Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 2 of 11)

I did a very lightweight, informal poll on my way home from work today (Monday). One guy I called; two I spoke with (briefly) at Gary’s Games in Greenwood. All were gamers; none of them read this blog. I asked all three the following questions:
  • How would you describe role-playing to a novice (the act of role-playing, not “what’s a role-playing game”)? How do you know when you’re role-playing? When can you say (to yourself about yourself), hey, that was a pretty good bit of role-playing?
  • How did you learn how to role-play?

All three folks had a pretty good handle on what it meant to role-play, though it took them a while to articulate (I did not give them my definition first). All were pretty much on the same page: they considered it something of taking on the personality of the character they were playing, considering the imaginary game world from their character’s point of view rather than their “real world” player perspective. In other words, modifying their own behavior to the tone of “what would my character do in this situation,” i.e. matching player objectives (wants/desires) to those of the imaginary character.

However, while the first question was easy to answer (if difficult to articulate succinctly), the second question (how did you learn to do this) gave them pause.

Kris thought he’d learned it from watching other gamers when he first started, and from reading the books. “There’s a section on ‘how to role-play’ in the Players Handbook that I think I read.”

[there is no such section]

Kayce said “trial and error…a lot of it” and also cited having read a lot of role-playing books over the years (she’s played everything from AD&D to Mouse Guard to 5AK)…but she couldn’t think of anything specifically. Her parents had been the first ones to introduce her to role-playing (through 1st edition AD&D).

The other dude I with whom I spoke (whose name I didn’t get and who’s played everything from 1st edition D&D and D6 Star Wars to Pathfinder) cited the “core D&D rule books,” but when I asked him which ones, he backtracked. Instead he cited play-by-mail role-playing of the fan fic variety: taking on a recognizable character from fiction (he used Star Trek as an example) and then writing “in character.”

It was an interesting (if completely unscientific and tiny) poll: all three had played many RPGs in their lives including multiple editions of D&D (their first experiences all being with D&D) All were older (Kayce, the youngest of the three, is 30), and “veteran gamers.” All had a good handle on “role-playing recognition,” but found it difficult to say exactly how they’d come to that recognition.

Which isn’t too surprising when you consider the “how to role-play” section is conspicuously missing in many RPGs, including pretty much all editions of D&D.

[yes, yes, I realize there are plenty of other RPGs out there, but for purposes of this discussion, I will be looking solely at D&D, a common touch-stone for most of my readers and the “gateway drug” to role-playing for a multitude of gamers]

Let’s start at the beginning.

Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames
Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil
and Miniature Figures

That’s the title on the cover of my Little Brown Books, three volumes of which comprise OD&D (“original D&D”). Nowhere is the term role-playing to be found within the (rather long) title, nor in the pages. In fact, the only use of the word “role” that I find is on page 6 of volume 1 (top of the page) where Gygax writes:

Before they begin, players must decide what ROLE they will PLAY in the campaign, human or otherwise, fighter, cleric, or magic-user.

That’s it. No real use of the term “role-playing” in the modern gaming sense of the term only in the non-fiction, organizational usage: who’s going to be the quarterback? Who’s going to block? Who’s going to return kick-offs? Etc.

If OD&D had been marketed as a role-playing game (i.e. if it had been labeled as such on its cover/box…it wasn’t), then these words might have lent credence to the definition as used in, say, 4th edition D&D wherein one player takes the role of a tank (“fighter”), or of a support member (“cleric”), or of an artillery piece (“wizard”). But OD&D wasn’t billed as an RPG…it was a medieval wargame that would morph (over time) into an RPG.

[Ha! Note that even terms like “tank” and “support” are militaristic sounding. Never thought about that before…]

There are no examples of players investing personality in their characters, and despite the admission that the rules are less than complete (and thus need to be bolstered by the referee’s own addition) there’s still an assumption that the game is one of working within the rules to have an exciting (war) campaign, not delve into the inner psychology of one’s character. No notion of the fantasy escapism that comes to be a defining measure of the RPG as an activity. The example of play in Volume 3 seems to be a simple dialogue (as in two people) between the referee (DM) and the “caller” (lead player)…like two wargamers facing off across the table from each other. No kibitzing or synthesis of personality is on display.

That doesn’t mean role-playing didn’t occur…but right now, we’re just discussing the explicit rules of various D&D editions and their evolution.

Next up: Holmes Basic. Billed as “The Original Adult Fantasy Role-Playing Game” (at least on the cover). Created as a bridge between to AD&D (and thus, presumably, written before AD&D) it is clear from the title that “role-playing” and D&D were linked in the minds of the publishers. And yet, the only reference I can find to role-playing in the game (besides the front cover) is the first sentence of the introduction:

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantastic, exciting and imaginative game of role playing for adults 12 years and up.

That’s it. Everything else in the introduction (and in the text of the book) seems as straight-rules-oriented as the “medieval wargame” we call OD&D.  Note that Holmes does not use the hyphenated term “role-play” in the body of his text, but rather (like in OD&D) seems to be talking about “playing” a “role” (like taking the role of a character in a film or book). He talks a bit about engaging the game, but only (from my reading) in the meaning of “to play again and again” rather than losing oneself in the fantasy escape that is role-playing.

[have I not yet returned to the definition? Don’t worry…I will]

In Holmes, there is no mention in the character creation section of imagining your character’s appearance, background, or personality, and even the idea of giving the character a name is practically thrown away…the only place one finds reference to the absurd notion of naming your character is in the middle of the paragraph on the player’s responsibility for recording character information (“Characters can be either male or female. The character’s name, class, ability scores and other information is recorded by the player on a separate sheet of paper or other record.“). At least the book contains some examples of character names (“Bruno the Battler” and “Malchor” the magic-user, in the combat section). However, the sample adventure (mostly featuring the same DM-Caller dialogue of the earlier book) has the participants simply referring to their characters by class, as opposed to name (“the fighter opens the door” or “elf and dwarf search for traps” or “dwarf will search the body” etc.).

It’s actually the alignment section (no longer used solely to determine “sides” of the battle) where we start to see an inkling of behavior-personality in imaginary characters:

If the DM feels that a character has begun to behave in a manner inconsistent with his declared alignment he may rule that he or she has changed alignment…an example of such behavior would be a “good” character who kills or tortures a prisoner.

We’ll talk about that more in a second (not done with Holmes yet!) but just consider for a moment the shift that had occurred within a few years…from “wargame” to “role-playing game.” Because…despite the lack of good hard information on WHAT role-playing is or HOW to do it…I think it’s clear that by the time of Holmes, this is exactly what had occurred: a shift in perception of what the game is.

[to be continued]


  1. Nobody ever mentioned playing "let's pretend" as a child? Isn't that role-playing?

    1. This same example is used in many roleplaying games, but the fact that there are not "rules" (i.e. a framework in which the success of the players can be "framed") means it cannot be technically called a game at all.

  2. I don't think it's so much a shift in the perception of the existing players as it was an influx of players that just had a totally different starting point than the original crop of players. Back when D&D was an outgrowth of wargaming, the people who played it were primarily wargamers. By the time I came to it, in the very late 70s and early 80s, it seems most of the people that came to the game were already fans of fantasy fiction, and roleplaying as a kind of collaborative fiction arena that resembled more Lord of the Rings or the Hyborian Age or whatever rather than one that resembled Fantasy Squad Leader was just the inclination that they started the game with in the first place.

    In other words, they (by which I mean we, because I'm definitely part of that crowd) weren't taught to roleplay; that's just how we've always played the game. The notion of "skilled play" that belong in many old-school circles was either a learned behavior, or in many cases, a rejected behavior--although I'd imagine that most who rejected that paradigm wandered away out of D&D into other games at least at some point in their gaming "careers."

    1. It's kinda funny but Chainmail was a wargame with a fantasy theme. Then some people got all into pretending to be Conan or some other character from fiction. Now games are trying so hard to be pen and paper emulations of computer RPGs. Role playing has come full circle.
      Or maybe it's more like a coiled spring. The curve returns to the same point but the slope takes it higher.
      A kraut by any other name, eh Stains?

  3. @ Marc:

    Are you asking about the people I polled? Or are you asking about OD&D and Holmes? Regardless, the short answer to your question would be "no."

    I DO address this, by the way...though that's towards the end of the series.

  4. This idea of roleplaying that your queried subjects supplied is the 'poison' that has destroyed and ruined many a campaign. Not because "taking on the personality of a character" is necessarily a bad thing, but because this taking on is virtually ALWAYS employed as a side-step to the responsibility of the player ... as in, "I didn't say or do those things, it was the character I was playing!"

    This has always been bunk. Of course it's the player that says or does those things, because it is the player who CHOOSES to be this or that personality ... but the roleplay romance concocted in the roleplaying character's head serves so well as a justification that it is immediately embraced by the worst sorts of self-righteous entitlement-driven players.

    Other players - better players - recognize the duality of responsibility between character and player, and don't see the value in having two personalities ... it takes a very special type to see that 'value.'

    No one who invented the original games ever perceived how psychological deception would ultimately be made into a de rigueur insistence by a small number of small-minded people. I hope you intend to address that in this series.

    But then, somehow I suspect you don't really believe it.

    1. I don't believe it. That sounds like an ax-grindy response to a fleetingly rare situation to me.

      Some of the most fun I've ever had in an RPG environment was when players were playing characters who were complete jerks--including to other PCs. It's also a choice to not treat that as what it is--in character role-playing. Have you ever seen an ensemble cast TV show or movie without inter-character conflict? Then why wouldn't it be workable in an RPG too; unless you've got "My Precious Character" or "My Precious Campaign" syndrome and can't abide by the fact that some characters might be doing their own thing in their own way?

  5. @ Joshua:

    Sorry if I was unclear. What I meant by "shift" was with regard to the overall view of what this game was, and this was as much due to the influx of new (non-wargamer) blood as anything else...or rather, it might have been. I'm not so worried about "why" the shift occurred as I am interested in the fact that I'd did occur and then "what was done about it."

    @ Alexis:

    Always glad to have your opinion, man, and yes we may indeed disagree on what is the "value" to be found in the game (since I feel a detached perspective of character is antithetical to "role-playing" and it is role-playing that o's the real value of playing). However, if you can stomach reading this series in it's entirety, I address a bit of this (and perhaps a possible reason/origin for our difference of opinion) and I would like your dissenting point of view on the concept as a whole.
    : )

  6. The original definition of role-playing you posted previously is so fuzzy that one could construe an argument and its contrary and still come up with "valid" role-playing games. This is not mathematics (and even mathematics is "incomplete" as Godel showed to an astonished population of mathematicians some decades ago.) Trying to "prove" that a game is a "true" roleplaying game whereas another is not, is, I think, a useless exercise.

  7. I will relate that my yonugest child, will, was 9 when he started playing. Now, I'm sure he had observed his older siblings over the years, but in his very first game, he knew how to roleplay in character. One of his sisters yelled at him, "Will, don't pull that lever!"

    He looked at her over the rim of his glasses and said, "My name is not Will; it's Richard Willowgrove."

    And, yes, he pulled the lever.

  8. I don't think you are being fair to early D&D. The term "role-playing game" simply wasn't used in the early 70s. On top of that Gygax was trying to sell the game to fellow wargamers (whom he though would be his primary customer), so he played up the miniatures aspect of it all even though miniatures were not used at all in those early games. According to Gygax, miniatures weren't used until 76' because they simply weren't available.

    In Fight On! magazine issue #2, (free on lulu.com), Greg Svenson details the very first dungeon crawl in Dave Arenson's pre-D&D game. You can see from that description that there was still plenty of role-playing going on even though they were using the Chainmail rules instead of what would become D&D. That same is true in Dave's description of his early games in his First Fantasy Campaign book which has plenty of role-playing examples.

    It simply isn't true that early D&D games didn't have role-playing in them. It was just assumed that it would be something the players would be doing naturally.

  9. @ Hedge:

    I'm sure you're right and I say as much later in the essay...just keep reading, man.
    ; )

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  11. The term "role-playing game" was first applied to these games by game critics late in 1975, when there were enough instances of the genre (after games like "Empire of the Petal Throne" had appeared) that people started asking what the games all had in common. The term was popularized by the companies that sold competing games (notably Flying Buffalo and Metagaming) who were challenged on trademark grounds by TSR for referring to D&D in their marketing literature. Only later, in 1976, by the time of "Metamorphosis Alpha" and later Holmes Basic, did TSR embrace the term itself.

    All of the feedback loop of dialog between the player and referee has a lengthy pedigree in wargaming; the most immediate antecedent is Korns (the referee-caller example is highly derivative of a similar example in his book) but this goes back to the early 19th century. It's hard to differentiate what D&D pioneered, and what it merely adopted, outside of that broader historical context. This in turn makes it harder still to draw a sharp line between wargames and role-playing games, and easy, for pretty much any given definition of role-playing games, to name self-identified wargames that meet the definition.

    While it's true that OD&D said little about whether or not characters should role-play, Gygax and Arneson had plenty to say on the subject outside of OD&D. Even way before FFC (which came out after the idea of role-playing had cemented), Gygax published a number of accounts of the play of D&D in 1974 and 1975. They give a good indication of how he played the game, and the degree to which he created personality for characters. It is from those that we get a sense of what the authors really intended. For them, play lived in the campaign, and the written rules were only a tip of that iceberg. Early players didn't learn D&D from picking up books, they learned from attending games, and the playstyle of running games spread virally from Gygax and Arneson through local clubs, conventions and groups to the rest of the world. The story of how that happened, from 1974 to 1976, is its own whole fascinating history.

    @Hedge, Scruby's fantasy miniatures were co-branded with D&D from the start - the end of first print M&M has an advertisement for them. So it wasn't quite that the minis weren't available until 1976.

  12. @ Jon:

    There may have been many accounts of "How to Play" in publications outside the rule books, but for my purposes I'm restricting my analysis to what is actually published as "core rule books" because it's pretty reasonable (I think) for a game to include instructions on how to play within its core, basic rule books.

    For me, personally, I learned how to play from reading the rule books. The players I played with learned from reading the rule books. Since we didn't start gaming till circa 1981-82, these earlier publications were not available to us. Back in the day, we didn't learn from older gamers or conventions or clubs...we were forced to puzzle things out from our instruction manuals. And while I've been gaming for more than 30 years, I'd never even heard of Tekumel or EPT until about 4 years ago, and then only from the internet blogs...no one I've ever known or gamed with had ever mentioned such a thing.

    But then, I've lived my entire life in Seattle...maybe I'm a victim of being isolated on the West Coast.

    Anyway, I appreciate the insight.
    ; )

    1. But I guess my point is restricting your analysis of the origins of "role-playing" to the text of the core rule books, which don't contain "role-playing," is setting a very peculiar, if not self-defeating, constraint on your analysis. "Role-playing" as a descriptor was applied to D&D retroactively, but idea that a referee and a player share a dialog about the state of the game world, where the player proposes actions and the referee describes the results, is a traditional idea in wargaming that had existed for more than century before D&D. In other words, when you see "wargames" on the cover of D&D (especially "wargames campaigns"), it implies certain things about the structure of the game that you absolutely need to understand to know how the game will be played. It doesn't necessarily mean pushing armies around a sand-table. The shift from wargames to role-playing games you identify here is not at all as clear as you make it out to be. There are for example innumerable examples of players investing personality in their characters in wargames prior to D&D.

      If you started playing after 1978 or so, you came into a world where the idea of role-playing had spread and been articulated and sublimated into gaming culture. Going by an understanding of role-playing developed in the 1980s seems again an unlikely way to understand how the idea originally evolved or what D&D pioneered. For example, although you suggest there is no section on "how to role-play" in the PHB (1978), I'm not sure I agree: the section on "The Game" (pg7) is quite explicit:

      "As a role-player, you become Falstaff the Fighter. You know how strong, intelligent, wise, healthy, dextrous and, relatively speaking, how commanding a personality you have... You act out the game as this character, staying within your 'god-given abilities'... You interact with your fellow role players, not as Jim and Bob and Mary who work at the office together, but as Falstaff the fighter, Angore the cleric..." etc. etc.

      In what sense is that not telling you how to role-play? By this point, it was well documented what that term meant. But back in 1974, to understand how the authors and players approached the game, it's wargaming that you need to explore.

    2. Excellent points; in fact, that's the reason I wince when people say "D&D 4e is not a roleplaying game." The "roleplaying" is what the players add to the game, not something which must (or even ca) be enforced by the rules. If people could (and did) "roleplay" with wargames, then why not with D&D 4e?

  13. @ Jon:

    My knowledge of wargames in the century prior to RPGs is indeed limited; however, in reading Chainmail, it doesn't seem all that different from Warhammer 40,000 (with which I am familiar), especially in its original incarnation and its use of a referee and special characters. However, I'd say that pushing unique characters around a board in a wargame is indeed nothing but a microcosm of "pushing armies around a sand-table" and a parallel can be drawn between both styles of play (and both, I would argue, are different from the act of role-playing).

    The passage you quote IS totally valid...I'm not sure if I missed that initially or if I felt that it could be interpreted without regard to the act of subsuming the player's personality (it may just be a matter of semantics, but the idea of "constraint" in behavior is much more a throwback to the rule impositions of a wargame, regardless of any talk of "imagination;" when using miniatures, one imagines them to be moving, for example).

    Anyhoo...it's not really supposed to be a complete historical analysis. My point is to discuss what role-playing is (from my POV) and touch on the developments and changes across editions, and how that has led different folks to different understandings of the phenomenon (depending on when they joined the hobby) and caused a disconnect, hampering what could be the promotion of the hobby through the (main) strength it has over other entertainment mediums.

    1. If you're exploring the history of role-playing, then you need to be looking at wargames like Braunstein and the Napoleonic Simulation Campaign of the Twin Cities, which Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, Rob Kuntz and virtually everyone responsible for D&D participated in. It informs what the "campaign" means on the cover of D&D. It wasn't about pushing armies around a sand-table.

      As important as Chainmail was to defining the combat system of D&D, it wasn't a set of "campaign" rules. It would be an oversimplification, but perhaps a useful one, to say that D&D was an attempt to do for Chainmail what the Napoleonic Simulation Campaign had done for Napoleonic tabletop actions like the Braunstein games. If you want more on what differentiates a "wargames campaign" from a wargame, another place to look is Tony Bath's (1973) work "Setting Up a Wargames Campaign," which surely influenced play in the Twin Cities as well. The section on "Characterization" in that book might be enlightening.

      Understood that your scope isn't a complete historical analysis, and that I'm interjecting here when you're just getting started on a longer piece, but trying to track the evolution of role-playing without covering how it started may lead you down the wrong paths here. You wonder why "role-playing" only appears on the cover and in a genre-identifying blurb in Holmes: it's because "role-playing game" was at the time just a genre-defining marketing term, as I said in my first response above, and in that sense it had a narrow utilization. In a nutshell, I'd say the use of that narrow term is completely decoupled from the practices we'd identify as role-playing, and trying to join them goes against historical fact. These things get a lot less mysterious and a lot more explicable when you do the historical analysis.

  14. I would suggest most of us learn role playing as children ( particularly boys). "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence" addresses this need.

    For me I was 'roleplaying" before I discovered D&D when I was 12. I was always "acting out" as a dinosaur, alien, astronaut, super hero or heroine,a time traveler. etc. I was also always restructuring my surroundings to meet my fantasy needs. So a bunch of buildings were castles, a marsh was a great swamp, a refrigerator box was a time machine, etc. Much of this Im sure I gleaned from TV and movies and in my playtime imagination, I would adopt the "role" of the thing I wanted to be or was necessary for the play session. So for me, I think it was natural when I discovered D&D, to think about how I would roleplay.

    I admit in the beginning, I just rolled up a bunch of characters and my friend would run me through modules and Id roll dice and kill monsters, but it wasnt long before I was using the race/class/alignment of my characters as outlined in the game text ( back then each player ran a whole party not just one character- being that It was usually me and one DM), to define each characters role and how they would act or approach a situation. As we "matured" as gamers, and setting and world development entered the stage and we went from dungeon crawling and modules to storyline settings, my role playing evolved more to encompass this evolution. So Mikah my dour dwarf who was always greedy for gold ( because the PHB said dwarves were dour, taciturn and greedy), evolved into Mikah, the dwarven miner from the Ringhold mountains, who had banded together with his fellows to stop the nefarious plots of the evil anti Paladin Orion who was a scourge to the land.

    Also,I feel as I became a DM, where you got to world build and play lots of different NPCs and Monsters with agendas, this allowed me to expand my role playing skills. All this I think I can trace back to my ability to roleplay imaginary people/monsters in imaginary situations as a kid......