Tobold's Blog
Saturday, July 13, 2013
On Role-Playing

JB of B/X Blackrazor is writing a long series of posts on role-playing. There is an interesting definition ("The act of role-playing is the matching of the player's objectives to the objectives of the character.") and a maybe not-so-interesting-for-everybody long history on where exactly in which edition of which D&D book concepts of role-playing were discussed. His narrow definition of role-playing leads to the statement that "Computer RPGs for example are, for the most part, NOT role-playing games.". And, as it turns out, neither were the first versions of D&D: "D&D was designed as a wargame (not just like a wargame…the title says it all!) by wargamers for wargamers. It was certainly a different TYPE of wargame (small scale, fantasy in setting), but still very playable as such…and written to use a wargame’s resolution mechanics (specifically, CHAINMAIL).". His series is still a long way away from 4th edition D&D, if it ever gets there, but I'm pretty certain that by his definition that one is going to end up not being a role-playing game either.

I'd like to put forward the hypothesis that a definition of role-playing that ends up with the conclusion that some major classic and current role-playing games aren't role-playing games might simply be too narrow.

I think the key lies in the full expression "role-playing game". Without the "game" part JB's definition not only ends up excluding some versions of D&D, but also *includes* some forms of improvisational theatre which don't have anything to do with RPGs. D&D as well as games likes World of Warcraft are role-playing games not because players are trying to match their objectives to that of the character, but because the character's options are what determines what the player can do. It isn't the player's strength or knowledge of magic which determines what he can do, but his character's strength or knowledge of magic.

Computer "action RPGs" start to blur the line, because what your character can do suddenly depends a lot on the abilities of the player, like his reaction speed, and not so much any more on the abilities of the character. But that is a borderline case, and a game like Diablo is still recognizable a role-playing game, while let's say Pacman or Tetris aren't. There are also a lot of games where it is mostly the abilities of the player that count, but where "role-playing elements" have been added in the form of your avatar getting stronger through rewards he achieves during play. But when it comes to tabletop games, any pen & paper game where you play a character with a character sheet and you roll dice is certainly a role-playing game.

I do believe that a group of people playing D&D or another pen & paper role-playing game are engaged in role-playing even if they say "we don't explore character, we explore dungeons". A dungeon-crawl isn't the only thing a RPG can be, but it certainly one of the options. There is nothing wrong with role-playing a rather one-dimensional character who only wants to bash monsters and loot treasure. Trying to make decisions as "Grimbart the dwarven warrior" would have done, or talking in funny voices, is purely optional.

And frankly, in my experience, trying to roleplay by JB's definition fails more often than not. Players are never able to completely switch off their player knowledge and only act upon their character knowledge. They will react to being bitten by a lycanthrope, even if it was the first time this particular character encountered one, and he doesn't have the background that would explain how he could know about lycanthropy. They will react to real-world visual clues like the DM erecting a DM screen and pulling out dice (and a clever DM can use that to mislead them). A game in which everybody only ever acts perfectly in character is a narrow sub-type of role-playing games, and not the only possible "true role-playing".

What then is the difference between a simulation game (train driver, farmer, street cleaner etc.) and a role playing game? Street Cleaner Simulator 2012 meets JB's definition rather well but is not to the best of my knowledge generally considered an RPG.
When I read JB's stuff I start searching around for evidence of his actual age....reading material that speculates about "how it was done" in a time period when I was doing it always gives me a headache....nothing he's writing about jives with my memory. Admittedly, I didn't start gaming until 1980, but when I did start gaming the idea of role-play as a necessary and expected component of D&D was already firmly entrenched. Whatever D&D grew out of (wargames) it firmly became something else in very short order and ultimately a new form of entertainment entirely. His musings on whether or not people really did it this way just seem....weird. Of course they did, that's how we got to where we are now. Sigh.
Your comments are strikingly reminiscent of a piece I read in Dragon Magazine by Gary Gygax. A little googling reveals it was "Realms of Roleplaying" in issue #102 (October 1985) is time to consider what the typical role-playing game is all about. First, it is important to remember that “role-playing” is a modifier of the noun “game.” We are dealing with a game which is based on role playing, but it is first and foremost a game. Games are not plays, although role-playing games should have some of the theatre included in their play.

To put undue stress upon mere role-playing places the cart before the horse. Role playing is a necessary part of the game, but it is by no means the whole of the matter.

You can find the entire essay at
This being the Internet I somehow expect somebody to comment "Who is that Gygax fellow, he hasn't got a clue what a role-playing game is".
I've always found this particular semantic debate moot, considering "playing a role" is a subjective experience. Is it an RPG simply because I can role-play, or because I am role-playing? And what about the people who treat the (enforced?) role-playing aspects of a particular RPG as just another mechanical feature of a "regular" game? Is it still an RPG if you spacebar through everything and pick choices randomly?

To me, RPG = game with focus on character progression. That's it.
'No true blogger' would try to assert an argument about most games not being roleplaying simply by redefining what roleplaying means.

To me, rpg means stats and character progression and improved performance through improving stats. RPGs free you from twitch and focus more on preparation and execution. Hitting an enemy isn't about how quickly I can align my mouse cursor over it and click, but about designating a target and doing dice rolls based on stats. More mindful gameplay.

The RP crowd isn't particular to RPG's, nor to gaming at all. People can roleplay through characters in a game, through blogs and over the internet, even in real life by adopting another's viewpoint or as part of sex play.

That RPG's and RP'ing people have a common origin in the term that describes them doesn't mean that they need to have anything to do with each other.
My definition is much simpler: rp is fully participating in the game world.

How about this definition: role playing games are defined by the idea of playing/assuming a role, whatever that means in the context of the game being used. Role play means loot acquisition, story progrssion and leveling up in Diablo III (and a lot of other games, too); role-play means considering all the dialogue options and shooting the right people in Mass Effect....and role playing means picking, building and making choices for a D&D character, often with theatrics and improvised voice-acting if it so suits you.

Tobold wrote:

"Players ... will react to being bitten by a lycanthrope, even if it was the first time this particular character encountered one, and he doesn't have the background that would explain how he could know about lycanthropy".

In a world in which lycanthropy exists, it would be unusual to find an adult that doesn't know something about it, unless he'd been sleeping under a rock throughout his childhood. Why, even on Earth, where it doesn't exist, my character knows enough about it to react. In Azeroth, when I met my first lycanthrope, I already knew loads about them. I'd heard stories about them on my mother's knee.

This could be a DMing issue. If the DM told the group something like "two lycanthropes leap out at you", he has already told them that they know what creatures they're dealing with are, enough to identify them as lycanthropes. Otherwise he'd have just described what they can see.

This could be a result of the DM addressing the players, rather than describing things from the point of view of the characters. Good roleplay requires the DM to play along, as well.

But even if player knowledge does leak into character knowledge and the roleplay isn't perfect, that's not to say that the players aren't roleplaying and enjoying the experience. If I play football imperfectly, I'm still playing football.

In fact, without the roleplay element, what exactly is the attraction of D&D? Even the players who say they are exploring dungeons, not character, are roleplaying to a large extent. Because in reality, they aren't dwarven warriors crawling through dungeons. There is no dungeon. There's only some text and some diagrams and some dice. It only becomes fun when you put yourself into character, at least to the extent that you care whether you're being attacked by two lycanthropes, rather than being told simply that you must compete with the DM in rolling a twenty-sided die several times to be allowed to progress to the next dice-rolling mini-game. We dress these dice-rolling games in a fantasy story in which the players play a role, because otherwise it would be the most boring game on the planet. Playing the role is what makes the otherwise dull mechanics fun.

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