Role-Playing Games

Two young women get out of a car and walk over to a house. They join a man sitting on the steps, and the three of them go up onto the porch, chatting and laughing. A fourth person joins them, carrying potato chips and lemonade, and everyone settles around a table. The snacks are eaten, pieces of paper covered with strange words and markings are scrutinized and discussed, gossip is traded. The atmosphere is relaxed, informal.

Then the fourth person says,

"Let's begin."

All at once, everything changes. The gossip and joking stops, everyone sits a little straighter, and shields their papers from each other. The conversation does not end, but the feel of it has changed: it is more intense, more focused. The four people are no longer simply visiting, they are engaged in building a story.

They are playing a roleplaying game.

All of us can recall, at some point in our childhood, catapulting ourselves into some realm of wonder by invoking the magic words "Let's pretend..." There is no need to give this up upon reaching adulthood; on the contrary, it can take on an even greater significance. Step into character, create a role, turn the crystal of your psyche so that another facet, one perhaps hidden even to yourself, catches the light and glows. Inside the safety and freedom of a roleplaying game, suddenly you can be anyone, do anything permitted by the structure of the game.

Roleplaying games are a new offshoot of one of the oldest traditions of humankind: storytelling. For at least as long as there has been spoken language, storytelling has existed, shaping and transfiguring the world through the imaginations of teller and listener. But roleplaying games take storytelling to a new level, for instead of sitting and listening passively, the audience is brought into the story and actually helps to shape it.

Designed for "grownups," roleplaying games have more structure than childhood games of "Let's pretend" generally do. Some rules are necessary, if only to confine the players to one universe ("Okay, so the Enterprise lands on top of Mount Doom, and...") or to prevent arguments of the "Bang! You're dead!" "No I'm not, you missed!" variety. Games may take place in any number of settings, from traditional fantasy as with Dungeons and Dragons, to the romantic horror of Vampire: The Masquerade, to gritty technological dystopias like Shadowrun. Some allow you to step into worlds made familiar by writers like Malory or Tolkien; others explore modern forms of myth, such as comic book superheros or Star Trek.

What enables the players to make the leap from passive audience to active participant? Instead of simply listening, each player creates a character to set upon the stage of the game. Players build these characters by a combination of choice and chance, rolling dice to determine how strong, smart, etc. they are, or by allocating a set number of points amongst different abilities. Most roleplaying characters embody an archetype, frequently that of the hero, but I have also seen player characters take on the roles of wise woman, trickster, thief, evil twin, and madman. Interestingly enough, many "high-concept" characters — those with elaborate backgrounds and clever personality quirks — exhaust their potential early on in the game. They are like the gilded bird in Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale, pretty toys with only one song. Far more compelling are characters who start out humbly, stripped to their basic archetype, and develop and grow within their story.

Characters are the doors by which you enter the world of the game, transforming yourself as you do, and bringing to light the potential for heroism that all too often lies dormant and untapped. As a player explores this role she has taken on, she often finds the original concept evolves into something totally unexpected. Often the character will possess skills she does not — or did not think she did. Laurelin, an Elfish maiden from a Changeling game, speaks with a courtly dignity and grace that amazes even me; Daimon, a smooth-tongued rogue from a related game, astonishes his player with his quick thinking and ready prevarications. There are, of course, game mechanics which can provide characters with information or skills the player does not have (otherwise you would be limited indeed in your choice of character creation, which would defeat the entire purpose). Still, it is a mark of skillful roleplaying when a player pauses in game to say incredulously, "Where did that come from?"

It is this balance, this spontaneity-within-structure, that gives the roleplaying game its value. The outcome is not fixed, as it is in a movie or novel — the same scenario can be played out over and over again with a fresh cast, and end differently every time. Not even the gamemaster can predict the final outcome. Furthermore, there is no winner in a roleplaying game, no high score to beat; there is only the story. When children play "Let's pretend," they are doing it for the sheer joy of it, not to see who "wins." The dragon who is slain is as much the victor as is the knight or wizard who brought it down. The plots in a roleplaying game, beneath their trappings of fantasy, romance, cyberpunk, or gothic horror, are the oldest of stories, those most basic to the human psyche. Players recognize and thrill to this, whether they understand it consciously or not. It is entertainment made ritual, and all the more potent because everyone involved has a vital, personal hand in shaping it.

"Any character you play," says Mark Stein, a longtime gamer, "is essentially you under a microscope, some aspect of yourself enlarged and enhanced. Otherwise, how would you be able to play? How could you run a character that had nothing at all in sympathy with you?"

Often the character is the player — only better, stronger, brighter, all dross and imperfections burned away. He is the ideal for which the player strives. Other times the character can move in circles closed to the player by the rules of society, or can extend him beyond his own personal limitations, like a reflection in a trick mirror. The player explores her own hopes, dreams, visions, and goals in an almost alchemical process — the character is a prism, splitting the white light of the spirit into its component colors, transfiguring as it illuminates.

Not all players choose to work on the side of light, however. Dark games call for dark characters. Even in less somber games, "shadow characters" are sometimes created, characters who are evil, doomed, or tragically flawed. Why would anyone want to create such a character? Why would someone, for that matter, want to play in a game such as White Wolf's Vampire or Werewolf, in which your character is by definition a monster? Is roleplaying a devil's game, then; a form of gambling for the player's soul?

Difficult questions, and ones which have plagued the roleplaying community since the games first appeared in the early 1980's. One answer is simply that these shadow elements exist in all of us, and to deny it, to claim only the shining young hero, is to deny a part of ourselves. None of us are free from urgings that the world condemns as evil or wrong: anger, greed, jealousy, hate. Roleplaying is a relatively safe outlet for the shadow; put into the context of a game, demons can spend themselves harmlessly on creations of paper and imagination. Thus, roleplaying can become a form of healing.

Furthermore, there is a power that lies in the shadows. I created a dark character a few years ago, for Tia Kaplowitz's Star Wars-based roleplaying game. It had occurred to me that all of my previous characters — even the vampires — were essentially good. They were all noble, self-sacrificing, egalitarian, and I found myself fired by the challenge to create and play something different: not only from these old characters, but radically opposed to my own nature. As it turned out, I did not quite succeed in that particular task. Ayvenar, the character I built, actually reflected and illumined aspects of my own personality that I had been struggling to overcome for many years. She was bitter, sarcastic, and antisocial; she kept other characters at a distance, letting nobody close enough to hurt or be hurt by her again.

And yet, in that first game, it was Ayvenar who saved a child from death — Ayvenar, whose love for the child proved as fierce as her bitterness. She was not afraid to hurl the nastiest spell in her repertoire at the villain, though she did suffer a great deal of remorse afterward. Since then, one of my greatest pleasures in Tia's game has been the gradual and often painful process of Ayvenar's redemption — a struggle towards self-understanding and self-love that in many ways mirrors and provides valuable insights into my own. Like Ayvenar, I struggle upwards toward the light.

Not every game and not every character is going to lead to heightened understanding. All too often, whether because of an unimaginative or rules-bound gamemaster, a flat and uninspired character, or the wrong sort of enthusiasm from the player, roleplaying games devolve into mere hack-and-slash fests. The plot becomes nothing more than fighting an ever more powerful series of monsters, and the character a sword-, gun-, or magic-wielding cardboard prop whose sole purpose is to increase in rank and power. Like many a high-minded venture, a roleplaying game can all too easily sink to the level of mere pastime or amusement — can fall from Imagination to Fancy, as Coleridge would say.

Part of the responsibility for preventing this lies with the gamemasters. The more complete in detail and self-consistent they make their world, the more believable it becomes. Furthermore, an incredible amount of memorization is necessary for a game to run smoothly. The gamemaster must have her world and its inhabitants at her fingertips. She must also juggle a dozen different plot possibilities, and still be prepared at any moment to swallow her pride, discard all those carefully wrought plans, and follow the players as they wing off in a completely unanticipated direction. Some gamemasters are unable to do this, and try to force their players back into the pre-scheduled plot, but the best employ a judicious mixture of planning and improvisation. Imagination cannot be forced; creativity must well up from within, even as it is coaxed into a graceful and orderly form.

"I don't run my game," says Tia. She throws up her hands, despairing of ever getting us to follow the plot she carefully designed for us. "I only facilitate it."

"Hey, look!" laughs Mark. "There's some plot — let's kill it!" After one particularly gruelling session in which an ill-fated murder attempt landed one character in prison, several others were almost killed in a horrific battle between ultimate light and ultimate darkness, and one lived only at the price of losing his powers, Tia said to us, "You want to know what you were supposed to have done today? Y'all were supposed to go to a carnival!"

Not all the responsibility rests on the gamemaster, however. The player has the exquisitely tricky task of responding to whatever is thrown at him as the character would respond, to keep from dictating the character's decisions based on what he, the player, would do. If a character is a stereotype, and if the player refuses to let her grow — indeed, if the player does not actively work towards the character's growth — the game becomes boring, the plot predictable.

Mechanics, memorization, and rules are only the foundations, and the best games arise when, like in a child's fantasy, rules are left behind. They are the raw materials of roleplaying, as clay is to a sculptor, or little black notes on a page to a musician. Gamemaster and players alike must become musicians, must breathe life into the story, and for this there must be focus. When children play "Make Believe," they are entirely absorbed in their world, to the complete exclusion of anything outside. Think about the words: Make Believe. What roleplayers are doing is making a world. They are believing in this world they have imagined so powerfully that for a time it becomes more real and vital than the outside world.

Inside this belief-made world, the conscious selves of the players melt away. What the player and gamemaster might want becomes secondary to the story that carries them all along, like bright feathers on the surface of a swift and unpredictable stream. Unburdened by a controlling ego, the part of the player's psyche that she has chosen to bring to the surface can flourish and grow. Here we find play's greatest gift. It is when we release control, when we stop trying so hard to learn and achieve and grow, that our mental blocks suddenly fall away, and we are granted a glimpse into unexpected depths. This is the Secondary Imagination that Coleridge spoke of, that "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate...struggles to idealize and to unify" (Biographia Literaria, Chapter 13).

But this world, bright and irridescent as a soap bubble or a butterfly's wing, is as easily broken as either. If the players or gamemaster lose their focus, the game becomes self-conscious and stilted, all its magic tarnished. I have seen this happen all too often: we gamers grow more and more absorbed in the story. Our voices, postures, facial expressions, and gestures melt into those of the characters; the outside world is lost. And then the phone rings, or dinner is ready, or a player's boy or girlfriend appears, and our castle in the air comes crashing down.

Play is a dress rehearsal for living, which is why children devote so much time and energy to it. Whether they are practicing to be parents, trying out the trappings of a career, or exploring an archetype such as the dragon-slaying knight (or the dragon, for that matter!), these young roleplayers are preparing for their future. They are investigating the roles that will someday be theirs to choose amongst in earnest, learning which ones are truest to their natures, aspirations, and dreams. We adults may believe that we have no further need for such rehearsals — have we not chosen and settled into our roles? Not at all. For as long as we still live, there is no end to the roles we might take on, no limit to the stories we can step into and build. Our minds and psyches are a vast and beautiful land, alive with possibility.

And what better way to explore this land than in a game?

Commentary by Shanti Fader, Tuesday, July 7, 1998.

Photo: Bill / Model: Emily St. Germaine