Last week I was struck by a deep exhaustion when I realized literally every discussion topic about roleplaying I’ve read in the past six months has come from the same short list for at least 20 years, and probably longer than that. Thirty? I started chatting about ttrpgs on Usenet in the early ‘90s and honestly? The discourse sounds about the same.
The discourse isn’t evolving. Because of several factors, it can’t evolve. At best, the same list of topics will re-emerge on a fairly regular cycle as new generations of players come in.
To my mind — and based on many decades of experiencing this flat circle — the most important factor is that nobody can agree about what gaming is for. And yet we continue to feel compelled to not only to evangelize folks to our perspective, but end up speaking for other folks along the way. More than one community/scene/influencer (ugh) has tripped over this! Even when you’re being nice, speaking on behalf of someone else is a sure way to start some shit.
A Short List
I thought a bit about all the reasons I have ever roleplayed. It turns out to be the same list of reasons I’ve ever engaged with sports, either as a competitor or fan. So: take my iffy sports-tinged analogies with a grain of salt. But maybe also think more about what gaming is for for you rather than other folks. You know, the ones you only read about online. The scenes you’re trying to understand. The folks that piss you off even when they have literally zero impact on any moment of your hobby.
Games are for exercise: usually not the physical kind, of course, but roleplaying can certainly exercise imagination, problem-solving, socializing, math skills, darned near anything. If you use it in a game, you can get better at it.
Games are for hanging out: guys, especially, seem to need an excuse to hang out. If you love socializing but need something more than, you know, other humans, tabletop roleplaying is a fine activity. Parallel play is a thing, and maybe it’s just the thing you need.
Games are for challenging yourself: plenty of folks use the table to try new things, experiment with interpersonal stuff, or to master rules. Tabletop roleplaying is uniquely safe for many challenges, particularly at home with a trusted table.
Games are for taking a break: but what if you have no interest in getting better? Improvement is only necessary if you decide it’s necessary. Plenty of folks show up to bowling leagues or softball and play like rank amateurs. But they’re hanging out, and that’s awesome. (Maybe not so awesome on a team of go-getters, though – same applies at roleplaying tables.)
Games are for winning: if you like the thrill of competition, either against other players or whatever obstacles a facilitator has cooked up, you can play an RPG to do that. There’s a deep rabbit hole one can go down thinking about how fair that competition can be, given the authorial asymmetry of players and GM. Given a fair-minded facilitator, it’s hard to beat the human inventiveness and mediation of a traditional GM when it comes to open-ended problem-solving.
Games are for watching: maybe you’re not into competing so much as watching other folks compete. Or perform. Or just do something they’re good at. Roleplaying is a participation activity but there’s plenty of time and bandwidth at most tables for just watching how things play out. Indeed, sometimes I wish players would take a little more interest in other folks’ play! It’s easy to be too far in your own head to even acknowledge anyone else’s performance.
Games are for feeling things: if books and movies and any other art form can evoke emotional responses, roleplaying certainly can. It’s one of my favorite ways of getting at a rough approximation of feelings I might not ever otherwise experience. At the very least, roleplaying can provide social context in a way that’s hard to imagine when it’s just your brain doing the imagining.
Games are for leaving your feelings behind: there’s also something to be said for pure escapism. Maybe you don’t want to feel anything in particular when you play. Or you prefer the absence of your day’s/life’s emotional load.
Games are for putting on a show: sometimes it’s just fun to entertain someone else. This is one of my primary motivators when I’m running a game, both at home and at conventions. I don’t always strive to make my players feel things or make any great realizations. It’s just nice to show someone a good time.
Games are for expressing yourself: this is related to the prior bit, but it’s also more personal. It’s not about the show so much as about you. Your opportunity to create something and share it with friends. To make a point. Be didactic about something you care deeply about. Editorialize.
Games are for high-fiving each other: you want to celebrate something shared? Game around it! We all love silver-age superheroes? High five! We all love space romps? Fuck yeah! Strong female protagonists? Glorantha? Community building? Punching Nazis? It’s all good. It’s all gameable.
EDIT (5/16/20) Games are for daydreaming: this came up via reader Chris Shorb on the Indie Game Reading Club Slack and it’s so pertinent. Sometimes you just want to read about a place or a situation or even a set of procedures and just…dream about stuff. It’s not for anyone else. It’s for you. Heaven knows I’ve got shelves and shelves of games that exist, for me, only to be read. An entire decade of game books were (arguably) published for just this purpose. I’ve got enormous coffee-table books that serve the same purpose. This one begs the question of whether a game is a thing or an activity, of course: if you’re daydreaming, are you actually gaming? (Not that my daydreaming has any effect, like, at all on your game.)
And of course…
Everyone plays for more than one reason. Probably folks play for a little bit of all these reasons. But game talk gets weird when you start asserting that your particular mix of reasons is the best, or that someone else’s is the worst. It just ain’t so. It’s not true for any human activity, and it’s not true for roleplaying. Knock it off.
What is true is that all good things can be misused. Food, sex, money, freedom and, yes, even games. High-fiving each other is awesome! High-fiving each other because you’re celebrating how you’re better than someone else? Not awesome. Love improving your craft and you’re mad that someone you’re playing with isn’t? That’s probably worth talking about, if you think they’re holding you back. And vice-versa, if you’re just there to chill and they’re hard-chargers.
Death to the discourse! Long live the discourse! Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.