Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 01, 2014
Is swinging from the chandelier role-playing?

Although they have been around for much longer, tabletop role-playing games are far more difficult to discuss on the internet than computer role-playing games. The fundamental reason for that is that if you and me both play Divinity - Original Sin, we will have a rather similar experience. If you and me both play the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set with friends, we will have a very different experience. That is we will have some part of the experience which will be similar, the one covered by the written adventure story and the rules of 5th edition, and a part of the experience which will be very different, because our your friends will act differently to the situations in that adventure than my friends will. Most people consider that different part, the reaction of the players, to be the "role-playing" part of the game. But nobody agrees on what exactly role-playing is.

Fact is that in a tabletop role-playing game session you are sitting around a table with friends and you talk a lot. A good amount of that talk might not be related to the game at all, but to other stuff going on in your lives, because friends tend to talk even in the absence of a game. Of the talk pertaining to the game, a lot will be said that is from the perspective of the player: People complaining about bad dice rolls, for example. That also leads to meta-gaming: The rogue of the party tells the others that there is no trap on the door, but as everybody saw him roll a 1 on the check, nobody wants to open that door normally. If we think of "role-playing" being necessarily from the point of view of the character, and not the player, all of the above isn't really role-playing.

What most people agree is role-playing is the playing announcing an action for his character that isn't necessarily in his best interest, but is coming from the background and personality of the character. If the rogue wants to torture the evil henchman to get information about the main villain, but the paladin intervenes and lets no harm be done to the prisoner, that is role-playing. A bit cliché maybe, but certainly role-playing. There are tabletop RPG games that mostly live of such interaction of people playing characters with different backgrounds and motivations, leading to something resembling improv theater. Even Dungeons & Dragons campaigns can gain a lot if besides the main story of the campaign there are side-stories related to the personal quests of the various characters.

Where the definition gets trickier is when a player announces an action for his character which is both fitting to the character's background AND designed to give the player some advantage within the mechanics of the game. The rogue announces that he wants to swing from the chandelier to get behind the enemy and backstab him. Now that clearly fits with the image of the swashbuckler. But the intention is frequently quite visibly one of trying to gain an advantage, not one of trying to tell a better story together. That is not to say that a DM should ever block such attempts, the first rule of DMing is to say yes to what the players propose, but then make the possible advantage conditional to an adequate skill check or similar roll. But I am wondering whether a player who is using such improvised combat moves a lot is a great role-player or just great at gaming the combat mechanics to his advantage.

What do you think? Is the player with the rogue trying to swing from the chandelier to get a combat advantage role-playing, or is role-playing much more than that?

I would compare this to a character in an action movie, whose actions are defined both by how the character is according to the story, and to the requirements of an action movie.

So in a combat-oriented game I would consider good RPing when the players try to find ways to include in their character behaviour actions which also result in a combat advantage.

I find that players who want to swing from chandeliers expect huge combat bonuses for doing so. This usually involves them being bitter if I don't let them explode enemies with creativity, or bitter if the enemies do creative things and get similar advantages. The players never seem to think it is fun roleplaying if the evil monsters swing from chandeliers and backstab a PC in the back for massive damage for some reason....

What it comes down to is I prefer a game where the rules dictate how combat numbers shake out but I personally encourage people to be very descriptive about how they do things. I want them to have fun and do flavourful things but not have the expectation that doing so is going to automatically make the enemies evaporate.
Helistar said things pretty well in my opinion. 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons in particular, with power cards laid out in front of the player like an MMO hotbar, has placed so much focus on the tactics and strategy of combat that it has become difficult to separate character action from the player's desire for combat advantage.

Whenever the player takes the time to add spice to the game by providing a deeper description of how they envision the character would take action while still using the abilities given to them, I view it as adding what little role-play they can to one of the most structured parts of the game. Essentially, they are trying to help make combat interesting, and I will often go out of my way to reward such behavior.
I find that tactical advantage and good role-playing should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. Let's be honest, most characters in fantasy RPGs are experiences combatants. They know how to act in order to gain the greatest advantage, and they do so naturally.

Thus, if a swashbuckler is swinging from a chandelier, it's both a fabulous RP success and a legitimate way for that character to do his/her best to win a fight. In my perfect world, the DM says "Sweet, you'll use this like you would your normal attack, with all your normal bonuses, but then pick an extra effect you want to apply. Maybe you knock the villain prone?"

Contrast this with the studious mage who wants to swing from the chandelier. It's not really in character for him to do it, so the attack counts as an improvised weapon (i.e. - he's worse at it than doing something else). But using his acid bolt to melt the chandelier anchor, causing it to fall on the bad guys? Amazeballs!

Ultimately, it falls on the player group to determine if they want to encourage out-of-the-box combat interactions. If so, then the DM should at least treat these ideas as equally-legitimate attacks to the normal abilities a character possesses. Depending on how cool the idea AND how well the idea meshes with the character, add some bonuses.
ot only do I think the chandelier-guy is a good role-player, I'd argue that in a group where the GM is awarding creativity with bonuses, he's probably an even better role-player than the guy who can't even come up with some chandelier-swinging to net the bonus. There's nothing wrong with incentivization....and often it leads to a more interesting story. The mere act of getting a reward for contributing to the story does not somehow tarnish the contribution.....the notion that "role playing is its own reward" is fine, but it's also a weird sort of puritanical way of looking at fun. a cool description, interaction or event is great, sure....but adding a game incentive to make it mechanically useful doesn't cancel out the cool.

@Sky Roy what's the age/temperament of your players? I generally don't encounter many players who get upset if I don't allow for maximum exploitation of their effort, nor do my players get upset when the monsters use tactics that they might be inclined to engage fact they probably feel cheated if I don't go for the gusto and make it a challenge for them.
Role playing is what you make of it; there is no wrong way to play it.

I don't subscribe to the "there's only one way to play the game" to RPGs, and I believe that RPGs should be broad enough to encompass different game styles.

Roleplaying isn't just "what the character would do", it's "acting according to the laws of the game world", including both ethical principles (like clear-cut "godd vs evil" definition) and favored tropes.

Roleplaying Hong Kong action movie-like setting or comic book setting is one thing, roleplaying World War I is another. In White Wolf's Vampire vampires could swing from chandeliers while mere mortals could not. If it's a thing that the character would do in this given setting, then it's roleplaying.
Many moons again I remember a rpg playing with superheroes. One of the players took a perk that he was famous for being heroic and started transposing "herioc" before every action he did. The GM decided that this meant he should roll with a low chance of failure whenever doing mundanes things. When the group would sit he would roll to either heroically sit or miss the chair and take minor fall damage.
The interesting thing to me is whether the swashbuckler made up the presence of a chandelier out of whole cloth? Or did the GM mention that there was one in the room?

If the second criteria, is this not an example of the 'Checkov's Chandelier' trope, to coin a phrase?

In other words, if the chandelier is not meant to be swung on, why mention its presence?
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I talk the guy into selling me the healing potion cheap because I saved his daughter and stuff.

Was saving his daughter and talking to him roleplay, or just optimisation because I saved some gold?
I'm pretty sure you can play through a complete save the daughter adventure without doing the tiniest bit of roleplaying.
If it's railroaded/you're just expected to do the GM's thing or you're a douche, I'd agree.

Otherwise why would anything be roleplay, ever? Unless it's just a matter of talking in just the particular funny voice the GM likes and so he'll say that's roleplaying, when really it's more of the daughter stuff (either railroaded or character initiated)
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