By John Walker on September 17th, 2007 at 3:03 pm.
About a year and a half ago, the idea struck me that RPGs had a particularly odd phenomenon that required investigation. Now, I don’t pretend to be the first person who thought it strange that in the majority of role-playing games, strangers will march up to you and ask you to do their chores/rescue their daughters. But I do pretend to be the first person to dress up as a wizard, go into the streets of Bath, and find out if it was realistic. Below is the story of my adventure, originally published on The Escapist, and now in its full glory for you, today.
Quest For Glory
There are conventions in media we become perfectly used to, despite their having no place in reality. If we watch a movie, and someone is given CPR in the street, on the beach or dangling on a rope from a hot air balloon, we know they’ll come back to life. Nevermind that CPR merely sustains things until proper medical equipment arrives – we know, and accept, that with a couple of compressions and a few puffs in the mouth, they’ll be up and about and back to shooting zombies in a couple of minutes.
All romantic comedies will end in life-lasting true love, and all soap operas will have a 100% relationship failure rate. All cops will announce, “There’s no time for back up!” when they arrive at the scene of a crime, before being asked to hand in their gun and badge to the furious captain (what with the mayor being in town) on a weekly basis. All aliens are bipedal, and of all the languages spoken on Earth, choose English. Shopping bags always contain a long stick of French bread. And if you bump into someone of the opposite sex carrying a large stack of files, you will fall in love while picking them up. These are truths.
Conventions require time. Videogames have finally reached an age where such imaginary stalwarts are becoming firmly established, most especially within roleplaying games.
Prithy sir, clicketh upon mine linkth?
The distinguishing feature of such behaviours is we don’t stop to question them until they’re starkly pointed out. We accept them, unconsciously suspending our disbelief, only noticing when some smart-ass comes along and says, “Why is it when men disguise themselves as women, they suddenly gain super-strength?” So tell me, why is it in every RPG I’ve ever played, complete strangers are perfectly happy to walk up to me and entrust their very most intimate and important needs to my charge?
Arriving in a new town for the very first time, dressed in a confused mishmash of brown leggings, a priestly robe, chain mail jerkin, leather gloves, three magic rings, a large amulet necklace and a pointed wizard’s hat, any number of distraught mothers will approach me and beg that I find their missing children/husbands/swords. Perhaps, I might be walking around naked but for the scrap of cloth protecting my decency and a fine pair of kobold-hide boots, but this won’t prevent the local baker from requesting that I take a magic cake to his colleague in a neighbouring town, or the grumpy old codger from barking at me that I should clear his basement of vampiric rats.
What are they thinking? Do they ask just anyone who walks past, and I’m the only one daft enough to stop and listen? And when, exactly, was the last time someone accosted you in the street and asked you to complete a quest for them?
I decided to put this to the test.
The plan: To take to the streets, dressed as a wizard, with a quest for the good peoples of Bath, England. Would they really help out a stranger with a strange beard? Would they even stop and listen? Is there any truth to this convention we’ve otherwise entirely accepted?
First of all, I should immediately get this out of the way: No one, at any point, approached me to ask for a quest. Short of suspending a yellow exclamation mark above my head, I’m not sure what more I could have done to attract the attention of any passing adventurers braving the cold thoroughfare through the centre of the town. If anything, people did their very best to avoid me, refusing eye contact, moving far away from my pleading face. It was already concerning.
I should explain the scenario. I, the brave wizard, had transferred through a portal into this dimension, but could not leave the spot on which I stood. It was imperative to the survival of the universe that the magic spell I held (a rolled up scroll of paper, engagingly tied with a purple ribbon) be given to the girl in the red cloak and hood, waiting outside what you humans call “the shoe shop,” 300 yards down the road. Upon completion of this vital task, a bag of gold coins would be given as a reward. In my dimension, chocolate coins are of the very highest worth. Would anyone go out of their way for me, in order to be the savior of all mankind, for the prize of a bag of candy?
Things started off well. Almost immediately, a pair of teenage girls stopped to help a stranded magician. Laughing – mostly with confusion – they found it in their hearts to help out … once they glanced upon the potential reward. Taking the scroll they immediately set off on their quest, my calls of good luck barely reaching them. By the time they had met my companion, known as Chrissy, she was engaged in conversation with a chum friend who had happened to pass by. With surprise, she met the outthrust hands of the two girls, ready for the expected coins. Not quite the courageous attitude I might have hoped for, but the 300 coins were a paltry sum, just for the look of confusions on Chrissy-Red-Riding-Hood’s friend’s face when she nonchalantly turned to two strangers and gilded chocolate for a magic spell.
And then, things went a bit downhill.
Perhaps some blame for any disappointment should be laid at the feet of the innumerous others who attempt to garner money from innocent passers by. Whether the sideways-dancing collectors for charities, trained in trapping the innocent in conversation, or those wishing to sell anything from the Big Issue to car insurance, we have become quite adept at the entirely non-engaging “No, thank you” accompanied by a sharply quickened pace. Rarely was I able to get through, “Would you be so kind as to help me with a quest?” before my targets were disappearing toward the horizon.
In this time of rejection, I did learn a few useful things, however.
1) Older people are much less likely to see the funny side of something, even when the safety of the universe is in the balance.
2) Couples are far better at avoiding the magically hindered than individuals.
3) Men with grey beards really don’t like to be called, “fellow wizard.” (Although, their wives are likely to find it funny.)
And then, hope was restored in the form of a man in his 40s. His reaction was certainly the most peculiar of the day. He resigned himself to helping me as if he had to. Could this man have been a true adventurer? Someone who is aware of the demands of being a hero? Perhaps his acquiescent attitude was due to the low level of the quest, and the relatively poor reward for a man of such experience. But something about the simplicity of the task, and the accompanying XP, must have been enough.
Except that my companion reported never meeting him, let alone receiving the spell. I suspect that at the end of his day’s adventuring he’ll find the scroll at the bottom of his satchel, roll his eyes, and simply delete the quest from his list. He has dragons to be slaying.
Not long after, but long enough to receive a very convincing “f— off” from one particularly surly gentleman, a couple eventually stopped once they realized this was an attempt to give coins, rather than take. Australian tourists, they were far more in the role of the visiting adventurer, and happily accepted the task with good humor. Unfortunately, despite setting off with cheer in their hearts, they were unable to complete the quest. Spotted standing in the middle of an area of benches, looking around in confusion, yet somehow failing to spot the girl in the bright red hood, they unfurled the scroll, perhaps in desperation, only to discover, “This spell is destroyed by reading it.” Their failure realized, they once again went about their exploration of this new zone.
Finally, and after another extended period of angry glares, smart refusals, and looks of utter horror, the universe was once more brought back from the brink by another pair of girls, this time in their 20s. Enthusiastic, they gladly accepted their task, did not question the story they were told, and warmly accepted my heartfelt wishes of luck on their journey. Not only that, but upon arriving at their goal they explained why they were there, handed over the spell, and modestly took their reward from the grateful hooded lady. They are champions. Your universe is safe in their hands.
What was learned? Against expectation, and while certainly in the minority, people are willing to help a wizard in distress. Perhaps this RPG convention is not quite the farce once supposed by this cynical player. Or, maybe some people just feel sorry for the berk dressed in a silly costume on a freezing cold winter’s day.
And if one thing should be taken from this experience, above anything else, should the fate of the universe ever be in your hands, only bother to seek the aid of girls under the age of 30.