I do not play role-playing games in order to participate in group story telling; I do not play role-playing games in order to simulate a feasible world; I do not play role-playing games in order to exercise tactical or strategic skill. I do not play role-playing games as a pretext for amateur dramatics.
In fact, to be brutally honest, I do not play role-playing games at all these days, and have not so to any great extent for far too long.
The gap between what I understand role-playing to be, and what happens in most gaming groups has become so vast as to make finding a group which I feel comfortable with an almost impossible task. To understand this, you have to understand why I play RPGs in the first palce.
I play role-playing games in order to engage in a sophisticated daydream about myself in the role of various dream-personae: knights, astronauts, superheroes.
Many—most—of the games I have played in the last year or two have not allowed me to enter this dream-state. In some, the referee and the other players have actively taken steps (presumably unconsciously) to prevent me from entering it. And there is nothing, literally nothing else to keep me in a game.
Gary Fine called it ‘engrossment’. Getting caught up in your character; getting caught up in the game. Allowing your mind to focus on the game world, and ‘bracketing’ the real world, the dice, the coffee, the pizza, the pieces of paper, the uncomfortable chairs. This is not within a thousand miles of saying that RPGs can or should be anything mystical or a form of hypnosis or psychedelia: it is merely recognising the basic fact that role-playing is an aesthetic, imaginative or even (in the broadest sense) and artistic process.
Few RPGs use the word ‘engrossment’, but the concept used to be taken absolutely for granted. It was assumed to be the central facet of the role-playing experience in every game that said ‘You can experience the majesty of King Arthur’s court; you can duck into a phone box and rip your shirt off; you can fly an snub fighter down the trench of the empire’s ultimate weapon...’ Nowadays; we are more likely to be told that a game—
focuses on the journey of the hero the sacred quest or monomyth which represents in mythic language the seeking of cultures after their own identity.
that it is—
a powerful means of exploring our dreams.
or else that it is—
a story telling game, but it is also a role-playing game... You not only tell stories, but actually act through them by assuming the roles of the central character. It’s a lot like theatre, but you make up the lines
How many questions are being begged here? In what particular sense is role-playing like theatre? When did ‘role-playing’ becoming subsidiary to ‘story telling’?
If there are any of the old-lot still listening, there may be a chorus of ‘I told you sos’ coming here. At a time when most role-playing games seemed still to be obsessed with being board games, and when pro-zines were telling us that computer un-role-playing games were identical with RPGs I argued vociferously that RPGs were a narrative, story telling medium.
In so far as the focus of a game should be on a series of events (rather than on rules mechanics) I still strongly believe this to be true. Role-playing, being verbal, is dramatic; and being dramatic it requires events and conflict: plot. It is simply not possible to sit around saying ‘Ho hum, I’m engrossed in my character’; that engrossment is necessarily shown by and a product of what you do. Many grown-up novels are static character studies, relying for their appeal on the author’s insight or stylistic prowess. (Even the authors of detective novels and other children’s fiction often keep their action moving at a snail’s pace that would be quite unacceptable in a movie or TV programme.) Conflict does not, of course, mean slam-bang action: the internal conflict between action and inaction in Hamlet; or the intellectual conflict over the importance of language in Pygmalion are both highly dramatic situations. But to hypostasize ‘story’—or even Story—and make it the point of role-playing seem to me to be almost a non-sequitur.
Think back to when you first got involved in this silly stupid wonderful time consuming life eating anorak wearing hobby. Did you become interested in RPGs because they were going to allow you to make up a story? Of course not. If you had any interest in telling stories, you were already telling them in that little red exercise book you kept hidden in your sock drawer. Nor did you get involved because they were going to be an excuse to participate in a dramatic process. There were school plays to deal with that. You role-played because you wanted to be a superhero, or a hobbit, or a vampire. You started to role-play at almost the exact same moment that you stopped ‘playing’ in the old, primary-school sense of the word.
Games fail whenever they lose sight of that basic objective. Keep it in sight, and they can become something almost infinitely complex. Keep focused on the fact that you are ‘playing knights in armour’, and the whole of medieval history and economics; the entire corpus of Arthurian literature; the hopes and aspirations of your players and major events in the real world may come along and join in. We stood and defended Camelot from the giants at almost the same moment that the Soviet coup was breaking out in Moscow. Lose sight of the fact that that is what you are doing: take any steps that will prevent me from becoming engrossed in my character and you are left, at best, with a complex statistical exercise in dice rolling. There is simply no point in a referee trying to produce some vague analogue to a ‘good superhero comic’—whatever the hell that might actually mean. What I wanted to do was daydream about being Superman.
This does not mean that refereeing should be simplistic and infantile. When I was a child I spake as a child, and putting a red blanket over my shoulders was enough to turn me into Superman. When I became a man, I needed a more sophisticated daydream, routed in some sort of reality. Stan Lee knew that when he reinvented Superman as a school boy with allergies, homework, and a costume that ripped. But it was still a daydream, which was why he wrote ‘The hero who could be you’ on the cover.
Of course one does not remotely come to believe or think or feel that you are actually faster than a tall building or able to leap speeding bullets in a single bound. Only mad fundamentalists and VR enthusiasts believe that role-players can lose track of who they are in real life. Neither does one necessarily want to experience a blow-by-blow account of what it would really be like to be Clark Kent. We don’t—most of the time—want to hear about super breakfasts or super bowel movements. Doubtless the life of a rebel star pilot in the Star Wars universe would be very little different from that of an RAF pilot in the present day: discipline, exacting technical work, twelve months of boredom and one minute of terror. The difference (that they are assuredly fighting on the right side) might not, when sixteen TIE Interceptors were sending proton torpedoes up your backside, be all that relevant. What the Star Wars player wants to experience first hand is the romance associated with the movies. To that extent we are, indeed, creating a fiction, not a simulation: dealing, not with reality but with the impression of reality, even the impression of fictional reality. That fictional reality may be one in which untrained farm boys can shoot down elite soldiers, where you can swing on chandeliers without the chain breaking, where the criminals always make three stupid mistakes. It may also be a wholly realistic interpretation of medieval England, complete with dead babies and horse shit. What type of reality we are talking about is a matter for the referee; it is a matter of taste, or artistic temperament. Whatever it is, we should be allowed to become engrossed in it: to accept it as real, to want to spend some time there.
This idea has perhaps got a bit of a bad reputation because bad players (ranging from the thoughtless to the mentally unwell) have used similar doctrines as excuses to spoil other player’s enjoyment. At it’s most harmless, you get players who announce that their PCs will not join in a particular quest, plot, mission or adventure because it is not the sort of thing their character would do. At its most insidious, a player announces that his PC is going to kill the other members of the group because he has written ‘Chaotic Evil’ or ‘Berserker’ on his character sheet or because he is a Moslem and they are Christians. At its silliest, a group of players decide they are going to something completely different to what the referee or the scenario expects of them: a group of Call of Cthulhu characters run away from the haunted house and hold a picnic instead; a Star Wars team jump ship and join a travelling circus. (The last example can even sometimes produce an interesting game.)
In practice, all good players engage in a small bit of ‘double think’: although they are engrossed in their characters, they also exert a small degree of censorship over their behaviour, and do not take any actions that would destroy the game. It is fairly futile to do things that destroy the illusion in the interests of maintaining the illusion! This has been accurately describe as an ‘unspoken contract’ between referee and players. If a group has got together to play Star Wars then this involves a tacit promise from the group that they will play it like Star Wars.
This is important, because role-playing, unlike day-dreaming is a social activity. I am imagining that I am a superhero; but I am also acting out that role with several other people. The existence of these other people—obstinately real and not the mere stuff of my daydreams—is what creates the illusion of reality, enables me to believe in it—and thus makes the fantasy work.
This is so obvious as to be almost tautological. We pretend to be superheroes in order to pretend to be superheroes, because we like pretending to be superheroes. How then, can it be that so many groups lose sight of this basic end? And why oh why do people continue to participate in groups which frustrate it?
My own theory is that most people who role-play have a desire to be different people, and that this desire is very deep and very heartfelt. However, self-expression is not something which we as nation are very good at—particularly not when we are in our teens and twenties. So we have whole gaming groups who have bought into the lie that ‘this game will allow you to become a cool vampire’ and carry on coming, to session after session, even when it doesn’t. I think they carry on coming in the vague hope that one day things will click and they will get the buzz out of pretending to be a mega-goth. It may even be that they assume that everyone else in the group is getting the buzz, and they are doing something wrong. One day, someone will say ‘The emperor has no clue!’ and they will all give it up and start playing Magic the Gathering instead.
But maybe there is some other secret pleasure that people get out of these un-games: perhaps one day, someone will tell me what it is. I write from my own point of view.
There are many things which can destroy a game, which can remove engrossment. Referees who try to impose a story on the players, so your characters stop being people and are turned into puppets. Referees who, on the other hand, do not provide players with anything to do, so they become bored and drift out of character. Referees to interrupt the players whenever a conversation starts; referees who sit there listening to the players like Freudian analysts, and provide no input at all. Referees whose worlds are so inconsistent and badly described that it is impossible to believe in them. Games which demand the use of rules, which reduce every combat (in extreme cases, every negotiation) into a board game, and often a rather boring board game at that. Players who break the unspoken contracts; referees who treat the game as an opportunity to show of their repertoire of silly voices; referees who draw attention to how clever their plot is and players who draw attention to how stupid it is. Rules systems which clash with the types of characters or types of action that you want from your game.
However, these are all aspects of one problem, and one problem only: lack of focus; lack of acceptance.
I have lost count of how many times the behaviour of the players themselves—of otherwise sane and rational human being—has frustrated and destroyed my enjoyment of games. And we are not here talking about the selfish, self-indulgent play that I discussed above. That, at least, is bad role-playing; defective role-playing. What I am talking about here is not bad role-playing. It is not role-playing of any type at all.
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? The games where the referees voice is drowned, metaphorically and literally, by out-of-character chatter. The games where the game-world is continuously being undercut by the players. I have played in games where every, single exchange between the player and the referee was interrupted frivolously by another player; with every, single in-character remark being parodied by a (staggeringly unfunny) out of character remark; without two consecutive lines of in-character conversation being exchanged in the whole evening; with every dramatic scene being ironically commented on; and, in one case, the referee spending the whole session talking about what a complete mess the PCs were making of ‘his’ scenario. I’ve seen Star Wars Jedi Knights ruthlessly sent up (out of character) for being Jedi Knights; I’ve seen players harangued for playing ‘irritating’ characters where the humour ought to be coming from the characters finding him irritating; I’ve seen adults descending into scatology and double entendre. I’ve been in game where it is impossible, at any given moment, to distinguish the players voice from that of the character; where the character-players cheer the death of a comrade.
I do not know what is going on in such gaming groups. Maybe the purpose of role-playing is to provide licence for such behaviour, as in carnival or a rugby club dinner. I do know that their prevalence has kept me out of regular role-play for the best part of two years.
Do I have a solution? In talking about day dreams, arts, subjectivity, creation, it is hard to avoid sounding like a ‘luvvie’, a Californian, a pretentious therapy junky. Ultimately, we play games for enjoyment, and I have no wish to turn them into a sort of religious vocation. (I’ve seen that attitude ruin games, as well.) I am reluctant to call for commitment and serious mindedness. And in any case, that isn’t what is needed. What is needed is focus and acceptance. I believe this so strongly that I could make it a basic rule, to stick on a poster, to make all players sign before I let them into my games, to insist that the referee signs before I’ll join his:
Focus means simply to role-play: to get caught up in the world, to concentrate on the character, not to parody the serious bits or talk about Babylon 5 every time a lull develops.
Acceptance is simpler and harder. It means that players should approach the game with an uncritical spirit: they should respect the basic reality of the other PCs and of the world. They should accept and respect what the referee is doing, and always be on his side. I think that once a discussion has started about ‘the success of the campaign’ or ‘whether they like the campaign’, the game is as good as dead. I have played in games which have reached this point before the first session.
Among the 90 per cent dross, I have played in or run five or six campaigns where the magic worked and the engrossment happened. I do not know when we all started to go wrong: maybe the hobby became too sophisticated, or maybe we found that, with less time on our hands, we were less willing to be accepting and uncritical. Although most of us have less time to game than we once did, I can see no reason why adult groups cannot approach games with the right attitude of mind, and start dreaming again.