They can be heroes

Defying geeky stereotypes, a healthy community of role-playing enthusiasts is flourishing in the UAE. Jessica Hill meets one prominent group’s members and finds that they are far from socially awkward.

Game on: left to right, Alesya Katyuk, Omar Ismail, Tarek Omar and Thomas Martin – all members of the highly social, 220-person-strong Gulf Roleplaying Community – get down to role-playing business in Abu Dhabi. Sarah Dea / The National
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The innkeeper whispers to you that the inn is surrounded by strange creatures and that you are being watched. The One Day Inn should be a place of respite – its slate walls and glowing fireplace are a bulwark against the cruel winter. But, on looking around, you see a misshapen figure sat by the fire, a pair of clawed feet sticking out from under his cloak, and through the bottle-glass windows you can see shadowy figures flitting among the snow and trees. A solitary screech can be heard – that of a creature hunting its prey. What do you do?

This scenario was envisaged by Russell (last name withheld on request), a storyteller who has been creating medieval imagery in his head since the age of 12 to direct a game where players take on characters in a battle against good and evil. This is the world of role playing, a hobby that is gaining popularity in the UAE.

Russell, from the UK, is joined at his Abu Dhabi flat for a regular Thursday night session of role playing by his Ukranian wife, Alesya Katyuk, Thomas Martin, from Ireland, an Emirati, Omar Ismail, and Tarek Omar, from Syria. Two years ago, Russell and Omar set up the Gulf Roleplaying Community, turning a handful of hobbyists into 220-strong group. He points out that the racial profile of the UAE-based role players reflects that of the country itself.

“One of the joys about role playing here is that nationality doesn’t matter,” says Russell. “For me, the deepest joy was playing in a friend’s majlis – it is humbling to have access to another culture on such a level. And because the community is so broad, we have avoided the stigma associated with it in the UK and the US. We all know how to take a shower every day – and we don’t worship Satan.”

All of tonight’s players are in their 30s and 40s, and most have partners, although none have children. “There are people who have spouses who don’t play,” says Russell. “But spouses are usually tolerant of it, because it’s a hobby that doesn’t involve drinking or going into town and getting into trouble.”

Omar jokes: “We need all our spare cash to sustain our hobby, so we don’t have the money left to raise kids.”

Dubai-based Omar is the chairman of the Community, and has been indulging his hobby for eight years.

He also uses the improvisation skills that are essential to his role as a storyteller in his part-time job as a stand-up comedian.

There are several different types of role-playing games. Omar explains the usual game setup: “There is a games master who sits at the head of the table and tells a story. In the old days, he was known as the Dungeon Master, from Dungeons & Dragons, but that’s old school now. Everyone else at the table is a character in that story. In “free-form” role playing, players will contribute what their particular character will do in the situation at hand. We often play with dice, so there is a chance of failure in the story.”

On this particular night, the players are using a 20-sided die. In the background, classical music plays. On the table, painted metal miniature versions of each character are placed on a map of a fantasy island to mark their locations. The game is set in a steampunk era, a medieval society with elements of modern industrialism, such as huge, magic-powered zeppelins. In this game, the heroes around the table are trying to save a band of 30 refugee children from the Nazi-like bad guys, the Trentenschwein, who are, apparently, genocidal maniacs. Russell hands out sheets of paper to each player containing details about each of their characters. They’re all good guys with human flaws who fight for justice, equality and diversity.

Omar plays Thaxdor, a dwarfish cleric. Russell narrates: “There’s a massive shriek … ‘Aah, there’s a monster’ and the children all crowd around you to keep themselves safe.”

Each player has the same character each time that they play, so they get to know them over time. Thomas, who has been playing in the UK and Ireland for 17 years, explains: “You get some people who will act it out as though they are in character all the time during the game. People get very involved, and Russell has had people going out of the game crying.”

But tonight the players don’t seem to be taking their characters too seriously – they’re still laughing, even during the more serious situations, which makes it look like a lot of fun.

As the fighting commences, Russell replaces the classical music with the background sounds from the final battle scene in Saving Private Ryan: shooting guns and blood-curdling screams enhance the senses for players to focus on the battle at hand. Thomas’s Minotaur helps them to defeat the Trentenschwein, with help from Skoss, a moody teenager played by Tarek, and from Alesya with a crossbow. Russell tells us that the children are now screaming in delight as the villagers march forward, with Thaxdor hiding among them. Russell stands over the players, wringing his hands animatedly as he creates this vision in his head and describes it to the players.

I marvel at the scope of his imagination. He expresses the imagery with such vivacity that you can see how players feel as though they’re really experiencing it. I want to interrupt to ask the group questions, but they’re all so involved in their fantasy that I feel guilty about bringing them back down to earth.

Eventually, I break the spell and turn to Tarek, who has been involved in role playing for two years. “With a video game, you can’t improvise like with this,” he tells me. “And what also makes it great is that you can’t do it alone – it’s a very social hobby. We also socialise outside role playing, at each other’s birthday parties and other events.”

Alesya and Russell got married two months ago at a wedding where most of the people in attendance were fellow role players, and Omar was best man. Of all tonight’s players, Alesya is newest to the game: she has only been playing for six months. “This is not something I am familiar with from my childhood,” she explains. “The first time I saw Russell playing this game with others, I thought ‘Do I really know who this man is? There are some mad people here!’ Then I thought ‘OK, I will stay and observe next time.’ I realised it was like watching a movie, but you can go behind the scenes – they are writing it themselves. It’s fun and you make a lot of friends. But to be honest, it was quite difficult to be open-minded.”

Russell says that the majority of players are men, but nowadays there are more female gamers, as modern games don’t contain so many sexist clichés. Role playing began in America in the 1970s and evolved out of war-gaming, but whereas in war games players control armies, in role playing they have characters.

As well as meeting informally for games twice a week in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Community organise events four times a year known as “minicons” and run free demonstration games at the annual Middle East Film and Comic Con, a convention for comic book aficionados.

“Before Comic Con, we were struggling to find five people who were interested,” explains Omar. “But there are lots of geeks hidden away in the Emirates, and Comic Con has become a beacon for all of geekdom, with geeky artists, writers, and video game makers and fans. At the first convention in the UAE [in 2012], we ran games for free, and people really liked it. It was amazing for them to find people like themselves in the UAE community. People asked me if they could buy the games pieces, but this was my personal collection.”

There are now several outlets in the UAE selling role-playing paraphernalia, including the Park ‘n’ Shop on Al Wasl Road in Dubai and the Book and Bean bookshop at Ace Hardware on Yas Island, where players also meet twice a week. The not-for-profit group is also particularly active in Kuwait and Oman. Russell explains that the next step for the Community is to run live-action role-play games in the UAE, which is a form of role playing where the participants physically act out their characters’ actions, in costume.

I ask Russell whether he’s ever had any negative feedback about role playing. “When you were 16, it made it a lot harder to get a girlfriend. But at university, girls played, too.

“You get some people who don’t understand what you do. It’s the same with football, or any hobby. But this is a very benign country to do tabletop role playing. We may be geeks, but we are social geeks.”

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