Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Distribution Woes - 5AK

I hate shipping costs.

One of the (myriad of) challenges that come with being a one-man publishing mogul is that I am my own mailing department...which means that when someone orders one of my printed books (right now, that limited solely to The Complete B/X Adventurer), I'm the person that stuffs it in the envelope, walks it down to the post office, and pays the sometimes exorbitant fees that the USPS is forced to charge these days. In the past, I've given a "discount" to our Canadian neighbors by charging them U.S. prices, even though the mark-up is a bit higher than domestic (i.e. "inside the U.S.") shipping. All overseas shipping...whether it's too South America, Australia, Europe, or Asia...is at the same eye-gouging rate, and I'm forced to tack-on accordingly.

Shipping costs blow. No, not in a good way. In a day where every entertainment-marked dollar is precious to the average folk, it's a damn inconvenience to charge people an extra fifth or quarter or third the cost of their product just to get the book. Is it as much as a $9 beer at the Mariners game? No...but $9 is only a small percentage of the overall cost of "a night out with the family" when you're paying over $100 including parking, tickets, food items, and souvenirs. $5 on a $20 book (soft-cover) is just asking a lot of folks.

I don't like paying shipping costs on products I purchase; that's one of the reasons I order so few things on-line. Yes, there are ways to avoid paying them...ordering (marked-up) items from sites that offer "free shipping," or bundling several products together from a single distribution outlet (like Noble Knight), for example. But I am not a distributor and unlike my wife's company, I wasn't long ago purchased by a multi-national mega-corporation that includes corporate shipping companies (like FedEx) as one of their many subsidiaries (such relationships allow for "friend prices" between all the members of the mega-corp's "family").

*ahem* SO...shipping for 5AK is shaping up to be a bit of a headache. What I would LIKE to do is ship it in a small box...like the post office's smallest size flat-rate box. Based on the dimensions listed on the USPS web site, that should hold the entire contents just fine (three volumes, four dice) without any risk of bending/damage and the price to ship anywhere domestically is under $6. Now that's still more than what I've charged for U.S. shipping in the past, but not much more (close to $4)...and 5AK is going to ship quite a bit heavier than the previous books, so that cost might have been going up anyway.

However, while the domestic flat-rate box is under $6, rates outside the country are quite a bit higher: $20 to Canada and $24 overseas! That's charging nearly the same in shipping as I'm charging for the whole damn game...or more if I can somehow get my price point down to $19.99 (working on it).

That's not just ugly, that's outrageous. Even for (or especially for) folks in Europe who are used to paying premiums on goods. That's going to cost me sales, pure and simple, which means poor(er) distribution overseas, in markets that might actually be salivating for something different from the normal WotC fare.

But I don't really know what to do about it...I'm not about to fill a duffle bag with copies and hop a plane to the UK to set-up a local mail outlet. And my assumption is that FedEx or UPS would be more expensive for shipping overseas (though probably faster).

[hmmm...would it be worth it to cross the border to B.C. and ship inside Canada? Maybe. The border's not too far from Seattle, and if the demand was enough and the cost-cutting enough it might be worth it. Besides, the wife's in the process of getting me a "global access" pass anyway, so I could zoom through the short line at customs. I'll have to check into Canadian shipping rates]

And I suppose the only other option is to mail the game in a padded (or non-padded!) envelope and "hope for the best." But, man, that seems sketchy. I already get the occasional email about a book being wrecked/damaged by the post...and I still don't know what it's going to cost, even in an envelope.

All right, that's enough sighing and crying and boring distribution woes. I'll try to get back to "gaming posts" (though I've been busy sketching out the adventures I'm going to run for Dragonflight...I think I'm going to use these 4th Edition dungeon tiles for a B/X adventure, but it's a pain in the ass that they're not marked for easy/quick assembly. I also wish they were at least a little more...um..."grimy," but I realize that's just a preference of aesthetics). However, if anyone has any ideas on how to get better prices shipping outside the USA, I am open to suggestions.

Thanks!

EDIT: Just checked and found that shipping a similar sized parcel, regular delivery, from B.C. to Ontario would be $13-15, depending on actual weight. Ugh! Canada!

Monday, July 29, 2013

5AK at Dragonflight XXXIV

Dragonflight XXXIV is happening the weekend of August 9th and I will be there, along with copies of 5AK for sale...at least, that's the (half-formed) plan of the moment.

However, it's entirely possible the books will sell out before I even get there (I didn't say likely, just possible). Regardless, I've signed up to run 5AK a couple times during the weekend, so the system will be on display...assuming anyone signs up for my table.

I've signed up to run a total of five events, so I'm planning on a busy weekend (not to mention a LOT of prep work the week before). What I'm running includes:
  • 5AK (two sessions; different adventures)
  • Cry Dark Future (demo)
  • KWN (a demo of my space opera supplement for Dave Bezio's X-Plorers)
  • B/X D&D (a mid-level dungeon crawl for my Saturday evening "cool down")
There really isn't much on the event schedule that I'm terribly interested in playing at the moment, so I'm hopeful that at least a few people will show up for the games. However, I see that my B/X time-slot is in direct competition with someone running Labyrinth Lord...if no one shows up to my table, maybe I can get into his.

Anyhoo, should be fun. I'm looking forward to it. Hell, I'm even renting a car for the event.
; )

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Top 10 Troll Questions - 5AK

It's been a long day.

But a good one. I mean, we made it back to Seattle safe and sound and found our house hadn't burned down and the beagles hadn't run away and because of a small bout of food poisoning my wife gets to put off flying to South America for at least one more day.

[even sick time with the family is better than no time]

We got up at 6ish after being awake and active till close to three so that we could make the early ferry ride back to Seattle. All went as planned and I managed to keep my eyes open the entire drive (the rest of the fam were crashed out in the back seat) which is, of course, a good thing.

However, even with a siesta this afternoon it's been a looong day. And, yes, I realize no one really wants to hear about that.

We're on a countdown now till the release of 5AK, my only (current) entry into that category of games called D&D Mine or (more prosaically) Fantasy Heartbreakers. That's right: it's really difficult to consider 5AK something much more than a "fantasy heartbreaker," though it bears fairly little resemblance to 1st edition AD&D (the mark of many FHBs)...it's still just another fantasy adventure game with a "team-up and step-up" mentality that does NOT bear the "D&D" stamp of name recognition and so is destined to for second-class (or third-class) status.

Which is fine. The train has left the station, so to speak (or rather, the car is rolling down the hill with the keys locked in the ignition) and there's really no stopping it. I've got a bunch of dice manufactured for the thing, filling bags in my office. The manuscripts are at the printer for their first print run and I will be charged for it, using the money made in my earlier publishing ventures (no "kickstarter" for me!). And...well, that's it. The rewrites are done...I can't change what will be coming out of the print shop at this point. The first printing is going to be as good (or as bad) as it will be and it's pretty much out of my hands.

All I can do now is hock my wares.

To this end, I've decided to dedicate the next few days (and next few blog entries) to talking about 5AK, using topics of conversation I might normally take but solely applying them to the subject of my own game. This will, of course, irritate some of my good readers who could care less about a new fantasy heartbreaker and who want more D&D style subject matter (and who are already tired of my random digressions on all things that pull my attention). So be it. One thing I did NOT do a whole helluva' lot of with my 2nd book (The Complete B/X Adventurer) that I did with my first book (the B/X Companion) was talk about it much, or blog about it much, or mention it in other peoples' blogs or on various forums or whatnot. And you know what? It didn't sell half as well (even counting "print only;" the B/X Companion has sold far more electronic copies than it ever sold in print). Even though there's stuff in TCBXA that is useful to most folks B/X or LL campaigns (unlike the B/X Companion which is mostly only useful to high level campaigns).

So, yeah, I think I'll have to talk it up a bit (or talk about it anyway). I'll try to do a post a day until it comes out, but...well, we'll see what time allows of me.

To start off, we'll try a softball post: Random Wizard threw up a ten question poll on his blog that a bunch of people have been using as fodder for their own blogs, and I'm going to do the same (I did say, "softball," right?)...except that I'm going to apply all the questions to 5AK. This should be at least a little fun, because RW tried to take the most contentious topics for his list of questions. Perhaps it will pique the interest of folks who are curious. Here goes:

1) Race (Elf, Dward, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no? There are no "races" in 5AK, only classifications of adventurers, and there are no "demi-humans" in the default setting, solely in an appendix of optional rules. If the optional rules are used, each is a subclass of a main adventurer class.

2) Do demi-humans have souls? All sentient beings in 5AK have souls, including jinni. Demons, as fallen angels, technically are souls.

3) Ascending or descending armor class? There is no "AC" stat in 5AK, ascending or descending. A character's class of armor (light, heavy, or none) makes it tougher for an opponent to inflict damage (i.e. "to hit" or make a successful attack) but combat is based on the original CHAINMAIL rules, not the alternative combat tables first seen in Book 1 of OD&D.

4) Demi-human level limits? If the optional rules are used, the demi-human subclasses are limited in the maximum level they can achieve.

5) Should thief be a class? Thief is a major class; it has two subclasses.

6) Do characters get non-weapon skills? Thieves (and thief subclasses) have non-weapon, "thief skills." New characters start the game with random advantages that can sometimes resemble (or are, i  fact) "skills."

7) Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)? This is an apples-oranges question. Magic-users use magic. Fighters fight. If you want to do something magical, call on a magician; if you want to kill something, call on a fighter. They have different arenas of specialty in 5AK with very little over-lap. A mage can swing a sword or axe (and if they want to attack/kill something, that's the best way to do so)...but a hero is a lot better at it.

8) Do you use alignment language? No.

9) XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc.)? Define "objectives." There are some XP bonuses in 5AK (usually for one-time experiences), including "milestones," that might be an objective of play, but no one gets XP solely for disarming a trap. XP is awarded for gold and monsters, but the amount of XP awarded diminishes as PCs gain experience (i.e. "go up in level").

10) Which is the best edition: ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E ADD, 4E ADD, Next? Well, I'd like to think 5AK is pretty good. Many early editions have their own special charm to them. To answer "which is the best" I need to know "the best what?" Different editions are better (or worse) depending on what you're looking for.

Bonus Question: unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class? There are three distinct XP level tables in 5AK, though thieves and clerics share the same one.

All right...well, that was fun. Tomorrow, I hope to do something a little less softball, and a little more weighty. But right now, it's time to hit the hay. Later!

; )

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Countdown to 5AK - Ten Days Till Release

Give or take.

[somewhere in the San Juans....Orcas Island to be specific...]

The magic of the internet is truly a wonderful thing when it comes to "getting work done." I can email manuscripts to proof-readers I've never met, get the documents back, and (after making changes) get the  finished volumes of to the printer electronically. If I was so inclined, I could simply have the printed books shipped to my home and never see anyone but the postmaster...but I'm too much of a control freak to be that hands off.

It was back in February 2012 that I first suggested people stop wasting their brain power absorbing new rule systems being published as part of WotC's business model and simply write their own version of D&D, an idea I referred to as "D&D Mine" (in direct opposition to "D&D Next"). My idea at the time was to do a small, free supplement for OD&D, not unlike Planet Eris, that would simply combine a bunch of my house rules along with (perhaps) a simple setting fit for the D&D game.

Somewhere along the line in the last year and a half, that idea morphed into something waaaay different. Deconstructing the original game led me to building the thing from the foundation up. The "simple setting" became a deep research project into the 8th century middle eastern history and culture. The small, free supplement became a three volume fantasy adventure game with its own set of custom dice. I didn't start this project with any particular ambition, but sometimes stuff just snowballs, ya' know?

Yesterday, I sent the final manuscripts off to the printer. I'm hopeful that the print run will be complete by the 5th (in time for Dragonflight) and that there won't be any issues. Barring potential problems and set-backs. 5AK should be ready for release to the public within ten days or so. The price point hasn't yet been determined, because I don't know what the final cost per copy is going to be (the price per 3-book set has gone up $3 in printing costs just between my May quote and now, but I'm hoping they'll swing me a break and allow me to "pass on the savings to my customers"). My plan is to also make the books available as PDFs for a substantially lower cost, and that will probably (hopefully) happen by mid-August.

Anyway. Just wanted to give people a heads up. Now I've got to wander down to the ocean and see if I can find my family. Expect more updates in the near future.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Addendum to “On Role-Playing”


In the air, somewhere over the country of Mexico…

There are several problems with writing a 30+ page essay and posting it as a series of installments on a blog. As I wait for my second drinkie (damn, I hate this Beefeater gin), allow me to enumerate them:

1) If you’re not a trained writer (for example, myself) you run the risk of completely derailing yourself. I don’t do outlines, I’m not terribly disciplined, I forget what the hell I was talking about…and by the time you reach the end of the damn thing you may have wandered into territory you never wanted to explore in the first place. THAT is just part of the pitfalls of being a hack…though I’m pretty sure most of my regular readers are familiar with this part of my “writing style” and allow for it to a certain degree.

2) Any subject you can write 30 pages about is probably a subject that you could write 300 pages about. The fact of the matter is, if I was doing real doctoral research on the history and evolution of gaming (and wanted to be a real credit to the subject) I’d need to do a shit-ton more research: polling people, reading articles and past interviews, doing careful in-depth analysis of entire scopes of work, including secondary sources like adventure modules and supplementary books. I wasn’t setting out to do a thesis paper on the subject, and my “research methods” are nefarious, if not downright suspect: I limited myself only to the main text of the rulebooks (with the question of “what would a new player, just picking up the books, find?”), which provides an extremely limited context for a subject worthy of deeper exploration.

3) I’m a blogger, not a writer. There may be some blogs that are done by real journalists or technical experts, or that have a battery of “staff” writers, but this isn’t one of those types of blogs. It’s just one dude, venting his spleen more often than not. I definitely fall closer to the “pseudo-intellectual” than the “anti-intellectual” but it’s hard to call what I do true “academic discourse.”

4) Blog readers have short attention spans. You can’t post a 30 page essay. I mean, you can, but the internet is not the greatest medium for reading anything, let alone huge-ass, meandering diatribes. You’ve got to break it up into digestible pieces, even when the whole thing was written (and meant to be read) as a whole…otherwise, folks tend to move on to the next blog (and much as I say I’m writing this thing for myself, I’m not so dishonest to say I don’t appreciate an audience for my rambling ego). However, this leads to the next problem:

5) I can’t just fisticuff with every single commentator, because (usually) they are only responding to a portion of the entire picture.


Now, that doesn’t mean the “entire picture” as a whole is sound…see points #1 through #3 above. However, it just leads to a number of separate sidebar conversations in which I end up saying things that seem to (or actually do) contradict the things that show up in the blog as the installments post in their scheduled order. Which is confusing to some people and frustrating to myself.

So I took some time off from the blog. That is to say, once I got to Mexico I continued to follow what people were saying (about me and the essay) but I just stopped responding to the comments. I was pretty busy anyway (family, fun, vacation, etc.) and my internet connection was spotty most of the time as it was, but honestly I wasn’t ready (mentally or emotionally) to get involved in arguments over something that I’d finished writing (and kind of put out of my mind) about a week before.

But right now I’m in the air and a trick of Fate has put me in a 1st class seat while my wife and child are napping behind me and, okay, let’s get down to it.

Folks, you don’t have to agree with me. That’s the only hard and fast rule.

Yes, it’s true that I have a lot of negative things to say about the latter editions of D&D (about 1983 onward). I am a seething cauldron of emotions when it comes to these editions and it bubbles over at times. It causes me to say all sorts of ugly, mean, spiteful things. To be downright disrespectful. Damn it, I’m entitled to my opinion, people…just like you!

One thing about me, I have strong opinions. And I have an opinion about what role-playing – the ACT of role-playing – is. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of your character…imagining you are that character for the span of a game session.

That means having an emotional investment, not detachment (viewing your character as a pawn or playing piece). YES, you can view your character with detachment…as a chess piece to move about a board, or as an actor to be directed in this imaginary film/story you’re putting together. But that’s not what I call role-playing.

Maybe YOU call it role-playing. Hell, maybe you don’t care if it’s role-playing or not (or if you’re doing it or not) because you just like to play the game and it’s totally fun and intellectually stimulating and a hoot to have a couple beers and tea-bag the party thief when he’s unconscious because he was being an ass anyway.

That’s cool folks…who am I to say you’re not “doing it right?” It’s a game. You play it. You enjoy playing. Bully for you…keep up the support of the hobby.

But let’s not be short-sighted. Let’s, just for the moment, consider whether or not there is a value to keeping this hobby, this thing (whatever it is), alive and well. I know, I know…that’s a whole ‘nother 20 post series on “what is the value of role-playing games” that I really don’t have time to write. But let’s just BRIEFLY ask ourselves…is it worth keeping alive? Because it seems to me that the hobby is on life-support. You can have a ton of new people buy books and play a couple games because they’re interested in thisDungeons & Dragons thang” they’ve heard so much about, but if they get bored and don’t stick around, you’re not growing the hobby…hell, you’re not even sustaining the hobby.

Now, some hard-minded folks really, truly don’t give a fuck. I understand that. Some of them are folks who realize, “hey, we’re not curing cancer here” and place little value on the hobby as anything besides passing (if intellectually stimulating) entertainment. On the other hand, some of these hard0minded folks DO give value to the hobby, but only for themselves…the “let those with ears hear and those with eyes see” folks content to let the chips fall where they may. So long as THEY can play who cares what happens after their lifetime?

Me, I don’t fall into either of those camps. For me, I do find value in the game and not just “value for myself” but value for others…I think it’s valuable that it exists at all. Just another opinion, people, you don’t have to agree. And being of value I look to see what is special about the game…what does it have that will promote itself and keep it alive that will allow it to compete with other forms of interactive entertainment vying for the attention of people in this world and generations to come.

Grok me? For me, the first and foremost answer I come up with is “the facility of the act of role-playing” (see above).  I’ve said this before in other posts. That’s the deal. And so I get a little worked up when I see the designers of “the world’s favorite fantasy role-playing game” leave out instructions on what role-playing is, or how one does it.

Because…okay, look. I know and understand that there are people who really, really enjoy a tabletop RPG with more “crunch.” There are plenty of people who prefer 3rd (or later) editions specifically because they have extra rules, extra character customization, extra tactical stimulation. Just like in the “old days” when I was a kid, you’d master the “basic rules” and then look to expand on them: and we incorporated all those old supplements and Dragon magazine articles into our games at one time or another, as much for the novelty as for “rounding out” the system and fantasy world. Why not simply start with a game that has those “extras” already built-in?

I understand that there are some players (identified at times – by themselves and others – as “hardcore”) for whom the older games, especially B/X, are too simple for their tastes. There are lots of players who started with “beginner versions” of D&D (keep in mind that this whole conversation is solely regarding D&D being the most well-known gateway drug to RPGs)…who started with “beginner versions” but moved onto more complex systems precisely because they wanted complexity. People who found flavor and inspiration and FUN in things like kits and non-weapon proficiencies, in skills and feats, in “daily use powers” and “healing surges.” And who, because of their grounding in the basics of the game (or because of the mentoring of more experienced gamers) have no problems incorporating the act of role-playing into their play. Likewise, there are some people who DON’T understand or care to involve themselves in the kind of “investment” or “role-playing” that I’m talking about, and yet they still enjoy themselves and are committed to keeping the hobby alive through their support.

I understand that. I get that. And if you’re having fun, that’s all Cool and the Gang. But what about enticing new players? What about KEEPING players whose only exposure has been to 4th edition and who find that it’s just easier to start an on-line MMORPG account with a couple buddies then bother to read and master hundreds of pages of rules? What about expanding the hobby outside ourselves (the older, dying breed), and our immediate children (who probably want to distance themselves somewhat from their parents), and the handful of weird, brainy throwback types who can pick up a copy of Pathfinder, with no other background or training in gaming, and digest the whole thing and develop a passion for the game?

Yes, there are other more pressing issues in the world. I had the chance to watch Burt Wonderstone (the most recent Steve Carrell/Jim Carey flick) on the plane, and there’s a part in it where a magician character has chosen to “help the poor” in developing countries by giving the starving children magic kits. “I’m bringing them magic,” he says, completely obtuse. “Don’t you think they’d prefer food and clean water?” asks a reporter. “But I’m a magician!” is the reply. Sometimes when I’m blogging about role-playing (or ranting/raving), I bear more than a passing resemblance to this particular character. Who the hell cares if I’m bringing the “good news of role-playing” to the masses (if I’m even doing that), when there are more important problems I could be putting my mind to solving?

Again, it comes back to whether or not you think this kind of gaming has any value aside from entertainment. I do. I think it has more value than, say, your average first person shooter video game. But again, that’s just my opinion…I’m not trying to write a logical proof or argument here. And some might call me biased or accuse me of promoting the game simply because I’ve engaged myself (in a small fashion) in the business of publishing RPG books. To which I’d reply: if I thought other games were more valuable (to people), I’d be engaging in those instead. Or bothering to learn more about them. Or at least playing them. That doesn’t mean the value of an RPG is more important than, say, bringing medicine or food or peace to people in need…but then I already have a day job that has a strong “human interest” element so I don’t feel too guilty about what I do with this blog and my writing and my entertainment dollar.

And for me, that “act of role-playing” thang is a valuable thing to preach about…and something of which to be critical when examining these games. And something to be thoughtful about (as in “to think about”) when considering the different ways people approach the hobby.

Now, this doesn’t address the concerns of Alexis who rightly points out that some people use the excuse of “playing in character” to be inexcusable assholes. That’s because that wasn’t one of the points or concerns of the essay. To me, I suppose I can say there is an “acceptable level of assholism” that can be incorporated in the game (I’ve discussed this before in other posts), but the threshold of what is acceptable varies from table to table and is part of the social contract that needs to be worked out in every gaming group. Where there are problems, it is because the group was not explicit enough in delineating the “lines that shall not be crossed” (or when one player stubbornly refuses to respect those lines and then deservedly needs to be kicked to the curb). But as with the act of role-playing itself, I feel that this is another form of instruction that would do well to be IN THE MANUAL ITSELF. Because it is not, people are left to work this shit out for themselves, often leading to abuse and hurt feelings in the “trial-and-error” process. You can put the responsibility on the players to be mature enough to deal with this…but if we’re talking kids (ages 10 and up, remember?) or hormonal teenagers, that can be a tall order.

And the alternative (which I think Alexis supports) of divorcing the act of role-playing from game play (or, at least, the act of imagining yourself someone other than yourself, or playing a different personality, or having the opportunity to do so) is, I think, a poor substitute. But then, he and I seem to disagree on the subject in general…at least the part where I think the act of role-playing should be a priority of instruction and design. Not because role-playing has some measurable quality (Lord knows, there is terrible and banal role-playing, even after leaving the assholes out of it), but because the potential of the act IS the value of the game itself. The true value to which all other values are secondary.

Of course there ARE other values to a game like D&D; I’m not disputing that. It stretches the mind and the imagination (two different things in my opinion). It encourages camaraderie and teamwork (depending on the challenges presented). It’s fun to play and an amusing diversion.

I just don’t think those are the main values of the game; I think those are things you can get elsewhere. The “fantasy role-playing” thing? That’s different. It’s neither constrained by the limits of reality (such as in LARPing) or the limits of the context (such as in the bedroom).

Anyway, I think that’s about all I want to say on the subject at this time. As I stated in the beginning of this whole long-winded deal-i-o: you’re welcome to disagree.

[posted after a safe landing in SeaTac and a good night’s rest…thanks for reading, folks!]

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 11 of 11)


D&D (and other “true” role-playing games) allows you to do this same kind of play: pretending to be someone that you’re not in an imaginary game environment. You can pretend to be your favorite Lord of the Rings character (Viggo Mortensen or Orlando Bloom, I suppose), fighting orcs and “evil minions” and whatnot. But in general, RPGs are BETTER than the type of pretending you did as a kid because you’re usually not pretending to be someone else’s imaginary character, but instead your very own imaginary character. Sure there are RPGs modeled on specific IP (like Serenity or ElfQuest) that might provide you with the means to play one of your fictional favorites, but usually you’re creating your own character…and one often modeled on yourself (or little-used facets and/or aspects of your personality) giving you the opportunity to experience things (in your imagination) that you normally never would…or ever would want to!

For example, many long-time players of D&D have had the pleasure of playing an evil character (or, if they haven’t, have at least been tempted to do so). Now, my gut instinct is that MOST of the people that play D&D are not “evil” people, at least in the way the alignment is defined in the game (of course, most of us probably haven’t killed folks for gold in real life, either)…but it can be fun to explore one’s “dark side” in a safe (i.e. IMAGINARY) environment. We all have a dark side to our personality…it’s our decisions of whether we (in real life) choose to do good or evil that defines what kind of human beings we are. However, exploring one’s dark side in real life leads to real life suffering (for both ourselves and for others), whereas exploring it in a game can “scratch that itch” that might otherwise lead us down a bad path.

[and hell, it’s just fun sometimes to pretend you’re a “bad guy;” look at all the actors that have won Oscars for portraying terrible human beings because they were able to really “dig into the character” and “let themselves go.” Plus, in 21st century fiction being a “bad guy” is often synonymous with being a “badass” and who doesn’t like to pretend to be THAT on occasion?]

Some individuals enjoy playing devout followers of a fantasy religion, even when their real life attitudes towards spiritual institutions range from ambivalence to complete disapproval. Some folks who live their own lives meekly find thrills in leading the charge in the fantasy world, boldly being the first into action. I've known large folks who enjoyed playing small and stealthy types, and pragmatic business types who wanted to play champion-the-weak-give-all-to-charity paladin characters. It's all "make-believe" but it's a game that can be experienced by adults as well as children...provided they are given the space to do that. And maybe a little direction.

Getting together with like-minded individuals who are willing to “let their hair down” and role-play can be a fantastic experience. For many people, it requires a certain degree of trust (because the concept of pretending as an adult can make them feel silly or self-conscious), and those who can allow themselves the vulnerability of that kind of play open themselves up to an intimacy with their friends and gaming companions that we find hard to match in other aspects of our life. Which is a GOOD thing by the way: we should recognize that we are all humans carrying around the same mental hang-ups (and same secret desires to be James Bond or Captain Kirk or Boba Fett or whoever). Putting it on display not only allows us the freedom to explore our own imagination, but tells others, hey, you’re not alone in this. That may be a "duh, no shit" statement for a lot of readers but it's worth stating.

Now, I started this whole series because I posted my experience playing D&D Next and said it wasn’t what I’d call a “role-playing game” (meaning that it didn’t seem designed to facilitate the ACT of role-playing) and people took umbrage with that.  Some folks pointed out that D&D had never encouraged people to “role-play” and I took umbrage with that; after all, most of my best and most intimate role-playing experiences have come while playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I feel I learned how the act of role-playing was accomplished through my playing of D&D over the decades (and learned it well enough to transfer that knowledge to other table-top role-playing games).

But it seems that MY experience is different from that of other folks…so much so that we sometimes seem to be talking a completely different language from each other. This essay, long and meandering though it is, is my attempt to explain my “role-playing language” while simultaneously examining the possible origin of others (and thereby understand their “role-playing language”)...in an admittedly brief and superficial manner. My hope is that this can be used as a basis for on-going discussion on the subject…for getting folks on the same page. Or (if not that) at least getting people to grok where I’m coming from.

AND…having said all THAT, I know there are still some people who are going to disagree with me and think all this is just a bunch of pretentious gibberish and that I’m a bigger half-wit than any designer I’ve managed to libel in this particular series. And I promise you, I am totally okay with that. As with most of the things on this blog, I’ve written this series at least as much for myself as for those reading it…it’s helped me codify my thoughts in what is (for me anyway) a focused thought pattern. Just writing this all down has been (for myself) helpful.

On that note, I’m bringing this thing to a close (finally…jeez, if I’d been this interested in writing in college I’d probably have a doctorate instead of just a B.A.). Holy crap…it's over 30 pages long! Anyone who’s managed to stomach their way through this whole thing...poor grammar and stream-o-consciousness that it is…I totally give you props for your fortitude!

Now…since I'm in the process of doing edits anyway, should I go back and rewrite 5AK to specifically address role-playing (what it is and how to do it?)? Ugh. That’s a question I'm going to have to think about for a bit…
; )

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]

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]

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 8 of 11)


Talking with an accent or having an emotional scene or impassioned outburst are not necessary to the act of role-playing. Role-playing is about the CHOICES you make as a player: Who do you fight? When do you run? What are you willing to offer in negotiation? Who are you willing to aid…or spare from the knife? Role-playing is about considering the feelings of the imaginary character and (for the duration of a gaming session) making them your own.

People make the mistake of thinking play-acting is the same as role-playing and then get upset and frustrated that their 18 charisma character isn’t a “smooth talker” (because the player isn’t a smooth talker in real life) or that their 18 intelligence character can’t hold his own in intelligent discourse (because the player can’t in real life). They get upset that they can’t “role-play the way they want to” and perhaps more upset that the people who DO play-act well are getting XP bonuses because of it (!) and then they want rules and systems for governing “role-playing” (like adding a “negotiation” type skill) and before you know it, you have 3rd edition (*sigh*).

Play-acting is superficial. Role-playing is not play-acting, even though it can incorporate play-acting. Play-acting is saying, “Have at thee, villain!” before attacking. If you have a (character driven or derived) reason for attacking said villain, then sure you are role-playing…regardless of whether you use a funny accent or not.

However, I’ve gamed with plenty of d-bags whose only real motivation was the player driven one of “kill-loot-level” and who paid only the barest of lip service to justify their in-game choices of action. Hey, D-Bag: if you don’t have a reason to kill-loot, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. Get a World of Warcraft account already.

Really. We all understand that part of the fun of D&D is leveling up…hell, it’s a damn imperative since the game, as written, only allows full exploration of its content by increasing in power and status (i.e. level). But man-o-man, especially in free-form or “sandbox” type campaigns I’ve seen some behavior that just struck me as…well, as wrong. Not because players weren’t getting along (they were), but because…well, because I wanted some role-playing. Not a lot, just a little…just something. Watching players (mentally) salivate over imaginary points…especially when the DM’s trying to create a rich and diverse environment for players to engage and interact with…is just discomforting (and a little sad). But I guess I’m an elitist snob about a lot of things, not just role-playing.

[for the record, these folks were ones I played with, not ones in adventures or campaigns I ran as a DM. I tend not to be too easy on characters in my games, and these types of players seem to gravitate to a more…um…”forgiving” breed of DM than myself]

So anyway, where was I? I mean besides 22 pages and 10K+ words into this thing. Oh, yeah…3rd Edition.

Unlike AD&D 2E, I still own my core rulebooks for the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I do this so that I’ll never again be tempted to buy them again. Well, that’s the main reason…they also have historic significance, some interesting design things, and a lot of nice, inspirational illustrations.

Hmmm…but before we delve into 3E, I’d like to anecdotally mention that I had the chance to talk with Tim Morgan down at Gary’s Games today. Tim runs the store and has decades of experience playing and running role-playing games. He’s also a designer himself and only last year published his magnum opus, Ellis: Kingdom in Turmoil…a 600 or so page RPG that I will probably never play because, you know, “too big.”

I put to Tim the same questions about role-playing, I’d previously asked of Kris, Kayce, etc. It took him a couple tries to grok what I was asking, as he’s used to parents (and others) coming into the store and asking “what’s a role-playing game” and he has some standard spiels he likes to rattle off. However, I finally got him to answer the question (describe the ACT of role-playing, etc.), and the gist of his answer was:

When you take actions that you normally wouldn’t and that are actually detrimental to your character.

Which is a little different from my own take, though it would still follow the self-sacrifice guidelines of Allston’s Rules Cyclopedia. However, it hashing it over with him, it turns out we were NOT quite on the same page, though only because of his preferred method of role-playing: he wants his characters to get into predicaments and suffer.  Now, that’s simply Tim’s preference if he likes playing characters that are always destined for doom…but he also seems to enjoy what the Forge-ites would call Pawn-Director stance (or Pawn-Author stance) in terms of his approach to RPG “play,” and for me this kind of breaks the idea of role-playing for me. Not because you can’t play that way in those imaginary fantasy games we lump under the umbrella term “role-playing games,” but because playing with a detached viewpoint is removing oneself from the vicarious fantasy play one experiences in the ACT of role-playing.

So that was interesting (that we disagreed)…I’m not sure I was able to turn him on the point, either, which leads me to wonder a bit how this series of posts are going to be received when I finally start putting them on the blog.
; )

The other interesting thing was when I asked him the part about how he learned to role-play, what his first experience was with the act of role-playing (not just with playing an RPG). Tim was VERY specific with his answer: he remembered being in a gaming group that was playing a post-apocalyptic RPG in high school and he wanted to engage in the act of role-playing, but didn’t feel it would be appropriate/acceptable with that particular group and so moved on to a different gaming group where it would be…however, nothing taught him, he simply wanted to “do something” that he couldn’t even articulate at the time.

He also said that he had played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons before, had started on D&D as a kid in fact, and had never before engaged in (or been interested in) “role-playing” or anything more than wargaming-type dungeon crawls.  As it turns out, his introduction to D&D was through 1st edition AD&D, with maybe the briefest of stints with Holmes Basic (a couple-few weeks before getting his first PHB)…so the form of D&D he grew up on was in that strange period prior to Moldvay when “role-playing” aspect of the game wasn’t emphasized.

So, so different from my own gaming origins.

Okay, I’m going to call it a night and try to finish this up tomorrow with D&D3. I’ve been writing this “essay” for almost a week now, and even though I intend to break it into installments, it’s going to be a loooong slog for readers. I can only hope it’s at least a little helpful to folks.

[to be continued]

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]