I’m going to try something a bit different today: I’m just going to write, stream-of-consciousness, and see how it turns out. I’ll be writing about a question that I ask myself: What is the purpose of role-playing?
On it’s face, obviously, role-playing is a game. It’s a leisure activity in which we engage, not much different than playing a video game, watching a movie, or reading a book. It’s a shared experience as well, collaborative gaming where we sit down with our friends and work through different challenges. The most attractive aspect about role-playing to me, as a game, is it’s open-endedness. Even the most immersive novels, films, and video games are constrained by the boundaries of their medium. A book lasts a finite number of pages, a film a finite number of shots, a video game a finite number of bytes.
But a roleplaying game is, by it’s nature, infinite.
Aside: Not unrestrained, as some of the best games I’ve ever played have featured great restrictions (I’ve heard that great constraint and oppression can fuel great creativity, for as you have a narrower scope within which to work, each variation becomes far more meaningful). The paladin would be unique in a party consisting of a rogue, a druid, and a wizard, but you could make the argument that each paladin would need to be more detailed and richer to stand out against a background of similarity.
I know I’ve talked about this before, but there’s wonder inherent in reading a beloved piece of fiction for the first time; I often find myself counting the remaining pages, not out of some anguish or wondering when this sentence will end, but as a gloomy portent of how little I have left. I want to savor what I have, for I know that feeling of reading or watching something for the first time is fleeting. But along with that feeling of elation comes slight sorrow when you do reach that last scene or last page. You’re done, but you want more. And while this exists in roleplaying as well, because of course no game can continue indefinitely, I’m rarely left with the feeling that I’ve “run out” of material. There is always more gaming to be had, on command.
What’s more is that roleplaying is not a passive activity (at least it really, really should not be – one of my biggest pet peeves is the gamer who doesn’t participate enough), which makes it, at least in my opinion, better than a movie or book could ever be. It sounds trite, but you are the character and you never have to wonder what you would have done in such a situation (unless you’re a back-seat roleplayer, another big no-no in my book). Instead you direct and shape what’s happening in the fictional universe, whether that is isolated to your character or expanded to the rest of the game world.
And finally, of course, there’s the engineer in all of us that likes to tinker with mechanics and moving parts. While this aspect steps to the forefront for some more than others, many of us enjoy the leveling in a game like D&D or Pathfinder. We like working with numbers and pieces, putting them together to discover the puzzle of our characters. I think this aspect of the game that underlies all roleplaying is what turns a lot of people off, and I completely understand that. Ultimately, it sometimes seems like rather meaningless mechanical masturbation. Does the fact that your character has a +12 to hit rather than a +11 to hit really have any meaning in the world? (Besides, of course, him/her being one step better on the arbitrary scale of skill with a certain attack). Gosh, I have no idea.
And that’s where the other large part of role-playing comes into play, the storytelling. The love of stories is part of our evolutionary and cultural history stretching across all cultures and through all periods of human existence. For some, those that tend to disfavor the number-crunchy aspects of the game, story is paramount.
It could be the nature of the stories being told that appeals most to us. There’s a reason that the vast majority of role-playing skews toward fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Maybe that’s because, really, how interesting would it be to play mundane people in a mundane world (though I do enjoy powered-down games where normal humans are the baseline – such as d20 Modern or Hunter)? Or, is that the point, that we play these games in worlds of hovermobiles and hobgoblins as some form of grown-up escapism? Maybe I read too much into the nerd stereotype, the loner kid who is a little different and has trouble making friends. While these kind of games have become far more mainstream in recent years, I definitely grew up in an age when playing DnD was definitely or even video games was a “not cool” activity for the nerdy kids. And what is an ostracized geek like me supposed to do but retreat to fantastic or sci-fi worlds of swords, sorcery, and spaceships?
I don’t think it’s that simple, and maybe what I’ve said is even a little insulting (if it is, I really did not intend it to be). There are all kinds of escapism prevalent in the world today: alternate-reality games, mainstream film or literature (and honestly, even mainstream news coverage) – the Twilight phenomenon (judgement aside) is literally one big escapist fantasy (If you’re an “average” girl, maybe all you want is a guy like Edward to love you unconditionally). It’s the same with Fifty Shades of Grey and other romance novels as well. But, I don’t want to make it seem like escapism is, inherently, bad. I mean, what’s the point of fiction if not to transport your mind, body, and soul to a completely different place? Is not the purpose and the effect of some of the greatest literature ever composed to allow you, or better, to force you to take your mind off your potentially less-than-ideal or less-than-expected life and see through the eyes of someone less fortunate (Oliver Twist?) or someone way more fortunate (Jay Gatsby?) or someone you can’t understand at all (Holden Caulfield?) or someone you understand all too well (again, Holden Caulfield?).
I mean, I never think, when I’m sitting at my gaming table looking down at my character sheet. that I am Ormetius the Evoker or Rincewind MacIntyre the Big Game Hunter. The escapism never makes it that far. But I do, behind my eyes, picture the events happening as I imagine them to happen. I can picture what all my characters look like, what their compatriots looked like (really, they look like my fellow players), what their adversaries looked like (movie stars), what the bards who told their tales looked like (Bill Murray). I can remember during my college years spent in New Hampshire walking through the woods during the lightly falling snow and imagining Frodo Baggins doing the same thing, or driving down a windy country road in Autumn and wondering if this was the same road Henry Armitage followed that fateful night on his way to the Whatley farm. I realize this might sound weird, but I also think when camping of my characters who have slept under the same starless nights wondering, too, what their future held.
And to make the leap that gaming is any kind of reflection upon the station or position that you might be experiencing is not one that I’m willing to make, but it, like any kind of creativity, can be an avenue to explore essential questions that you might have. Let’s not be hyperbolic: you’re not going to unlock the meaning of life while roleplaying, but you might gain a better understanding of what it means to be an outsider in a foreign land, what it is to be a minority in a majority-ruled city, or what it’s like to be living under the boot of an oppressive dictator. It’s all just simulation, but there’s a reason that psychological counselors use roleplaying as a tool for treatment – it puts you in a mindset different than your own. And not only that, roleplaying by necessity gets you outside your comfort zone, playing a character of different gender or class or inclination.
And when that happens, it can either be done deftly or clumsily. We can easily identify when it’s clumsy, because those situations devolve into stereotypes or pantomime. But when it happens deftly we almost don’t notice; it’s so unobtrusive that we see past the player and only see the character. I think that every player begins roleplaying by being themselves, just like most young actors begin acting by playing what they know, responding how they would respond to certain situations. And that requires a lot of self-control and introspection in itself; this is why roleplaying can get emotional, because it can easily and unintentionally strike a nerve. Most players, in my experience, rarely leave their comfort zone and when you play with them for a while see the same character over and over, just with a different outer layer.
The true masters of roleplaying are kin with the true masters of acting and the true masters of creativity; they can wield their character and their actions within the game like a fine pencil point while the rest of us are just throwing paint at a canvas. I remember a time when I had some NPCs surrender to the players who really could not afford to bring them along. For some, it was an easy decision to just execute them, but for others it was a really agonizing call. I have, myself, been in situations where it has been really difficult for me to decide what mattered more to me: how I think my character would behave, what I think the group would like, and what I think would be fun. I try to hit that sweet spot when all three of those things fall within the same point on the spectrum, but rarely is that the case. I won’t claim that I’m an expert at roleplaying, but I always have fun.
And that’s what matters, ultimately, is that everyone has a good time. That good time comes from either the gaming or the storytelling, or maybe something else entirely. Maybe it comes from the social aspect of the game, the ability for you and your friends to all find a time once a week where we can forget about work and the economy and just drink a beer and roll some dice. Maybe it’s more than just a game for some of us: like the numerous ardent writers out there who have never published, maybe this is just our passion, it’s our hobby or our niche where we feel perfectly comfortable and in command in a way that we never felt in school or on the field or giving a presentation at work. Maybe we love gaming for the exact opposite reasons, because we don’t have to see the other players because we play by post and they’re halfway around the world, but we can still connect without fear of exposing our true selves.
I can’t speak for the motives of others, I can only posit and speculate. But what I can say is that you’re not doing it wrong unless you’re not having fun. And yes, that definition of fun is flexible and should necessarily involve highs and lows. Having your character die is usually not fun but can be an incredibly rewarding experience nonetheless that opens up the avenue for more fun in the future. It doesn’t matter how you have your fun as long as you’re not doing it at the expense of others. If it involves playing yourself over and over, do so. If it involves the most off-the-wall characters you can think of, by all means, do it.
Anyway, this was great. Thanks for listening. I flagged a couple of things I mentioned in my stream of consciousness (okay, it wasn’t exactly true stream of consciousness) for exploration in future columns. If you’ve got anything you want to talk about that I mentioned, or didn’t, please drop it in the comments below or drop me a line. Thanks for listening, and see you next week!
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