Is the joy elusive at your gaming table? If you’ve had campaigns that feel heavy, difficult to keep up, or full of inter-player tension, or if you’ve had great campaigns in the past, but the chemistry just isn’t right anymore, you might have a culture problem.
If rules are a superstructure, and play and imagination and story are all the finishes to create a beautiful RPG tower, session zero and the decisions made about rules set, boundaries, and snack arrangements are the foundation upon which you build. But foundations are still built on something. Before session zero you have the culture of your gaming group. If you’re not considering what that culture is, bedrock or swamp, you may find yourself doing a lot of extra work to keep the building standing. Even still, the tower might topple.
If you want to build your campaign on bedrock start thinking about vulnerability. Get this right and gaming joyfully gets a lot easier. It’s the secret ingredient you had when you were a kid, and roleplay was as easy as breathing.
Childhood Roleplay and Easy Fun
Vulnerability is being able to get hurt. Shame and Vulnerability Researcher Brené Brown describes it as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Children are remarkably vulnerable. They are physically weak, trusting, and dependent. They are also comfortable with being vulnerable.
Consequently, children don’t need rules to feel like they’re “playing right.” They just have fun. They buy-in imaginatively with no thought to judgement and create fantastic worlds to play in with nary a prop or codex.
Their imaginations flow out of them. All the games of cops and robbers and house are all imaginative roleplay. Young kids haven’t been shamed into thinking there is something naive or stupid about their play.
A little of that immature wonder would do our roleplaying tables some good.
My Intro to Dungeons and Dragons
If you started D&D as a child you probably have a story similar to mine. When I first played D&D it was with a friend I’d met at Library camp when I was 12. He had books for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. I can’t remember how we created my character except that I was a Paladin. We didn’t have polyhedral dice. All we had were some d6s from a Yahtzee set.
Necessarily, our adherence to the rules and any sense of plausibility in the world was nonexistent. Paul determined all game outcomes with a roll of a d6. A six was always a total success.
At one point I went searching in the local thicket wanting to find a phoenix. A six meant I found it. I wanted to tame it and make it my pet. A one meant I had to flee or be immolated. I remember the details of that campaign in high-resolution. We didn’t understand rules but created together a silly and naive story I still treasure.
As we aged we kept playing. We began to understand the rules, but not understanding rules at no point hampered our sense of play. We derived our fun from sharing imagination and loving each other’s storytelling. Innocent children we were, fearless in our embrace of sharing ourselves.
Frustratingly, I didn’t retain that freedom to play forever. Age brought less comfort with exposure.
Vulnerability Inherent in Roleplaying Games
Social fears are rooted in the basic human instinct to belong, from a time when being outcast from the tribe got you eaten by a lion.
So It is vulnerable playing these games. Public speaking still holds the spot as America’s top fear. Roleplaying isn’t just public speaking its public improvising. Any moment someone can mock you for a choice.
If you have any doubt that roleplaying is a vulnerable activity please read Mysty Vander’s harrowing account of cruelty at a game table. She describes attending a convention game where players and game masters alienated her from her table. She talks about mustering up the courage to play, and being hurt by her experience.
Sidebar: If you are feeling bummed out after playing, it may have something to do with vulnerability, I give some tips for managing this feeling in my post on preventing DM burnout.
Fear of Vulnerability Kills Fun
Our culture holds a lot more space for children to be silly and creative than adults. If my daughter runs onto a busy playground dressed in a dragon costume it’s adorable. If I do it, I’m a weirdo and should stay away from people’s kids.
It’s sad but common that adults who are ashamed of being vulnerable often manage their feelings by judging adults who are being vulnerable.
As I grew older fun roleplay became difficult. As I learned more about the rules of good storytelling, I felt less space to play in. Learning everything that went in to being a good actor, I began to worry I was bad at roleplaying. So, I began pressuring myself to work harder on the hobby trying to make certain I was never less than awesome.
I couldn’t stand the idea I would say or do something at the table that anyone else thought was lame. Fearful, I wanted to stop exposing myself to the risk of judgement. And I did. I stopped playing altogether.
Gaming In a Non-Vulnerable Culture
The thing is, even if I hadn’t stopped, gaming without vulnerability sucks. If your tabletop culture doesn’t empower people to be vulnerable, if the culture is such that players fear their choices could be met with shame or mockery, they won’t be freely creative.
Players who guard against being vulnerable will reduce their creativity to avoid exposure. They will avoid speaking up to diminish risk. Anxious players fight unpredictability with optimized rules-bending choices like taking long rests between every fight.
Sound familiar? Shame and fear grind the whole works to a halt.
You can introduce as many rules as you like to encourage the behaviours that create fun and ease at the table, but rules can do little in the face of a tabletop culture that shuns vulnerability. Rules are the wrong tool to encourage playfulness. When you were a kid you didn’t need any at all.
Acknowledging Vulnerability’s Role is Essential
Comfort with vulnerability is a practice and a way of being. When we’re kids, vulnerability is easy. It’s natural. As we grow up, if we don’t think about it, if we don’t understand it, it’s easy to lose. Exposing oneself to harm is scary. There is no small part of the world selling us that we can avoid discomfort if we buy the right products. Vulnerability can seem unnecessary.
But that’s a lie. To play our most free, easeful, joyful game, we need to practice vulnerability. And if a kid can do it, you can too.
One of my favourite things about D&D is it can help with that. Tabletop roleplaying seems purpose-built to provide tools to practice vulnerability in a safe structured environment.
See my post on the levers present in RPGs that can act as vulnerability training wheels, as companions in the quest to bring more joy and ease to your tabletop culture. Subscribe to the blog to make sure you’re in the know. You can bring your vulnerability back from the ashes.