UPDATE: I’ve been informed that Monica Valentinelli, not Jim C. Hines, wrote the article; Hines merely hosted it on his blog.
I was cruising the internet one day when I came across an article by author Monica Valetinelli about the importance of progressive inclusion in tabletop RPGs. The article itself was nothing unusual, and she and her group don’t need anyone’s permission to play how they want. However, she unknowingly highlighted something that speaks not only to RPGs, but to a wider issue in our culture, an issue more foundational than she realizes.
This part of the article stuck out to me more than all the others:
Lastly, representation is incorporated into the text itself. The text, which includes rules, setting, and fiction, is what the players and gamemasters of the world cue off of. While it’s true that some players and GMs absolutely take a game and modify it for their table, over time I’ve found that many players want a fully-developed and well-researched world before they’ll do that. Most players place a lot of trust in the material, and when those details are done well it can have a huge impact on their creativity and the time they invest in that world.
Take a look at the bolded part. Instead of taking advantage of tabletop RPGs’ relative freedom compared to video game RPGs, these players need supplements that lay everything out. Having scenarios and settings handed to players in a convenient guidebook goes against the very spirit of the tabletop RPG, boxing the players into a pre-packaged, standardized campaign as bland as grocery store hamburger.
Why is this? Why, even in the boundless realms of the imagination, do players want to be led around by the producers of the game? Rules for objectively determining the outcomes of actions are one thing, but requiring pre-written settings is quite another.
The answer is simple: the players were raised to expect a rule for everything.
Consider the trajectory of the average 21st-century American kid: he is prevented from playing outside for fear of bruises, fear of kidnapping, or fear of visits from Child Protective Services. Any athletic activity he takes part in is likely to be organized sports, which have myriad rules.
To make sure he has time to prepare for the standardized tests, schools ban recess — too chaotic. Simple jokes and pranks lead to harsh punishments, and he is told that this is for his own good.
Once he gets into college, he has to worry about giving the wrong opinion on top of studying and job searching — after all, college put him into a pretty deep debt, a debt he cannot discharge in bankruptcy.
And once he is at that job, the threat of termination hangs over him like a sword of Damocles.
One can argue that adult life has responsibilities that can’t be escaped, and this is true. However, this lack of freedom has migrated over to childhood and the teenage years as well, so the young are taught that no action can be taken without permission of some kind. Now that many parents hand their young children tablets and smartphones to keep them occupied, those children have even less of an incentive to manage their own play.
They need a rule for everything because in their lives, there always have been rules for everything. The culture has worked overtime to snuff imagination out of children, all for an ill-defined “safety.” In an atmosphere like this, even playing pretend needs pre-approval from some authority.
It’s safe to say that tabletop RPGs are better served when you kick the supplements and let your brain run free. What you come up with will be far more interesting, far more engrossing, and far more engaging than anything the game’s producers make. Draw upon everything — the books you read, the movies and TV shows you watch, the video games you play, the life you live. The tabletop experience is a unique one, and it is best experienced with an unshackled, unchained, and unbounded mind.
To see a product of my unbounded mind, pick up a copy of my novelette, Sword & Flower, by clicking the picture below.