Friday, 31 December 2021

The Self Insert. Is this valid roleplay or just bad roleplay?

I came across this term whilst browsing YouTube and I have to confess that I hadn't heard of it before.  It would seem to originate from the world of academia and specifically media studies.  As the Urban Dictionary puts it:

  "When an author or writer puts themselves into a story they have written as a character."

I can see where this literary concept might be fun for the author and a hidden easter egg for the reader,  but does it translate to roleplaying games.

Who is the Author in an RPG?

Technically speaking it is the Games Master, they write the plot and the players inhabit characters within that plot.  That said, the players are collaboratively creating the story within the boundaries of the plot and could also be considered authors.  They certainly have free creative rein when it comes to their own character and how that character impacts on the world that they share with the other players.

I have witnessed that inexperienced players, or dare I say the less imaginative players, will naturally want to put themselves in the game rather than playing their character.  I think that this is a by-product of how we are exposed to fantasy and science fiction tropes these days and how they are born.

The creators of most RPGs drew their inspiration from the media of their day, the great fiction writers of the day who were collectively read by a large part of the RPG fandom.  We all read the same books so we had a shared understanding and acceptance of the concepts we consumed.  The characters were largely the work of one person, maybe two and often spanned epic cycles like scandanavian sagas.

A lot of the media we consume today is watched and not read and is the creative endeavour of many people from Directors to screenwriters to producers, each one has their own vision of what should happen and where the story should go.  These stories are then fed into the studio screening system where analysts record audience reaction in a minute detail.

The danger with this system is that we are forced to watch the current crop of Hollywood stars essentially play themselves in whichever cinematic masterpiece they are currently attached to.  You know the ones, Arnie, Sly, Statham, and Johnson.  They aren't being paid to be someone else they are being paid to play themselves.  This isn't the exclusive preserve of the action genre there are plenty of talented actors out there who can't help but play themselves, even the likes of method actors such as Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lawrence have their moments of phoning it in.   

I always try to encourage my players not to inject their personality or knowledge into their PC in order to inhabit the character.  If you were playing a Mega City One Judge you would play up the harsh and brutal nature of the job despite what your personal thoughts are about the crime and punishment.  Similarly if you are playing in a fantasy campaign it would be anachronistic to use modern understanding of science to Macguyver your way out of a situation.       

Your Character is not You

The challenge, nay the fun of roleplay is the opportunity to play someone other than yourself.  That might mean you are a 6 foot tall one legged retired pirate who pretends to be a Dwarf or a 85 year old art historian named Gertrude with a penchant for the hurdy gurdy.  These are not extensions of your own persona they are persona's all of their own.  

Your character sheet, stats, backstory and ephemera that you create to describe the person you are playing are all tools to help you to portray that person.  The art of roleplaying a character is to get inside your characters head and to come up with a believable and convincing portrayal.

Inserting yourself into your character is easy because your motivations and feelings are second nature.  If you are playing a streetwise orphan in a sprawling fantasy undercity your middle class sensibilities are going to seem out of place in a dog eat dog world where you have to survive on your wits and be prepared to do whatever it takes otherwise you don't eat tonight. 


I have heard it said that roleplaying games need to be more inclusive and representative.  The crux being that unless people see themselves represented in RPGs that they don't feel like it is "for them".  

I'm not so sure I get this argument which it would seem stems from traditional media such as books, movies, TV and even video games.  These media are traditionally consumed, the reader / player has limited agency with regards to the direction of the story or the major NPC characters encountered.  Even with video games where you might have some input in what your character looks like, if the options aren't programmed into the game then it doesn't appear.

Roleplaying has never suffered from these issues because you, the GM and the other players make the game what it is.  Important NPCs are often pulled directly from your back story, your species and their cultures have always been yours to houserule to your hearts content.  

This should not be confused with the goal of increasing diversity within the RPG Industry.  This is absolutely to be encouraged so that we get more diverse ideas and inspiration for the stories we continue to enjoy. 

What the designers of the latest D&D edition may put in their book may or may not make it to the table in my games and there's no way that anyone can "police" how I use the content once I've bought the books.  What flys at the table is that which the group collectively agree is acceptable.  If I want to include a story arc that has the heroes being enslaved by the villains so that they can bring the whole evil practice to a permanent end then I should be able to. The classic Heroes Journey as they confront absolute evil has to be a challenge otherwise it becomes insignificant.  Barely an inconvenience.  

Similarly If I want to outlaw the +1 wheelchair of dungeoneering in place of a house rule magical armature of mobility then so be it.  I might want all my drow to be evil to allow a player to be the mythical rebellious "Good" drow, then that's fine too.  In fact the whole concept of evil bad guys and good rebels throwing off their cultural heritage falls apart if these tropes don't exist. 

The Many Faces of Stormtroopers
Okay which one of you is a rebel sympathiser?

Which is why I am a little bemused by the whole narrative that seems to swirl around the internet these days which states

"I can only feel comfortable and safe if I can see myself represented in the game and you are a bad person for not understanding my feelings".  

I thought the express purpose of roleplaying games was not to be yourself and to have fun being challenged with making decisions you might not personally agree with safe in the knowledge that this isn't real life, it's just makebelieve.  To demand that the industry makes RPGs some kind of non-triggering safe place by design removes that quintissential element of challenge and seems like the presumptuous demands of a self insert to me.

If the imaginary world you inhabit is safe and non threatening, why do we need heroes?

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