U.S. Airmen from the 35th Fighter Wing, Misawa Air Base, Japan, gather to play a tabletop role-playing game, March 7, 2020. The Toppers gaming club meets every Saturday at T’s Burritos in the Enlisted Club. The club provided the opportunity for gaming enthusiasts to be a part of a community where Airmen share similar interests in tabletop games. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chris Jacobs)
U.S. Airmen from the 35th Fighter Wing, Misawa Air Base, Japan, gather to play a tabletop role-playing game, March 7, 2020. The Toppers gaming club meets every Saturday at T’s Burritos in the Enlisted Club. The club provided the opportunity for gaming enthusiasts to be a part of a community where Airmen share similar interests in tabletop games. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chris Jacobs)

Toppers roll the dice at Misawa gaming club

by Tech. Sgt. Chris Jacobs
Misawa Air Base

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Four adventurers enter the city gates, which snap shut all on their own with a loud clang behind them. The air is still and the oppressive silence weighs on the shoulders of our heroes heavier than their bags and equipment. The shadows stretch long, snuffing out the light like fingers on a candle flame.

This isn’t the grizzly start of a new fantasy novel, nor a new online streaming series. The moment is played out, not in a dark basement or confined corner in an unused library, but at T’s Burritos at the Enlisted Club here at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on a bright afternoon. The gaming club, called Toppers, meets there every Saturday from 2 P.M. until, well, really until they grow tired of playing.

“The ‘official’ time says 8 P.M.,” said Airman 1st Class Dominic McKinney, a 35th Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member. Although McKinney is a maintainer during the week, he plays a tabaxi, a feline-humanoid, bard named Aderson Hatfield during his tabletop role-playing game (RPG) sessions on the weekends.

“But we have been known to play well into the night, up until they kick us out,” McKinney continues.

For those keeping track at home, that is nearly eight hours of game time! That time is spent fighting the undead, solving puzzles, avoiding traps, and sharing a lot of laughs. For McKinney, it is time well spent.

“For me, I’m not much of a partier or a drinker. So, instead of going out on the weekends like some other people, I prefer to come here where I can play with people I know,” said McKinney.  “It’s a huge stress reliever, too. It’s something fun I can do on the weekends where I can kind of forget what is going on at work and enjoy eight hours of playing.”

McKinney has played various tabletop RPGs for a few years.  His father played before he was born but put the game on hold when he had children. As Dominic grew older and started showing interest in the game, his father gave him a cherished gift.

“He gave me his RPG books he used over 25 years ago,” said McKinney. “After passing to me his books, dice, and teaching me the skills of the game, I played nearly every year with the family during the holidays.”

McKinney noticed outside of his yearly family sessions, it was difficult finding others to play games with while growing up, mostly due to the lack of people willing to act as a Dungeon Master. The DM is the person behind the screen who provides the stage where the characters act, provides all in game details, and acts as all of non-playable characters the adventurers meet in the game. When presented with a scenario in the game, such as meeting a new person, entering a new room, or presented with a unique problem, the party members declare their intentions and roll a 20 sided die, leaving their fate to a roll of the dice. The DM determines how successful a party member is and reveals the world and details accordingly.

“I enjoy creating different scenarios for the players to make the game more interesting,” said Staff Sergeant Robert Ramirez Alcala, a 35th Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew chief during the week, but Dungeon Master and adventurer on the weekends. “To me it’s like a game of chess. What can I throw at them and what are they going to do to try and throw me off my game?”

The skills that work in a table top game environment can be translated into military abilities as well. These capabilities include thinking on your feet to complete your mission when the original plan derails, confronting an unforeseen problem, and using the equipment and resources available to you to ensure the mission is complete. “Adapt and overcome” is more than just a casual slogan to the Toppers.

“You do your best to plan ahead during the game but the real fun is when you deal with unforeseen scenarios,” said McKinney. “When you have to roll with the consequence of not doing something right, it kind of stresses you to a point where you have to use your creative thinking.”

After three hours of play, including some stressful combat, our party hears the announcement they have been anxiously waiting for.

“Attention, everyone! The grill is now open and you can order off the menu,” says a T’s Burritos employee. McKinney, along with 15 other people, rise from their tables, stretch out long-resting muscles, and take a break to rest, recover, and fuel up for the next few hours.

People who have gathered to gathered together on a Saturday night are about to set out on a brand new adventure and tell tales of their previous gaming experiences while waiting for their turn to order fries, sandwiches and energy drinks. Life imitates fantasy as these adventurers take a short rest, only to go back out and fight again.

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