I’ve always loved roleplaying games. You know, Dungeons & Dragons, that sort of thing? Ever since my friend J.D. introduced me to them in high school I’ve loved them. They are, to me, a creative playground. It is unbelievably open and variable, yet there is order and structure as well.
Some gamers are really into the mechanics. They pour over weapon and vehicle descriptions, damage ratings and other statistics, the way a gun nut drools over the latest Guns & Ammo catalogue. I won’t deny I have that side to my gaming personality, but ultimately as a player it has always been about being part of a movie, starring my character. I’ll never own my own spaceship in real life, but in an RPG I can take a tramp freighter and boot around the far end of the galaxy, hoping to make a few credits.
We live in a time where game companies develop “Fast Play” rules for games like Monopoly, because nobody wants to spend the better part of a day playing a game. And for that same reason, I think more people turn to computer RPGs. It’s easier to turn on an Xbox than get a bunch of friends together. You don’t have to bother learning the mechanics, just point and shoot. But as fun as RPG games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption are (RDR technically isn’t one, but I believe it counts due to its open ended design), they do have limitations, and every time you see them it takes you out of the moment.
For one thing there is the matter of character and choice. In a computer RPG you might be given three choices when talking to people – good, bad, or neutral in tone. That’s okay, but it’s hardly the same as engaging in conversation. They aren’t my words, they’re the game designer’s words. Heck, in Japanese RPGs you rarely get a choice of any kind, you’re there to follow a linear story to the end.
There is another thing computer RPGs can never hope to compete with. The power of the Game Master. A GM who knows the mechanics well enough to play without checking rules every five minutes is doing his job right, but the real geniuses are those who know how to improvise. They know how to handle an ingenious and unexpected solution the players find to a problem and roll with it, even if it ends the adventure way ahead of schedule, or completely derails the plot (there’s always a way to get back on the tracks after all). The GM is the reason a game feels open to anything, and not constrained to all too obvious borders.
I used to only be a player, but now I have a certain fondness for GMing as well. If being a player is like being a character in the novel, then being the GM is like being the author. And there are a growing number of writers, directors and actors out there who will admit that roleplaying had a positive impact on their skills.
I actually haven’t roleplayed anything in a couple of years now, but I’m hoping to change that in the near future. Not just because I miss it, but because I feel a certain creative muscle has been atrophying. Creating an adventure is not that different from planning a novel, and you don’t have to worry as much about whether it will get published or not, only if your players will enjoy it – which come to think of it isn’t so far removed as you might think.
Most authors will tell you if you want to write a book you need to do three things – read a lot and write a lot. I would like to throw roleplaying into that as a kind of yoga stretching practice for the other two. Hmmm… the new and just as inappropriately named “Three R’s”: Reading, Writing, Roleplaying (which granted, has a bit of Arithmetic in it).
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: then I rolled a nat 20 and smacked his ass down with a flaming halberd.