On Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Fictioning 

By Simon O’Sullivan 

Seven purple polyhedral dice

What is at stake with tabletop roleplaying games? That is, besides the entertainment they offer (or besides their status as games)? Although I no longer play them as immersively as I once did (the phase of truly being in those worlds was relatively short, perhaps four years from age twelve or so to sixteen), they have had a determining effect on my imaginary and, I think, on the various life choices I have made (in many ways the art and ‘theory’ worlds I have lived in and moved through seem—in retrospect—a logical progression from those other worlds, albeit these latter worlds are more ‘worldly’ if sometimes less vivid). That said, I have recently taken on the role of a Games Master for my own two sons and have now watched them enter into what always seemed to me another space-time. Put simply they too have become caught up in exploring these other parallel worlds. Indeed, I remember clearly when, as it were, the penny dropped. When the two of them suddenly realised that this was not simply a game, but something else altogether.[1] Something much stranger, but also more magical. It was as if they had gone through a gate and, with that, had entered more fully into the characters (and the landscapes) they were playing. Since then, the eldest of them has been hooked and the refrain that I once spoke is now on their lips: Dungeons and Dragons (which is what we were playing) is not simply a game. It’s a way of life. Quite an over-the-top statement, but for a time it really was as if this were the case for me (as it is for them now). There is much more I could say here about their adventures. About how easy it is for them and their friends to enter these worlds, switch perspectives and so forth (and then also deeply experience various emotions within the game). About the importance of preparation, of setting a context, in order to allow this other kind of inhabitation to effectively take place (although I am also often surprised at how few ‘props’ are needed for the shift in perspective to be made).[2] And then also about how these games relate to other games—that are also more than games—that they play ‘outside’[3] (what is now called LARPing, although, for them, there are not necessarily any costumes or other props, besides that which is found lying around).[4] Some of those observations and reflections might appear in some other writing—some fiction perhaps?—that is, in a more appropriate form to what is happening in those worlds and with those children (and in my own late childhood) especially when on the cusp of adolescence (which, it seems to me, is when our imaginaries are predominantly formed).

In fact, my own experiences with roleplaying games was also split between live play—out on the moors in the North of England in my case—and then playing various tabletop roleplaying games themselves which, in many ways—when I first encountered them—somehow extended that live play and, again, made it more vivid (despite it coming after and being one step removed from the live play). I remember like it was yesterday the first actual tabletop roleplaying experience, which was Dungeons and Dragons. This was the most important game, though others followed.[5] The slight puzzlement about what we were doing (the game was initiated by an older boy) and then the moment it all fell into place—again, the penny dropped. I was hooked. Or we were. For this history I am briefly laying out is not just about me but about my twin brother too. We both entered that world—as we did many others—together.[6] There is also much more to say about this, but it is not just my own story and so I leave it to one side—except to draw something important from this determining factor: there were always two of us (at least) and so there was always already a community and a discourse happening around these experiences and this world creation.[7] The experience of roleplaying was precisely shared (I will, in fact, return to this).

Enough biography. I want, if I can, to move a little deeper in, to shift, perhaps, from the realm of memories and images into something more theoretical. Or, as I said at the beginning of this essay, to think about the importance of these games beyond the games themselves. So, first of all, I mentioned ‘world creation’ above and, clearly, with tabletop roleplaying games there is a kind of world making that goes on beyond fiction per se. In these games one is actually living ‘in’ the fiction to some extent (or, at least, shuttling between the fiction and the reality outside of this). Certainly, as a character in the game one is making decisions that determine outcomes. In fact, even here things are a little more complex as there are two positions to occupy. One is the Games Master who has initially built or, really, written the world—even if they are using a pre-prepared scenario, they need to add detail, narrate the encounters, bring the world to life (I should also say here that my experience was that these worlds were always more successful when written by the Games Master). And then there are the players who then enter into that world and, with that, continue the world building or give it another dimension.

In passing it is interesting—for me at least—that universally it was my twin brother who would function as Game Master whereas I would be the player (or one of them). I think this determines a certain take on the imagination. A focus on construction and a generosity in building a world for another (and then, presumably, the satisfaction of seeing that world being interacted with). And then the other position, more oblivious to the scaffolding and the ‘behind the scenes’ work and so forth. More a sense—and perspective—of just being thrown in. In fact, both are—of course—needed, and, in fact, the two make the game, which is to say without the Game Master there is no world, or if there is, it is one that is chaotic, too spontaneous; and without the players the Game Master has simply penned a fiction.[8] These worlds need building and animating. They need to be invented and then believed in—interacted with ‘as if’ real—in order that everything can take off and, with that, become something that is greater than its parts.

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