Roll Initiative

Where are my nerds, my gamers, my lovers of fantasy?  This one's for you.

I love tabletop RPG's.  An evening of collaborative storytelling, acting, food, and fellowship is my favorite way to relax and have fun with friends. There are many moving parts to an RPG, and each player at the table might enjoy a different facet of the game.  A more analytical mind might love parsing out their character's stats- using math to build the best set of abilities for how they want to play and what they want to accomplish.  I'm more about the role play and story; writing a back story and personality for a character, then getting into their head space and making decisions based on that back story and personality.  I like not only giving them abilities- but reasons they're good at them.

My favorite campaign to date, a home-brewed Pathfinder adventure that lasted four years, has recently come to a satisfying conclusion.  This game has seen me through some pretty crappy happenings in my personal life, and to an extent it's kept me sane.  This game met like clockwork every other Thursday, a constant to look forward to when everything else was changing. I had guaranteed time with my friends when I needed support.  It was both a way to escape and a way to heal. 

The character I built for this game was a rogue-ish bard, out to build her own inter-city Thieve's Guild.  She was resourceful, brilliant, and calculating- neither a villain, nor a hero.  She was Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, George Cooper, and Rosto the Piper all rolled into one opportunistic survivor.  Her name was Pearl, and she helped me both in the game and out of it.  Role-playing Pearl and getting into her mindset enabled me to be a whole lot tougher than I really am.  So, there were times when I took her for a walk outside of the game.  Any time I needed to do something frightening, make a hard decision, or even just talk about what had happened to me, I "put on Pearl" so to speak.

There was a period in my life when I needed to disappear.  Doctor's orders- no kidding.  She wanted me to get away from home so I could look back at it with a clear head, and stay away from someone who had done me quite a bit of harm.  For three weeks I couch surfed among trusted friends.  I needed to constantly plan my next move- where would I sleep that night?  Or the next?  What was my route to get to work?  All of that planning, calculating, roaming, being able to effectively "disappear"- that was something Pearl could easily do.

So, as I was ruminating on how this particular hobby has helped me cope, I began wondering how it's helped others.  I asked a couple of my GM's for their take on it.  Both are long-time gamers to my relatively short four years.  First up is my friend Drew, the GM for the Pathfinder game mentioned above.

How did you get into role-playing?

I did some role-playing back before I was even in high school.  My older brother and his friends had the original D&D Basic Edition starter box, which was my first introduction to role playing.  This was back around 30 years ago, when D&D Basic was just about the only RPG available.  My friends and I wanted to play, but we didn’t have the rules, so we just engaged in free-form role playing with made-up rules for a while after that.

I did manage to play a few scattered games with the actual rules on weekends while in high school, but nothing that lasted more than a few sessions.

In my first year of college, I was looking for social groups to join.  There was a board gaming group in one of the college dorms that I checked out, but it didn’t hold my interest long.  In the next room over there was a role playing group playing Champions, a superhero RPG.  They needed another player, so one of them just came over to the room I was in, grabbed me, and dragged me over to join their game.  I met several long-term friends there, including the woman I eventually married.

How long have you been gaming?

At least 30 years.  I don’t even remember how old I was when I started, in my mid-teens I think.

What aspect of the game do you enjoy the most?

Gaming has two different aspects that I really enjoy, two different goals which are usually considered opposed in most analysis of gaming styles.

First, there’s the aspect of roleplaying.  Being able to play the role of a character who isn’t me, but who I control and who is effectively my avatar in a shared fantasy world, allows me to overcome some of my own crippling social anxiety and shyness, the level of indirection of playing a character allows me to relax and have fun.  I’ve been able to explore social interactions and characters in situations that I’ll never be in, play out lives and stories that have taken me to unexpected places.  It’s fun, and helps me engage in a fun social activity that I might have otherwise been too shy to do.

Then there’s also the engineering, min-maxing side of me that enjoys the mathematical interaction of the rules, of finding ideal combinations of choices in building a character.  Min-maxing is usually looked down on among players, and I don’t generally find a pure optimized build with no personality all that interesting.  I enjoy looking for unexpected combinations, character build options that you wouldn’t expect to work well together, ways other than the obvious to make an effective character.  It really pleases the puzzle-solving part of my brain to work out what the mathematical options for building a character are, and figure out the optimum solution.  I do also sometimes enjoy the challenge of playing a sub-optimal character, but if I’m going to I prefer to know that they are sub-optimal and make them that way on purpose.

What aspect of the game has helped you the most?

I have used role playing games to help develop and practice my social skills, and to meet new friends.  I met my eventual wife and a number of other long-term friends in college through gaming, and other friends in gaming groups since then.  There was also a time after I was out of college where I had essentially no human contact outside of work and my wife for far too long, at which point I deliberately reached out to friends and joined a gaming group because I knew that while I could live without human contact, it wasn’t a good idea and I really needed to spend some time around other people.  I tend towards severe introversion if I don’t push myself to keep spending time with other people, and I know that it’s not healthy for me psychologically to shut off from everyone completely.  Gaming is a way I can make myself spend time being social with people, while the role playing aspect lets me overcome my own social anxiety. Granted, my social anxieties have become much less bad in recent years, but there was a time they were crippling.

For my second interview, I chose my friend Scott.  Scott is a long-time gamer and a high school science teacher who uses his home-brewed Savage Worlds setting as a teaching tool for some of his students.

Why did you decide to introduce tabletop gaming to your students?

I primarily teach students with Asperger’s. Social relationships are always a challenge.  Role playing games emphasize social interactions with specific rules for conduct and obvious foreseeable results for following these guidelines. They promote peer interactions and positive collaborative techniques. These are skills I strive to develop in my students and frequently have difficulty cultivating them in some individuals.  Lastly role playing offers a safe escapist universe, where the students can be heroes and successful in their endeavors without being derided for social shortcomings, criticized for a propensity for introversion, or denigrated for personal idiosyncrasies.

What were the educational goals of the game?     

I think the previous question hit this. When I started I also envisioned a dynamic method to teach history and a little science. However I must admit this was never fully realized. Game play superseded any historical or scientific vignettes that the plot might open up.

Did you see any changes in your students?

I’m involved in quite a number of peer interactive groups (Odyssey of the Mind, role playing, my classes, various electives I teach, robotics program). My students tend to pick many of the courses I teach. As a consequence it is not unusual for me to have them for several periods a day. My general teaching style is emphasizing creative endeavors though peer interactions. Role playing is one facet of this instructional model. As such I can say I have seen demonstrative skill development. However I would not hold role playing solely responsible for this development.

The one social skill that I can say role playing has been the greatest contributor in teaching is crisis resolution. Role playing is conflict centered endeavor (combats, disagreements on actions at the tale, debates and diplomatic missions). I have seen students endeavor to support and work towards resolving one central plan of action as they move through a mission. They do not work so collaboratively in the beginning. Some never truly change from their own individualized goals. However many became more attuned to the group needs and wants and how best to solve things as a team.

Did you learn anything GM-ing for young players?

Younger players a little more narcissistic and slightly less able to be attentive. Consequently it helps to keep the action going and make sure that every player seated at the table has an opportunity for their character to express themselves.

What advice would you give other educators considering RPG's as a teaching tool?

I think in districts you need to be sensitive to certain topics and current events. Religious beliefs obviously, violence sometimes, misogynistic behaviors, alcohol use and even some mild elements of sexuality. These are elements that have been emphasized to various degrees in a traditional role playing environment.  It helps to know your population, what their parents find acceptable and what your administration is comfortable with. If you feel you are working outside these parameters permission slips and a frank dialogue with your administrator is wise, so there are no awkward conversations later.

So, my Lovelies, my gamers, bring me your stories!  I want to know- Has role playing helped you?  

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