The Existential Paradox of the RPG

I'm not entirely sure how this blog is going to turn out, but it has a point to it. I promise.


People sometimes ask me, why do you play D&D? What do you get out of it? What is so great about this weird, once-underground activity associated with geeks, nerds and wargames?

The vicarious thrill of being in an immense world--bounded only by the limits of you and your game master’s imagination--is pervasive and powerful. The effect on the participants of this first person, consensus narrative can only be experienced first hand. It harks back to an oral storytelling tradition hardwired into the psyche of the human condition. This is a game and storytelling medium like nothing else. Even video games, with all their computational power and ultra high-definition graphics, fall below the immersion of pure imagination bound into of a consensus narrative built organically, moment by moment, by a group of real people sitting in a room (or virtual space) in real time. What can be conveyed in words, voices, body-language and the art of role playing goes far beyond the reaches of a computer game to generate outcomes for the actions and directions that RPG players can evoke.


But on the other hand, and more importantly, the real answer, the deeper answer, perhaps the truer answer to the question is this:


I personally enjoy the vertiginous feeling of the existential paradox that an RPG presents me. The game medium itself raises questions about our own existence and that is fun to consider and meditate upon. It’s exciting to engage in and I can convince myself that I could open a door to my subconscious through this medium that could allow access to the archetypal meta-world beyond what we can see! Access to the code of the matrix.


To really get a sense of this feeling for me, I can say that it is something akin to pointing a live video camera at a monitor and watching the recurring feedback loop on the screen----a picture in a picture, in a picture, in a picture, ad infinitum. Try this exercise which I recommend every role player try at least once. Maybe only once----Play yourself!


Note: You will need a mature and imaginative Game Master to run this scenario. First, make a character, using whatever game system you like (but High Fantasy, I suspect, will be most effective), based on yourself. This character will have your own name and carry stats that realistically as possible model your own knowledge, abilities and attributes. Know thyself.


I’ve done this exercise at least twice that I can think of. Once as a kid with some friends who brutally insisted my primary stats were suboptimal and who largely used the exercise as an opportunity to wreck my self confidence. The second time I did this, I was much older and much more experienced as a role player and as a human being thus it was far more interesting and successful. I suggest that if you do try this exercise yourself, choose your fellow players wisely.


This type of game has enormous potential to be abused if the other players or the DM (especially the DM) is lacking in life experience or maturity and you really should be careful about how you institute this scenario. It could be very damaging or traumatic to one’s ego if one is not prepared.


Now, as for the scenario I imagine there are a million ways to go about this----but I will describe the game I played. It began with the DM placing us, the player characters in a actual second hand shop that we had found in real life, which was full of all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. Props from old movies and TV shows, various crystals and odds and ends, Old furniture etc. As we discussed, in game and in character----there’s that vertigo again----if we wanted to buy anything from the shop, the proprietor approached us and offered to sell us this special doohickey thingamabob he had out back. The exact details are unimportant and frankly lost in time, however we purchased the item which he told us would open a portal to an unknown place in precisely twelve hours.


Skeptical and mostly for amusement we took the object home to the house which we players were all flatting in at the time, and in the very room in which we were roleplaying prepared ourselves for a journey through this portal.


We knew we had twelve hours (maybe ten hours by the time we got to preparing) and so we discussed what we could realistically get our hands on, how much we could carry and how we would pack it and otherwise prepare. This was no easy task as one of our players was in a wheelchair and we knew that if the portal really opened this was going to require a lot of effort on all of our parts. We took knives, lots of knives. We took food and rations, matches and lighters, torches and batteries, pens, paper, cellphones, a solar calculator, all sorts of useful or special stuff. Well the portal did inexorably open and we pushed our friend, with his wheelchair, through it with a zap. We appeared in a mystical reality where we were immediately bogged down in mud and grass and had to survive for days in the wilderness fighting against wolves and then later terrifying monsters with what little we had been able to carry through. Eventually we met some elves and made friends and in the long run they sent us home if I recall correctly. The game was supercharged and extremely personal and the role playing was super high caliber. The game only lasted for one session but during that session we all felt we had learned something about ourselves, our abilities, our relationships and our friends. We had also tangled with the existential paradox of this weird RPG that we had confronted and at the end of it we were exhilarated. It was painful in many ways but we were left with the satisfaction that we had touched the edge of the matrix itself and that was an almost holy experience.

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