Roleplaying Resurrection

This past weekend (10/8 – 10/9), my bestest friend, Dave Cohen, actually agreed to come all the way down from RI to participate in the wild extravaganza that is DC Game Day. On Saturday and Sunday, we found ourselves navigating the shadowy incompetence of the Metro system, marching all over the northwest corner of DC, and occasionally rolling dice and playing games. DC Game Day has the feel of a mini-con, several games spread over two days of four sessions, friendly and intimate where strangers fall into easy conversation with one another. Dave and I spent the first session trundling down from BWI, and we played Savage Worlds Saturday evening, Gamma World Sunday morning, and Fiasco Sunday evening.

Savage Worlds is a hoot, a game that somehow manages to be both light and nimble while also being crunchy and numbery. I get that the primary–ONLY?–rule is: you need a four. “I want to shoot the 35′ Nazi bear.” “Roll the dice, you need a four.” “Do I see the trolls approaching?” “Roll the dice, you need a four.” “Can I blow up the barracks with my mortar?” “Roll the dice, you need a four.” Of course, it appeared there were lots and lots of conditional modifiers: there’s fog rolling in, so you’re at -2, but you’re using a scope, so you’re at +2, but it’s long range, so it’s -3, but you have “the drop,” so you get +4, and so on forever and ever, bang-boom.

For me, the real revelation of the weekend was Fiasco, a game I’ve heard many people rave about so passionately that you feel like edging away from them before the drooling and screaming begins. This game tends to elicit appreciation, in the same way that brainwashing encourages cooperation. Well, now I’ve played it, and… hold on, I’ve started drooling, which means the screaming comes next…

It’s been a little while since I’ve been any good at roleplaying. Despite being Vulnerable 15 to peer pressure, I used to have no trouble at all acting up a storm at the gaming table, because I knew that I would be hopeless at strategy and planning. When it came to my turn, I could kill it with the shuddery lip and the welling tears, the heartfelt speeches, the utter consumption and apprehension of my character. I would most often play clerics of some sort, because everybody loves a devoted holy man who won’t shut up about his god, right?

Of course, this was a long time ago, and I’ve grown considerably (in several directions), and I’ve come to realize that I just don’t have that piece of myself anymore. It’s tough figuring out the mentality and motivation of a pretend person, and then having to stick to that for hours at a time. Can’t I just roll a dice and tell you my result? That’s a whole lot easier.

And so, Fiasco. In Fiasco, there’s not really dice rolling, except for the start and middle bits, and trust me, those don’t count. It’s all decisions, decisions and storytelling, decisions and storytelling and improvisational roleplaying. Uh oh, there’s that word. Roleplaying. I’m going to have to sit at a table with other people and write a story out loud in the voice of a character that I just met, all while those other people are staring at me and judging me and hating me. This kind of thrown-in-the-deep-end roleplaying is a little daunting. No, wait, that’s not the right term. It’s gonad-shrinkingly terrifying.

For our game, there were four of us playing, one Matt and assorted Daves. Dave had played before, but for Matt, Dave, and Dave (AKA me), this was all brand new and miles outside of our comfort zone. This was the perfect example of, “What do you do?”–“What can I do?”–“What do you want to do?” type of gaming. The story is wide-open, and it belongs entirely to you, only you’re telling it with and through and near other people, and the goal is, as near as I could determine, to tell a complete story, without an actual winner. Except when there would be.

I was very lucky in my seat selection, since I did not have to kick off my first game without having the slightest idea what was going on. No, that responsibility fell to Matt, who appropriately responded with a kind of frozen horror. I can’t imagine what I would have done had that been me. I might have cried. Or wet my pants. Or rushed out of the game. It may seem like an easy thing to act out a story without a specific set of boundaries, but it may have just been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.

In short order, Matt roared to life, and then handed off to Dave, who enthusiastically jumped in, and then it came to me, and then finally to Dave. We all took our turns with varying success, as we built out this world like awkward and stuttering gods, throwing twists and turns at each other with growing glee, finding our fireside voices, which–at least in my case–had grown rusty and cracked from lack of use. At one point, during one of my turns, my brain simply blanked. I’m not saying I couldn’t think of another scene. I’m saying that completely I lost my language, and all I had was a kind of prehistoric grunting and mumbling. Once you find yourself here, it’s excruciating to find your way back. But I did, and carried on, and the story continued.

This was the hardest I’ve ever worked to have this much fun in my entire life. After two hours, we found the end of our story, which was notably satisfying for all our characters, and I felt simultaneously exhausted and energized. I looked back over this story we had collaboratively told, this verbal movie we had cooperatively shot, and I was astounded, not by its erratic randomness, but by its precise cohesion, by the way it all hung together. This was a visual experience that lived because we four breathed life into it.

When you think about it, that’s a pretty incredible game.


  1. Haha! Great story, welcome to the club 🙂

  2. Fiasco? Don’t know if I’m ready to tame that beast yet (if it can be tamed). Kudos!

  3. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Snarls-at-Fleas: Thank you! And what a club it is. Now I have the anxiety about whether this was a unique experience, and trying it out again will be a huge disappointment.

    @Tourq: When we FINALLY go to a convention together, this will have to be the game we both get in on. After one of them FATE type games, of course.

  4. Roleplaying. I’m going to have to sit at a table with other people and write a story out loud in the voice of a character that I just met, all while those other people are staring at me and judging me and hating me. This kind of thrown-in-the-deep-end roleplaying is a little daunting. No, wait, that’s not the right term. It’s gonad-shrinkingly terrifying.

    The sentiment you’ve shared here is extremely common, and it’s one of the main reasons RPGs (which should be, as S. John Ross insists, the greatest storytelling medium anywhere) strike the average socially-normative human being as juvenile escapist bullshit.

    Ron Edwards’s point still stands: if you grew up thinking mainline D&D is ‘roleplaying’ then you probably know nothing about actually playing a role. Not your fault. Blame Gygax and company. They’re the ones who gave you a social environment in which you were theoretically encouraged to do exactly what Fiasco does, and replaced the most interesting parts with leftover dicerolling bits of absolutely stultifying hand-to-hand combat games.

    Robin Laws wrote about this for ‘See Page XX’:

    I don’t think I’m exactly going out on a limb when I say that we are a glorious geek tribe, and that, as a whole, we tend more to certain personality quirks than others. Further, I submit that we contain more than our fair share of people for whom the split between thought and feeling is particularly fraught. Many of us are to one degree or another uncomfortable in standard social ?situations. The entire roleplaying form can be seen as an alternate mode of socialization in which the boundaries of interaction are mathematically codified – and plus, you get super-powers.

    It is therefore the ultimate form of entertainment for smart people who distrust emotion and have boundary issues.

    Except when the games come with persuasion mechanics. They smash the boundaries, dredging up feelings you’d rather not deal with. To lose control over your PC is like losing control over yourself. Worse, the things your PC does while persuaded or controlled are highly likely to be, if not unsettling, embarrassing. They get you worked up, and steal the power you’ve come to the gaming table to experience.

    No wonder players who feel this way avoid games with persuasion and other behavior-altering mechanics.

    So it goes.

  5. Pekka Pekuri says:

    “To lose control over your PC is like losing control over yourself.”

    I don’t know if Robin Laws is projecting but for me losing control is losing agency. I don’t mind playing the BBEG’s lackey for a while if I get to _play_.