Playing and Posing

I’ve been a role-player since I was ten, but sad stretches of my life have been spent in denial. When I’ve wanted to be serious and important, or to get laid – especially when I thought getting laid was serious and had something to do with being important – I’ve let my dice gather dust and tried to be something else.

None of the other identities have been as satisfying. In the late ’80s I was a Hampshire College hippie, in the late ’90s I was a neuroscience grad student. For a while in between I wanted to be a science fiction writer, which is what this post is about.

For me, RPGs are more satisfying because they’re essentially social. At the gaming table, you are both the audience and the performer. You have rules that govern everyone’s childish need to get attention by putting on a heroic persona. You develop skills in sharing the spotlight so that your individual awesomeness becomes part of something larger. You get consistent rewards when you act like an adult and pay attention, and variable reinforcement when you make good decisions about risk and commitment.

I enjoyed the sociability that came with every other identity I’ve worn. I liked it so much that I spent more time showing off my persona than I did writing, or experimenting, or doing research for I Saw My God: The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience. Let’s get the obvious problem out of the way. If you want to be a serious science fiction person, it might be about reading the stuff, or writing about it, but most of all it’s about writing it. You can set up your typewriter in a bookstore window like Harlan Ellison, but you can’t escape that this is a solitary activity. Socializing is the opposite of doing the thing you’re defining yourself around.

In another life I might have been happy organizing a SF convention or reading series, but these are sideshows to the main event. What I like about gaming is that the situation is reversed. You can make lots of valuable contributions to roleplaying as a designer or blogger or artist, alone with your tools, just like you can enrich SF fandom by throwing room parties or judging masquerades. But if you’re not getting together with other people and playing games, you’re not really doing the thing.

Since the social aspect is so important to me, what I find most interesting is that the collaborative quality of the core activity also improves the socialization around it. When it was important to me to be seen as a serious SF person, bookstore conversations with strangers would go like this:

  • ME: Hey, that Vacuum Flowers you got there is a great book.
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I need a new copy ’cause I read it to pieces. Swanwick hit this one out of the park.
  • ME: Have you read The Glass Hammer?
  • FF: Oh I loved that! Jeter is my favorite of Dick’s students.
  • ME: How about Uncle Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book?
  • FF: No, who’s that by?
  • ME (walking away): Good day, sir or madam, you are unworthy of further conversation.

Clearly, this is largely because my most consistent identity has been “dickwad”. But the nature of RPGs as a social experience drives you to leaven Pretentious with Retro and Stupid because any game group will be a mix of all three. Snobbishness is limited by the need to get a group together to play with:

  • ME: Hey, is that the original Rogue Trader?
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I had some great times with this as a kid.
  • ME: I’ve been reading Small but Vicious Dog and like the look of it, but I really want to see how it plays.
  • FF: Well, my group plays mostly Warhammer 3E these days.
  • ME: Sweet, I’d love to see that in action! Here’s my card, let me know if you ever have an open spot at the table.

A while back a commenter at the Mule asked “You Hipsters have ruined everything else, can’t you leave D&D alone for those of us who genuinely enjoy playing the game?”

Being a hipster is seen here as the opposite of being genuine, so it’s tempting to get into a discussion of irony. There’s an interesting conversation to be had in the territory between Noisms at Monsters & Manuals sometimes thinking that

there is something cowardly about the arch way in which I and other role players sometimes operate: everything is approached from a slightly sideways, taking-the-piss angle, as if there is something difficult and terrifying about trying to take the endeavour seriously

and Zak’s classic post about how fun in a RPG can be driven by the distance you as a player have from the events in the game.

I want to short-circuit that discussion by talking about hipsters as a synonym for “posers” rather than “ironists”.  A poser is someone who wants to be seen as something they’re not. It’s beyond me to figure out whether a hipster who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon with a sneer is genuinely drinking it – they do eventually have to pee as a result, right? But I do know that for lots of my life I wanted to claim an identity without doing the thing it was based on.

It’s only when I’m a player that I stop being a poser. At the table, I’m really engaged in the core of the activity, and that’s true whether I keep it at a distance with ornate Vancian language and meta talk or genuinely enjoy the feelings I imagine my character to be experiencing. I’ve personally never gotten up and danced out a moment of triumph in a roleplaying game, but when the kids in the D&D afterschool class do this I feel no piss-taking impulse whatsoever.

Online I often hear about people who like to talk about roleplaying games without actually playing them. I guess they would be the posers of the RPG world, but this post isn’t an attack on them. I’ve never known anyone to do this for long before getting drawn into actual play, and I think that’s because the core of gaming is social. Someone interesting to talk to about RPGs is likely to be fun to play with as well, whereas having interesting things to say about stories I was going to write didn’t get me any closer to being a writer. I’m glad to define myself around a hobby where seeking opportunities to play a role pushes me to be less of a pretentious dickwad, not more.

8 Responses to “Playing and Posing”

  1. December 19, 2012 at 1:54 am

    These days mostly all I get is online RP, but I look forward to rare days when I get to play at the table. I’m not sure that anything can so thoroughly agitate the waves in the small corner of my brain that’s responsible creative thought – in my situation I think artist and role player are becoming the same hat. Or, more accurately, in making art that is related to gaming, I feel sometimes I’m the DM that isn’t, creating worlds and so forth. I hope I’m not too much of a poser!

  2. December 19, 2012 at 2:33 am

    I think there’s a reason that writing and art are solitary – you’re focused on realizing a singular vision, not leaving space for others to fill in during play. As a reader I’m glad that Elizabeth Moon spent her time writing Paksenarrion’s Deed instead of just playing D&D, and I’m especially interested in her work because of its D&D roots, but that’s because she’s sort of managed to convert an apple to an orange. I’m not interested in comparing them, just thinking about why I’m an apple guy.

  3. December 19, 2012 at 8:37 am

    Maybe creating requires some doing, and maybe there are lots of kinds of doing that can lead to creating and lots that don’t. Or maybe the wrong kind of creating, not the type you’re working on. Maybe one type of creating shuts down the parts of you that create other things. Maybe there’s a balance, and/or a rhythm, to these activities to get the most out of the time you spend doing the Main Thing. Maybe you can be happier not doing that, and end up with multiple Main Things that collectively aren’t as productive but the whole is more enjoyable.

  4. December 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I don’t think my life has ever been as enjoyable and rewarding as it is at this moment (part of that comes from having quit a crappy job, but…) because I wake up and focus on things that I love – mainly creating, in the general sense, but more specifically, creating things that support things I love. Playing and making has become an awesome feedback loop, just rich and self perpetuating. It’s hard to maintain that balance. Tavis, I’m glad you’re an apple guy, because it’s unpleasant to think of you as a dickwad – I can’t imagine it.

  5. December 19, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    I think there ought to be a ‘catch 22 clause’ in identifying dickwaddery — because people who question their motives with any degree of seriousness (asking, “Am I behaving like a dickwad?”) almost never end up being unredeemable dickwads. The true dickwads always deny their dickwaddery.
    I wonder how much the dickwad in gaming problem is actually an internet problem. I’m pretty sure that when I was a teen and pre-teen and enjoying my first brush with gaming, I was also sometimes behaving like a dickwad… because I was a snotty teenager who didn’t know shit and I would find myself behaving like a twat because someone else didn’t know the difference between a goblin and a gnome as defined by Gygax. But I think I discovered that behaving like a dick at the gaming table was unsatisfying because then the game became less fun and the players all went their separate ways. Gaming actually became more fun when all of us at the gaming table realized that having ‘fun’ was a group activity and being a human and a friend was more important than being “right” about whether or not Gary Gygax beleived that killing baby kobolds was wrong for a Paladin. In the internet communities, there seem to be fewer consequences for behaving like a dickwad — the anonymity and all of that.

  6. December 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Well said, Stephan. If I think that there’s a unique virtue to RPGs that’s not just “one fruit is like another”, it’s that it pulls you towards a situation at the table where you get immediate and persistent feedback & can learn that being a dickwad is damaging your enjoyment of being a human being. Lots of other areas of life either don’t provide that feedback or actively reward you for acting like an asshat.

  7. December 22, 2012 at 4:59 am

    Somehow I avoided the age of dickwaddery (if only narrowly). I don’t really know how. I can’t claim any personal credit. Somehow, I was just immediately turned off by elitists of any stripe, engaged in any activity. So I actively endeavored not to be one. (as I write this I wonder if I don’t come off as an elitist of not being an elitist). Anyway, the point is that I totally agree with you and I feel like I was really lucky. Because I never scared anyone off or burned any bridges (at least for those reasons). But what this is leading to is your comment about talking about games rather than playing them. Certainly, I’d rather play, but, I do quite enjoy conversations about gaming even when not engaged in an actual game. I like to dissect what made a session fun (or tedious), or how interactions between players vs. characters can create interesting results. I love discussing game prep and planning and how best to make certain types of players happy. It’s a quasi-intellectual way to engage with RPGs in those times when you don’t have the opportunity to play, and in many cases, will improve your experiences when you ultimately do get some table time. If I’m half the DM my players claim me to be, I can attribute it in large part to the non-game exchanges with friends, players, DMs, and online personalities where I was able to get feedback on my ideas above and beyond what I might get by simply trying them with my group.

    Thanks for the thought provoking discussion, it is very on point with what I’m talking about.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2012

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