Monday, May 16, 2022

On Acting

Ewan McGregor has had a great career. I assume that...financially...he is comfortable (Alec Guinness bemoaned being known for Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of his life, but even he admitted it had been lucrative), but while any working actor would aspire to comfort, that's not what I mean by "great." Actors act because they love acting, and he's had such a great career when it comes to the wide range and variety of roles he's been able to play. Films like Moulin Rouge, A Life Less Ordinary, Velvet Underground, and Down With Love are some of my favorite McGregor vehicles (I do like him as Kenobi, too) but he's also had the opportunity to do horror, historical, and war stuff...great, juicy roles, big and small, in films ranging the gamut from indie to blockbuster. It's as if, by diving headfirst into "Scotland's Worst Toilet" he signaled to the film universe that he was willing and able to do anything...and not take himself too seriously in the process.

I don't know how easy or hard any of the productions were for McGregor and his fellow rough or stressful or frustrating it was to get things to the screen. None of that (generally) matters terribly to an least, it never did to me when I used to do the "acting thing." Directors screaming at you, fellow actors unprepared or straight flubbing their shit, delays and issues with costumes and sets and tech, and the tedium of running and memorizing lines. But in the end, none of that really matters. It doesn't even matter so much whether people like the final product that's put on stage, or like the bit that you, the actor, does. I mean, it matters, you do care and (if this is your profession) it certainly matters whether you and your colleagues are getting paid. But you act to act. Even if no one came to see you. That's what and why you do it. To embody a role, to become someone else, to escape...for a moment...stepping into an alternate reality and playing in it. I look back on the roles I've had the opportunity to play, some couple dozen parts in plays and musicals and film and there was nothing I wasn't glad to do, nothing I didn't enjoy doing in the moment, when I was doing it. And none of it was done for applause or accolade.

[ego, yes. Fame and fortune, no]

I wonder...right now, at this much of my love of role-playing is tied to my love of acting. Not much, really. Both role-playing and acting are creative endeavors and I definitely have a deep need for a "creative outlet." But the two don't correspond to each other. It's not like I chucked acting and took up RPGs (the reason I stopped acting is one of prioritizing: it was more important to me to have a house and a wife and a family then putting in the hours that acting consumes...that's the honest truth. If I had already established some sort of stable career; well, that might have been a different story. Such was not the case...). I've enjoyed acting on stage since I was 7. I've enjoyed role-playing since I was 8. Whether I've gamed or not over the years has largely been determined by A) time, B) opportunity, and C) money. My acting (or not acting) has had nothing to do with it at all, except in so much as it sucked away (gaming) time during a show run.

I write all this preamble in order to get back to some comments made by JackJackJackJack in my February post Why D&D...I didn't have time to address them at the time (I was prepping for a family vacation) and then there was my 40 day hiatus after that. Time to come back around to setting records straight.  Jx4 takes the stance that the clear point of playing D&D is: portray a character, to embody them as much as possible, claiming "each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by."
Jack cites Gygax's own words in the '78 PHB (page 7), as well as the foreword from Moldvay's Basic book as evidence that acting...portraying a particular character (and doing so well) is a major point and emphasis of game play if not the point of play. He also provided this helpful link to Tom Van Winkle's blog, discussing...well, if not a similar stance, at least a defense of the stance that play-acting be incorporated as a component of RPGs generally, and D&D specifically.

Jack is wrong. Tom is missing the point and effectively defends only that which needs no defense. As a person who spent four years at university earning a degree in acting, and as a role-player of 40 years, I find a lot of this discussion (and other, similar, hot takes) fairly offensive. 

NOW...before I go any farther let me acknowledge a couple things. People play RPGs (and D&D specifically) for all sorts of reasons. Different people enjoy some aspects of RPG play more than others. It's okay to make "your own kind of fun." Some folks watch films in silence, some like to turn a screening into an active participation event. Whatever turns your crank, okay? You want to make a game session some sort of soap opera improv exercise (whether in the privacy of your own home or for your public YouTube channel)...whatever. Have fun. Do it. I acknowledge that you're having a good time, and nothing I write is going to have much impact on how you run/play, regardless. And That Is Fine.

The rest of this post is for other folks who are trying to understand my understanding.

First, let's clear some semantics: when Gygax writes 
You act out the game as this character
There are multiple ways to read this. You can interpret it as acting a role in the theater sense of the term (clearly some individuals do). You can also simply read it as taking action. That, after all, is what it means "to act." As my Webster's lists the definition:
1. The process of doing : ACTION. 2. Something done: DEED. usage: Act and action are distinct in meaning. An act is the deed accomplished by means of an action
The discussion of act as in acting (i.e. assuming a dramatic role) comes in as the 7th definition of the word "act" (after judicial enactments, formal writs, distinct divisions of a play/opera, and manifestations of insincerity, i.e. "you're putting on an act"). 

Gygax's semantics were poor, as was (often enough) his ability to communicate specific, clear concepts. Personally, I find it forgivable given the circumstance (trying to explain a radical new medium without a background in technical writing), but at times the issues caused has led to frustratingly divisive results. 

Humans LOVE to anthropomorphize objects. We name our cars. We talk to our food. We bestow personalities on our firearms and tools and houses. We do this from a young age and we carry it on into old age. It's's imaginative. ALL humans have imagination to one degree or another.

If play-acting and using "funny voices" has been with RPG hobby since its very beginning, it is only because play-acting and using "funny voices" in game play has been around since LONG BEFORE RPGS WERE EVER CONCEIVED. When my Eastern front repels the boy's panzer blitz in Axis & Allies, I like to say "Tanks for coming, comrade" in my best fake-Russian's simultaneously amusing and annoying and part of the fun of playing out fake war. When my (non-RPG playing) wife plays a game of Blood Bowl, she has her players "huddle up" on the pitch and has the captain give a pep talk to the team in a (usually) silly voice.

It is both logical and inevitable that participants in an highly imaginative game played through verbal communication will identify with characters played, imbuing them with personalities, and (even) speaking in particular voices that best express their concept of the character. BUT THIS IS NOT THE POINT OF PLAY.  When Gygax writes (again, on page 7 of the PHB)
Each of you will become an artful thespian as time goes by -- and you will acquire gold , magic items, and great renown as become Falstaff the Invincible!
he is speaking hyperbolically. No, you will NOT become an artful thespian by playing D&D, just as YOU will not literally "acquire gold," nor suddenly transform ("become") Falstaff.

And regardless: that's not the point. The POINT of play is using our imagination to experience have experiences that we normally could not (or should not or would not) have in daily life. Sure, you might create a personality and voice for your character that resembles something like a stage actor performing Shakespeare. Then again, you might not (not every PC acquires gold, magic items, and great renown either). In the end, whether you do or not doesn't matter because that's NOT the reason the game is played. It is not the point of play.

For players, imagining yourself as your character IS a requirement of play...because if not, you cannot act (i.e. take action) as your character. If you cannot imagine yourself in an underground dungeon, you cannot properly act and interact with the (imaginary) features and (imaginary) beings you encounter during your (imaginary) adventure. You must be able to put yourself in the mindset of the character so that you can properly act...not to perform as an actor, but take action in the game as we play.

Taking action is the point. Dungeons & Dragons is a game. It is not (or should not) be folks sitting around a table while the DM reads pages and pages of narrative. This is not 'story time;' the DM is not a kindergarten teacher. The DM presents the world, the players present their actions in the world, and the world (though the DM) reacts. Action/reaction, action/reaction. Not acting (performing) in the theatrical sense.

The theater is a different animal from D&D and theatrical acting is a different thing from participating in a role-playing game. The goals of the activity are not the same. An actor on stage (or screen) performs to communicate the director's vision, to tell the writer's story...either to entertain, to inform/educate, or both. Even improvisational theater has rules that are followed by the actors on stage, although such lighthearted theater generally aims only to amuse and entertain the audience. 

RPGs that are treated as games of "let's pretend" or as improvisational acting exercises (with dice) are forgetting the "G" part of RPGs. "Role playing" describes the TYPE of "game" being played. Not a board game. Not a card game. Not a video game. A role playing game: the medium through which the game is experienced is the assumption of an avatar, or "role." Some participants take on the role of Dungeon Master. As the role of DM requires playing of MANY individual characters, I find it helpful to sometimes use "funny voices" to distinguish between different (imaginary) persons, lest my players become confused when determining which particular non-PC is talking.

But that's not "acting" in the thespian sense. That's playing the game. I'm not concerned with an NPC's motivation because I want to embody the character in as "true" a fashion as possible (as I would in preparation for performing on stage). No, I am concerned with an NPC's motivation because I need an idea of how that NPC will act and react in the game to the actions and reactions of the players. 

People who conflate theatrical acting with role-playing bug me and is (probably) the main reason I prefer the term "Fantasy Adventure Game" to "Role-Playing Game." It's just confusing as shit to some folks.

My son's class, by the way, will be performing Romeo & Juliet this Friday (an abridged version...they're only 5th graders after all). Diego was cast as Mercutio which (some would say) is one of the best, juiciest roles an actor can play. I'll be interested to see how he does it, especially in contrast to Lord Montague (who he also will be portraying). The kid's memorized his lines for both parts, but I don't think he's intending to do a lot of "specific characterization" to distinguish the roles...instead, I think his plan is to let the lines (and the costume change) handle all the differentiation for him. I don't's his thing (he doesn't ask me for advice regarding school stuff), and I just intend to sit back and enjoy the performance. 

However, given my topic here, I can't help but be amused that the kid draws ZERO connection between D&D and performing on stage, even when he gets to do a sword fight. My kid has always been a bit of a ham, but he's not one to do funny voices in D&D...regardless of whether he's playing or acting as Dungeon Master. And I can say unequivocally that the lack of theatricality at our game table has hurt neither his immersion, nor his enthusiasm for the game one single iota.

Action, not acting.


  1. Well said! I get similarly irritated when people start talking about "collaborative storytelling."

  2. I totally agree with all your points here. I also particularly like the term Adventure Game(Fantasy or not) in that it contrasts with Story Games, which some of us don't like to put under the role playing game label. Adventure Game I'd even being used commercially now, the first I can think of is the labryith rpg

    1. Hm. I think I prefer RPG to FAG. Probably no reason why I should. Still, I find it unlikely the latter will catch on.

  3. Like using the toilet, acting is a filthy activity that should only be performed in rooms made for the purpose.