I was recently watching an episode of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, in which he casually quoted Steve Jackson as saying “all games are roleplaying games.” *Mic drop*
That statement rolled out with a sort of toss-away casualness, but it really hit me. I can’t seem to find out if it’s even a real quotation, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s been on my mind either way. This explains so much about the way I play pretty much everything from board games to Warhammer to video games. Let’s break it down.
My gaming roots are in classic RPG games
I had to take some time to think about what this statement meant to me, and my relationship with gaming. You see, I started out playing Dungeons and Dragons with my older brother Josh, his friend Brad, and a few others that came and went. We started when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. I was three years their junior, most of them, and I didn’t fully understand everything that happened. I felt like I was getting away with something, to be honest (and in all likelihood my mother would probably have shut it down if she had any idea what we got up to). I still vaguely remember a half-orc character, probably a barbarian, who went by the unlikely name Sable, either in the fore or sur position. I remember choosing it because it meant “black” and that sounded pretty badass to me. I remember Biff and Sacco, two bodyguards that somehow wormed their way into nearly every adventure. I remember the Wet Nipple Inn (fuck you, I didn’t make it up). That’s about all I remember about the specifics. The rest is a haze of rolling dice, laughing, eating junk food and hanging out with friends. God, those were wonderful times.
Roleplaying seemed to me the natural extension of writing stories about my stuffed animals (who were actually ninja robot spies, natch) and action figures.
What I don’t remember are rules, paying any attention to them, building my character or even considering doing anything that didn’t fit in with the rugged, brutal warrior’s nature. Maybe it’s lost on me, and maybe the older gamers were discussing strategy and thinking up fun ways to circumvent the rules. Maybe they were talking to people on old-school BBS boards about the latest “so OP, so broken” combos they could torment the GM with. It’s very possible.
The more I think about it, I realize that even my oldest brother Jason was into these games when I was very young, but I have no memory of actually playing. I did read through a lot of old D&D books, and had a bunch of Ral Partha (and other) miniatures, including some Lord of the Rings and Hobbit minis. What I would do to find these old gems…
A vacation that would change my life forever
When I was 10 years old, my family accompanied my stepfather to visit his family in England. Again, my memories are hazy, at best. Lots of castles, sheep, and museums. Everything felt so old (in a good way). “This tobacco shop has been around longer than British buildings in America.”
One thing I remember very well is stepping into a Games Workshop store.
I’m sure we went in because there were pictures of orcs and/or knights on the windows. This was my first exposure to miniatures wargames. We walked out of there with a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (oh god, that Ratcatcher, and the amazing artwork…) and I got a box of beige plastic elven archers. I don’t remember how many were even in there, and I think they all had the same pose but there were two heads I could choose from. I stared at them so much, I made myself car sick twice and threw up on the models. Gross, I know, but these experiences are part of my journey.
From that moment on I transitioned away from RPGs, slowly but surely. I was firmly in the Warhammer camp, and I got into many of the offshoot game at one point or another. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that these should be any different from pen and paper games roleplaying games, in the sense that I always imagined the stories behind the models to be very important to my enjoyment of the games. Indeed, the rules were just as complex as RPG games back then, blurring the lines even further.
But I play wargames, don’t I?
Actually I do still play roleplaying games, but that’s a pretty recent thing. I identify myself as a wargamer, even though I also play video games here and there (Fallout 4, amirite?) and board games. So here’s the thing… I really do try to play them all like roleplaying games. I never really realized it, but when I think about playing Zombicide I try to imagine what I would do as a survivor in the apocalypse. In the Mad Max video game, I often went off-course to give water to wasteland wanderers even though I had already unlocked the locations in the surrounding map. When I’m writing my army list for 40K, I think about the strike force assembling, and the conversations the veteran sergeant might have with the captain of the 3rd company about load-out and tactics. It’s just what I do.
Every game I play, I play like I’m a character in the setting in some way or another.
This all clicked for me when I was watching my wife play Fallout 4. Like Skyrim before, she spends SO much time just collecting random junk. In Skyrim, it was picking herbs for potions she would probably never make. In this game it’s dirty hairbrushes and cardboard boxes for scraps she may or may not ever turn into her workshop’s latest and greatest amenities. I don’t understand what motivates her to play games like that. I don’t mean any offense, I certainly don’t HAVE to watch and she enjoys it, so what do I care, really? It’s just not my bag, I guess.
I feel the same way when I see people playing Warhammer with really silly lists, clearly giving no thought to the makeup of the army or the reasoning for meeting on the field of battle. I get it. I’m not the arbiter of good gaming, to be sure. They can play that way if they like, but to me it’s just sort of lifeless. I’m sure they enjoy the game more than I do in many ways, but I really do enjoy the whole “Forge the Narrative” business. For me, that’s what a game is. I want to see the biggest explosions, the most daring charges, and the loudest rumbling tank formations around. That means I’m likely to take silly risks, and I refuse to do shit like peek the corner of a tank out from around the corner of a building, “because you measure the weapon from the hull.” Bullshit. I can’t visualize a game like that and so I lose. I usually lose badly. But, I still have fun 9 times out of 10. Losing has never kept me from wanting to play Warhammer. Other games, maybe.
This is why I don’t like Scrabble. I just can’t seem to play for the highest points. I have to try to make the coolest words, because I’m roleplaying someone who makes really cool words, I guess. There’s no way for me to really identify with games like that, so I don’t care for them. Same with card games. Meh. I could take them or leave them, and I imagine this is how most people feel about ALL games.
But what about gamers who rarely play?
That’s the best part about this sort of roleplay: It can be a solo thing. I’ve always enjoyed building characters for D&D, Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, etc. It’s fun to get into someone else’s head and imagine the things that make them who they are. My favorite character of recent memory was a blind astropath, Janus, I built for a Rogue Trader campaign. She was part of a fringe order that treated the Emperor as a divine example of the ascendency of Psykers, and thus she proudly bared her shriveled eye sockets to all; a visible mark of having stood in His presence. She was a blast because she’s so different from me in every way, but I really felt like I understood who she was and what she would do in any given situation. Consequences be damned. A good GM will reward players for sticking true to their character, but that doesn’t really apply to wargames. You’re never rewarded for using a fluffy list beyond the odd Formation that happens to coincide with a playstyle you fancy.
Maybe this is why I game so rarely? Pickup games are all but impossible to play this way. I think you really need a dedicated group of friends that sort of understand you and have a similar mindset. That’s may be why I don’t get to the table often, really. I want to, it’s just hard to motivate myself because I don’t have that community currently. Sticking to hobby stuff means I can more easily engage in it on my own terms, the way I like, even if it’s all by myself. Of course I can share my models online, and there’s a sort of community that forms around that, but it’s not the same as roleplaying. There’s no real interaction in the role itself.
How about you?
I don’t really see this the same way as running fluffy armies, myself. I do that too, but it’s probably more symptomatic of my desire to play it like an RPG. How do you approach the game? Do you know anybody who thinks of it the way I do? Drop a comment below.