Before I gave them a try, all I knew about roleplaying games (RPGs) was the tropes I saw on TV: a game master (GM) sitting behind a trifold with I-don’t-even-know-what printed on it, players mouth-breathing and rolling twenty-sided dice, Tolkien-esque orcs, machismo-heavy dwarves, sexy elves, and players responding with cheers or groans to tell those watching the cartoon whether the story within a story was going well or poorly. At its best, this was disinteresting; at its worst it was arbitrary (GMs deciding outcomes based on unknown mechanics), crude (killing monsters to level up and get coins), and sexist (damsels in distress within the narrative, and no non-male players).

Dumb-Dumbs & Dragons, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Cartoon Network, 2006

An episode of Cartoon Network’s The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy featured characters playing a Dungeons and Dragons style RPG game to tell a story within a story. All the players were male nerds.

However, my interest in this style of game was piqued around my early twenties when friends of mine would talk excitedly about the games they had played or run. I heard stories of an alternate-universe college campus where supernatural events tested the player characters and of ridiculous laugh-filled nights convincing a non-player character (NPC) to hand over a kidnapped baby. This wasn’t the high-fantasy, dice-chucking-to-no-avail style game I had drilled into my brain … but was it for me?

My chance to find out happened when I ended up being the highest bidder at a peculiar fundraising auction: members of a college-student organization offered up their time and talents to raise money for their club. At the end of the night, a young man promised to run a fun one-session RPG for whomever won his time, which ended up being me. After a few rounds of email to recruit other players and arrange a time that worked for all of us, I finally got to play my first game!

An illustration I sketched from my first game of Don’t Rest Your Head: my player character Shree gazes across rooftops full of crashed airplanes and bridges.

I was expecting number-crunching with some light storytelling to justify dice outcomes and monsters. What I got was a tilt of the scales: a storytelling activity where I occasionally tossed some dice but mostly explored my character. Our GM suggested we play Don’t Rest Your Head, a game where each of the player characters cannot sleep for some reason and end up meeting in a pun-filled alternate universe where they must fight for their sanity despite facing insomnia and a cast of wacky enemies. I played as Shree: an imaging technician who had recently built up the courage to leave his abusive boyfriend and was suffering insomnia due to guilt, doubt, and loneliness.

Fighting characters like the Tacks-Man (a tax collector made of tacks) and the Paper Boy (a boy made of paper who delivers the newspaper) on rooftops covered in crashed airplanes made for a silly yet surrealistic environment. It was hard not to come up with puns of our own while we were playing out our characters’ stories and the overall plot. I started calling roleplaying games “improv comedy with dice” since I couldn’t shake the similarities between improv and RPGs.

Illustrations of Don't Rest Your Head, E. Forney, 2013

More illustrations of non-player characters from Don’t Rest Your Head: the Paper Boy (left) and the Wax King (right).

I never considered myself a performer, but at a friend’s suggestion, I took a student-taught course on improvisational comedic acting. I like to crack jokes and be creative, so it was a good blend between that talent of mine and acting, which I have no formal training in. At first, it felt very awkward to present your ideas for character building and plot development at such a quickfire pace, but after I realized some strategies for building narrative in this format, I found it was a fun way to make people laugh.

A lot of rules of improv comedy also apply to roleplaying games. It’s important to say, “Yes, and…” (agree with what’s been established and build on it instead of negating others’ ideas for your own). You are not the only person in the story, you are one of many, which means you spend more time being a supporting character than a main character. And there is no room to be fickle—although an RPG is not a live performance, decisions should still be made quickly.

After this first game, I tried plenty of the other systems my friends were willing to GM, each with some kind of adventuring plot and silly antics: Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, Fate-based systems my friends threw together, InSpectres, Fiasco, Call of Cthulu, and Aeronauts (an unreleased system a few of my friends have been creating for years); it didn’t matter what the game was. I would pick a character, usually unlike myself in nature, but who was mouthpiece for my voice, my humor, my casual disposition.

As I played more and more, I started to notice repetitive themes in my characters’ behavior: no matter their background story or identity, they were all low-status (more likely to be followers than leaders), tended to be a voice of reason, and were easy going … they were more or less me, or versions of me that I was comfortable being. I also found that I would make in-jokes with people I had played with before, sometimes leaving other players out of the loop.

This wasn’t really a path I wanted to go down. I wanted to challenge myself with gaming, what I could get out of it, who I could get into it. Nothing was going to change if I kept making the same jokes with the same personalities. However, I was hesitant to branch out. I’ve found that focusing on conflicts and harder emotions like sadness and fear instead of witty dialogue has been difficult for me, both in games and in real-life situations.

I always knew I was a conflict avoider, but it wasn’t until going to an immersive theatre production in New York City that I realized this trait also affected the way I played. Sleep No More is a production where guests are given masks to hide behind while they explore a warehouse-sized set and witness dancers/actors portraying a macabre 1920s version of Macbeth and other stories that take place in the fictional McKittrick Hotel. As an audience member, your white mask gives you anonymity, a fly-on-the-wall status. However, in certain situations the mask can be removed by an actor, and suddenly you are an active participant. I found myself nearly frozen in these moments, unsure of how to respond to actors telling emotional stories. Was I allowed to laugh? Should I be still or move around? Should I emote and respond or just be a blank slate for them to act towards?

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Sleep No More, Vanity Fair, 2011

Audience members at Sleep No More watch actors portraying Macbeth and Lady Macbeth share an intimate moment their bedroom.

I’m still not sure what the answer to those questions are, but I saw an opportunity in roleplaying to expand my tolerance for conflict, awkwardness, and situations that require me to react genuinely without just making light of a situation. That’s why this past year, I’ve been purposefully expanding my repertoire to genres where silliness is not apropos, and games where you have less control over character creation. This typically led me to horror or suspense themes, politically-charged systems, and games where the characters are not assigned to individual players but are played out collectively.

My first time straying from the norm was agreeing to be in a series of Ten Candles games run by my roommate over the month of October. Ten Candles games are one-shots where the characters strive against odds that ultimately defeat them, and the players sit in darkness with only the namesake of the game for light. Immediately, I felt ill at ease because I couldn’t fall back to cracking wise when I didn’t know how else to act out my character’s responses. The first couple of games felt a little stilted, trying to express fear when I myself was still sort of giggling in the back of my mind. Eventually though, giving in to the atmosphere of my dark apartment and dwelling on the storyline (the last game was about spaceship communications going dark) brought on that existential dread that only thinking about the big empty universe could.

About a month later, I tried out the Fiasco module “Back to the Old House” with a friend and his brother from out of town who is studying theatre in college. I was a little daunted to try a serious character alongside someone who really knew what he was doing in terms of theatrics, but I found that being confident in my decisions was the only way to proceed. I was able to tap into uncertainty and neuroses that my character, the daughter of a cannibal who had repressed her mother’s grisly death, had developed over the course of her life. I didn’t feel like a professional, but it was definitely an improvement.

Thinking back to my improv classes, almost all the critical notes I received for scenes were about wishy-washy decision making and so-so characters. Reacting to what other people established felt right, but it usually didn’t work. Although I didn’t analyze it at the time, I think I behaved that way in part because of my placating nature. Being socialized female, I was taught to not rock the boat, so making strong decisions and expecting others to follow my lead didn’t come naturally at first. Over time, I took those notes to heart and learned to work in the systems I was playing, whether acting out a silly improv scene or playing a game like Fiasco.

Some great side-effects of playing Fiasco and Ten Candles was the feeling of letting go of your character, something I struggled with in improv classes as well. In Ten Candles, you are instructed to select a few words to serve as inspiration for personality, only to be forced to pass them to the players on either side of you. Similarly in Fiasco, you play as primarily one character whose relationships with other characters are decided by anyone at the table and dice rolls. You also establish NPCs who end up being played by whoever is not currently in the scene as their main character. The challenge and joy of sharing characters is that you find yourself trying to portray someone you had no hand in creating—none of your comfort zones were considered with this character’s creation, so you’re in for a ride.

As I leave 2017 behind (good riddance), I am playing two multi-session games in different systems. The longer campaign is in Misspent Youth, a system where the societal things that irk the players (in our case, censorship, anti-science sentiments, body shaming, and lack of acceptance for non-binary genders) become the very forces you are fighting. The shorter campaign is The Quiet Year, a post-apocalyptic map-drawing game where players establish groups of creatures instead of individual characters and tell the story of the community as it rebuilds. In these games, I find myself making stronger decisions than I may have before. I still struggle to find my voice in bringing a character of my own creation to life, but I certainly don’t see myself quitting roleplaying games anytime soon.