What RPGs Taught Me About Weakness

In college, my friend Chandler told me about this new thing called “cooperative storytelling.” He said it was an online platform used to write a story with friends, each of you telling the story from the perspective of one character. A narrator added all of the non-character action, like the weather, and reactions of characters who weren’t played by someone else in the group.

Cooperative storytelling. Wow. That sounded awesome! How had I never heard of such a thing before?

As it turns out, one of the participants in my friend’s current campaign—er, story—had to drop out. The GM—somehow, I wasn’t sure how, this was a synonym for the narrator—asked if I could take on the PC—I mean, character. At one point, someone said something about dice, but I had no idea what they were talking about.

I never did really figure out the dice.

I never did really figure out the dice.

So I signed up to take over the character, and, as it turns out, I had accidentally joined a roleplaying game, or RPG, as it is more commonly called by people who aren’t trying to deceive their female writing major friends into getting past biases and giving it a try. (Shoutout to the Windcaller Studios crew. Also, I refer you to this post if you want an overview of RPGs because this whole thing sounds intriguing.)

My favorite part of the cooperative storytelling process is always creating a character: creating and describing the personality, family, backstory, and abilities of a hero or heroine.

Under the system I was part of, you were allowed to give your character one superpower, called a legend ability. There were limits, of course—the narrator had to approve your ability so you couldn’t give yourself, say, the ability to sneeze bullets or something. Powers typically went along the lines of being able to paint visions of the future or teleport or shoot two arrows at once with perfect aim.

Of the characters I actually got to create, my first character’s legend ability was Scapegoat. Meaning that if she wanted to take the blame for something she didn’t do, everyone would automatically believe her.

My second character’s legend ability was Fathom Awfulness. Meaning that she could understand the worst parts of the people around her, which tended to make her extremely cynical.

My third character’s legend ability was Intentional Amnesia. Meaning that she could decide a memory was too painful and make herself forget it…along with large chunks of events happening around it.

It became kind of a game to give myself the worst, most incapacitating legend abilities I could think of (don’t even get me started on the once-off campaign where my skill was Heroic Embroidery).

There were always negative consequences to this. During the course of the stories, my first character made a near-mortal enemy and almost got expelled multiple times for what others had done, my second character abandoned her husband, and my third character erased entire days of painful-but-important memories and was constantly waking up in places with no idea how she got there. So why did I choose those abilities?

Because they made a better story.

One of my fellow players and I with a papaya. This is an inside joke for the five other people with me in the first campaign. Just smile and nod.

One of my fellow players and I with a papaya. This is an inside joke for the five other people with me in that first campaign. Just smile and nod.

I’m not saying that you can’t have a story where the hero is outstanding at something. (Though if they’re outstanding at everything, everyone will probably hate them. This is why Superman isn’t as compelling as pretty much any of his fellow heroes.) But I knew most other people in the RPG would have super strong, super charismatic, super powerful, or super awesome characters who could blow up bridges, shoot fire cannons, or make things disappear. I figured their powers could make up for mine…and maybe mine would make up for theirs, but in a different way.

RPGs are significantly more fun when they are not a game where you beat the other players, but a story where you work with the other characters for the best ending. Good stories have conflict. Conflict comes from many sources, but a lot of the good stuff is internal. Probably most of your favorite characters are compelling not just because of the things they can do well, but because of the things they do terribly, or have to overcome, or make them not play nice with others.

This is because, in fiction as in real life, failures change you. Flaws give you something to work on and fight against. Weaknesses force you to depend on the people around you, and there is something uniquely compelling about needing others and being needed by them.

While I’m really good at appreciating this aspect of “cooperative storytelling,” I have a harder time applying it to my real actual life.

I do not like to be weak. I want to have all the legend abilities all the time. I will often avoid doing something if I don’t think I’ll be immediately amazing at it. And above all, I hate asking for help from others.

This is why I’ve always secretly been uncomfortable with fan-favorite Bible verse 2 Corinthians 12:9:

Verse

As the storyteller in an RPG, I can easily appreciate that my character should be weak to create a better story. As a person, I have to admit: I do not want to be weak because I want the glory to go to me, not to the storyteller.

It looks ugly, said straight out like that. But it’s true. There are times when I want to be sufficient for me, and my power to seem perfect in contrast with others’ weakness.

I recently read an interview where an author was asked, “What’s one thing you’d go back and change in your life if you could?” And the author said, basically, “Nothing. Because even though there have been some very difficult and painful moments in my life, God’s sovereignty means this is the best possible story. If I changed anything, it would be the wrong story.”

That, my friends, is beautiful. And also convicting, because I don’t think that way very often, even though I know it’s true.

God does not need me to be super strong, super charismatic, super powerful, or super awesome. In fact, when I try to be all of those things, I am distracting people from the storyteller to bring attention back on me, the character.

It seems a little crazy, but it’s when we are weak that God gets more of the glory—when we’re the first to apologize and the last to judge, when we serve and mourn and love our enemies, when we ask for help because we can’t do it alone.

That’s the better story.

8 comments

  1. I totally get what you mean. I roleplay, but a different type of rping that involves less rules and a lot more writing. (When I say I roleplay a lot of people think I mean the type of roleplayig your post refers to.). Over time I’ve learned to be more comfortable roleplayig characters with larger weaknesses, or ones that aren’t leaders, etc. But, like you said, it is still hard to be alright with our weaknesses in real life. With the type of rping I do, though, sometimes it is easy for a rper’s own flaws to rise to the surface through their character, since this type of rping mimics human interaction rather realistically. It can hurt a little sometimes because it reminds me of all that I’m not, but at the same time it’s helped me learn and grow. When I find myself in the middle of a hard situation I tend to wish I could change something about myself or my situation, but later looking back I don’t want to because I needed the hardships to make progress in my life.

    1. Yes, Autumn, that’s it exactly! I like the way you put that–it can be hard in the moment to appreciate our weaknesses and flaws. Looking back on in, big-picture style, it’s easier to appreciate them, or at least what they do to help us grow. And hooray for RPGs that are pretty much just writing and not a lot of rules!

  2. I have recently come to the end of a long period of suffering, during which I questioned God about his plan for me. I got a disease that stole so much from me, but I have become grateful that I have it. I also love roleplaying, I roleplayed with my friends and siblings all through high school (and beyond). It was a blast and partly what encouraged me to study writing. We also had characters with different abilities…my favorite was a guard captain who could shapeshift into a Chinchilla, and, as a result, could never quite get his men to obey him. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Haha, that power cracks me up! Roleplaying is a great way to use your imagination…I’m such a fan. And I love your perspective from someone who has found God faithful even in a really hard time. Thanks for sharing, Mary!

  3. As someone who’s particularly familiar with RPGs, I think I got a little extra amusement out of parts of this article. Not that the main point of your article and how you use it to reflect on God isn’t important, but I actually found the idea of willingly taking what would normally be considered “weaknesses” and making them your “superpower” a lot more compelling than the main thrust of the article.

    I don’t know what you’re familiarity with RPGs is beyond what you’re writing about here, but it may be worth noting that the idea of character weaknesses is not entirely a unique thing. There are systems out there that use character weaknesses as a dedicated part of the system, usually as a trade off for getting more bonuses (the downside being the existence of the “Min-Max” Category of player). I had one campaign set in the 1930s once where I played a detective character and took a ‘weakness’ where I needed to make film-noir style narrations on occasion.

    There’s also the current campaign I’m part of where part of the character-building process included a separate section where you actually built the CHARACTER and who they were as a person beyond their stats, which included discussing their negative qualities in addition to the bad. Notably, the GM for this campaign in a writer himself who does an RPG-style “Campaign Comic”.

    But I kind of focusing on the wrong part of the article here. :^P

    1. It’s totally fine for part of the post to hit you more because of your personal experiences. And yes, actually in the system I was part of, you could take on certain weaknesses in exchange for a positive effect. It was a way of motivating people who wouldn’t otherwise give their characters any flaws to do so. I appreciated even more the players who gave themselves weaknesses that didn’t have any “compensation” attached to them. I even had a fellow player who, at a key moment, rolled a high number and would have succeeded at something important…but he decided it would be way better for the story if he failed, so he used Legend Points to re-roll until he got a one.

      And I think that’s a great idea. In my RPG, we got bonus points for writing either journal entries or flashback scenes for our characters so they would be well-developed.

  4. It’s fascinating to read this, because it makes me suddenly realize that all the times I played DnD (and others) and my character inevitably wound up Chaotic Evil (aka every time) there was actually a pretty solid reason behind it. The stories were always so much more interesting when I would do strange, counter-productive things in-game! All our best RPG memories revolve around those crazy moments, ha ha. I never considered it, though. It’s true.

    Now I’m curious what it would be like if I had gone into a campaign with that intention, instead of just having it crumble to that point! 🙂

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