Monday, July 8, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 1 of 11)

Role-playing. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph…where to start?

I’ve looked back over my blog posts of the last few years and while there are quite a few that address aspects of role-playing…why it’s of value, how to encourage it, in relationship to objectives and player satisfaction, reward systems, games that discourage role-playing, etc…*ahem*…while I’ve broached the subject many, many times in the past (this IS a blog about role-playing games, after all), I’ve never really addressed the topic specifically for itself. Never focused on the definition, never discussed its history, never explained how to do it.

Kind of a gross oversight, huh?

Fact is, I fall into the same conceit as most RPG designers (and most RPG players for that matter): I just presume everyone knows what the hell I mean when I say “role-playing.” That everyone reading my blog (or my games) just “gets it.” That it’s a no-brainer, so-to-speak, and even if they don’t have a PHD in role-playing, they’re practiced “old hands” at the task based on dint of being a gamer. As if some system had actually taught them how to do the thing.

Of course, that’s not the case; just fallacious thinking on my part. And actually, I’ve known that (or suspected it) for a while, but I just didn’t bother dealing with it. I’ve had bigger (at least more immediate) fish to fry than to write an incredibly pretentious series of posts entitled Role-Playing 101 or something. But damn, it’s about time somebody did!

Now, before I begin, let’s get the mandatory ground rules laid out:

1) There are a lot of different uses for the term “role-player,” and I’m not concerned with those. I am addressing the act of role-playing as it pertains to fantasy adventure games, not the speedy pass-rusher that only plays on 3rd down or the pinch-hitting lefty that comes in to win it in the 9th. Nor am I talking about playing a role (like in the theater or historic reenactment), nor about role-playing as used in the field of psychology. Nope, this is just with regard to the exercise of GAMING…if you can’t get that, then we aren’t on the same page.

2) This post is NOT intended to describe or define “what is a role-playing game” (though we might touch on that in passing). Just to reiterate, I am talking about the ACT of ROLE-PLAYING. There are lots of ways to play a role-playing game, and some of those don’t involve role-playing…though that might lead one to ask why they’re bothering to play an RPG at all.

[ha!…that last bit is facetious. People play RPGs for all sorts of reasons besides role-playing, and I am well aware of the fact]

3) Finally, pretentious or not, I am writing this post to educate and enlighten folks because, frankly, I think there is a lot of misconceptions (or plain ol’ ignorance) that many people are operating under. Some of what I write may seem harsh because…well, because that’s how I am sometimes. If what I write seems to be putting you down or makes you feel downright disagreeable…well, I’m expecting a bit of that and you’re welcome to rant and rave and whatnot. But I’d challenge you to take a good hard look at yourself and consider whether or not YOU are the one that needs a paradigm shift in perspective before you go off on me. I can assure you that I’ve thought about this shit long and hard, and you’re not likely to change MY mind on the matter…but I welcome you airing your opinion. And just by the way, I’m not about judging people for their past mistakes, so long as they start the process of rectifying the situation. In other words, if you’ve been a dumb-dumb for years (or decades) and decide to turn over a new leaf, I won’t hold your former ignorance against you.

Okay, we got all that? Let’s get to work.

Here’s the definition:

The act of role-playing is the matching of the player's objectives to the objectives of the character.

That is as simple and succinct as I can make it. There will be elaboration. However, before we do that, let’s talk about what is NOT “role-playing.”

Playing an RPG is not in and of itself “role-playing.” A true role-playing game is one that allows and (hopefully) facilitates the ACT of role-playing…but just because a game is a role-playing game does NOT mean any one who plays it is “role-playing.” Role-playing is an action…it is active. It is quite possible to play a role-playing game without actually engaging in the act of role-playing, per se (we’ll return to this point later with some examples).

Note that I write “true role-playing games.” There are many games that market themselves as “RPGs” that have little or no role-playing potential, but are simply branded as such to conjure a particular notion to mind. Computer RPGs for example are, for the most part, NOT role-playing games. Just because you have an imaginary persona in your video game does not make it an RPG. Is Super-Mario Brothers and RPG because I take on the “role” of Mario and attempt to save the princess? Is PacMan an RPG because I forget myself as JB and focus my consciousness as Pac, eating-eating-eating and attempting to escape ghosts?

No…PacMan is a game with no objective of character, simply rules that are to be followed to achieve an end. And so, too, is a game like Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect or Fable despite being marketed as “role-playing games.” One is forced to conform to the plot and personality scripted in the computer game, the player’s own will subjugated to that of the game designer.

An MMORPG (“massive multi-player on-line RPG”), such as the World of Warcraft is not by nature a game that actually facilitates “role-playing,” but it can be somewhat adapted to it (note that some servers for MMORPGs are designated as “role-playing” servers with the explicit purpose that players on the server will engage in a particular style of behavior, simulating role-playing). For the most part, the designation of “role-playing” in ANY computer game is simply a branding mechanism used to conjure to mind tropes from the earliest true RPGs…things like:
  •        Increased effectiveness through achievement (i.e. “leveling” as a reward)
  •        Variety of character type and skill sets (class, race, etc.)
  •        Fantasy (i.e. fictional) setting and context for adventure
  •        Dramatic conflict most often resolved through combat

 These are tropes of D&D and other early RPGs, but (here’s the important part) NONE OF THESE ELEMENTS ARE WHAT MAKES AN RPG A “ROLE-PLAYING” GAME.

You can have these elements in a game…or not…but that doesn’t necessarily make it a game that allows, encourages, or facilitates role-playing. But having those tropes will recall to mind the fantasy adventure games of our youth that were labeled as “role-playing games.” Well…it will recall the concept to some people’s minds. After all, Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t always billed as a “role-playing game.”

But we’ll get to that in a moment. 

[to be continued...just FYI, this is a very loooong post, so it will be posted in daily installments. What do you think I've been working on for the last week?]


  1. looking forward to some ranting and raving. :)

  2. First of all, I am really glad to see you return to some hardcore subject matter posting! I'm looking forward to it! This is the meatiest of meaty subjects in our realm, no doubt about it. Very interested in what you do in subsequent posts. That said, I'm wondering if you think that actual roleplaying is a rarified thing. I mean, to align player and character objectives? I'm not sure exactly what that means to you, but on a surface level this sounds like something that doesn't happen for a lot of people playing RPGs. And, if this is true, I wonder what you think of people who don't meet that objectives alignment in their gaming careers. Are they "doing it wrong"? Or are they simply just not getting the most out of the pastime. Anyway, just riffing here. Can't wait for more!

  3. @ Shlomo: You're going to get one point I refer to one particular well-known (and award winning) game designer as an "fucking half-wit."
    ; )

    @ Anthony: Thanks! I'm hoping people find a LOT of meat to gnaw on...circa 15K words and I probably could have written even more.

    In answer to your questions (which are NOT addressed in the essay...see that's another 1000 words right there!): I don't think it's rare, only haphazard. That is, it happens for quite a few players (though probably more often in older players raised on earlier editions), but not as regularly as could be.

    Are they "doing it wrong?" Better yet, are they "wasting their time?" That's not something I really care to address or make a judgment on at this time. Clearly people are getting SOMETHING out of (table-top) RPGs or they wouldn't be playing...but I think the ability of RPGs to facilitate role-playing is a little understood, little emphasized FEATURE that is the strength of the medium and could help grow the hobby...if it were discussed/utilized in a more explicit fashion.

  4. Very well said sir! I look forward to reading the rest of this post. Thank you for taking the time to help "re-educate" those who seem to have forgotten what role-playing really is.