The Ephemeral Joy of RPGs

I meant to write a long post-TotalCon blog entry. It would have talked about how the Rebel Scum came to a satisfying conclusion with Vader allowing them to assassinate Tarkin in order to get them in the open and then eviscerating them one by one. It would have mentioned the absolute insane joy of The Battle of the Colliseum, in which 3 teams competed with one another to please the Gods and managed to raise $1000 for Children’s Miracle Network in the process. It would have even admitted the absolute exhausted, hung over session of PSINAUT Sunday morning turned out better than expected thanks to some patient players and the fast, furious fun of the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition rules.

But, I forgot. or I put it off.

Or, more likely than any of those things, the immediate bliss of those events had faded and I went on to experience other, different forms of the same with my weekly DargonHeist and Hell on Earth games.

One thing I have begun to understand about the tabletop role-playing experience is how ephemeral it is — and how that is a good thing. For me, even, it is the main draw. One can watch a movie or listen to an album or read a book over and over again. For the very good examples of those forms, those repeat engagements provide new experiences, but for most it is simply good enough to return to the shadow of the experience of watching, hearing or reading it for the first time. Tabletop RPGs are not like that. There are no repeat viewings, even if you play the same adventure over again. The people are different, or the time is different or you are different. because it is improvisational, it would be impossible to recreate the adventure even if played literally moments after finishing it the first time, with the same people in the same place.

I can’t quite articulate why, but I feel this is important. This ephemeral joy that RPGs bring is, to me, a fundamental draw. It may be the only part of the experience that truly differentiates it from all other forms of entertainment. There are lots of interactive forms of entertainment, and many ways to engage in fantasy play. But tabletop RPGs, relying as they do on a combination of player improv and randomizers, can do something not even really good MMORPGs online can do: they create a completely unique experience that cannot be repeated or effectively captured.

Some may balk at that last assertion. Yes, Critical Roll and other streaming, YouTube and podcast series are very popular. But even though people have found entertainment in observing others play, they are not themselves playing and therefore are not experiencing that ephemeral, interactive joy. Watching Critical Roll might be more meaningful for a gamer because they can imagine how they might feel were they playing, but ultimately they aren’t playing. Nor is the experience ephemeral — one can always cue it up on YouTube and watch a favorite episode or scene over again. As such, I think shows like Critical Roll kind of swing wide of the point of the RPG hobby. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge them their success or the fans their enjoyment, but it’s essentially TV, as “real” and “unscripted” as an episode of Survivor.

So what? Well, first and foremost this: if you are hungry for an experience like you cannot get from any other form of entertainment, I implore you to give tabletop role-playing a try. Whatever else the experience will provide, it is guaranteed to give you something completely unique every time you sit down at the table (virtual or otherwise). Second, if you are an active player or DM watching streamers and wondering why your game isn’t that good — stop. That experience happening on screen is a form of entertainment built for an audience. What you are doing at your table is far superior, even if it doesn’t come with the best voice actors in the business. And finally, if you are a lapsed player or DM — come back. We want you back and your love of the medium will flare back to life like a campfire in a windstorm. It has never been easier for far flung friends to play online, and D&D has never been more in the public eye in a positive way. Seek out a game store, a club at the local library or start a game night at the local watering hole.

Just because the experience is ephemeral and hard to articulate to those that weren’t there does not mean it is a lesser experience. Play.