The Games We Play
By James M. Spahn
Gamers: A Motley Crew
Table-top role-playing gamers are an odd lot. They gather around a table with tome-like manuals containing odd rules and intimidating charts. Their tools of the trade are funny-looking dice and freshly sharpened pencils. They often speak a language all their own, using terms like “Base Attack Bonus,” “Alignment,” “Sanity Attribute,” and “Blood Pool.” Endless hours are spent pouring over their books and learning complex systems of probability and exotic fictional histories.
Why do they do this? What drives the table-top gamer to spend often obsessive amounts of time learning the rules and nuances of these things when they could, with much less dedication, play a video game or read a novel to generate what to the non-gamer would be a similar experience.
The truth of the matter is that table-top gaming is a great investment. Whether it is time, intellect, or the ever elusive money – gamers are a dedicated lot. But with that dedication comes a great pay-off. Table-top gaming offers a unique experience unlike even the most modern and advanced computer games. It offers a world far more interactive and personal than literature. Table-top gaming is a truly personal experience.
But under the great banner of table-top gaming, there are a diverse number of individual flags and a game for every taste. Below are just a few of the reasons that gamers have a passion for their hobby that can last a lifetime.
Power Fantasy: To carry a sword instead of a walking stick
The most common draw to the table-top role-playing game in the author’s experience is that of the power fantasy. In table top role-playing games, the gamer plays a character who has unique and powerful gifts. Perhaps they are a powerful wizard, capable of conjuring spells from the very fabric of reality. Maybe they are a master computer hacker, where the infinite wells of information of modern and future eras are theirs to mine. They might be a gifted swordsman, able to wield a blade with lightning proficiency. In the end, the gamer typically takes on the role of a character that possesses abilities that they might never have in real life. It is a great wish fulfillment and within this imagined world they are something greater than they believe themselves capable of being in the real world.
This is often associated with “power gaming,” or trying to design the most effective or powerful character possible. But there is a subtle difference. To the simple power gamer, the power itself is an end. To those who play for the power fantasy, it is a great opportunity to explore what it would be like if given gifts beyond the realm of imagination in our reality.
The game most commonly associated with the power fantasy is Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons, with its near infinite set of optional rules to tweak and enhance the abilities of one’s character. But to limit the power fantasy to this seminal role-playing game is a bit short sighted. Almost every table-top role-playing game offers a chance to be something greater than a mere mortal. White Wolf Publishing’s Vampire: The Masquerade and Vampire: The Requiem offer a chance to engage in cut throat politics in a world of dark immortality. R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 and Catalyst Games’ Shadowrun present a distopian future where characters can enhance themselves far beyond natural limits with both technology and magic.
In the end, almost all role-playing games offer an element of power fantasy by their very nature. They allow the players to become something they are not, and by not limiting them in the way that video games or board games do, they give the gamer a greater level of control over what exactly that fantasy can be.
Psycho-Drama: The beast I am, lest the beast I become
They are called role-playing games because every player takes on a new identity when they game. Yin to the power fantasy’s yang, the psycho-drama of table-top gaming allows the player the opportunity to explore an alien psychology and situation that would otherwise be denied them. It presents the player with moral dilemmas and choices of conscience that they can explore within the world of the game without suffering the consequences of similar choices in the real world.
Yet, even though they do not suffer the aftermath of being a heartless warrior or taking an act of heroic self-sacrifice, they nevertheless experience the active moments and aftermath of these personal choices within the context of the game world. The cold-hearted warlord who marches men to their deaths in a great campaign of war might face a revolt from his people as they turn on him for marching them to endless slaughter. The politicking power-monger gets to freely make choices that will better his agenda free of the burden of real-world guilt in the face of betrayal. A devoted knight might see his upright morals put to the test as his code is put to the test and find himself tested like tempered steel when his convictions stay strong in the face of despair.
In the past twenty years of table-top gaming there has been a growing focus on this element of the game. From the beginnings of the hobby this has always existed to some extent. In Dungeons and Dragons an alignment system based around an axis of law and morality is used to guide a character’s actions, but as gaming evolved the idea of psycho-drama became more complex. The World of Darkness line of games introduced more complex internal character traits such as a every character possessing the facade of a Demeanor and the heart of their character being expressed by their Nature. In the end, almost all forms of table-top role-playing offer some element of psycho-drama. This is one of the key elements of role-playing that separate it from traditional board games and miniature war-gaming.
Adventure: Bring me that horizon
All role-playing games tell a story. Whether its defeating the dragon and saving the kingdom, orchestrating one’s rising to power from the bottom rung of some great web of politics, or resolving a great and life-changing emotional conflict, there is always an adventure to be had.
Role-playing games are not stagnant things. They are active and dynamic, with the events of the game happening to the players and being influenced by their choices. The players create characters who go out in a world and actively participate in its great events. They change their fictional worlds, for better or worse, forever. Often by combining the gifts given to them through the parameters of the game (an element of power fantasy) and their own goals and personal objects (an element of psycho-drama), the character the players create for role-playing games are the movers and shakers of their reality. They cross great vistas, explore dangerous locations, shape nations and (in some games) change the very fabric of time and reality.
A key element in any game is the world in which it is set and the ability of the player’s character to change that world. This is an vehicle for expression of power fantasy and psycho drama, the stage upon which the game plays out. To many players, this stage is important (or more so) than the characters they play. They long to know that their actions, their choices, have a lasting impact on their environment and that even if this is a fictional world shared only by those playing the game it still creates a very satisfying gaming experience.
Familiar Environment: I know this place
While many table-top role-playing games are set in original worlds, the licensed role-playing game is very popular as well. They create an immediate familiarity for the players and provide an instant understanding of the conventions of the game world. While some of the earliest licensed role-playing game settings include H.P Lovecraft’s world of shadowed madness as portrayed in Chaosium’s Call of the Cthulhu table-top role-playing game and TSR’s early series of Conan sword and sorcery adventures, the licensing of popular intellectual properties has become a staple of the hobby. In a role-playing game set in the Star Wars galaxy, the players are given the chance to create would-be Jedi or roguish smugglers as both emulation and expansion on the concepts presented in those films. With Cubicle 7 Publishing’s The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild players are given the opportunity to play hobbits who get into adventures far grander than they understand or play noble elves of Mirkwood defending their home against a growing Shadow.
Licensed property role-playing games allow gamers to move beyond page and screen and explore a beloved setting on their own terms and with their own original character. It allows players to become part of a mythology they already know and love. This creates a comfort for those who would be intimidated by original settings and often gives motivation to approach the hobby that would otherwise seem alien and distant. The idea of playing a psychic warrior on the continent of Khorvaire levels an unfamiliar gamer bewildered because they are not aware of the language and nuances of the role-playing game setting of Eberron. But the a Jedi apprentice who spent their youth on the beautiful vista of Alderaan before it was destroyed by the Galactic Empire – well that idea is at least familiar to anyone who has seen Star Wars.
This familiar environment gives instant understanding to all the players who come together to play the game, including setting history, tropes and appropriate characters they might create. It puts all the participants of the game on the same page, simply by saying the title of the source material.
For the Fun of It: Where are the cheetos?
Most importantly, table-top gamers play their beloved games because it is fun. They get a chance to set aside mundane concerns like bills, time clocks and gas prices and instead they face off against dragons, alien invaders or creatures of the night – and often, they win. But they do not do this alone. Table-top gaming is, above all, a social activity. Friends gather together and share great adventures and see the value each individual is able to bring to the group as a whole. They see the value of their friends and their friends see the value in them. There, around a table covered with maps, dice, snacks and funny little miniature figures, heroes are made. Gamers often take those acts of heroism with them when the books close and the game is over. They remember the fellowship and their own moments of victory. And gamers take these experiences with them after the dice have stopped rolling, thinking fondly on the adventures they have had and those yet to come.