>"What is Roleplaying?" Revisited


This is cooler than you think.
I remain convinced that – regardless of your system of choice – that there is a right way and a wrong way to create a character. And that there is a right way and a wrong way to explain and defend this hobby. 
I am further convinced that I’ve seen that wrong way done over, and over, and over again. And I’ve been guilty of it just often enough that I need to smack myself in the forehead a few times. 
Usually that wrong way starts off something like this: “I want to play [name of class or type of character]. They get to do [cool thing] and [really cool thing], and sometimes they even get to do [really, really cool thing!]. Not to mention [quality a] and [quality b], which combine wonderfully with [numerical advantage c] and [insert munchkin speak here].” Or even, “This game is fun. You get to roll a lot of dice!”
… Okay, I don’t actually have a problem with power-gaming as such, but it’s not my motivation … and I really hate having people expect it to be, and then have those same people complain about power-gamy things other people do, and then the absurdity magnifies in on itself in a black hole of head-aesplode-ness.
I’m not here for that. I don’t have the patience for it. For me, that’s not where the “power” is in gaming, and that’s not what this blog is supposed to be about. If you want character optimization tips, you’ll have to go elsewhere. 
I’m here for something else. 
I’m here for the awesome.

I’m here for all the star-crossed farmboys who save the universe. I’m here for every kid who ever picked up a stick and pretended it was a lightsaber. I’m here for every guy who ever looked out at the traffic and wished he could fly instead of taking the bus. I’m here for everyone who ever wrapped a sheet or a towel around their shoulder and pretended to be Superman. I’m here for the elven archers, dwarven fighters, and every other fantasy cliche. I’m here for the resurrected warriors of ancient times; the reincarnated heroes; the mad scientists. I’m here for the fire, the glory, the friendships forged and won and strengthened. I’m here for the college students who wondered if their roommates were vampires
I’m here for the heroes who want to look that undefinable and indescribable evil in the face, and then punch it. Or possibly have tea with it instead, I’m not picky. 
And I’m here for the girlfriends who want to understand what the hell their boyfriends have been trying to explain to them all this time. 
Role-playing games can be many things to many different kinds of people. They can be an escape; they can be a social outlet; they can be an acting exercise. But above all else, they can be fun. That’s something anyone can understand, right?

When I was a kid, I hung out with a family of older home-schoolers. Yes, I was a home-school kid. Yes, I play role-playing games. Yes, those two things are probably connected. Laugh it up all you want. Move along. These are not the droids you’re looking for. 
With this family, before I learned about dice or character sheets or actions or what have you, I learned about role-playing. I learned about collaborative story telling (And I learned a lot of important lessons about being skeptical of what a game-master was telling me, but that’s another story). Most of my characters were a little Gary-Stu, carbon copies of other character archetypes that I found appealing at the time (this improved significantly by the end of things) and constantly interfered with the “main characters” of different universes (“Point that canon somewhere else!”); but I’m not here to talk about that. 
I’m here to talk about how much fun it was. I got to feel like a hero just enough of the time that I kept wanting to come back for more, and considering how I usually wound up wanting to spend time playing video games or reading at that age, that’s bloody impressive. I wanted to be part of the story. And what a story it was! 
See, I took part in this massive, sprawling, multiversal sci-fi campaign where pretty much anything could (and did) happen. Jedi fighting Borg, importing phaser technology to fight the Galactic Empire, a Universal Protectorate, some kind of terrorist resistance group, nearly godlike artificial intelligences, lightsabers, magic, Goa’uld, Yuuzhan Vong, Klingons, Nietzschians, ‘Droids, Magog, Zerg, Terrans and Protoss, Stargates and hyperspace, you name it, it was out there, no more than a universe jump away … and then some. It was a rough multiverse, but I had the tools for the job. Most of the time. The real complication I remember was paradox; science and things like “the Force” tended to not work precisely the same way in different universes – without special technology, you couldn’t just use a lightsaber against, say, the Borg. The “super-science” hand-waving was all different, after all. 
That, and the Universal Protectorate tended to feel very totalitarian to me at the time. . . 
There are moments when I really miss that story, that wild and varied multiverse, and I wish I had a group I could try and recreate parts of it with. I wouldn’t be confident doing it system free (“That way, chaos lies”) but  I don’t think it would be any less fun with dice. 
Role-playing is all about having fun, and more importantly, the fun of creating great stories with your friends that you’ll talk about years later as if they’d actually happened to you instead of your characters (“Remember when we slew the many fanged red dragon of Angenor, and stopped it from eating all those villagers? And you made that incredible, one-in-a-million shot? Yeah, man. Good times” “Remember when we stopped a time traveling Lex Luthor from destroying the world with his teenage science project aided by robot Nazi’s and twin clones of Adolf Hitler? Awesome.” Hey, it may be silly, but I’d rather take that than, say, “Hey, remember when we got drunk out of our minds and you jumped up on the table and started dancing like a moron?” “No, but I wondered why I woke up with a phone number written on my back.”) Seriously, if you don’t believe me about the 1st person thing, ask Vi’s dad to tell you one of his stories about Tommy Took.
I want this kind of thing. I crave it. And I know I’m not the only one. Anyone who has ever thought while reading a book about teenaged wizards and witches, “where’s my wand/owl/sword/magical powers?” will know what I’m talking about. And yeah, I want to do awesome stuff in real life, too, but until you can show me a way that I can actually shoot lasers out of my eyes and fly through space under my own power, then you have no legitimate way to argue against my role-playing habit. But that won’t stop me from taking the occasional hike up a mountain any more than taking said hike will make me want to stop telling and being part of epic stories. 
I want this. I want it to be part of my life; I want to share this with my kids, and (God willing) my wife. I want weekly (or at least regular) game nights, and I want them to be more than just playing Monopoly. I want my kids to know what that’s like, and to know that this strange and sometimes silly hobby doesn’t make their dad any less cool. I want them to learn about themselves through the stories they help create; I want them to learn teamwork and heroism firsthand (after a fashion), instead of just reading about them. 
And yeah, thinking about all that makes me feel weirdly sentimental. Some of the guys out there are lucky enough to have that, and you know what I’m talking about. You’re living the dream. My hat is off to you. 
I never got that with my own family. The most gaming we ever do together is the occasional game of go-fish or rummy or chess. Every time I write about role-playing I wish I could have done more… but there was never any interest in that in my house. I wish it could be different, and maybe that’s why I’m so adamant about wanting to make things different when I have my own home.
The tone of this piece has evolved quite a bit from my original message, but I hope you’ve been able to roll with it. Thanks for reading; for those of you who care, I’ll do my best to start writing about actual game stuff again soon. 

2 responses to “>"What is Roleplaying?" Revisited

  • Jillian Spencer

    >What about Hand and Foot? C'mon, don't knock the great grand traditions of my ancestors. Just kidding. Great article, sweetheart. Just remember that if we ever get married, you have to fight with the Church for my evenings. Even the most understanding pastoral appointment could take issue to me saying "no" to go anoint a sick person because of game night.Wow, I feel so conspicuously Adventist today. . . just remember that roleplaying isn't the only way of enacting the grand and glorious fantasy and sci-fi traditions. We celebrate these stories in cheering for films, in waiting for hours in the rain to watch them premiere, in discussing their moral lessons with children, in passing on the music that underscores these epic tales. Like the bards of old, we sing of the exploits of the heroes and expound upon what we can learn from their lives. . . and yes, joke and have fun with them, too, because as deeply meaningful as they are, they are still not my religion, and even that, I can laugh at on occasion.

  • Jonathan

    >Oh, I know that there are plenty of ways to celebrate the grand and glorious traditions of sci-fi and fantasy or comics and everything in between – but nothing has ever been so grand as letting yourself become, for some brief period, in some small way, part of the story. How much more will a kid learn a moral lesson from a story that they took part in? D&D has already been used by a number of educators with that exact thing in mind, with no small measure of success. And I'm not knocking Hand and Foot, particularly, but games with stories trump games without them in my mind. Not that I don't still love them. Chess, for instance. 🙂 It's just different.Through role-playing, we celebrate the stories of others by creating stories of our own. What better homage could any storyteller ask for, really? I understand about the evenings thing; I just don't want role-playing to become the thing that I exclusively do with "the guys" or something like that (like the nerdier equivalent of poker night). Everything is more fun with you around. It doesn't have to be every single game, naturally – but a few now and then? Awesome.

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