It may be because I singularly promote RPGs as a way to make friends that longtime role-players often asked me: How does playing a role-playing game aid in making friends more than in any other activity? The simple answer is within the specific capability of RPGs to recruit and reflect the player group within it. A role-playing game is a game without any set moves just one set goal: to survive. There is no finish line, no end game, and no control of the board to monopolize. There are only challenges to overcome and challenges for players to agree to undertake.
RPGs are very free-form – something all the talk about system balance tends to conveniently overlook. The leader of the game, a neutral player who creates the challenges for the players in secret, describes what a player can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. He describes this data for a player to analyze and interpret. Players respond to this game leader and build upon the challenges by adding to the information they share at the table. Do they act together? Do they double-cross one another? Do they play with passion? Are they helpful in a scrum? Do they withhold data only they know? These are player decisions.
Note, I wrote player; not player character as in “my imaginary friend ate all the cookies before supper, mom, but I am full.”
Player decisions can all be blamed on playing a character-type much in the way an actor/writer/director claims artistic license and personal distance. On the face of it, this is a valid way to play the game but it is by no means the sole style or highly recommended style on some Maslow gamer pyramid. Play style is strictly a choice that remains, always, within the players’ realm of conscious decision. Rules exist to present a framework for understanding the risk in a game situation not to limit player interaction or imagination, unlike in a tactical war game of chess or a competitive sport like football. Players determine the playbook (another pet topic of mine).
So “playing a character” can be a persona through which a player’s conscious decisions can be interpreted through a mask. And through the interaction within the game, players will get acquainted with one other. Playing an ELF, for example, is mediated through the player’s interpretation of an ELF. The character cannot be assumed without the media of the amateur tabletop actor (making a distinction in magnification between trained actors and the average player). No matter what the excuse for player actions, the player cannot claim to be ELF his or her self. Same as playing a THEIF or a MAGIC USER does not transform a player into a cat burglar or a magician. What is clearly on display is the player’s interpretation or even wish fulfillment of what is ELVEN or a THIEF or a MAGIC USER.
And that player’s interpretation of character says allot about himself too. Unlike party games like Analyze Me! or Scruples, the questions of a person’s character are indirect and more observed rather than narrated. What would you do in a given situation is a hypothetical question in those games whereas in role-playing there are risks the rules make clear about given situations the player must work themselves through. It is not a question of “if” in role-playing but an observation of “how.”
The most exciting part of the game, and the most revealing of its players, is how every player chooses to overcome their own limitations and disadvantages, usually reflected by the rules’ calculation of risk. In Dungeons and Dragons, players have six statistics that reflect risk. Other games have a similar base ability function, which interacts with the mathematics of risk. These are random rolls that we call character generation. In D&D, these base abilities have a numeric average in the range of 3 – 18. The higher the number, the better the odds for the player: the lower the risk to the character.
So if a player plays a character with a base ability of 6 “Strength,” or base ability of 18, how he or she chooses to play his or her character will reflect the player’s own choices. These base statistics can reflect things in our real world experience. To prove a point, I will list a few vivid examples of real world low-roll challenges that attest to “character” from which you may extrapolate their opposite: learning difficulties, naivety, clumsiness, poor health, poor leadership and physical weakness. These do not dictate how a person chooses to play their character. That choice, that reflection of character, never leaves the person. On the one hand, a player’s abstract reasoning supporting a physical weakling fighter can be a compelling story at a table of fellow travelers but the risk of unmitigated failure for the individual is greater. There is an implied collaborative success within this player’s choice. The player will not survive by himself. On the other hand, risk being an element of every game, a player may choose to limit their exposure to risk by choosing to play a fighter only IF the ability score is high and the character is physically strong. This implies a specialized choice that reflects upon the player not upon his or her fictitious avatar that awaits the player to fill it with personality. Questions can form from these choices that can be answered through simple observation of mirrors in play such as, “Is a munchkin an insecure person in real life?”
Is one way to play better than the other? That’s not the point. The point is how the player chooses what his or her character chooses to become is based on the player’s meta-game knowledge of his or her character’s strengths and weakness; that this is a window through which the player may be observed undisturbed. As a mirror, RPGs are a kind of layman’s Rorschach test to promote understanding between players – even if they play far out races. Maybe especially if they choose to play someone so far removed from themselves on paper.
The game does not limit any player’s ability to display courage, cowardice, perseverance, impatience, team spirit, or individuality through their character. The player is the one, not the system, bringing all that interaction with them based on the foundation of their own attitudes, values and personal experience, which creates their understanding of themselves and others around the table.
And that is how you get to know someone by interacting with them for an hour rather than having a direct conversation with them – to paraphrase Socrates.