On the Appeal of FRPGs

When I consider the question of why we play RPGs – and why moreover they have maintained such a hold upon my imagination throughout the years – my thoughts inevitably return to childhood. Learning to read was a wonder – a skill which, once learned, unlocked narratives from pages of symbols and allowed them to unfold in the mind's eye. I think we forget, from daily use, just how wonderful it is.

But when I first encountered CYOA books, which allowed one to not only experience the story, but also guide it, they seemed to my young mind as big an innovation as reading itself.

And then I discovered that Gamebook series like Fighting Fantasy and Grailquest gamified these stories with elements of chance and even some tactical choices.

Hideous reptilian shapeshifter rises from a fallen log in the cover to

For a long time, D&D was a mysterious hinterland beyond gamebooks – I was aware of it, and knew that it was like gamebooks but still more interactive, but had no idea how to get into it.

The most fascinating things in childhood are those with an aura of mystique, of arcane or hidden knowledge. Star Wars presented a varied line of figures, some of whom were familiar and recognisable, others – the bit-part aliens, the minor droids – became the subject of playground speculation and dubious lore. (This might explain my disdain for the Expanded Universe of the franchise – the original movies left many voids inviting such fan speculation, and those voids are precious to me.)

Britains Space figures had a certain amount of implied setting, but was an 80s toy line with no entertainment franchise behind it, again leaving room for speculation.

Box with plastic miniatures and toy flying saucer on it with 80s rainbow corners and the legend BRITAINS ALIENS.

When Citadel miniatures began to show up in my school, they were unpackaged, unpainted, pre-slotta. Children moved lead dwarves and elves from iron square to iron square atop the manhole covers at the bottom of the playing field, seemingly understanding that these were pieces in a game, an intricate, arcane one, and that they demanded precise and arcane play.

The children understood these demands on some instinctive level, but accustomed to action figures, were unable to fulfil them. Combat was resolved by trying to knock one model over with another, like lead conkers. It was a crude cargo cult version of Warhammer or D&D, and to me it was magical and absolutely fascinating.

D&D itself – with its arcane schemes of different editions, module numbers, supplements, demon types, fantastical and historical pantheons – always retained a degree of that same mystery. It was forever incomplete; or at least, as a child in the 1980s, your understanding of it was eternally incomplete; a divine mystery for nerds.

(And its occult nature made it easy for people of the time to believe tales that its tables and charts concealed secrets that were occult in an entirely more sensational sense.)

The classic red box BECMI cover.

To step into the story, to conjure it, to control it, to master it; the appeal of the mysterious and the arcane, then: These were the discoveries of childhood that drew me inexorably toward FRP gaming. Another element required no discovery: Simple make-believe.

As a child I could just go up to a stranger or a sibling or a cousin and say “let's play X”; and if they were amenable, and they often were, I could describe a fantastical situation (“we're Ghostbusters”, “we've found a flying saucer”, “I'm a dragon and you're trying to hide from me”) and we would commence acting out roles in it. It was universally understood and the most natural thing in the world: Simply to play.

Our games were typically a wild melange of the pop culture we were all consuming. In one I recall playing an android who could transform into the 'Force' orb from the arcade game R-Type – his body partly machinery and partly glowing fields of force, it was typical of the ideas we came up with as kids, simultaneously imaginative and derivative.

And is this not the defining feature that makes D&D and the games that followed it unique? Games with mechanical elements of board games, wargames, video games and so on, mixed with, and often embedded within, the type of open-ended imaginative play that we enjoyed instinctively as children.

A D&D dungeon crawl without make-believe and the free imagining of situations and responses to them is just Descent. It's a board game, and a fine one, of grand scope, but it's not really D&D.

Nor were the games we played as children FRPGs, though they were fantasies, in which we played roles, and often argued bitterly over who got the most exciting role. They lacked the formalism and mechanisation and other elements of more concrete games which ground D&D's make-believe and whimsy in rules and numbers.

Why is it so compelling to combine the two? I think one answer is simply that both types of play are fun, and getting both kinds of fun together is more fun. Each shores up the weaknesses of the other – the solidity of rules makes the make-believe feel more real; the make-believe gives mastering the rules to attain a desired outcome feel meaningful. Fighting your way through a dungeon for points is less compelling than fighting your way through a dungeon to rescue a beloved NPC.

A more melancholy answer is that, as we grow up, we lose that instinctive sense of play. It's not that you couldn't say to a stranger “let's play X”; but they'd assume you had a formal sport, board game, or a videogame, or some other discrete and tangible product in mind. The idea that simply conjuring something from our shared imagination is a worthwhile and obvious pastime would seem foreign.

Stock photo of children playing pirates in a cardboard boat.

But FRP allows adults to re-enter that imaginative space. I think that part of the reason so many systems are fiddly and heavy with numbers and options isn't only because nerds love numbers; administrative overcomplication and form-filling may also serve as a “fun tax”, a ludic eating of one's vegetables; a kind of penance served to earn the right to dream again.