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Why We Play, PlanetADnD.com - The Borg of D&D

Why We Play


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 characterís 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 system itself.

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, thereís 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.

~By greenknight

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