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Role playing versus Roll playing

Entertainment, Games and gaming

This discussion comes up fairly often in my gaming group, many of whom read this blog. I’ve never really posted in our fora what I think role playing is or should be, so I thought I’d cast my thoughts in stone (or at least in the magical ether of the internet).

Role playing games take many forms. Our group plays Pathfinder, but there’s a multitude of others (Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, 007, GURPS, Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, Dark Conspiracy, yadda yadda). They all are based around the idea that there is a referee who creates an imaginary world of some sort, and players who play the role of characters in that world. I’m going to forego discussion on bedroom role playing, a game that many n-tuples like to play for gratification reasons. I am talking about organized gaming systems with a basic set of rules.

Now, because there are rules and mechanics to the game, it is quite possible to play the game mechanically. Each player’s character can be reduced to a sheet of paper with some numbers and statistics on it. Each outcome can be decided by the roll of dice. At the most basic level, this is how the game functions. It is the “roll play”. But knowing that a 5th level fighter with an 18 Strength adds +9 to his d20 roll to hit an orc is really only a small part of the game, just like knowing that 1+1=2 is a small part of understanding mathematics.

If the game was all about what the dice say, it would be a board game like Monopoly or MicroArmour. In those games, the game *IS* the mechanics. You move pieces around with immutable rules, with little or no creative or other input. In the case of Monopoly, the outcome is largely determined by chance. In the case of a miniature game like MicroArmour, the outcome is determined partially by chance and partially by the relative skill of the players in manipulating their pieces.

But there is more to a role playing game than just mechanics. It has always been my feeling that the game mechanics are a support structure – like the steel frame of a building. It allows the game to stand, and shapes how it looks at a low level… but like a building, the beauty is not in the underlying structure but in what you hang on that structure. That’s where imagination comes into play.

I have been told that you shouldn’t need to be an actor to play Dungeons and Dragons. I agree, partially. You don’t need to have the skill of a professional actor, that is certainly true. But you do need to have creativity, and the ability to PRETEND to be something you are not. If you have a certain level of dramatic skill, that would certainly be considered a bonus. However, some of the funniest and indeed most fun moments I’ve had in role playing games were the result of someone not exercising dramatic skill put putting their complete lack of acting skill into some creative thought and producing hilarity. It’s the acting out of the role play that really creates the fun in the game – not the rolling of dice. Rolling dice is most fun at the casino craps table.

I recommend everyone at this point click this link and read the definition of role. In a role-playing game, the task of the players is to undertake a role. To me that means two things:

  1. Each character must assume their part in the group, and fulfill that part in order that the group may succeed.
  2. Each player must, to some degree, act the part of their character, that is, play the role.

The first item can be largely mitigated by the referee who, as creator of the game world, has a higher understanding of what will and will not work in the world. The referee should guide players toward choosing appropriate roles for the game at hand. The second item is wholly the responsibility of the player. Role playing games are communal fun, so each player has a certain duty to make his character fun – not just to himself but for the enjoyment of all.

To do this, the player must understand more about the character than the sum of some ability scores and combat statistics. To take on the role of a cleric in a Dungeons and Dragons game, for example, it is not a matter of simply knowing that today I have to choose my spells, I have 8 hit points and +0 to hit on my d20 roll if the referee says there is a nasty standing near. The experience for everyone is better if the player thinks about the non-mechanical things such as:

  • What is the motivation of this cleric? Why is he here? What are his goals?
  • Is he good? Is he evil?
  • Does he have a tragic flaw?
  • Is he kind and benevolent, or harsh and demanding? Is he rebellious or straight-arrow?
  • What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses?
  • Why is he the way he is?
  • What about other things… sure he can dispense divine magic, but can he play the bongos?
  • How can those other personality aspects be used to advantage?

These are the sorts of questions that a professional actor will consider when taking on an acting role. The difference between a professional actor and a role-playing gamer is that the former must be good enough to stave off unemployment in that field, but the gamer might achieve his greatest success through his ineptitude!

One important factor in role playing games is that the referee has final say in how the game plays out. All mechanics are mutable by the referee. No rule is above the referee’s law. Playing such a game strictly by the mechanics, while simple, may hobble the player slightly (or a lot). Some people may think that is unfair, but consider it from the referee’s point of view: If you’re adding to my game by being creative and adding flavour, it behooves me to encourage that by cutting you slack; but if you want to play only by the mechanics, so be it, let the dice fall where they may. Note that I am not saying one has to be good at the acting, but only that one has to try, at least occasionally.

Nor should this be difficult. Except for people who grew up in a black hole, as little boys and girls, we all played pretend… cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, house, doctor, whatever. Those were role-playing games with the simplest of mechanics. Games like Dungeons and Dragons are no different – they just add dice to resolve some of the debates like whether or not your Indian really nailed that cowboy, or whether the robber escaped the cop, instead of having to argue about it (like we all did when we were kids). Now we can argue about the rules!

To summarize then, I think that role playing as far as role playing games go, is very much an opportunity for trying ones hand at a bit of acting. As a minimum, it’s an opportunity to step back into the world of pretend like you were a little kid again. That’s what makes it truly fun, and when you don’t do this, you really miss out.

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