What’s It For, Roleplaying?

This roleplaying game you’re running or taking part in… what’s it for?

The pat answer, the easy answer, is “to have fun”. For many gamers that might be the extent of their answer. I mean, what else are games for… right?

According to the MDA Design approach there are eight types of fun – eight Engagements – that draw gamers to games. Admittedly, this theory comes from computer gaming but I think it marries up quite nicely with the RPG world:

  • Challenge, Discovery, Expression, Fantasy, Fellowship, Narrative, Sense Pleasure, Submission.

On the surface of it we might conclude that the reason we are playing these games is because they hit one or more of those engagements. For me, there’s a lot of those buttons that get hit by playing in a roleplaying session. This makes RPGs a good, engaging activity for me.

Never mind that most people don’t know which engagements they prefer. Most gamers haven’t heard of these anyway, many of those who have think it’s a load of crap, and the remainder are probably not self-aware enough to know how to answer if you ask them about it. Never mind all of that. We are playing for fun… right?

I’m not so sure that’s all there is to it.

At least, speaking for myself, I am completely sure that there is much more to it than just fun.

Is there more going on than minis, maps, dice, and rules?

I think we play roleplaying games to create community. Not the abstract, highly-conceptual idea of community that gets talked about all of the time these days. I am talking about the community that is all about getting to know a small group of people whom we genuinely come to understand and care about over time. Given that this is why I do almost anything I love, it’s no surprise that roleplaying games appeal to me.

Uniquely, roleplaying games allow us to role-shift in a safe environment. This role-shifting isn’t terribly new: we all play different roles in our daily lives, naturally moving from one to another. But in a roleplaying group we get take on the role of a character we wouldn’t ordinarily – in everyday life – be allowed to play. I, for example, enjoy shifting into the Rogue or the Wizard because I don’t get to break laws – whether of the land or of physics – in my everyday life.

What makes the roleplaying game different is that it forms a recent permutation of the traditional role-shifting involved in artistic expression, such as the parts traditionally played by artists or performers. We just get to do it with our friends and in a less-formal manner. With lower stakes for everyone. Frankly, the acting and performing is optional. The roleplay is what matters – the making decisions in-role together.

We do this role-shifting together in a communal setting through the ritual enactment of “the game”. From this activity, we get to construct a narrative – what some people call a story – in a collaborative format. This in turn allows us to use the deep archetypal images that are drawn from the well of myths, epics, and fairy tales.

Doing this ritual of role-shifting together draws us closer as people. We learn to accept one another as individuals through experimenting with the various roles we can each assume. We subconsciously let go of the idea that identity is fixed and learn to embrace difference at the gaming table.

This whole process is awfully enjoyable! It’s a great release from the “reality” that envelopes our everyday life and it opens up possibilities for new ways to experience life. Over time, we come to deeply appreciate the different people we have joined in the ritual of play. We can enjoy their creativity and playfulness. It’s a vital alternative to the seriousness of everyday living.

So, what’s it for? It’s for transcending the mundanity of everyday roles and transforming our interior selves. It’s for learning to accept one another as creative human beings, for journeying into each other’s mythic psyches as we join in shared fantasy. It’s an act of art created in the rituals of the gaming table.

When we explore deeper, we can see that roleplaying games hold a greater potential than simply challenge, discovery, expression, fantasy, fellowship, narrative, sense pleasure, or submission at the end of a rough day. These games can help us to reach into our collective selves and become something greater together.

Or, yeah, it might be just so we can “have fun”. And roll dice.

Game on!

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