Roll of a lifetime
Fending off an attack by giant mosquitoes the size of vultures while marooned on a remote island is nothing extraordinary in the fantastical realms of role-playing games. What's unusual about this game is that it is unfolding across a table.
'The swarm of mosquitoes is now just 10 feet away. What do you plan to do?' game master Kenneth Fung Yan-kin, who referees the sessions, asks players gathered in the City University canteen.
Batting around possible scenarios, each outlines proposed actions before throwing a set of polyhedral dice that will determine the outcome.
For Hongkongers accustomed to the visceral immediacy of computer games with 3D animation, the pace at the table seems glacial. Nevertheless, old-style role-playing games (RPGs) are experiencing a revival in the city.
'Tabletop RPG remains a fringe interest in Hong Kong, but thanks to The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and the Harry Potter series more people have been showing an interest in the past few years,' says Henry Cheung Chin-ho, chairman of the Hong Kong Tabletop Role Playing Game Club.
Formed in 1999 by a small group of enthusiasts, the club set up a website a few years ago to popularise the pursuit. It now links more than 70 members, about 30 of whom meet regularly to run games based on an epic fantasy that has been developing in the past few years.
More than 20 million people are estimated to have played Dungeons & Dragons, the first commercially sold tabletop RPG, since it was released in 1974. But even that genre-defining fantasy game has now largely been supplanted by computer versions.
So why bother with tabletop games when there are action-packed, richly visualised challenges available online?
For aficionados such as Fung, their appeal lies in the freedom to invent fantasy worlds and epic quests rather than being limited by narratives established by computer game creators. Club members borrow liberally from across cultures and their complex adventures may have Taoist swordsmen braving a hostile land alongside medieval knights.
A statistician, Fung, 38, enjoys being the grand master, who is responsible for devising an alternate universe and maintaining the storyline around which players can develop their characters. 'It's like being director, screenwriter and actor all in one,' he says.
Fung is meticulous about details and often spends up to 30 hours preparing for a game.
'I read a lot of books, and not just novels. There are many great stories in history books that offer insights into the nature of relationships and human conflict,' he says. 'The more detailed your description is, the easier it is for players to immerse themselves in the fantasy world.'
However, Fung sees his role mainly as that of a dramatist. If a player assumes the character of an orphan, for instance, he will develop back stories about how parents and children were parted to draw an emotional response.
To spice things up, he throws in the occasional romantic subplot. 'You need to add dramatic elements to enrich the game so that players have the opportunity to flesh out their characters,' says Fung.
Medical student Winchester Kwok Sin-man also finds online RPGs too formulaic, even though she grew up with them.
A fan of fantasy novels such as the Dragonlance series, the 18-year-old found out about the club on the internet a few years ago and has since become an active member. 'Computer RPG have pre-set endings and their characters are basically soulless,' she says. 'Tabletop RPG is not about slaying one monster after another, but about bringing a character to life and vicariously experiencing what it's like to be living in another world.'
Kwok, who often assumes the character of a wizard, becomes so engrossed in the roles that she writes up long biographies, which are posted on the club's website for other players' reference. 'It's like writing a novel and I have a lot of fun,' she says.
RPGs now encompass a variety of genres, including horror, sci-fi, superhero epics, murder mysteries and robotic warfare. Horror gamers, for instance, often borrow plots from movies such as Dawn of the Dead.
Over the past decade, Japan has also produced a brand of tabletop RPGs that incorporate manga elements - plots may combine tech culture and martial arts with magic. Night Wizard!, a game involving wizards, vampires and ninjas became such a hit that it has now spun off into other formats, including comic books, novels, an animated television series and a computer game.
Fans can be quite narrowly focused, says Cheung. '[The fun] depends on how immersed players are in a certain imaginary setting. So those who enjoy fantasy stories may not respond to sci-fi adventures, and those who are into Star Wars may have no interest in magic.'
Despite being stereotyped as geeks, enthusiasts insist tabletop RPGs are as much a part of community life as other pursuits.
'The essence of a tabletop RPG is people living out a story by talking and discussing with each other. There's no winning and losing - it is about collaborating with friends and building team spirit,' says Cheung.
Tan Teik-seen, moderator of the online tabletop game forum TaGaGe (It's Everybody's Game), says he has got to know people of different ages and various professions through playing tabletop games.
'It is like a gathering. Some people get together to play mahjong; we meet to tell a story,' says Tan, 39, who recently has been running a game with a dozen players based on the Star Wars movies.
Like Fung, the computer technician views tabletop RPGs as a creative outlet.
Dissatisfied with material published by game companies, Tan draws on adventure hooks (synopses or a set of scenarios) that other enthusiasts post on the internet to weave narratives of his own. Grand masters also devise plots based on their favourite movies or novels. 'The game gives me a lot of satisfaction. Most people won't ever get to direct a movie, but being a [grand master] comes close,' says Tan.
Those who relish constructing psychological profiles for their characters often embrace the e-mail format of the game, known as ERPG. Players e-mail their reactions to the grand master, who compiles and filters the information before issuing a novel-like report to induce further feedback. Because the game demands solid writing skills, some overseas ERPG websites require players to submit a writing sample before allowing them to join.
Although the e-mail format lacks the intimacy and liveliness of tabletop sessions, it brings a psychological dimension to the characters, says Billy Chan Hiu-fung, moderator of the online forum Mystery, where several ERPG games are being played.
'Writing is better than talking to each other when it comes to elaborating on a character's inner emotions,' says Chan. 'There are many ERPG forums on the mainland and in Taiwan because players live in different regions and can't meet regularly.'
Because of the emphasis on drama and characterisation, some tabletop and e-mail RPGs can go on for months, even years, says Cheung.
This doesn't go down well with many Hong Kong gamers, who are only interested in boosting their characters' fighting skills and accumulating treasures and experience points from battles.
'You need to invest a lot of time in the tabletop game, which doesn't really fit in with our culture. Hong Kong people demand instant and quick,' says Cheung.
But the intrinsic human element in tabletop RPGs should ensure the pursuit will live on, he says.
'I also play computer RPGs, but still prefer the feeling of interacting with friends and experiencing the joy and sorrow of a story together.'