On Monday night I ran a game of Call of Cthulhu, specifically The Haunting, formerly, The Haunted House. It’s a well known scenario found in every edition of Call of Cthulhu as well as in all the free “Quick Start Rules” .pdfs. It’s really a good introduction to the mythos and I recommend it.
As much as I Iike the scenario though, that’s not what I wanted to write about.
The game was set up along from a group playing D&D. I’m not sure what edition it was but it involved miniatures and a lot of combat. The juxtaposition of our two games got me thinking about how different roleplaying experiences can be, and also, about what makes them more or less real? Now, I’ve said it before, but in my opinion, roleplaying is best when it is about the journey not the destination. There’s nothing wrong with a goal driving the action but for me defeating a boss, getting a large sum of gold, and levelling-up, holds little or no enduring appeal. They’re all intangible abstractions.
So why, then, do I play? The gold pieces are, obviously, not real, but the emotions you experience and the memories you create along the way are. The fear, joy, sadness, and sense of triumph or loss may have been experienced through a character, but they are the only real things that happen in the games.
Don’t believe me? Try this, think about a pleasant memory you have of something that happened some time ago in the real world. What is that memory composed of? If you lack the capacity for perfect autobiographical recall then that memory is probably a series of imprecise visual impressions accompanied by a much more powerful distillation of how you felt at that moment. Now try the same thing with something powerful that happened in character, in a roleplaying game.
For myself, I can certainly recall some of the scenery that was playing out in my head at the time, but my recollection of how I was feeling through my character is still quite palpable.
You may be thinking “yeah, but that memory wasn’t as strong or detailed”, which is maybe true, but my point is, I bet, if you’re honest, that once you’d tracked that roleplaying memory down, and zoomed in on your character’s point of view, the only way you knew that it wasn’t a true memory, of something that happened to the real you, is because of the context you had to drill down through.
As far as your memory is concerned those things really happened. People unwittingly create false memories all the time, memories that they’re convinced are real, and it explains why we’re often disappointed by the video of an event we have very fond memories of. In the case of roleplaying, we’re actually willingly suspending our disbelief and encouraging the formation of an experience that feels real to us. And our memory, for its part, doesn’t care where those images and feelings come from; it just makes the memory for us to enjoy later.
So how real are our roleplaying experiences? In a literal sense, they aren’t at all, but in another, more important, sense they are as real as anything else that happens in our lives. And that is the reason I play.
In Pt. 2 I’m going to write about the difference between engagement and immersion, and how using figurines affects my experience in the game.