On Role-Playing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 July 2013, 12:30 am
JB of B/X Blackrazor is writing a long series of posts on role-playing. There is an interesting definition ("The act of role-playing is the matching of the player's objectives to the objectives of the character.") and a maybe not-so-interesting-for-everybody long history on where exactly in which edition of which D&D book concepts of role-playing were discussed. His narrow definition of role-playing leads to the statement that "Computer RPGs for example are, for the most part, NOT role-playing games.". And, as it turns out, neither were the first versions of D&D: "D&D was designed as a wargame (not just like a wargame…the title says it all!) by wargamers for wargamers. It was certainly a different TYPE of wargame (small scale, fantasy in setting), but still very playable as such…and written to use a wargame’s resolution mechanics (specifically, CHAINMAIL).". His series is still a long way away from 4th edition D&D, if it ever gets there, but I'm pretty certain that by his definition that one is going to end up not being a role-playing game either.

I'd like to put forward the hypothesis that a definition of role-playing that ends up with the conclusion that some major classic and current role-playing games aren't role-playing games might simply be too narrow.

I think the key lies in the full expression "role-playing game". Without the "game" part JB's definition not only ends up excluding some versions of D&D, but also *includes* some forms of improvisational theatre which don't have anything to do with RPGs. D&D as well as games likes World of Warcraft are role-playing games not because players are trying to match their objectives to that of the character, but because the character's options are what determines what the player can do. It isn't the player's strength or knowledge of magic which determines what he can do, but his character's strength or knowledge of magic.

Computer "action RPGs" start to blur the line, because what your character can do suddenly depends a lot on the abilities of the player, like his reaction speed, and not so much any more on the abilities of the character. But that is a borderline case, and a game like Diablo is still recognizable a role-playing game, while let's say Pacman or Tetris aren't. There are also a lot of games where it is mostly the abilities of the player that count, but where "role-playing elements" have been added in the form of your avatar getting stronger through rewards he achieves during play. But when it comes to tabletop games, any pen & paper game where you play a character with a character sheet and you roll dice is certainly a role-playing game.

I do believe that a group of people playing D&D or another pen & paper role-playing game are engaged in role-playing even if they say "we don't explore character, we explore dungeons". A dungeon-crawl isn't the only thing a RPG can be, but it certainly one of the options. There is nothing wrong with role-playing a rather one-dimensional character who only wants to bash monsters and loot treasure. Trying to make decisions as "Grimbart the dwarven warrior" would have done, or talking in funny voices, is purely optional.

And frankly, in my experience, trying to roleplay by JB's definition fails more often than not. Players are never able to completely switch off their player knowledge and only act upon their character knowledge. They will react to being bitten by a lycanthrope, even if it was the first time this particular character encountered one, and he doesn't have the background that would explain how he could know about lycanthropy. They will react to real-world visual clues like the DM erecting a DM screen and pulling out dice (and a clever DM can use that to mislead them). A game in which everybody only ever acts perfectly in character is a narrow sub-type of role-playing games, and not the only possible "true role-playing".
Tobold's Blog



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