Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Role-playing Inevitable

UPDATE:  This post has been updated and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

I'd like to make a point about roleplaying, if I could, in answer to arguments that "rollplaying" destroys the development of characterization.

It's nonsense, of course.  Human beings are hardwired to construct or fabricate personalities into everything from the stuffed animals they bonded with as infants to the cars and houses they live with and in as adults.  Anything familiar tends, in our thoughts, to develop a personality - even non-sentient objects that seem to turn on us, like hammers or fireplaces.  If the small peg will not quite fit into the small hole, but seems almost to fit, we will describe the peg as a "goddamn bloody stubborn sucker" and insist that it somehow help us in getting it into the hole.  This is natural.  We can't help ourselves.

So to argue that "rollplaying" will somehow strip the long-time character in a game of any personality, or suck dry the characterization of said imaginary fighter or thief, is perfectly ridiculous.  No matter who the player is - no matter how little interest that player appears to have for his or her character, or for roleplaying in general - there will yet remain an intensifying involvement with the character once that character has survived battle after battle.  This is true even if the only activity a particular campaign carries forth is battle.

For anyone who has played campaign wargames, where even a particular "lucky" tank or horse cavalry unit develops spontaneous personality traits for both the owner and the opponent, this should be obvious.  Have you ever rolled dice to destroy a single counter in RISK that just won't die, only to have several people at the table claim that counter to be made of elite green berets, imposing into that cheap plastic form the personalities of staunch, indefeatable SOLDIERS?  Of course you have.  Why?  Because it is astoundingly easy to invest most everything with human characteristics.  We are sentimental that way, and the longer we are acquainted with something, the more sentimental we are.

That is why the players of Chainmail began roleplaying their characters even when NO RULES for roleplaying had even been conceived.  The rules followed the original human inclination - and as such, those same rules do not drive the inclination.  Roleplaying drives rules, not the other way around - and if there were no rules for roleplaying at all, roleplaying would still exist.

This is something that all the creators of games designed to create roleplaying seem to completely ignore.  People roleplay at the level of comfort which suits them personally.  Some people name their cars, and some do not - and yet their cars retain "personality."  Some children only give a name to their stuffed animals and nothing more.  Some children design whole histories and geneologies to describe where Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla came from and ultimately how he's related to Rafaella Gabriela Sarsparilla - they're not just brother and sister, they're half-brother and sister, with their bunny mother having married both the tiger and the teddy bear.  No one has to teach little children to think this way ... and they will do so to the degree with which they love it, a great deal or very little.

No matter how you huff and puff, no matter what games you invent or tables you ascribe towards the manufacture of roleplay, at best you'll get those who were inclined to sketch out the Sarsparilla family tree without your help; and if those people happen play a game where there are no roleplaying rules provided, they'll do it just the same, because they don't need your damn rules.

You're building cardboard houses for people with real homes, then claiming you've built the homes, too.  You've done a good job deluding yourselves - but in fact, the RPG world doesn't need you.


  1. I agree entirely. I am willing to continue to say however, that some systems emphasize different types, or accommodate for role playing in their system. Whether it is necessary or not is always another matter. Furthermore, I would be willing to state that the setting can be just as easily 'role played' for instance the environment in which the soldiers in risk play. You could imagine it is modern day, colonial period, or some kind of strange viking warfare. What is the sociopolitical environment you play monopoly in? Some systems have more or less rigid worlds, the more abstract, the easier to bend. Hell you could play Risk in your DnD setting and not much would change I bet.

  2. I think there is an element of truth in what you're saying here, but it's a question of degree. While it's true that Life Finds a Way, no matter how barren the soil is, there are some terrains which are just more fertile than others. You're absolutely right when you say that some people will bring their own role playing to any game, regardless of the mechanics. But isn't it great when you sit down to a game whose mechanics encourage the people that DON'T ordinarily do such a thing to do so?

  3. Perhaps, purestrain.

    My experience has been that so-called mechanics merely slap a label on it, and everyone at the table by mutual consent calls it roleplaying. If I put a label on my suitcase that says "Rome," am I a world traveller, or am I a poser? And if I am playing a game, and I repeat that my father was murdered and that I'm an artist or that I live for revenge, is that "roleplaying," or merely posing.

    In short, have I roleplayed the character by speaking words I don't FEEL?

  4. I believe participating in those kinds of creative endeavors such as role playing is a matter of context. People who don't normally role play, will do so when the context indicates they should.

    Of coarse, I know many people who sit down to play ANY system of pen and paper gaming and take absolutely NO effort to describe their actions, display their feelings or any other telltale signs of role playing. They sit down and just do the numbers, I move this far, I roll these dice and I take this much damage.

    People who don't, wont. People who do, probably will gravitate towards this game.

  5. That's a great point. I think that, for the most part, everybody starts off as a poser. I'm sure there are people who can slip into the role of a character right off the bat, but most start off, using your example, just seeing the Risk piece as a piece of plastic. It's only after the player has sheperded their character through different scenarios that the "form" of the character begins to emerge. Do rules help this? Maybe, maybe not. I do believe that there are rule systems that can be detrimental, though. Does the character generation process encourage the player to think through their background, or is the focus on statistics? One of my favorite things about the oWoD was the "flavor" text accompanied each level of attribute/skill/knowledge/whatever. So with 1 point in strength you were a newborn baby, but with 5 points you were Charles Atlas. 1 point in the Library skill and you were familiar with the concept of the library, with 5 you had memorized the card catalogue. Your character was still a bunch of numbers on a page, but those numbers had context, grounded in concepts that you the player could understand, so as those points were filled in, it became easier and easier to see who your character was, as opposed to what he could do.

    This is a great topic, one which I (obviously) enjoy discussing a great deal.

  6. "Roleplaying drives rules, not the other way around - and if there were no rules for roleplaying at all, roleplaying would still exist."

    That's spot-on, in my experience.

    I think the example of GDW's En Garde! is instructive. Originally En Garde! was simply a man-to-man skirmish game with dueling mechanics, but as the players played the game, they began imbuing them with personalities and coming up with reasons why they were fighting one another. Pretty soon they started adding rules for status, carousing, serving in a regiment, maintaining a mistress, and so forth. The new rules reflected the sort of thing that roleplaying brought out of the original game.

  7. Agreed. When I suggested D&D is not a Role-Playing Game, I meant that it neither had nor needed rules specifically to encourage role-playing. XP awards for bad histrionics? No thanks.

  8. The term 'role-playing' is contested in gaming.

    I think it means a kind of gaming where, "My man does this because he's that kind of guy," makes sense. As Alexis describes, this will grow up in just about any environment, including Risk, soft toy adventures, and D&D.

    However, I've often read rules descriptions or associated text showing that role-playing (for the designer) means acting, or behaving in character. Without naming names, this is common in games which task the referee with laying out the script.

    There is an overlap, but the latter view is not just an elaboration of the former. There are players who are skilled actors but lack any consistent view of their character's identity. The character's mannerisms might be consistent, but their values are whatever is most convenient to the plot. On the other side, there are socially-awkward players who consistently portray a person without ever being "in character".

    A player can be blocked from role-playing (my sense) by all sorts of things. The referee's style and the influence of other players are generally the most important. After that, I would venture that the amount of text on the character sheet at the start of play is the next biggest barrier.

    That should be obvious enough with great piles of statistics, but it's also true of lengthy character backgrounds and concepts. Recall the old trope, "What I made, what the GM saw, what I played." Pre-established background is one part solo RPG, one part byzantine communication of preferences for plot development. When the time comes to begin play, all of this text has very little to do with the new game.

    (Something of that insight belongs to John Wick, from his writing in Houses of the Blooded or one of its expansions.)

  9. This isn't in answer to your point, Derrick, but I think it needs saying.

    There's a lot of ways that a character's background can be played in a sandbox.

    For example, if I say that a character's father was a miner, and the character knows how to shore a tunnel, that doesn't mean the character likes mining. The player may decide that character despises tunnelling, has sworn never to go in a tunnel again, and deliberately refuses to get his hands dirty.

    "Background" is merely a description of the player's knowledge, shortcomings, talents or social position. It need not define the player's personality.


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