Continuing from our previous session.
What makes role playing game (RPGs) unique in the grand scheme of things? How does the form of an RPG shape its purpose and potential for storytelling? To answer this question, it may be helpful to first think of a more familiar media: the theater.
The World Beyond
Shakespeare’s plays are works of art with deep insight into the passions, fears, virtues, and vices that drive humans. To read Hamlet is to study man in the throes of indecision, justice, cowardice, familial duty, narrow revenge…and the list of possible interpretations goes on, thanks to the richness of character and plot that the Bard has weaved. A dedicated study of the text exposes its students to moral questions and timeless observations about humanity that might be left unexamined otherwise. Yet reading Hamlet is only part of the intended experience. It is, after all, a play written to be performed on stage before a live audience.
The performance of actors opens the door for the audience to receive the story in another meaningful way. A play engages both audio and visual senses in a dynamic setting. It progresses independently of one’s own will to read the next line or turn the page. Its external reality in physical space, speech, and action by others emphasizes the world beyond the passive viewer. It forces participation in its story through the proximity and captivity to its presence, then impresses it more deeply in the audience’s memory through a multiplicity of enduring cues.
One might memorize Hamlet’s soliloquies by reading their written words, but hearing them delivered by another human being in a trained voice and manner both colors and deepens one’s recollection and future consideration of those words. Not only that, but every performance of even the same material is a unique expression of the source. The variety in cast, venue, costuming, and lighting between performances makes each instance unique and all the more rich overall.
Now step into the actor’s shoes. If the audience becomes engrossed in the performance, how much more so the person who brings it to life? If a theater-goer finds himself pondering Hamlet’s mindset, motivations, and decisions, could a dedicated actor do any less? It’s much more likely that it has consumed his attention for countless hours, compelling him to scrutinize the play’s scenes and their impact on the character he is portraying. How else can he do justice to the source, satisfy the audience’s expectations, and live up to the standards of his craft? To act as Hamlet in a believable and compelling way requires a deep understanding of who Hamlet is and why he does the things that he does.
Further beyond this diligent study is “method acting,” a well-known technique meant to bring realism to an actor’s performance through the total immersion of himself into the mental state of his role. Essentially, the actor thinks, acts, and lives as though he himself were that character. This entanglement between the real person and his fictional counterpart offer an avenue of exploring themes and ideas by making them all the more evident and personally meaningful. Such efforts show a genuine investment of time and thought, and they highlight a deeply personal stake in the outcome.
Now take away the script and all the predestined future events, but keep the character and the high stakes, such as the dangers of failure, the uncertainty of decision, and the elation of triumph. This is the situation that an RPG player finds himself in at every moment of the game. The player has spent time carefully crafting and molding his character. He knows it better than anyone else, and he has likely become attached to it. He becomes highly invested in its well-being and its goals. He is then presented a scenario by the Game Master, which he approaches through the lens of that character. Every meaningful action he takes is predicated on his character’s backstory, personality, and skills. As a result, his choices are grounded in that game’s fictional reality, and they have a real impact within that world. Additionally, because the player does not know what will happen next, he must approach each situation as though it were real, with a mind to preserving his character’s life and fortunes. To do otherwise would be little more than indifferently moving a chess piece on a board.
More than a Method Actor
The RPG participant becomes not only an audience to a drama, or just a method actor on stage, but the Player Character himself experiencing the whole tale. The player’s thoughts and feelings align with his character’s in any given scene, often forcing him to balance base instincts (the will to survive, the fear of loss, and the desire for gain) with prudential judgment (the conscious pursuit of a goal, calculating risk, and conceiving creative solutions). If his character succeeds in slaying a foe or rescuing a comrade from imprisonment, the player is uplifted much like his fictional alter ego would be. If he fails to disarm a trap and suffers damage as a result, or if his character falls in combat, the player is frustrated or crushed. His agency in these events is immediate, and the payoff is visceral. It drives home the weight of his choices, forcing him to carefully consider before acting.
Remember that the player in an RPG is not alone; he is acting and participating in this dynamic play alongside other players. Together, they build shared experience and community. Their adventures are things held in common, bound up in shared struggles and discussions. His victories are also his companions’ victories, and their defeats are also his. This creates a bond of brotherhood in much the same way that soldiers in the field do, if not to the same degree or seriousness. It is a fundamentally human thing to grow closer to others in light of shared hardship and strife, regardless of how important or “real” the circumstances might be.
Imagine what a storyteller can accomplish with this kind of atmosphere, and you may have an idea of why RPG players keep coming back to roll the dice again and again.
To be continued in future sessions.