I used to live on 5th and B in the East Village, next door to the (now-demolished) 5th street squat.
The squatters' place was bigger than mine, so we hung out there. We played games--darts, 4-square, Monopoly.
"You like Monopoly?"
"Monopoly? I like it ok," I say
"I mean part of it is the irony value y'know? Squatters playing Monopoly."
And then we played Monopoly, and it was fun. And it was extra fun because half of us playing were squatters. So you're a squatter, a thimble, and a real-estate investor. This is semiotically complex. And funny.
Like how KK is a porn actress, and Maude Lebowski, and an opera valkyrie, and a couple of barbarians.
Ok--wait--I'm not gonna use the word "irony" since where I come from it has bad associations with people who wear skinny jeans and listen to music created by white cismen with no testicles. I'm gonna say "distance". The question is the amount of "distance" you usually have from events in the game. I'm not talking about hipster-wolf-mountain-range-t-shirt-irony. I mean the degree to which--no matter how much you like the events in-game aesthetically--you resist totally "immersing" in your character or the story events.
One thing that falls outside the usual discussions of gaming style is the amount of distance any given group or player has towards the game in question--which I think is a shame because I think a giant part of the fun is the distance and, one way or another, I feel like the design of, say, Vampire, D&D-as-marketed-to-adults, D&D-as-marketed-to-kids, Rifts, and Dogs In the Vineyard all imply different levels of distance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way they're talked about implies different levels of distance.
The way I see it, there are a few basic places where fun comes from in an RPG:
-There's hanging out with your friends--who I hope are creative, hilarious, and interesting people. This is fun but it can be done without the RPG.
-The second thing is telling a story collaboratively. The story-providing duties get divided up in different ways between players, GM, and publisher (if published setting stuff is being used), but the point is the transcript of play will be a story that everybody at the table had at least some input into. This also is fun and also could be done without the RPG. You could just write a story about some medieval people or space people or whatever, email it around for a few weeks or months and then you'd have a story.
-The third thing you're doing is "playing a game" in a more traditional pre-simulatory-wargame, pre-rpg sense--that is, trying to succeed in some arbitrary challenge involving some mix of chance and/or skill, whether that be killing monsters or just turning the plot of the story the way you want it to turn. Like the other two funs, this fun can be done without the RPG--if you play a video game at home by yourself you can have this kind of fun.
-A fourth place fun comes from is the distance between the three sources of fun. And this fun can only be had with a tabletop RPG (or PBEM or other electronic variants).
This fourth place, I suggest, is where a very big proportion of the fun comes from:
Your friend's chihuahua just won first prize in the well-trained-chihuahua-contest but in the game his Cleric can't hit anything to save his life.
And you say "Look at you, Freddie you're a mess."
And Freddie looks down at the chihahua and says to it: "I know, I know. Odin is punishing us for our hubris."
Or say you're a bartender wearing a shirt that says "I'm with stupid" and you're also saying in a wizard voice "It was the height of youthful folly to engage me in such a manner, young Paladin." And then the Paladin says "Whatever" and throws a nacho at you. This is playing the game. The players are something, the rules are something, and the story is something and they clash and don't make any kind of Classical drama and it's all postmodern and shit.
This is--for every player I've seen, and for every player I've heard in an actual-play recording--the typical mode. A racing back and forth between the story-identity and the human identity, plus the drama of simply trying to get shit done against some rules. There are very probably people who don't roll like this, (and some of them are probably reading this) but I have absolutely no first-hand experience of watching or hearing them play.
In this way, you get to have your cake and eat it, too. You get both Lord of the Rings and the Mystery Science Theatering of the Lord of the Rings. In this way, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts--it's not just hanging out with your friends plus an adventure story plus the challenge of a game--it's also and largely that fourth thing that only happens when all of them happen together.
I don't think the Distance affects the ability of the game events to be genuinely interesting. Kimberly's character is called Lady Smashalot. That doesn't stop her from getting scared when her character fucks up or getting worried when she doesn't know what to do or being engaged enough in the weird things happening in the game world to find them interesting as a fiction.
In my experience, (that is--in my experience. In my own personal experience. In the experiences that I myself have personally had) the more tension you can create around the distance between the universe of the game world and the universe of the people sitting around the table playing the game eating double-stuff Oreos--the more fun you have. The game world is a serious place full of life, death, terror and various forms of spectacularness--and it is navigated by people in apartments with jobs who roll dice. This is not necessarily a bug.
People who read this blog may have noticed it has a split personality--the monsters and other features of the campaign world are written with the finicky hand of someone who wants to get his imagined universe juuust right stylistically while the actual play reports are more like fuck it let's roll some dice and smash stuff. I feel like there's no real contradiction there. The more carefully detailed and imagined the game world is, the more fun it is to watch drunk strippers (for example) negotiate it and watch it try to negotiate with them. That's why everyone who loves Tolkien has so much fun making fun of Tolkien and that's why Call of Cthulhu can be both the scariest and funniest game anyone ever played.
When I play, there's absolutely no way to eliminate this distance--RPGs are so inherently social for me that I am always hyperaware of the unreality of the in-game situation in a way that I'm not with a good book or a good movie.
There are probably styles of playing where the whole point is to collapse this distance so that the players are absorbed in the way they are in a more traditional fiction medium, but I don't think I'm so constituted that this would work for me. So: as long as that distance is there I figure "Why not use it?"
In terms of my awareness of what's going on in the game as a player my mind is constantly racing in a loop from "Oh wow, the Temple of Demogorgon is carved from the ice of solidified tears!" to wanting Mandy to hurry up and pass the fucking Raisinets. I enjoy this racing. And I suspect that when a lot of people say they don't purposefully want to inject heavy "relevant" themes into their games it's not necessarily because they play to escape reality, but because--like me--when they play they never escape reality, and so any "theme" always remains at a distance. Injecting a theme which one was genuinely conflicted about into this style of play would be, in some way--for this kind of player--trivializing it.
So--for the player who's got distance--when you put together the elf's story you aren't designing the whole experience, you're designing one pole of it--the simple backboard you're bouncing off of. If the typical dungeoncrawl seems devoid of "human complexity", it's because many people who play this kind of game assume the "human complexity" is automatically at the table. The genre tropes and problem-solving situations throw the real people into relief.
Like Plato said, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."
If you keep your distance then you'll notice that, say, Sasha Grey, the D&D player, hates losing and gets actually real-life sulky when the dice don't roll her way and that this (among other things) probably tells you a lot about how Sasha Grey ended up being Sasha Grey. And you can make a joke about it. And then you can use it to mess with her character in the next scene and she can point it out and make fun of you and back and forth and back and forth and then some complicated fun happens.
The game world is a thing full of images that most of the players at the table probably consider exciting and evocative--but the game is about the difference between those things and real life.
For me, creating a game world or plot events is less like building a sculpture and more like designing a playground. Yes, you want to bring your creativity to bear in that small world of jungle gyms and slides and animals-on-springs, but you have to remember that the fun isn't just going to come from what you make but from what happens when real world contemporary people with sneakers and jeans use it and are on it and are contrasted with it and slide down it. Like the architects say "A building doesn't have to be a perfect thing to see, it has to be a perfect thing to see people in."
For the immersive player--the real player of roles, (and for certain non-gamers) who might (might) assume that any gamer wants to be or explore the role they take on, then of course dungeoncrawling would suggest that all you want is to pretend to be a guy who shoots fireballs or (perhaps more worryingly) "explore" what it would be like to be able to shoot fireballs.
But I don't think they realize that, if you play with a lot of distance--the distance is the content of the game. You're not pretending to be an elf because you want to be an elf, you're pretending to be an elf because you're an insurance adjuster and the back-and-forth between being an insurance adjuster and an elf is interesting and funny. The insurance adjuster is automatically complicated because he's real--the elf can be, but doesn't have to be. That's what's interesting--the constant juxtaposition of worlds. One full of quirks and logistics and ordinary people, and one made of nothing but genretastic invention.
Immersive and theme-heavy gamers, or gamers who like a story that is heavily shaped in advance, have a different idea of where the fun and complication is going to come from than I do. They look at the sand castle (the story, the world it takes place in) and go "Why is it just a sand castle? Why not have a big dome over here and a helipad over here and rocket jets on the side and an opera pit and--come to think of it, why is it a castle? Why not a parliament building?" Whereas somebody like me would say--the sand castle isn't really the end product--the product is the fun in trying to make a castle out of something as chaotic as sand.