How Actual Play Helped Me Fall in Love with Roleplaying Games, Again

If you know me at all, you probably know that recently, I can’t shut up about tabletop roleplaying games. In fact, I’ve found that to be the case with a lot of my longtime friends. Thanks to an influx of roleplaying “actual play” media in recent years, the once somewhat-inscrutable hobby has been made more accessible to a wider audience. The genre known as actual play has allowed fans to listen to and engage with tabletop content, learning the flow of gameplay at the table secondhand, with no real barriers to entry. It was through actual play media that I delved deep into tabletop roleplaying, or TTRPGs for short.

Growing up, I had always been engaged with writing and roleplaying communities, both within my friend spheres and without. My first experience with what most would recognize as “roleplaying” was through a first encounter scenario in a structured environment known as Odyssey of the Mind. One hot afternoon, as our school celebrated the year winding to a close with our annual student-run festival, I and about 10 other students sat in a muggy science classroom, chugging Bawls energy drinks. Our faces were studied and serious as we acted out humans meeting alien life for the first time using a system known as GURPS, while the rest of the school whooped and hollered outside the building. While I later regretted the experience, if only because it ended up taking up the entire afternoon and I had really wanted some Dippin Dots, I was intrigued. I wanted more like that, but better, and preferably, more comfortable.

With the same group, I started up forum play-by-post roleplay-type games, and talked about such mysterious and ethereal concepts such as “Paranoia” and “Shadowrun.” However, actual TTRPG experience was beyond me — my friends and I lived too far away, and our schedules were far too busy for us to actually sit down at a table together with any regularity. It wasn’t until one of the same friends had an idea — he had been reading this really neat system called Vampire: the Masquerade, and he could run a game with my friends and I over an AOL Instant Messenger chatroom. We got through one amazing whirlwind of an arc before he and the other players had to go onto college and the game was no more.

Once I went to college myself, friends and I would occasionally talk about putting together a game of D&D — musing about where we could meet, and who had all the sourcebooks. We even got through an entire session of character creation over Skype while all at home one weekend, but never actually played. Then, I mostly forgot about TTRPGs, moving onto greener and more convenient pastures like videogames, Livejournal fandom play-by-posts, and writing fanfiction.

It wasn’t until I saw something retweeted by a Youtuber known as Dodger, that her then-boyfriend (now-fiancé) Strippin was playing in an actual play one-episode Star Wars roleplaying game. This, my friends, was lightning in a bottle. It wasn’t long after that when I looked up the Game Master, Adam Koebel, and other content he’d put out on his Youtube channel. It was when I saw the video he’d put up for the “Gender Tag” challenge on Youtube, with his considered and frank discussions about his relationship with his gender and sexuality, and the broader and varied definitions of gender, that I really felt this was someone whose content I wanted to support. I was overjoyed, then, to find his Discord community, Mathsquad. In Mathsquad, I found a community of people that were just as interested in playing a game with me as I was with them, and who were accepting of queer identities and all kinds of diversity. This was the final, most important element for me as a queer trans person — that those I was playing with would be understanding and open, people I could share my whole self with.

All this is to say that for me, actual play media broke down the barriers, both mental and logistical, to TTRPGs, a hobby I’d been interested in since high school, but was never able to fully engage with. In the year since I joined my first real campaign, I’ve played in numerous other games with a variety of systems, engaged in serious and stimulating conversations on game design and mechanics, and eventually worked my way up to running a campaign myself. Running a roleplaying campaign has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done with my life thus far, and has brought out creativity that for a long time was dormant. I’ve even started working on my own games because of the encouragement and enthusiasm of Mathsquad and communities like it — brought together in large part by all being fans of actual play media.

Sometimes I think of that tired, hot, and slightly vibrating student in that science classroom, and I think they would be glad to know that one day, all of these worlds would open up in front of them. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.