Adventure gaming: 'It's a great high' Players say fantasy provides escape from stress of everyday life

September 25, 1997|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

It's been a rough day for the fair maiden.

Her train crashed somewhere in Wyoming, thieves robbed the stagecoach, and now she's been captured and slung over the back of a horse.

But she has one thing going for her. She's a vampire.

So it goes in the complex, twisted and controversial world of adventure gaming, a blend of imagination and strategy that swept the country in the '70s and is still very much alive in Anne Arundel County.

In real life, the fair maiden is Shirley Anthony, co-owner of the Adventure Inn in Glen Burnie, which opened this summer as the second gaming store in the county. A room in the back of the store has become a hangout for late-night gamers.

This week the group was trying out a new game, "Werewolf, The Wild West."

The games played at Adventure Inn are unlike most board games. They require critical thinking and a rule book the size of a history textbook. Players make the game up as they go, taking direction from a game master (or GM to gamers). They invent characters and follow intricate plot lines that sometimes twist and play out over years.

For many gamers, the nightly meetings are an escape, a

break from a real life that lacks clear lines of heroics and honor. Secretaries, store clerks and scientists by day, they can run the wild West, rule medieval castles and haunt the alleys of Baltimore by night.

Self-described introverts, the gamers say they achieve confidence and social skills through their nightly adventures.

"When you've had a hell of a day at retail, cleaning up dog poop, there's nothing you want to do more than pretend you are this great hero saving the world," said Tanya Smyth, 29, of Odenton who works in the grooming department at Petsmart. "It's a great high. There's nothing like it."

Role-playing games emerged in 1974, when the granddaddy of them all, "Dungeons and Dragons," hit store shelves. In Anne Arundel, many gamers, now in their late 30s, remember how the game swept the county, enthralling teen-agers. But by the mid-1980s, local fans say, many players, stung by criticism, went underground.

"Dungeons and Dragons" (or D and D to gamers) was controversial because it involved supernatural spells, monsters and mythical creatures. Some charged the game was "satanically influenced" and "anti-Christian."

Several high-profile murders in the early 1980s also were linked to role-playing games after police discovered detailed similarities between the killings and the games' fantasy instructions.

The games got such a bad reputation that instruction books now come with disclaimers on the covers that read: "This is a game. To be clear, vampires and werewolves are not real. The extent to which they may be said to exist is revealed only in what they maybe can teach us of the human condition and of the fragility and splendor we call life."

While some gamers admit the play can be an addictive escape -- some play up to 40 hours a week -- most see the games as harmless fun, having no more influence on the real world than television or books.

"I'm a Christian and I believe in God, and I know this is not devil worshiping," Anthony said in the shop while waiting for the nightly game to get under way. Other gamers milled about, practicing accents and playing with 20-sided dice and character props.

"It was basically people deciding things without all the information," said Ed Swing, 32, a computer programmer from Laurel, of the controversy surrounding the games.

"It's gotten a bad rap because of a few people who got up from the table and did some of the things their characters did," added Diane Friel, 30, a medical secretary from Baltimore. "Nobody really gets hurt. That's the whole idea. The worst thing that could happen is that a beloved character passes away. But you just have to tell yourself it's just a piece of paper."

Still, the store's presence in the county has not gone unnoticed.

"There are plenty of other concentration-based games that don't have anything to do with religion or world views," said Dan Nash, pastor of Annapolis Assembly of God, who said he watched a teen-ager years ago move from simple game-playing to witchcraft. "The game concept itself is not a problem. It's the subject matter."

Mark Elliott, youth pastor at Abundant Life Church in Glen Burnie, said the games can tempt people to evil.

"From a church perspective, if it's not occultic, it's definitely a step in that direction," Elliott said.

For the group playing "Werewolf," though, the game was a chance to suspend disbelief and be transformed into a maiden or a brave gunslinger with secret powers -- a sort of sheriff-meets-wizard motif.

"There are two types of people that play," said the youngest player, John Tucker, 20, as he sorted the die. "There's the very rare type that takes it into the real world. But most are just friendly people who share the same interests."

His real life?

"I work at the Renaissance Festival," he said.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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