2017 was a long, brutal year. On top of political strife, industry shenanigans, and personal/professional chaos, it was also the first full calendar year I spent out of school and thus removed from automatic contact with a big group of my friends. But in the last few months, games not only gave me an explicit reason to reach out and connect with a group of people whose company I cherish, but also an outlet to explore stories I would never otherwise have told.
Since May of 2017, I’ve accidentally found myself at the center of a political coup in a space station; I’ve prowled the streets of a ghostly city, seeking revenge on the man who ruined my career; I’ve bonded with a motley crew of 20-somethings and strange supernatural creatures as we set up Hell’s very first bakery, and I’ve gone on countless other adventures in worlds that are just as varied. I play tabletop RPGs because I love them … and I love them because they keep me connected to my friends and empower us to tell stories together.
While I love talking and thinking about narrative, I’ve always struggled with (read: been largely incapable of) traditional creative writing. In general, I either fail to come up with even a glimmer of a concept or my inner critic shoots down anything I do find before it’s even halfway formed. Beyond that, I find it incredibly difficult to stay motivated on projects that don’t involve some sort of teamwork or collaboration—I would much rather be creating things with friends than going at it alone, and writing can often be a lonely practice. Tabletop RPGs, especially narrative-based ones like Fiasco, The Quiet Year, or even Dungeon World, remove some of those barriers.
One of the reasons that I love playing RPGs is because, while my interest in them is primarily based around the stories they help tell, they are still games. As such, they operate according to a set of rules, and more often than not these rules echo the kinds of things you learn in basic writing courses: Misspent Youth operates on a seven-act structure that mimics a modified plot roller coaster, and Apocalypse World’s emphasis on fitting moves to actions instead of actions to moves echoes the old “show, don’t tell” adage. By carefully outlining turn structure and play expectations, the systems essentially provide narrative scaffolding, creating a good jumping off point for players and setting up a structure that makes it easier to choose what happens next.
Good narrative games are built such that, if you pay attention, playing them will begin to teach you good storytelling; however, no two systems are the same. The stories I can tell with The Quiet Year will always be materially different than those I’ll get out of Ten Candles, or Misspent Youth, or even Questlandia. In The Quiet Year, my friends and I have told stories about wacky bug people and sinkholes that defy Euclidean geometry. We’ve given a generation of townspeople massive feline familiars and followed a young girl out into the frozen wastes as she strives, constantly, to do what’s best for her people. The Quiet Year tells stories about an entire community, cautioning players to not latch on to any one character’s arc, but also encourages them to return to things—and characters—they thought were interesting. In Misspent Youth, my friends and I played a crew of ragtag biohackers, high schoolers in a rogue EMT crew that took care of folks who went a step too far with their body mods and found itself up against massive institutional discrimination towards those with non-organic body parts. We played our own characters, and the story seems like some sort of absurd mashup of The Breakfast Club, any Pixar movie, and Gattaca—complete with a cinematic hook, a climax, and an epilogue. In The Quiet Year we play detached but compassionate gods; in Misspent Youth we can try to be heroes.
Tabletop RPGs also allow me to breathe when I’m playing: while games can get incredibly intense, I’m always playing with other people. Many games have fairly structured ways of passing narrative control between players, which means that everybody shares the burden of making decisions and telling the story. In an RPG, no one person is responsible for a narrative’s success or failure, so each player is allowed to be an active participant in the story’s creation and an excited consumer. As someone who struggles to come up with the seed of a story but loves to riff, build, and improvise alongside something that’s already there, the collaborative nature of RPGs is perfect for me.
That breathing room actually makes it possible for our games to get as intense as they do. My favorite games encourage their players to tackle real-world issues head on, allowing me (and the friends I play with), to work through or find catharsis around those issues while maintaining a safe distance. In one game, we’ve found ourselves critically examining the social and political history of western baking while also taking a hard look at how secrecy can wreak havoc in relationships; in our game of Misspent Youth, our crew of queer cyborgs pushed back against a political force that used massive amounts of wealth and political power to try to push people with tech integrated into their bodies out of publicly funded schools and bar them from gated neighborhoods. It’s … not hard to see the connections between the game and the current state of the US (particularly Trump’s statements with regards to trans people in the military), but by facing the problems in an outlandish world and having the point of discrimination be body modifications (as opposed to our characters’ queerness), we can have the satisfaction of taking on the antagonists and winning without becoming overwhelmed in the process.
Reading or watching stories lets me escape from the real world and worry about someone else’s problems for an hour, but telling them lets me regain control. I play RPGs because they let me tell stories without the pressure of publication or originality and because they give me a good reason to spend time with people I care about. In an era that’s made an already-uncertain future seem almost antagonistic, the outlet and the connections give me the strength I need to keep getting back up again.
Read the rest of the Why I Game series.
Zora Gilbert cares a whole lot about words, kids, and comics. Find them at @zhgilbert on twitter, and find the comics they edit at datesanthology.com.