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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