The real question here is why do people play pen and paper RPGs? Especially when
there are so many alternative, readily accessible forms of entertainment
available these days such as computer games. And yet, it's estimated that around
6 million people were playing Dungeons and Dragons in 2006, and over 20 million
people have played the game at some stage of their lives. Add to that the
(relatively small) number of people who have played RPGs but not D&D, and you've
got a lot of players for something that was originally intended to appeal to
only a niche market of a few thousand people.
The GNS Theory gives us
some clue as to where to start looking for answers to this question. The theory
describes players and even game systems as being either Gamist, Narrativist or
Simulationist, with Dungeons and Dragons being called a Gamist type of RPG. But
in my experience, all three of those elements can be found in any player and
gaming system, so while specific players and game systems might put different
emphasis on each of those criteria, I don't view it as an "either/or" situation
at all. In fact, I don't think an RPG would be an RPG without all three
of those elements.
Pen and Paper games potentially offer the Gamist the widest possible range of
solutions, and the greatest amount of challenge customisation. "Out of the box"
thinking can be rewarded by rules being made up on the spot, and challenges can
be made easier or more difficult depending on how the players feel things have
gone. In addition, playing with others allows the Gamist to indulge in friendly
competition with others. This can be true even in co-operative games, where the
player can show his or her character’s particular skills.
The goals of Narrativist and Simulationist players could probably be better met
just by writing a story, so I think it's safe to assume that even when these are
the most import aspects of playing a RPG for a player, the Gamist aspect is also
important. And yet again, the absolute freedom pen and paper gaming allows both
of these aspects to be exercised to the full, within the limits of the gaming
Simulationists are often searching for some escape from their normal lives. They
can use the game rules as a source of inspiration, and to translate their vision
into something which can satisfy their Gamist urges. The challenges and rewards
found in a typical RPG are usually also much greater than those found in the
real world, at least for most of us, and that can be very satisfying for a
Simulationist. And for those who are most interested in the Simulationist
approach, there is the added appeal of becoming the DM and shaping entire worlds
to your will.
Narrativists are very similar to Simulationists, except their focus is on the
story. They use the game rules to support the story they are telling. In a way,
the game aspect of RPGs works against telling a story, because the multiple
players and randomness of the game can lead to unexpected events. However, there
are certain kinds of Narrativists who prefer this kind of
unpredictability in their storytelling, and pen and paper games can be
particularly good at providing unexpected twists in the storyline.
Exactly how much emphasis is placed on each of the three gaming elements is
ultimately up to the players themselves, which is yet another advantage of pen
and paper play (although some rule systems do support certain playing styles
better than others). Computer Artificial Intelligence might one day be able to
come close to matching what can be done in Pen and Paper games, but until then,
there’s nothing that quite compares to it.
But GNS theory misses out on what many of us consider to be the most important
reason of all why people play RPGs. Playing is a great excuse to hang out with
friends, chuck a few dice around, blow off a little steam, eat way too much junk
food, guzzle soft drinks, and act like we all have amazing powers. We can stand
in awe as the party fighter decapitates an Orc with a single mighty swing of his
sword, and then laugh our heads off as he accidentally stabs his foot the very
next round. Which he then shrugs off as if it were no more than a paper cut...
In the end, I think that's the real reason why so many people play RPGs. When
it's done right and played with a group of friends, the mix of triumph and
tragedy make for a whole barrel full of FUN!
So what motivates you to play RPGs? What has occurred during your games that you
most remember fondly, or hated? Join in on the discussion here.