I have been asked: How does playing a role-playing game help meeting people?
The simple answer is within in the form and the response of the player group. A role-playing game is a game without any set answer just one set goal: to survive. There is no finish line, no end game, and no control of the board to monopolize. There are only challenges to overcome and challenges for players to agree to undertake.
It is very free form. The leader of the game, a dispassionate player who creates the challenges for the players in secret, describes what a player can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. He describes this data for a player to analyze and interpret. Players respond to this game leader and build upon the challenges by adding to the information they share at the table. Do they act together? Do they double-cross one another? Do they play with passion? Are they helpful in a scrum? Do they withhold data only they know?
This can all be blamed on playing a character-type much in the way someone in customer service might say, “That’s not my job.” This is a valid way to play the game and it is left to the player’s choice. There is no one to say how to play this game, unlike a tactical game of chess or a competitive sport like football. Rules exist to present a framework for understanding the risk in a game situation not to limit player interaction or imagination.
So “playing a character” can be a mask through which a player’s character can be interpreted. And through the interaction within the game, players will get acquainted with one other. Playing an ELF, for example, is mediated through the player’s interpretation of an ELF. So no matter what the excuse for player actions, the player cannot claim to be an ELF his or her self. Same as being a THEIF or a MAGIC USER does not transform a player into a cat burglar or a magician. What is clearly on display is the player’s interpretation of what is ELF or a THIEF or a MAGIC USER.
And that says allot about someone too.
But the most exciting part of the game, and the most revealing of its player, is how they overcome their own limitations. In Dungeons and Dragons, players have six statistics that reflect risk. Other games have a similar base ability function, which interacts with the mathematics of risk. These are random rolls that we call character generation. In D&D, these base abilities have a numeric average in the range of 3 – 18. The higher the number, the better the odds for the player.
So if a player plays a character with a base ability of 6 “Strength,” or base ability of 18, how they choose to play that character will reflect the player’s choices. These base statistics can reflect things in our real world experience. To prove a point, I will suggest a few vivid examples of real world challenges that attest to a “character” from which you may extrapolate their opposite: learning difficulties, naivety, clumsiness, poor health, poor leadership and physical weakness. These do not dictate how a player chooses to play their character. That choice, that reflection of character, never leaves the player. On the one-hand, the player’s abstract reasoning supporting a physically weak swordsman can be a compelling story at a table of fellow travelers but the risk of failure for the individual is greater. There is an implied collaborative success within this player’s choice. On the other hand, risk being an element of every game, a player may choose to limit their exposure to risk by choosing to play swordsmen only IF the ability score is high and the character is physically strong. This implies a specialized choice that reflects upon the player, not his or her fictitious avatar.
Is one way better than the other? That’s not the point. The point in how the player chooses what his or her character chooses to become is the window through which the player may be observed. It is a kind of layman’s Rorschach test. The game does not limit any player’s display of courage, cowardice, perseverance, impatience, team spirit, or individuality through their character. The player brings all that with them to the table.
And that’s how you get to know someone by playing with them for an hour rather than having a conversation with them – to paraphrase Socrates.