Role Playing Game. The term is so ubiquitous these days I always look past the words themselves. A game where you play a role. This description 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 history. Not since the early 90s have entries asked you to assume a role. Rather you are provided one; Cloud. Vaan. Squall. These are fully formed characters, the player assuming the role of guide. 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. Tabletop RPGs are the origin of the term and remain the truest form of the genre. They are inherently social, collaborative in the way of very few similar pastimes, and are completely, completely ridiculous.
For the uninitiated a tabletop RPG is a guided conversation. There are no pieces (usually), no board, and no limits. The game is created and curated by a Gamesmaster or GM who, depending on the game, guides you through a quest of their own creation or narrates 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 into this world. Different games have different 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. Shivers. In our universe this amounted to 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 force 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 ageing, 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 and set them to investigating while we spend the whole session stealing a ship? Sure. You don’t of course. With a skilled GM you make decisions that 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 man. 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 on a stealthy infiltration. In one toxic locale he removed his helmet and used it 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 reactor. The coincidence was almost too much and Abacus was there in a flash. His wealth of backup consciousnesses meant he would elude death but he would lose out on the experience points granted to his cohorts. I didn’t care. This was an opportunity 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 the character the story created. It worked, it was organic, and it felt much more interesting than simply moulding a horrific visage in a character creator and calling it a day.
From our game I developed an insatiable itch, one that the narrow corridors of videogames were no longer able to scratch. So, 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 I have 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 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. I haven’t used it yet, but this ditty is almost certain to get some playtime in future sessions.