Another Word: Saving Throw Vs. Boredom: How RPGs Taught Me Storytelling
Last year I returned to one of my old loves. I’d put it aside for a while: things were busy, there was never time, it took so much energy from writing efforts. And then a friend asked about it and, well . . .
I speak of tabletop role-playing games, and the empress of them all, Dungeons & Dragons. Thanks to a local bookstore, I started playing the game back when I was twelve when hadn’t appeared on public radar yet. In fact, my first RPG wasn’t even D&D, but a storytelling variant using Tarot cards that one of the bookstore owners, Ken, had invented. My character was Arren of Dörmark, a once-sheltered princess thrust out into the world in search of adventure in order to save her country. I remember those games so well; I could hardly wait each week to come back to the story.
Throughout middle school, high school, and well into college I kept haunting that bookstore, which ended up supplying the majority of my social life. A few years ago, I went back for their anniversary celebration and ran into many of my fellows. It was like a high school reunion, but one full of people that you really enjoyed.
While we talked a lot about what we’d done since then, there was a certain amount of backtracking and telling stories of epic games, encounters and incidents that we hadn’t forgotten. It brought back the fact that I’d walked through high school full of stories, not just the ones that I was reading every day in the form of my avid consumption of F&SF, but ones that I was deeply involved in, ones that preoccupied my days, ones that I could hardly wait to return to. It’s no small wonder that I’d be creating them later in life!
As time passed, other stories would compete with the ones springing from Dungeons & Dragons. Most of the D&D campaigns I played in didn’t really have stories: we were the prototypical murder hobos, going from innocent monster encampment to innocent monster encampment, laying waste to everything in our path. I remember one gamemaster whose campaign was simply based on whatever he was reading at the time; among the people our group ran into were Doc Savage, Elric of Melniboné, and Gandalf.
But as D&D became more popular, variations appeared, like Monster! Monster! in which one ran a monster rather than an adventurer, Toon, where you played a cartoon character in an equally cartoon universe, Traveller for the space adventurer, or even Bunnies & Burrows, which rode the coattails of the novel Watership Down’s success. Many of those characters would pop up again much later in the fiction I wrote, like Ms. Liberty (a superhero for a Champions campaign) and The Dark (an assassin from the Rolemaster system).
I would be a very different person nowadays if I hadn’t participated in all those stories. I wouldn’t be as good at roles like leader, diplomat, or problem solver, because I got a chance to learn those skills in a way that made the lessons stick. And in retrospect, I can see how I explored aspects of my personality and life through characters, particularly the superheroes I ran in an extended campaign that spanned much of my time in college, including Ms. Liberty and her superhero group, The Furies.
When I moved away from home in order to go to graduate school in writing at Johns Hopkins, I also moved away from the bookstore that had been the nexus of all my gaming. I lost touch with gaming buddies and since I was married to a non-gamer at the time, all of that fell away. Being a geek at that point was not acceptable in the way that it is nowadays and while Hopkins brought in the odd SF writer now and again, they seemed ready to sneer at genre as quickly as the rest of them. I loved Tom Disch and getting a chance to talk with him, but when I put a superhero novel based on The Furies in front of him, he read it, folded his arms and frowned at me, asking, “Why bother with a book about comic books?” Having read Alan Moore’s Watchmen two years earlier issue by issue as it appeared, I was pretty sure it was worth bothering about, but it would take a decade or so to prove me right.
That disapproval and other incidents combined with the lack of fellow gamers moved me away from gaming for a decade. The Internet and the appearance of MUDs wooed me back, years later though, after I’d read a piece in The Village Voice about this strange virtual realm called LambdaMOO. LambdaMOO was a portal and, wandering through the net, I ended up in and built numerous areas for a DIKU named DarkCastle MUD, but eventually found another home in Armageddon MUD, which was a constant stream of narratives both major and minor, utterly addictive and always there.
Armageddon’s lure was its strong story. The first such game where role-play was required, rather than suggested, it was a consistent source of collaboration on stories of desperation, scarcity, and struggle in a world where magic was present but so scarce that it was terrifying. I ran a character there who lasted for years, participating in multiple plotlines. That was what hooked me.
That collaborative part, where one person throws out a story thread, another runs with it, and yet another contributes a counter thread, then another is the thing that makes a game so much fun. It’s one of those marvelous experiences in life where the whole is so much greater than the whole of the parts, as though the act of combination enabled it to grow geometrically.
We humans love stories. We love seeing other lives, other worlds, other possibilities. Playing a cooperative game is another form of storytelling, whether you are the person running the game, or one of the people controlling a character. No author can ever create something so full that there is no room for what the reader brings; at best we supply the sticks and branches from which they build a splendid backdrop.
Tabletop games give us a chance to participate in a way that is, I think, like no other. Right now, the game I’m running has players that are geographically diverse, but I know those voices now, could pick them out of a crowd, and I know part of their secret hearts: the stalwart paladin, the reckless monk, the shy kenku, and the bard who isn’t sure where he belongs in this world.
These stories may sometimes even be more immersive than fiction when they let us play out pieces of ourselves in a way the real world may not afford. And storytelling with such games can tell us something about how the person perceives themselves as well as how they work with others.
Some people want to be heroes, others supporting characters who still have their own story arc. Some people have consistent pieces; I know with one friend that, no matter what kind of character he’s running, will always shoot first and ask questions later. Others will think deeply about the character to the point where sometimes they make play difficult for themselves, not allowing a character to do something that would advantage them because “that’s just not what they would do.”
Authors have a similar phenomenon sometimes, where you try to move a character in one direction and then you find it heading solidly in a direction you didn’t expect or want. This is less due to any supernatural power inherent in the text than in the fact that more than your conscious mind goes into creating a character. You know on an unconscious level what a character would or wouldn’t do, even when you don’t realize it.
To act as though games cannot speak to human experience as deeply as a piece of fiction is to deny one of the richest sources of fiction, the act of play. Of pretend. The thing we do, over and over, perhaps because we’re bored, or at a loss, but sometimes because story comes to us as naturally and without thinking as breathing.
I came back to D&D because a friend wanted someone to run a series of pre-written modules. We’re on version 5E now, but the shape of things overall is still the same. And even using those precreated chunks, I find myself spinning the background story that ties them all together, the world in which everything takes place, along with the elements I’ve chosen to interject—an overarching plotline that led to the dwarvish secret police waking them up in the middle of the night to interrogate them, last time the party stopped at an inn between adventures.
I’m looking forward to watching that plotline unfold, and I’m also anticipating that it will change in weird and wonderful ways as they get their own hands into the storyline. We’ll be telling the story together, and the glory of that is that who knows what will happen. All I know is that I will love it the same way I’ve loved the stories that have come in such a shape before.