Tuesday 16 June 2020

On bleed, pain and self-inserts

I'm going to start this ramble out with a bold statement: When I'm roleplaying, I want you to hurt me ooc.

All of the most rewarding and cathartic experiences I've had with RPGs (live and at the tabletop), have been painful. That's not a negative thing, it's an experience I actively seek out.
I think a lot of people tend to lean towards RPGs as light, unchallenging escapism, and try to avoid grappling with anything painful. That's fine if it's what you're into, don't get me wrong. There's a place for it, and if that's what your tastes align with, more power to you. It's an approach that's well catered towards. However, the ubiquity of this take makes its opposite - more difficult, personal games - less discussed and less understood.

When I'm roleplaying, I find it rewarding to engage with things that are personal to me, things that have hurt me in real life. Examples include abuse, mental illness, crises of faith, homophobia & transphobia, suicide, gaslighting, sexual uncertainty, poverty, bereavement & grief, toxic relationships, trauma, crime, sexual violence. That stuff is raw and real for me because, at some point in my life, I've had to deal with it. Maybe personally, maybe somebody I'm close to had it happen and I was there picking up the pieces. 
Engaging with it in the context of roleplaying games lets me explore it, probe at it and my reactions to it, re-experience it in a safe, controlled space. It's valuable. I've learned things about myself by exploring this stuff through the medium of roleplaying. I genuinely would not be the person I am today without those experiences.
The interactivity is important; it lets you probe at the stuff that's rewarding to you, avoid the stuff that's too much, control how you interact with it. It's empowering. And the fact that your PC is an avatar of yourself is likewise important; it makes it immediate and personal to you.

With this stuff, I find that I know exactly where my limit is, where the line is that, if we go there, it goes from dark and interesting to traumatising. And, in all honesty, I push up against that limit. I want to get as close to that line as I safely can, without tipping over it.
I don't think that's unusual, actually. I think a desire to see how close we can get to our emotional limits is pretty common. You see it in people who enjoy horror films. You certainly see it in people who enjoy kink, particularly on the more submissive/masochistic side. It's the same dynamic at play. Experiencing something in theory painful, in a way that's controlled and safe, is something a lot of people seek out.

When we make PCs - the ones that aren't merely throwaways who die five minutes into the dungeon at least - we invest a bit of ourselves into them. Their traits are our traits. 
Now, that isn't to say that each of them is a copy of us identically. We take a particular trait that we find interesting, or want to explore, and isolate it. Or a combination of a few. And maybe we heighten those traits beyond how they are in us naturally, or we distort them. 
Each of our characters is a shard of ourselves, pulled out and laid bare on the game table.
Why do you think it hurts us when they suffer and fail and die? Because that's us - a bit of us, anyway - merely seen through the lens of fiction. But we empathise with their fictional suffering, in a way that we don't when we watch TV or read a book or even play video games, because in a very real way, that's ourselves we're watching suffer.

The number of people I know who worked out they were trans because of RPGs, or who have - while that egg was still cracking and they were still in there, struggling to emerge - used RPGs to explore gender stuff in a safe, controlled medium before they were able to come out publicly. It's a lot of people. I was one of them, for a bit.

The boundary between our characters and ourselves is porous. What they feel, we feel, if perhaps half a step removed. When my PCs are frightened, I feel my heartrate rise.When my PCs fall in love, I feel the same warm glow inside me, just muted slightly. We share in their elation and their despair. 
This is, to me at least, something I'm really looking for in RPGs. Experiences that push those buttons and make me feel things. Good things, maybe, but not necessarily. Pain can be as rewarding as fun. Indeed, I find the intensity of painful experiences hard to replicate with more positive ones. (This is, perhaps, mirrored in my desire to get dommed in the bedroom; pain is just as desirable as pleasure in that context, too.)

This is what Bleed is; when the barrier between ourselves and our characters becomes particularly thin, and we feel what our characters feel almost directly. This gets spoken about in larp circles, often in the context of more negative emotions, particularly in terms of how to mitigate it and counteract it. However, I love bleed. I love being made to feel alive. I want to ride as close to my limit as I can.

All of this stuff about pain and trauma and fragments of ourselves isn't necessarily conscious. Often, it's only in hindsight that I'll realise just how reflective of my own mental state a given PC was, and how events reflected issues I was dealing with. But we all do it, to a greater or lesser extent.

This stuff is difficult on a practical level. It requires a lot of trust with the people you're roleplaying with. I've got a lot of friends I RP with, and a much smaller subset that I feel comfortable diving into this stuff with. Often, these things are very intimate one-on-one scenes. I had a twitter thread here that was kind of an actual-play of one such one-on-one scene.
And, it should go with out saying, if you're doing this stuff, you need to be communicating with the other participants, you need to have safety tools in play so everybody knows where the limit is and can correct course if things are gonna actually go past it.
But if you can get those ducks in a row, there's nothing like it.
RPGs as a medium can do some truly amazing things. They can let us explore ourselves, learn about ourselves, revisit past traumas in an empowered space. I love this medium, and what it can create, and what it can do for people.


  1. Oof, I feel you on exploring gender and identity through RPGs before coming out. I enjoy this kind of roleplaying from time to time, when I can find it. <3

  2. This is a great different perspective to read. Thanks for posting it.

    As a DM, it feels more like the non-player characters are this weird separate self with it's own motivations that I'm only half in control of. They trundle along doing the things they want to do, and I only occaisionally step in and interfere.

    I suppose there is still bleed in a way... but I usually do want them to suffer, fail, and die. So I usually feel happy when that happens, as long as they got to do interesting things first.

  3. This was a great read. I wish I had groups that would push boundaries, etc. I havnt had a group like that since my World of Darkness days.

  4. as a follow up, here's a blogpost talking about the same topic:
    I found it an interesting read.