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.

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Immediate Gratification: The Joy of Improvisational Creation

I spent the weekend at Total Confusion 28 where, in addition to general merrymaking and running a Mutant Future duology called Out of the Fridge/Into the Freezer (I will post about that some day soon), I engaged in my third annual attempt to take the (regional) crown of Iron GM. For those not in the know (and too riveted to click the provided link) Iron GM is to tabletop role-playing games (primarily Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) what Iron Chef is to cooking: given a limited amount of time and a collection of disparate, secret-until-it’s-go-time ingredients, you are tasked with creating a convention scenario (you’ll note that the very idea of Iron GM  breaks a lot of those rules) on the spot for real live gamers instead of a panel of professional judges.

 

The whole concept of Iron GM appeals to me. Much of my writing is performed similarly: when I feel the need to create but I can’t muster up any good ideas, I solicit my friends to throw random story elements (settings, protagonists, challenges and so on) at me and then I force myself to write with those elements, finishing a story of between 1000 and 2000 words in an hour or two. The result is always a little rough around the edges, but more often than not, I find that I usually really like at least the concept of the story, if not the particulars of the prose or pacing (two elements that I believe require real polish to get right). Iron GM scratches a similar itch for me, but with one spectacular addition: an audience. Sure, a flash fiction as previously described can garner some atta-boys and “Likes” from friends, but the people at the table in Iron GM are strangers by requirement — at least at the time of the game; some of those players turn out to be lifelong friends.

 

Gamermastering a tabletop role-playing game is one of the most rewarding, if ephemeral, creative undertakings I know. It comes in second to writing simply, I think, because the written word lives on after the act of creation and may even see a much larger than originally intended audience. It might even live forever (for varying definitions of “forever”; even Gilgamesh hasn’t been around forever, since we’re still going on). Bust, as stated, it beats writing on the “immediate gratification” metric, since it requires a group of people to appreciate it (these people happen to be co-authors in this undertaking, of course, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). Many game masters meticulously craft worlds, study rule books and prepare adventures before they actually sit down behind the screen and begin play. I have done that on occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits (which, of course, makes D&D 3.5 a terrible choice, thereby making it a brilliant choice for competition). That is not to say I don’t like rules. I think they are essential to provide a structure where the players feel like they have agency in the game and a way to measure how “fair” the game is. Having to look rules up in the middle of play brings everything grinding to a halt, so fewer rules with consistent implementation serve my purposes better.

 

This is in no small part due to a very important and, frankly, fun aspect of improvisational GMing: the players define the game as much as I. There’s an adage among game masters, paraphrased from improvisational theater: say, “Yes, but…” Players who have a toolset in their hands (i.e. the rules as they relate to their character) and a clear sense of agency (based on the choices you put before them, either implicit or explicit) enhance any game, especially an improvisational one since, well, I might not even know where I am going with this thing. Granted, this is slightly less true during the Iron GM competition, if only because there is a time limit and part of the grading is based on whether the adventure was completed to satisfaction. Two years in a row now, time has run out for me in the boss fight finale.

 

There is a dark side to the immediate gratification I get from improvisational creation, especially the flash writing that I described above. For me, the act of completion, of seeing a story through to its end, is the real joy. To have created such a thing fills me we a sense of accomplishment. But also as I stated above, the real work is in the polish, the cleaning up of the inevitable failures of such a speedy creation: inconsistencies of plot and character, clumsy prose, ideas only hinted at that need fleshing out, and so on. That stuff is hard and, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, I’ve already rolled over, smoked a cigarette and am ready to go to sleep. I have countless (I mean I have never counted them, out of fear of disappointing myself) first draft short stories desperately in need of revision that I have never gone back to simply because they are, emotionally for me anyway, “done.”