I’m not ashamed to admit that I played a lot of pencil-and-paper role-playing games when I was in high school. I was one of those guys who pored over books full of stats and powers and weapons my characters might use or encounter. I’d spend sleepless summer nights, and as many weekends as I could arrange, playing collaborative stories through role-playing games with my friends.
For those who don’t know, a role-playing game is one where you build a character—like a dwarven warrior, mutant turtle, space samurai or whatever—and play inside of a game as that character. The action is controlled by a game master—or a dungeon master, depending on your preference—and you all roll dice to determine the success or failure of your actions as you tell a story, using your character as your avatar.
In my youth, and with the help of my little brothers and some of my closest friends, we went on many adventures across time, space and genres. We explored Tolkien’s Middle Earth, crossed every corner of the Star Wars universe, saved the universe from the Zentraedi, and fought crime in the streets of New York City, Gotham and Metropolis. We even went back in time as mutant animals to kill Hitler. It was a lot of fun, but also incredibly time-consuming. When I finished high school, I got busy with work and starting a career, and thought I’d left that sort of fun behind me. I missed it, sure, but I was getting plenty of other important stuff done.
Things started changing when I bought a copy of HeroQuest a year ago. I wrote about it then, and thought at the time that it was the best way you could spend the holidays with friends or family. But HeroQuest didn’t satisfy my increasing thirst for gaming, nor that of my friends and family—it only roused it further. As we’ve outgrown the capabilities of games like HeroQuest, my friends, family and I have had to transition to more complex games. We moved on to newer games like Descent (which is a fantastic dungeon-crawling board game as well), but then I was given a boxed copy of Pathfinder.
Pathfinder is something like the classic game of Dungeons & Dragons; in fact, it’s even interchangeable with some versions of Dungeons & Dragons. To keep it feeling like a board game, we’ve been playing on maps and miniatures.
I haven’t had so much fun playing games in my life as in this past year. And this new game is challenging and exhilarating as you take on the persona of another character (or a group of them, if you’re the game master) and affect an entire created world. It’s creative, stimulating and social.
My advice to you is to try one of these games during the holidays. It would make a perfect gift for a friend, family member or an entire family (though I’d recommend thoroughly reading the rules before you wrap and present it if you plan to play when it’s opened). The best part about Pathfinder, in particular, is that the rules are in the public domain. You can buy the nice fancy book for $40 at a local game store, but you can also spend just a couple of dollars and get all the rule books sent to your iPhone or iPad. I’d recommend the Pathfinder Beginner Box; it comes with pre-made characters, a ready-made adventure and dice, plus a map and miniatures to play with. It plays exactly like a slightly more complicated board game, but it’s much more fun and creative. It’s the best way to spend a wintry evening.
Bring some booze. Roll some dice. Get out of your skin and pretend to be someone else.
It’s just a game. What have you got to lose?
Bryan Young is editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.