I just finished my first ever tabletop roleplay campaign.
Which is rather surprising - For one thing, I didn't die in a spectacularly failed plan amidst a spray of blood and apologies. (This 'living' result would be unexpected if you got to know the character I played.)
But it is also surprising because a year ago I had absolutely zero interest in roleplaying.
If you've never played, you can probably relate to my mindset at the time. I mean, what's the appeal anyways? It's like a video game with no visuals that makes you do the math. Who the hell needs that? And the idea of playing a Mary Sue with stats just seemed... Indulgent. I like good stories, not getting in a group and grinding through dungeons to level-up our imaginary abilities compensating for a lack of real ones.
And besides, I didn't have time.
But my friends were into it, and kept making such enticing overtures.
"David, it was so awesome playing - you wouldn't believe it, my character got into a fight with a crow! It was insane!"
Well, yay for your imaginary person. He shooed away an imaginary crow. That sounds like it was tough. I'm happy for you.
But they caught up with me in person before too long. Out of town and away from my unending art obligations, I figured what the hell. We sat down and played a little Mouseguard.
At the time I figured I was primarily enjoying the good company - but 'playing' a 'character' was admittedly not what I expected.
There were no +1 Spells of Randomshit, no excessive math or laborious calculations, no haggling over an endless lexicon of gamer tricks and dice loopholes. It was... okay.
It felt more akin to brainstorming Dreamkeepers dialogue, oddly enough. Sort of like sitting around and acting out a rough draft together.
So when they encouraged me to develop my own character to play with them after the convention, I broke down and went for it. I was hoping to spend as little time as possible playing, but figured allowing myself the occasional bit of fun could be permissible.
WORKAHOLIC DISCLAIMER: I tend to feel guilt when engaging in things just for fun. I should be working more. What am I, some lazy ass who never wants to be successful? Yadda yadda. I WAS in fact doing color blocking and other Dreamkeepers work while playing, so I wasn't totally wasting time on having a pleasant life. Alright, just had to get that out there...
So, I figured I would maybe play just a tiny bit because why not.
And then this happened:
I did not see it coming.
I was hooked.
Let me describe what it was not:
It was not a joining of Mary Sues grinding for XP points. It was not a series of disconnected dangers contrived to let us level up our characters forever. It was not boring.
Let me describe what it was:
It was the most emotionally involving fictional experience I have ever shared- more engaging than films, novels, anything. The world we were thrust into was believable, gritty, and threatening. The people we met within it were distinctive, motivated by their own concerns, hopes, and fears. Our own characters were no Mary Sues - but imbued with delightful imperfections, driven not to level up, but to pursue goals and story arcs.
And there were story arcs- it felt exactly like I was in the midst of a novel as it unfolded. Except rather than reading what would happen next, we could struggle to change the events. In fact, to have even a chance at survival, intelligent struggle was not an option. We were compelled to draw upon every ounce of initiative and cunning we could muster.
Sometimes it was not enough.
I can't give enough credit to our brilliant GM (Game Master, the dude who runs everything except the player's characters) and the other players - good stories don't happen by accident.
Now, fear not - I'm not transcribing an exhaustive narrative summary of our campaign here. That's not an entertaining way to convey a story. But I do want to share select anecdotes that help illustrate why a curmudgeon like me wound up falling in love with tabletop roleplaying games…role-play in general really. So come with me, if you will, for a brief foray into the charming and bloody world of the Mouse Territories...
I played Sliver (aka Tug, aka Haft, etc, etc...)- the desperately proactive, inhibition-impaired little fugitive with a heart of gold and the self-preservation skills of a lemming.
I began the game as an innocent outlaw, on the run and scheming to clear my name by any means necessary - when I ran into a Guard Patrol:
Jim, the steadfast and questionably unenthusiastic patrol leader.
Rifter, the somewhat jittery but brilliant doctor.
Threun, a latecomer to the campaign and scout of the mouse guard who moves through weasel ranks like a shadow.
...Lucrezia was not a player character, but she insisted on being included here. She's... Persuasive.
Our group was soon thrust into calamity, when a routine patrol to the western border town of Pebblebrook revealed the brunt of a brutal weasel invasion.
The scent border desecrated, Pebblebrook besieged, and Machiavellian traitors at work amongst the mice - combined with the conflicts within our own patrol - made for a thrilling tale.
I distinctly remember the first scene where I became utterly immersed in my character - when I wasn't playing as a fearful character but felt actual, tangible fear myself as the scene unfolded.
Scouting in the forest around Pebblebrook, hidden, I saw as a war party of six towering, armored weasels swaggered into the field outside of the city walls, brandishing steel. But they were not alone. Being yanked forward with them were four ragged, chained mice - one of whom Sliver immediately recognized - Lona.
A companion from past hardships, and more than that. In a world of mice who would kill Sliver for knowing his true identity, she had shown him kindness. She had believed him when nobody else did.
In a grating boom of a voice, the weasel commander casually assailed the wall. "You will surrender Pebblebrook to us - and we will allow you to leave in peace. Until you do, we will kill prisoners outside your walls, one every minute. And come back to do the same tomorrow. We await you decision." With that, the weasel turned to prepare the first execution. The militia mice manning the walls, severely undermanned, watched on in horror. There was nobody outside the city, nobody who was there to help in time - nobody except for me.
There was no cover for a stealthy approach. I was armed with a few stubby knives and a tinker's cloak. Against six trained, vicious weasel soldiers, easily five times my height, there was no chance. But I couldn't stand by and watch them kill Lona - I couldn't. It would be better to die than to live knowing I had done nothing.
So trembling, Sliver stood up, and stepped out onto the field towards the weasels - without a plan, a real weapon, or a hope. Alone.
But if there was even a chance to save Lona...
Reading about it here is one matter - I can't really convey what it was like. But imagine, if you will, how you would feel if you really were in similar situation - say, hiking in the woods, and finding yourself compelled to walk towards a group of snarling, enraged grizzlies in the middle of a field to save your sibling.
That was how it felt.
Emotional investment is one thing - but it takes more than feelings to stop a merciless invading force.
It was time to invest a bit more...
One of the surviving prisoners from the field revealed the location of the weasel war-camp…and recounted grimly that scores of mice were being held captive there.
Although, with the weasels, captives and rations could be used interchangeably. We had to do something.
Our Guard patrol planned a vague raid... get out there that night, save the prisoners, and somehow make it back to Pebblebrook with them. Hope that the weasels didn't notice us during the escape, or that if they did, we could somehow out-fight and out-run an entire camp of enemies.
This plan terrified Sliver - there was so much that could go wrong with it - and at the same time, so much opportunity...
My conniving mind began to whir with possibilities. The militia in Pebblebrook was under-strength, but it still wasn't nothing... And the weasels were sure to be pursuing the prisoners. This would leave their camp undermanned...
Guilt-ridden over the events on the field, quivering with energy, Sliver laid out a war-plan for Walden, the militia captain:
I planned to cause a distraction north of the camp, drawing as many of the weasels out as possible. This would help the patrol's prisoner raid. The rescuers carried bundles of spears, to arm the prisoners upon their release and increase our fighting capacity. They would escape to the south. Waiting south would be a rearguard of militia archers to cover their flight. And then, with the weasels strung out to the north and south, the main body of militia troopers would strike the camp in force - crushing them at their weakest.
This plan didn't go at ALL according to plan, of course - Sliver wound up stuck on a pole in the center of the weasel camp, injured, bound, roasting slowly over the fire. Fortunately Sliver was the only one who 'pulled a Sliver,' and in the end the captives were saved, and the weasel camp scattered.
...That's when we found their war-maps. With the other camp locations marked in red. Surrounding Pebblebrook.
I could recount anecdotes all day, but you get the idea. This roleplay involved deep emotional investment, creative problem-solving, and so much more that I don't have time to properly convey. The story was magnificent. Not all of us survived. The character arcs poignant. There was friendship, suspicion, betrayal, bone-deep secrets, poisonous murder, gory battlefields, and even an unlikely romance at the core of it all. And, in the end, against all odds...
Suffice to say, I now have an entirely different view on roleplay after being Sliver.
In fact, Sliver personified something that I came to love about the roleplay experience - that it was not about winning. It was not about 'beating the game,' or 'being the most powerfulest.' It was about playing a character truly, whatever the outcome, to contribute to an engaging story. I feel that, when done right, roleplay games are not really games at all. They are stories. The dice and such are merely tools used to determine how certain actions play out.
And failure didn't result in 'losing' the game. On the contrary - it improved the story.
The goal of a game is to win. The goal of a story is to be true.
The designers of Mouseguard seemed to understand this - because the most important element to your game character isn't a stat. It's your core Belief and Instinct. It's what motivates you. And it's what makes stories matter.
If you're like I was and never gave a second thought to RP, I'd advise you to think again. It's monstrously entertaining, creates fantastic memories - and frankly, when done right it helps build writing skills. Learning to be in-character is critical to good writing, after all.
Find some fun, creative friends and try it out. If you don't have open-minded friends in the area, fear not - our entire campaign was conducted through Skype. The internet is a great thing.
Mouseguard has a roleplay game available here: http://www.mouseguard.net/books/role-playing-game/
Based on the Mouseguard graphic novels by David Peterson. http://www.mouseguard.net/
I do have some advice to give regarding setting up a good roleplay campaign:
* Variety. Confer a bit with the other players. You want variety with the personalities of your characters - if everyone is a grim warrior, that gets old fast. Someone could be bubbly and superficial, someone else pained and withdrawn, another sarcastic and cutting. Work together to have a varied cast.
* Injustice. If there is a wrong to right, then you have direction for your character. Make sure your character desperately wants, needs, something. Something personal to them. If your character doesn't care about anything, then you're not going to be experiencing much in the way of engaging emotion. Characters who care are more fun to play.
* Secrets. There should be some between your characters. If there's no mystery about anyone in the group, then there's nothing to uncover. And if that dark spot in their backstory has ramifications that are personally significant to others in the group, all the better. Work with the GM to see if plausible drama can be worked into the backstory.
So that's my Mouseguard / roleplay spiel! I wanted to share, even though it doesn't necessarily relate to Dreamkeepers.
It does make one wonder.
What would a Dreamkeepers roleplay game be like?