The Randomness of Roleplay

Growing up, I had two interests: telling stories and being an actor. I chose one path over the other. For good reason: I was only good at one of them.

Many of my friends are actors. I was always a little bit jealous of the way they could put on the role of a character and live inside their skin, wearing their garb, thinking their thoughts. I would never be that bold. But what I could do was play RPGs, or roleplaying games. I had wanted to play them from the time I was a teenager, but I never found a group to join. That was long before the Internet or gaming stores so finding other players was difficult in a small town in upstate New York. Even more so for a girl.

Luckily I moved to North Carolina in my mid-20s and that’s when I started dating Clay. He was already in a roleplaying group and they welcomed me right off despite the fact that I was the only woman. I instantly became hooked. Like I said, I’m not an actor by any stretch. In fact, I’m awful, but no one in the group seemed to care even though some of them were actors themselves.

Oddly enough I’ve played very little Dungeons & Dragons, which was the mainstay of most RPGs in those days. Our group had burnt out on it just before I joined. So instead, I was introduced to other games. Marvel Super Heroes. Chill. Boot Hill. Call of Cthulhu. Daredevils. Gangbusters. As well as numerous others we made up on our own. Rules are a big thing in RPGs, but for us they always took a backseat. They never controlled the game. Our games were always about progressing the story and letting characters evolve.

It was a delight to create new characters. A rogue. An elf. A villain. A hero. Or even a coward. The possibilities were endless. I could experiment with any archetype. Those people scribbled quickly onto character sheets came to life at the table we sat around. They suddenly had depth they hadn’t before on the paper, when they were just a collection of numbered stats. And amazingly, over the course of time, a history was created for them via the stories we told. They became fully rounded characters.

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I didn’t realize at the time but this was even harder than acting because it was all spontaneous. Our style of play was very light and always humorous. Quips were traded constantly during each adventure. Some characters were broad while others were subtle. But with an accent or not, we always brought those characters to life via our decisions and dialogue. No one knew how the scenes would play out or how each character would react to situations or to the other characters.

Some of that spontaneity did come from rolling dice. It brought some of the most thrilling moments in the game. It contributed to the randomness of your character’s existence. Nothing is as thrilling as knowing the roll could mean the failure or success of a mission or action. It was often life or death—and death had meaning because we really came to love our characters; nobody wanted to lose them.

Sometimes improbability didn’t matter. If a character (say, Clay’s) wanted to try and bash in the skull of a Cthulhu-type monster with a shovel, we were more interested to see what happened rather than whether the rules said it was impossible. He rolled well that night and the event became historic.

Eventually real life intervened and our roleplaying group went their separate ways. I felt a profound loss, from the departure of close friends, but also the departure from roleplaying in general. A career comes first and I poured all of my creative energies into writing, instead—but now, years later I still miss it. That sense of creating a character out of expected and unexpected events, and finding out where they might go. That part of walking in someone else’s skin.

Yes, to some extent, it is like writing, but then again not. As an author, I am the sole deciding factor in what happens to my characters. But in roleplaying, an event can happen so unexpectedly that your character totally changes, and moves away from what was anticipated. That randomness can come from a weird action by another player or a bad dice roll. Like life, it’s a total surprise, for good or bad. That will never happen if you are in total control of your own story.

Now my old RPG gang is reforming. Will it be the same as I remember? Will we have as much fun telling new stories and developing intriguing characters? I know we will. Because even though I’m not an actor, I still like to play with characters.

Susan Griffith and her husband Clay have written and published together for more than two decades. They are authors of the Vampire Empire trilogy—The Greyfriar, The Rift Walker, and The Kingmakers—and the Crown & Key trilogy, as well as the first Vampire Empire: A Gareth and Adele novel, The Geomancer, which hits shelves November 3.

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