Friday, August 26, 2011

Make-Believe with Rules

First of all, welcome to all of my new readers, both campaigners and those who stumbled upon this blog randomly. Now down to business.

I play tabletop RPGs, as some of you already know. But something a friend of mine said (okay, my GM) got me to thinking. He's been going out with a new girl for a couple of weeks, I guess, and we asked him why she wasn't joining in on the gaming experience with us. You see, we love new players, and if a friend of ours is going to consider a relationship with someone, we like to know that person, too. Anyway, she wasn't there, but my GM said that she finds it boring. And she called it "playing make-believe with rules."

My GM admitted that he likes playing make-believe with rules, and I have to agree. Yes, we're grown men and women sitting around a table, making stupid jokes while we pretend to be wizards, warriors, elves, and half-giants, but it's no fun if all we do is get told, "There's a skeleton in front of you. What do you do?" And all we have to respond is, "I throw lighting at it, and it dies." No fun at all.

What makes RPGs fun are the rules. Now obviously that's not true of every RPG that's been created. Some of them have so many rules that they get bogged down with unnecessary math, charts and graphs. Some are so light on the rules that you wonder why you should even bother, and one game I played had one rule: you're going to die. Probably within the first two or three rounds.

But over all, it's those rules, that chance of abject failure in the midst of trying my best, that makes the game so satisfying. Knowing that you have to hit a 15 or better on a d20 (20-sided die) just to hit that skeleton that's ready to chew your arm off brings in a lot of tension. Rolling a 1 and then getting whacked in the head by a barbarian's club a second later ratchets the tension even tighter. When you're down to your last hit-point and finally roll that natural 20 (a critical that does a ton of damage... most of the time), it's so SATISFYING to hear the GM tell you, "The skeleton explodes in a shower of bone-dust."

But then the barbarian caves your head in.

Still, writing books is a lot like that, too. You have to have rules. The characters can't go around achieving success after success without any effort. They have to fail several times. Miserably. And then when they finally succeed, something else has to go wrong. That's what makes a story satisfying to the reader. If you don't believe me, just ask fans of The Dresden Files.


  1. I don't play, but I understand the fascination. I love living through the lives of my characters, and watching them develop. Failure is a part of that development. Have a great weekend!

  2. Just wanted to say hi as a fellow campaigner. Great post. Things to think about.

  3. Hello, fellow campaigner. Nice to meet you.

    My husband is a former Dungeon Master but I've never played any RPGs. The closest I've come is Settlers of Cataan and that's pretty fun.

  4. I loved playing RP games, but I had to stop when I started dating my (now) husband, because he hates that sort of thing.

    But I didn't hit "comment" to complain about my husband... ;)

    I wanted to mention that on the podcast Writing they often talk about how helpful RP is for learning honing writing skills- with plot, character, pacing, etc. So, if you haven't checked them out yet, you may find them interesting. Anyway, you can always tell people that it's a "writing workshop."

    Oh gosh- I just thought of one of the cool things one of them said. When he's the GM, he will set up a plot of a wip he's working on and see what the players do with it and that sort of gives him ideas for the novel. He's not writing out the game into novel form, but just tossing out a scenario to see what happens. Other people will often solve problems differently than you thought and it forces you to ad lib and that's a great skill for a writer.

    Okay, I'm rambling. Listen to the podcast. They say it better. :)

  5. Amanda - that sounds awesome! I'll have to check out the podcast.

    I've considered running scenes from my books for a few game sessions, I just never got around to it. I always felt it would make me look a little too narcissistic to my friends. But maybe I'm just crazy. A distinct possibility.