Four Things To Love About RPGs

word cloud courtesy of WordLe.com

Thinking on what I love and hate most about table-top RPGs was actually a lot harder than I would have expected. I’ve been jotting down notes all month, reading up on the other posts in this month’s RPG Blog Carnival, and trying to pin down what it is that I love about the hobby most. I’ve even dug into the academic literature to educate myself a bit on what the current thinking is on game culture and narrative gaming (there are some links at the end you may enjoy).

Well – not so surprisingly – I’ve found it’s not the game itself (or more specifically, any one system). Instead, for me it’s more about the things between the games: community, creative and intellectual challenges, living a gaming lifestyle, and creating a narrative – a collective daydream if you will.

We’ll see how much you agree…

1. Community

Just like playing sports, being trapped in an elevator with strangers, or bitching about work over the water cooler – gaming brings people together and quickly build community among strangers. Among friends, it becomes a life long bond. And studies have shown[1,2] that it’s the face-to-face dynamic that nails it: table-top games own virtual ones from a social interaction standpoint. Beyond RPGs – table top games in general (and… ok even “couchy” console gaming) are powerful mediums to build life long friendships. The kind where you can not see someone for months, years even, and then a single game is all it takes to reconnect. RPGs, in my experience, offer the best of this. Few things can compete with that (expect maybe the aforementioned trapped in the elevator experience).

2. Brain Skillz

Gaming is food for the brain. Your brain loves it – which is why you love it. :) IT’s why I love it. RPGs spark your imagination and work those math skills in really basic (but important!) ways. Gaming sharpens your brain—every time you play. It’s a great way for both left and right brain people to meet up and exercise those noggins too. Heck, there’s even a dating service based on gaming! RPGs also have the added benefit of sharpening your brain every time you plan on playing too. That’s why not everyone is a GM – it’s work to do it well, the good kind of work. All that characterdungeonmonsteradventureraygun designing keeps you sharp – and your friends know it. That’s why being called a geek is now an endearing term among gamers. It means: “you’re smarter than me“.

Which we are…

… because gamers have Brain Skillz.

3. The Secret Handshake of the Table-Top Gaming Subsculture

Nowadays, this is a fallout effect from #1 above (“Community”), but it’s something that’s been the subject of study for over 20 years[3] so I think it’s roots are elsewhere. Nonetheless, you know that moment when you figure out someone you just met, or perhaps even someone you have known for a while, is also a table-top gamer like yourself? You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s like this secret handshake that just magically happens, and then BING! the curtain gets pulled back and you both silently realize “Oh Snap – you’re a gamer too?”. It usually goes like this: you say something that vaguely references something “gamey”, and they respond in-kind with a similarly vague comment. It’s confirmed. This person, even if you have just met them, is Made of Win. This is awesome, and one of my favorite aspects of being a gamer and living the gamer lifestyle. (There’s an excellent, albeit old, discussion of this over at Story Games)

4. Playing the Book, and Changing the Story

People who know me understand that, first and foremost, I’m a “story gamer”. The specific RPG system I play means far less than the narrative. That’s what draws me back to the table. As a GM I love shaping and designing the events around the narrative the players are creating. As a player, few things are more fun for me than feeling like I’m part of an Epic that challenges, or even breaks, the framework of someone else’s story. This is like playing the great book you’ve just read, or changing the story while your reading it. Computer RPGs still don’t have this down. With a cRPG, you’ll always be on the rails; confined to what the designers created (until at least they develop programatic approaches to narrative generation). Being part of the narrative is probably what I love most about RPGs, so I’ll stop here while I’m ahead.

Further Reading Elsewhere

  1. Underwood RW “The friends that game together: A folkloric expansion of textual poaching to genre farming for socialization in tabletop role-playing games” Transformative Works and Cultures v2 (2009)
  2. Caplan C, Williams D, Yee N “Problematic Internet use and psychosocial well-being among MMO players” Computers in Human Behavior 25:6 (2009) p1312
  3. Fine GA “Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social World” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 91, No. 5 (1986), pp. 1219
  4. Dormans J “On the Role of the Die: A brief ludologic study of pen-and-paper roleplaying games and their rules” Game Studies 6:1 (2006)

What is it that you love most about table-top games and RPGs? What’s your secrete gaming handshake?

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