Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Skin You Play In

I had a player once who took the game quite seriously. He took it incredibly seriously. In fact, he took it so seriously he actually scared me a little.

I’m into my roleplaying games, that much is obvious, enjoy getting under the skin of a PC, figuring out what makes them tick and using that knowledge to determine what the character would do. I’m playing as intended, I’m playing a role. I find it fun, rewarding and fulfilling, which is no doubt what the majority of players get out of it.

This particular player – I’ll call this guy Bill – was a nice bloke and a good friend. We spent a lot of time together and I knew he had certain emotional issues which he never really talked about but seemed to regard with a very ‘that’s all over and done with’ positive attitude. He joined the gaming group very early on and attended games regularly for a couple of years. We started to do some one-on-one gaming in several different genres and, slowly at first but with gaining momentum, his attitude towards the game started to change.

Bill enjoyed the game as a bit of fun and had a great laugh at the table when we were in a group, but when the one-on-one games began he began to change. The characters he started to play were becoming much more intense, much more defined and a lot more emotionally unstable. Out went his fun-loving carefree adventurers and in came some very dark, detailed PCs with incredibly twisted pasts. They all began to share the same trait; they had all had a traumatic incident in their younger years that involved the death of someone very close – I have no idea if anything like this had happened to Bill in real life - and this made the PC angry at the world and he would take gruesome, meticulous revenge on anyone who crossed them. The PCs, in many respects, were the exact opposite of what the game setting required. Be it Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer or MERP they were always the same dark, brooding, emotionally disturbed characters. And when Vampire: The Masquerade was released… well, it was as if someone had written the game to satiate every one of Bill’s roleplaying requirements.

Now, let me make something clear here – Bill was only this way in the games. Outside the game he was the same old Bill, funny and friendly, but in the game he stopped being himself. I could have put this down to him playing the character he had designed but every character he created was the same. I felt he was using the game as some kind of emotional release and, as I simply didn’t understand what he was trying to get out of the game or why, he would get highly frustrated and angry when things didn’t go the way he wanted, probably because events hadn’t transpired the way he had pictured them in his head. He demanded total control and if things slipped away from him he would react quite badly. More often than not I found myself fudging the game to let him ‘win’ to avoid the barrage of anger and vitriol that sometimes came out should things work against him. I was constantly bombarded by detailed, five thousand word character backgrounds and illustrations, some of which were somewhat confusing and even disturbing, and in the game he would go off on long speeches about how haunted he was, how these events had affected him, how deeply scarred he was. These speeches usually preceded him being particularly brutal or vicious to particular NPCs he perceived as deserving his retribution.

It was obvious that Bill was using the game to either express his darker side or he was trying to excise personal demons or feelings through his PCs. The deeper he got into the game the darker it got and I found myself disliking the sessions and then I blatantly stopped running them. It was getting too much and I was becoming scared about how he was living out certain parts of his emotional state in the game. Once I cut down and then finally stopped running these games for him I saw less of him. I didn’t know if he was still playing, I do know he had approached another group in a neighbouring city, but he moved away soon after and we lost contact completely. I’ve not spoken to him in more than twenty years, now. I hope he found what he was looking for.

Using roleplaying games to vent emotional problems, or any problems at all, is never a good idea. It’s not fair on you (as you’ll just taint the game for yourself), the GM (he can’t mindread and therefore can’t cater for what it is you want from the game) or the other players at the table (they’re attending to have fun, not take part in a psycho-analysing session). The nature of roleplaying games is that they are not real, and you are living in a fictitious world through the eyes of a fictitious character so any emotional experience is not grounded in reality. In my experience – I am guilty of taking out some of my stress and darker feelings in the game, I’m sure a lot of players are – any emotional payoff is short lived and never addresses the real reason why you channelled those feelings in the first place. The very fact that the game and what occurs in it isn’t real means that any experiences you have in the game are also just as false. You’ll never take away any sense of closure the way you would should you address the problem directly and outside the game.

I think this was Bill’s problem. He kept looking for that moment of closure but never truly found it and the harder he looked the worse it got. He was a great roleplayer, that much is sure, and I can say with certainty that if he hadn’t been so emotionally invested the games would have been up there with some of my best memories and experiences of the hobby. What I should have done is realised the problem, realised why it was he playing the game in such a way, and stopped the games straight away, or at least changed the focus. Maybe Bill would be in my group today and he’d be the happy Bill, the fun game-loving Bill he was when he first started roleplaying.