It’s Skyler’s turn first, and he has to roll three dice: first a 10-sided die, then a 20-sided one, and finally an 8-sided die. When he’s done, he’ll discover the “formative childhood event” that will inform his character’s actions in the fantasy role-playing game Abantey. He rolls: 8-10-1.
Becky Thomas, founder of The Roleplay Workshop and “Game Master” for this after-school session, refers to an inch-thick manual, now in its 20th edition, checking the results of the roll. She looks up, leans forward and folds her fingers together. Skyler, Tai, Eli and Jared, all ages 12 and 13, shift in their chairs and pay close attention.
“Are you guys having fun?” Thomas asks.
“YES,” the four boys reply energetically in chorus, fixated on their Game Master. (The boys’ last names have been withheld, at their parents’ request.)
Thomas puts on her serious, Game Master face and reveals that Skyler’s as-yet-unnamed character came across an injured animal as a child. He poked the animal with a stick (which seems harmless enough), but in Baluud—a land in Abantey in which all life is considered sacred—it was a terrible, defining moment. As a result, the other citizens of Baluud watched him closely for his entire childhood.
Skyler nods in understanding. His character now has an origin story.
He rolls several more dice, each roll unlocking key elements of his character’s history, and announces the numbers anxiously. Thomas pauses, refers to her books and considers. His mother is Feeshan (a cat-like race, slender, graceful, charismatic) and is a strong-willed woman who operates a gondola. His father is a Rogue Wa’la (a hard, lean race, with long skulls and little humor) and is a jeweler in prison for price-fixing.
It’s the first session of The Roleplay Workshop’s autumn after-school program, and the four students and Thomas sit around a table nestled cozily into the second floor balcony of Dr. Comics and Mr. Games in North Oakland, where Thomas has been running her program since 1994. Old comic book posters and superhero cardboard cutouts haphazardly line the walls, as do bookshelves spilling with hundreds, perhaps thousands of books, mostly fantasy and science fiction. Handmade props and figures of all sizes await future adventures in countless plastic bins and drawers.
The Roleplay Workshop centers on Abantey, a fantasy world and role-playing game, or RPG, of Thomas’ creation. In the 25 years since Thomas first created the game, 170 years of “game time” have elapsed in Abantey. Current games are affected by the adventures, plot-twists and catastrophic world changes in games that happened years ago, in game- and real-time. A hand-drawn map of Abantey from 1989 hangs on the wall overlooking the players.
“Roll again, that’s boring,” Thomas says with a chuckle to Eli, who is rolling for his character’s family history.
“Okay, this is going to be super crazy,” Thomas says to another student, Tai, who just rolled for his character’s origin story. She pulls out a map of Ma’ayo, a town on the continent of Baluud. The plastic sleeve protecting the map is covered in old dry-erase markings, so she grabs some Windex and wipes it clean. Beneath the plastic, the map is outlined in black and looks to be a photocopy of a hand-drawn original.
“I want you to imagine buildings, but at the center of each block is a forest,” Thomas says. Two of the boys fold their feet under them and prop their elbows on the table to get a better look at the map. The other two follow, careful not to knock over their plastic cups filled with colorful dice. “What bizarre feature do you see on the east island?” Thomas asks, gesturing toward the map.
She begins describing an enormous, cube-like structure, and they ask questions in quick succession: “What does it look like?” and “How big is it?” and “Where was I?” As a child, Tai’s character saw a mysterious woman touch the cube and disappear into a secret door.
“That is definitely a Ta’as,” Skyler proclaims, referencing one of the banished races of Abantey.
Within thirty minutes, all four students know everything about their new characters: gender, age, physical appearance, family history, formative life events, cultural significances, special powers and even whether their characters are left- or right-handed.
It’s the beginning of a long adventure for them, but one that doesn’t necessarily have a clear end game. One of the goals, according to Thomas, is simply for the students to discover what is happening to the world of Abantey. It’s a game more focused on exploration and teamwork than on winning or killing monsters. It’s important to Abantey players to distinguish themselves from the “murder hobos” that characterize more violent RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).
“Instead of leveling up by killing everything, it’s actually discouraged to kill things,” said Jared, Skyler’s twin brother and fellow Abantey adventurer. “You can rank up by having good teamwork, by completing a mission successfully, or just by having a really good idea.”
Thomas makes storytelling seem completely effortless. She clearly enunciates each word and speaks with authority, the kind that comes with being the oral historian of an entire world for a quarter century. Her only adornments are utilitarian: a pair of rectangle glasses and a thick, silver watch. After beating breast cancer in 2011, she was diagnosed with alopecia universalis in 2013, a medical condition that causes hair loss. She wears a black handkerchief with a red dragon around her head. She is all business when playing Game Master but prone to hearty laughter. At a recent alum-only game night, she wore a t-shirt with an old photo of Native Americans holding rifles: “HOMELAND SECURITY, Fighting Terrorism since 1492.”
Thomas was never exposed to role-playing games, science fiction or fantasy books in her youth because “girls didn’t do those things in the 70s in Michigan.”
“I was writing stories when I was five. I wrote stories all through my childhood. I was going to be an author,” Thomas said. “My father told me that I couldn’t be an author.” So she trained to be a biologist. It wasn’t until graduate school at San Francisco State in 1988 that she played her first RPG, Traveller, in a co-op with other students. She was hooked. “It was a cross between reading fiction and doing fiction,” she said.
While student teaching at Pinole Valley High School later that year, the opportunity arose for Thomas to be a D&D club sponsor, and she quickly volunteered. After playing a few games, the mechanics of the world in D&D began colliding with her sensibilities as a scientist and her own morals. The reward system was largely based on killing and looting, and it bothered her that the in-game logic that determined everything from creature biology to damage incurred to food needed for survival had little basis in reality. She dreamed of creating something different, a world and a role-playing game that was more logical.
After receiving her teaching credentials from San Francisco State in 1989, Thomas began teaching at Archway School in Oakland (now located in Berkeley). She was responsible for a diverse group of students between the sixth and eighth grades, and so she came up with a creative, interdisciplinary project for them: to create a world from scratch referencing their earth science books and to populate it with peoples and cultures using their social sciences books. While the students dreamed up their world, Thomas utilized study hall periods to begin dreaming up her own: Abantey.
At first, Thomas was reluctant to share her world with her students. “They caught me doing it and they wanted to know what I was doing,” Thomas said with a smile. Eventually, they convinced her and the Archway principal to turn Abantey into an elective class; it was hugely popular. Then it became a summer camp, filled to capacity. “I learned some lessons about the size of groups that were effective—not twelve,” she said, laughing. (Her groups now tend to be about four students, more or less.) “My students were the first play-testers of Abantey in 1989,” Thomas said.
The next school year, parents lobbied for it to become an after-school program. By 1993, Thomas decided to step back away the classroom because she felt that “being a teacher limited [her] ability to teach students.” She said she felt “shackled” and “crippled” by the strict student-teacher dynamic, and that she didn’t have enough autonomy in teaching her students. “I have a bigger, longer-lasting impact on kids doing this than I did in the classroom,” she said.
Thomas decided to make Abantey her full-time job, so she created The Roleplay Workshop. “Starting it was rough,” she said. “I had to have second jobs for a while.” But her enrollment grew by word-of-mouth among students and parents throughout the Bay Area. By 2008, Thomas had two groups every day after school, three groups on Saturdays and holidays and ran multiple summer sessions. She hosted camping trips featuring six paid staff members. Then, like a Game Master’s plot twist, the economy crashed, and enrollment was suddenly down by 75 percent.
“More than half the parents in the program lost their jobs,” Thomas said. “They were making choices like, ‘Do you pay your bills or do you send your kid to an after-school program?’ It’s not an easy choice, but it’s pretty clear.”
She’s since managed to stop the bleeding but is still at 50 percent enrollment compared to her pre-crash numbers. “I don’t know that the hopes that I had before the economic crash can be realized,” Thomas said with a sigh. “We had enough work to support adults to the point where they could go out and set up their own satellite sites. It’s just not possible now.”
Thomas said that the nature and complexity of RPGs makes programs like The Roleplay Workshop difficult to market. Abantey has a steep learning curve compared to tennis, chess or art camps, which tend to be more straightforward. Furthermore, prospective parents and students may have preconceptions about RPGs being too violent or too nerdy.
Thomas has also noticed something peculiar about her incoming students. “Kids have changed between 2008 and now,” she said. “Everyone is immersed in electronic devices and immediacy, and not of ‘doing.’ And so much of a role-playing game is ‘doing.’ We’re seeing a pretty astonishing, precipitous crash in kids’ ability to self-direct and self-motivate. We’re phenomenally relevant, but it’s becoming harder for kids to access.”
Thomas recently had to raise the minimum age from 10 to 12 because new students simply didn’t have the maturity to play. Many students came in used to video games with clear-cut goals, like the first-person shooter Call of Duty. She recalled instances when new 10-year-old students would ask bluntly, “What do I kill to get a reward in this game? Do we get to loot stuff?”
She paused with a look of horror and disbelief. “My mind boggles.”
The Roleplay Workshop was never meant to be just a game—it was always meant to be a learning and team-building exercise through which young students could apply the ideas they learned in school, things like math, problem-solving and cause and effect. “There’s a lot of things that you usually think of as theoretical, like algebra,” said Tai, a 13-year-old student and volunteer staff member in training. “There’s a lot of application of things that you learn in classrooms or while studying that you don’t get to apply anywhere except for here.”
Eli was introduced to The Roleplay Workshop through Tai’s persistent lobbying on the school bus. “It’s fun, it’s surprisingly rational,” Eli said. “Decisions aren’t based on your skill or something. It’s based on what the environment is like.” For example, he went on, a character’s ability to sneak by a potential enemy would not be based solely on their sneaking skill, but also upon the enemy’s placement, direction of their attention, the weather and the environment.
Thomas’ philosophy toward life is to “live simply and do something good,” she said. She estimates that close to 2,000 students have made their way through The Roleplay Workshop over the past 25 years. When considering her future and the future of Abantey, she hesitates for a moment on the word “legacy” but is unable to come up with a replacement.
“You’re impacting people and how they’re going to be in the world,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you’re that thing that rescues them. Sometimes you’re that thing that pushes them in a different direction. It’s cool.”
Back at the end of their first after-school session, the students have yet to name their characters, but it seems of little consequence. They pack their reference books, calculators and dice and say goodbye to Thomas, who walks them to the front door. Tai hangs out for a few extra minutes to tidy up—he’s training to be an assistant—and insists that it’s all right to Thomas, who has returned and is trying to send him on his way. He finally relents and makes his way downstairs. Thomas sits back down at the table and sighs contentedly, as she waits patiently for the next group of adventurers.
Learn more about The Roleplay Workshop at http://www.roleplayworkshop.com