Since I wrote my essay for Baen early this year, I’ve continued to navel-gaze about rpgs. I’m far from having exhausted the topic for myself. Here are some of the strongest conclusions about them that I’ve arrived at:
1. They’re a group exploration of the artistic process, especially plot and narrative. Rpgs democratize storytelling. Few people have the skill to write an engaging story, and even those with talent need to labor for years in isolation to develop it. Rpgs let anyone make an artistic contribution, even those inept at socializing and overly literal in their approach to narrative. It’s easy to look in on an rpg session and sneer about how goofy the attempted storytelling is, but it’s not a spectator sport. We’re trained to be consumers of polished art and rarely if ever producers. If you’re in the right group and have the right attitude, you might find yourself properly challenged and realize there’s something to the activity, after all.
Admittedly, rpgs’ function as art-practice is ambivalent. Unless a group or at least a GM has some awareness of or sensitivity to this dimension, the players will never get better and their experience will stagnate.
I got into D&D as a kid because it seemed to be the golden high road toward storytelling mastery, if not a shortcut. It’s not, only a rough map. If you want to get really good at it, you need to incorporate it into a more general project of learning narrative, character, and point of view. In some ways, it makes doing art harder. I explored this in my YA gamer novel, posted on my blog, where my protagonist’s mother, a college professor, gives a lofty critique of roleplaying games:
“I’ve watched a little of this game,” Steve’s mom said. “The creativity is healthy and the improv builds communication skills, but it’s not art. And I’ll tell you why. The setting is dictated by the storyteller. And if characters have their viewpoint fed to them, they’re necessarily shallow. For instance,” she looked up past the rising smoke, “in a novel, the viewpoint character might feel oppressed by a starry sky because it’s so cold, because she’s having trouble with her marriage, and because that’s the kind of person she is, or if she’s feeling happy, she might think it’s wonderful, or she might not see the stars at all. If Charles tells you what your character thinks, he takes her out of your control. Whose story is it? Is it anyone’s story really, or are the characters just empty masks the players put on? I’m curious how you could explore a literary story this way.” Her tone, however, was anything but curious.
2. They are a “play activity,” which is fundamental to mammalian neurology: practicing life skills, like negotiation and tactics –and, among humans, both strategizing and the mechanics of storytelling –in a context of low risk, both physical and social.
3.They let us personally and dynamically engage with mythic archetypes. Centering ourselves in myth is what makes us human — it’s what we evolved to do: posse up and win treasure and status in a monster-haunted landscape, learning how to balance personal with group goals in service to our “gods,” broadly defined. Rpgs counter the alienating forces of secular, industrialized society.
An rpg is really scaffolding to bring people together in a shared storytelling activity. Tons of critiques, like mine here, exist, but it seems there’s a gap between the mechanics and my abstract analysis. There should be a roadmap for improving the narrative in rpgs, a twelve-step course or something; I hint at this in my essay. Maybe that’s something I’ll take up here. I share some people’s misgivings about calling MMOs rpgs. They commodify the rpg impulse and if people are attracted to what rpgs really have to offer, they should recognize them as a distraction from the true roleplaying dynamic and largely an abdication of your personal artistic role.