Thursday, July 23, 2020

"What is Role-Playing?" A Different Approach

I wanted to offer a perspective on the idea of what role-playing is that goes against the Zeitgeist in the TTRPG community. In fact, it goes against the grain of a lot of the dialogue around role-playing games since the late 80s at least.

There is an idea that "Role-playing" means play-acting. It means speaking in character, offering elaborate backstories, maybe making up voices. And, for the Dungeon Master, it means creating complex and narrative heavy stories.

This is a conflation... or, rather, it is a narrow picture of a very broad concept.

Dragon Issue #133 was the
first one I purchased as a kid.

A Shift in Gaming Culture

I was just really becoming aware of a larger D&D community as this shift was taking place. (There is another article in the works here about learning RPGs in relative isolation and a in urban vs. rural environments that is relevant. ) A lot of it can be laid at the feet of Tracy Hickman, who wrote extensively about in-character play, immersion, and reducing metagaming. Certainly, it is a major focus of his (generally awesome) book XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery 

It was also a common editorial topic during the time period when I was a regular Dragon reader in the Kim Mohan / Roger E. Moore days. I wish I could remember which issue featured an editorial entitled "That's 'Role-Playing', not 'Roll-Playing'!" as it seemed to be a definitive point for the evolution of this idea. Certainly,  it formed the language of a false dichotomy we still use today.

In its original form, the argument began like this: "many players become fixated on the rules; they treat the game as a tactical puzzle. They often make decisions for their characters based on dice and numbers. These players tend to focus on combat, and often don't participate in the in character  acting and dramatic parts of the play that build Story. They are so interested in rolling the dice, they don't act out their role. This ruins a lot of the fun for DMs and players who want an immersive story."

A line is drawn with this argument that players focused on the mechanical game with its statistics and dice (thus the term "roll-play") are doing so at the expense of the narrative part of the game ("role-play"). And there is an implication that those players are doing so to the detriment of the players who want the dense, dramatic, narrative play.

Slander and Calumny

As this idea took off, we saw a general contempt for players who are focused on tactical / mechanical play emerge. The terms "twink" and "munchkin" emerged as pejoratives for such players and the idea of min-maxing took on a decidedly negative connotation. Generalizations were made about players with a mechanical focus:
  • "Super Munchkin" Card
    Copyright (C) Steve Jackson Games
    They got bored with the dramatic ("role-playing") parts of the game, and sabotaged them.
  • They were prone to "rules lawyering", wasting time arguing with the DM, often only when it was to their advantage.
  • They were often hide-bound in "vanilla" rules and settings, and would resist homebrewing and customization.
  • That they were domineering over other players regarding tactical play: barking orders and making demands regarding things like other players' spell choices.
  • They would make psychopathic choices for their characters to gain mechanical advantages, such as gutting monsters for treasure, murdering henchmen for xp, or killing NPCs for their possessions.

This is a laundry list of some of the absolute worst behaviours that a mechanically-focused can engage in... if they are being as asshole. But that's the key: this is asshole behaviour, not the behaviour of a good player who prefers the mechanical aspects of the game, and plays with a desire to see that everyone at the table has fun. 

The Cover of BADD
It is the logical fallacy of association, where the worst behaviours of some members of the group are used to tar the image of every member of the group. In other words, letting the one bad apple spoil the proverbial bunch.

I am always surprised that this was allowed to fly during the era of the Satanic Panic. After all, gamers were being tarred with some very broad, often unfair, and often ridiculous brushes. I remember a document being circulated in the bible study groups in my community about reasons why good Christian boys didn't play D&D that claimed "Hitler played D&D!" Aside from boggling at the amazing time travel tech the Nazis must have had to make that possible (How did we win?!), I wondered what difference it would have possibly made if he could have played and enjoyed it? How did we, as a community, not see the parallels?

A different play preference enables different bad behaviour. Why not argue that "role-players:"
  • Constantly act in ways that hurts the party because it is "what their character would do."
  • Bring edge-lord lone-wolf characters to the table that are a drag on the players at dangerous moments like combat.
  • Waste entire sessions of other players' time shopping, interacting with unimportant PCs, and agonizing over minor decisions.
  • Constantly hog the spotlight and the DMs decisions.
  • Make character decisions that weaken the party and put the campaign in jeopardy of Total Party Kills.
  • Make silly, absurd character designs just to enable long, silly "side" scenes to get laughs.

This is just as charitable, fair, and true. Most players who prefer dramatic play do none of these things. But the Assholes who prefer the role-playing aspect of the game, do.

But as is usually the case in the public sphere, bad ideas repeated loudly enough become seen as true and entire decades of wrong-headed analysis often proceed. You see it in every "How do I get my players to role-play?" D&D advice column ever written.

Privileging Dramatic Play 

One of the most staggering things about this line of thought is that it assumes a priori that the dramatical side of the hobby ought to be privileged, and that the players who just want to roll some dice are ruining the fun. Why? What makes their fun less important.  Why should we be offended by their choice not to affect a funny voice or speak in character? What gives us that right? Should they not have equal right to be offended by players who waste the mechanics-oriented player's precious free time with their stage-hogging character backstory reveals?

But here's the even bigger categorical error being made: we see the dramatic side of play as the one exclusively worthy of the title "Role-playing." And fail to spot that the ones who like a good tactical combat are role-playing, too.

What Are the Roles That We Are Playing? 

Let's steal Hitler's time machine for a minute and look back at where these games came from to get some perspective. (Don't look at his collection of 7th edition manuals! Spoilers!)

Barons of Braunstein (retroclone)
By James & Robyn George
In 1969 David Wesley created a free-form table-top wargame called Braunstein. Braunstein introduced elements of the game Diplomacy into a more formally structured wargame. It also incorporated the referee concepts from Stratego. Instead of large forces, players were given single characters - often non-combatants - and victory conditions as simple as "Get out of the war zone alive," or as complex as "plant false intelligence in this location." Often in secret. Like in Strategos, the referee could use the game's conflict resolution mechanic with improvised modifications on the fly, to handle any action the character might try. Brownstone and eventually Dungeons and Dragons evolved from this concept.

Braunstein assigned players a character and a motivation to characters. Each had a "role" to play in a scenario with an uncertain outcome. The outcome of the scenario was determined by how well you chose your actions in accordance with your secret victory condition and the emerging events around your character.

This is the heart of role-playing. Getting into a character's head: imaging yourself in the position of a specific player in a scenario, and deciding, based on their goals, resources,  and abilities what the best course of action would be. This becomes the central question of gameplay:

If I were in my character's position, with their resources, and shared their goals, what would I do next?

The presence of a referee allows relative freedom to explore different options. There is no action you can imagine that is not permitted simply because it is not covered in the game's rules.

The notes on the character sheet, the genre and setting of play, and the background story are all tools to give us a higher-resolution picture of what that role is: what are our needs and motivations? What are our resources and abilities?

Any decision made by that criterion is role-playing. 

"Roll-Playing" is Role-Playing 

So, let's have a look at Dungeons and Dragons as our exemplar of a role-playing game. What is our role?
  • We are playing an adventurer in a pulp Sword and Sorcery or Science Fantasy story is the obvious answer. But there is more to it: 
  • We are playing a character who goes to dangerous places to retrieve treasure or protect a community. 
  • Once there, their first priority is to come back out alive
  • They are a part of a band of fellow adventurers that they trust at least enough to work together as a unit to go into danger together. 
  • They have some special skills that they add to the group that supplement the skills of their fellows.
  • They trust the others to use their skills to the fullest to help keep the group alive, while doing the same themselves.
(This is, of course, "vanilla" D&D. There are variations.)

Image by Lustoza from Pixabay 

When a player makes choices to follow genre tropes, then, they are playing that role. Whenever they make decisions or take actions to make sure they survive their encounters with the traps and tricks of the dungeons, they are fulfilling that role. When they are making choices that build up their character's capabilities with their specific skills (even if it is min./maxing), they are playing that role.

It would be foolish to enter into a dangerous place without a firm grip of tactics, a cool assessment of your abilities, and a knack for feeling out the danger of the situation. In fact this is part of training for any military or law enforcement officer. In game, we represent danger through mechanics, so the only way to have a keen grasp on the danger of a situation is to think in those terms.

Focus on Mechanics is a way to be good good at your role.

Immersion and Drama Facilitate Role-Playing...

...And that is why we reward them.

In the days before the debate on "roll-playing" vs."role-playing" there was an understanding that immersion was a core goal of the game. The more detail, the more description, and the more drama a DM and Players could bring to a table, the more enjoyable the game would be, the better you could imagine yourself the PC, and the better your could thus play the role.

One of the best ways to see this was in how XP was rewarded in early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. XP is a reward for playing your role. If you've done a good job, meeting the goals of the character, you get points that represent growth and development in the talents that they used to attain that goal. That is why, for example, we gave XP for getting treasure out of the dungeon. Getting treasure and getting out alive is a core element of your role.

Speaking in character, adding quirks and details, etc., were understood to be a great contribution to the table. They helped others become immersed, and showed that you were doing a good job, and accordingly there was a codified reward in XP. 

In BD&D it was a flat reward of 1/25th of your next level. In AD&D1e, it was abstract, but small rewards were sugested for exceptional play, and that players ought to be encouraged to immerse themselves in the game. In AD&D2e it was far more codified*, with Thieves gaining XP for using skills, Magic-Users gaining XP for solving problems with spells, Fighters for slaying monsters, Paladins for challenging villains to honourable combat, etc., as well as suggesting XP rewards for clever solutions and fine role-playing. How to handle rewards for good role-playing was enhanced a bit in the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacombs Guide.

(*The XP system for AD&D2e was possibly the single place where it added useful innovations to the gameplay over AD&D1e, other than the Wild Magic in the 2e Tome of Magic.)

It was recognized as fine play to be encouraged, just as defeating monsters and recovering treasure were: and equal form of playing your role to actually getting things done in the mechanical nitty-gritty of the game.

I hold that this was a smart part of the older editions of D&D's design for a major reason: not everyone is an actor.

The Erasure of Introverted Players

I am a voice-over actor. I make my money by reading books on Audible, creating guided meditations, and being the voice in the odd commercial.  I have done numerous plays, and been the host of a television show. I value drama and I take pride in my acting skill. But I also know that it is not what makes me a good D&D player.

And I also know that it takes a hell of a lot of comfort - and guts - to get up on any stage, however small, and give a performance. More people are afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. It is not reasonable to expect everyone to be as comfortable on stage or in front of a camera as I am.

I am also an ambivert. I need both a fairly heavy dose of (meaningful) interpersonal contact and solitude to be emotionally balanced. I can see both the joy and catharsis that extroverts gain from their dramatic role-play... and the absolute terror that the expectation of performance can inspire in introverts.

What makes a good Dungeons and Dragons player is their willingness to contribute to the game both in-character, and at the table. Attention, active participation, support for the other players, and pitching in to make the game happen are what makes for good D&D players. A good D&D player contributes.

Often the rules-oriented player makes amazing contributions to their gaming group. They are often attentive, spend time thinking about their move, help other players with suggestions, and play their role in a way that makes sure the party comes out on top even in extremely difficult encounters. Often, their contributions happen so subtly, and their turns happen so swiftly (because they know what their characters need to do to ahead of time) that it can be invisible.

To dismiss their "roll-playing" as bad playing erases their contributions to the game. To only consider dramatic performance as the rubric for good gaming dooms the Introverted player to being a second-class player. And it shows a level of ingratitude to the players at your table that I find appalling.

The Rectification of Names

I suggest we drop the entire "role-play" versus "roll-play" dichotomy for the falsehood it is. We are better off understanding that role-playing is done in many different ways: some by engaging with the game's narrative using mechanics, and some by engaging with the game's narrative using drama.

Role-playing games offer a spectrum of both mechanical complexity and narrative richness to suit a range of different play-styles to suit the tastes of different players, and should best be judged by how well they meet the needs of their preferred audience while still allowing for the enjoyment of other players at the table who might not fully meet the creator's dream player.

Once we acknowledge that every choice made, so long as it is made in a way that suits the situation, and objective of the character, whether it is a beautifully-delivered monologue, selecting the ideal new spell, in-character speech, or flawlessly planning an ambush. Each is validly "role-play" and ought to be treated as such.

Modern enticements to act, such as Dungeons and Dragons 5e's inspiration mechanic ought to be understood to favour and encourage one style of role-play, not to encourage "role-playing" as if choosing the right feat wasn't.

When we make sure to keep this broader understanding of the game, we can approach players who prefer to keep out of the spotlight but who create a mean battle plan with the respect and gratitude they deserve when they come to the table.


  1. The whole "One True Way"ism of Role-playing vs Roll-playing is frustrating at best, and toxic and exclusionary at worst.

    When I started an OSR open table it took some of them a while to adjust to playing with new people with different styles. While some of the players were in the middle, or largely quiet about, two 'factions' emerged.

    "They aren't taking it seriously - they never talk in character! All they want to do is hit things and get loot. They aren't roleplaying, they may as well play a board game!" one side complained to me in private.

    The other group unknowingly did the same, "These guys just talk all the time, I thought we were meant to be heroes fighting the monsters of Stonehell, seeking great treasure and escaping with our lives. They aren't roleplaying, they may as well do improv acting!"

    It took a few sessions, but both sides came around naturally.

    The 'role-players' talked a bit less, and started to enjoy the killing monsters and taking loot 'roll-playing'. It was new and exciting for them, a side of the game they had never really explored.

    The 'roll-players' started talking a bit more, joining in on trying to convince the kobolds to let the group pass freely. It was new and exciting for them, a side of the game they had never really explored.

    The moral of the story is - there's more than one way to play the game. Neither choice excludes the other and there are many shades of grey between the two extremes.

  2. Well said!

    I too was very much guilty of this when I was a teenager. We kinda looked down on min-maxers and made fun of them amongst ourselves, even though virtually all of us secretly enjoyed finding powerful combos and such. It's funny how, for a brief time, I went in the complete opposite direction, before finding my balance.