The Roleplay’s the Thing (Wherein I’ll Catch the Conscience of the Gamer)

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!

Comments

  1. “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.”

    I could say pretty much the same thing for the win condition of chess, or poker, or Super Smash Bros. You don’t have to win to have a good time!

  2. crosswiredmind says:

    While I agree that all RPGs facilitate roleplaying fairly equally, I would contend that some systems allow for a broader range of roles. Class based systems allow for a relatively narrow band of character archatypes based on available classes. In the case of D&D 4e we also have a power curve limitation. 4e PCs start out fairly potent combatants. You can’t really play a farmer in 4e. My current game is set in Glorantha using Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying. We have played the first half dozen sessions with the PCs as 12 year old kids. You would need to do some major tweaking to 4e to do that kind of thing.

  3. The Angry DM has a great article on his site about winning an RPG and defines it pretty well. I can’t seem to find it right now, but I know it’s there!

  4. So what is roleplaying?

  5. A College Student says:

    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.

    Racist!

  6. I think I agree with some of what Timlagor wrote on the LivingFR Yahoo group – surely systems where a PC’s character, beliefs, outlook, personality, etc form part of the mechanics encourages a greater recognition of those aspects, rather than the physical attributes, or outcome-related ones such as ‘I’m good at diplomacy so I’ll roll a diplomacy check”.

    In FATE, for instance, descriptions of a character formalised into ‘aspects’ have mechanical benefit. In Smallville, I believe, you are better at doing tasks when they connect to things you really care about, than when you are do the same thing for a less important purpose.

    In different ways, then, these help align the mechanical/system decisions you make with the character of the PC and encourage players to act in ways consistent with the ‘assumed persona’. In contrast, in games like D&D, the social contract is such that sub-optimal choices influenced by personality/character/’roleplaying’ can be disruptive and can detract from the ‘success’ at the mechanically supported aspects of the game (particularly, in D&D, combat).

  7. @unwinder: You certain could say that. However, if you met a friend and said, “I just finished playing Boris in a game of chess,” and your friend replied, “Did you win?” you really cannot expect your friend to accept your answer if you say, “He beat me, but I really won because we had fun.” Chess (and poker too) have pretty specific win conditions. Video games, especially “quest based” ones are a little harder to qualify the win conditions for, but in the end there is always the endgame of rescuing the princess or blowing up the alien ship or defeating the BBEG.

    @crosswiredmind: Well, yes and no. Yes, D&D does have a class-based system. And in other systems you might have more leeway to build your character more organically. However, that still does not mean any more or less roleplaying is done at the table, and that is really my point. And you could easily adjust the 4e rules to fit into a scenario like you are describing. Start the game with only skills, racial abilities, and basic attacks. You could play several sessions like this, slowly adding at-will, encounter, and then daily powers as you go. Depending on how combat-intensive you wanted the adventures, you might have to tweak things a bit in terms of monsters (use a lot of minions), but you are still playing those less-than-first-level type characters.

  8. @Brian: Thanks, I’ll need to find that and see what the Angry One has to say.

    @Pickles: I don’t know. You tell me! I define it as taking on the persona of someone else, and making decisions and actions within the game that reflect that persona.

    @College: I’ve been called worse by my own family.

  9. Some eager roleplayers are also powergamers because they are so invested in their characters that they do not wish them to die, especially in games or campaigns where death is final.

    On a different topic, one thing I have noticed (and lamented) in most groups is the general absence of roleplaying of casual interaction between PCs. This leaves me with the feeling that the group is composed of a colleagues who work together grudgingly even though they can’t stand each other personally. It’s like a buddy movie where the buddies never get past the initial stage of each seeing the other as a hindrance.

  10. @pedr: I hear what you are saying, and I certainly understand the argument. On the surface, it seems to make sense. However, (and understand I am still mulling all of this over to figure out what I truly feel and think) I still get the impression that making character background/traits/personality part of the game mechanics still doesn’t necessarily encourage roleplaying. I think of the different systems with some flaw mechanic, where you choose flaws that earn you points, and those points can then be used for some mechanical benefit. How many times, in those games, do the players really play the flaws by choice, without being prompted or forced by the GM?

    In a way, earlier editions of D&D had a roleplaying/background/personality trait that worked as a game mechanic. It was called alignment. Certain spells, abilities, and even classes were restricted by alignment, or affected creatures of differing alignments differently. I don’t remember that really ever making players who did not want to roleplay do so.

    I do completely agree that making sub-optimal character or roleplaying choices can lead to the characters being able to complete their in-game goals, and that can cause problems if the players have different agendas. That is why I ask if a roleplaying game is not an oxymoron. To me “game” implies a set of win conditions, whereas “roleplaying” does not. So if the two are at odds, is there really any way to win?

  11. @Michelle: I am totally with you. As a DM, some of my favorite times are when the characters banter, bicker, and discuss among themselves.

  12. Shawn, I think you’re absolutely right that game mechanics can’t necessarily encourage roleplaying. Or rather that no system can force roleplaying (… well, can you play Polaris or Fiasco without roleplaying?) – but in FATE your actions are mechanically linked to the characteristics of a character, so it’s not ‘just’ something written down (even something that, because you wrote it down, you got a character creation benefit); deciding to do something that is ‘in character’ gives you better mechanical results than doing something out of character.

    I think I’d use the word ‘tension’ between roleplaying and game, with different games (and different individual runnings of different games) giving different emphasis on (on the one hand) overcoming obstacles, ‘succeeding’ at tasks set, crudely killing things and taking their stuff and (on the other hand) players taking on a particular role interacting with other players within the context of the shared story/world. I expect that every group will be in different places on this spectrum, and that the choice of game can correlate to the quantity and quality of ‘roleplaying’ (however defined).

  13. So far, so good: though still undefined here is the term ‘roleplaying’ itself. To be honest, I think the problem is precisely that ‘roleplaying’ means such very different things, to different people (or even to the same person at different times, or even at the same time). And, while it is true that, for example, storytelling is not the same as roleplaying, there is a clear link between the two, which is fruitful ground for exploration.
    The point about powergaming not being the opposite of storytelling? True enough in principle; it’s very possible to combine both. In my experience, however, it is too often true that the powergamers are the ones who pass judgement on other characters and players, being snobbish, demeaning, and/or nosey in offering ‘advice’ on how to improve. Not all, of course, but enough that the term ‘powergamer’ is not accidentally a perjorative term to many people. (And in full recognition that ‘real roleplayers’ are not always less snobbish and carping!).

    I very much appreciate the point about roleplaying not being dependent on the game rules, however. I got tired of the argument (long before 4e) about which system was best for roleplaying. While some systems can be classified as poor, most any popular RPG can adequately support roleplaying – it’s just that they emphasize different things, and operate in different ways, which in turn work better for different people.

    Like so many in-group controversies, I think the controversy is fueled by a lack of clarity about what is meant by ‘roleplaying’ for each individual,and a lack of recognition of the value of each aspect of roleplaying for an individual. RPGs have such an incredibly complex nature, because they not only have printed rules like other games, but because they potentially involve most aspects of personality and social interaction as an inherent part of the play.

  14. @crosswiredmind: I’ve been playing a 13 year old boy in LFR, it was actually part of an adventuring company made up of all children and we’ve confined ourselves to non-showy attacks. Things like having a ranger companion or being a psion. My kid is a sling rogue for instance, very David and Goliath.

    I do agree that an absolutely green farmer PC can’t be modeled well, but really in most stories they are just there to be slaughtered by the rampaging monster. All the stories I can think of, even boy heroes started off with some training and skills that let them survive.

  15. With Myth 4, I couldn’t disagree more. There are games where your ‘persona’ can be “4th Level Thief” and that’s all you need for the game. I’m sure someone can shoe-horn something more interesting into these games, but the fact remains that they do nothing to promote roleplaying that a decent board game doesn’t do.

    On the other hand, there are games where your back-story actually matters, games where your character’s beliefs actually matter, games where character relationships actually matter etc. (and games where none of those matter at all where the system is concerned).

    Clearly, anyone can roleplay with a wide variety of games. I roleplay when playing Pandemic or Shadows Over Camelot or Colosseum. That doesn’t mean those games are just as good at promoting roleplaying as any other, though. I don’t know a lot about your gaming experience, but I can’t imagine an argument that D&D is just as good for roleplaying as Burning Wheel, for example.

  16. The only game that I have personally played that really attempted to actively promote roleplaying is Hollow Earth. Hollow Earth has a system of “style points” that give you a mechanical edge in game. The GM can award style points for clever ideas, interesting choices and good roleplay, etc. Of course, even in Hollow Earth, its still up to the GM to actually award the style points for accurately roleplaying your character. This is made harder when you consider that different people will view good roleplaying differently. I would still argue though that the style point system is different from mere traits/flaws/etc. because you are actively encouraged by the rules (depending on GM of course) to adhere to those character traits.

    That being said, I agree that its silly to say that any RPG is devoid of roleplaying, or even discourages it. I would also say that while building a green farmer in 4th Ed. D&D is perhaps a bit difficult to do, that doesn’t mean that playing a “green farmer” is actually roleplaying any more than playing a “paladin of Bahamut who is a veteran of the War of the Shattered Fist” is. This goes to Shawn’s point that background does not equate to roleplaying. In 4th Ed. the “green farmer” could perhaps be the fighter who gets extremely nervous and evenly cowardly in combat because “This ‘aint like chasing crows off yer crops!” Sure, he is still technically, mechanically superior to the level 1 minion human rabble that the true “green farmer” would fall under, but you’d still get the point across.

  17. “Low abilities are an opportunity to role-play.” The funny thing is that there are players who actually take that line seriously. There are players who think alignment is somehow a dictum on their character’s behavior. Okay, you might be able to classify the people in your life by alignment, but none of them stick to it all the time. Certainly people will take actions against their own stated alignment. So why should characters act in a dogmatic fashion? “It’s what my character would do.”

    I have problems with D&D and succeeding versions have often perpetuating those problems, rather than fix them. I put alignment right up there with things that never should have been in the game. 1e characters are totally disposable and their only goal is to level up. Where does alignment fit into this scenario? It’s there, but there’s no rules or incentives for playing to it. The closest thing is that there are penalties for Paladins and Clerics for violating their codes (no rewards beyond your basic powers), but what about the other classes? Are codes of conduct even the same as alignment?

    At best, alignment could be considered a sort of shorthand for DM’s as to how to play certain monsters and NPC’s. Even then, does it really make a difference in motivation between a band of Chaotic Evil Orcs or Lawful Evil Hobgoblins when they see the characters tramping around their lairs? This stuff should have never applied to player characters. They can make up their own minds as to how they’re going to behave based on the situation. Character will come about, like it or not, based on class abilities, past die rolls, and experience.

    So what we have is this odd rule, tossed in for little apparent reason, with no mechanics to support it. Regrettably, unlike the weapon speed versus armor table, the story doesn’t end there. While most gamers ignored alignment since it didn’t pay XP, some players choose an alignment and decided to play it. Thus began the role-play in RPG’s.

    So?

    Well, this is where RPG’s cease to be a free-form game and now become an activity considered alarming by parents. You see, up to the point of “my character,” this was just an odd war game with the pieces named (or perhaps even lacking the board). Sure there’s talking to NPC’s and other character-like bits, but there’s nothing in game to make you get in character. Even though Paladins and Clerics need to obey certain restrictions, it’s game related with game related consequences. But without alignment, there’s no esoteric, vague behavior system guiding your character play.

    Simply, you wouldn’t get in character except for alignment. It wouldn’t occur to you to play to your ability scores, if there hadn’t been alignment rules. Your class would have been a function, not an imperative to ham it up. This is just supposition. I could be totally wrong about this. We’ll never know. All I can say is that somewhere between wargame and RPG is where the concept of “my character” was invented, where it had not existed before.

  18. You can’t blame the roleplaying or lack thereof on the system. It’s all on the DM and players. If a DM wants to run a game that’s heavy in roleplaying, he’ll fit it in, no matter the mechanics. This is my response to the 3.5 and Pathfinder junkies that look down on 4E. The mechanics aren’t ruining the game, it’s the play style that’s becoming more common as video games take over entertainment and gaming. We just need to train the new players how to do it right.

    @jdh417: I think your perception of alignment is a little simplifying and overly-critical. Alignment is to help those of us who need a kick to the imagination before we can start roleplaying. It’s there to get us started. There’s a huge difference in playing Angel Eyes from the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (definitely Lawful Evil) and playing Javert from Les Miserables (Lawful Neutral). These differences, though, aren’t totally obvious to new or less imaginative players, nor are the motivations behind actions that are too often lumped into the category of “bad guy actions.” After all, what good is a villain (or a hero) without strong motivations, and a player that understands them?

  19. Alignment? In my experience, alignment was one of the weaker impulses toward roleplaying. Having played wargames for years before D&D even came our, what impressed me were the differences rather than similarities (even while acknowledging its roots as eplained by Gygax). And while I won’t claim my experience is universal, it was not alignment that impelled roleplaying for my group. There are three things in this regard that pushed/allowed roleplaying in D&D as opposed to wargames: one, in D&D, you control a single ‘unit,’ not a bunch of them – so mechanical depth in the game is about the details of your single entity. The detail and intimate control you have over that single entity encourages roleplay, not unlike a child will develop a detailed personality for a favorite stuffed animal; even adults with project a personality onto beloved cars; it’s a natural thing,and hat impulse is exploited in RPGs to the hilt.
    Another thing that impelled roleplaying in D&D is that, from the beginning, (and I played pretty much no D&D between the days of the original and 4e, playing a lot of other RPGs in the meantime), the words and actions of your character had a direct impact on the game, in addition to swinging a sword or slinging a spell. Succubi would seduce you and control your character; dragons took offense at threats to their young; various creatures could be persuaded to aid adventurers. There weren’t rules for this, but they were prominent in monster descriptions.
    The third thing that made D&D distinctive was how open it was. The only rule-defined ‘win’ was to keep playing, getting a more powerful character so you could play more. And while the original game was clearly aimed at dungeon crawling, it was wrapped in extensive prose about heroic fiction, fantasy worlds, and the like, which very much pointed toward the wide scope of RPGs today; and the best way to introduce that kind of flavor is through interaction between your character and the NPCs and setting; i.e., roleplaying.

    Which brings me back around to what I see as ‘the rub’ in the aricle above: there’s no definition of roleplaying. Not that I’m denigrating the article: it’s been the problem with all the good/bad roleplayer and good/bad-for-roleplaying game discussions since the beginning: Roleplaying covers an awful lot of territory, and means some very different things to different people. It’s one reason why GMing remains an art, and is so compelling for so many of us.

  20. Character of a sort would certainly come about from identification with an in-game alter-ego. No rules, much less vague issues of Alignment, need have been created. By virtue of Alignment being in the game, players are now impelled, by written rule, to play a character with a personality, an arbitrary one at that.

    Why?

    In other games that are more theatrically-driven, certainly. In D&D, there’s very little game mechanic to support it, but it’s still there. There’s no reason a player should have to play a personality if they don’t want to. Anyone who does, will do so naturally, without any rules.

    There’s no reason to use Alignment with NPC’s either. No where in the rules is the DM told to use funny accents, but they all do, to differentiate their characters and to amuse the players. If the DM is motivating his characters with a two word summary, then why bother picking a motivation at all.

  21. To try and reverse the slide towards an alignment debate…

    First, I want to say that this was an excellent article. You nailed several of the points I’ve got in my draft of a “What is roleplaying?” post (in a couple of places, better than I have).

    The one other myth that I want to address is that roleplaying is *not* social interaction. Talking to NPCs instead of killing them does not mean that you are roleplaying. Having a system that supports “social combat” does not mean that system supports roleplaying. Based on what you’ve said, I think you’d agree with me. But, I’ve seen too many statements elsewhere that make me think that this needs to be called out explicitly.

    I’m also going to agree with pedr above. There are mechanics that can *encourage* or *enable* roleplaying. While it is true that I can roleplay in Monopoly, that roleplay does not actually change how I interact with the game. At most, it encourages me to make sub-optimal choices. In games that have simple roleplay mechanics, such as flaws or WoD’s Virtue/Vice mechanics, you are induced to at least *think* about your character’s personality. And, if you play to the personality, the GM is encouraged to reward you. In games such as FATE or Cortex Plus or Risus, your character’s background, motivations, and connections can actually be used directly to fuel success in the adventure. You get directly rewarded for roleplaying and, in some cases, punished for playing against your stated persona.

    No game can force you to roleplay. No game can prevent you from roleplaying. But, some games can make it both easier and more rewarding to roleplay.

  22. While dressing up in costume is not a guarantee of a great role-player, I have noted that I barely see anyone at conventions dressed up at LFR tables. I used to see several players in costume at LG games. For Legend of the Five Rings, you get about 1-2 a table easily.

    In playing L5R or LG, players often traded in-character stories. They would talk about what their PC did in a particular adventure in the campaign. This has almost disappeared from LFR play.

    In LG, alignment would often come into play. You would hear a player say “I’m sorry, but my PC will not do that, I’m [insert alignment]”. In interactions with NPCs, it would often come up as well. In LFR, the average Lawful Good PC is just like the Unaligned PC and many players have no idea what alignment their PCs are. And, importantly, they aren’t better off for it RP-wise.

    While I don’t understand these factors well, my strong feeling is that subtle influences can be the strongest. The small incentives add up and really define what an RPG, campaign, gaming group, etc. will be like. If one person speaks in-character, the others are more likely to do so. If one player starts metagaming, the others might follow suit. If the rules lean one way, the players react.

    On the whole, I like your list. I completely agree with #3, because today’s games often revolve around stacking effects. The players most into the game (not just the most experienced) will generally have a feel for the mechanics and employ optimization. Role-playing usually requires experience and in particular experience playing with other good role-players. It would be an interesting theory to test: How many people out there are RPing their hearts out but are the only ones in their group doing so?

    With most of the other items, especially #4, I see a general truth but also see really strong incentives. The game with great story depth is likely to elicit reactions. The PC with a deep background is run by a player that cares about story and RP and is more ready to interact with the story – especially if the campaign is designed to do so. When the rules provide story and RP-hooks, the players look for and respond to that. In 4E, a paragon path or epic destiny gives you a tiny idea of what you might have done to gain the mechanical benefits. In L5R, your choice of Clan colors the entirety of your experience and creates really different interactions with the setting. The devotion of L5R players to their clan is reflected by a myriad of clan signature images and the use of family names on forums. You don’t see people wearing an East Rift hockey jersey at conventions!