warrior whose first instinct was to attack first and ask questions later. His primary weapon was an axe, but the effect was ruined when he called himself Lisa.
Paul was Thol-Ernath, a mystical druid with great magical powers. He came in very handy in battle thanks to his talent for conjuring up a shimmering ball of fire and for his many healing skills.
Ben became Melubb, a noble and heroic Paladin, or knight. He was blessed with oodles of charisma and was very handy with a sword. His square-jawed heroism led us to compare him to Buzz Lightyear, of Toy Story fame.
If anyone's interested in the pics, I'll see if I can pinch a scanner from a friend for 10 minutes or so sometime.