What Makes RPGs So Special: A Confession
There is an undeniable something about roleplaying games that keeps us coming back week after week, year after year. And any of you die hard fans that have stopped RPGs for any length of time, know that after awhile you yearn to enter back into the hobby. No other replacement hobby, activity or pasttime quite has the same effect. I know, because I looked.
Reading the Foreword of the PHB brought this to mind again, and I wanted to take a slight divergence in this entry and get self reflective again. If anything, that speaks to the nature of my blog anyway: self reflection on gaming. So Mike Carr makes the following comments,
"As diverse as this melange of enthusiasts is, they all seem to share one commonality: a real love for Dungeons & Dragons and a devotion that few other games can claim. This remarkable loyalty is a great factor in the game's explosion of popularity, and Dungeons & Dragons has become a gaming cult, as avid D&Ders have ceaselessly "spread the gospel", enrolling new players in expanding groups which just seems to grow and grow."
What is this quality that Carr alludes to here? What engenders the devotion and makes it so powerful among its adherents? Well, Gary Gygax speaks to this in his book Roleplaying Mastery when he says,
"However, roleplaying games, by their nature, call upon the participants to develop a deeper involvement in the activity than any other type of game might require. Many of those with the time and inclination to indulge in such a demanding but fulfilling pasttime become avid players. A roleplaying game, instead of being an idle activity only engaged in when the weather is wet or cold, quickly becomes one of highly active and eager participation. The deep involvement and commitment shared by all enthusiasts is indeed a contributing reason for the popularity of roleplaying games."
Gary also admits to three other reasons that RPGs engender such interest, citing the fact they they are fun, and cooperative in nature and then he says something else of particular note here,
"Participation in roleplaying games requires mental effort, particularly imagination. This is no surprise, neither are roleplaying games distinctive for this reason. ...
The difference with roleplaying games is that they ask all the participants to exercise this creative ability. Role games ... require participation not only in the mechanics of play but also (and to a far greater extent) in the subject matter of play. All participants actually have important and demanding creative roles in such games, and their imaginative input is increased as long-term participation evolves.
This means that an ongoing roleplaying game, referred to as a campaign, alters from its original form into an amalgam of the printed game and the creative imagination of the group involved. As more is brought into the game by its participants during the play of adventures, or scenarios, that take place in the context of the campaign, they derive more from the game at the same time. ... Enjoyment grows as the game matures and becomes more complex and as the campaign's unique and independent personality develops. The game campaign actually alters to become the cooperative effort of the game manufacturer and the group playing it. In this way, the game, in each particular manifestation of itself, takes on a life of its own."
Now, if you've read and understood the implication and the depth of those words you can begin to see much in regards to the current state of gaming affairs worldwide. You can see why it has occurred and why it is a danger to the hobby as well. We are victims of our own imaginations--of their power and their uniqueness. But that is not the real reason I want to reflect on this matter right now. I want to make it more personal.
As any of you know who follow my blog with any degree of regularity I have a devil of a time making my mind up. I started gaming in 1981, and whether it's nostalgia or preference I like the way games were done back then. But what am I really looking for? I don't think it is nostalgia. It's that world born of the shared experience Gygax talks about, that was so vivid and intense in my youth. I haven't had that since about 1992. And honestly, it stayed as a very real part of me until 2005 when I actively started gaming again. It lived on in my memory.
My gaming situation now is very cyclical. I rarely have the same gamers at my table for more than 3 years. And rarely play the same game for more than a year. And truthfully it feels like it restarts every Septemeber and stops every April. The length and power of its collective life is short and never really able to achieve the heights I previously enjoyed.
This has given me pause the past day or two to really consider what it is I'm about with my gaming. For just like the post above, the rules don't even really matter all that much. Yes, they do matter, and edition or version or game does have an effect on play, as Gary alluded. The manufacturer of the game is at least a part of the world that grows out of play. But the whole is greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
And something else has come to mind as well. As I participated in the discussion of the creation of 5e at WoTC, I became very frustrated by the direction the game appeared to be taking. For some time I could see that many of the questions they are asking, and problems they are facing had been addressed and solved in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons over 30 years ago. Why couldn't they just see it? I asked myself. It made me quite frustrated, mad actually. But it has only been in the past day or two that I've truly realized they want to create a different game--a different way of doing it. They don't want old answers. Is there anything really wrong with this? No. It may or may not be better--but it will be different.
And here I am rereading my old AD&D books, self righteously telling myself that I'm gonna stick with the way things were "meant" to be. But I'll tell you something. I've felt pretty lonely lately. There is currently only one gamer, young man I know in our gaming club that even wants to play 1e. He's 13 and his dad gave him his books. It's a start, eh? Even though I don't even know the man (his Dad), I could reach out. But why? I've a whole group of gamers avidly dedicated to Pathfinder and that quickly growing collective Universe.
When I had decided I wouldn't play Pathfinder any longer, one young man was quite despondent. He was an 8th grader and in my class for kids who are behind in math. He had bought his own PF books, and read them assiduously. He would ask endless questions about spells, combat maneuvers, campaign details, how a wizard could become a lich, and on and on. He would stand near me when I did hall duty, or catch me between classes, and finish his math as quickly as possible to talk PF. He wanted to talk endlessly about Pathfinder, his PCs and what would be coming next in the campaign.
I realized early on that he was seeking to immerse himself in the game. He had caught that unmistakable gaming bug that Gary wrote about above. He was investing the time to become deeply involved in his hobby, in gaming culture. There is nothing wrong with this of course. As Gary said, such involvement allows the player to reap greater rewards for his participation. It is what I was looking for as well. The only thing was, I was trying to leave PF behind. So, though I entertained his questions and conversation, I was thinking in the back of my mind that I wanted to focus on a different game. That I didn't want to invest my time in PF. Accordingly I didn't get near as much out of our interactions as I might otherwise have. I also recall feeling a little cheated, and alone in my gaming tastes. There was noone to share my gaming thoughts and questions with.
And now I remember those emotions and experiences thinking, here I sit with my AD&D books and no interaction. My own brother, who I correspond with quite regularly, is heavily involved with 4e and his campaigns there, and the 5e playtest. Both of which I've left behind. When we talk there is a loneliness in me, a separation. A fracturing. I try and connect his thoughts with AD&D, but it just doesn't quite work. I'm not getting the same out of it.
And though I read my 1e books, and write my thoughts about what Mike Carr and Gary Gygax and others wrote those 40 years ago. I'm left a little cold; and the experience is a more than a little sterile. I feel more like Randolph Carter in "The Silver Key" searching for something that isn't a part of this world.
Why this is, is quite clear to me now. I'm not sure what to do about it. But it leaves me with a poignant sort of sadness and a resignation to my fate. Just what that fate is alludes me still, but I'll have to embrace it for fighting fate is folly. Just like Randolph when he, tiring of this world, and yearning for the forgotten world of dreams, takes the key and opens the gate. Leave behind what we knew, to embrace what we have forgotten. But I wax poetic.
The fact is, without a gaming community a gamer is but a reader of gaming books. And I'm not talking about the internet community. There are AD&D fora, and sites a plenty. But the sterile ground of digital interaction dwells on mechanics, and edition wars, and game development and stories of which you are not a part. No, I'm talking about an active group of gamers with which you game. With which you work the magic that is gaming. A long term, deep and imaginative collective of effort and devotion that only gaming groups can know. I've only known one. Long ago started at a bus stop with two young acquaintances in my grade. Quickly grew to four, then six, but always the core four of us living and breathing realms of magic, of deep dungeons and mighty winged dragons and realms of the magical imagination.
And I now look, like a child grown to stale adulthood, for a lost wardrobe entrance. At the back of which is only cold hard unyielding wood. Where, oh where is my silver key? Maybe that's why I'm re-reading my old AD&D books. Maybe I think I've left it there, hidden in the folds of its dusty, yellowed pages. But something very old, and something wiser than I whispers to me: No. That the key is in my heart, and the hearts of those with whom I might game once again. Find them, and together you'll find the gate once more.