Today’s guest article was written by Gnome Stew reader Adam Meyers, the Modern Bard. Adam is starting a third party Pathfinder supplement publishing company, but he took the time out to write this passionate piece on how RPGs can be more than just games. Thanks, Adam!

Warning: This article gets into the philosophy of RPGs and mentions the ’80s. You have been warned.

I’m not a first generation D&D player, but I’m a pretty close second. Back when I was a kid my dad taught all of us to play 1st and 2nd edition and I literally grew up on the game. My childhood is full of awesome RPG memories, but the best part was that it wasn’t just fun — my dad, sneaky guy that he is, would use the game as possibly the best and most entertaining teaching tool I ever saw. All sorts of life lessons, from look before you leap, to think outside the box, to never insult a priest, all found their way into our games. You’d be surprised how well a kid internalizes something when it’s presented through deadly traps and elaborate monster battles.

So when I sometimes see people talking about the problems with RPG social skill checks and say they want them to be more mechanical and less about player skill, I find myself wanting to speak up. I know every table’s different, and yes this gets a bit philosophical, but I’d like to propose a counter-argument to that. Something I call the “Tracy Hickman” approach to gaming.

See, back in the ’80s, when the world was convinced Dungeons and Dragons was some sort of gateway drug to the occult, it fell to D&D pioneers to not only explain how RPGs weren’t evil, but how they could actually be good for you. Gary Gygax compared D&D to a chair once on 60 Minutes, and Tracy Hickman wrote a three-fold essay on RPG Ethics.

Now what follows are my words, not his, but I’m a big Tracy Hickman fan, and if I had to sum up my own takeaway from the third section of his essay, his XDM book, and other places I’ve read his words, I’d say this: RPGs aren’t just about having fun, but about stepping into the shoes of heroes and experiencing their life in order to make your own better.

To contrast, think of a computer RPG. In a computer RPG all the choices have been made for you. You can only do what the programmers decide you can do, and the only choices available are the ones they’ve given you. In a table-top RPG, however, you don’t just watch the story, you in fact make the story. It’s that element of player ingenuity that lets you decide not just what to do, but how to do it, whether it’s fast-talking a guard, swinging from a chandelier, burning an inn down around you, or scaling a giant’s leg using a dagger and short sword (yes, that happened).

So when I see people trying to limit player ingenuity by making things more and more mechanical, especially social skills, I feel like it’s doing an injustice to the players. Firstly, because it’s impossible to separate player and character completely without taking away all of the players’ freedom, and secondly because, with the above philosophy in mind, letting the players live the characters and have that level of freedom is kind of the point.

Yes mechanics determine how well you succeed at a negotiation and making them roll is not a problem, but unless you were to literally script out the players’ speeches and give them only the choice of what option to use (in which case I’d just play Mass Effect), then player skill will always be important because it’s not just the SUCCESS of the venture that’s important, but the HOW. What do you barter with? What are your arguments? Who exactly will you befriend and who will become enemies? As long as those choices are in the hands of the players, then you can’t completely separate the player and the character.

And why should we try so hard to separate them? Yes we’re playing a character, but in the end it’s the player that’s really overcoming the challenges and solving the puzzles. We could make it purely mechanical and just watch the characters overcome the situation, or we can be the ones stepping into the shoes of the heroes and actually do those things ourselves. That’s not only the soul of RP, but that’s how we learn something through that imaginary world we can then take home with us. Does that mean a social player will do better at social situations? Yes it does, but it also means a non-social player rolling someone with amazing social skills gets to not only be effective, but actually get to stretch his own social muscles in a way that’s not only fun, but that he can then take home with him.

Now I’m not saying RP should take the place of mechanics. The point of rolling a character, after all, is using his stats and skills to determine success. What I am saying, though, is that letting the players stretch their own mental and social muscles to help solve the encounter can not only be fun but also make a better game. Sure my players aren’t coming to me primarily to improve their social skills, but if my games can not only rock my players socks, but also give them something to ponder and use in their own lives, than I consider that a pretty successful campaign.