Having managed to survive the intoxicating lure of World of Warcraft, I’ve been spending much of my gaming time playing The Sims 3 and Team Fortress 2. Much as I enjoy both of these games, I still feel like something is missing in my gaming life if I’m not playing an MMO. With the only MMO I’m even remotely interested in — Champions Online — not launching until the fall, it seems like I’ll be dealing with that empty feeling for a while.
In its place, I’ve turned to an alternative MMO experience: pen and paper gaming.
While I’ve had a few experiences with pen and paper role playing games, I’ve never found myself really immersed in the mechanics of a specific game, or played an arc that lasted more than one or two sessions. When one of our friends suggested we try again, this time revisiting Exalted, I became much more invested in the game. Where before my characters were kind of slapdash, I took extra care when I created this one. Where I paid little attention to the game’s rules before, this time I took the time to learn as much as I could about the facets of Exalted (and other generic roleplaying concepts like combat) that I was unsure of.
As I revisited the old rule books, I was able to see just how much MMOs and other games have been influenced by pen and paper games. Obviously it’s been streamlined over time — modern MMOs assign stats for you, and your abilities are common to a particular class or archetype rather than being able to pick and choose — but the similarities remain, and it’s fun to see how the “predecessor” to modern gaming looks.
The two major things that scared me off from role playing with our troupe in the past were the two things that are simplified in modern gaming. One is combat. While there are certainly people out there who know every detail of the combat process in their choice of MMO, and while weapon and armor itemization lends itself to massive calculations of damage, the average player can be ignorant of all of it and still be passable in combat. That is, they don’t die to the average monster.
Not so in pen and paper games, where the player must have a wider grasp of combat mechanics than the average MMO player. I know that when I played damage dealing characters (other than casters) in WoW or WAR, the only thing I really paid attention to was my weapon’s DPS. With my new Exalted character, I need to know multiple stats for my weapon, which of my personal attributes and abilities affect my combat rolls, what my defense value is, and other complex systems. I’m sure I’m in the noob phase now and will eventually feel completely comfortable with the combat system in our game. As it is, I’m feeling very overwhelmed and am having to fight the urge to throw in the towel.
The other hesitation I have when playing with our troupe is the actual roleplaying part. The part where you completely embody your character, narrate her actions, and improvise interactions with other characters. Modern gaming gives players the option to take this out of the experience. There are players who roleplay in MMOs; I’ve tried my hand at it recently when Boyfriend and I played City of Heroes, and many of my blogger pals are role players at heart.
However, it seems like the overwhelming majority of players approach MMOs with a non-roleplayer perspective. While some might have roleplaying tendencies that don’t fully develop — naming the character, associating him with a unique personality, referring to your character by individual pronouns rather than possessive ones, e.g. “Sindira got xxxx piece of loot today” — it seems that many merely see their avatars as tools for playing the game.
Much as I like the idea of roleplaying in MMOs, I’m wary of doing so in real life, where I’m face to face with the people I’m interacting with. Maybe it’s because I’m a product of the cell phone and internet age, where communication can be done entirely without seeing someone else. Maybe it’s because roleplaying in a virtual game means having the excuse of typing to buffer reaction time, or maybe it’s just because I’m inherently shy and anxiety-prone. Whatever the reason, getting into character has been hard for me in the past.
Boyfriend and I practiced some before the troupe met for the first session. It had been a while since we’d tried pen and paper gaming, so I needed a crash course in roleplaying. “You need to get information from someone, so you walk into a bar and utter a secret code phrase that’s meant to alert the person you’re looking for to your presence,” he said, giving me an initial situation.
Apparently saying that my character is going to walk in and sit down at the bar isn’t good enough, or isn’t flashy enough. There also seems to be some kind of dichotomy with pronouns, in that there is a difference between saying, “I walk into the bar” and “She (my character) walks into the bar.” Either way, Boyfriend informed me that I needed to try spicing up my narration, a task that you’d think might be easy, seeing as I consider myself a writer.
I understand that narration is necessary in roleplaying games in order to give the other players and the storyteller a visual of what your character is doing, but to noobs like me it feels stiff, unnatural, and a little embarrassing. And I’m very afraid of embarrassment — I went to drama class every day in fear of the dreaded warm-up vocal and body exercises. In an MMO, embarrassment is still a scary prospect, but it’s easily remedied by ignoring the other person, ninja logging, or shutting off the power in the entire house. With my friends, embarrassment has to be faced head on, fully experienced. No good.
I’ve noticed over the past few times that we’ve tried to play pen and paper games (Exalted, then Scion, now Exalted again) I’ve tended to create a character who personifies the “strong and silent” type. My first character was a little girl who was able to wield an enormous weapon with ease, but was generally quiet due to her tragic history and her being a shy little girl.
You might say that my current character is that little girl grown up. They aren’t literally the same character, but the character I’m playing now is abnormally strong for a woman, has a tragic backstory, and is pretty introverted. It makes sense that I’d play a character with poor communication skills considering my noob status, but it’s a trend I noticed that I hope to eventually break out of should we try a different game in the future.
We’ve only had two sessions — one for preparation and the other to begin the arc — but so far, despite my reservations about pen and paper gaming, I’m enjoying myself. My discomfort with roleplaying has even benefitted me. My character — very loosely modeled on Brienne of Tarth from the Song of Ice and Fire series — had to attempt to convince a group of soldiers that she was a damsel in distress. I botched the roll for my performance, and the storyteller instructed me to act as though my character determined that, since the soldiers were always around other men, they probably liked manly women, and that she would do better acting tough with them than gentle.
My dialogue then garnered a lot of laughs, and as I said after the game was over, “If you’re trying to roleplay a bad performance, it helps to be a bad performer yourself.” Maybe I can transition my character’s awkwardness to the forefront, perhaps using my tentative attitude toward roleplaying to enhance her own shyness. I guess I’ve already broken the first barrier by causing laughter among my fellow gamers. It’s all downhill from there, right?