Monday, March 4, 2013

Beyond the Books and Character Sheets


     While much of the focus of RPG discourse centers around all things mechanical, the crunch, the numbers written on a character sheet, actual play revolves around very different aspects. It is the slew of things that never touch a character sheet and rarely grace the pages of rulebooks that composes the majority of the actual roleplaying experience. The beating hearts of our nerdly enterprises are more ephemeral than we typically remember. The things that matter most, the most quintessential elements of roleplaying, never get written down on a character sheet. 
     Primarily, RPGs are games of communication. An environment is described and a shared mental landscape emerges, hopefully similarly held by all involved. Actions are declared and results are adjudicated. (Sometimes this may result in using character sheets and mechanics, but more often than not it won’t.) Tabletop/Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying Games are composed of words and choices more than dice and math. Characters are far more expansive than two or three stapled pages.
     Most of a character’s personality will develop away from whatever brief and never-updated descriptors from which it begins. It will be informed by emerging plots, small victories, and large losses. It will be shown by dialogue and action. The words “vicious and coldly-driven” mean far less than the memory of Cnut the Brazen setting fire to his enemies’ mead-hall and slaughtering the lot of them as they fled choking and weak. Those actions are Cnut.
Any given campaign resides a bit in the scattered and infrequent notes of the players, a bit in the best laid plans of the Game Master, but mostly in memories. It’s great quotes, crazy gambits, loved NPCs, hated antagonists, and the unfathomable choices that PCs make. These are the important things not a +12 to dodge, not the rules for drowning in slime from splat book Z14-a, and not some levels in uber-prestige-kit-class Vamp-Blaster.
Try and keep in mind what the game really is next time being a Rules Lawyering Prick seems like a good idea. I mean it is Game Master’s Day for pike's sake.