I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I play tabletop RPGs. There are a lot of reasons for this line of thought, and I may go into them in another post, but what’s important here is that I love gaming and I’ve been considering why that is and I finally think I have an answer of sorts.
The first and perhaps most important thing is that I like order. I organize my bookshelf and my DVDs and the file folders on my computers are ruthlessly sorted and nested and controlled. Some of this is a reaction to the fact of real life’s utter chaos much of the time. Life is messy and while it does have a lot of rules, they can be difficult to figure out. Much of that process is, by necessity, trial and error. Usually a lot of error.
But in tabletop games, there are rules. They are usually fairly consistent (at least in good systems), and they are all spelled out for you. From what skills are necessary to complete which tasks to how success is measured – it’s all laid out and you can sit down and burn an afternoon (or a day or two) to read through the rules and bam! You can create people, or items, or vehicles or whole worlds by putting numbers and words on a page (or, in my case, a spreadsheet, since I make most of my characters in Excel). That is wonderfully, reassuringly consistent. I love it.
The other side of this comparison is that the rules of the real world are often in many ways immutable. I cannot change my race or my personal history or my situation. Growth in real life is difficult and painful and can be hard to measure. Am I really a better person than I was a year ago, or is that only wishful thinking? Am I better at writing papers that express my thoughts and analysis of the world, or am I only better at tricking professors into thinking I am?
In tabletop games, progress is measurable. It is controllable – certain activities will cause you to gain experience points and with the accumulation of experience you are able to improve the character in the ways that you want. Whether that comes from ticking over a milestone and gaining a level or from banking and spending xp, it’s still deeply satisfying. There’s a certain escapist fantasy that finds its ultimate expression in quantifiable improvement. More than that, even – in earning those improvements by doing difficult things.
And the other side of the immutability of reality is the permeability of fantasy. Yes, there are rules that you can learn and that make the world a somewhat predictable place. But those rules can be bent. There is a freedom to the fantasy world that is all too often lacking in the real one. Yes, your options may be curtailed because the scope of the world is narrowed by the existence of rules, but the Golden Rule of RPGs, the Rule Zero of every system, is that rules can be broken if it makes the story or the world better. The GM has the power to make that call. The player has the ability to propose actions that might not be allowed under a strict interpretation of the rules, and how fantastic is that? You cannot propose rules changes to the universe, but you can in role-playing.
No system brings that home quite as well as Exalted. I would not call this my favorite system, but I am growing fond of it. The stunt system, while occasionally time-consuming and frustrating (and already the source of some tension in our group), also gives tacit permission to bend the rules of reality within the scope of the rules. It is written into the world that reality is to some extent mutable, that what is beautiful or perfect or apropos can sometimes be done because it is beautiful or perfect or apropos.
It’s an intriguing dichotomy – the necessity of rules and the joy of breaking them – and tabletop gaming is really the only place to do so in this way. Video games are strictly bound by their rules by necessity. There have to be some limits to what can be done or rendered because of the technological limitations under which the world operates. But a tabletop game has a real live person who can go with the flow of something awesome. Sometimes this is a drawback, when you get an inexperienced or unskilled GM, but the reassurance of rules and the freedom to bend them is a wonderful thing and I deeply love it.