On the Confusion of Role

There are some old saws in the gaming community that break down when you take a closer look at them.

What is "Roll Playing versus Role Playing?"

It is a term used derisively against those who are focused on the mechanical aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, or less frequently gaming.

This is non-trivial for at least two bizarre reasons that spring to mind.

First, the current, yet canceled, line of Dungeons and Dragons is explicitly focused on character skill and mathematical representations of combat.

Second, it commits the common error of mistaking "role-play" to mean 'taking on the personality of a fictional character (1)' with 'making a choice as if you were in the situation (2)' i.e. taking the role of a war game unit which was the original meaning used by Gygax and company.

The second definition is occasionally used in gaming, but the lack of mechanical interface puts it in the realm of thespianism, outside the purview of a game. You can after all, act like a robber baron while playing monopoly but it does not mechanically interface with play any more then deciding that your character is gregarious.

(1) To assume the attitudes, actions, and discourse of (another), especially in a make-believe situation in an effort to understand a differing point of view or social interaction: Management trainees were given a chance to role-play labor negotiators.
(2) To experiment with or experience (a situation or viewpoint) by playing a role

From the comments it appears that I have completely failed to communicate my point successfully.


Imagine you are playing a wargame. Instead of deciding what each and every squad of units is doing on the battlefield, you decide what a single figure does - i.e. you take the role of the figure. You make decisions for that figure instead of for the entire force.

I would say it is explicitly NOT "interacting with the scenario from the point of view of the character, using his/her knowledge, inclinations, and priorities over your own." If you examine the record, you will find reference to "Bill's third level fighter." Clearly the character was Bill's avatar for playing the game, that is to say "taking the role" of a single unit.

You experiment with the situation by 'taking a role'. It is you making the choice. The character is simply your piece for interacting with the game.


My issue (and part of the thrust of this post) is that non-mechanical rigamarole around play is just that - not that it isn't fun to screw around during play and talk like the characters. It's just not part of the game proper. "The role-play aspect" is exactly the part of pretending to be a king in chess or a banker in monopoly -- separate and not integrated into the game itself. This is a tautological statement being that there are no mechanical factors or systems that represent "the role-play aspect". (Note that the obvious example, alignment, is about spiritual mechanical interface with the game and not representative of personality)

As an aside: People play that way for 40 years, because the game is about a personal challenge to the player. They continue to play because the game continues to be challenging.



22 comments:

  1. I believe that there can be a balance of both role-playing and roll-playing. All things in moderation, eh? If you have a bit of both during a session, things can be great!

    ReplyDelete
  2. During my stint on RPG.net, I saw a sig line that has stuck with me: "If your roles aren't influencing your rolls, and vice versa, you're doing it wrong."

    Also, a big +1 to your point that role-playing is not about talking in a funny voice. Nor is it all the social aspects of the game. Role-playing is about interacting with the scenario from the point of view of the character, using his/her knowledge, inclinations, and priorities over your own.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I don't understand the difference between definitions 1 and 2. Personality affects a lot the decision we took. So, if you have to fulfill 2, you need to fulfill 1 in first place.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have to admit that I haven’t yet quite understood the difference that Gary was trying to make in that book between “role-playing” and “role-assumption”.

    Is the distinction here between making the decision I would make in the fictional situation versus making the decision I think the character would make?

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Mandramas, Type one is focused on the character and how the character would make the decisions. Type two is focused on the player, and how the player would act in that situation. I've seen this in many (but not all) "player skill" based games. One character dies and the replacement character acts just the same. Still, I've know people who have played this way for 40 years and are perfectly happy with it.

    Also, this post implies the fallacy that a set of rules can downplay the roleplay aspect. In my experience, the roleplay aspect is what the group brings to it, and a good group will play well no matter what the rules are.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I believe that I have completely failed to communicate my intent.

    Imagine you are playing a wargame. Instead of deciding what each and every squad of units is doing on the battlefield, you decide what a single figure does - i.e. you take the role of the figure. You make decisions for that figure instead of for the entire force.

    I would say it is explicitly NOT "interacting with the scenario from the point of view of the character, using his/her knowledge, inclinations, and priorities over your own." If you examine the record, you will find reference to "Bill's third level fighter." Clearly the character was Bill's avatar for playing the game, that is to say "taking the role" of a single unit.

    You experiment with the situation by 'taking a role'. It is you making the choice. The character is simply your piece for interacting with the game.

    Philo has the right of it. My issue (and part of the thrust of this post) is that non-mechanical rigamarole around play is just that - not that it isn't fun to screw around during play and talk like the characters. It's just not part of the game proper. "The role-play aspect" is exactly the part of pretending to be a king in chess or a banker in monopoly -- separate and not integrated into the game itself. This is a tautological statement being that there are no mechanical factors or systems that represent "the role-play aspect".

    As an aside: People play that way for 40 years, because the game is about a personal challenge to the player. They continue to play because the game continues to be challenging.


    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm not so sure if alignment isn't really just "about spiritual mechanical interface with the game and not representative of personality". In fact, "personality of the character" is explicitly mentioned in the AD&D DMG chapter governing alignment, if I'm not mistaken. Have to look that up...

    ReplyDelete
  8. Yeah... except this totally ignores the direction that even the creators of D&D took the game in, and removes the aspects of the game that make it more attractive than, and different from, a traditional board game.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am uncertain what you mean by 'creators'. Gygax was forced out long before the game took that direction.

      Also, the aspects that make it more attractive than a boardgame are "Player Agency" and "Infinite Play", neither of which is removed from role-play in the sense as the character being an avatar for you making decisions.

      Delete
    2. The AD&D Players Handbook was written by Gary Gygax. It includes, among many other things, descriptions of expected in-game behavior required by paladins. This is EXPLICITLY "interacting with the scenario from the point of view of the character, using his/her knowledge, inclinations, and priorities over your own." And it was written by arguably the primary creator of D&D.

      Delete
    3. In addition, sidestepping the problem of Alignment by asserting, but not providing any evidence of your assertion, a "spiritual mechanical interface" with the game is... well, I would call it dishonest. If alignment is a spiritual mechanical interface, then why are other "interfaces" that result in making decisions from the perspective of the character LESS valid.

      It seems to me like you are working very hard at presenting a particular style of play as somehow more valid than others by picking and choosing your evidence. The whole argument smacks of "You're doing it wrong-ism".

      Delete
    4. Yes. In exchange for limitations on what your avatar can do, you are granted powers.

      I don't see how stipulating "If you make this or these choices, you lose access to your powers" is doing anything from the 'point of view of the character, using character knowledge etc.'.

      Explicitly, it is your priorities (access to dispel magic, etc.) that cause you (i.e. You, the player) to limit your available actions or choices.

      Re: Mechanical interface of alignment.

      I did not provide any evidence because, well, the evidence is blatant in the ruleset. Pick your alignment. These swords work this way for you. This spells affect you this way. It is a literal toggle for these effects.

      How not pointing this out is dishonest I'm unclear. I found it tautological.

      I am unfamiliar with any mechanical interfaces that cause one to make decisions from the "perspective/point of view, using his knowledge etc." of the character rather then the player.

      Delete
    5. So your argument is that Gygax wrote up all the information on alignment so that if theoretically at any point the character found a vanishingly rare Holy Avenger, you will know how it works?

      If that is the case, then why are there behavior guidelines for the character built into the alignment rules? And why do you have to make the decision when you create the character?

      Furthermore, your example of "Bill's 3rd-level fighter" is once again picking a very specific example and ignoring many other examples of characters with detailed names, personalities and histories. Mordenkainen, for instance. Or Robilar.

      In fact, almost every character sheet I have ever seen has a field called "Character Name". If characters are intended to be faceless avatars of the player, why do they have names?

      As far as being "tautological" - no. You are making assertions, which you must provide evidence for if you expect to convince people of your point. Simply saying that something is self-evident does not actually comprise evidence.

      I have presented my arguments and evidence to support them.

      Delete
    6. I am making no claims as to the motivations of Gygax.

      What I am claiming, is that the single mechanical penalty applied to a disregard for alignment is not an injunction to play the game from a 'point of view of the character, using character knowledge etc.' It simply defines how you interact with several subsystems within the game.

      Now, I believe that this was done to address certain logical behaviors that were a detriment to fun play (killing other characters, in-party stealing, etc.) In this regard they seem highly successful due to the mechanical penalties applied for the player making a self-interested choice against alignment.

      I think Gygax was an insurance adjuster, and the symmetry of the 9 alignments appealed to him on a aesthetic basis.

      I make no claims that people don't act like a tycoon in monopoly, nor that they name and personalize their characters. I only claim that there is no mechanical interface within the rules for such things and therefore are not an actual part of the gameplay.

      I agree about making the assertions. It did seem obvious to me.

      My assertion is that there is no behavioral injunction contained within the alignment rules of the old style, nor of the 1st edition style. In fact the rules contain the opposite stating:
      "Naturally, there are all variations and shades of tendencies within each alignment. The descriptions are generalizations only."

      Alignment does in fact dictate: 1) Alignment Language, 2) Turning Behavior, 3) Certain Magic Item interactions 4) Deity interactions.

      Gygax states that "It is of utmost importance to keep rigid control of alignment behavior with respect to such characters as serve deities who will accept only certain alignments, those who are paladins, those with evil familiars and so on. Part of the role they have accepted requires a set behavior mode, and its benefits are balanced by this. Therefore, failure to demand strict adherence to alignment behavior is to allow a game abuse."

      He does mention several conflicting things ('religious beliefs may dictate alignment' 'two nations with rulers of lawful good alignment can be at war' and even '[it] aids players in the definition and role approach of their respective game personae') However since these are defined in the text as 'subjective' and contain literally no actual game interface or rules regarding this role approach, combined with the common original definition of the word role, I see no evidence here supporting any assertion of making decisions such as 'point of view of the character, using character knowledge etc.' being part of the rules of play.

      Delete
    7. "I make no claims that people don't act like a tycoon in monopoly, nor that they name and personalize their characters. I only claim that there is no mechanical interface within the rules for such things and therefore are not an actual part of the gameplay."

      I see your point here but wish to make another one to see if you can see something in what you've said that I can see. The actual 'part of the gameplay' that you refer to above is emergent based upon the experience of the players while playing the game. Therefore the rules are essentially comparable to 'in theory' and as games are simulations this would bear out from a second perspective also. Note that Gygax himself states that the rules are guidelines (i.e. the play is the thing) although he retracts from this somewhat with AD&D and its attempts to codify how the game should be played more strictly. So to summarise, anything not in the rules but brought to the table by the players constitutes the real 'gameplay', the real experience: the rules are merely the start point.

      Delete
    8. As for alignment, it's just a quick and easy way to see who is allied with who and what their overall philosophical goals are and/or ethical creed that they generally adhere to. As you mention, it's used as a way to stop players from destroying the game world with their powers. The rest of it stems from there really. Any player can approach the game from a purely mechanical point of view and make zero sum tradeoffs, but equally, any player can approach the game from a philosophical, religious, mythological or wishfulfilment point of view and make decisions based upon this also. Or all of the above. For example, if you want to play Lancelot... you have a LOT to live up to, there may have been no nobler knight in the world ever, and the rules for Paladins reflect this. But to know this, you have to know about Lancelot /as was written/.

      Delete
  9. I've enjoyed many of your observations on gaming- your posts on player agency, perception rules and magic item crafting are quite profound. I love reading many of the posts that make it to my G+ stream, as they usually make me challenge long-held assumptions on gaming I didn't realize I should be examining. However, posts like this remind me that we are playing fundamentally different games. (Make no mistake, I still find wisdom found in diversity to be just as valuable.)

    Taking all of the "non-mechanical rigamarole" and actually making it part of the core challenge has, over the years, become one of the most compelling reasons for me to play.

    More on-topic, when do you think the game started to lean more in this direction, and if the term "role playing" is being misconstrued, what terms would you coin to emphasize the distinction?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. @jeffery turner To answer your question: dragonlance

      I have a question for you, how do you make speaking in character and other thespian Non-mechanical rigmarole part of the core challenge while maintaining agency?

      Delete
    2. Usually not so much speaking in character as thinking in character. I try to introduce situations which work with or against stated character motivations and backstory, and allow more latitude with player declarations that relate to them (i.e. consequences that would be more relevant to the player's interests than would normally be expected).

      For example, if a player writes in their fighter's backstory that they abandoned an apprenticeship as a smith to go adventuring for fame, then in addition to the usual dungeons or wandering monsters, add in things like opportunities for very public contests of skill, or challenge them with someone trying to slander their reputation. A wizard who peppers his dialogue with references to ficticious alcohols might get to identify an obscure and suspiciously out-of-place brew, adding a new avenue of information that may not have existed had the player not added that dimension to their character. Essentially, offer them challenges and complications that relate to non-mechanical things they brought to the game. If they make an assertion related to the character's backstory or non-mechanical knowledges, play off of it in more depth or with greater detail than one merely made out of expedient, blase utility- match thespian enthusiasm with thespian enthusiasm and build it into the rewards, both in-game and out of game.

      In addressing player agency, none of these things are especially railroaded, unavoidable, or hard-coded in how they can be resolved. Challenges don't mysteriously become harder for someone who won't speak in-character or write a backstory, they are just choosing not to engage in one vector of the game. While there are consequences for choosing to limit their participation, it is similar to missing out on treasure when one chooses not to pursue a quest (or "generate" a quest, in this instance). The actions they do take still count and have effects in the game world.

      If anything, I see it as relating to the kind of engagement you place in your skill deconstruction articles, particularly perception.

      Delete
  10. I think one issue might be of emphasis. Play, to me, takes many forms. A board game is something you play, but you can play with your friends at the table while playing the board game. Both activities may contribute to a sense of enjoyment.

    Just as some players revel in the mechanics of games, others revel in the social mechanics of the table. Everyone is playing. There is no wrong way to play.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is much truth to this. The mechanical foundations of the game are there to be spring boarded off. The more experienced players and the naturally more creative types grasp this concept and run to the ends of the (fantasy) earth with it. Its part of the magic fairy dust that lifts roleplaying games far and beyond any other form of gaming there is.

      Delete
  11. "It's just not part of the game proper." This may have applied to the way some of the earliest games went. This still applies at certain tables. But this is very much a minority view in the hobby as a whole. Most of the people that I have played with and talked with like to explore their characters and prefer to play that way. It may not be part of the rules, but it's integral to the way that most people play.

    I've played your style of game. It was fun for a while, but it got old for me. I've moved on to different styles that I enjoy more. Yes, I've had characters bash down a door that he suspected was trapped because that's what the character would do. Because I play with GM's that understand this playstyle this was hurtful but not deadly. I paid a cost for this, but I had a lot of fun.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...