Does thou bleed? The bleed within roleplaying online and offline.

Since last year, I’m playing the game Dungeons and Dragons with a friend group weekly on Thursdays. Of course, the whole rona thing kinda happened and we stopped meeting up when the first quarantine hit. The struggle then became finding a way to continue online. We started off with typing the things out on discord, we had a bot on our server to handle the copious dice rolling that was required, and the role play was being done by typing in chat. That went disastrous. Our group had our first breakdown. Why? The answer to me was easy: we weren’t bleeding enough.

Bleeding, in this scenario, is not the physical act, but a mental and emotional one. To bleed in table top games (and games in general) is to become ‘one’ with the character you are playing as, to ‘think’ like them, to embody them, and to become invested in who they are. Indeed, in order to personally bleed the most, I think it is important to a distinct character and traits, as well as ample room to act as them, or else I fall into the trap of merely ‘playing’ a character, instead of ‘becoming’ them. This is where we hit a rock in the road. By awkwardly typing and doing everything in this awkward impersonal manner, no one became invested into their character. The question then, can one bleed as well in the digital worlds as the physically imagined ones? And if so, how?

Well, the answer came in the form of roll20, a site that allows you to host sessions in a similar way as the physical board game. It works well enough to run a game, giving the person running it (the dungeon master) a lot of tools to work behind the screens things for their players, which keeps certain things secret like normally, allowing you to keep track of important character’s motivations, for example. Although this certainly helped, there’s still a small barrier there that over time, became thinner and thinner. Still, there is a limit also. While it’s going well when someone has prepared an array of fancy looking maps, when I’m just drawing a few lines on digital paper, it suddenly feels a little underwhelming, breaking personal emersion.

Digital bleeding then becomes an matter of being able to not only put aside the self-awareness that arises when talking to a screen, but also of being able to transport yourself into a (even semi-)beleivable world. That’s the reason that why something like World of Warcarft or other MMORPG’s are so successful, it’s because there’s already a digital world to explore, one that is visually far more impressive than I as a dungeon master could ever make on roll20. Still, I don’t think this means that something like a ttrpg can’t be as successful as other digital forms of play. For one, with the advent of VR, a new potential way to engage with roleplaying in a digital realm has been created, and people already are acting on it. Although digital bleed may be hard if there’s not enough surrounding it to support the bleed, I think soon those barriers between us and the screen are going to be thinner and thinner, allowing a more seamless bleed when moving and playing through digital realms.