Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 10 of 11)

Cook writes, “rules become less important in this style.” For God’s sake, why? Because you’re not fighting all the time and 80% of the rules are geared to combat? Okay…but what about other rules: like spells and skills and alignment and race?

Cook writes, “since combat isn’t important, game mechanics take a back seat to character development.” What the f? Character development is part of the game mechanics (and a big part of 3rd edition). UNLESS what he means is PERSONALITY development, which is a different thing…and again, personality can be developed just fine in active, adventuring-type adventures, too, due to the choices a player makes.

Cook writes, “skills take precedence over combat bonuses.” Did you just frigging write that “rules become less important” and “game mechanics take a back seat?” Then why O why, if this is true would SKILLS, perhaps the stupidest part of this stupid edition suddenly rise to prominence…especially if “whole gaming sessions pass without making a single die roll?” Because everyone’s taking 10 and taking 20? That’s a pretty important game mechanic if you’re not rolling dice. Of course, using a skill is NOT role-playing anyway. Why am I bothering to write a rebuttal to this half-wit?

Cook writes, “feel free to change rules to fit the player’s roleplaying needs.” If the rules don’t matter, why bother changing them? If we’re going to be involved in a game, rather than sitting around writing communal fiction, then don’t we need rules? Or is Cook trying to throw a patent on the idea that ANY type of “communal storytelling,” regardless of rules/mechanics is the same thing as “playing Dungeons & Dragons?” ‘Cause that’s just stupid-stupid shit.

Yes, I’m going to change the rules to meet my player’s needs (note his use of the singular possessive…is each player supposed to have their own needs met even though they each operate under different standards?). Tammy can cast ANY spell in the book, at any time because she’s a “powerful wizard.” Joey can use any feat in the game because he’s “the greatest hero that ever lived.” But it doesn’t matter much because I’m “streamlining” combat: roll D6 and if your roll equals or exceeds the DM’s then you win the encounter. You can add your level to the roll. Every three game sessions you go up in level…now we can focus on role-playing our “political negotiation” adventure and develop our personalities without worrying about gaining XP through the combat.

Are we still playing “D&D” at that point? Is it only D&D because my “elfin thief” has pointy-ears?

It doesn’t matter, really. It’s fairly obvious that “role-playing” isn’t a big part of 3E. Other than this section, there are only two places where role-playing is addressed (or, really, that the term “role-playing” is used). The first is a section called “role-playing monsters” which gives advice on how a PC with using a non-standard species for a character might adjust the creature’s normal “monstrous tendencies” to better fit with a heroic adventuring party (it’s a short section). The second section (which is even shorter) is regarding the awarding of XP bonuses for “good role-playing.” The award works out to be about the same as that given in the Rules Cyclopedia (1/20 of the amount needed to reach the next level), but the guidelines are arbitrary and the examples poor: players can expect a reward for saying something funny that makes the other players laugh? I don’t know, it’s just…

Well, I know what it is: it seems like they could have done a better job writing and articulating what role-playing is and how it works, but the fact is that it was not a priority of game design in the third edition.  And you know what? That’s just par for the course. This essay was NOT written to bash WotC and smear its designers (I have other blog posts that already do that)…my ranting rage is just another digression. THE POINT OF THIS SERIES is to explore the following:
  • What role-playing IS (much more than what it isn’t), and
  • How Dungeons & Dragons, through its various incarnations, has specifically informed us on the subject of role-playing.

Because it would seem I’ve read something about this D&D thang being some kind of “role-playing game,” and yet there appears to be a real disconnect between players as to what exactly that means.

And after writing this over the course of the week, I think I’m starting to figure out why that disconnect exists: a combination of several reasons.

1) Different editions of D&D place different emphasis on role-playing as an aspect of the game. D&D as originally conceived was a wargame, not an RPG. Over time, the role-playing aspect (taking on your character’s persona in-play) received more emphasis, before being backed off in 3rd Edition (not necessarily on purpose but due to other aspects of play being emphasized and prioritized), to being removed almost completely in 4th and 5th edition. You can visualize it like a bell-curve.

[by the way, people: do NOT bother telling me that you CAN role-play with 4th and 5th edition…I can “role-play” with Monopoly, too, and it doesn’t make it an f’ing role-playing game]

2) Regardless of its relative emphasis, D&D has never prioritized the articulation of role-playing. I really don’t think this can be debated. Through the years the focus of all editions have been on the exploration of dungeons and this has been the prime emphasis of the rules. Despite calling itself a “roleplaying game” D&D has never spent much word count on the subject, preferring to focus on dungeon design, monsters, spells, treasures, combat rules, etc. Role-playing was initially incidental, and its never been wholly focused on – as a priority and feature of play – in any iteration.

3) Players (including DMs) are as guilty of assumption with regard to role-playing as the game designers. Everyone seems to “know” what role-playing is…until they start actually talking about it. It’s like the dirty secret within the role-playing community that role-players don’t really want to talk about.

Do you know what I mean by that? It’s like there are some people who have trouble confessing their play (and enjoyment) or role-playing games to non-gamers, but even amongst gamers themselves, there seems to be a stigma attached to admitting they “role-play”…even to other players of role-playing games! That’s just like self-hate or something. It’s like you’ll be judged as one of “those” types of gamers if you admit that you like to (God forbid!) PRETEND to be your character at the table. Pretty soon you’ll be wearing a fucking cape or something!

Jesus, what a dysfunctional bunch of people we are. And I’m talking about humans, not gamers.

Role-playing is the act of playing pretend, but it’s “pretend all the way.” Like when you’re kids playing at recess and you say, “I’m Luke Skywalker, you’re Han Solo.” Or “I’m Batman, you’re Superman.”  Or even, “I’m Joe Montana, you’re Jerry Rice.” It’s understood (when you’re a kid) that you are NOT really these individuals, you are simply pretending to be them for the moment. You pretend you’re fighting Galactus, or shooting Stormtroopers, or throwing TD passes in the Super Bowl. You know you’re really NOT that person…it’s just pretend…but while you’re pretending, you’re not thinking like little Jimmy, you’re trying to think like “your guy.” The kid playing Han Solo doesn’t say “Okay I’m pulling out my lightsaber and using the Force,” because that’s not what Han Solo does…get it?

We did this kind of thing a lot as kids: I can remember playing Star Raider (an old Atari video game) with my buddy and pretending we were actual Galactic Heroes. We even had names: “Starhawk” or “Blackstar” or something (I don’t remember) and his sidekick “Asteroid Jack.” Now Star Raider was not an RPG in any sense of the term…it was space-ship shooter with a POV of being in the cockpit and was, in fact, a one-player game. But there was two of us playing, so one would be responsible for “navigation” (checking coordinates on a separate screen and watching the radar for approaching enemies) while the other guy was the main “pilot” (in charge of actual flying and shooting). It wasn’t weird…it was just pretending.

[to be continued]


  1. As a fan of this blog I feel compelled to say that this series of posts is getting harder and harder to stomach. I'm not sure what the point of these posts was supposed to be but it seems to have derailed somewhere. It is coming off as kind of sad honestly, calling people 'retarded' and 'halfwit' is pretty unnecessary.

  2. +1 Pierce; I guess I am not going to read it anymore.
    Just because a game doesn't match YOUR idea of what roleplaying is, doesn't mean that it's NOT a roleplaying game. The best you can say is it doesn't meet your expectations (and you have every right to say THIS.)
    As I just mentioned, it's not science (and I have titles to say this; I am a mathematician by profession.) Yet you make it sound like you have PROVED something. Unfortunately, an approximately correct hypothesis doesn't imply an approximately correct thesis. Since your definition of roleplaying is pretty subjective, your conclusions are, too; as a corollary, resorting to name calling is just sad.

    Oh well. One less blog to read.

  3. The personal attacks here are distasteful. It would have been far better to focus on the ideas.

    You had the beginning of an interesting idea at the beginning of this series (that taking the role of a PC can be accomplished by action choices within the game world rather than thespianism at the table in real life). Unfortunately, it seems to have been derailed by vitriol (perhaps unintended) and an insistence to frame things as objective truth rather than as an interesting way to roleplay that others might want to try.

  4. Gotta go with the commenting trend on this one. I've been loving the essay, but your distaste for WotC D&D has overwhelmed your basic point in these last couple posts.

    You even conclude that no version of D&D has really emphasized role-playing in your sense or gone out of its way to tell people how to do it, but only the recent editions come in for a rather off-putting level of vitriol.

    As you say in the essay, that part is a digression from your point, and you should consider editing it out if you ever produce a "final" collected version.