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Theoretical RPG Concepts: Bleed

This is the first post in what I hope becomes a semi-regular series of introductions to some of the more academic parts of RPG experience. I’d be particularly interested to hear what you folks think about this stuff and also how interested you are in hearing more. -Peter

One of the things that I discovered when I started listening to RPG podcasts way back in the day with Sons of Kryos was the idea that people think about gaming on a much deeper level than I’d previously even considered they would. Further years of podcast listening (and eventual involvement in podcasting myself) has shown me what a monumental understatement that was. There are some very interesting people out there doing some very interesting work of how the games we play affect us. Some of those people are folks like Grant and me – enthusiastic hobbyists who enjoy unpacking the various aspects of the things we enjoy. Others, however, are more serious academics. We reference Jack Berkenstock of the Bodhana Group and their focus on using tabletop RPGs as a therapeutic tool on a fairly regular basis, but if you’re into this more “meta” thinking, there’s another name you should know: Sarah Lynna Bowman, PhD. She is the author of one of many books I really, really need to get around to reading one of these days: The Functions of Role-Playing Games. She has also written a number of interesting articles and blog posts, but the one I’m going to focus on with this blog post is on the concept of bleed. (She’s also, as one might expect from someone who has chosen this particular field of study, a really interesting and approachable person. I’ve had very limited interaction with her, but I’ve always come away impressed.)

The original blog post that I’ll be referring back to can be found here. I would heartily recommend reading the entire thing (it’s very readable) but a quick TL;DR is this: bleed is basically the place where player and character meet. She describes two separate types of bleed in the blog post: bleed in, where the emotions, relationships, and even physical state of a player affect the state of their character and bleed out, the opposite process. Dr. Bowman also mentions that the existence of the phenomenon is something a lot of gamers don’t willingly accept, as it runs parallel in some ways to the ideas of gamers learning real magic and calling up real demons that were part of the Satanic panic back in the 80s and 90s.

Bleed is one of those things that happens in gaming that can be good or bad. It can lead to greater investment and enjoyment, or it can lead to unhealthy behaviors and pain. People sometimes seek it out and sometimes seek to avoid it. And I think it’s one of the reasons why, as a Christian, I’m a little hesitant to play certain kinds of character. I’m fairly susceptible to bleed – a former gaming group of mine (not the one Grant and I are in now!) formed an in-game clique and ostracized my PC somewhat. I didn’t deal with it very well at all and was ultimately told that the gaming group was a poor fit for me (something that was true, but that I also didn’t deal with particularly well). On the flip side, in the Shadowrun game Grant ran for a while, our player characters wound up being nearly as close of friends as the group itself was, and it was almost like hanging out with more friends than I actually was. In-jokes developed and experiences were shared. The experience was richer for my level of immersion and, yes, bleed.

Because I’m so susceptible to bleed and have actually come to see it as a core part of my gaming experience, I find it hard to play against “type” – playing a character radically different from me, particularly one with very different values from my own, feels wrong or dishonest on some level. This limits my “range” as a gamer and tends to lead to Grant lamenting that he’s always dealing with some re-skinned version of me when we game together.  (By the way: if you experience more bleed than you want to, there are some thoughts on how to manage that in the original article.) To make matters even murkier, that’s not a thing I particularly want to change. I don’t mind being a little boring in service to being consistent. It also bears mentioning that I don’t experience much bleed at all when I’m GMing – that process feels more like a series of writing prompts to me than acting.

As is usual, I’m very interested to hear what you all have to say on this topic.


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