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C'mere for a second. I don't want to say anything in front of... you know... the other guy. He's a nice guy, and an okay player, mostly. He knows the rules pretty well, he can make characters, he tries to get into the game, I think... I guess... maybe. But I've been thinking... there's something about the way he plays, the way he talks about the game... I think I know what's wrong.

Do you remember when you first started playing RPGs, and reading sci-fi or fantasy, watching awesome movies and shows, reading comic books, or even writing, or drawing, your own stuff? Making up your own awful, or awesome games? Did you read adventure gamebooks? Lone Wolf, Zork, Endless Quest, D&D, Sagard, Wizards and Warriors, Fighting Fantasy, Choose Your Own Adventure?

Do you remember imagining being someone else, somewhere else, doing something else? Seeing scenes in your mind's eye, either in a fully immersive, sit-back-and-close-your-eyes exercise, or just while you were staring off into space, while not doing homework, while someone was droning on?

When was the last time you truly used, focused on, for any significant length of time, your imagination; your active, conscious, willful, artistic creativity, to get back in touch with that ability to appreciate the wonder that you yourself can create and bring forth, all from within yourself? Were you ever able to do that? Did you ever do that? Can you still do it? Do you do it when you game, as player or GM? Will you do it?

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, we'll call him Ted. His 15 year old stepson, eh, name him Brent, has played games with us enough to understand the basics of a few systems, how gaming works, including GMing, and even ran a few sessions of Warhammer FRP 2nd Edition adventures from some of the more famous campaigns, and I thought, did pretty good - he's a little rough around the edges in places, as player and GM, but for 15, he's got a good grasp and has the dedication to sit down and work on NPCs and go over the adventures he's going to run, when he wants to, to prepare.

So Brent is starting to GM for his group of friends, about 3-5 kids around his age, give or take a couple of years. He essentially observed that he felt one of the main problems with his group was that, besides them not being previously acquainted with RPGs, besides online (MMORPGs/WoW etc) or console games (that's all for another post), he felt they just really didn't seem to have the ability to <em>imagine</em>.

Granted, that's just Brent's opinion, and potentially carries some bias and he's not exactly a trained psychologist, but from the standpoint of his experience with gaming, I think he might have enough authority in this particular subject to be able to at least "diagnose" that much of an issue, if it's as obvious as he thinks it is. His friends do not fit the "gamer mold" as most of the rest of us (Brent, me, my friend Ted, my cousins, the group to which I and my friend belonged) - voracious readers, interests in psychology, philosophy, trivia, history, arts, various sci-fi/fantasy, various analytical pursuits or aspects of the games themselves (his is the in-game hierarchy, intrigue, etc., mine's mechanics). Brent's friends aren't really readers except for one who's also a Star Wars fanatic, one's a sports nut, etc. In a way it's neat to see out-of-the-ordinary "types" (for us anyway) interested in gaming, but in another, it's a real head-scratcher as to how to deal with them or explain things.

Brent's statement about the lack of imagination made me think about when he started gaming, and when my own cousins started, and when I started, and I think his observation is probably not just valid but significant. When I was in 7th grade, our science teacher did a guided imagery exercise where we closed our eyes and imagined what it was like to be an animal as a rainstorm came up - we had to run (or fly) for shelter - the smell of the rain, the cooling breeze coming in, the sound of the drops and wind, the other animals also scampering for cover, the intensifying breeze, flashes of lightning, booming thunder, all that. This was at least 20 minutes, maybe longer. I just thought this was one of the most awesome things I had ever experienced in school, as I was already playing RPGs at this time and realized at that time most of the other kids probably didn't do anything that would lead them into anything that would ever give them the cause to do anything even remotely similar to that, and likely they never would again.

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I flashed forward back to Brent's statement about his friends and I realized that it's quite possible that his friends, now that they had matured into self-awareness and long out of the influence of the toddler "imagination" stage, had no real practice in engaging their imagination, as they had no cause to do so. They didn't read, only one drew or wrote; they most all played video games, but everything is already rendered very concretely for you. The only thing I could call to mind that might fire their imaginations was music so I hope they at least have that.

But again, I thought back and realized at the time of the animal visualization, even though I played RPGs and I did some peripheral visualization and wrote my own stuff and drew, I really didn't do all that much true imagining either. Everything was always fuzzy and vague, and still is. I think that's why that exercise was so awesome to me, because it was a true novelty even for me, because I was able to appreciate how it could fully be applied and its use in something, rather than just "This is cool but what good does it do?" like the other kids probably thought.

When I gamed, GM or player, it was always a mesh of mental calculations of game mechanics, narration and vague mental image of the current action - I never fully clarified in my mind the full scene, it was always just a snapshot or a video clip of what was going on, like <* SCENE: Pit Fighter throws Dwarf Trollslayer through window into goblin crossbowman *>. Sometime it would just be a hazy face or general outline, especially if I didn't get a good idea of an NPC or creature from a description - it's more used as a placeholder in my head, than for imagination purposes, just to categorize things for how and when I deal with them.

And I wondered about that. The whole point of games is having fun and I realize it comes down to what your definition of fun is, and not only that, I think it depends on WHICH definition of "fun" you're going to choose each time you sit down to play. Some days you're in a "standard gaming fun" mood, character sheet, dice, pencil and whatever else, and there's nothing wrong with that at all.

But there is the more primitive but no less valid definition of "fun" - it isn't about leveling up, hording coins, sucking up XP, buying new implements of destruction, slaying monsters, figuring out stats, or how many inches a feat lets you jump or how much damage you can do - not really; gaming, like any entertainment, are about escapism, and they're about losing yourself, letting the books and numbers and dice and everything fall away, enjoying sharing the same make-believe world for a few hours with other people and everyone getting along and loving the whole experience of being able to be somebody totally different.

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So, when you make that warrior or knight character, maybe you see him on a horse, okay... but... can you see YOU on the horse? Have you ever tried it? Is there a difference in first and second or third person point-of-view imagination scenes? How much does it change our emotional investment? Our enjoyment? Our appreciation? Can you imagine looking down from the view of the lush expanse of deep green meadow and the far distant lavender mountain range and dark silhouetted tower, and grabbing the saddle horn in your gloved hand, feeling and hearing the soft leather creak slightly as your grip tightens, while the bit and bridle jingle musically, and your whole body is jarred rhythmically as the eager horse trots forward in surprise, anticipating your tugging on the reins? Can you see your own royal blue velour tabard cascading from your body?

I think Brent's friends, and probably a LOT of people, maybe a LOT of experienced gamers, may need a primer for just imagination - not a "game", not an adventure or a scenario, but just like a 10 minute "walk-through" if you will, of just guided imagery, read by the GM, nothing but one long "read-aloud" box, directing them, similar to the animal in the rainstorm exercise. No dice, no stats, no character sheets - just "sit back, close your eyes, relax and imagine".

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  1. I. J. Thompson's Avatar
    Great thoughts! This is why I love my diceless, online game so much. It's just pure, sensory awesome.
  2. Blond Gamer Girl's Avatar
    Well, I won't get into the few awful first gaming experiences I had but I will talk about imagination. After I started novice writing and got criticized for lack of description, I began writing better description. Hence, in my GM'ing I got more descriptive as well. When players enter a room, building or whatnot, I set the scene by describing sight, sound, smell and if applicable touch or taste. Instead of making rolls for conclusions, I tell folks that if they tell me they're checking out something closely, I give a detailed descriptions that can lead to conclusions: tailored clothing, types of books on the shelf and such.

    Description hint: Put a picture in front of you of the NPC or scene and always have a sticky note listing the five senses and use it to set the scene.

    I prefer immersion almost to the point of LARP'ing. Setting scenes using good description and keeping in character, I think expands one's imagination. Also, for me it helps me to escape into fantasy for a few hours and not think about bills, work and taxes.

    Your last paragraph cracked me up because I had already planned something like that. In an upcoming session or two, it will be strictly roleplay and clues will be given through scene description only. To boot, I'm giving away roleplay points based on funniest moment, most creative and others.

    Scariest words a player can hear: "Put away the dice."
  3. Malachi57's Avatar
    Having a teenage stepson of my own, I can tell you it's a common theme with teenagers these days. It's far too easy for them to have someone else supply the imagination for them. I would say TV and video games are the main culprits, but moreso because those 2 things take up more of children's time these days than any other activity out there. Even when I was growing up, I only had Transformers and G.I. Joe to watch. After that, there wasn't anything I was interested in watching, so the rest of my night was spent reading comic books or drawing. I eventually turned that into a degree in Illustration, but with the advent of the Cartoon Network, it's cartoons all day and all night.

    I will say that most kids, if coached a little bit, are more than willing to give their imaginations a workout. My stepson is getting much better at playing his role rather than reading his character sheet, but it's a process that I think all future gamers will need to become accustomed to. I think the visualization idea is great! I'm not sure how it would go over with my group, but it's something I'm definitely interested in trying.