Clayton Christensen, the celebrated author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, talks often about how marketers long ago became convinced that we make decisions about which products and services to buy on the basis of who we are and how we self-identify. He posits that much of this line of thinking is inaccurate, and that what we’re really doing when we make purchasing decisions (which can be extended to choosing political leaders, for example) is hiring. We are selecting something (a product, a service, a candidate, a way to spend our time) to do a job for us.
Recently Christensen mentioned in a radio interview that researchers discovered a huge portion of milkshake sales at a fast food restaurant chain were made early in the morning. This baffled the researchers until they watched customers and asked them follow-up questions after they’d purchased milkshakes early in the morning. It turns out most of these customers had purchased milkshakes because they had a long drive ahead of them, and they needed something to do while they drove. The milkshakes served as a distraction that would last longer than donuts or other alternatives.
This got me thinking about tabletop RPGs, and what we hire them to do. Why does every roleplayer I know have more games than they’ll ever play? Why do I support Kickstarters for games my Friday night group will never even try? Why do I no longer collect and paint miniatures, even though I was obsessed with them in my early gaming years? What am I hiring RPGs to do for me?
Here are a few that come to mind, though I’m sure there are other jobs for which I and other gamers hire tabletop RPGs:
To Enable A Unique Social Storytelling Experience
The play is the thing. The pinnacle of the tabletop roleplaying experience is sitting with my friends at the table, immersed in play. That’s the moment when everything comes together, when anything is possible, when improvisation and luck and social chemistry collide in unpredictable and fantastic ways. I haven’t found any alternative to tabletop roleplaying that can provide this unique opportunity.
To Help Us Explore Fictional Possibilities
Reading rulebooks and supplements when you know you may never play them might be thought of as a fool’s errand, but these books are uniquely suited to imaginative experiments, even when you’re not playing the game. Most RPGs incorporate a specific setting, or at the least a broadly-implied setting. Some of them have meticulously-detailed settings full of dramatic history, fascinating geography, and bizarre denizens.
While novels establish worlds, sometimes in exhaustive detail, they do so primarily to further a specific narrative. Tabletop RPGs exist to enable the stories that emerge from that magical gumbo of elements the players bring to the table. This emphasis on painting in broad strokes and filling in little bits here and little bits here makes roleplaying books an excellent catalyst for imaginative minds. What if the player characters were a group of orcs who defected to the Armies of the East? How would a full-scale war on Mars affect the rest of the solar system?
Maybe you’re thinking of what it would be like to run a character in a game, and maybe you’re thinking about all the different types of campaigns you could run as a GM. Regardless, even games you’ll never play can provide hours of intriguing thought experiments.
To Help Us See Our Own World from New Angles
The nuts and bolts of how characters are created, conflicts are resolved, and stories are told in roleplaying games can provoke deeper thinking than might expect.
For example, when I was first introduced to D&D in the 7th grade, I was struck by the fact that Intelligence and Wisdom were separate attributes. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the qualities of intelligence and wisdom overlap, history showed that frequently really smart people don’t exhibit corresponding wisdom, and vice versa. This isn’t to say that in real life, humans can be reduced to a set of statistics, but it did open my eyes to an important broader truth.
By the same token, exposure to RuneQuest turned me off D&D’s alignment system. The way the gods of Glorantha and their worshippers’ cults interacted was much more fluid and contained the same kinds of contradictions, exceptions, and weird anomalies I saw in real life. The Lunars brought stability and prosperity to the lands they conquered, but they also unleashed unbelievable horrors in pursuit of conquest, while the old gods who opposed Chaos were led by a deity who had nearly destroyed the world through his own arrogance. This complexity gave rise to fantastic possibilities for characters and situations that could lead to much more interesting stories than any alignment grid. It also led me to think deeply about the perils of calling groups of people good or evil on the basis of their religion or cultural background.
To Provide Well-Crafted Artifacts to Savor
I enjoy maps, pens that draw the perfect line every time, and well-presented information. I consider myself very fortunate to live quite close to an excellent bookstore. I have been known to spend inordinate amounts of time nerding out in the art and stationery store, obsessing over which Moleskine to buy. So when I come across a beautifully-produced game book, it warms my cold little heart.
Seeing something created with such intention, attention to detail, and high standards is a reminder that in a sea of mediocrity, there are people out there who care about what they produce. There’s real enjoyment in reading a book that expresses the rules of the game succinctly, draws me into the game world, and marries words, images, and layout in a satisfying way. It takes real skill do do these things well, and that’s inspiring.