Why do people play RPGs?

I have gamed with goths, musicians, emos, stoners, ADD kids, scholars, jocks, dads, and a bouncer. People from every part of the spectrum are playing, and I want to know why.

If it was only us nerds, the answer would be simple: we play RPGs because nerds like games that have minute details and thick manuals. If it was only geeks in general – musicians, fantasy readers, film buffs – the answer would still be relatively simple: those people like storytelling and creativity.

But I was introduced to D&D by a Christian marine corps recruit in school for public policy. Our weekly game night was the only time literature majors sat down with government majors for more than the occasional class period.

What could such diverse groups have in common?

I’ll venture a guess and say that the reason we play is a desire to live out the “Archetypal Moments.” You know: when the swashbuckler swings in on a rope in the nick of time. When a retired adventurer is asked to do one more job. When someone goes alone to investigate a noise in the night. Even when a traitor sells out his friends. We all want to experience these classic moments that would make us feel like heroes. Or villains. Or sidekicks. RPGs let us feel, in some sense, what it’s like to be those people.

So what does this mean for GMing? Well, it means that Archetypal Moments should be a GM’s main concern. If it’s a wild west game, the GM should include gold mines and saloons, let them play a little poker, have NPCs challenge them to showdowns and have them get attacked by ‘Injuns.’ If it’s a pirate game, it should be about backstabbing, curses, and treasure. Etcetera.

What players want is for the GM to give them a “tour” of the genre they’re playing in. When they decided to join your fantasy game, for example, I guarantee they thought subconsciously, “Fantasy? Maybe I’ll get to save the princess/battle a sorcerer/look totally awesome standing atop a big ol’ monster carcass.” Of course, they might not realize this consciously, but that just makes your job easier. Find the Archetypal Moments that sum up the setting you’re doing, and bring them into your game. The players will feel like it was made for them – because, in a way, it was.

When you know what people want out of RPGs, you have the power to make their wishes come true.