Most people are familiar with tabletop roleplaying games. Most people have never played one. Most people who know about them and haven’t played are curious about them.
Most people who want to play them (but don’t) feel put off by the “gamer” stereotype: a slovenly dude who has poor hygiene, non-existent social skills, and a difficulty relating to women and minority groups that aren’t represented in their game group(s). In my gaming past, I have encountered many people who fit pretty neatly into this stereotype. I have also met: a pro surfer, pro fighters, scientists, professors, soldiers, corporate executives, pro comedians, published authors, police officers, a life coach, a rabbi, and even an almost-famous pro runway model.
Needless to say, the stereotype isn’t entirely true, but it persists because it is represented by a large group of people and game companies have traditionally had to cater to the largest groups so that they can survive. There’s no shame in that.
While preparing my own tabletop RPG (Eldritch Heroes) for a Kickstarter launch, I have witnessed two of my hottest passions collide: Self-Development and Game Design.
One of the things I love most about tabletop roleplaying is that it is a form of entertainment in which a group of people engage their imaginations in a shared exploration of fantasy by playing pretend. There are rules (because grown-ups need them in order to have a smooth experience), but, in an ideal situation, playing pretend takes center stage. Designing a setting like Eldritch Heroes gives people a “place” to imagine and characters and themes to anticipate and explore together.
When I have playtested this game with people who have never roleplayed before, the results have been astounding: within 15 minutes, adults are pretending to be fictional characters having a fantastical adventure, sharing their imaginations by talking and interacting with a fictional world — and affecting it by playing, witnessing the results of their actions on the game world over time.
I don’t like talking bad about “competitors”, but I have to point out a few reasons why this incredibly fun activity (better than TV, in my opinion) has never fully impacted the mainstream, despite “geek culture” dominating it:
- Antiquated Rule Systems: Dungeons & Dragons (the crusty grandpa who got this style of game started) based its rules off wargaming and its player development hinged on collecting “experience points”, primarily by killing as much as possible and collecting “loot”. While it wasn’t the intent of the designers, this mechanics choice encourages psychotic behavior, such as murder, robbery, and even genocide (certain monsters were traditionally portrayed as “irrevocably evil”).
- Impact of CRPGs: The rise of RPG-ish games on consoles and home computers reinforced misanthropic behavior by treating non-player creatures as “mobs” to be exterminated and anything not nailed down as “loot” to collect.
- Cliches Abound: The Tolkien cliche of “orcs vs. elves”, while fresh when D&D was young in the 1970s, tends to be tired and dismal for all but the most hardcore of devoted gamers. And it adds to the “us vs them — with violence” vibe RP-ing has been stuck with for decades. And the cheesy goth cliches that have seeped into many gaming groups hasn’t helped.
- Unrealistic Character Development: Most level-based systems (such as D&D) gradually turn players’ characters into near-invincible god-like beings, who are literally unable to relate to “ordinary” non-player-characters (the people who populate the world). Playing an unassailable character might be fun for people with low self-esteem, but for the rest of us, it gets boring fast. Having to make difficult choices is part of what makes roleplaying fun. When every choice hits the same note, what’s the point?
- Stinky Britches: The stereotypical player, referenced at the beginning of this post, really does inhibit “normal” people from exploring fantasy roleplaying. Who wants to hang out with a person who smells bad and doesn’t know how to communicate like a functional human? How about a group of them?
- Cultural Stigma: In the past, when RPG-ing was poised to enter the mainstream, religious groups attacked it because of it’s “outsider” imagery. While outsider imagery is now comfortably mainstream (even among most devoutly religious folks), for many people the stigma remains.
Despite these challenges, I believe that this type of game can be used not only as an artfully nourishing form of entertainment, but as a tool for self-development.
- …an escape from glowing screens and the feeling of “working while playing” that digital entertainment often reeks of, now that most people are on computers and devices as part of their jobs.
- …the chance to create — and encounter — characters that challenge our assumptions, comfort zones, and preconceived notions about the concepts of gender, race, economics, politics, ethics/morality, identity itself, the environment and almost anything else under the sun by giving us the opportunity to give life to the “other” by portraying it in a constructive light, without the obstacles that doing so with real world versions of “the other” might present. In other words, we can learn to be flexible and adaptive without having to directly confront our assumptions and inhibitions, by exploring them from a make-believe angle in a first-person point of view.
- …a creative, stress-relieving playtime activity that allows us to explore ideas, interests, and habits with others while having fun.
- …an activity that encourages self-reflection and self-development without the sucking influence of pure self-interest. We get the chance to pretend to be heroes and villains and to explore the psychology of what that means to us without the complications posed by real-world catastrophe and failure.
- …an opportunity to explore our psyches and the real-world implications of our personalities, biases, and beliefs as they (mostly-unconsciously) manifest in a game of pretend with other people who are experiencing the same thing.
- …a way of simulating the perspective of “being a hero in your own story” and growing accustomed to behaving heroically so that it becomes habitual.
- …and a whole lot more. Did I mention that it’s more fun than television? Because when it’s done well with great people, it is. No, really. It is. Especially when it’s played with an awesome game system (*cough cough*… ahem).
Alright, I wrote a book here, so it’s time to wrap it up.
The Kickstarter launch is on its way. I’ll keep you posted.
If you’re curious about roleplaying and want to know more, check out my “Intro to Roleplaying” PDF. It’s short, sweet, and to the point. And it’s Free.
And, whatever you do, keep going. If you improve yourself by at least an inch every day, you’ll get what you want in life (or something better, because you’ll be flexible enough to grow and evolve).
I guarantee it.