Thursday, February 14, 2002

Okay, it's time. I'm two posts late, but that's okay. No hurries, right? I'm sure you guys have enough of my stuff to read as it is. But in keeping with the basic purpose of this blog - to let you know about things that are important to me which you probably don't or won't ever get personally involved with - I think it's time I explained for those of you who don't know what exactly I mean when I say roleplaying.

To begin with, I'm not talking about anything even vaguely computer-related. If you walked in on a session of the Phoenix Earth roleplaying game what you'd see is myself and seven of my friends seated around the dining room table. The lights would be on and the table would contain three things: snacks (the traditional roleplaying snacks are soda and pretzels, though we like to be good hosts and provide more varied and/or healthy munchies when possible), pencils and loose sheets of paper, and a pile of dice.

The game is played through a mix of improvisational acting and oral storytelling. Every player begins the game with a role to act out, a "character" (to use the technical term). Exactly who a player's character is gets worked out before the game ever begins, and is preferably a fairly personality that the player understands in some detail. Consider Twilight's character in Phoenix Earth, Kevin Barett:

Kevin Barett is a young twenty-something who lives on Mars in 2081. His father is Cornelius Barett, older brother to the president and CEO of Ares Arms, Inc. In the 2080s Mars is a mob town, and it is Kevin's uncle Alistair who supplies most of the mob families with their guns. Kevin's a bit of a punk and a wise guy, who thinks he's tough because he's a Barett and drives an expensive sports car with a big engine. He owns a jazz club in the American quarter called the Saxy Lady, which in Kevin's opinion is the height of wit.

When coming up with a character the most important thing to keep in mind is that the character must be interesting. Twilight's a veteran roleplayer and I think Kevin is definitely an interesting character. He's a punk kid who's a bit of a coward, which leaves him plenty of room to grow as a person and discover new depths of courage in himself that even he didn't realize he had.

That personal growth is one of what I would consider to be the three main draws of roleplaying. The players all start off with a character to play, but they have only the vaguest idea of what will happen. At the start of the current Phoenix Earth game I told my players that they would be starting on the third international spacestation, GSS Olympia, where Paramount Pictures would be opening its remake of The Matrix (the first major motion picture for several decades which was shot with human actors). We worked out plausible reasons for each character's presence aboard Olympia, but nobody had any idea what would happen once they were aboard. It's fun and exciting to see how these characters react to new situations - that's where the improv part comes in - and a large part of how "good" a player is is defined by how well he or she can know how his or her character would act in a given situation and play accordingly.

As far as the mechanics of "playing" a character go, the game is played by talking. Because of that, and since most of the game is dialogue, it's conventional to refer to the actions of one's character as in the first-person. So suppose in the game Kevin walks up to a ticket counter at Six Flags Space Mountain to ask for a ticket. Twilight might say something like this: "I'm going to walk up to the ticket counter. Excuse me, Miss, ah, one please." The first sentence is Twilight telling everybody else around the dining room table what Kevin is doing; the second is Twilight speaking in Kevin's voice. Because Kevin has a pronounced Jersey accent (as many Martian Americans do) he'd probably speak the second sentence in an accent. You can see, perhaps, how roleplaying is half acting, and it probably won't surprise you to know that virtually everybody in my roleplaying circle of friends is (or was) a drama kid.

The second main component of roleplaying is the game master (or DM, from "dungeon master," by now an archaic term). This is usually the person who runs the game. Other players are only responsible for knowing their own characters. The DM is responsible for knowing every other human being in the game world, knowing the game world itself inside and out, and crafting a rough plotline for the story. Some of that knowledge the DM is supposed to share liberally, such as what the game world is actually like. My players like Phoenix Earth in part because they like hearing about my fanciful version of the future. They like hearing interesting tidbits such as what women's eye makeup looks like in 2081, or finding out that Timex's new flagship wristwatch is called the Chronometer (which is why everybody in the 22nd century refers to watches as "chronometers" - the Timex Chronometer was so successful that, like Kleenex, it gave its name to a whole category of consumer products). Besides being interesting, such details create the sense (which we deliberately buy into) that 21st century Earth a la Phoenix Earth is a real place.

Other details should not be shared. For instance, one of the primary villains in Phoenix Earth is a character I play whom the players know only as Karl. Karl is an enigma - he appears to be an international terrorist, who is at once convinced of his supreme power and yet is routinely beaten bloody by the players when he attempts to confront them (at one particularly memorable moment, one of the characters was beating him with a fencing mask while Karl screamed threats). Clearly there's more to him than meets the eye - the man can apparently disappear at will - but who exactly Karl is nobody knows. I am exactly sure of who Karl is (Eliani helped me refine that, though; thanks), and when the players find that out they will have reached a major turning point in the plot.

The plot is another enjoyable part of the story, because nobody knows what the plot of the game is, not even me. I have a rough outline of major events, but the players' actions absolutely determine what actually happens. My favorite example of this is from the last Phoenix Earth game, when the party decided to use its magical powers to play the stock market (again, more on Phoenix Earth "magic" at a later date). The characters had among them some pretty potent magical abilities, so they bought a bunch of stock in an obscure company which made skyboards (for use in skysurfing, an extreme-sport combination of gliders and trick waterskiing). They then visited the New York Stock Exchange and used their combined abilities to cause everyone on the floor to believe that it was imperative they buy stock in this company. Now, this is a perfectly natural thing to do for people who have the ability to change what others think, but I could hardly let the players become millionaires for so little effort. Or could I? Instead of thwarting them outright (Kharmak: "okay, I get up and go to the NY Stock Exchange." Me: "uh, no you don't."), one day on their visit to the stock exchange the characters noticed that their stock was mysteriously falling in price. Across the visitor's catwalk, a young woman dressed in "man shirt, short skirt" (to quote Shania Twain) gave them a smug smile. That young woman turned out to be a fun and important character, and she wouldn't have been introduced if not for the players' doing the unexpected.

I don't think this kind of souped-up game of "let's pretend" appeals to everybody, but without actually playing the game I think that's probably the best I can do to describe it - unless you have questions, of course, which is what the comment box is for. The last major part of roleplaying is the camaraderie. We're a bunch of good friends sitting around a table snacking, telling each other a good adventure story and acting (which we love to do anyway). That in itself is a good formula for a hang-out. But I shouldn't give the impression that we spend the whole time of a five-hour session (the length of an average session for us; completing a whole story arc can take dozens of such sessions) playing the game. The action is constantly broken up by catching up, commenting on the game, and laughter. Ah, the inside jokes ... I doubt any of us will ever forget "poisonous snake ..." or "I don't mean to be difficult, but ..." or the infamous black ball.

So that's about it, ladies and gentlemen. That's how you roleplay. And hopefully you can get an idea of why I love it.

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