What is Role-playing?

The Fine Art of the TPK asks
A short question, but by no means easy…

Instead, I have a question. An open call, if you will. Can somebody PLEASE define role-playing? Somebody will be a wise-ass and link the wiki stub, so I’ll just get it out of the way.


Specifically, I’d like to know how or why one game would have it in any more or less abundance than any other. You folks are incredibly bright, but you bicker over minor details WAAAAAAAAY too much.

Role-playing is playing a role. It is the player getting to make in-character decisions, and making those decisions for the character as if the character’s motivations, personality, goals, and such make a difference, so the character is being driven by their inner mental life. For instance, in role-playing, you try to maintain a distinction between what the player knows and what the character knows. (That’s not completely dispositive, since some hard-core wargames with fog-of-war rules also try to impose that distinction–though most of the time they will try to conceal certain knowledge from the player, such as by having chits upside-down until revealed, rather than asking the player to simply act as if he didn’t know what was there.)

It can be done from various stances, such as trying to imagine what it might be like to be that character, or by trying to construct a story so that the character seems psychologically plausible the way characters in good (or even not-so-good) fiction are.  The goal is to make it so that explanations of the character’s actions refer to the character’s role, and involve things like knowledge, beliefs, and desires, and to avoid making it so that the actions can only be explained by referring to things outside the role such as the actions of certain rules (“My character hates to see animals abused and goes berserk, so I held my action until the evil guy kicked the puppy because I wanted to trigger his Rage ability for the upcoming fight”)  or meta-game situations (“Carla has to leave in 20 minutes, so I attack the guy with the flag of truce.  We might as well get one combat in this session”).  Even worse is when rules or meta-game considerations prompt actions that are contrary to the role:  “My saintly pacifist attacks, because we might as well get one combat in this session.”

From this point of view, it’s obvious that some games are better or worse for role-playing. Despite the fact that you are assigned identities in Clue, it’s not a role-playing game. It doesn’t matter for game-play whether you’re Colonel Mustard or Miss Scarlet, and you would be considered strange or playing a prank if you insisted on trying to play it as if Colonel Mustard and the other characters had a distinct personality and approach. “Col. M wouldn’t think that Miss Scarlet was capable of the murder, because he’s a chauvinist, and a rope is not a woman’s weapon.” Even if the other players humored you and let you play that way (or you concealed the reasons for your decisions), the game doesn’t support role-playing and you’d be at a distinct disadvantage compared to playing it as intended, where the piece is just a token to push around the board.

Games that are intended as role-playing games can have features that aid or hinder players in making in-character decisions. In some cases, they might even make it impossible to make in-character decisions for certain situations; if those situations come up frequently in the game, the game is objectively worse for role-playing than the same game without those features.  For instance, games with lots of coercive personality mechanics can be hell on role-playing.  Even though they’re often built so that you can make a narrative that sounds as if it’s talking about mental state, the actual facts are it’s a narrative about game state that’s out of the player’s hands.  The character did what he did because the rules and dice said he had to, not because the player played it that way.  “I say my character is brave, the stats on his character sheet say he should be brave, but every combat we’ve had so far the unlucky die rolls say that he’s run away.”  Or, in My Life With Master, you’re not making character decisions, you’re rolling to see what the character decides and narrating around that.  The game rules reach in and flip the character’s mental state, and the player carries it out.

Games can also make it difficult to role-play by putting too much knowledge or narrative power in the player’s hands.  Just as it can be a lot to ask of a war-gamer that he move his units as if he couldn’t plainly see that cavalry screened by the woods, ready to charge his flank, it can be a lot to ask of a role-player to separate what the character would want to have happen from what would make the most sense in the game world, or what would make the most interesting story in retrospect.

Games can also fall down by making the player have to care about things that the character cannot in principle know.  I’ve gone on at length before about how 4e’s Skill Challenge system falls into this category, so I won’t repeat it here.

Are there things that games can do to actually enhance role-playing, and make it easier?  Sure.  The very fact that games can be separated into role-playing games and non-roleplaying games shows that there are.  The major thing is to make it as much as possible so that character reasoning and game-rule reasoning are congruent, and that the game is responsive to logical actions of the characters. The biggest thing that RPGs can do to emphasize the RP part is get out of the way.  Every time you tell the players that even though it would make sense for the characters to try X, they can’t because there’s no rule for it, you kill role-playing a little.  Every time you invoke a rule that changes the state of the game world in a way the characters can see and react to, but you can’t actually explain what it was that they saw happen (Own the Battlefield, I’m looking at you!) you kill role-playing a little.  If it’s not possible to eliminate some arbitrary construct in the rules, it can often at least be made real in the game-world so that the characters can think about it.  E.g. if there are things in the game that depend on level, such as spells that won’t effect people of certain level, or have a duration based on level, it can be a big help to role-playing to have level be something that the characters can know and talk about.  Russell does this in his Hero Cults D&D setting, where levels are actual ranks in a quasi-religious hierarchy.  The rules should emphasize giving information at the character level, and explicable in terms of things the characters understand, and game-play should emphasize overriding the rules whenever they give a result that forces the players out of playing the role and just into accepting that’s how things are because the rules say so.

5 thoughts on “What is Role-playing?

  1. What do you think of personality mechanics that encourage certain behaviour, but prohibit none? For example, greedy character gets a foo token by taking something she better leave alone. Foo tokens are beneficial in some way.

    What about ones that grant modifiers to certain actions; cowards have harder time when acting in battle but get a bonus for running the hell out of there, say.

    What about the previous when combined with dynamic behaviour: Greedy character get rewarded as above (or coward hindered), but if the greedy one ever voluntarily gives away something of great value, the greedy trait is lost and replaced with something else or left empty for the player to later fill. Or, the coward throws himself at the opposition regardless of odds, hence losing the “coward”-trait or changing it something more relevant.

    (Actually, buy-off and negative traits would not work well. Still consider the other options.)

  2. Actually, I probably should have included personality mechanics that reward RP in the list of things a game can do to be RP-friendly. A purist might object that it makes it hard for her to figure out what the character really wants vs. the player wanting that token, but in general I think it helps. If it’s not an outright bribe to get folks to RP, it at least reduces the dilemma that players sometimes face between what the character wants and what the player wants when what the character wants is self-destructive or corrosive to party loyalty.

    It can be a problem if the game is designed so that you have to play a certain personality trait in order to succeed e.g. you get a token whenever you manage to work in some stereotype about your character, and the game mechanic for combat or task resolution is about spending those tokens. That rewards really 2-dimensional cardboard characters…which is probably why that sort of mechanic seems to crop up in games that are about broad caricatures of certain genres.

  3. @gleichman – you could be right. They don’t bother me much, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for RP. I’ll have to think about that some more, and perhaps disentangle it in my mind from other forms of the GM rewarding RP such as by extra XP or just additional spotlight time…

  4. Personally, I like foo tokens if and only if they are minor enough that collecting and fussing over them is not necessary. They can be used to give weight to something, for example, much as other rules always do.

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