Time Out of Character

I have been known to dabble in the occasional table-top roleplaying game. Mostly the perennial classic Dungeons and Dragons, wherein a group of nerds sit around a table with their fancy-shaped dice and pretend to wield swords and sorcery in pursuit of a common goal. Tabletop RPGs, for the edification of the uninitiated, are essentially cooperative storytelling games - the evolution of the very human habit of sitting around a fire and weaving a good yarn with one’s friends. One friend delivers a prompt - a situation or challenge to explore - and the others in the circle each create a character to explore it. The characters are developed over the course of the game by their actions and reactions to the challenges they meet, and the players piloting the characters get to view the fantasy world through the eyes of their own creations. It is absolutely enormous fun. And meta as hell. Let me explain.

You know how you spent that week in college procrastinating on a term paper by playing Tetris? Remember how you started to see everything like a little collection of squares, and trying to determine how to best fit those squares into the nooks and crannies of the other squares? It can be like that with D&D. You start noticing when you must have rolled a low number on your dice when you bean your friend with an orange from across the room. “My bad,” you find yourself saying, “I crit-failed my dex check.” (Another effect of too much D&D is you get super incomprehensible to normal humans. It’s worth it.) And it goes beyond that.

Because you’ve been spending so much time spinning stories with your friends, you begin to see everything in your life as its own story, being spun out perhaps between a table full of cosmic friends who just want to enjoy a compelling tale together. And on some level it doesn’t matter whether this impression about the universe is true. You don’t have to believe it, it is just a felt experience. A perspective, like those tetris blocks you started seeing everywhere in that lost week of your youth. I call this perspective “OOC” or “Out of Character.”

There are times in the game, as everyone pilots their characters through the story that you are all creating together, when conflict occurs. One character, acting as the character has been established may, say, want to burgle the home of an evil Baron. Another character, acting as that character has been established, will disagree, preferring a more lawful approach like knocking on the Baron’s door and giving him a piece of their mind. What follows is an argument. Sides are taken by the rest of the party, points are made and dismissed and sometimes mocked. It can get downright uncomfortable.

And then, someone laughs. Not derisively. Perhaps nervously. And suddenly you are out of character. You remember that you are not really in conflict - you are friends sitting around a table eating pretzels and telling a story. The conflict is part of that story, and it is important, but it is never as important as remembering that the story is a game. No one is in any danger. Perhaps the conflict is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction - it has been known to happen! Or, perhaps, the would-be burglar leaves her fellows to take her own course of action, stealing back the sacred amulet from the evil Baron while the rest of the party distracts him with a talking-to. And then the thief sheepishly returns, treasure in hand. The rest of the party may distrust the thief from now on, but that’s part of the game. The friendship at the table stays intact regardless of the schism in the fantasy world.

Or, sometimes, the thief runs off and isn’t heard from again while the player who used to pilot her rolls up a new character to join the party. Friends in the fantasy world may part ways - a character’s development may demand a course of action which removes them from the story - but the friends at the table, whose only goal is to make a story together, understand.

So when conflict occurs in real life, and I find myself arguing hard for something that matters deeply to me, my gamer brain has developed this little space - the Out of Character space - where I can understand the conflict as part of the game. This little OOC piece has gained the rather remarkable ability to pull back and look at the conflict from the point of view of the Player. It knows everything about my character that has driven her to believe what she believes, and it knows a fair amount of why those beliefs are in conflict with those of the other characters. This perspective does not end the conflict, because the conflict may be a crucial plot point and - more importantly - the OOC piece feels no discomfort about it.

It’s a story, and the Player is not in any danger.

Sometimes the conflicts of life’s story drive a wedge between me and my loved ones, and that hurts. It has to hurt, because that’s how the story goes. But when I draw myself back to OOC, I  sense that the other players are still with me, unperturbed. Sometimes there is loss, and a character I thought would be part of my story to the end has to leave. It hurts, because that’s how the story goes, but my OOC part can hear the rattle of that character’s player rolling up a new friend to join my adventure with me.

From here, I can laugh nervously, have a pretzel, and dive back in. I’m here for a story and dammit, let’s make it a good one.

EssaysKat ForsterKat Forster