Real Playing Games

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As far as I know, the phrase "Role Playing Game" is a hand-me down from the age of wargaming where the role you played was not so much a character but a position. You were a general leading an army. Which general? Patton? Napolean? Geronimo? It didn't matter. Your role had no real character. What mattered was that you were the one who got to move the troops around. You decided what the army did and weathered the outcome.
Nowadays, the Role in RPG equates to something like an actor's role in an impromptu play. The matter of Role seems all important, it wears laurel leaves on its head as it stands proudly on its ivory pedestal, even though it is often a goofy thing, occasionally annoying and always self-absorbed.
What if we got it wrong?
What if it turns out that we accepted the term Role Playing Game without question and built around it a system of advanced navel gazing where your character is deemed the most important thing because that is the R in RPG. Think about Bards for a moment. We love them because they come packed full of character and yet we hate them for the exact same reason. When they steal the spotlight with some sudden outburst of self-expression, perhaps trying to woo yet another tavern maid, it can be amusing and yet it also stalls the forward progress of the game. If it goes on for too long other players will rebel demanding that we switch gears and move onwards.

(Congratulations to everyone who got this reference.)
Characters make the game interesting. That goes without saying, but characters are not the main focus of the game. An RPG is an elaborate dance between what the player characters choose to do and how the DM's world reacts. It is a funhouse reflection of real life, something that is notably untrue and yet respected for just how real it can seem, providing that any of it could possibly be true.
So here is my hot take of the moment.
The R in Role Playing Game should actually stand for Reality.
But we hates reality! We play these games to escape reality! Reality bites! Reality blows! Why do you want to take a dump all over something we love by bringing reality into it!?!
Because it's already there.
Whether you like it or not.
DM: The canyon looms large and vast before you.
Player: I fly across it.
DM: How?
Player: I just do.
DM: No. You need a way of doing that, like a flight spell or a magic carpet or at least a pair of wings, all of which at the last time I checked you do not have.
Player: You said this is a game of imagination and I am picturing my Bard flapping his arms like a pair of wings and flying across the canyon.
DM: Well, okay, um, it starts out alright. Your flapping arms carry you about five feet before gravity takes hold and causes you to plummet into the chasm (rolls dice). Take 24 points of damage.
Most games dictate what you can or cannot do. You cannot cut across the board in Monopoly even though it does seem to represent a city block. That would be cheating. But in an RPG your character can do anything you can imagine that character doing - within reason - to venture outside of reason you need an excuse to bring it all back into reason. What determines what is within reason and what is without? That is our collective imagination expressing what it knows about reality by way of the lives that we live. While you may want to escape reality, your imagination is only interested in those things which will help it deal with it.
So you can cheat in an RPG. Fail to record all the hit point damage your character has taken. Fudge a die roll or two. Nobody will mind if it doesn't get too out of hand. You can even rewrite the rules to fit the adventure you want to run. One thing you cannot do is simply break the underlying reality of the game. Stop recording damage simply because you don't want your character to take any more damage? At that point you are cheating. Even though you are not playing against other people at the table, they will accuse you of cheating and get quite mad about it. Why? Because you are breaking the illusion of reality. You are stealing from them the fantasy of it all being real.
So what does TOON have to do with all of this? TOON is here because no argument worth its salt should go without taking a few pot shots at its own feet. TOON is a Steve Jackson game from the 1980's where everyone plays a Loony Tunes style character in a cartoon world. And before you write me off as some crunch loving simulationist, realize that TOON is also one of my favorite RPGs of all time.
What makes TOON interesting is (once again) not the characters you play but the idea of playing in a world ruled by cartoon logic. What happens is not what should happen but the funniest possible thing that could happen. TOON does not exist without a sense of reality, its the reality is just not our own. This is the reality of Daffy & Bugs given to us by Saturday morning cartoons. In a TOON game you could cross a canyon simply by flapping your arms like wings. But! You can only do so if you fail a Smarts check first, reason being that your character needs to prove itself dumb enough not to realize that what one is doing cannot actually be done. Gravity only works when you pay attention to it.
(It doesn't pay to play the smart one in a TOON game)
In a TOON game you are playing With reality, not without it or against it. The same can be said to a lesser degree for all RPGs. Faster than light travel is about as impossible as the idea of dongling ones fingers about and having a fireball appear. But what if it were true? What if we were to tweak our existence in just this little bit? What would be the logical ramifications?
What if we were to tweak it a whole lot? How far can we twist reality before it breaks? TOON takes it quite a ways but even it knows when to say when. Characters can fly by flapping their arms, but not so well that they can fly into outer space (Oh, COME ON! WHY NOT!!!). Characters in TOON cannot die. This is important because one of the tenets of TOON is that you should act first and think later, yet at the same time the game's designers could not bring themselves to make characters totally impervious to damage. Take too much of it and the character's player will need sit out of the game for three minutes. Conveniently, just enough time to go make us some popcorn.
This could also be the reason why you never hear of TOON campaigns that ramble on for years. Maybe I just haven't heard of them, but most people play the game as a one-shot between larger games. That same sense of unreality which makes TOON so intriguing eventually comes back to bite itself in the butt when it comes to making anything larger out of it.
Once again - to engage the imagination - a game needs to be different enough from the reality we know to be interesting and yet not-so-far removed that it becomes unrelatable. Think about the imagination as an entity. It is a powerful mental muscle geared towards conceptualization. Its ability to think ahead of the messes we get ourselves into is one of the key reasons for humanity's success, but the imagination does not know everything. While it may want to gravitate back towards what it knows and can depend upon, it is also smart enough to keep an eye open for new developments, specifically those things which stand a good chance of killing you if you don't understand how it works.
So the next time you hear the term RPG, realize that it's not all about your character. That is just an industry playing upon your vanity to sell you product. The R in RPG should actually stand for reality - not realism, because realism is just the staid penning in of the imagination to what we definitely know to be true - but reality as in the matter of playing with reality.
In short, it's a Real Playing Game.
This post was inspired by a blog post by Runeslinger.
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