RPGaDay 2021 #9: Medium

Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Medium.” Roleplaying Games are an interesting type of medium, a seeming interstitial between boardgames, improvisational theatre, and storytelling.

I’ve always enjoyed that RPGs are something like improvisational theatre without an audience because I just don’t enjoy performing. It’s not that I’m shyfor work I’ve held speeches in front of several hundred people without a problembut there’s something about performance that irks me. It’s as though it makes me less “me” while I do it. As Kevin Spacey’s character in The Big Kahuna phrases it when speaking of formal engagements: “we become the hands of the company, there to shake the hands of all the other companies.”

This photo is from a write-up in Chinese about our visit to a partner school in China. I was part of the formal opening and closing ceremonies, where I held a speech to give our thanks to our kind and gracious hosts.

In RPG sessions, however, I love to to ham it up. Jokes bubble up constantly, and I love to lighten the mood with funny little things. The lack of an audience makes it seem more genuine to me, as I’m not trying to entertaining a group of spectators but rather trying to make my friends around the table have fun. It’s not a professional performance but a personal bond. To me, there’s an inverse relationship between the number of people in an interaction and the authenticity of the speaker. I guess it comes naturally with being a quite strongly introverted individual. That and Jean-Paul Sartre is one hell of a drug.

Compared to improvisational theatre, as a medium, RPGs are quite intimate in that way. I haven’t found another medium that works quite the same. Sure, readers empathize with characters in novels and you could argue that, in a postmodern sense, readers have quite an active role in constructing stories but not as directly as happens in RPGs. RPGs in computer games tend to focus more on the mechnical aspects of tactical combat (with a few exceptions, such as Disco Elysium) while offering much less opportunity for individual contribution. Tabletop RPGs occupy a unique space in that sense, and one which is quite valuable, in my opinion.

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