Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Consolation of Role-playing

Role-playing games are often misunderstood by those who don't participate in the hobby. One  accusation we see leveled is it's a frivolous (at best) or dangerous (at worst) form of escapism. There seems to be a tacit assumption in this attack that if you are gaming it is because some other part of your life is incomplete or problematic. Personally I think there is nothing wrong with spending a few hours a week pretending to be an elven bard on the run or a dungeon delving dwarf. I did so for years as an enhancement to a fairly well balanced life, not as escape or to fill a gap. So I don't want this article to be seen as an argument that RPGs are about escaping from your problems. Rather it is about how RPGs can be a source of diversion from them when you do happen to run into stressful or uncomfortable episodes. That does not mean it is the primary purpose of role-playing games.

I recently read a blog by a cancer patient who praised D&D for helping him during a frightening and grueling illness (here is a link: This inspired me to write about my own experiences with gaming and illness. In the past I have addressed my health on the Bedrock Blog, but I want to get a bit more specific, as I think it is useful for other people who may be in the same situation.

A little background. I have been a gamer most of my life, from about 1986 to the present. The moment I played my first RPG (which I believe was the Robotech Role-playing game by Palladium, but it has been ages so not absolutely certain), I was hooked on the hobby. It was like a bolt of lightning to the brain where I realized you don't need a TV screen or video game console to have fun. My high school years were spent between music, school and gaming. I ran and played in countless campaigns during those years, but I also always had other things going on. Generally I have been a pretty active person with a range of interests. Music and playing musical instruments have been a large part of my life. An interest in history and movies another. Staying physically fit and active were also high priorities.

Prior to getting sick I had been extensively involved in martial arts like boxing, kick boxing and taekwondo. Most weeks I ran 3-5 miles every other day and in between those days I would lift weights. Much of my social life revolved around the martial arts gyms I attended.

I earned a degree in history, found work as a writer and got married to the love of my life. In all, I think I had a very balanced and complete life. And I liked nothing better than to unwind once a week by throwing down some polyhedral dice. My love of RPGs was so strong, I looked to becoming a published game writer. I had some good experiences doing this and decided to launch my own game company, Bedrock Games.

We launched in 2009 with our first game Terror Network and then followed up with modules and other games like Crime Network, Horror Show, and Servants of Gaius. I had a blast those first couple of years because we attended gaming conventions, went to stores to conduct demos and none of it felt like work at all.

Sometime toward the end of 2010, I started getting sick. It began with fever and discomfort in my stomach. I kept going to the doctor and they kept putting me on an antibiotic called cipro. I must have taken six courses or more before the end of the year. The only impact this had on my life was it forced me to stop training in martial arts while I looked toward recovering. I was still able to exercise but going to the gym and training hard was out.

In January 2011, as I was writing Horror Show, I became violently sick and had to go in for emergency bowel surgery to remove an abscess. I went in and the surgery went well. But the abscess came back, leading to two more surgeries. By the end of the third surgery it was clear something might be wrong but they didn't know what exactly. So I went home and rested. This was a particularly stressful period because the third surgery had gone very poorly and I was suffering from a number of medication side effects. Even had a big reaction to something they gave me prior to the operation.

For the next month I wasn't able to do much so I pulled out my old first edition Dungeon Masters Guide and started reading it again. Reading that book somehow pulled me through the process of recovery. And the fact that I was so sick with nothing else to do, allowed me to truly focus on the text and see it for the first time. It was more than a diversion for me. I looked forward to reading and re-reading every day. Not content to read it once through, I obsessively poured over the passages again and again.

The next six months went somewhat smoothly. I ran a second edition AD&D campaign, which had to end prematurely due to health but really helped me get through a difficult period. I also started work and playtesting on Servants of Gaius. This gave me something to do and helped focus my mind away from the anxiety of being sick.

Though I had no formal diagnosis, I was seeing  surgeon for regular check-ups as well as two other specialists. In November I developed another abscess in a different location, I also learned I had a fistula and more would form due to the upcoming surgery. In all, three surgeries and four seeton tube implants were required to deal with the new abscess. This created a very different health situation for me than the prior surgeries. Because of the tubes and the more extensive damage, I pretty much had to stay at home. Gaming at another person's house, going to a convention or doing much of anything outside was pretty much out of the question. I also learned that I had Crohns Disease.

For those who have seen the commercials for immune suppressant drugs that treat Crohns disease, you probably are under the impression that Crohns is about as troubling as a bout of stomach cramps or diarrhea. While it is true that Crohns can produce gastro-intestinal symptoms, that isn't the bad part about having Crohns. The bad part is that it inflames and destroys parts of the intestines, causing infections, abscesses and fistulas. This requires surgeries and often involves removal of portions of the intestine. So far I have been spared the later. But take my word for it when I say the surgeries are no picnic. There was recently a great article on Crohns disease on the CNN healthpage:

I think this article captures what it is like to have Crohns perfectly. Granted I am a bit of a newbie when it comes to the disease. I have spoken with and befriended some Crohn's veterans who have certainly endured more and might laugh at some of my complaints given what they've been through. But I would compare Crohns to a Clive Barker or David Cronenberg film. It is an awful illness that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

So since about November I have had a lot of difficulty doing things I am accustomed to doing. I went from being a pretty fit guy with some healthy muscle on his bones to a 120 pound gaunt of a man. All work I do has to be done from home (both for my day job and for Bedrock Games) and gaming takes place in my living room. When I do game I can't sit upright properly (and I can only do so to type for brief spurts) so I have to address my players reclined on my side like a Roman dining in a triclinium. So I have a someone contained life. Thankfully my wife is a wonderful woman who doesn't mind having me around making a mess all day.

During this time gaming, reading RPG books and staying involved in RPG discussions online have all been very important to my peace of mind. Without these outlets I would probably grow quite restless. Running games in particular has been highly therapeutic for me. I think in this instance it is safe to label it a form of escape, since I can't do other things like go the gym or out for drinks at a bar. But it is a wholesome and good form of escape. I don't game incessantly, just weekly or every couple of weeks depending on schedules. I will also playtest mechanics and run through probabilities on my own during the week, but I still keep things balanced.

Becoming, even for a just a few hours at a time, a Roman senator or a futuristic space explorer, really takes my mind away from the anxieties of surgery and medication. It is a hard thing to explain to those who don't play these sorts of games. I have a feeling gamers will instantly know what I am talking about.

Another important outlet for me has been writing game material. Though it is harder for me to do, and it takes a lot longer, since I can't sit at the computer for hours at a time anymore, this has proved most helpful. It gives me clear goals and again provides something to think about other than my illness.

And my gaming friends have also been some of the most understanding people in my life since this happened. Role-playing is also a social activity and you make friends through your gaming group. So far everyone of my players has offered to help out in different ways. In fact on of the Crohns patients I befriended, who has really helped me understand the disease and its treatments even more than my physicians, is a relative of a person in my group.

I am quite grateful to have gaming in my life given what I am going through. Doubly blessed because I have my own company that helps me stay plugged into the hobby even more. While I would never label gaming high art or some kind of special road to genius, I do think its function as a form of entertainment and its secondary function of escape, is to be celebrated.


  1. You have my sympathies friend. An ex of mine suffered from Crohns, and a very good friend does too. I understand the horrors associated with it, and your comment of not wishing it on an enemy are very true indeed (not a nice break up, and I still feel sorry for her because of what she has to go through).

    To an earlier point though, I often have that reaction from people who don't game that I'm just filing some void in my life. Apart from being on a bit of a downer about work - or lack there of - my life rocks right now, and I've never needed gaming to be a crutch, instead it was something that made the nicer bits of my life shine a bit brighter.

    I've met almost every one of my close friends, and my current girlfriend through gaming. hell, I wouldn't be blogging, and that has lead me to your wonderful blog. I'm glad it's helped you boss, and I hope you get through the worst of it and find the strength to try and get the life you deserve back.