Storyboard: Importance

As I write this column, I am sitting on a train to New York Comic Con, celebrating an industry that has been running for basically forever and seems to be rather steadily dying. I'm sad to say it, because I never really grew out of loving comic books, but sales that 10 years ago constituted a rather dismal failure now constitute a pretty big hit, and we're certainly not getting comics aimed at kids in most circles. (I adore Last Stand of the Wreckers, and it's a wonderful example of doing a mature comic correctly, but I feel sorry for parents who might buy it because their kid liked Transformers Animated.)

That got me thinking about roleplaying, something that a lot of people see as being a fossil of the origins of MMOs. I've seen so many arguments that "RPG" no longer means any actual roleplaying is expected, and yet each one feels like reopening a wound. I think that roleplaying is important and that it's a good thing, and while its death may or may not be in the cards (I don't think we're anywhere near that), it's vital that we take a look at what is important about roleplaying and why it means so much to so many of us.
One of the first columns I wrote about Final Fantasy XIV was about roleplaying's importance in gaming. Looking back now, while I'm glad I wrote the column (especially as it made me a bit more popular amongst the folk of the RPC), I don't think I quite hit the right notes in my reasoning. I was talking about the abstract benefits of roleplaying as if they were somehow the real reason it was important, as if I needed to make excuses -- as if roleplaying itself weren't a rewarding and worthwhile activity that was valuable on its own merits.

Now, I also definitely think there are side benefits to the activity. But my mistake, which I see in hindsight, was acting as if the side benefits were the real reasons for supporting RP, as if the RP itself were sort of a bizarre outgrowth of something else good. And for all the extra little widgets, the fact is that the real meat of what makes roleplaying awesome is roleplaying itself.

RP lets you step out of yourself in a way that very few of us get to do. With rare exceptions, I don't think most of the people reading this are professional actors, and I would bet dollars to donuts that none of us has starred in a major film. (I'd like to imagine that I'm being read by the cast of Firefly, sure, but I'm realistic.) And even in acting, you have to step into a predetermined role in which someone has written all of your lines, told you what you're going to do, and determined who you will be.

But when you get home from being Steve the Dishwasher, you can be Gadran the Orc, crusher of men, a failed father seeking redemption in the eyes of his family. Or you can be Captain K'Pok, a proud Klingon whose loyalty to the Federation is greater than the loyalty he feels to his own blood. Or you could be Pyrite, a superhero afraid that he's really no better than his namesake, pushing to do more and save more people even at the cost of his sanity.

Roleplaying lets us work through things that we never would otherwise, things that are alien to our lives but still a part of our identity. It allows us a chance to explore myriad different worlds within us, the conflicting aspects of our personalities, ideas and concepts and people we want to be on an idle level no matter how much we like the people that we are.

And maybe most importantly, it's fun, and it's a sort of fun that doesn't really get replicated anywhere else. The simple loot-drop mechanics of many games can be found in many places, but roleplaying is its own creature.

Writers know about the ways that characters become a part of you, but not everyone else does. Roleplayers know, and they experience the exact same thing. There are characters I haven't played in years that are still fresh in my mind, long-dead characters of whom I still think fondly. And playing with characters -- not just avatars, not just collections of stats and armor -- makes everything matter more. I wouldn't have enjoyed walking into the Tam-Tara Deepcroft in Final Fantasy XIV and dying a few times... but I did enjoy the roleplaying that came out of it and the chance to explore more of my character's personality.

In my heart, I'm a roleplayer. I can't be otherwise. I am large; I contain multitudes. Roleplaying is our window on both real life and the game, from a very different vantage point. Even if it can be occasionally problematic, it's important, and we need it.

So I care. I care about letting people roleplay, about letting us all have a playground to explore a world that isn't our own, and I care about making sure that there's a game there as well to improve the overall experience. I care about character motivations and what my characters are thinking. I care about seemingly minute details. I care about the quality of support, and I want that support to be more pronounced than simply not actively damaging roleplaying any more than is absolutely necessary.

That matters to me. It matters as something worth passing on and maintaining. And thus, I rant about silly things like whether or not a game lets you build a pretend house. Because just like I don't want comic books to go away, I don't want roleplaying to drift into nothingness.

For this week, that's all I have to rant on the subject. I realize it's a bit more tangential than usual, so feel free to let me know your thoughts on this particular column in the comment field or via mail at Next week I'm going to head back to the well of problem characters, as there are some other fine examples I haven't yet discussed.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.
This article was originally published on Massively.