Narrative Play

“Why RPGs?”

“Don’t geeks/nerds/dorks do that?”

“I didn’t think you were the type.”

Ah, the usual statements one receives upon admitting one loves role-playing games.

Gamers learn to deal with these questions. Some get defensive, stating things like “Vin Diesel plays Dungeons & Dragons! So does that chick from Daredevil!” (Deborah Ann Woll), while others try to avoid getting asked entirely. For many gamers my age, I suspect this is a holdover behavior from being bullied or ostracized for enjoying something different. Ah, childhoods from the 80s and 90s.

Today however, the Hobby (as one of my friends puts it; his baritone and inflection is perfect at making you hear the seriousness of the upper-case) is now enjoyed openly in the mainstream. Today there is less judgement on that you play; rather, the judgement rests on what and how you play. The cliques and subcultures are diverse and prolific. It’s not unheard of for serious discussion to emerge over what is the “best” system out there, or what it means to enable character agency.

If these sound familiar to theater artists, they should. RPGs, after all, are theater.

Theatrical training, often done in workshops and classes, is usually transmitted through the use of games. Stop-Go, Expand-Contract, Animal Sounds, Zip-Zap-Zoom. Before actors inhabit characters, they need to tune their instrument first. Most people think to tune their bodies; but some forget to tune their creativity. Playing games is a good way to do that, which is why they’re a part of many theater curricula.

Admittedly, RPGs fall more under the category of Improvisational Theater more than any other because of the non-existence of a script. But we can also argue that RPGs are also Expressionist Theater (what is expressed in game is all that matters) and Devised Theater as well, since the collaborative act of making a story is ritualized then performed through  pen-and-paper, rolling dice, pulling cards, giving points—and there have been instances where real performed (TV and comic) scripts have emerged from this form of play.

This leads me to relate things to my manifesto. Because I want to encourage having a theater vocabulary, I want more people playing games that help them develop one. Theater vocabularies are not simply made up of words, facts, and definitions. The language of theater is deeply emotional and physical too. While not many have the opportunity to be on stage or go through the rigors of script and textual analysis, through RPGs people now have a chance to immerse and play with the same tools a performer uses to understand intangibles such as character, motivation, narrative strength, and empathy. It doesn’t surprise me that among my non-theater friends, the ones who appreciate the stage best are the ones who include the Hobby as one of their pastimes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, playing with RPGs lets you do this in the privacy of your own home. What is most daunting about doing the work of theater is the presence of an audience. (I have one friend who likes RPGs but dislikes it when non-playing friends come in and out and watch.) Playing lets you enter character without having to test it in front of a critical, discerning crowd. Yet playing also lets you share and empathize with actors on stage when you do watch, knowing that those channels for creativity flow inside you too.