The best role-playing experiences come from being able to interact with a living story world.
I usually keep my fandom deep in a closet; sometimes, though, no amount of subject-changing and excuses to leave the room can prevent the pastime from making into a conversation. When that happens, I always tend to explain the hobby this way: it’s like being able to create a world and then live in it with other people. Here are the three best ways that this has happened for me:
1. Sarge: Players get to affect the game world! (or: Player Agency)
“You lousy Mercs work for whoever pays most. Why should I believe you?” The general spat on the floor. “Forget you. We have a city to defend.”
“Sir, with all due respect... it's true. They’re telling the truth,” said Sarge, tentatively. “I’ll vouch for these folks. That creature was the worst thing I've ever seen, and it said something even worse was waiting on the other side of that rift…”
The general stared his most trusted field commander. Sarge’s gaze remained level.
“All right,” the general answered quietly. “I'll take your word for it, Sarge.”
Sarge was created by accident. I was over at a friend’s house, drinking beer while watching a bunch of dudes play something called Rifts. I didn’t really understanding what was going on. My buddy had been pushing this game like it was the latest opioid, though, and he asked if I wanted to come over and watch a session. So, there I was.
Two armies were facing each other across a field. The conflict had been escalating over several sessions, and it was about to come to a head. The players, a group of special ops mercenaries working for one side, had been sent to investigate a disturbance in one of their army’s holdings. My friend, the GM, gave me a group of non-player character soldiers that were sent to help them.
As our Merc group was investigating, a creature that looked like the love child of a centaur and an Elder God came out of a cave, shrieking bloody murder (pretty typical of Rifts). As chance would have it, most of the player characters froze in fear at the site of this monstrosity. One soldier in my group, however (we called him Sarge), was able to keep his head round after round. Because of this, he was able to rally the others to defeat the monster. As the monster died, it shrieked maniacally that something worse was going to use the psychic energy released in the upcoming battle to access the world through a magical rift. We had to stop the battle!
The leader that had hired the player characters refused to believe them. In the above scene, my accidental character was instrumental in preventing an event of apocalyptic proportions - and that did it for me. I signed up to join the campaign the same day.
What was the secret behind making this a good role playing experience? It wasn't having a powerful character. It wasn't just because I had rolled well (though, let’s be honest, that’s always a part of it). It certainly wasn't because of the clunky combat resolution mechanics by Kevin Siembada. I decided to jump aboard the role-playing train in part because there was a compelling story and a rich world. But more importantly, I was able, through my character, to make a difference in that richly detailed game world.
2. Klug: Players get to expand the game world! (or: Collaborative Creative Process)
Gruumsh, Gruumsh! Beat the drum,
Do not stop ‘til story’s done!
Klug is a classic Dungeons and Dragons example of how a player character should have a hand in establishing the game world. He was a half-orc Barbarian, and the only orc character in the campaign. We had written him out of the story when I left the campaign a few years previously by having him take leadership of a conquered orcish village. Chaotic-Good Klug, having developed a half-baked belief system he borrowed from his Paladin friend, was going to convert the orcish population to the Paladin’s god. Hilarity ensued.
For the grand finale, however, Klug was being brought back into the story. We leveled him up and randomly rolled a magical item for him to carry: a horn that summoned some spirits to fight on his behalf. To meet the narrative requirements of bringing his character back into the story, the GM expected me to develop a plausible explanation for his absence and subsequent return with a sweet magic item... one that also respected the constraints of an already well-established game world.
What emerged from all of this I called the Gruumsh. Gruumsh, in Dungeons and Dragons canon, is the name of the Chaotic-Evil god of the orcs. I decided, however, that in our world it was rather a call to war so hallowed that the orcs revered it as one might revere a god. The GM and I decided that the horn in fact summoned the spirits of previous orc chieftains of various stripes and allegiances. The only common factor between them was that they had each called a Gruumsh. To rewrite my character into the story, I composed a hymn detailing the Gruumsh history: an epic tale spanning thousands of years. My character was now the chosen leader, called to lead the Gruumsh against a force that sought to destroy the world. To determine whether or not he was eligible to lead the Gruumsh, Klug had to endure a literal trial by fire. The spirits of the past leaders of the Gruumsh were summoned and held council among themselves, eventually deciding that, yes, the Gruumsh was really on.
This was a great role-playing experience for a couple of reasons. To get your nerd on and create a rich and storied history for the game world is one of the reasons many role-playing enthusiasts pick up the dice. Role-playing, however, is a collaborative process; just like a sports team or a business, if your group is not able to work together you aren't likely to succeed in your goal. The temptation for many Game Masters is to write the world and expect the players to go along with it. If you're going to do that, though, you should probably go write a novel instead. Players should have a hand in expanding the game world through their characters.
3. The Doc: Players get to live through their stories! (or: Living Narrative)
The explosion rocked the alley. The Doc covered his face as bits of hot metal and flesh peppered his body. Looking up, he saw his vehicle had become a ball of flame.
There was his car. There was a body inside. Someone had died, and everyone would probably think it was him.
The Doc stood up, and brushed the grimy dirt from his front as best he could.
“Now what the hell are you supposed to do?” he grumbled at himself.
The fire snapped and roared. The Doc turned and started jogging away from the scene of his own demise.
The Doc was not an accident at all. By this time, I had been role-playing for several years and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I had also made a fair number of mistakes and had my fair share of disappointments. I remember once carefully scripting the events that I wanted one of my characters to live, neglecting to consider that the other people playing the game might want different things than I did. Needless to say, that was an unmitigated disaster. I was disappointed, the other players were frustrated, and the fun quota of that campaign was diminished. Chalk it up to inexperience.
With the Doc, however, it was different. We were playing Shadowrun - a cyberpunk world with elves and orks. In making the Doc I kept it simple: I decided on a big question that I wanted to answer. In his back story, I created a situation (the tail end of which I typed above): the Doc had a shady past of collaborating with organleggers, people in the Shadowrun setting who would illegally harvest organs from unwilling donors. He had gotten away from that life, and he wanted to redeem himself. The question was this: Could he redeem himself and stop the bad stuff from happening?
This led to the best campaign I have ever enjoyed. There was enough motivation built into the question that I always had direction as a player. I was engaged with the character and game world for the whole time. On the other hand, I didn't expect my fellow players to do exactly what I wanted them to do either, and there was just enough uncertainty that if my character died or was written out of the story, the question would still be answered. In the end, the Doc was indeed able to redeem himself by taking down the organleggers. When we finished that campaign, I fondly remember the Doc walking off into the sunset, setting out to rebuild his life.
The urge to create is deeply rooted in human nature. It is most satisfying when the things you create are shared with a group that appreciates it. Role-playing, when it is well done, offers players the opportunity to create and inhabit a shared world. The most successful shared worlds form nothing less than a piece of interactive art.
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.