Why RPGs?

It’s been asked why I am so fond of RPGs; I mention them a fair amount, and they aren’t something that everyone is all that familiar with. So I’ll take a bit of time here to explain.

First, RPGs – at least, starting with the original Dungeons & Dragons – grew out of strategic wargaming. You know, put a bunch of miniatures on a big board, pick armies, and have them fight it out, with different models having different weapons, abilities, strengths and weaknesses? Well, D&D came out of that, from someone saying “What if, instead of cammanding entire forces, each person commanded just one figure – and a group of people with their own figures, or characters, then fought battles against another person controlling larger (in number, but possibly also in size), but much more expendable, things?” This started in 1974 with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, first with a game called Chainmail, then the first edition of D&D; in 2014, they will be releasing the 5th edition of D&D, and there are now hundreds of other RPGs.

I started playing RPGs when I was 12 or 13; seeing as I’m 34 now, it’s been over 20 years. For me, the average tabletop RPG, which you play with funny-shaped dice, sometimes miniatures, books, and character sheets, is somewhere between a complex boardgame and freeform drama. One person in the group takes it upon themselves to act as the Game Master, or GM; that person controls what the world around the player characters does – what the townspeople say, how goblins react to adventurers, when a dragon attacks, things like that. Everyone else in the group plays a single character, generally a part of a group – often, in D&D, adventurers. They don’t have to be friends (the character, or really the players, though a certain amount of friendliness on the part of the players helps), but they do have to work together to accomplish goals. The goal might be stopping an evil warlord, fighting a dragon, overthrowing a kingdom, or starting your own kingdom; players – acting as their characters – decide this together. They then act within the rules of the game.

There are so many RPG books because there are so many RPGs on the market now; it’s easy to publish your own these days. Some RPGs are very light on rules, relying on a social contract between players and GM to keep the game going without conflict. Some RPGs have a lot of rules, so that almost every situation that the game’s creators can think of has some kind of rule to govern it. A lot of people like something somewhere in between. One guy, Ron Edwards, actually created a theory about RPG design and social interactions, called GNS Theory. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, it’s worth a read.

I play RPGs because I like it as a social activity, and because I like the escapism it presents me with. I can pretend to be all kinds of things that I’m not; I’m partial to holy warrior types — the paladin archetype, if you’re interested – even though I’m not particularly religious myself. It lets me explore a lot of things I wouldn’t get to in life; I’ll never get to slay dragons, or pilot a starship; odds are I’ll never be in the military, or travel back to the medieval period. It lets me explore possibilities both within and without, without ever having to leave my area. 

Now, I also play videogame RPGs; there are some amazing ones out there, like the Final Fantasy series, or Planescape: Torment, The Elder Scrolls series, or the Mass Effect trilogy. While you, as a player, generally get to play a role – perhaps several, depending on the game – and take part in a well-crafted story, you basically always play alone, and the ending is always something that has been planned and scripted. It’s fun, but it isn’t the social activity that a tabletop game is for me, and while it beats a tabletop game in visuals and musical score, it doesn’t have the same life that a group can give a game.

So, maybe that’s a little insight into why I like and play RPGs. Or why I have so many of them. Maybe not; I don’t know if I have really answered many questions, or just created new ones. But that’s what I have to say on the matter for now; feel free to ask more if you like.

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