The Narrative and Imagination

Playing Make Believe

There are so many misconceptions about tabletop gaming. For some, DD&D was a front for Satanic cults and witchcraft (i.e. Jack Chick‘s tracts from the 80s or Pat Robertson from whenever that clip is from). Others think we’re all basement dwellers with no social skills and bad acne. There are those who think all we do is advanced math while spouting useless SAT vocabulary or that we wear viking hats whilst conversing in Ye Olde English.

For me, the worst is when people say its not really a game… that its just people who are too old playing “make believe”. The problem I have with that is that there is a shred of truth in this except they’ve viewed it a bit skewed.

We praise imaginative people all the time. The imaginations of writers are why we have Game of Thrones, Star Trek, True Blood, and more. The imaginations of numerous engineers and designers are why we have iPhones, iPads, Droid smartphones, Kindles and tablets galore. Imaginative doctors and imaginative technicians lead to 3D Printed Skulls to save lives, Imaginative Musicians create songs & arrangements we have never envisioned, and imaginative children fill the air with laughter as they play.

As gamers we regularly exercise our imaginations. We consider the scope and breadth of actions through the eyes of others in a world not our own and express these possibilities. We play make believe… AND ITS AWESOME!!!

So what’s this about a “narrative”?

While we’re sitting in our chairs, rolling our dice and playing make believe, we’re taking part in and becoming multiple stories. We often think the story is really just something the GM tells us as we improv act our way through. But its really much larger than that.

We all have stories for our characters. I don’t just mean the backgrounds we give our GMs so they have something to actually work with in order to tie our characters together. I mean the internal monologue we have for every individual PC we’ve ever played, their thoughts, their ambitions and how the course of a game can alter them in interesting ways. Every player keeps a running story of their character’s relation to the world and events. Sometimes we may let bits and pieces of it shine through into game. Other times we just use it as a driving factor is future actions.

On top of that, every player has their personal experience of the game world that colors their perceptions. We all experience the tale differently, we take to heart different NPCs, certain details or events may stick more with one person than with another, and the vision/lesson/morality from the tale is interpreted in varied ways by every player.

I have no artistic skills but was bored.

A (crudely drawn) diagram on the side of my coffee cup which (rather poorly) illustrates a concept.

Lets not leave the GM out of this. Its not always all about the player. While the GM may have created the story (or at least have control of it) they too experience multiple levels of the story. No matter how tightly written a story the GM has, the players always screw it up have an impact. So the GM tells one story, experiences the players’ parts in altering it, and the GM gets to internalize the tale they witness as an “impartial” observer. And Villains, And NPCs, oh my! While some villains and NPCs don’t get more than a fleeting moment on stage, that doesn’t mean the GM hasn’t built an internal motivation and story for their actions. Some times its hard not to consider why and then flesh them out even when they don’t need it.

One of the most impressive things about roleplaying is how the stories intertwine and how no one person will ever truly know the whole scope of things. But playing make believe, even as an adult, is an exercise in creativity, cooperation, observation, and friendship.

Children don’t play “make believe” because its childish… they do it because it is fun. Deep down we all know that, but misinterpret “growing up” and “maturing” to mean giving up certain things instead of allowing them to evolve and grow. Don’t give up on imagination and keep rolling those dice.


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  1. If I ever stop using my imagination I hope someone just shoots me:)

    1. There are some folk out there who seem capable of getting through life without an imagination. I’m not sure how they do it and I’m glad I’m not one of them. Life would just be unbearable to me without an active imagination.

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