Written by Karyn Keene
When I was first invited to play D&D, I said “not on your life” as politely as possible. First of all, I thought that only super-nerds played it in their basements. Also, I happened to be one of those people who grew up believing that playing D&D was a guise for summoning the Dark Lord*. However, after much cajoling from my friends, I finally came to a game and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Now I’ve been playing once a week for almost three years.
Not only has it been a wonderful way to spend time with friends, but it has prompted so much growth in my storytelling. Rachel has already covered some of the benefits of playing as a GM. So, here’s why taking on the guise of a character can help expand your storytelling.
Before RPGs, my experience of writing was always as the all-knowing author. Playing has forced me to work within a truly limited perspective. Thrown into someone else’s plot, I knew nothing. Clues were difficult to identify; I came to wrong conclusions and misread character’s intentions. In short, I faced real obstacles.
Through frustration and difficultly, I began to create better characters for my writing. I learned how easy it was to misstep, so my characters made believable mistakes—not just misdirections necessitated by plot contrivances. My audience was fooled, because the mistakes were so easy to make. I knew, because I had done it myself.
In life, we rarely know the outcomes of our decisions. We try to weigh logic against emotions to find a balance between the two, and our characters must do the same. However, pulling from my own experiences in this area can be difficult because of how charged these situations can be. RPGs, however, give you a safer playground to test out emotional thinking and to explore other people’s logical processes.
If you dive into the role-playing aspect of RPGs, emotional decision-making quickly becomes a reality. You stare into the face of evil and have to choose between victory and saving your friend—so you save your friend. This emotional decision is not logical; it’s human and very relatable. A great side benefit arises: the story is more interesting for the protagonist’s illogical choices.
Along the same lines, playing RPGs lets me see how other people’s minds process information and experiences. Because RPGs are group efforts, I often have 4-5 other people sorting information with me and arriving at different conclusions. These people become anchor points for alternate ways of thinking. I can look at a situation in my own story and ask myself what my fellow players would likely do. Their logic and insight makes my stories deeper and more interesting.
Room to Explore
RPGs provide a unique space to test out character ideas in a group of people. I get real-time reactions that provide me with options for how characters could respond to each other. It’s also a safe place to test thought projects. Want to know how important honesty is to leadership? This is a great, low-stakes place to find out.
For example, I’m test-playing a girl who is quite adept at killing people. When she joined the party, I expected them to take advantage of this innocent looking, killing machine. But instead, the leader felt sorry for her and tried to give her back her lost childhood. Both of these characters have experienced a softening of hearts that neither my fellow player nor I could have anticipated.
The ability to learn from failures and be surprised makes RPGs a powerful storytelling tool. When you throw yourself in and let the story develop around you, you learn much about characters, their difficulties and joys. Though these lessons can be learned and experienced outside of RPGs, the ability to test out ideas and learn from others in such a concentrated way is difficult to reproduce in other contexts.
Have any insights you’ve gained from RPGs? Share them in the comments below.
Art provided by Shelley Couvillion.
*While I say this jokingly now, I actually had a very difficult time making the decision to disagree with this particular belief. I did months of research into the creators of the game, the source material it was based on, and the major complaints against it. I came out believing that D&D is a good thing. But I also understand the process of trying to figure this out. If anyone is on the fence about it and wants to hear more about this topic, please shoot me an email or Tweet and me and we can talk.