Forget the Real World: Role-Playing Games Go to College

Kira Ryan-Sponberg '03 created a lab for role-playing games.
Brian Kichler ?04 Feb. 22, 2002

Northfield, Minn.— Imagine that you are walking down a forest track and you hear a noise off to your left. The sun is swiftly setting, darkening the woods around you. Do you dare venture off of the path? Kira Ryan-Sponberg, who creates scenarios like these for Role-Playing Games (RPGs) would suggest carefully considering your character’s motivations and rolling your dice to help you decide. Last fall, Ryan-Sponberg, a junior studio art major at Carleton College, started the Experimental Role-Playing Laboratory (E.R.P.L.) so that Carleton students would have the opportunity to create and play their own RPGs.

Most people have a vague idea of what RPGs are, but there are also numerous misconceptions. Ryan-Sponberg gave some insight into the process: "Generally, one person is in charge of crafting a world," she said. "They have in their heads this idea of what the players are going to encounter — they start giving a setting, and players take turns exploring the world through their characters." Typically, gaming sessions last from five to six hours, and consist of a group of players in a room with a set of dice and information about their characters, so most of the action takes place in their heads. E.R.P.L. differs from Dungeons and Dragons and other similar games because it provides a venue where participants can create their own environments, which, according to Ryan-Sponberg, is a highly creative process of storytelling.

The imaginative nature of RPGs is what initially attracted Ryan-Sponberg. "Games have a lot of dimension to them," she said, "RPGs can be flexible, because once you really get into it, it’s not a story or a movie, you’re describing the action of your character and developing that character as you do it."

Since she came to Carleton, Ryan-Sponberg gamed sporadically, until she hit upon an idea last summer while gaming with some of her friends. "A friend of mine thought we should all bring our own games to a session," she said, "so that was my first time GMing, or serving as a GameMaster, for a real game." The event was so successful that Ryan-Sponberg thought she should try something similar at Carleton, and the result was E.R.P.L.

"[E.R.P.L.] is a chance to run a campaign or for new people to try out gaming and not be intimidated by it," said Ryan-Sponberg. "I got a lot of support initially, so I decided to go ahead with the project." Much of the money for advertising and miscellaneous expenses has come from Carleton’s Science Fiction/Fantasy Alliance (SFA), while Ryan-Sponberg has designed the ads and done much of the organization for prospective gamers. "GMs and players are really going to make this fun," she said, "and I’m the one making sure that things don’t degenerate into chaos."

Although Ryan-Sponberg concedes that the time commitment to E.R.P.L. can be considerable, that’s not a drawback for her. "I’ve been an artist ever since I could hold a pencil," she said. "I have been making up characters and stories for my whole life, and I always find a way to get those stories out of my head."