by Johnn Four
Roleplaying Games (RPGs) are often misunderstood, but they are the best type of game I’ve played. RPGs are social, imaginative and fun. I contend they also make you smarter! If you’ve been curious about games like Dungeons & Dragons, especially from a storytelling perspective, let me explain what they’re about, how they work and why you should try one out.
Playing RPGs offline
There are many types of RPGs, including computer and “live action”, but today I’m talking about tabletop roleplaying games. These games are played in person with friends, involve funny dice, and require a paper, pencil and rulebook to play. You play with two or more people. One person is the game master, who controls the setting and overall story. The other players control characters who make choices in the game to perform a quest, solve a mystery or thwart a villain.
Gameplay is similar to how a novel or movie unfolds. The players decide what actions their characters take and the game master narrates the challenges and consequences. Over time, a grand story unfolds as you and your friends live vicariously through the setbacks and victories of the characters. Games end either at a pre-determined point, such as the heroes completing their quest, or they continue endlessly with players telling story after story with the same characters.
Finite and Infinite Games
In his excellent book, Finite And Infinite Games, author James Carse describes two types of gameplay. The first is finite and such games end when one player or team loses. The second is infinite, and the goal of those games is to keep the play going for as long as possible.
Monopoly and Settlers of Catan are examples of finite games. They end when victory conditions are met – one player wins, the rest lose. My favourite way of playing an RPG is campaign play, where you run the same characters – who are ever-changing, learning and growing – through story after story. Carse would call this an infinite game. And the amazing thing about this experience is everyone tries to make choices that keep gameplay going.
Life is too full of moments where someone must lose, or status quo is the goal, or the best possible outcome is a zero sum game. But in campaign-style RPGs, everyone collaborates to perpetuate the game. It’s a completely different way of thinking and interacting. Many business people could learn from this experience and build their skills for win/win conditions with their customers to grow and perpetuate their businesses. Students can take this marvel mindset and consider learning not an end-point but a life-long process – an infinite activity.
RPGs make you smarter
This is one example of how RPGs make you smarter. Another would be situational analytical skills. The game master might say, “The village is being terrorized by evil spirits and the villagers plead for your help. What do you do?” In the background, the game master has established that attacking and killing the spirits will solve the problem temporarily, but more will just haunt the village again because a nearby graveyard has been desecrated by the villain building his evil HQ on top of it.
Attacking the villain and destroying his headquarters would put the spirits to rest, but the villain will likely flee and cause problems elsewhere in the kingdom. However, if the characters can discover the villain is from another world and just wants to find his way back home, they can help solve the problem once and for all. In this example, players can learn how to determine the root cause of problems to create long-term solutions. Rather than treating surface level symptoms, they can dig deeper and see how critical thinking, mediation and investigation generate true solutions. If you had these skills, how would your life and career improve?