Sunday, July 14, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 7 of 11)

Of course, the RC introduction is almost the last bit of role-playing advice to be found in the book (other than the bits recycled from Mentzer that were recycled from Moldvay). The part of character generation that includes creating a “personality” and “background” are non-starters in the arena of role-playing, as far as I’m concerned: playing a character with a well-developed backstory does NOT necessarily mean you’re role-playing and you certainly don’t need to lay this kind of “groundwork” in order to role-play. If anything, I found these to be distracting passages from the matter at hand (just as I find “general skills” and “weapon mastery” to be distractions from the otherwise versatile game rules)…but then ol’ Allston does me (and everyone else) a solid.

In the section on experience (Chapter 10 of the Rules Cyclopedia), Allston goes completely off the reservation by redefining the way XP is awarded in D&D. Remember this is D&D we’re talking about, not “AD&D.” Prior to the RC, XP in D&D has always-always-always been awarded for two things: defeating monsters and finding treasure (true in the original LBBs, Holmes Basic, B/X, BECMI…hell, even in Mentzer’s Immortal rules!). In the Rules Cyclopedia, Allston provides FIVE things that earn a PC experience (not counting Dominion income):
  1. Role-Playing Well
  2. Achieving Party Goals
  3. Defeating Monsters and Opponents
  4. Acquiring Treasure
  5. Performing Exceptional Actions

We don’t need to have a discussion/rant on sticking monsters and treasure at #3/#4 on the list.  But “role-playing well” as item #1? Does Allston even bother to define how one would judge such a thing? As a matter of fact he does.

Allston provides three specific examples of “role-playing” that might earn XP for a player character: good alignment play, exceptional heroism or sacrifice, and other exceptional role-playing. The third one doesn’t quite work for MY definition, as it only involves “play acting” (having emotional interactions, making an impassioned speech, blah-blah-blah) which may or may not have anything to do with actually role-playing. However, the first two DO coincide with the idea of choosing player action based on character motivation.  Good alignment play is the same kind of thing discussed previously…this is Sister Rebecca refusing to heal Morgan Ironwolf because the latter is acting non-Lawful by killing prisoners previously promised mercy. The second is a little different; check this out:

From the Rules Cyclopedia (Aaron Allston, page 127):

Exceptional Heroism or Sacrifice: Awards can go to the character who is fully aware that he’s likely to suffer greatly from his decision, and if given the option to run away or escape unscathed, makes the hard decision and performs an act of great sacrifice or bravery. In such a case, you may want to give the character an experience bonus. But be careful! When a character is sure he’s going to win the encounter, he’s not being heroic or self-sacrificing. When a character knows he can be resurrected easily, he’s not being heroic if he faces death. Only when the character knows that he’s likely to suffer greatly for his action is it heroism or sacrifice, and so the DM has to evaluate each “noble” act in that light.

Certainly, an act of heroic self-sacrifice is a clear example of my definition of role-playing: the player is choosing an action based on the character’s objective. The player doesn’t want his character to be “sacrificed;” players (generally speaking) want their characters to survive and thrive and prosper. The character (especially one of Lawful alignment and heroic temperament) might be willing to do so, given the proper circumstances to do so…but being an imaginary avatar, only the player has the capability to “pull the trigger” on such an action…to throw himself (or herself) to the wolves due to a decision based on the character’s personality.

The interesting…and irritating…thing to me is, of course, that this perfect example of role-playing (complete with solid XP reward) encourages the kind of behavior that really gets my goat in the post-1981 editions of D&D (BECMI, 2E, etc.). Don’t get me wrong…as I said, I am impressed with the actual text describing an act of role-playing and applaud the stick-to-itiveness when it came to latter day TSR staying on message. But, Allston could just have easily listed other examples of role-playing that weren’t the purist of pure “heroic, self-sacrificing” motivation: Betraying a companion for profit (because a PC is a scurrilous rogue). Taking actions to impress or woo a paramour. Swearing oaths or following religious paths that are an inconvenience to the character. Trying to avenge a fallen companion against a foe far greater than the PC’s capabilities. But all pet peeves aside, it’s a solid and explicit example with an encouraging reward built-in.

In the past, I’ve railed against arbitrary awards for “good role-playing” (such as in, say, your usual World of Darkness game), but I don’t mind awarding XP for role-playing when the game presents some clear way to measure the accomplishment. And inconvenience (to the player) caused by taking actions true to the character’s motivations and objective seems fairly cut-n-dry, i.e. easy to arbitrate as a DM. That being said, the bonus for play-acting does get on my nerves. Please allow me to rant for a moment…and in the process I’ll elaborate a bit more on “what the act of role-playing is” (as I promised I would, so many pages back).

Once upon a time I was an actor. No, not a professional (paid) one, but I studied acting, got my university degree in the subject, and spent a lot of time on stage in costume and makeup. And I was a pretty good actor. It took me awhile to get the knack, but I did (eventually) and got stellar reviews for solid roles reciting a LOT of lines (try doing Chris Frye’s A Sleep Of Prisoners sometime…frigging blank verse). But whatever…I enjoyed it and I was good at it, and it had NOTHING TO DO WITH MY ENJOYMENT OR LOVE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES.

I was a good actor…when I had someone else’s lines and direction. But I was absolutely terrible at improvisation. Acting on the spot. “Theater Sports.” All those kids that go on to small troupe comedy that relies on improvisation? I could never have done that. I’m not wired to do that. And play-acting at a gaming table is a very similar animal and one I don’t much enjoy and one I’m not very good at.

That includes portraying NPCs as a GM (the role in which I usually find myself). Yes, I have done accents on stage in the past…when I had coaching and access to tapes and time to practice and rehearse. But I am notoriously lazy in my prep work for gaming…I draw a map, make a few notes, consider a reasonable (fantasy) situation, and then bring it to the table. I don’t practice or “rehearse” NPCs. When I want to distinguish NPCs from each other I might pitch my voice high or low, but generally it all sounds pretty much the same. And as a PC, I’m even worse (generally loud and obnoxious regardless of character).

The point is, my failings in this regard (or my previous enjoyment of “stage life”) have very little, if anything, to do with my role-playing hobby because play-acting is not role-playing. I realize this may be beating the proverbial dead horse, but it’s an important concept to grasp, and there are a few people out there who continue to confuse the two. Role-playing (again) is modeling your in-game choices on your character’s behavior; it is superimposing your character’s views and desires onto your (real life) mental state, so that you choose your actions as if you were the character. If that means sacrificing yourself heroically because you’re a lawful paladin, or your cleric’s deity has demanded it, then so be it…you or I (real people) might not be willing to take such an extreme course of action as heroic self-destruction (or a variety of other unpleasant and distasteful actions)…but when we role-play, we are not thinking as our real life selves. We are instead standing firmly in the boots of our characters.

[to be continued]


  1. Though I'm not a big fan of BECMI, the RC is a slight improvement overall. I do like the idea of awarding XP for good role-playing, but I hate the whole "you're a hero" thing that TSR was into. I like the more gritty sword & sorcery feel of earlier works and I try to emulate this when playing B/X D&D. I think you're making a great deal of sense here. I am most definitely printing a copy of these posts! :-)

  2. "because play-acting is not role-playing"

    I think that this is worth saying again and again. It is important because some people have come to believe that the 'player skill' in social interactions comes in acting out the social interaction, rather than, just as in combat, or exploration, etc. in making statements of intent.

  3. Given the chronological sequence, I suspect that the roleplaying rewards in the RC are derived from (or at least inspired by) the 2E experience guidelines.