Often when I talk to new people the topic of roleplaying games comes up (particularly after I’m asked “so what do you do?”), at which point I learn whether they’re gamers or not. If they’re not I usually get the classic question, “What’s a roleplaying game?” Then I explain about tabletop gaming—most often I define it as “collaborative interactive storytelling, like a mix between improv theater and a staged reading.” Sometimes they ask a few more questions about how it works, but that definition is enough to satisfy most people. But then I may get the follow-up question: “Why?”
Why do we game? It’s a fair question, actually, and especially now with our preponderance of entertainment options. Why game when I could read a book, watch a movie, play a computer game or video game, surf the Web, play cards, play a board game, etc.? What’s so cool about gaming?
There’s the escapism aspect, of course. Had a rotten day at work? Slaughter some orcs or raid an alien enclave. Feel like you’re not getting enough respect in your life? Play the conquering general or the rescuing hero. But most of our other entertainment provides that as well, at least vicariously—you can sit back and imagine you’re John McLane or King Leonidas or Bruce Wayne, or lose yourself in the adventures of Harry Potter or Sebastian or countless others. And many of those other forms provide more immediate escapism, with far less effort. So there must be something more, something else a roleplaying game offers.
The answer, for me, lies in the definition above. Collaborative interactive storytelling. The last part comes first, really. It’s all about storytelling. I’m a storyteller by nature and by trade. It’s what I love to do, in almost any format. I’m good at meeting people because chatting with others is just a form of storytelling, being engaging and interesting and possibly informative. I write novels and comic books because they’re stories. I write roleplaying games because they’re frameworks for stories, mine and others’. And I roleplay because it’s a form of storytelling. I get to develop characters and then set them loose in the game world, following their activities and determining their actions. When I’m running a game I take the characters others create and use those to craft a story, building all the background details and characters but letting the players handle the major figures.
Which leads to the second characteristic. Gaming is interactive. Roleplaying games are the most interactive story form I know. Each player is responsible for creating at least one original character and selecting his or her words and actions. Unlike computer games, where there’s only a limited set of options, in a roleplaying game your character can say or do almost anything. You’re limited only by the environment and your own imagination. Which means that you never know what the other characters are going to do. You can’t predict the outcome of a story because there are all these other people running around within it, each one with his or her own goals and beliefs and skills and plans. Just like in real life, but usually far more dramatic and far more impressive. Each game is a unique experience, a unique story, because even if you start with the exact same storyline the players are going to react differently and so their characters will act differently as well. I used to run games at conventions, and often I would run the same scenario four times over the course of a weekend, each time with a different group of players. And each time the story came out differently. They were even using the same characters, because for con games it’s easier to bring pre-made characters and let the players choose from them. Imagine the possibilities when they’re building the characters from scratch!
And then there is “collaborative.” Roleplaying is a group activity. Even when characters—and sometimes players—are working at cross-purposes, they’re working together to craft the story as a whole. And anything collaborative is by its very nature social. Roleplaying games are intensely social—you gather with your friends and play a game together, usually meeting on a regular basis and playing for several hours each time. That’s something no video game can match—no matter how good the IM interface it’s not the same as sitting around with your friends and talking and joking and making faces at each other throughout the evening.
Other entertainment forms are good in their own way, of course. Novels can give you far more detail about a setting, and more insight into a character’s thoughts and emotions. They paint a detailed picture but allow enough flexibility for you to imagine the scene for yourself, so that ten people can read the same novel and the same general description of the main character but wind up with completely different mental pictures. Movies are visual treats that sweep you up and carry you along with them, leaving little to your imagination but presenting you with a complete story of their own. Computer games and video games allow some interaction and some socializing combined with breathtaking graphics and the ability to play as much as you like, as long as you like, whenever you like.
But for me, at least, none of these capture the same things as a good roleplaying game. None of them allow the same flexibility, the same freedom, the same creativity of expression and storytelling. None of them allow for the same ability to interact with friends and build something together—even card games and board games, which do let you hang out with your friends, don’t let that socializing spill over into the games themselves. Roleplaying games are a unique experience, and offer a degree of interactivity that no other entertainment can match.
And that’s why we game.
Aaron Rosenberg is a novelist, writer, and game designer. He has been roleplaying since he was ten, and writing roleplaying games professionally since 1992. In 2002 he won an Origins Award for his book Gamemastering Secrets, which suggests he may actually know what he’s talking about.