Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 9 of 11)

DND3. My first real stint into “non-role-playing role-playing.”

Yeah, I think that’s how I’d honestly describe it. I played a lot of 3rd edition early on (for the first couple-four years or so…heck, maybe five) and I made a lot of interesting characters, but I can’t for the life of me remember doing much role-playing at all. Isn’t that silly?

Part of it, I chock up to the sheer mechanics of the game: most of the time I was thinking of how to best use my skills and feats and five-foot steps for maximum effect. My characters had a lot of interesting “builds.” I killed a lot of faceless monsters, of whom I remember…um. Not a single one. Wow. That’s amazing. I know I played at least two PCs (in two different campaigns) from 1st level up to 8th or 10th and I don’t remember a single encounter off the top of my head. My buddy ran me solo through WotC’s “Forge of Fury” adventure (with a couple NPC buddies), and I think I made it all the way to the end…but maybe the campaign crapped out before that (I believe a dragon is supposed to be the final encounter in the adventure, and I sure don’t remember fighting one)…I know Forge was a very looong adventure.

Yeah, the characters are much more memorable than the encounters, and the game was pretty much all about encounters. I had pretty solid concepts of what my characters were (how they looked, their skill sets, etc.) but only the bare minimums of “personality,” and this was never developed in the course of play. At least not to my recollection…maybe I’m blocking the memories?

If you think I’m writing this just to throw stones at WotC or 3rd Edition or Pathfinder (which, mechanically, is pretty much the same thing)…well, you’re wrong. I’m doing an analysis of role-playing here, and I’m attempting to be as honest and “neutral” as possible.

[as a side note, I never did talk much about 2nd Edition AD&D because I don’t own the books for reference…however, much as I loathe 2nd Edition, I will say that I had some very rich role-playing experiences with that edition of the game. See, I’m being nice here! It’s not all “crap-on-anything-not-B/X”]

So that was my experience. From the perspective of role-playing (as in, “this is a role-playing game so you should be able to engage in the act of role-playing”) DND3 was a total dud.

But maybe I just wasn’t “doing it right,” i.e. maybe I just wasn’t role-playing within the parameters D20 Dungeons & Dragons sets for itself. Just what, exactly, does the 3rd edition PHB say about role-playing your character?

Not a single, blessed thing.

The only place I even see the term “roleplaying” (no hypen) is on the back cover which says:

Here is the indispensable manual of fantasy roleplaying.

And that’s it.  I’m reading the introduction even and absolutely nothing. For an “indispensable manual” on the subject, the book doesn’t even bother to define role-playing or a role-playing game. It tells you how to make a character, and it provides you with a lot of rules for playing the game…but apparently role-playing isn’t part of this game. Or if it is, then there’s an assumption on the part of the designers that people just know what to do and how to do it or that it will come naturally or…well, or really I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they weren’t thinking.

Or maybe they just wanted to get back to the game’s real roots as a small-scale, skirmish level fantasy wargame. I mean, that’s what we’ve got here, albeit one with an extreme degree of detailed character customization.

Now, I’ll admit I didn’t bother rereading the PHB in its entirety, so perhaps I missed a sidebar on role-playing, but even so you’d think that something billing itself as a resource on the term would be a little more upfront and obvious with it, right? Nothing in the table of contents, index, or glossary answers the newbie player’s question, “What IS role-playing?” That’s just so f’ing shortsighted. I mean, isn’t it? For the first time in a while, I am filled with the strong urge to punch WotC in the face. Repeatedly. And here I’d thought I’d made peace with them (in my mind) and decided to adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy. Nope…I’m always finding something new that makes me want to bust heads.

“Manual of fantasy roleplaying?” Are you fucking kidding me?

The 3rd Edition DMG is a little better, in so much as it addresses role-playing (or “roleplaying”) in the section labeled Determining Styles of Play. Here it breaks those styles into three categories:
  • Kick In The Door
  • Deep-Immersion Storytelling
  • Something In Between

Tempting as it is to post all three of these, I’m already nearing 12,000 words so I’ll limit myself solely to the second topic, which I actually find somewhat offensive:

From the Dungeon Master’s Guide (Monte Cook, page 8):

The Free City of Greyhawk is threatened by political turmoil. The PCs must convince the members of the ruling council to resolve their differences, but can only do so after they’ve come to terms with their own differing outlooks and agendas. This style of play is deep, complex, and challenging. The focus isn’t on combat but on talking, developing in-depth personas, and character interaction. Whole gaming sessions may pass without a single die being rolled.

In this style of game, the NPCs should be as complex and richly detailed as the PCs – although the focus should be on motivation and personality, not game statistics. Expect long digressions about what each player wants his or her character to do, and why. Going to a store to buy iron rations and rope can be as important an encounter as fighting orcs (And don’t expect the PCs to fight the orcs at all unless the characters are motivated to do so). A character will sometimes take actions against his player’s better judgment because “that’s what the character would do.” Adventures deal mostly with negotiations, political maneuverings, and character interaction. Players talk about the “story” they are collectively creating.

Rules become less important in this style. Since combat isn’t the focus, game mechanics take a back seat to character development. Skills take precedence over combat bonuses, and even then the actual numbers don’t mean much. Feel free to change rules to fit the player’s roleplaying needs. You may even want to streamline the combat system so that it takes less time away from the story.

Okay, Monte Cook is a fucking half-wit for writing this.

Let’s leave aside the condescension for a moment (at least he left the quotation marks off the word “story” in the last sentence). Let’s leave aside (for the moment) the complete gibberish that occupies half of this section. Let’s simply consider for the moment that WotC is still billing Dungeons & Dragons as a “fantasy roleplaying game.” In point of fact, they specifically refer to it as “the world’s most popular fantasy roleplaying game” (back cover of the PHB). And then they write THIS, as their example of what “roleplaying” is (in stark and extreme contrast to playing the game in the “kick in the door” style). Riddle me this, Batman: if THIS is “roleplaying” and D&D is a roleplaying game, why the hell do they make roleplaying sound like IT’S THE MOST BORING THING EVER FUCKING INVENTED?

Any game where buying iron rations is a more important encounter than a life-or-death struggle with a group of enemies (orcs or ogres or peasants with pitchforks) is the STUPIDEST GAME EVER DESIGNED. And let me clue you in: that ain’t role-playing, pal, unless the character you are trying to portray is a rank imbecile and delusional in the extreme. ROLE-PLAYING is making behavioral choices as if you were the character…it’s imposing the character’s persona on your own mindset. In what world would any competent person (imaginary or not), treat a trip to the local mercantile as more important than an axe being swung at your head?

That’s just retarded. But most of what’s written in this section is just plain stupid. Players can create a “story” just as readily with a game involving combat…and it will certainly be a more exciting one than the watching-paint-dry political scenario Cook describes. The difference is, if it’s going to be an interesting or intelligent or halfway-good story then, yes, you have to consider whether or not your characters have a motivation for fighting the orcs, as opposed to the brain-dead (i.e. “kick in the door”) style of killing every monster one stumbles across in a dungeon.

[to be continued]


  1. Another great post. Keep 'em coming.

  2. I'm currently in a 3.5 campaign, because I got voted down on what to play next (at least it's not freakin 4e, I tried that shit and once was enough). That said... I'm not having a totally awful time. The rules are convoluted and boring and I don't worry about my 'build'... but I haven't noticed it getting in the way of my being able to roleplay my character the way I'd like him... that role has fallen to my fellow players who keep explaining to me what D&D is supposed to be like.
    They do pretty much turn it into a mercantile game... looting and selling and buying better crap is their mode of operation. They take forever on their shopping trips. They say that's what D&D is all about...

  3. Hello!

    I've been reading your essay with mild interest. I largely agree with your definition of “role-playing” – making decisions based on a character's invented personality, motivations, and situation, rather than from a detached point of view, whether one's detached stance is the “storyteller” (who is willing to throw the character into narratively interesting situations that the character would probably have tried to avoid) or the “power gamer” (who simply plays mechanically with intent to “win”). I hadn't ever really thought about the disconnect between theatrics and actual role-playing, either.

    That said, with the latest installment (part 9), I feel that in your rush to air personal dislike for a specific system, you have abandoned logic. While attempting to remain as objective and respectful, please humor a dissection... because I really do believe that you've gone completely off the rails (as loose as they were; I'm aware you describe some of your thoughts as “rambling”).

    1. You say you don't remember role-playing with 3E. “Isn't that silly?”

    ...Yes. Yes, it is silly. I spent the last three years or so of college, after the new system came out, gaming with Third Edition... and we did lots of role-playing. First, while previously I had pretty much always only played wizards, the new system allowed me to create, execute, and play a wide range of character concepts. A fragile psion who agonized about whether to mind-control party members when she felt their actions could harm the group's interests. An OCD monk who absolutely hated dirt, jumped off a tower to get away from an insect swarm, and eventually refused to be resurrected after dying because the new body would be formed from soil. A two-handed “wuss-fighter” with moderate strength and high Con who charged into combat with the intent of being a “blood sponge” in order to protect the party mage (and who later challenged a demon to single combat... and then yelled at the mage when she tried casting spells to help her). A priest of solipsism who had to do penance after being pressured into a forbidden interaction with the world, which he maintained was nothing but a dream. A “dirt mage” whose spells were all earth-themed, who shape-shifted, led xorn into battle, and improvised songs about it. I had characters who pursued romances, tried to kill party members, gave away treasure, walked unarmed into a monster's den in exchange for a hostage....

    So yeah. Third Edition had skills and feats and builds and combat mechanics, but if you let that get in the way of creating a role and then playing it out, the fault is entirely your own. Well, maybe it was your group's, or your DM's fault to some degree. But let me say that if “the game was pretty much all about encounters” for you, using the same system that I did all that role-playing in, then it seems to me that you simply failed at role-playing, and blaming it on the system is bad form.

    2. You mention next that you're attempting to be “honest and 'neutral'” rather than taking aim at any particular target. The sad thing is that being honest and neutral – i.e. objective – requires that you use either data or analysis, not a single example of personal experience, to back up your argument. And when your argument is that “the sheer mechanics of the game” somehow prevent role-playing, based on your failure to role-play when others were succeeding... well, you're doing a poor job of things so far.

  4. 3. You go on to at least attempt to offer some analysis to substantiate your anecdote... and this is even worse, somehow.

    First, from what I can tell, your entire “analysis” section is based on your failure to read anything besides the introduction. You even boldly admit that you didn't read through the book to support your contention. You just decided what the results would be, based on your own failure to role-play, and assumed the book must not mention anything role-playing-related. And then you didn't even have the intellectual honesty to check your own assumption. Yeah, maybe you missed a sidebar or something. Or something!

    I mean, in earlier sections of this series of posts, you waxed eloquent about how the seeds of role-playing can be found in what is otherwise a mechanistic wargame... in the section on alignment. Have you never ever realized that Third Edition also has a section on alignment? 'Cause I mean, it was kind of built into the game and expanded in some pretty major ways. And unlike OD&D, it has a complex nine-point array based on law/chaos and good/evil axes. How is it that you praise the role-playing potential encoded in a simple alignment mechanic, and then completely ignore a more nuanced version of the exact same mechanic?

    This is why I felt the need to write a mini-essay in response to your longer one, this biased inconsistency. Most of the formative years of D&D, by your own assertion, make little or no explicit mention of role-playing. Then you go to great lengths to tease out the secret hidden role-playing (while casually mentioning and then dismissing assertions, based on the game's wargaming roots, that old-school D&D is about the dungeons rather than the characters!). And then you develop amnesia, or get a concussion, and forget all that careful exegesis the instant 3E comes into the discussion.

    Let me ask you this: how much talk of role-playing can you find in older editions of D&D that are explicitly missing from Third?

  5. 4. As if this isn't enough, you then wander off-topic and start attacking a style of play that you don't personally find interesting. Because... your taste is the only thing in this world that is true and right? Because if you like chocolate ice cream, then vanilla is THE WORST MOST RETARDED ICE CREAM FLAVOR EVER?

    I mean, you start screaming about how any game that doesn't have lots of combat is “retarded.” You're not even talking about role-playing any more! You're just ranting, from the sound of it, about how any game not larded in ogres and peasants ripe for the slaughter must be worthless.

    I mean, you read the DMG discussion of DIFFERENT STYLES OF PLAY, and it never crossed your mind that styles of play that you imagine to be “boring” might actually be engaging and worthwhile to people who are not you? Not even once? How can you miss the point so spectacularly?

    If a game where buying commodities is more important than combat feels like “the stupidest game ever designed” to you, I'm guessing you're just shitty – both as a player and as a guy to have at the table – at any White Wolf game, at Catan or Monopoly or any of the other myriads of board and card games that don't center around combat, at Sid Meier's Civilization series of computer games, at pretty much any storytelling game, or in fact any game that has things in it besides combat. Perhaps you can't stand baseball because there's not enough boxing in it. And so on and so forth.

    Yes, “players can create as story just as readily” with combat... [emphasis mine]. I agree perfectly. But how do you jump from "they can too" to "nobody else can"? Since when does that mean that everybody needs combat in the way, and amount, that you do?

    As I mentioned above, most White Wolf games, while supporting combat, thrive on character interaction and intrigue. They certainly have far more actual role-playing built into the rules than any version of D&D. And no, I'm not talking about LARPing or other theatrical aspects of that scene.

    Again, as with point #1, I'm hoping that your feelings on this matter arise from personal experience (or, I suspect, a complete and utter lack of personal experience, that is to say, from your ignorance) of minimal-combat political-intrigue-style play, because your feelings certainly don't arise from any rational, or rationally defensible, standpoint.

    I mean, I'm sorry that to you, interacting with NPCs with personality and motivations and finding ways to get what you want without becoming a murder hobo is like “watching paint dry.” But come on, at least admit that if the DM and players are invested in the setting, that it can work for people who like that sort of thing. That even bags which are not your bag can be fun.

    And logically... how the FUCK do you go about justifying the implicit argument that COMBAT is somehow better role-playing than TAKING ON THE ROLE OF A CHARACTER AND INTERACTING WITH THE WORLD THEY INHABIT USING NON-VIOLENT MEANS? Seriously? Can you not see how exactly backwards you have it?

    Yes, it is possible to role-play in the midst of combat... but the mechanical nature of D&D combat (in any edition!) also makes it easy to play it as a pure minis-and-maps wargame, whereas a low-combat situation forces you to actually create and play a character! Do you even listen to yourself at all? Ever? How can you post a shitstorm of hypocritical, self-serving self-contradiction like this and not implode from pure shame? 8^P

    Please pardon my final outburst. I would have edited it to be more polite, but felt it more or less matched the frothing-at-the-mouth tone you adopted in the final segment of today's part of the series. In any case, thank you for your time. Peace. And really, no hard feelings; I was merely attempting to demonstrate how boorish you sounded when you started calling other people "retarded" based purely on a difference in taste. 8^P

  6. PS - the correct spelling is "chalk," as in "I chalk it up to...." 8^,

  7. Ouch.... Well the chant & rant has begun...:-(