Role Playing Game. The term is so ubiquitous these days I always seem to look past the words themselves. A game, where you play a role. This doesn’t seem to chime with the majority of the games, and I’m of course talking computer games here, with that moniker. Take the Final Fantasy games, perhaps the most storied series in videogame RPG history. Not since the early 90s have entries asked you to assume a role. Rather, you are provided one; Cloud. Vaan. Squall. These are characters already fully formed with player assuming the role of guide rather than that of a character. Other games, specifically the open world games of Bethesda, are truer to these arc words but even there you are given a prescribed role in the greater world.
I never played tabletop RPGs as a kid. My friends thought my obsession with computers an odd affliction, so any foray into the uber-nerdy realm of rolled d20s and hand drawn maps was a non-starter, even had I the fortune of encountering a group. Tabletop RPGs are the origin of the term and remains the truest form of the genre. They are inherently social, collaborative in the way of very few similar pastimes, and are completely, completely ridiculous. Herein lies the fun.
For the uninitiated a tabletop RPG is essentially a guided conversation. There are no pieces, (usually) no board, and no limits. The game is created and curated by a Gamesmaster, a GM who, depending on the particular game is either guiding you through a quest of their creating or is the narrator of a prefab mission. Either way the GM is God: she controls the world, the non-player characters and the rules. The players create their own characters from scratch and place them in the GM’s world. Different games have different settings and rules, but within very loose limits the player is free to create to their heart’s desire.
I entered this world of worlds only recently and was an immediate convert. My introduction was a sci-fi adventure, full of transient brain-maps, interchangeable bodies and ancient, lurking AI warlords. This shit was immediately my jam. From an extensive list of options I elected to play a Hyperelite Ultimate. Say the words aloud. Feel them roll off the tongue. I was in love. In this universe this is essentially a space Nigel Farage, a snooty 0.0001 percenter dedicated to the furtherment of the human race, no matter the cost. This was a character whose morals and driving forces could not have been more different from my own. I do like a challenge.
At the start of our quest, hand crafted by our experienced GM, I had little idea of who Sideways Abacus was. I knew his background. I knew his goals. I did not know him. After the first two sessions, I knew him as well as I knew myself. He was an ancient consciousness whose vast wealth had allowed him to exist for millenia. He would flit from body to body as needed, never aging, never tiring, eternally young. But he was vexxed. This eternal life led to a case of the Immortality Blues, a thrillseeking, death defying desire for excitement. It was for this reason he joined the covert Firewall organisation and began his adventuring.
I did not create this identity myself, it emerged from the playing. Moment to moment play sees the GM setting the scene and the players deciding on a course of action. We are free to do anything we can think of. Could we decide to ignore the quest and get into a bar fight? Sure. Could we contact the local gang, set them to investigating while we spend the whole session stealing a ship? Why not? You don’t of course. With a skilled enough GM you make decisions to further the mystery, garner clues and reach the endgame, sometimes without even knowing this is what you’re doing.
The first location we entered was a shipping office. The GM laid the room out to us and we set about looking for clues. I, with my extensive background in videogames, immediately dove into the nearest ventilation shaft. I did this because the GM mentioned there was a vent. If there’s a vent, there must be something in the vent, or else he wouldn’t have mentioned the vent. So I, the Fred Godwin of the stars, oiled myself up and slithered into the filthy metal orifice. There was nothing there. Furthermore, this was a ridiculous course of action for such a figure. Why would he do that? Still, it happened again and again. Abacus took on a crazy android with his fists. He noisily demolished a door during a supposedly stealthy infiltration. In a toxic locale, he removed his helmet and used it as a club to hammer a techno-zombie. Every time a risk arose I took it and somehow emerged (largely) unscathed. It was magnificent.
The end of the quest required a single character to stay behind to manually detonate a nuclear reaction. The coincidence was almost too much. Abacus was there in a flash. He wouldn’t die, his wealth meant backup consciousnesses aplenty, but he would lose out on the progressive experience points granted to his cohorts. I didn’t care, the opportunity was too thematic to pass up. I had not planned for my character to be a semi-suicidal thrill freak, but in the end that was exactly who the story created. It worked, it was organic, and it felt so much more interesting than simply filling out boxes on a sheet or moulding a horrific visage in a character creator.
From this game I developed an insatiable itch, one that the narrow corridors of videogames were no longer able to scratch. I started my own game, became the GM and created my world. After a single play session it’s hard to tell if if I have succeeded, but it’s a start. A part of me has always wanted to play god. Now I can.
Song for evading vast, unknowable consciousnesses.
Having an atmospheric soundtrack to a game does seem to add a certain cinematic flair to the whole affair. Describing the moment your character disarms an arachnoid security bot while scorching a mercenary with his jetpack exhaust to the tune of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky lacks a certain drama. Haven’t used it yet, but this ditty is almost certain to get some playtime in future sessions.