Friday, August 24, 2012

Different Games, Same Table.

By their nature, pen and paper role playing games are a different breed of entertainment. While I veg out to plenty of tv shows, video games and movies, I always find myself drawn back to the table. It's a mysterious attraction which is admittedly difficult to explain to folks who've never played a role playing game before.

"What do you mean you don't 'win'?"

"You play on a table? Is it a board game?"

"Wait.. It's just books and dice?"

These are common questions that can be surprisingly hard to answer. What is it that really sets P&P games -and gamers- apart? If you asked me, I'd probably say "Everyone gets to play a different game at the same table."
Say we went to a movie together. We might have different opinions. I may hate it and you loved it. Maybe I'm just not into musicals and you happen to be a fan of the main actor. We could have many differences of opinion but as long as George Lucas isn't involved, the movie doesn't change, we both watched the same exact thing. The same applies to video games, tv shows, stage plays - the list goes on. Video games are particulary adept at making you feel involved. Terms like "open world" provide an illusion of freedom that is still limited by file size and technology.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not bashing any of these forms of amusement. I'm as big a fan of them as anyone. It's also not my intention to disregard sports or art or other wonderful ways to pass time and create. I'm just trying to explore and describe the unique qualities of pen and paper gaming. For the sake of the uninformed, I'll try to briefly sum up what an RPG is before I continue on to why it's so special...

In a tradional role play environment, a group of friends or even strangers come together around a table and create fictional characters that they will use to explore and adventure in a fictional world. This is done primarily through imagination and communication. These could be valiant knights, savage barbarians, gritty pulp era cops or space explorers. The variety is endless. The 'world' and it's inhabitants are directed by a GM -the Game Master- historically referred to as a Dungeon Master. The players control their characters' actions and the GM controls everything else.

Unlike other games, the GM and the players do not play against each other to reach an end or final goal. They work together to unfold a continuing story. The GM provides the setting, and adjusts it according to the players reaction. This isn't to say that the players and GM are never adversarial. In addition to controlling the environments and personalities of the game world, the GM also controls the monsters, the villains and other obstacles that hinder the players advancement through the story and this is where the dice come in.

Whenever a player wants to perform an action in the world where they have a chance to fail, they roll dice. The dice represent the chaos and unpredictability of the world. Do you want to hit that goblin with your sword? Roll some dice to see if you hit him or catch air. Want to smooth talk the local sheriff to let you out of jail? Roll it and see if he falls for your bluff. There are an infinite number of things one can do in a pen and paper role playing game. The only limitations are in your imagination and imagination is the very essence of the game.

As an aside, if the idea of playing "imaginary games" seems too childish for you, just call it "creativity." It might help you sleep better.

Sheesh, I was trying to go somewhere with that wall of text up there which has escaped me at the moment...

Oh yeah! I was trying to put a finger on what sets P&P RPGs apart. You see, with all this imagination going on, it's sometimes easy to forget that other people are playing and imagining alongside you. What makes the game so special is that it can be different for every participant. I may imagine the world to look grim and dark with armored soldiers, grizzled old wizards and deceptive thieves while the player across the table could be picturing a lush, bright world with shining knights, bumbling sorcerers and dashing rogues. Everything from the smallest stone to the largest beast is open to each players interpretation. To me, that is the best thing any game could offer.

There aren't many mediums that offer this level of invlovement nowadays. In a world dominated by passive entertainment, pen and paper games offer more than just 'turning on and tuning in.' They are social games. Participatory games. Imaginative games.

You can be more than a player, you are a creator- an active participant in an evolving story. That's what sets P&P gamers apart. Anyone can play games, role players bring them to life. 
Until next time, happy gaming.

1 comment:

  1. I love seeing gamers getting so enthusiastic about what makes this hobby great. Especially when I still see some of them being ashamed, and not comfortable 'coming out' as gamers. There's so much to be gained by playing games like this, I just don't get why people still have hang ups about it. It takes so little effort to understand why we do it. Yes, it may not be for everyone, but when you consider the time and money it takes to get involved, you'd think people could be persuaded to at least give it a try.