Roleplaying is like improv, but better; it’s like a children’s game of make believe, but better; it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but better. There are many things that roleplaying games resemble, but RPGs are different from all of them. When a group plays an RPG, they use a set of rules to guide the story, and to tell them what’s possible and what’s plausible, but the story that emerges belongs solely to the group who weaves it — the story is not determined before the group come together to collaborate, nor is the story determined by the rules. The people in the group describe their characters’ actions, and the game master conjures up the world that they explore. Unlike improv, there is no audience other than the people playing the game; unlike make-believe, there are rules that clarify what works and what doesn’t. And unlike any pre-written novel, computer game or even boardgame, the nuances and possibilities are endless.
RPGs are a unique artform. There really isn’t any other form of art where a group of people get together to spin a story, for their own enjoyment, while they are creating it. Theatrical improv gets close, especially when the audience is invited onstage and given opportunities to make suggestions, but even then, there’s a performer-audience duality going on that isn’t present in RPGs. Novels can offer the complexity of RPGs, but not the unpredictability or interactivity; boardgames give unpredictability without the fine-grained infinities of possibility that RPGs give.
Roleplaying games create art that is meant to be enjoyed while it is being created, by the people creating it. Roleplaying games eliminate the border between author and audience; roleplaying games eliminate the border between creation and appreciation. Roleplaying games are one of the most transgressive forms of art that exist.
These facts have all kinds of implications for how RPGs work, from use of music in gaming, to how genre emulation works and doesn’t work, to how we enjoy or don’t enjoy other people’s gaming stories. As with so many topics, I will explore these more in future posts.