The Narrative as a Game

I have an unabashed love of role-playing games (RPGs).

Self-confessed geeks will often admit to loving them too. Playing through a narrative ,(whether with player agency or not, a topic to be discussed later on) is something that has long been a part of human activity. It shouldn’t be surprising that various individuals and groups have since codified the rules and systems that allow for people to play with the understanding of how their play-acting games work.

What surprises me is that this is a hobby that still seems quite mysterious to many people who enjoy theater. One would think that such games were built for theater practitioners.  After all, these are games that reward the ability to pretend, and pretend well. However, in my own experience, people in theater who play such games are much in the minority. I’m guessing the association to mouth-breathing nerds in basements is just too much for theater geeks to overcome. (It also pains me to theorize that theater people, traditionally in the social lower class in school cliques, have found another strata beneath them to oppress. Just theorizing, but so far has veracity in light of experience. Hoping to prove said theory false!)

In probably what can be called its more immersive form, Live Action Role Playing (LARP), RPGs physically bear the elements that make for good theater: detailed characterization, a sharp through-story, as well as costuming, props, and staging. As  Lizzie Starks writes in Living Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games:

…larp (LARP) joins its players into a tightly knit community through shared experience — after all, many bands LARPers have faced “Death” together. This community has its own lingo, its own sacred space — the terrain of the game — and its own ritual in the form of the game itself.

Doesn’t this sound like theater? Doesn’t this sound like the art and craft of story-building?

However, the theater that is the role-playing game is not limited to LARP, despite the lack of the traditional theatrical elements (staging, props, costumes.)  In its more traditional form, RPGs depend solely on narrative ability and character work. Much of the communication is effectively verbal and lacking in overt visual cues, and as such, any action takes place in the shared (if imperfect) imagination of the group.

This excites me, because minus the the gaming aspect, what’s being described here is effectively Theater of the Mind, or as Neil Verma writes, the telling of a story through acoustic representation. In other words: it is possible, in certain cases, for the RPG to carry elements of the radio play, fun for listeners, even as the players engage in their own entertainment.

The significance of the existence of RPGs shows the normalization of performing theater in one’s home. There is fun and entertainment to be had if one is lucky enough to have a gaming group. In that group, one has an audience for immersive and improvisational theater even as the group has the option (some groups allow for this, other don’t) to perform for simple onlookers.

From this perspective, I hope to speak to a future truth: that while not everyone can  set foot on the professional stage, the stage is nevertheless accessible to the gamer; and that once again, the world “play” is able to realize its many definitions in this rich activity.

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