A surprising lesson from an evening of entertainment.
I know people who think that tabletop role-playing games are evil. I have no idea what that means. The argument that they are a waste of time makes more sense to me; they do take a lot of time, and sometimes offer very little in return. But if you are going to spend time on indoor entertainment, I’d put RPGs at least as high as reading fiction for educational value. You learn to play a role, to think on your feet, to talk and listen, to think through how hypothetical situations might pan out…. I’m a proponent of playing RPGs.
Most of the time playing RPGs is pleasant exercise for the mind, but sometimes there is also a larger lesson. Last night was one such surprise revelation.
For the last three months I’ve been narrating the world where Telethea, Jerun, Malfurian, and Professor Feldwick Played by Melanie, Judah, Steve, and Lucas, respectively. have been pursuing a single world-changing objective. They are fascinating characters: Telethea is convinced she has been sent on some divine mission but she doesn’t know what it is; Jerun is a priest of a goddess of secrets who diplomatically distrusts everyone and hopes to keep the largest powers to himself; Malfurian made good as a gladiator and now hopes to get enough power to overthrow the system that made him one; and Professor Feldwick was a great wizard that lost most of his mind and memory and now whacks people with things instead. They got along reasonably well despite their quirks.
They got along, that is, until last night’s session. I had intended last night to be a setup for a finale next week. They had retrieved what they were sent to retrieve and were going to discover enough about what their employer wanted it for to chose one of several possible reactions; then we’d play out the resulting difficulties in the final session. But it didn’t play out that way.
We opened by my explaining things that each character learned over a few days of down time. I did this out loud so that I wouldn’t need to re-explain them if the characters shared notes later. But things went south. Jerun, true to form, kept the juiciests bits of his discoveries secret. Telethea noticed Jerun’s secrecy and decided to distrust him enough she didn’t tell anyone what she had learned. Malfurian took his pay and walked away, thinking training an army was an easier avenue than all this magical mess. Feldwick (naturally) kept forgetting what was going on, though in the moment he was a peacemaker. After a variety of increasingly mixed-up efforts to each find out what the other was doing the whole party collapsed, Tangentially, this is the kind of organic ending that I so often miss in fiction, be it book, play, or screenplay. I love to RP with players more invested in their characters than in “winning.” with Telethea and Feldwick fleeing in the middle of the night and Malfurian ignoring the mess while Jerun continued patiently building toward his goals.
After the game ended we sat talking about it for a while. The players all agreed that they knew what was really going on (they were wrong, but not wildly wrong) and that it was the personality of the characters they were playing that made the schism unavoidable. All of the characters actually wanted the same thing; all of the players knew it; but each character’s limited view made their goals seem to be at odds.
As I sat looking at the shambles of the party, I had occasion to think about relationships in my life that have crumbled. How often would trusting people who had not earned my trust or sharing things I was too embarrassed to share have fixed the issues at hand? Even after decades of play, I still learn life lessons during tabletop role-playing games.