As the days fly by and we get closer to The Most Interesting Roleplayer in the World tournament at DDXP 2011, I have been doing a great deal of thinking about the concept of roleplaying, particularly within the concept of a tabletop RPG. Topics on this aspect of the hobby come up on the various forums and discussion lists more frequently than cable news arguments about which politician or pundit is or is not Hitler. Since this column is a place where I vowed to explore and solidify my own thoughts on certain topics, and since the idea of what roleplaying is and what it means has been fresh on my mind while the upcoming tournament continues to take shape, I figured now is as good a time as any to tackle the subject.
Of course it would be helpful to define “roleplaying” first, in order to have a starting to point to discuss the concept in the milieu of a roleplaying game. But I am not that helpful. We all know what roleplaying is, because we do it every day in our normal (or what passes as normal for us) lives. Since I am riffing on Shakespeare already, I will go with the majority and misinterpret Shakespeare’s much-misinterpreted opening line from the most famous monologue in As You Like It: “”All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances;/And one man in his time plays many parts.”
People generally quote about this much monologue, assuming these words indicate that we all act differently during our days, based on our circumstances, company, and mood. (The monologue actually refers to the 7 stages of a man’s life from infancy to elderly invalid, but it’s almost more profound in its misinterpretation. I blame Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, but I forgive him because he rocks so hard.) So we roleplay every day in our lives, as we transition between our various roles: spouse, child, father, mother, employee, boss, friend, student, teacher, etc. Roleplay is simply exhibiting a different persona.
So in a roleplaying game, naturally, one of the elements is that we take on a different persona, literally taking on the characters of our, um, characters. The extent to which we assume our adopted personas is dictated by the type of game, the sensibilities of the people we play with, and the tone that is agreed upon by the group (although sometimes through a process of mutual and unspoken agreement).
Isn’t “Roleplaying Game” an Oxymoron?
I love games. My grandfather, a POW in Germany for a few months at the end of World War II who played a lot of cards in the stalag, taught me blackjack as soon as I was old enough to add. Last night my daughter and I played a rousing game of “who can keep a jack spinning on its end the longest.” And I’ve been playing RPGs for literally as long as I can remember. It was (and is still) always odd to try to explain RPGs to people who understand games but not RPGs. “So how do you win?” is easily the most frequent question.
RPGs are very unique in the gaming world. Very few games have more ambiguous conditions for winning, if RPGs have any at all. I have heard many people say (myself included), that you win an RPG if everyone playing has fun. I guess that is partially true, but that sounds like we are getting into the territory of those primary school soccer leagues where everyone gets a trophy, even if they have never once kicked the ball and spent their entire time on the field eating dandelions. I also hesitate to move too far in the opposite directions and say that you win if the characters achieve their goals, because I have been a part of too many great games where the characters failed. So if a roleplaying game has no winning conditions or goals to be reached outside the interior game world, how do you answer that question, “so how do you win?” I certainly don’t have a good answer.
I do think, however, that good roleplaying is its own reward, both for the individual player and the entire playing group. But good roleplaying is a hard thing to qualify or quantify, just like the concept of winning in an RPG. On countless message boards and around countless gaming tables over the years, this debate about roleplaying has raged on. Like so many old men yelling at the kids to get off our lawns, we gamers who have been around since the 70s or early 80s like to reminisce about how pure the game used to be, how great the roleplaying used to be, and how we used to play for hours without ever having to roll a single die—and we liked it that way.
Throughout these debates, I think there have been some good arguments and some bad arguments, but I think that there have some premises that have been taken as given, but in reality these are myths, or at least statements that may be true, but are not necessarily true. I’d like to take a look at some of these:
Myth 1: Storytelling = Roleplaying
When I hear people talking about roleplaying, roleplaying is often equated with storytelling. While I think that good storytelling in an RPG can certainly facilitate roleplaying, and good roleplaying can often lead to good storytelling as a result of game play, the two are far from the same. In some cases, the two can be completely at odds.
Think of a typical fantasy RPG adventure, where the PCs enter a town and some townsfolk have been kidnapped. Typically the modus operandi of the characters would be to negotiate for payment to investigate the kidnappings and rescue the victims. Then they would probably investigate who did the kidnapping and where the victims were taken. Finally, the characters would head out to defeat the villain(s) behind the kidnappings and bring the innocents back. The unfolding of these events, and how the characters proceed throughout the adventure makes a shared story. Depending on how the DM presents details, as well as adds twists or surprises into the adventure, it might even be a great story. However, that story could unfold with barely any roleplaying on the part of the players or the DM—that is, no one has to make any effort to think about or inhabit the persona of their characters (or the NPCs) in order to tell the story.
Conversely, there are some cases where the roleplaying may be great, but the very act of roleplaying detracts rather than adds to the story. In the same adventure described above, one or more characters may decide that they are sympathetic to the kidnappers for some reason, and after their initial investigations they decide to not get involved. Although a good DM could turn this decision into an interesting story, it is more likely that the story would just end there, and the characters would have to try to start a new adventure (and a new story).
Myth 2: Extensive Background = Roleplaying
For those people who play in public events like Living campaigns, where you get to bring your own characters but are playing with strangers, you know that generally the game opens with the DM asking everyone to give a description and a little information about their characters. Sometimes “I’m an eladrin wizard” is the most you can get out of a player, and some players can talk for 15 minutes about their characters’ lineage, history, and personality. In many cases, the people who have taken the time to imagine an extensive background for their characters are in a better frame of mind to be a good roleplayer, in the sense that they have pondered how their characters would react in different situations. However, extensive backgrounds are definitely not a sure sign of a good roleplayer. Way too often I have seen players lay out their background, and then completely ignore that background when it would have made something harder for them in the game.
Myth 3: Powergamers/Munchkins/Optimizers are the Opposite of Roleplayers
Far too often I have seen a false dichotomy created in discussions about roleplaying, with the gist of it being that there is some scale between optimizing a characters and roleplaying a character. There is no inverse correlation between the two. I will, however, make two observations from my own experience running both home games and Living campaigns. The most vigilant of the optimizers (those who take every step to make the most powerful character possible) tend to do so because they want to kill the bad guys as quickly and easily as possible. The desire to do that tends to lead them to make in-game decisions that also leads to that goal, even if it was something that their characters’ personalities would not do.
One of the first adventures I wrote for Living Greyhawk was called Shedding Scales, and in it the PCs could essentially soak up the energy of a slightly evil artifact, in the care of a tribe of kobolds, to gain a very significant benefit—in this case a stat bump. Needless to say, although doing so was definitely questionable in both the alignment department and the common-sense department, players had their characters do it anyway. This was not just powergamers though. This was practically everyone.
On the other hand, I have also noticed that many of the true powergamers I have met over the years are also the most avid roleplayers. Generally, I found, if someone took the time to put that much care and thought into their characters on the mechanical level, they also took the time to consider the roleplaying angles as well.
Myth 4 – Certain RPGs Systems Are Better for Roleplaying
“Edition wars” rage on in all aspects of life, not just RPGs. We are wired to compare things, and then find reasons to hate one and like another. But in the RPG edition wars (or in comparing one system to another), one of the most ridiculous arguments is that one system is better than another for roleplaying. Obviously something like a LARP, where the main mechanic for continuing play is adopting a persona, is a different animal altogether. But in terms of tabletop RPGs, no one system is going to be better at facilitating roleplaying than another.
I can hear all the shouts now, saying that this or that game is obviously better. Please note that I am talking about roleplaying, and not storytelling. I have already posited that they are two completely different things. Yes, there are many games out there where storytelling drives the game, but I do not equate them to roleplaying.
I also see two common arguments that are completely contradictory to each other, yet both try to claim that one system or another is better. The first argument is often used by AD&D grognards. “Back in the day, we didn’t have all these rules. We used our imaginations. If you make rules for everything, there is no room for roleplaying.” Of course, this is not true. Roleplaying exists regardless of the rules. You can roleplay Tic-Tac-Toe if you try hard enough. But then you get the argument from the fans of other systems that “this system is awesome because roleplaying is put into the mechanics. You gain benefits if you describe what your character does.” Two things: again, storytelling is not roleplaying. And if roleplaying becomes a mechanic of the game, then doesn’t that take the focus off thinking about what your character would do simply from a standpoint of persona, and get into the realm of deciding what your character would do based on a system of rules?
I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. Until next time, happy roleplaying!