Okay, I need to say something to a few people. Let’s see:
Gav, Will, Pierre, Eric, Brett, Shan, Rory, Chris, Liam, Mike, Brendan, Deryck, Matt, Jake, Cameron, Tracey, a whole bunch of other people I can’t remember right now and, last but not least, Vickie. Everyone who’s volunteered to play in a roleplaying game I’ve tried to game master:
It has taken me – what? Twenty three years? Twenty five? I don’t know. What was the first RPG I ever bought? I think it was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness. Anyway, it’s been at least two decades in (and out of) the RPG hobby or me to figure out just what I want out of it. And I’m sorry it took me so many aborted games and bouts of flakiness with you fine folks before the penny dropped.
So what do I want out of RPGs?
My Ham-Deprived Experience with RPGs
If you’ve known me for a while, you know I struggle with a hobby that ought to be entertaining but that I tend to find confusing and stressful: Tabletop roleplaying games.
One feature of these games is the rules. All games, RPG or otherwise, have them, of course, but there’s something about the way these rules are meant to govern an imaginative activity that, somehow, brought out the control-freak in me. There was the sense that if aspects of the games had rules, then there was a Right Way and a Wong Way to be doing the whole thing.
Plus, there were those games whose rules allowed you to fiddle with them for hours before you even got together with anyone else to play. remember spending ages building giant robots in two incarnations of the Mekton roleplaing game, or powered armour in the Maximum Metal supplement for Cyberpunk 184.108.40.206. and the Bubblegum Crisis Megatokyo 2033 roleplaying game. I could busy myself with choosing from the plethora of options they offered me, tweaking ranges and damages and armour and point totals for hours.
Yet when it came time to play with the products of those rules – I found myself bored in short order. Recently, I’ve played tactical skirmish games like Descent: Journeys in the Dark, which some laud for taking the pesky character interaction stuff out of roleplaying games and leaving only the good, rules-y, combat-y bits, and wanted to be playing something that moved a lot more quickly.
Yet still, I hated not respecting the rules. If they’re not important somehow, if they do’t make an RPG session work, why are they there? And there was always that element of imagination shared that kept me coming back.
So I’ve tried going the other way – games like The Shadow of Yesterday and Sorcerer, Burning Empires and Dogs in the Vineyard, that emphasise character interaction and gritty drama – and wound up getting frustrated. They seemed so universally miserable. I’d even try the various incarnations of the Star Wars roleplaying game, but wind up combining them, with advice on how to come up with compelling plots which wound up sucking all the fun out of the endeavour.
There was always something I was after in these games that I never felt like I was getting, something that, try as they might, the texts and fellow hobbyists never quite communicated to me. And because I was hung up on Complex Rules or Serious Drama, I didn’t know where to start looking for something else, what to try or how to tell the people who agreed to play with me about it.
Games like Feng Shui and Spirit of the Century, which drew from subject matter like Hong Kong action cinema and pulp adventure classics like The Phantom, The Rocketeer and Indiana Jones respectively, seemed to hew close to what I was about, but somehow… I dunno. I’m sure the texts all tried to tell me how to get what I was after, but somehow it didn’t sink in. Half the times I tried it, I’d seem to wind up with folks who wanted to bring angst into their characters instead of ham. And the other half… I think I was hoping to find folks who were on a similar wavelength, and when they weren’t – cool people as they were, I didn’t want to continue.
Enter the Vin
It turns out that the solution to the problem was in the old writer’s adage: Show, don’t tell. I needed an example. The opportunity to actually watch people have the kind of fun I wanted to have in an RPG session, but didn’t realise.
So maybe it was always going to take twenty-eight years, because it took the combined advent of:
- the Internet,
- a content collective called Geek & Sundry
- and, let’s be honest here, Vin Frickin’ Diesel
to produce the example that made me to say, “YES! YES! THIS is what I’ve been motherfucking after all this time! THIS!”
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the showing-and-not-telling. I give you… D&Diesel.
Aside: Yes, all you Fast & Furious fans, Dom Toretto is a geek. He’s been playing Dungeons & Dragons, the first and still most popular tabletop roleplaying game, for years. This is old news to us RPG nerds, but I went to note this for those outside the hobby. Vin isn’t a newb here. He knows not just the game, but the lingo and the jokes: Note the “Evil DM Alert!” he sounds later in the game.
The thing was that, at first, I was cringeing. Why was the Dungeon Master bringing The Drama in his opening narration? The players and DM were being too silly! What was with all the voices? The exaggerated expressions at the camera? Were they trying to make themselves look like a bunch of hams? They were doing all the things that I thought you weren’t meant to do in a game! You had to take this seriously! This is nothing but ham!
Thankfully, I kept watching, and less than five minutes later, I realised I was quite enjoying the servings of ham these folks were dishing up for me. All of them, Vin included, were having honest to whatever deity you believe in fun putting hamming it up without going to surreal, Monty Python-esque extremes or making ironic comment.
Not only that, but this was the kind of stuff that went on in my head when ever I’d read an RPG rulebook in the past.
What really sold me was the odd moment of awkwardness.
I’ve been there, when you’re in the moment but all of a sudden everyone’s looking at you and you feel this sudden stab of worry that there’s something obvious you should be doing and aren’t. If this can happen with experienced gamers, it can happen with everyone. “I… attack?” says Vin at one point when asked what he’s doing.
(Maybe I’ve sat in a few too many sessions where one or two other players take it upon themselves to point out every sub-optimal decision I made with regard to my character’s on-paper capabilities and the rules. And others who are quick to roll their eyes or pass comment if I tried performing a voice.)
But it’s never as bad as your fears make it out to be (or, at least, it wasn’t with this mob). Vin’s character Kulder attacked, everyone else piled in with him, the dice came out, the arse-kicking commenced and a good time was had by all.
So good a time that, when I saw a link floating around the DM’s head promising to take me to another show called Critical Role, I decided to click on it. And boy, am I glad I did.
Even More Showing: Critical Role
Critical Role has been going for over thirty three-hours-plus episodes, and it’s more of the same (excepting Vin, if you were getting your hopes up – sorry): A group of people getting together to play Dungeons & Dragons. The Geek & Sundry website broadcasts the Critical Role sessions live on a streaming website called Twitch and uploads later to its YouTube channel.
If you watch it, you’ll recognise three faces from D&Diesel: Matt Mercer as the Dungeon Master, Laura Bailey as Vex’ahlia and Travis Willingham as Grug, and they’re joined by up to six other players. They all play their characters so distinctively that it’s never hard to tell what’s going on.
Now, the Critical Role mob have one main advantage over most of us; they’re all pro voice talent, so they all know how to portray distinctive characters with only their voices. Nonetheless, there’s still that – is commitment the right word? It seems a bit heavy for what’s going on here. Choice, I suppose – that choice to take their characters’ personalities and, to paraphrase the great Nigel Tufnel, turn them up to eleven. Be that bit larger than life in order to entertain each other, the DM included.
In other words, ham it up.
I’d love to have their mood at my gaming table for a session of D&D, or Deathwatch, or Donjon, or whatever my players and I are going with.
I suppose the next question is, how do I – or, more accurately, we – encourage it to flourish?
What are you doing?
When have you found yourself looking for something without knowing what you were looking for?
How have you optimised your and your fellow players’ enjoyment of the RPG hobby?
Featured image borrowed from YouTube and Geek & Sundry with hopes of forgiveness.