A most difficult question
Over the years I have been asked what role-playing is so many times. It is one of the hardest questions for me to answer. I just can’t put words on it. I’ve tried so hard to explain people what it’s about, and I always feel that it lands flat. I’m terrible at selling this hobby to non-gamers.
After some thought, I’ve finally figured out why I can’t explain it. To me, roleplaying is all about the experience, the experience of telling a meaningful story without any safety nets. It is not about the game itself, though the choice of game certainly impacts how the story unfolds.
Maybe this is also the reason behind my sudden infatuation with improv-based roleplaying; I love playing games, all kinds of games, but as soon as I know how they will turn out, I quickly lose interest.
One of my buddies at the university, whom I have played a lot of board games with, once said it like this;
I don’t think winning is fun. I think it’s fun to be close to winning. When you know that you have won, the game is over.
He said it with board games in mind, but I think it applies equally to roleplaying games. We want to win, but we do not want to know that we will win. We want that uncertainty, because it is why the story matters to us.
When I say that I love the experiences of telling meaningful stories, I mean exactly that; telling stories that matter to us, whatever that may mean for the individual. Playing fantasy often have the implication that we want excitement and danger, so the story should have those elements. We want to be heroes, and true heroes don’t win cheaply.
I love to maim and hurt the PC’s as a GM, because it makes me feel that their lives are on the line, that their actions matter, and that the opposition in the story is there. If you read some of my Actual Play reports, then you might remember that I had a druid get a concussion from a skull fracture and break his ankle in a single session. I didn’t do this to be cruel, I did it because it made the story exciting. Having a broken ankle complicates matters just as much as a dragon chasing you does.
My experiences with Dungeon World has taught me many things about GM’ing, and it has taught me that players will accept more or less anything, as long as you don’t throw arbitrary mechanical penalties at them. Broken ankle is good, because it doesn’t mean anything unless it becomes important in the fiction.
I love stories. I don’t love telling them, I love making them collaboratively, hearing other peoples’ input, working on something totally meaningless for anyone outside the group.
Roleplaying is about friendship, wonder and excitement. It is about hearing truly unique stories that you actually care about, and it is about shaping these stories so they become meaningful. It is about creating something you like and building on the foundation everyone has collaborated to build. It is about instilling emotions like anger and fear, sorrow and despair. It is about victory and defeat. But most of all; it is about people we will come to love, people we will come to hate, and everything in between.
I sincerely love role-playing. Not because of “immersion”, not because I like to pretend I’m this other guy, but because I love to hear these fantastic (sometimes weird) stories that actually mean something to me.
Roleplaying is many things to many people. This is what it is to me.