The Right Kind of Serious

My Favorite Paradox

So I’m sitting at my car dealer, it’s fall break, and I’ve got a fair sliver of grown-up time to kill. I’m thinking about the core paradox of role-playing, as one does.

The core paradox as I see it is this: to get something out of this thing of ours, you need to take it seriously. But you also need to hold it at arm’s length, and grant it no more importance than you can afford. It’s just a game! And/but because it’s just a game, you can really dig in hard.

Obviously everyone’s balance here is gonna be different. I have the emotional and intellectual bandwidth to take it all fairly seriously, but I also know that most other participants in my world can’t. If I can’t bridge that, then nobody gets what they want, right? “It’s cool, no problem, just a game” is my go-to release valve for irregular attendance, personal emergencies, low stoke. But it’s also kind of a letdown to be reminded once again that I’m probably the only one nursing my investment level.

It’s probably what makes conventions so rewarding for me. I’m among others who are spending nontrivial time and money on this ridiculous thing. I’m not alone!

It’s probably also what makes our thing weird and unapproachable to outsiders, even casuals who understand how it works. Is it really just a game, Paul? You talk about it like it’s your favorite movie/book/show (oh you have no idea). I know I’ve run up against that pitching small side games with my wife: take it just a little more seriously, but no worries, it’s not really that serious.

I don’t think this is stance stuff. I’m not talking about specific engagement and disengagement with various potential investment levels. I’m thinking about the whole enchilada.

Maybe it’s as simple as a (probably dysfunctional and perfectionist) lesson I internalized as a kid: anything worth doing is worth doing well.

Maybe! Maybe not.

0 thoughts on “The Right Kind of Serious”

  1. Yeah. There’s a lot going on here.

    The social engagement — agreeing to meet with other people for an amount of time — should be honored like any other commitment. Of course if something comes up that is more important, you do that thing. But, you still honor the commitment by letting people know. Flaking is crap.

    Taking the game seriously while you are there is another thing. A thing I think is important, as how else can you get to the feels and experience that are best. How else can you generate stories to discuss days, weeks, months, even years later. You have to take the process seriously to do that.

    The two inform each other — if you don’t take the commitment seriously, then I don’t buy you can take the game seriously, either.

  2. But you also need to hold it at arm’s length…


    “Anything worth doing is worth doing well” has always been burned into my brain, and I would think that any activity that demanded a nontrivial amount of time and effort would, by definition, be taken seriously.

    The release-valve/letdown thing seems more like a conflict of agendas to me — you’re playing with people who do not value your hobby as much as you do. We’ve all dealt with that. But, honestly, the only functional solution I’ve found for that is to stop playing with those people. Heck, that’s one of the reasons my old Saturday group imploded.

    I mean, I get the “Hey, it’s just a game” valve for when someone has to bow out because of a real-life priority — parenthood has totally made me one of those people. (And it happens regularly at Gameday; the day of, someone inevitably texts me that they have to cancel their event because of work or a family thing.)

    But, shit, if I’m investing serious time pulling a game together, other people better appreciate that. Seems to me no different from appreciating the work your host has put into the fancy dinner party you’re attending.

  3. Yes. To all of it. One of my favourite problems. Also: leads to me having problems running anything deeper than mind-less dungeon crawls and wondering why I’m not just playing a boardgame that does the same thing. But when I switch to boardgames I don’t get to read all these cool books I never get to play. And so I try again. And the circle repeats.

  4. Mark Delsing arm’s length because if you don’t, you’ll play protectively and not expansively.

    (Shut up, those are both words. I have the best words.)

    And because, in the end, it really is still just a game. Except that it isn’t. Hence the post.

  5. Jeebus Christmas. This exact thing has been rolling around in my head for past couple of months. It’s Just A Game should be the name of a pbta game about your role-playing games getting interrupted by LIFE.

  6. What I just said.

    I’m not understanding why you’re not understanding. It feels like the edge of a definitions argument but I’m also trying to be as charitable as possible.

  7. I don’t think this core paradox applies to all players. I know I don’t need to be seriously “immersed” as a character to really get hit by some important choice they make or action they take.

    As a side ways analogy: The Sept of Balor was a big event, and I watched it with friends. I had some who were shocked, some who hid their faces, and others who laughed. I don’t think those that laughed are somehow less invested in the thing.

    Put another way, I’m not sure “taking it seriously” is a sign of true investment. I think participation is the only signal we have for investment.

  8. It definitely is not “just a game”. It’s a performance! And of course you want to do a good job when you perform for your friends, and you get embarrassed when you don’t, even though they will always forgive and support you in your progress.

    A hundred years ago at our social gatherings we might have not seen anything odd at all about performing a skit or a piece of music for each other. Mass media has made it so that it is normal to invite (recordings of) professionals to do this, and abnormal to do it yourself. Why would you want the amateurism of it when you could be experiencing a much more professional version? Well, for the same reasons and motivations that amateur sports remains interesting, viable and good in a world with the MLB network and on-demand streaming of every NFL game ever played. Because it’s good to do these things, not to just experience them.

  9. Yet another post of yours that really speaks to me.

    I’ve got a great home game (when it can actually manifest attendance), but the one thing I would wish for is just a little more heart, just a little more taking the stakes of the thing seriously.

    I hear you when you say that you don’t feel that’s it’s a stance you’ve got, but I find myself wondering if it’s a temperament thing. (Apparently people do temperament research.) I stumbled across the concept reading Raising Your Spirited Child, which is rather excellent reading if you feel like you have a kid that is just a little more juiced up than the typical model. Anyway, the idea is that some of us are built psychologically/physiologically with more RPMs… not necessarily smarter, but more intense, more sensitive to things, more persistent, etc. I can’t really unpack the whole book in a post, but it’s helped us make sense of our 4.5 year-old, and has helped me re-contextualize my own hard-headedness about things in my life.

    Anyway, maybe you’re just a person built with a certain kind of motor, and you’ve managed to adjust your expectations to fit the world… but you’re never really going to be comfortable with those lowered expectations. Not really. And that’s great! Because you’ll always be chasing those special moments… or sessions… that only happen when the stars are right.

  10. Maybe this was implied but in my experience the “everyone’s balance is gonna be different” applies to the other side of the alleged paradox vis a vis “arm’s length”

    Like for me I get very little out of a game held at arm’s length these days and I’m not likely to make time for it. My holding a game close & taking it seriously doesn’t result in protective play but expressive play.

  11. I want different things out of gaming at different times, sometimes at the same times. Engagement, escape, social time, mechanical exploration, commitment, show-boating, art, and much more I’m sure.

    Sometimes these things clash. I get upset when people flake, but then sometimes I half-ass my prep or don’t care halfway through a campaign. Sometimes I only want to sit at a table with grognards so we can all really get into the shit. Other times those tables piss me off because I want to play with new players.

    It’s hard to find the right mix, when I’m also a variable factor.

  12. Between last year and this past summer, this whole issue led me to declare repeatedly that I was going to “quit gaming.” I tried to tell myself “it’s just a game,” but I didn’t want to hold the games, the hobby, the act of play itself at arm’s length. I would never get my friends to commit as much, though. And “just stop playing with those people” is impractical advice when the whole point has historically been that this is a thing I love doing with my friends.

    I guess my solution has been too redefine for myself what counts as the game, and who I regard as friends and fellow players. Much like you appreciate cons for giving you the chance to interact with others who care as much, I realized I could still find others who care here on Google+. And I came to realize that the hobby isn’t just the act of play, for me, but the act of reading, designing, chatting with folks about ideas. Play might be too hard to arrange as often as I’d like, so I’ll have to find other ways to engage, because at the end of the day, it’s not “just a game” to me no matter how I try to downplay it for me own sanity. But it’s also not something I want to quit – I love this. The problem is that I just need to find more people I can share it with, and more ways to share it.

    It’s a slow process, but thinking about it this way has helped a lot in the meantime.

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