In defense of role playing

Role-play­ing is my pri­ma­ry venue for fic­tion­al cre­ativ­i­ty. I find in the col­lab­o­ra­tive sto­ry­telling of the table a free­ing out­let for imag­i­na­tive play, play that frees me for a moment from the pres­sures of the day, of the week, of life, yet also con­nects me in real time with real people.

There is an unde­ni­able ele­ment of escape in the role-play­ing expe­ri­ence, I will not dis­pute that. But it need not be escapist, any more than read­ing, or movie-view­ing, or even act­ing are nec­es­sar­i­ly escapist. The role-play­er is pre­tend­ing to be some­one he or she is not, is act­ing in a world that is not his or her own (or may not exist at all). But the sto­ry can and should be, not real, but gen­uine. The ulti­mate goal is not to pre­tend to be some­one you are not (although that is usu­al­ly involved, and is far too often as far as most role-play­ers get); it is to tell a sto­ry, as an indi­vid­ual with an imag­i­na­tion, in the con­text of a cre­ative com­mu­ni­ty cre­at­ed for that very purpose.

If I mere­ly want­ed to escape, to push from my mind the wor­ries and tur­bu­lence of my dai­ly life, there are a lot of eas­i­er ways I could achieve that. I could play a com­put­er game. I could bury myself in one of my hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of books. I could turn down the lights and turn up the music. And I have done all these things, and like­ly will do again many times through­out my life.

But these activ­i­ties, all of them relax­ing and yes, escapist, require very lit­tle of me. I am not called upon to expend much of myself in the enjoy­ment of these pas­times. (And that is anoth­er point. These things are pas­times: activ­i­ties a per­son does to pass the time. That’s it.) I put noth­ing into the world by my par­tic­i­pa­tion in them. They are not, in a word, cre­ative.

Which is, of course, what dis­tin­guish­es role-play­ing for me. When I sit down to the gam­ing table, there are two lev­els of activ­i­ty at play (no pun intend­ed). First and fore­most, I am sit­ting down for an evening with friends. We laugh, we joke, we tell sto­ries of home and work; we gripe about our day, and we share dreams about our futures. It is real life, and it is real fun. Then sec­ond­ly — and in between all of the first lev­el stuff — I am tak­ing a part, inhab­it­ing a fic­tion­al per­sona, and telling, togeth­er with the oth­ers at the table, part of an ongo­ing sto­ry, a sto­ry that we cre­ate as a group. It is what I do for fun, and I take it very seriously.

Now I do not wish to cast myself as a wild-eyed apol­o­gist for the world’s entire pop­u­la­tion of RPGers. Role-play­ing is a broad term that encom­pass­es an incred­i­bly wide range of activ­i­ties, some of which are def­i­nite­ly not to be dis­cussed on polite blogs. And there is a vast swath of puerile (at times even infan­tile) behav­ior that takes place under this head­ing. And there are a tremen­dous num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing out pathet­ic and clichéd fan­tasies under the guise of role-play­ing, blur­ring for them­selves the line between game and real­i­ty, often because they have no clear idea of either, only of the fan­ta­sy they wish was real.

But these are not ails spe­cif­ic to role-play­ing. Every one of these could said about a lot of oth­er orga­nized activ­i­ties. Peo­ple are peo­ple, and typ­i­cal­ly bring what­ev­er they do to their own lev­el, how­ev­er ele­vat­ed or debased. And they should not be tak­en as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the whole population. 

In the intro­duc­tion to their recent book Dun­geons & Drag­ons For Dum­mies authors Bill Slav­ic­sek and Richard Bak­er make the fol­low­ing assertion:

We believe that Dun­geons & Drag­ons speaks to and feeds the human con­di­tion. D&D is a game of the imag­i­na­tion, build­ing on the myths and fan­tasies that have shaped our cul­ture. D&D is a game of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties, where the only lim­it on what can hap­pen is what you can imag­ine. D&D is a social expe­ri­ence, a fun and excit­ing activ­i­ty that com­bines group sto­ry­telling and fan­ta­sy iconol­o­gy with strate­gic chal­lenges and dice rolling. Noth­ing else — no comptuer game, no board game, no movie — comes close to deliv­er­ing the inter­ac­tive and unlim­it­ed adven­tures of the D&D experience.”

This is very pret­ti­ly over­stat­ed, and I have cov­ered much of it in my own words above. But when I read it to my wife the oth­er day, her reac­tion was dis­mis­sive. “That’s a nice jus­ti­fi­ca­tion,” she said. I was not expect­ing that, but she is right. It is a bald attempt at jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for some­thing that is, more often than not, a dul­ly ado­les­cent activ­i­ty: pim­ply social out­casts liv­ing out the worst sorts of fan­ta­sy clichés is some damp base­ment lit by can­dles. I grant that it can be, and very often is, a ridicu­lous enter­prise to enter­tain over­grown boys who don’t get enough sun; mod­ern day Peter Pans who not only don’t wish to grow up, but won’t even leave the house. That is the dark side of the picture. 

What I real­ly want here is some recog­ni­tion that there can be — and is — a bright side, too. I want some recog­ni­tion that at its best role-play­ing is a sophis­ti­cat­ed and cre­ative activ­i­ty. Done well, it is heir to an ancient tra­di­tion of sto­ry­telling and oral tra­di­tion. I know this sounds over the top, but what are The Ili­ad and The Odyssey, what are the Ice­landic sagas, what are the beloved folk­tales of all lands and races, but sto­ries of heroes and adven­ture, told among friends, gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, down through long ages? Why should we be ashamed to tell sto­ries togeth­er now? We should­n’t, and I am not. At its best, role-play­ing is part of an ancient sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion, and I am proud to be able to par­take in it. I hope I can always have sto­ries worth the telling, and wor­thy friends to tell them with.

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