Featured photo credit: Jonette Valenciano
With popular shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things featuring role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, the hobby has moved out from its niche as geek activity and into the mainstream–more or less.
Quite a few people are still mystified and confused about what they are and, more importantly, whether or not these games are for them. Unfortunately, it is hard to describe since all of the action takes place in the imagination of the players. All the accoutrements–dice, miniatures, maps, manuals, props, costumes– which can certainly add to the fun of the hobby, are not even essential to the game. Well, maybe the dice, but there are now some that do not even use dice.
So what are role-playing games?
Let’s start with what they are not.
Firstly, they are not traditional board games and for the most part, are competitive. Most are not. There may be some that are, but they are far from the norm.
What’s more, the object of virtually all board games is to end the game by attaining some sort of victory condition. While there are also victory conditions, the objective is actually the opposite: it is to keep the game going for as long as possible. Case in point, there is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that has been running for 35 years! The point of role-playing games is not just to win, but to have fun.
Secondly, it is not theater, though a lot of theatrics may be involved. For the most part, theater, as conventionally understood, is scripted. There are characters who have set lines and blocking. Everything is rehearsed. On the contrary, everything the players say and do is extemporaneous. They don’t follow a script; they take part in a conversation that makes the game unfold.
Conventional theater is played to an audience who, more often than not, are passive observers. While the audience may react to the scene unfolding on the stage, they have no say or control over how that scene unfolds. The players are performers, audience, scriptwriter, director, critic, and much, much more. And while the actors on the stage seek perfection, players just want to have fun, and gaffes, faux pas, and mistakes are all part of it.
Thirdly, these games are not a form of a novel. Novels are written by authors and they have complete control over the story. Authors, at least in hindsight, follow a plan and they alone make the decisions that determine how the story turns out. In contrast, the stories that emerge from them, while structured, rise out of the unplanned and spontaneous decisions of the players.
Novels are edited, sometimes numerous times. Conversations are not, and that is essentially what players of RPGs take part in: conversations about fantastic places, heroic deeds, and dastardly villains.
So what are role-playing games, and what would you be getting into if you gave them a try?
The words cooperative, shared, extemporaneous, and mutual easily come to mind when describing the experience of a role-playing game. The game works only when those participating work with each other to build a story that everyone shares and enjoys. This is done without a script and the players draw from their imaginations and experiences to make the game more fun and enjoyable. However, there are rules and guides that help the players stay on the same page. Everything that happens is by mutual consent and there are mechanics that ensure that everyone has their boundaries respected.
These games are a safe activity since you get to choose those whom you play the game with. Players more often than not strengthen their bonds with one another because of the commonly shared stories. As they play the game over a long period of time, players discover things about themselves that reveal their character and allow them to build it, mostly by fostering creativity.
Oh, and did I mention that role-playing games make math more fun?
So, if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, this should serve as a sort of a primer, but the only really understand it is to roll up a character and jump right in. You have your pick of stories. If classic swords and sorcery is not your thing, there is eldritch horror, cyberpunk, space opera, superheroes, anime, romcom…the list goes on and on.
So why not give it a go?