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Gaming on the tabletop

As much as I love video games, my gaming life is not complete without regular visits to the tabletop.

  • Gamers meet at the Gulf Roleplaying Community in Al Barsha, Dubai.Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News
  • Gamers at the Gulf Roleplaying Community in Al Barsha, Dubai.Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News
  • Gamer meet at the Gulf Roleplaying Community in Al Barsha, Dubai.Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

And last Friday, I teamed up with nearly 40 like-minded souls to indulge in a day-long celebration of gaming’s oldest platform organised by the Gulf Roleplaying Community (GRC) at a villa in Al Barsha 2.

It’s a low-tech, high creativity approach for people who like to create their own games and characters, who find their imaginations have a higher resolution than any console, or who feel constrained by the half-dozen dialogue options in a modern computer RPGs.

Dice clatter. Players push miniature figurines and cardboard counters into place, as others roar threats or try to talk their way out of problems – or into them. Players grin at their mistakes or groan as the dice go against them.

Spontaneous laughs – even outright giggle attacks – are fairly common around a typical table.

Games staged by the group included  wargames like Warhammer 40K and Car Wars, and roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder and homegrown rules.

Stacks of boardgames, roleplaying games and cardgames were ready for people to peruse or play, and between games players nattered and swapped war stories of past accomplishments.

 “When I explain [tabletop] roleplaying to people, I say it’s like one person is telling a story and all the others are actors in the story; each person tries to contribute to the story in their own way,” said GRC chairman Omar Esmail, an Emirati stand-up comedian who was instrumental in starting the group following last year’s Middle East Comic Con, where he ran games for attendees.

The GRC is an informal band who try to connect tabletop players with each other through Facebook and its own web forum. Friday’s event was the second mass meet the group has organised and it attracted nearly 40 attendees. The first meet, in Abu Dhabi last year,  brought in  25 gamers.

“It’s slowly growing, which is always a good sign,” said Esmail. “The GRC is a community, not an organisation. It’s for people who want to get together, a network of friends.

“Because of the nature of the community – the type of people – other people are always welcome. We have card gamers, board gamers – it’s for people who enjoy playing games. There are no limits.”

Though modern roleplaying and wargaming developed in the West, the meet attracted a good cross-section of UAE residents: Emiratis, Arabs from surrounding countries, Indians, Filipinos and more. They travelled from Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and other emirates to attend.

And while most of the Westerners attending the meet, myself included, might be considered grizzled veterans, the rest were in their teens and twenties or early thirties.

What was it about tabletop gaming – roleplaying in particular – that attracted Arabs, I asked Esmail.

“If you look at Arab history, we have a long tradition of storytelling. I think it’s that element that appeals to them.

“We have a long history of J-RPGs [Japanese computer roleplaying games] and manga as well, which is why many favour those kinds of settings.”

 What is tabletop gaming?

Tabletop games include card games, board games, war games and roleplaying games.

Most people are familiar with the idea of card and board games – though may not realise there are far more available than family games like Monopoly or Scrabble.

Modern wargaming developed to train military officers in the 19th century, but was brought into the home by HG Wells’ rules Little Wars in 1913.

Tabletop roleplaying evolved from skirmish wargaming in the US in the 1970s. The fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, published in 1974, was the first true roleplaying game, but it was followed rapidly by others: fantasy, science fiction and horror – gamers seem drawn to fantastical, larger-than-life settings.

The taste for the fantastical fed back into wargaming with games like Warhammer Fantasy Battles and its hugely popular science-fiction variant Warhammer 40,000 – and they in turn spawned roleplaying game variants.

Roleplaying games usually consist of a gamesmaster, who creates the premise of the game, and a variable number of players, usually around half a dozen, who play the game’s heroes (or villains). Players usually co-operate to achieve their goals, and will usually try to act out their characters’ dialogues. Many, but not all, games use counters or miniature figures. Tactical combat is often a feature of roleplaying games, but some games have no combat at all

Wargaming doesn’t usually require a gamesmaster. Players usually control rival units and play competitively to achieve objects. Miniature figures are usually used, as is model terrain for the tabletop battlefield. Many players take pride in painting their miniatures and making and painting terrain.

All games have rules, which can vary in size and complexity from a page or two of notes to something resembling a textbook. Most games use dice to determine the results of characters’ actions – often non-standard dice with four, eight, ten,  twelve or even twenty sides.

For more information on the Gulf Roleplaying Community, visit www.gulfrpg.org or find the group on Facebook.