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Roll Initiative: Why You Should Read Role-playing Game Rule Books

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 31, 2013 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 31, 2013 |

In junior high, I got a hold of a couple books from the Robotech role-playing game and was hooked for life. I think I only played actual role-playing sessions a handful of times with a couple of other social outcasts in the school library. To this day, I have an obsessive love for role-playing game rulebooks. Not the role-playing itself, though sitting around a table with pizza, dice, and piles of books is to me at least on even terms with hitting a bar with friends. See, there’s something peculiar to the books themselves. They hold a fascination all their own, independently of their use for playing a game.

They are these piles of pages, thousands upon thousands, trying to describe the way that the world works. Or at least the way that a world works. Math and equations, rules upon rules. There’s an old joke that role-playing games are just an elaborate mechanism for trying to trick people into doing math for fun. If that’s the case, they’re not very good at it, because most people who own more dice than a casino are already math geeks. These books are not just rules for a game though, they are physics dissertations for storytelling, extended attempts to try to take the processes that burn in the minds of writers and transform them into a rigorous logic.

And of course that’s futile from a certain point of view. The vagaries of how a storyteller’s mind squeezes blood out of a rock and creates art is not something that is going to end up captured by an algorithm and then outsourced to some subcontinental programmers. But it’s not the destination that matters in this case, it’s the road. It’s the rolling over and over in your head the permutations for how stories happen, why events occur the way that they do. Role-playing game books, by trying to organize and categorize such things are like the feverish jottings of a writer trying to figure out how his own brain works. From the endless maps, and sketches of creatures that never existed, to the different conceptions of magics and deities, and of course the fantastic systems of morality like Dungeons and Dragons’ model of alignment, these books are treasure troves of speculation on the ways we can think about how a world might work.

My favorite part of The Lord of the Rings was never the story, never the characters. It was the appendices, the mountain of errata compiled detailing lineages and histories, and so many beautiful maps. I’d sit for hours with graph paper, drawing versions of the familiar map of Middle Earth in one quadrant of a page, and filling in the rest of the page with the lands of another dozen trilogies. I’ve read the fake histories of a thousand worlds, studied the cosmologies of hundreds of universes, wallpapered rooms with the cartography of lands that never existed but always lived.

There is a problem with sports video games that can never be overcome, no matter the technology. It is not real and that disconnect washes out the suspension of disbelief necessary to experience the true heat of emotion. Winning the Super Bowl in Madden, no matter how high the difficulty, no matter what drama unfolds, can never match the feeling of watching your own team win the Super Bowl in reality. And losing on the game console can never match the emotional gut punch of coming up a yard short as time expires. After a real loss, every fan runs through permutations, categorizes what might have happened if only this had changed, if only that foot had come down an inch to the left.

Part of the magic of storytelling is the ability of a writer to make that emotional investment happen for something that is not real at all, so that even knowing intellectually that the words on the page are the arbitrary scratchings of another mind, we still argue with them as if they are reality. With role-playing games, there’s an element of looking under the hood of storytelling, of meditating on just how powerful a force chance really is in making us accept something as reality.

And so those terrible dice clatter across the table. If we just sit around a table saying that we kill dragons, well we might as well kill three or a dozen. And we might as well say that we do it with one swing instead of two, or with half effort instead of all of it. Those games introduce rules to govern drama, tweak the boundaries of reality in order to allow for the incredible to happen, but with an ever present tension of randomness and luck to ensure that our walls of disbelief don’t go back up.

Entire libraries of role-playing game books, enough PDF files to make your hard drive groan, and what do we have at the end of it all? We have people saying “what if this” and “what if that” over and over again, never taking a breath, never spending the long years it takes to overlay plots and characters onto the bare-bones of a setting. They are just raw creation. That’s not to spit upon novels and movies in any sense, but only to highlight the profound beauty of shelves and shelves full of nothing but endless worlds in which to wander.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.