Speak Geek: RPGs

I have this blog, so it should really be no surprise that I’ve got some sort of fascination with roleplaying games. What’s fairly unique about me and RPGs is how long I’ve been playing them. There are those who have been playing since they were invented. I’m not one of those people. I wasn’t around when they were invented. I have been playing from a very young age, though. Most people seem to be introduced to RPGs in high school or college (their late teens). Some people start a little earlier, like middle school (early teens/tweens). I started in elementary school. Specifically, I started in 3rd grade, which would put me at around 9 years old. Not only that, I started with a fairly complex system: MERPS (Middle Earth Role Playing System) from Iron Crown Enterprises. I was also introduced to Marvel Superheroes around this time, and that was the first game I bought for myself.

I had no concept that such games were new, or considered geeky, or were anything but normal. I did fall in love with them, though. More games followed, as I got my hands on anything that seemed interesting. Top Secret, Torg, Warhammer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun… but I never bothered with Dungeons & Dragons. I can’t really guess at why. A friend who I introduced to RPGs eventually picked up D&D and ran it, and I never had a problem playing it (then again, I’ll play just about anything), but I never had any interest in picking up any of the books or running it myself.

But what do I like so much about these games?

Escapism is definitely part of it. Nobody’s life is as exciting as any PC’s life is. You don’t have to be dissatisfied with your life to fantasize about another. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with my life. But I can’t sling fireballs or pilot a starfighter or gun down Nazis or duel someone with a katana.

While I’m pretty far from a rules lawyer, I am really good with systems. I’m not a math fanatic, but I’ve always been pretty good with numbers, and I love the interplay of the various subsystems that bring a game to life. While I believe that generic systems are perfectly valid, a really good game system stands behind the setting, and brings its richness and unique qualities to the fore. (See my Synergy post on my design blog for more on this.)

I read novels. I watch movies. I watch (certain) TV shows. I’ve listened to radio dramas. I’m a big fan of a good story, regardless of the method of telling. A good story can engage emotions that you never or rarely encounter. I’ve got very little to be scared of in my life, but I love a good horror story. Note, I said a good horror story (which is kinda rare). I’m generally a pretty easy-going person, but it can be a lot of fun to hold a grudge against that asshole NPC that keeps getting in the way of your plans. Oh, and the plans! Planning and planning with such high hopes, and then watching everything fall apart when someone fails a simple die roll.

What makes a good story is good characters. With a good group of players, you end up with a fantastic cast of characters! Throw in some external conflict (or some internal conflict) and the story writes itself. Well, the players write the story.

Roleplaying has been described as collaborative storytelling. The GM provides the bones of the story, and the players then pretty much take over (with guidance and arbitration from the GM). What makes roleplaying truly unique, is that it’s the only entertainment format in which the writers/creators and the audience are one and the same. That’s why we end up with so many gaming stories. We create the stories we want. Not to mention, running a single PC in a game invests the player much more than is possible with other media. You might identify with a movie protagonist, or his sidekick, or a victim, but when you are the one making the decisions for one of those characters, the emotional stakes are very very different.

You want a good story that lasts a few hours like a movie? A one-shot adventure can do that. You want something more like your favorite TV show that’s been on the air for a couple of years? A roleplaying campaign can do that. It can mimic your favorite novels in much the same way.

Did I mention that there are other side-benefits? Reading RPG books helped develop my reading speed, comprehension, and vocabulary. Working with RPG systems helped me with my math skills. Playing through various adventures helped me with troubleshooting, planning, teamwork, leadership and creativity. Plans gone awry develop coping skills and learn that when things go wrong it doesn’t mean that everything is ruined. Some of my most memorable gaming moments came when the plan went to hell and we had to improvise. And, finally, as all gamers know (but most non-gamers continually get wrong), roleplaying actually develops social skills. You can’t roleplay alone. Well, I guess you can, but it generally doesn’t work out very well. You not only need other people, you also need to develop some of those social skills I mentioned just a bit ago, like teamwork.

The only reason I don’t play more often is that when you grow up, you have stupid responsibilities that unfortunately take priority. Like working so you can pay your bills so you have a place to live. Like taking care of your kids. Like dealing with crises in your life, your friends’ lives, and the lives of your family. But I will continue gaming as long as I can roll dice, and I’m laying the groundwork to pass this love on to my kids. This hobby is still pretty young. I want to help insure that it lives longer than I do.

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