Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Flaw in Role-Playing

I have lately been thinking that there is a case to be made against "role-playing" ~ in which players take the role of an imaginary character who engages in adventures ~ which I am not seeing elsewhere.  I am seeing the very notion itself as a sort of fraud ... in which an idea, not very well explained or examined, is sold to a group of would-be believers, ready to pay out for something they haven't actually received.

In my usual way, I'm taking this opportunity to write out some thoughts on the matter, as a method for concretely thinking through the problem.  After a time, pursuing thoughts in one's own head, without making notes, is a fruitless operation.  After a time, it requires an act of communication with others to force one to clarify one's thinking.  That is the purpose of this post.

To begin with, looking closely, I'm not very happy with the definition of "role-playing" as it is described for the purpose of gaming.  Let's look at the definition as it appears on Wikipedia:
"... a game in which players assume the role of characters in a fictional setting.  Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development."

The WOTC was somewhat disappointing.  I found this on their D&D support page:

The best definition I could find on their website was this (after twenty minutes of searching):
"The first Dungeons & Dragons game was played back when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson chose to personalize the massive battles of their fantasy wargames with the exploits of individual heroes."

Justin Alexander of The Alexandrian, a blog that's been around longer than me, defines it as:
"Roleplaying games are self-evidently about playing a role. Playing a role is about making choices as if you were the character. Therefore, in order for a game to be a roleplaying game (and not just a game where you happen to play a role), the mechanics of the game have to be about making and resolving choices as if you were the character. If the mechanics of the game require you to make choices which aren’t associated to the choices made by the character, then the mechanics of the game aren’t about roleplaying and it’s not a roleplaying game."

And the International Journal of Role-playing points out that, after expressing doubts about the latest attempts at defining role-playing (circa 2009),
"There are no final definitions for role-playing games, only definitions suited better or worse to a certain historical understanding of role-playing games. However, this does not mean that role-playing games should not be defined, as the definitions given can advance our understanding of what role-playing games are and could be. This paper takes part in the ongoing process of definition."

I warn the reader at this point that the paper above spends most of its time trying to produce a universal definition of role-playing games ... which, like most academic papers that quibble, sours for me on that issue.

Finally, we come to the definition that the above paper from Finland discusses, the definition by Michael Hitchens and Anders Drachen, which can be found on the same article.  It is quite long; but what the hell, we're not paying for ink here.  Let's have all of it.
"Game World: A role-playing game is a game set in an imaginary world. Players are free to choose how to explore the game world, in terms of the path through the world they take, and may revisit areas previously explored. The amount of the game world potentially available for exploration is typically large.
"Participants: The participants in the games are divided between players, who control individual characters, and games masters (who may be represented in software for digital examples) who control the remainder of the game world beyond the player characters. Players affect the evolution of the game world through the action of their characters.
"Characters: The characters controlled by the players may be defined in quantitative and/or qualitative terms and are defined individuals in the game world, not identified only as roles or functions. These characters can potentially develop, for example in terms skills, abilities or personality, the form of this development is at least partially under player control and the game is capable of reacting to the changes.
"Game Master: At least one, but not all, of the participants has control over the game world beyond a single character. A term commonly used for this function is 'game master,' although many others exist. The balance of power between players and game masters, and the assignment of these roles, can vary, even within the playing of a single game session. Part of the game master function is typically to adjudicate on the rules of the game, although these rules need not be quantitative in any way or rely on any form of random resolution.
"Interaction: Players have [a] wide range of configurative options for interacting with the game world through their characters, usually including at least combat, dialogue and object interaction. While the range of options is wide, many are handled in a very abstract fashion. The mode of engagement between player and game can shift relatively freely between configurative and interperative.
"Narrative: Role-playing games portray some sequence of events within the game world, which gives the game a narrative element. However, given the configurative nature of the players’ involvement, these elements cannot be termed narrative according to traditional narrative theory."

Excellent.  That is nice and meaty.  I grant it does not define a great many role-playing games, of a kind, but it does better for D&D than anything I've seen.  It gives a sound, roundish definition for role-playing games as a body

It does not, however, make a good case for "role-playing," per se.  Where it comes down to the principles of "playing a character," we have the same familiar designations:

  • Players can have a personality.
  • Players can participate in a dialogue.  

I can see that I'm going to get in deep water from here, so I'll ask the reader if they really want to keep reading past this point.  I'll give this warning: if you view "role-playing" within the game with strong sense of nostalgia, personal subjectivity and visceral prejudice, you're not going to understand what comes next ... because you will have missed the point that this post is a deconstruction on what the game allows, not a judgement on how you, as an individual, feel about the game or the sense you have of role-playing in it.  Whatever your personal gut-level instinct about the intuitive thrill you get from pretending to be whomever, most of that is coming from the cathartic soup that is the human construct that defines who and what you are.  All of that is not coming from the game; it is not transferable to any other human; and it is not relevant to this discussion.

All right.  I'm going to take a moment to explain that the substantive quality that makes a "character" is that it has a set of mental and moral qualities distinctive to that construct.  We can call this a personality.  Exploration, skills, definable traits like how much we can lift, how fast we can run, how much we know about beekeeping, what sequence of events have recently revolved around us and so on ARE NOT elements of our personality.  My personality, your personality, any personality will view exactly similar events, will possess exactly similar skills, see exactly similar places and react to such things in a wholly unique and individual manner.

Therefore, it must be understood that when we say, "we are role-playing a character," we do not mean someone with a high strength or a breast plate made of bronze or possessing red hair; we do not mean a fighter, a cleric or a thief; we do not mean someone with dead parents or a lot of money or seven reasons to kill the man who killed our father.  These things are outside our mental and moral qualities.  These things are what we have, how we look, what circumstances have occurred and what plans we make.

The moral quality of a character is NOT defined by the desire to seek revenge.  It is defined by why this particular character, and not a different character, would seek revenge for something that many other characters would happily leave as a problem for the authorities, the gods or pure chance to resolve.  Why in particular is your character built in such a way that your character sees the only possible reaction to murder as the compulsion to commit more murder?  Until you look into the character, and see the motivation ~ which is not, as many believe, the death of the father ~ then you are not, as yet, playing a personality.

And it is here, I think, that the role-playing game offers absolutely no contribution whatsoever.  Once it is established that the role-played character is going to kill the killer of the father, everything else that follows is a mechanical operation that can as easily be performed by a robot, with little or no evidence to the contrary.  The player must find the killer, the player must trap the killer and the player must kill the killer ... all of which is problem-solving and none of which is in any way captured as the "mental quality distinctive to the individual."  Another character, with a purportedly different personality, would have to solve the puzzles of finding, trapping and killing the target in pretty much the same way.  We are fooling ourselves if we think we are "creating a personality" by defining what the character wants or does.  Such things are superficial materialism, and nothing else.

Therefore, the "role" that is being played is very definitely not a matter of reproducing a personality.  None of us are remotely capable of understanding any personality except our own, except in the superficial observation of others, whose thoughts we don't possess.  Therefore, if we are killing the killer of our fictional father, at the very best we are playing a part in which we are acting as we think we would, if our real selves lived in such a place, was possessed of such a father, had such and such abilities, had the nerve to carry forward with finding and trapping the enemy, with the understanding that killing is definitely our intention afterwards.

Unless you are the sort of person whom NO ONE wants at their game table, this isn't even a realistic portrayal of your own personality.  At some point, in order to commit yourself to the deed, you will have to obtain a greater and greater perspective on your character, before the murdering even comes close to happening, so that you can view your actions as one would view the superficial appearance of another person whom we learned to be capable of such a thing.  So again, the role we are playing here is the role of a robot.

And that is the definition of role-playing we find when we don't attach "game" to the search:
"The unconscious acting out of a particular role in accordance with the perceived expectations of society."

Role-playing is a delusion.  It is a chance for the participants to speak in funny voices, to ham up a performance, to present a thoroughly sketchy, slapdash, artificial representation, more or less as well as we might expect a sophisticated robot to present, without any real interest in subjectively examining the fundamental reasons why our character became a fighter, how being a fighter fails to meet our expectations, how neurotic we are about our ability to fight, how guilt-ridden we feel once we've acted in accordance with our abilities or how possessed we are by the general sense of inadequacy, doubt, a need for denial in the face of horror or any of the other uncomfortable, unspoken of things that we are careful not to speak of in mixed company.

Once that is grasped ~ and I expect very, very few to reach that awareness ~ then we can see that all attribution to "role-playing" as a superior functionality in role-playing games, versus "roll-playing," as is often cried, is nothing more than a superficial desire to enact a superficial narrative in a superficially controlled manner, in such a way that no element remotely emblematic of game-play can circumvent our intentions.

Which is atrocious.


  1. Truly thought envoking and very in depth Alexis. I enjoyed the breakdown and analysis very much and will definitely continue to think about it for days to come.

  2. I used to get tired of this. In my 35 years of game-mastering, I have witnessed regularly, character after character, that the fundamental play of my players does not change. I used to hope that now that a player is playing a very different character class, that I will see something new. That doesn't really happen outside of cosmetics. Maybe my expectation came from seeing actors in movies playing dramatically different roles, movie to movie. But acting is very different from role-playing, in the games I play anyway.
    I have come to respect my players more as friends, and not part of my personal social engineering to have a perfect group of players. More than that, it is not about my unrealistic ideals of perfection.

  3. "None of us are remotely capable of understanding any personality except our own, except in the superficial observation of others, whose thoughts we don't possess."

    And if psychoanalysis is to be believed we are not even remotely capable of understanding our "own" personalities either. Not, 'naturally, in any case. What we think we understand about ourselves is just an elaborate narrative, constructed for all the wrong reasons, to shield us from uncomfortable facts about ourselves and our place in the world. Cheerful stuff. I do like the idea that we are a mystery to ourselves, though. It gives an even larger reason to be introspective and to doubt oneself. If not for 'the cure' of whatever ails us, at least for the discovery of how incredibly rich, delightful and painful our interior lives really are.

    This is a very interesting post, Alexis. I fully agree with your understanding of 'role-playing' in RPGs as an excuse to play out some silly fantasy, speak in silly voices and so forth. That being said, I'm not sure that this is a bad thing, in itself.

    It is a bit like the question about literature in a mass cultural landscape. Should we celebrate that millions of people start reading because of the Harry Potter books? Or should we lament that people only read crap books, rather than the far better examples that literature, both classic and contemporary, provide in abundance? Is Harry Potter a gateway to further engagement with the written word, or is it corporate garbage that will irreversibly stunt a younger generation's capacity to appreciate other -- some would say higher -- forms of literature?

    Should we be happy that some people use silly voices and write backgrounds that reflect a paper-thin understanding of personality, because we hope that they might, through continued engagement, slowly learn to imagine more interesting characters?

    I'm really asking, I have no answers to these questions. Intuitively I'd say that it is probably better for a kid to try out role-playing -- in gaming or in her school's theater club -- than not, in the absolute. But that's just my usual wishy-washy indecisive self speaking.

  4. Following the previous post, I read this in Stephen Fry's voice. Absolutely delightful.

  5. My chief purpose in writing this, Matthias, is to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

  6. Whenever it comes up in conversation I call out acting event vs role-playing game. I get push back from the others that it makes for a better game and I don't see how. Waxing on using a silly voice about your inner turmoil does nothing to move the game along.

    More so, I've gotten two newbies into D&D by explicitly telling them that they do not have to talk in a silly voice or speak in 1st person as their character. I get more from them summarizing what they're trying to say, how they're trying to say it, and what they hope to accomplish from it. Like virtually every other action in the game.

    That said, I did tell them I would most likely slip in and out of speaking in 1st person as NPC's purely because I occasionally know the words/tone I want them to use and it has a better impact. But it's pretty sparring.

    Interestingly enough, by doing this, the newbies who were worried about being made to 'act' while playing are actually getting into the game and occasionally speaking as their character regardless of how I present it.

    Basically I wanted to say, this blog has helped me reexamine what I want out of my game and really think of how to get there.

    So, thank you for all your work.

  7. If we can describe personality traits and imagine possible consequences of them, would there be any benefit to assigning new characters "personalities" and creating rules that give these actual gameplay effects, either by modifying existing systems or adding new ones? Would players feel they are being deprived of agency by having certain gameplay options curtailed, or at least made more difficult, by the personality they've been dealt? I'm thinking in particular of the Conflict system you've been talking about reviving.

  8. I would think the risk of obstructing player agency would make that sort of thing highly undesirable. I ran a game with a new player who got a background result of, "attracted to members of the same sex." She was visibly uncomfortable with the idea that I was asking her to play this game and that would be required to play her character a certain way. I bring this up as an extreme example but I think it demonstrates the sort of thinking that has to be overcome if you were to run a game with this option.

  9. I would strongly agree with Oz. I'm no longer interested in enabling role playing - I think we should relegate it to the status it deserves. Relevant, but supportive - not the main point.

  10. Thank you for the definition. Once again it cleared things for me, although I don't have much use for it now - my players are not of the "role-playing" variety. And I'm glad they aren't ...

  11. This all strikes me as so obvious and settled that I'm always surprised it still comes up. It's NEVER gone well, in 30-some odd years of my gaming experience, when a player begins with "But my character would do this..." when justifying some stupid, selfish or counter-productive action they have taken or want to take. Any valuable or memorable "role-playing" has always emerged naturally and, as you say, in support of or service to the main thing, which is playing a GAME.


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