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Writing article on personal development via RPGs

Started by AHA, April 05, 2010, 04:25:30 AM

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I am posting this here initially, as you guys seem to be the most brainy and open-minded of the various RPG forums available online :) I hope I will get my message across with minimum confusion.

Anyway, I am writing the sequel to an article I wrote last year called "Betatesting life: RPGs as a tool for personal development". You can find it in issue 1 of my magazine "Interesting Times":

The article is below in case you don't feel like downloading the PDF.

Betatesting life: RPGs As A Tool For Personal Development


Betcha found that article title interesting? If you want some tips on how to advance your self-growth using rocket-propelled grenades, I'm sure we'll write about that at some point. Today's text is about role-playing games, however.

How can a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons crap help anyone? Isn't that stuff for fat pasty virgins? Sure, it is. But, as I am about to demonstrate, it can also be a tool for elite people like us. (Fact: Vin Diesel has been a hardcore D&D player for 20+ years.) Look at it this way: Real Life has orgasms and beer. RPG-land is (barring holodecks and AIs) the most potent arena for interactive fiction and open-ended exploration at our disposal. If you could find a way to combine the two, wouldn't that be something?

The Metaphor of Life As RPG: Even Clerks Can Be Barbarians

Take your typical RPG character sheet. Depending on the game system, you'll have your hitpoints, various strength/agility/intelligence/charisma/etc attributes, skill percentages, possessions, list of spells you know, and so on and so forth. Would you agree that this summarizing and quantifying of your character adds to the enjoyment of the game? One glance at your sheet and you know your exact progress. This is a big part of why people become roleplaying nerds: you get addicted to experience points, exotic loot, skill increases, superhuman cyborg implants, and all that good stuff. The virtual world is highly responsive and rewarding. Whereas in Real Life, results tend to be a lot more vague, open-ended and anti-climactic. For most people, fiction simply pwns reality in the fun department. How can we take that addictive grinding and leveling-up quality and certainty and transfer it to Real Life?

Exercise: create a character sheet for yourself. Be realistic here, you're not Hercules.

Exercise: determine your current level on a scale from 1-20. Try to see what you would need to do to get to the next level. I'm probably a level 14. I personally feel that levels are somewhat logarithmic, so you need more and more experience points to level up, but then again you also get better at scoring experience points.

Exercise: get into the RPG headspace while keeping your Real Life avatar and situation in working memory. Looking at the character sheet, what patterns can you see? What would you like to improve? What kind of adventurer party would you like to run with? Where would you fit in with one?

10 000 Ways To Fail: Making Lemonade, Eating Crap And Talking Smooth

Ever watched that Burn Notice show? The one with the MacGyver spy and Ash from Evil Dead? If not, shame on you. Anyway, did you ever wish you could have that kind of think-on-your-feet, talk-my-way-out-of-anything, shit-eating-grin kind of smoothness? To always have a plan, to always see opportunity where others see adversity, to make lemonade when you all you have is explosive pineapples, to always take charge, leaving everyone wondering how someone can be so kick-ass.

If you wish to do that, you first have to deconstruct what it means. And once you do that, you can devise exercises employing gradual progressive overload until you get where you want to be. The role-playing game is not a bad medium for this, seeing as its basic structure is so malleable and expandable.

When you play a computer RPG, even a relatively free-form one like Fallout or GTA, you still get most of the path laid down for you. There are a few different routes to the goal and a few different dialog trees, but the situation is always one of choosing between rigid alternatives. With a pen & paper RPG, there is no such choice. You have to CREATE. The GM may have some idea of how to get to the goal, but he sure as hell ain't gonna tell you. You have to take charge and solve the problems. You have to trust in your own ability. You have to convince your party comrades to see it your way. If you choose the manipulative route, you have to talk smooth and outwit the GM. If you choose the ninja route you have to make a plan and make it all come together. If you choose violence, well... then you just roll the dice.

Exercise: smooth talking. Pick a random word from the dictionary and just riff off of it. Write down awkward situations in TV shows where the protagonist has to talk his way out of trouble, try to identify general patterns. Do improv theather stuff with your friends. Read books on social engineering. Keep a notebook and test out the stuff in-game.

Exercise: problem solving. Any time you see some problem to be solved, whether it's a plot development on TV, a political issue in the newspaper or something in your personal life, take stock of the facts and develop a plan. Always be doing this. Make backup plans for contingencies. Time yourself, try to think faster. Get your adrenalin up and observe effects on cognition. Practice calming yourself down and getting clear in the head. Convince your GM to give you lots of tricky problems.

Some Bugs May Be Features: Performance-enhanced Daydreamin', Debuggin' & Dice-rollin'

What would it be like to be a highly trained special ops soldier with access to the latest in experimental military hardware? To have elite social wits, charisma like Casanova, and super models chasing you around as par for the course? To be a demi-god among men, whether due to magics, cybertech or unlife? To be insanely rich and well-connected, and have legions of minions doing your bidding? Roleplaying provides an intermediary level between your paltry imagination and the one-shot, irreversible nature of Real Life. Think of RPGs as a hybrid between a novel and a daydream. (Or Buffy and a wetdream). The GM sets the basic structure, but you get to do whatever you want. If you're familiar with personal development techniques, this is basically like visualization on steroids.

Exercise: come up with a list of long-term heroic goals you would like to test-drive. It should be stuff that's quite out of your reach at the moment. If you're already a billionaire with a schwarzeneggerian physique, weekly movie-grade adventures, a private army and personal harem, then I guess you can skip this exercise. When you find yourself being extra motivated in the game, try to get a description on paper so you can recall the experience for motivation later. Aim for vivid images and inspiring descriptions.

Exercise: come up with a list of things you are pondering doing right now. Stuff like asking out that waitress, starting that exercise program, quitting your job, etc. Try different branches of what-ifs. Write down any "aha!" moments. Most of us don't have very good prediction models. By enlisting the aid of others, we can avoid having our decision trees derailed by unexamined heuristics and biases.

Life As Narration: Where Heroic Adventures Come True

When roleplaying, it's quite common for players to be a lot more bold and careless than they would be in Real Life. A common trope of RPGs is that players will tend to solve every problem with violence, even starting fights with random NPCs out of boredom. Some self-preservative restraint will usually be seen when the players start to become powerful, simply because it sucks to have your level 70 Cybertroll or whatever slain by an annoyed GM. However, what's interesting is that there is a class of actions which are inherently safe in both worlds, yet we hesitate to do them in Real Life but have no fears in RPG-land. The PC chatting up every female the party comes across would be the classic example.

Exercise: make a list of all the relatively safe things you do in RPG-land but hesitate to do in Real Life for fear of embarassment or whatever. List pros and cons of doing the activity in Real Life. Trying to steal everyone's stuff would be an example of something with a lot of disadvantes, but how about talking to and trying to befriend every interesting person you see? How about incessantly haggling over prices?

Exploration is at the heart of role-playing. The dungeon-crawl, with its endless supply of cobwebbed doors and treasure chests, seemingly strewn about at random, is probably the most abused RPG trope ever. But how can you be an explorative adventurer in Real Life? Here's a list of suggestions of fun stuff to do:

* The Military. You get weapons training, cash, and interesting adventure leads. You can zone out for long stretches of time while your skill points increase.
* Urban Exploration. IRL dungeon-crawling. Combine with parkour for that added cyberpunk flair.
* Pick-Up. An esoteric rogue art with its own secret guild lairs, arcane terminology and huge range of spellbooks to study. And the reward for leveling up comes in the form of increasingly hot women. When you get good enough, those ComicCon booth babes with the Elf ears and chainmail bikinis will be yours!
* Treasure hunting. Your chance to be Indiana Jones. And a pretty decent excuse to study archaelogy. You may want to start out with something easy like trolling public parks for petty cash with metal detectors, rather than ransacking sunken Spanish galleons and stuff.

Exercise: make a list of things you can do to increase the adventure in your life. You're going to need a troupe of minions, so write a convincing sales pitch for each activity.

Alternate Reality: Live-Action Drills & Frills Guaranteed To Make You Eccentric

Alternate Reality Games and Live-Action Role-Play are what you get when you do a postmodern take on RPGs and try to crossbreed them with Real Life. Here are a few ideas that fit into the genre:

* "Bang! You're dead!" A drill where you're constantly trying to virtu-kill your friends by pointing sticks at them and making shooting noises, or placing shoeboxes in their rooms with notes saying "Boom! You just triggered a simulated bomb!" Promotes situational awareness and healthy paranoia.
* Gold farmer. Pick up every damn coin and refundable Coke can you find in the streets. Put the money in a jar and buy a sword or something.
* Urban escape and evasion. A bunch of megacorp gunslingers (or vampire hunters) are hunting you down. The main mission is to lay low and avoid capture, but to make it challenging you have objectives you need to achieve. Some good ones would be objects you must retrieve, places you must visit at certain times, NPCs you must interact with, stuff like that. Neill Strauss did this drill in his latest book (see the review in this issue) and he actually did some very RPG:y outside-the-box things such as recruiting minions on Myspace, pre-planting caches all over the city, and getting creative with lockpicks.
* Boot camp. You're a fresh-faced grunt in some elite black ops force or paramilitary vampire slayer's association, doesn't really matter. You're going to be spending a few days simulating a few months worth of physical exercise, weapons training and camaraderie-building. As a bonus, your GM will get to roleplay the quintessential sadistic DI.
* Megacorp infiltration. Use all your social engineering savvy to explore the Leviathan from inside. Don't do anything malicious of course, but if you're at a conference or something then you might as well stock up on corporate catering and Cyberdyne t-shirts...
* Saving throw. When I need to avoid binging out on dirty cheezburgers or whatever, I do an imaginary dice roll against my Willpower stat.

We'd like to run an article just on this topic, so send in more ideas for drills!

The Social Aspect: Running A Guild Is Way More Fun In Real Life

Once people get to a high enough level in online RPGs, it's the social dynamics that keeps them hooked. And I totally understand why: in Real Life, you're a down-trodden clerk, a cog in the Machine. A modern peon, really, an office serf with little to no say in anything. In the game, you're a high-ranking guild leader, you have hundreds of people taking orders from you, you're always hustling for alliances and organizing raids. You matter. People miss you when you're AFK (Away From Keyboard). Shit yeah you can get addicted to that. Of course, running a Warcraft guild is going to be of limited long-term value, barring some increased leadership skills and new acquaintances. What you need to do is build your own guild in Real Life. Much harder, but ultimately a hell of a lot more rewarding.

Unfortunately, I can't be Mr Wise-Ass about this particular project, since it's still a work-in-progress for me. But rest assured that I will keep you updated with more articles on the fine art of building a fanatically loyal private army. In the meantime, here's some general tips:

* Develop a routine for assessing new acquaintances and for transmitting your interests and stuff. You can literally write a question sheet for new friends, and a CV for them to read. Also, look up Tim Ferris' ideas on this, just google "tim ferriss test drive friends".
* Practice social networking. There are books on this, and you're bound to see me write on this if you stick around long enough, seeing as how it's an obsession of mine. The basics are just about being proactive, always being on the hunt for interesting people, actively engaging and helping people, introducing different friends to each other, staying in touch with your network, stuff like that. Not exactly rocket science, just a lot of work.
* Develop a repertoire of activities that you can easily enroll new friends into. Examples could be going to the gym, picking up chicks, role-playing games (crazy, I know) and doing survival/tactical preps. It should be stuff where you take a natural leadership role and enhance the lives of your new recruits, so just going out and getting randomly drunk doesn't work so well.
* Create a mission statement for your new militia/army/guild/party/whatever. Just pandering to your personal narcissism and powerlust ain't gonna fly, people need something bigger to believe in. You want to be seen as "first among equals".

Tying It All Together: of Grotesque Grinding And Grumpy GameMasters

Some closing notes:

* Finding a decent group is not going to be easy. Most players will probably want to just slay Orcs and level up the way it's always been done. Hell, most people are pretty hostile toward crazy stuff like self-improvement, so you'll have to stay persistent. It helps if you come across as somewhat sane, and not totally crazed out on Tony Robbins or whatever (not that there's anything wrong with that).
* Finding a really good GM is essential. You need someone who encourages creative players, not the type who punishes you for thinking outside the box.
* What with hi-tech and all, you can probably find someone online to get your fix on with. Doesn't beat face to face, but it's something at least.
* The idea of using RPGs for personal development was something I came up with during a brainstorming session. As far as I know, I am the first to really flesh out the concept. What fields can YOU combine to make something fresh that gives you an edge in life? And will you let me in on your secret?

I hope I gave you all some food for thought. The field of personal development can be a bit trite and stale at time, and we need to keep innovating and coming up with new and exciting techniques. Just as it is in RPG-land, leveling up as people and raiding increasingly powerful booty ought to be the main mission of Real Life.

We want your feedback! Send in your RPG stories to

Anyway, like I said, I am writing part 2 of this. I am not a very experienced roleplayer but I do have some experience. Got any good ideas for me? Is anyone here into roleplaying game AND self-development stuff, or am I just weird? :)

While I gather up and structure my own ideas for part 2, maybe you can help me out?

Eero Tuovinen

This is likely more of an Endeavour topic - moderator'll be around to move it at some point, I expect.

I love how you think you're 14th level. Aside from that, I'd like to hear more about the background: who are you writing for? Are you writing for the general population or roleplayers, or what? A lot about how I'd react to the article depends on that.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Quote from: Eero Tuovinen on April 05, 2010, 01:50:36 PM
This is likely more of an Endeavour topic - moderator'll be around to move it at some point, I expect.

Sure. I had no idea where to put this.

QuoteI love how you think you're 14th level. Aside from that, I'd like to hear more about the background: who are you writing for? Are you writing for the general population or roleplayers, or what? A lot about how I'd react to the article depends on that.

Well, I would say that I am writing for the section of the general population that reads my magazine :)

Am I writing for hardcore roleplayers? Sure, but the main target group would be people who are into self-improvement and are willing to try out new tools and perspectives. I can see why one would play these games just for enjoyment or whatever (and I'm planning to join a gaming group ASAP in fact) but in this case I am using RPGs as a tool to accomplish a goal that lies outside of the game, namely personal development.

Of course, I shouldn't just blindly assume that everyone shares the same framework, so here's what Wikipedia has to say:

Personal development refers to individual self-development and the development of others. By extension, personal development may involve programs, tools and methods. At the level of individuals personal development includes goals, plans or actions oriented towards one or more of the following aims:

    * improving self-awareness
    * improving self-knowledge
    * building or renewing identity
    * developing strengths or talents
    * identifying or improving potential
    * building employability or human capital
    * enhancing lifestyle or the quality of life
    * realizing dreams
    * fulfilling aspirations
    * defining and executing personal development plans

Oh, and that article was written last summer. Level 14 is soooo 2009... ;)


Oh btw, if someone else wants to take up the reins and write the article, they would be more than welcome :)

Eero Tuovinen

That seems reasonable regarding your audience - I checked out the website and understand a bit better now.

Your article topic is pretty challenging, as it requires a highly specific outlook and expertise of the writer. Perhaps somebody here is able to help out.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.