Saturday, July 13, 2013

On Role-Playing (Part 6 of 11)

It’s funny…all those years of denigrating the alignment rules for not adding value to the game and here they’re the KEY instructions on role-playing found in the B/X edition of D&D…the system that shaped a ton of us role-players all those decades ago. The game wouldn’t be the same without it!

Now this was all written and published back in 1981. You’d think there’d have been progress made over the years as role-playing became better understood and as the later designers reviewed the work of their predecessors and built on this feature of the game, yeah? Amazingly enough you’d be at least partially right. Enter Frank Mentzer’s Basic set (1983) and the Rules Cyclopedia (1991).

[sadly, I must skip any analysis of 2nd Edition AD&D because I don’t own the books anymore. However, I know from previously reading them that they followed many of the trends found in Mentzer and the later RC compilation, and I recall that a lot of “experimental” changes to XP and advancement was tried, all in the name of bringing the game out of the “wargaming” mindset and into the realm of “heroic fantasy.” I would guess that the act of role-playing is much more explicit and encouraged in 2nd edition AD&D base with this as a goal…remember that 2nd Edition is published post-Dragon Lance, and DL was based on a series of novels with characters, personalities, and soap opera dramas and the accompanying adventure models allowed players to take the role of these dramatic personas. Even without having the books in front of me, I’m going to guess that role-playing was well-mentioned in 2E, even if the rules surrounding it were (probably) inarticulate and clunky as hell…but I might be wrong]

Mentzer O Mentzer: how I’ve bad-mouthed you over the years (and then retracted my bad-mouthing just to then do it all over again). As an introduction to role-playing…not to role-playing games, but to the act of role-playing itself…Frank Mentzer’s basic set may be the best edition of D&D ever published.

Wow. Can’t believe I just wrote that.

And actually, that’s probably too much praise for Frank. Most of the information in the Mentzer players manual is word-for-word taken from Moldvay (including those role-playing “notes” in the classes, and the entire alignment section).  Of course, Mentzer changes up the thief notes saying they’d only “rarely” steal from members of their own groups and admonishing that those that do so are “usually not permitted to adventure with them ever again.” So damn goodie-goodie…go pick an owl bear’s pocket, Frank!

However, it’s the tutorial included with the book that really starts to get the wheels turning in the ol’ noggin. Now, let me say from the get-go that I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole “choose your adventure” scenario presented in Mentzer’s Basic; being shoehorned into an adventure path where you have one of Choice A or B is NOT role-playing…and folks who think it is are operating under a really egregious assumption. The scenario presented isn’t even a very good example of a “D&D adventure” as D&D is mainly geared towards a PARTY of adventurers, not a single hero exploring on his or her own. As with the (otherwise dynamic) Elmore cover illustration, it ignores one of the main assumptions of D&D: that it is a cooperative game.

[and by cooperative I’m not talking about PCs necessarily getting along and not stabbing each other in the back…I’m talking about the way the creation of the imaginary fantasy world takes the input of multiple players to make it happen in the organic way it works best. A single person creating a world and exploring it is NOT playing a role-playing game…he or she is simply engaging in the act of creating fiction. And not necessarily good fiction]

Player characters (and players themselves!) may not get along with each other, but by playing together (even if competitive or in conflict) they create a greater fantasy world…so long as they are still playing by the rules and not attempting to sabotage the game’s integrity. I am, by the way, including the DM as a “player” in this particular instance.

But again, I’m digressing and going off-topic (that may be a post for another day). Even though I’m not a FAN of the tutorial, it does grab the reader by the shoulders and sit him down in the character’s brain, using the 2nd person voice to describe what “you” (the character) are doing while at the same time explaining how “your” attributes (your character’s attributes) describe “you” (your character).

That’s some powerful stuff and it sets a precedent for the new player being introduced to the Dungeons & Dragons game. It teaches the new player that when I play D&D, I need to put my mind in the mind of my character, exploring the world through the character’s eyes and senses and mind.  Moldvay’s examples are not nearly explicit as Mentzer’s description of how the death of Aleena affects “you” and what “you” are going to do about it. Cheesy and heavy-handed? Sure…but this is a book designed for beginners, new to the hobby.  Best to hit them with the hammer and then let them pull back on the throttle with their own play.

Or (more likely) the idea might have been to give them an obvious intro they couldn’t miss as something to aspire to while “baby-stepping” into their new world of role-playing. Heavy-handed? Yeah, probably. But it’s better than earlier editions that offered nothing in this regard…instead, you had to figure it out yourself (inferred from the non-explicit rules) or evolve it naturally over a long period of play or learn it from veteran players (who had figured it out themselves in a similar hard-to-do fashion).

Now, even Mentzer is pretty scant on explicit exhortations to role-play (“…you will be like an actor, imagining that you are someone else, and pretending to be that character.”) but the Rules Cyclopedia (compiled and developed by Aaron Allston from the BECM of Mentzer’s BECMI) is probably the MOST explicit of any edition on the act of role-playing. Though eight years separate their publication, BECMI and the RC are nearly always linked in my mind because the RC really doesn’t differ all that much from BECMI, neither in rules nor tone (I find the differences between Moldvay and Mentzer to be much more stark, even after just two years…look at the differences in awarding XP for treasure!). However, that’s not really fair. Allston adds a LOT to BECM (not all of it good…see the “General Skills” section)…but it is his information on role-playing that is especially interesting.

Right from page one he has a section titled What is Role-Playing? in which he writes:

Role-playing games are much like [old fashioned] radio adventures, except for one important detail: they’re interactive. One player provides the narrative and some of the dialogue, but the other players, instead of just sitting and envisioning what’s going on, actually participate. Each player controls the actions of a player in the story, decides on his actions, supplies his character’s dialogue, and makes decisions based on the character’s personality, and his current game options.

[emphasis added by Yours Truly]

In what other game, besides a role-playing game, would you ever make (game) decisions based on your character’s personality? Certainly, when I played D&D Next recently neither I, nor (it appeared) any of my fellow party members, made any in-game decisions based on the “personality” of our characters. My character was a dwarf fighter with a handful of resource-based (fire-and-forget) special abilities…my game decisions were based solely on the tactical need of the moment. Where do I move? Who’s left to kill? How many “deep strikes” do I have left in my feat quiver? There was no “personality” involved…Allston’s entire paragraph could be X’d from the thought-process completely.

[to be continued...just by the way, I'm winging my way to Mexico as of today. The series will continue, however, as scheduled. Be back in a week or so!]


  1. Great series, and interesting history of role-playing. Now I have to look at my 2e books myself. ;)

  2. All hail the RC! Thanks for even more analytical goodness, JB. I'm really enjoying the ride with this series. I want to put something out there: isn't the goal of "making decisions based on the character's personality" reached as a result of certain factors, such as the skill of the GM in creating situations that may foster such roleplaying? Also, isn't there something to be said for the willingness of any particular player to roleplay to this level?

    In the D&D Next experience you had recently, couldn't it be said that you and your fellows weren't given scenarios that would facilitate more than just tactical considerations? I mean, if the DM just gave you combat encounters, doesn't it stand to reason there would be much less of an opportunity to roleplay than if, say, you and the other players were presented with some sort of mystery to solve, a puzzle to work out, an encounter with an NPC that required negotiation, etc?

    I'm just riffing here, bear with me. I'm trying to be as clear as possible, but I've got no time to really refine my thoughts here. For now, here's what I think is my bottom line at the moment: A roleplaying game can describe what it means to truly roleplay, but ultimately it is up to the gaming group to nurture the ability to roleplay. This nurturing must come from a mindful GM who makes fostering roleplaying opportunities a priority, and from players who are willing to go deeper into their characters, to try and understand and craft a definite personality for their characters.

    1. Indeed. I have had good roleplaying in D&D 4e sessions, and bad roleplaying in B/X D&D sessions.