Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Semantic collision

A role-playing game is a semantic collision of two very different activities: Theatrical "role-playing" and playing a game with dice and rules ("roll-playing" or "rules playing"). Different people enjoy those two parts to different degrees, and they are prominent to different degrees on different platforms: Computer RPGs often concentrate on the game part, which then makes the role-playing part an "unique selling proposition" for tabletop RPGs. But there are definitive synergies between the two parts, especially in the heroic fantasy genre or other genres where action and combat are very much part of the story. The inherent randomness of determining success or failure by rolling dice creates a source of neutral input and impulse to the story-telling. And in the other direction clever role-playing can create advantages for combat later or generate more interesting gameplay situations.

On blogs and forums people frequently exchange ideas how games "should" be designed and played. But the truth of the matter is that those blog and forum posts have little or no influence on game developers. In a computer game the developer determines the laws of physics and possibility in the game. You might be able to pursue different goals and activities in a MMORPG, but you cannot change game design. But as the Dungeon Master / Game Master of a tabletop game it is YOU who determines what is possible, and that makes you a game designer to some extent, even if you use a pre-made rules system like Dungeons & Dragons.

This is why the design of my next D&D campaign is very important to me. There are game design principles I believe in, and this is my opportunity to realize them and see if they work. And the balance between the role-playing part and the game part is a very important piece of that. I am not saying that I have an universal solution, but I do what I like, and I do play this campaign with people I have been playing with for years, so to some extent I know what they like. Thus the goal is to find a balance which is the most fun for all of us.

I recently joined another D&D group of people I didn't previously know, where I play a character in a 5th edition D&D game. I don't want to dis that game, but I can certainly see that between the personal style of the DM and the 5E system this makes for a system that I am not overly fond of. In two sessions we only had one single fight, and that one was over in 5 minutes. As much as I want more story for my game, I don't want to fall into that extreme either. I'm pretty sure my players would get bored, they do like tactical combat. I am far more inclined to target an overall 50:50 ratio of time spent in combat and time spent role-playing. Not necessarily per session, but at least per adventure. I don't want just a "role-playing", nor do I want just a "game"; I want the complete thing, a role-playing game.

Tobold, when serving as DM, how do you handle being "in character" as part of the role playing experience?

In the past, and regardless of the combat/edition used, I find that my enjoyment was determined by what the DM allowed to happen in-game based on what was said by players. How much attention do you pay to what is said at the table, and do you assume that each player is "in-character" once the game begins?
I'm afraid people constantly switch between in-character and out-of-character. I'm not sure I could force them to remain in-character all the time, or whether that would actually be conceived as more of a restriction than a factor of enjoyment.
My personal experience is that limiting all interactions around the table to be in character makes for a vastly different experience. It can work very well for things like one off scenarios at a convention, or with a group of strangers, where the sole purpose of being there is to rp. For a group of friends meeting regularily it feels more like an obstruction to social interactions, than a way to encourage rp. Besides, there is allways the problem of how to "police" the rule. As soon as someone actually says something out of character, you are forced to either allow the breach of the rule. Or force the player to accept an action for his character that he never intended to make, and that might be down right stupid or immersionbreaking.

Unless you are having real trouble with getting people to be ingame for rp at all, i would not suggest a rule against out of character interactions.
To be completely honest, even in somewhat 'pure' role playing campaigns a 5 minute battle in 2 sessions is very very weak. You kinda need at least 1 or 2 battles per session, or at least an equal amount of opportunities for things to escalate to one.

Otherwise people tend to get bored fast, leading them to bad decisions in their RP simply because they are itching for a fight. If you're ditching combat, you might as well go play Mind's Eye Theater or something of that sort.
Yeah, a 50:50 average is a good idea. I have had an occasional session go a whole night without any combat, but usually there was lots of other mechanically relevant stuff going on, or the players were fine because for whatever reason they were enjoying diplomacy to resolve potential combats instead. Usually the next session made up for that by a swing in the opposite direction.

Combat in 5E can rip along much faster than normal, especially if the DM leans on lots of easy to average encounters, but very difficult or lethal encounters with a large table can take almost as long as typical 4E encounters. Add in the map&minis rules in the DMG and the experience feels very similar, albeit with a pretty different focus on the tactics since many of the implicit assumptions in 4E's design and pacing of combat are completely absent from 5E.
I'm not sure I could force them to remain in-character all the time, or whether that would actually be conceived as more of a restriction than a factor of enjoyment.

My apologies. I should have been more clear. I was referring to being in-character during actual combat or movement situations. For instance, if a player chose to scale a wall instead of taking the stairs..or if a player yells "rape, pillage and plunder!" upon entering a non-aligned temple...just wondering what kind of latitude you would give in such situations. Would you ever ask a player to initiate a "savings throw" based on these or other types of situations?
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