My post from yesterday was actually finished today (around 2:40 in the AM) so you'll have to forgive me for pretty much trailing off mid-sentence before I got to my point. Let's try to wind this up:
To say character exploration is somehow antithesis to role-playing...even old school D&D role-playing...is kind of missing the point of role-playing altogether.
Like reading a (poorly written and meandering) novel, playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons...at least with the older editions)...is opening a chapter and seeing what befalls our characters. If the characters develop specific personalities over time such that players can point to them, than your game IS exploring character.
And it's not an unusual phenomenon...hell, it is part of what sets role-playing as a game apart from so many adventure board games. My "elf" in Dungeon!, might have some back-and-forth banter (via me) with the other players, but within the limited scope of the game the only "character" you develop is one of cowardice or courage (and possibly, foolhardiness).
Old school D&D, with an emphasis on challenging the player rather than the stat block, ends up revealing a bit more about a character...especially in the long term (campaign-style) play. And that "revelation" is what I call (when observed), "character exploration."
It happens even in short-term play...over the course of my White Plume Mountain one-off adventure, several of the party members started exhibiting signs of character development. Gustav's antagonism with the polar bears comes to mind...as does, the party's maltreatment of Brian the halfling (and his eventual rebellion against it). I'm not just talking about "social interaction" between characters (at least some of which can be attributed to the constant power shifts in the social contract between real players at the table)...I'm talking about the decisions characters make within a game, often based on their (character's) past experiences within a game, as if they were real people!
Now THAT is something you don't see in other games...at least not the same way. If I'm playing the video game Mass Effect and find the one section is really only possible (or convenient) to complete using a shotgun, than I (as a player) may decided to deal with that section with a shotgun, regardless of the character I'm using. In RPGs, characters are far more unique...even "old school" characters with their minimal stat line (six ability scores, hit points and AC, a handful of spells and gear). Because each character's experience in the game world is unique based on a) its minimal stat line, b) the actions of the adventure/dungeon/DM, c) the random fall of the dice, and d) the reactions and interactions with fellow party members.
I've seen players say, "well, my guy doesn't want to get into THAT situation, because I always seem to get out-maneuvered in those types of encounters." Even though he's aware that it's a game, his character is perfectly capable, and he's not a complete tactical dunce. His character's history of failure builds an ingrained flaw in his psyche...that only seems to occur when using that particular character.
Another character (not player...the character!) had got into a habit of seducing bar maids in every town he visits. At some point, he gets into a committed relationship with a very talented, very cool, very attractive NPC adventurer. And then he blows it by jumping into bed with yet another wench down the road! For absolutely no "gain" in the game (no gold, no XP, no necessity within the objections/parameters of the adventure)...just allowing his character to be the dog he is...even though the character's personality in this regard is the opposite of the player's. In fact, the fall-out from the debacle ended in a LOSS for the PC...lost his love interest, lost an ally/adventurer, and ended up gaining multiple enemies because of the incident.
None of what I'm talking about requires any player to write up pages of "backstory" for their character. None of what I'm talking about requires elaborate character generation systems providing skills and feats and synergy bonuses and racial bonuses and dodge bonuses and exotic weapon proficiencies and blah-blah-blah. These kind of exercises may actually DISTRACT from the exploration of character in game. If you write it all up beforehand, what is there to discover? If you're too busy with optimizing your character for his next prestige class, who has time to observe what the characters are actually doing?
NOT that character exploration doesn't occur in both these instances. It can and does, especially depending on the effort of the individual player. But stat-building and historical narratives are NOT explorations of character. Character exploration is what occurs in-game.
Here's an example of what I mean: I sketched an idea for a sleazy toad cleric a while back for an on-line OLD SCHOOL game. I had a fairly elaborate idea of the kind of character I wanted him to be...cowardly, repugnant, slovenly, lustful. A scurrilous rogue, in other words...fit for tomb raiding and dungeon crawling, and possibly abandoning his buddies when things got inopportune.
IN PLAY, that's not what actually happened. He ended up leading the charge more often than not and in the end died (what I would consider) a bit of a hero's death, fighting a defensive withdrawal to keep a slavering pack of troglodytes from killing at least a couple of his buddies. THAT personality evolved over-play...based on the situation, based on the actions of the other characters, based in part on MY ridiculous personality. But none of that had been originally planned by me. One could look at his adventures over three or four game sessions and see how the character of the character developed. THAT's "character exploration."
All right, I think I'm done on the subject for now.