While some of this took me by surprise, I had a wonderful time with it. In my opinion, this is the greatest strength of RPGs - the ability of the players to shape the story with the DM. I'd never considered whether the barbarian had siblings, but once she'd acquired the gift for her baby sister, I looked for ways I could work the sister into the story - to take this new thread and expand on it.
After the game, we talked more about what people enjoy about gaming. Some of the answers echo the experience I've just had. These players like to step into other people's shoes, to try to imagine how other people might react in a situation or see the world. Maja mentioned that gender roles are very strong in Croatia, and that she likes being able to play a male character to explore different roles. The other women added that if they played female characters, their male DM would force them to make weekly checks to see if their characters became pregnant. Despite these challenges, Maja says that as someone who's never truly fit the standard mold of the Croatian woman, meeting other gamers has been a boon - and that "gaming women are sheer wonder squeezed into a human package."
On my last day, we drive to a national park. It's a long journey, and along the way we pass a field of grain with strange, irregular gaps - crop circles made by drunken aliens. When I call this to Maja's attention, she says "Oh, that's a minefield." While we'd talked some about the ancient history of the region, I'd almost forgotten about the recent conflicts. Now scars of war are all around us. The scenic village we stop at was leveled during the war, and rebuilt according to the traditional style to maintain its value to tourism. In the cities, new buildings fill gaps created by bombs. This contrast between old and new bothers Maja and Daniel, and Maja describes the flashy gas station in an old part of town as "a fist in the eye." I think back to Maja's comment about the thirty-year-old who's been playing D&D for fifteen years. As a boy of fifteen, he'd have picked up the dice the year just a few years after the end of the war and Croatia's declaration of independence. What's now the flashy gas station would likely have been rubble. I look back to the comments one of the others players made about why she enjoys gaming:
"I love to be able to do things I usually cannot. To be a hero, to be someone else, to solve the puzzles, kill the monsters and save the day."
It's a common enough theme... what teenager doesn't dream of being someone else now and again? But in a country broken by war, it's easy to see how that dream of being able to do the things I cannot... to save the day would be a powerful draw.
Keith Baker is best known for creating the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons and the card game Gloom, but he's also worked on at least five games that you've never heard of. If you want to know more, check out http://www.bossythecow.com/hdwt/.