Roleplay and the Art of Storytelling

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes – The Walking Dead _ Season 5B, Key Art – Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

For a few months now, my 9-year-old and I have been playing our own “role playing game” based on his favorite TV show, The Walking Dead. I put RPG in quotes because the fact is, while we did make character sheets in the early going, we’ve never used them, nor do we make maps or roll dice. We just pick which character or set of characters we want to play as, and one of us serves as game-master, pitching out scenarios and asking the other what their response will be. It’s a very free-form version of roleplaying, basically an interactive way of telling each other stories using these characters and scenarios. We mix and match characters from the show, the comic, and the videogame, so Darryl can interact with Dwight when they stumble across Clementine and Lee wandering the Georgia wasteland. It can be a lot of fun, and my boy came up with a very entertaining do-over of the war with the Governor which ended with a much more satisfying death for that old bastard than what we got on the show.

However, after several weeks of playing for fifteen or thirty minutes before bed a few nights a week, I noticed that our narrative thrust was suffering from some of the same inertia as the show frequently does. A lot of time was being spent navigating a bus down abandoned-vehicle-choked back roads, fighting zombies and ill-tempered human survivors in the woods or at one broken-down compound or another, then hitting the road again. We were trying to juggle too many characters, completely forgetting some were even on hand while continuously focusing on our favorites. In short, what started as an enjoyable diversion became dull (more for me than him) fairly quickly.

So last week, after the boy caught me rewatching episodes of Netflix Daredevil series, he abruptly switched gears and suggested that instead of Walking Dead, we should start a new game involving everybody’s favorite blind-attorney-turned-vigilante from Hell’s Kitchen. Now it could be just my own prejudices and personal predilections at play, but right away, I was more into our little no-rules RPG than I had been for a long while. Part of the reason was the freedom that came with playing only as one lead character, rather than trying to juggle a Michonne/Rick/Darryl combo, then needing to switch to play as Tyrese/Sasha/Carl when the scene shifted. I liked the focus, and my familiarity with the character was enough that I didn’t need dice or stats to know what my guy was capable of, what kind of damage he could inflict on which type of nemesis, and what his specific limitations were. And whether I was the quester or the gamemaster, I felt like I never ran out of options, and I could be a lot more creative than the “zombie/bad human attacks, kill zombie/bad human” status quo we’d been mired in. I think we both felt the change, because suddenly we were jumping up and acting out our fisticuffs and pitched supervillain beatdown campaigns. New York City was an instantly more exciting backdrop than the endless rural South, and I could be attacked by anyone from Tombstone to Elektra while receiving unexpected aid from the Punisher or SHIELD, or having a chance encounter with Spidey and Doc Ock.

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I think what really got my juices flowing more than anything was the simple narrative elegance of those classic Daredevil stories, and the endless options afforded by the Marvel Multiverse, and although he’s read and seen more Walking Dead than anything from Marvel, Ash was equally inspired in his yarn-spinning–the narrative twists he’s come up with have been smart, exciting and frequently hilarious. Not a lot of laughs as humanity dies off one by one, but when guys dress up in longjohns to prowl for crime, well, there should always be room for a good gag or seven. Rather than open-ended wandering through an apocalyptic wasteland with no end of danger, misery or suffering in sight, we get to indulge in boss fights with nigh-invulnerable mob goons in a cramped midtown alley or the Silver Samurai suddenly bursting from a shipping container on a fog-shrouded New York dock.

This is not to say that Daredevil is a better, more tightly constructed vessel for storytelling than Walking Dead (I shouldn’t have to say it because it’s just a simple, straightforward–and utterly subjective–factpinion). But there’s something to be said for the sense of mission, purpose, and the possibility for achieving a goal–stopping a bad guy, saving an innocent, getting through the night without killing anyone, even when/if they’ve more than earned it–beyond mere brute survival. My point being that all the problems I’ve had with that wildly popular zombie narrative on the screen seem to be so much an organic part of its overall structure that they couldn’t help but reassert themselves even when we had nothing holding us back but the limits of our own unrestricted imaginations.  Then again, maybe I was just dragging my own subconscious baggage with me into our gameplay.

Anyway whatever else happens, whether our next RPG is based on Mad Max or They Live, I just hope I’m not begging for Jon Bernthal’s character to die (when he joins season 2 of DD as the Punisher) the way I was for him to bite the big one when he played Shane on WD. Know what I mean?

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