Rolling for awkwardness (Or how roleplaying helped me be a better person)

Written by guest writer Jan Klama

I share a common trait with my fellow geek friends: I’m socially very awkward. As a kid I moved  every two years or so, but rather than learning how to make new friends I learned how to cope with being alone. Video games and books were welcome escapes for me, with them I didn’t have to call friends and risk having to talk to their parents, a thought that terrified me. I had a few friends, but if possible I’d tried to avoid taking initiative in making plans, after all books can’t say no if you ask them to hang out.

At 16 I started my apprenticeship as a bookbinder and spent
most breaks on my own, reading books or playing games on my Game Boy. Eventually a colleague approached me and told me about his own love for videogames, we started talking and after a while we became friends. He had a group of friends that met in the community center every other Saturday, playing a pen and paper roleplaying game called Exalted.

Before joining their group I’d never heard of games like that. Of course I knew of Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind and the likes, but I didn’t know that there were analog versions of these video games. He told me all about Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun and of course, Exalted, how they made up their own epic stories and adventures and the crazy, stupid and funny things things that happened to their characters.

For someone like me that spent most of his free time in fantasy worlds this all sounded too good to be true. Going on adventures just like Link or Frodo Baggins but not being limited by the words written down or the game engine? Sign me up!

My awkwardness was of course not gone, so when I sat down at a table that was overburdened with pizza boxes, rulebooks, comics and lots of other things, surrounded by a bunch of strangers I was, as so very often before, terrified. However, instead of being mocked for my love for videogames and books I felt included by a group of people that felt the same way. What I did not know was that they had the same issues I had, that they were just as awkward as me, but something bound them together, the love for the same things.

Before every game we would always talk about the latest additions to our different collections. New and rare trading cards, awesome comics we’d read or video games we’d delved in to. When I witnessed it for the first time I just watched, but I soon felt comfortable enough and joined in. I loved this little ritual, everybody got a moment in the limelight and was praised by the others. A short moment of honest appreciation in an otherwise rather dull existence.

The first character I ever created in Exalted was called Sen Kitsune. As a newborn abandoned by his mother, he was raised in the woods by Kitsune, Japanese fox spirits. He was very strong, but he never learned to speak so when the other characters met him he had to use gestures to talk to them.

Looking back I think this was a very fitting character for me. Sen was just as silent as I was, secluded from the rest of society, even if his background was of course way more dramatic than my own. As Sen did, over the course of our adventure, I also learned to talk.  After all this is what roleplaying is about, creating characters in your head and acting as they would, even if it means doing things that you would never do yourself.

For example, Sen once stumbled into the house of an animal trophy collector. As someone who grew up alongside animals and loved them just as much as he did humans, if not even more, this was an absolute nightmare. The trophy collector, not knowing how Sen felt about this, started boasting about his favourite pieces, a collection of rare butterflies that he impaled in little glass box for his enjoyment. Sen freaked out, grabbing the man and impaled him on the wall with a metal rod he ripped out of the ground. While I’m against trophy hunting, I would probably just mutter something mean under my breath and move on, but in that moment I was Sen, not Jan.

Whenever I had to face a situation in real life that would otherwise paralyze me I’d think “What would Sen do?” and then act as him. Sen was strong, he would not be afraid of talking on the telephone as I was. He was kind hearted so he would offer his seat on the bus to others, instead of turning up the volume on his MP3 player and looking away. While these things might seem obvious for most people, for me they felt like giant leaps in the right direction.

While I’m not a professional psychologist I’m sure that this kind of roleplaying, putting myself repeatedly into different scenarios and acting in different ways than usual, helped me develop as a person. It took away a lot of my fears and I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it was not for these experiences. Maybe these fictional characters I created were part of me all along and roleplaying as them allowed to develop characteristics I otherwise would’ve neglected.

Sen was not my only character, but I grew along with every other one I created, learning with and from them, slowly becoming a better person. This is just one of the many reasons I love roleplaying games and I continue to grow with every experience I make. I’m still awkward, it’s something that will never really go away, but instead of being paralyzed with fear I now tackle my problems like the big, strong and kind hearted Tarzan rip-off that is Sen Kitsune.

I continued playing Exalted for almost 7 years. But as with most things nothing lasts forever and some of my friends moved away, lost interest or real life just catched up with them in some other way.

But the love for roleplaying games never left me, so today I run my own campaign with a group of friends. And I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to try roleplaying at least once. It might feel a bit awkward first, but you might find things about yourself you never knew existed if you take a dip into unknown waters.


Leave a Reply