What Is Role-Playing, and Why Are We Talking About It? (Part 2)

Ok, so in part 1 of this shindig, I blathered for a while about what role-playing is, and at the end I waxed philosophical about how role-playing is actually a form of literature. I didn’t get any posts on that bit saying that I was full of it, so I’m going to assume that you all agree with me. Hooray! Consensus!

Actually I’ll probably devote another 1500 words the “role-playing as art” topic at some point in the future; for right now, I want to talk about why I, as a (nearly) 30-year-old man still play role-playing games. See, as I mentioned in the last post, RPGs have a bit of a stigma about them, and I’m fully aware of the reaction some people have when I tell them I role-play (a few years back, somebody told me “RPGs? Isn’t that a game for babies?”). So a lot of times I just pretend like I play board games instead (actually I do that too. Anybody want to play Dominion?)

But this is my blog, dangit, and I’m not going to pretend to be something else on my own blog. And if you don’t like it, well, I guess that’s your prerogative. Just don’t call me a baby. At least not to my face. Unless I deserve it.

So anwyays. Back to the original question. Why role-playing? Well, the simple answer is, “Because it’s fun!” But what the heck is “fun”, anyways, and how do we have it? This is a topic that’s been hotly debated by people who have spent way more time thinking about this than I have, and nobody’s really come up with a satisfying answer. The short reason is because, well, differently people have fun doing different things.

Allllright. I think we’re done here. That last sentence is the product of a PhD education, people.

Right, just kidding. Here’s another person talking about fun. This random dude (who I can guarantee I’ll be linking a lot more to in future posts) has come up with 8 or so different categories of fun (this is specifically focused towards gaming, but I think the categories apply more broadly as well):

  • Sensation: The fun of having your physical senses stimulated.
  • Fantasy: The fun of make-believe, or pretending to be something else.
  • Narrative: The fun of experiencing a well-told story.
  • Challenge: The fun of overcoming obstacles and being the best you can possibly be.
  • Fellowship: The fun of interacting with others and working together.
  • Discovery: The fun of exploring and uncovering things.
  • Creativity: The fun of leaving your personal mark on the world.
  • Submission: The fun of of turning your brain off and doing effortless things.

So anyways, why have I spent all this time blathering about “fun” and what it is or isn’t? Well, now I’ve developed a (partial) vocabulary that I can use to talk about why I enjoy role-playing; and hopefully, even if you’ve never touched a d20 before, you’ll be able to relate to the experiences that I describe here. So without further ado, here are the three styles of fun that I find to be the most, well, fun—along with a bit of description as to how it ties into role-playing:

The Top Three Reasons Why I Like RPGs (You’ll Never Believe Reason Number 2!)

  1. Narrative: Anybody who knows me should have seen this one coming from a long ways away. I love telling stories, and as I’ve already said many times (and will say many more times) I believe RPGs are a form of literature just like movies or books or many other media. Role-playing games are a vehicle for me to tell stories, grand narrative epics that span time and space and make people question what it means to be human. Or at least, that’s my lofty ideal. It’s pretty rare that an RPG actually achieves that ideal, but you know what? I think that’s ok. Not every book or movie achieves that ideal either, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t teach us things. But, in some ways I think that RPGs have even more potential to achieve that ideal than a book does, because it allows a person to inject herself into the story and actually experience the consequences of hard decisions in a way that you don’t from reading a book.
  2. Creativity: This is actually pretty closely related to the goal of “narrative” for me, but is subtly different. For me, I enjoy the creative process of designing a new world, of writing the history of civilizations that have risen and fallen, of wars won and lost, gods battling in the heavens, the steady march of science and progress. For me, this process forces me to ask questions about humanity instead of questions about humans. In other words, it’s no longer about how individuals respond to threats, but about how society responds to threats. You might think these are the same thing, but in fact they’re not. There are different pressures that move society than move the individuals who make up the society, and it’s fun for me to try to understand and direct those pressures.
  3. Challenge/Fellowship: So this top-three list is really a top-four list, because the categories of “challenge” and “fellowship” are pretty closely tied for me. I do enjoy a good challenge, most of the time—my brain is wired to solve puzzles, and more than that to solve puzzles optimally. So I think a lot about “What’s the best way to overcome this obstacle?” or “What’s the most challenging obstacle I can overcome?” or “What’s the most challenging obstacle I can make someone else overcome?” This is basically my day job, as well—in order to succeed as a mathematician and computer science, I need to have an intricate, detailed understanding of why a problem is challenging, and what the best way to overcome it is.

    On the other hand, a big part of the reason why I like RPGs is just the fact that I can spend 2-4 hours a week hanging out with some really dang cool people. I’ve been pretty lucky to find a group of friends who have fun doing the same sorts of things I like to do, and one of those is play games. So right now, I’m spending two different nights out of my week hanging out with friends and playing board games or role-playing games, and it’s just a good chance to relax and enjoy each others’ company.

Of course, really when I look at the list of “fun categories”, I can think of lots of circumstances where I’ve had fun in each of those different categories. So it’s a bit disingenuous to just say that the above four are my top three fun categories—I have different types of fun in different circumstances, just like everybody else does. But I do think it’s fair to say that, given complete freedom and flexibility in the types of fun I would like to have the most, the above four are my top three.

So anyways—this concludes my two-part series on what role-playing is and why I like it. Future posts in this category are going to go into a lot more detail about specific games that I’ve been a part of, and lessons that I’ve learned from them. You might find that interesting, or it might not be interesting at all, depending on what type of content you are hoping for from this blog. But I have lots of other stuff coming up too, so hopefully you’ll be able to find something to read that you enjoy, or at least that is thought-provoking.

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