I have died 14 times.
I have killed my best friends.
I have fallen in love.
Usually when someone starts a story with this clichéd (but oh so fun) device, they’re about to pivot into a pitch for why books are great.
I’m going to make a much nerdier pivot into a pitch for why tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons) are great.
RPGs offer nearly limitless customization and improvisation. You can do nearly anything you want. Each item on that three-part list is a thing I have done in an RPG, and I think that they’ll show you what I mean.
1) 14 Deaths.
This happened in a campaign I’m currently playing: Wizard Cops. In Wizard Cops, I play Amy Brooks, a Gulf War veteran (it’s 1992) who is a highly conservative closeted lesbian with a dead father and a neglectful mother.
Amy has been killed 14 times, mostly by the evil entity known as Mr. Scratch. See, Amy has two problems; she is impulsive and she has one HELL of a martyrdom complex. So when she encountered this arrogant avatar of evil, Amy challenged him to a duel.
Scratch cut her in half.
Then sewed her back up. Then tore her apart. Rinse and repeat. It was brutal.
But the effect on the players was the astonishing part. Several cried. Part of that was shock (player characters don’t often die) and part was humor (apparently?) but a large part was genuine affection. They cared about Amy. It hurt to watch that.
In that sense, RPGs can be very real. For me, Amy did not come out of nowhere. Her character was generated out of my struggles, challenges, and moral dilemmas.
In my mind, Amy’s defining moment came midway through last semester. A cloud of darkness had consumed Boston, and everyone else wanted to focus on the cause and abandon the citizenry. Amy couldn’t stand for that. She demanded to go in and rescue everyone she could.
This led to a bitter argument between her and her employer over whether it was better to try and save these people or focus on stopping the root problem.
Saving civilians may not have been as efficient, but to Amy, it was the clear choice. She nearly died trying to fulfill that ideal, an ideal that arose out of my own idealism and regard for individual life.
Amy is her own person, but she is also a reflection of me. Her world has fractured in concert with my own. She gives me an outlet to deal with my challenges. Her struggles are hers, but through them, I can get a grip on mine.
2) I have killed my best friends.
This one comes from a game that I DM. For those who don’t know, the DM is the person who creates the world, runs the background characters, makes the story, etc.
In that capacity, I often have to try to kill, or at least severely maim, my players. At this point, only one of my players has not been killed (I’m coming for you and your damned lupus).
Player deaths can produce a variety of reactions. The first death in this campaign came when a player tried to contest the big bad’s deputy for an artifact. The player was frozen to death and lost the artifact.
A more recent death featured the players seemingly killing an ancient sorcerer and then attempting to loot his body, not realizing that he had some deadly contingency spells in place. An explosion went off, hurling the party’s most powerful player into a wall, where the revived villain pinned him down and slaughtered him.
Player death is a bit of a trick. In both of those cases, the affected players protested (half-heartedly I think, probably because they realized that the deaths were reasonable). It can be a test of patience and friendship to have to deal with that sort of thing as DM, given you’re being personally called out.
But it’s worth it. Good players and friends, like those two, will realize that this happens. Good DMs will recognize that the threat of death needs to be present to give the game stakes, and will also realize that both expected unexpected deaths serve their own purposes.
On the other hand, there are also players who just shrug whenever they die and players who keep a second character sheet handy because they die so often and don’t like changing stats.
You get all kinds.
3) I have fallen in love.
This, of course, is the item on that list that many people will experience in real life. Appropriately, this happened both in game and in real life.
Throughout 2014, I played in a Call of Cthulhu RPG that was more farcical than horrifying (go figure). In that campaign, which took place in Canada in 1852, I played the incomparable Robin Scherbatsky (named for my grief over the How I Met Your Mother finale), a woman professor with an early, aggressive feminism. That feminism and its manifestations (many crotch shots for misogynist men) became one of Robin’s defining traits.
Robin’s other defining trait didn’t emerge until the second session, when a new player with an attractive character stepped onto the scene. Being who she was, Robin casually asked out this new character. Their bizarre relationship spanned the rest of the campaign.
Six months later, I began a yearlong relationship with that character’s player.
Therein lies the real power of D&D. This is not a game created by anonymous programmers and writers. You and your friends create it. You pour yourselves into it, whether you mean to or not. You all bond right away–the game doesn’t move if you don’t.
I have made almost all of my most important relationships at Vassar through RPGs. My future housemates and several best friends are fellow players from my oldest game. Some of my more recently acquired but no less treasured friends come from more recent games. Other good friends are mutual friends of these players.
And of course, like I said, my longest running romantic relationship emerged from a friendship that began in an RPG. I did not meet that girl through the RPG, but it’s how we came to know each other. It’s how we developed mutual friends and started hanging out outside of the RPG. How we began to text and Skype.
I can confidently say that that relationship would not have happened without that Cthulhu campaign.
RPGs force creativity and spontaneity on the participants. Groups are too small for anyone to hide. You’re a part of the world and you will reveal parts of yourself. You will contribute. You will reveal things about yourself on impulse that you never intended to. You will bond. You will love it.
Obviously, there are a lot of group activities that can bring people together. But few force that kind of intense engagement. And if you’re a nerd like me, many of those other activities may feel closed off to you. This offers social opportunities to people who might otherwise prefer to avoid socializing.
So here’s to RPGs! My life wouldn’t be the same without them.