Defining Your Game

August 14, 2011

In Search of the Definition of Role-Playing

When You Touch the Dice, You Stop Role-Playing

So, let’s look at the idea that rolling dice precludes role-playing. Imagine this scene in a game:

The characters are standing at a roulette table in a casino. Its is extremely late and the casino is starting to close down for the night. The wheelman is calling for last bets before he shuts the table down and the table minimum is $20.

Player 1 is playing Risky McGambler, a lover of excitement and risks. He is careless and reckless because he always figures his lucky number is about to come up. He doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions; he is always waiting for life to drop something good in his lap. But lucky breaks don’t come often and he blames his rotten luck and an uncaring universe for everything that goes wrong. Risky has lost hundreds of dollars at the casino and is down to his last $20, which he needs for cab fare to get home.

Player 2 is playing Cautious Von Meticulous. Cautious is a very careful person who believes in planning ahead and avoiding risks. He lets a lot of opportunities pass him by because of his aversion to risk. He is desperately afraid that things might not go according to plan and he doesn’t cope well with the unexpected. He is also secretly jealous of Risky because things always seem to happen to Risky. Cautious feels his life is dull, routine, and safe. That’s why he likes spending time with Risky. Cautious brought $100 to the casino that he could safely lose. He considers it mad money, just to have fun with. He also brought along extra money for meals and other incidentals. He’s lost his $100 of mad money and is left with $20 in his pocket for the ride home.

The GM asks what the characters do and each player considers his character carefully. Player 1 puts down his $20 and Player 2 hems and haws for a long time before also deciding to play on the last spin. There is no doubt that the players are role-playing. In order to make those decisions, they had to consider their characters carefully. Player 1 knew Risky was the sort to assume he’s got to win now because he’s been losing all day. Player 2 decided that Cautious, standing beside Risky, decided to break out of his rut and take a chance, though he also knows Cautious is already craning his neck and looking around for an ATM and trying to remember his credit limit on his gold card in case he loses and needs money for a cab.

Now it is time to resolve the action. The GM picks up some dice and… damn it… it wasn’t really role-playing after all. Someone touched a die to resolve the situation, so that’s all over, isn’t it. Its too bad, too, because the outcome – any outcome – was going to be interesting. Even if they both lost, the conversation between Risky and Cautious when Risky tries to mooch money for a ride from Cautious would be interesting.

So, do you see how the idea that dice and random outcomes preclude role-playing is a load of gorgon crap? Role-playing is what happens before and after the resolution of actions. It is in the decision about what action to take and in the next decision about how to respond to the outcome.

Also note that the players didn’t have to do anything more than place a chip on a number. They didn’t have to talk to each other (though they could have) or provide descriptive flavor text (though they could have done that too). Imagine the scene, get into the character’s head, make a decision. That’s where role-playing happens.

How Strong is Your RP

It would be very easy to say that every decision a player makes in an RPG is role-player because all that is required is the act of visualizing, projecting, and deciding. But the truth is that some RP is stronger than other RP. Take this situation for example:

Risky and Cautious go shopping together. They both have to have the Amazing Widgetinator (as seen on TV), so they head to the mall to buy one each. In the mall, they find two stores side by side. Both are carrying the Amazing Widgetinator (as seen on TV), neither store is crowded, and they both have ample stock. One store is selling it for $60 and the other has it on sale for $30. The GM asks “what do you do?” The answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it?

This is very weak RP. Its almost non-existent. The players really don’t have to project themselves into the heads of their characters to make a decision. No understanding of the character is needed and the decision doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the character or the player. In short, its a decision that every character in that situation would probably make. It doesn’t matter whether a player is playing Risky or Cautious. The decision is the same and the reasons for the decision are the same: $30 is less than $60.

Contrast this with the situation above at the roulette wheel. Even though both characters made the same actual decision (play the game), the players had to think about their characters and the situation to reach that decision, and the characters arrived at their conclusions for very different reasons. And, because RPGs continue beyond one decision point, the next situation will build on the last, so even though they made the same choice in that situation, the outcome will mean different things.

Weak RP occurs whenever a player doesn’t have to project himself into the character’s head to make a decision. Generally, if the same player would make the same decision regardless of the character he is playing, the RP is weak. Usually, this occurs when a decision is based on reason and logic and has an optimal answer. Spending $30 instead of $60 is a very simple example. But the situation doesn’t need to be simple to be weak. Solving a complex riddle or puzzle is also weak in terms of RP because it comes down to reasoning ability, not personality and goals.

But let’s look at the other end of the spectrum: strong RP. In the roulette situation, Player 1 didn’t have to think too hard to figure out what Risky would do. It was pretty obvious and it required only a shallow understanding of Risky’s character. Player 2 needed to work a lot harder. On the one hand, Cautious didn’t want to lay the bet because that involved deviating from the plan and possibly stranding him at the casino (what if his credit card or ATM card doesn’t go through for some reason). On the other hand, Cautious has been depressed and trying to break out of his predictable rut. Jealous of Risky, he wanted to do something Risky would do, just for the thrill. Player 2 not only needed to understand both of these motives, but he also had to decide which was stronger. In this case, Cautious was conflicted and Player 2 had to resolve that conflict.

The strongest RP is driven by internal conflict. When a character is confronted by two things he wants (or two things he doesn’t want), his goals are in conflict and the player has to try and figure out how to resolve that conflict. That requires the player to really get inside the character’s head, not just to understand the character’s personality, but to go beyond the personality. That is, the player has to add something new to the personality and ultimately, gain a deeper understanding of the character. Of course, this makes sense because, in real life, we show our own personalities most strongly when we are conflicted over a decision and often we learn something about our own priorities.

There is a role-playing spectrum. The weakest RP occurs whenever a player doesn’t have to go into a character’s head to make a decision, usually because the decision is based on reason and logic and there is a correct answer to be found. The strongest RP occurs when a player has to resolve an internal conflict for the character, to decide between conflicting goals and motives and establish priorities that might not have been explored before.

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20 Responses to Defining Your Game

  1. Ensign Expendable on August 15, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Comparing 3.5 and 4e I can see a couple of big places where 4e can be ‘accused’ of being anti RP. Neither of which actually preclude RP from a group but definitely move the focus off of it from a mechanics point of view.

    1. Skills and to some extent feats. There is really a lot less control that players have in their skills compared to 3.5, and the skill list has been shortened. This may have been designed like this for good mechanical reasons but it limits the way that a player can customize their character to match their background and concept for the character. This doesn’t stop a player developing a strong character and playing the role of that character but it does indicate that this is less important in this game. The same could be said for feats. There are so many ‘must have’ feats that there is very little space for customization. When players are willing to give up combat advantage for interesting characters you can get a bit more variety however. So on the character sheet you really don’t get a lot of places to differentiate your character (ability scores are all high in 4e), well, apart from powers. But they are mostly for combat, the time of weak RP as you say. Which leads me on to…

    2. Long combats mean that a large chunk of the session is spent in what you characterize as weak RP by nature, and I would agree. This leaves less time for other areas of the game where the RP is more important. Now I realize that combats could also get long in 3.5 at higher levels, but they are long at low levels in 4e too, and low levels are the most fun for RP.

    This is actually quite a good thing for the closest we get to a mass market game in our little hobby as it allows people uncomfortable with some aspects of RP to play a large part of the game by pretending to be a character fighting (ie RP) and have a great time without having to talk about feelings. All the better if their character doesn’t like talking about feelings too.

    However it does lead to such quotes as the ‘We didn’t touch the dice this evening, it was RP heaven.’ Not because touching the dice mean that the RP is ruined as much as starting a combat is going to involve a fair chunk of time involved in weak RP, and it’s nice to have a break from that.

    I say again, neither of these preclude RP in your games. It’s just I get a feeling that these factors have added to the reputation of 4e as a Roll Playing Game rather than a Role Playing Game (but I first heard that joke aimed at 2e). It certainly doesn’t stop me providing interesting individuals as NPCs nor my players playing deep interesting characters.

  2. Camelot on August 15, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    I’ve been telling my group for some time that what people commonly refer to as “roleplaying” is actually acting. I used to be under that impression myself. Whenever someone would roll the dice and just tell me the result, I’d say, “But what does your character DO?” It’s not that I shouldn’t have done that; but I thought that I was encouraging roleplaying. You are absolutely right once again: roleplaying comes from meaningful decisions, not flavorful descriptions.

  3. Defining Your Game | Joel's Scattered Thoughts on August 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    [...] Defining Your Game | The Angry DM: D&D Advice with Attitude is a good post on what role-playing is and is not. RP means imagining a hypothetical situation, projecting yourself into the mind of your character, and deciding on a course of action. [...]

  4. [...] And can you define it for your non-gamer friends and family? If not, you might want to check out the Angry GM’s definition (at the bottom of the post). I think it sums things up [...]

  5. [...] Angry DM posted another article, this time attempting to define “role playing.”  He makes a thought-provoking distinction between “acting” and [...]

  6. Jack Palmer on August 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Wow. This is a long article…

    *reads aloud* You know what pisses me off… *falls asleep*

  7. The Angry DM on August 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Jack, thanks for that edifying and information comment.

  8. New Link: The Angry DM « The Evil GM on August 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    [...] Aug21 by Michael Lee I found out about The Angry DM because of this post, “Defining Your Game.” It’s worth the time. Share [...]

  9. The Brennon on August 30, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    So I pretty much only have one comment to make, and it’s mostly directed at some common themes that come up during discussions about the “lack of RP in 4E”, and that would be the idea that the skills list restricts the customization of your character. I just don’t see how this can be so, but I could be wrong so please feel free to point out a flaw in my logic or understanding of the mechanical effects of WotC’s decision to shorten the skill list. It seems to me that the only real difference between the skill list in 3.* and 4e is that the game designers have simply grouped similar skills into a general list. For example the grouping of all those fun thievish skills like move silent and hide in shadows, or pick locks and remove traps being grouped under the thievery heading. Mechanically you have the same process. Roll a D20, add a modifier and determine the result of your efforts. As a matter of fact, it would seem to me that a shorter, more generalized skill list would encourage RP as a player is now able to use his/her imagination to apply the few skills they have into a much more broader spectrum of situations. Again, as an example, it would be tough to justify using your wonderful Pick locks skill to jerry rig a trap to go off when the orcs whom are chasing the party opens the door that you have just slamed shut in an attempt to buy you some time to get away. The flip side of the coin is that I as a DM find it easier to allow my PC’s to justify unusual and interesting uses of their 4e skills set’s, especially when they are trying to do something not covered by the suggestions spelled out in the PHB. In my mind, this much more generalized skill set allows me and my players to become much more creative in how we apply the mechanics of 4e.

    This is of course just one very narrow example. But I think it does apply to most of the problems people seem to be bringing up about 4e. I think we as a community have been playing rules/mechanic heavy D&D for so long now, that many of us (myself included at times) have forgotten how to let ourselves be creative on the spot, especially when a creative player throws us a curve ball not covered by the mechanics as set forth in the rule books. I think we ( and by we, I mean the DM’s of 4 & 3E) have gotten very lazy in this regard. Let’s maybe stop looking at all of these small details that make up the whole of a game we collectively love as problems, and start looking at them as the tools we should use to cover the meat and potato’s of our games. Let’s also start being a little more creative and dip into some of that gravy!

  10. Ensign Expendable on August 31, 2011 at 12:09 am

    The Brennon, while not disagreeing with your comments (especially the last part) I’d like to clarify a couple of things that I feel does make a difference between the skills in 3 & 4.

    One is that the system of increasing the skills feels clunky in 4e and makes it feel less like you are building a character. It’s basically Trained/Not Trained and the option to add a specialty bonus plus ability bonus and half level. It’s not that this isn’t a perfectly good mechanic it just feels like the finer grained skill point system led to more exciting character customisation at level up time. It certainly doesn’t prevent RP (nothing in the rules does) so this isn’t a comment directly relevant to the blog post but, for me, it provides a little less flavour within the rules of the game.

    The second point is that with groups of skills all rolled in to one it leaves you less opportunity to add flavour to your character by leaving some skills low. I’ve always found that in RPG’s, as in music (or drawing or interior design, etc) what you leave out is almost more important than what you put in. I find a cunning thief who can pick any lock in the world but can’t pick pockets for squat to me far more interesting than one that has high thievery. Again the rules don’t stop a player from self imposing this on his character (I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I read that though).

    These are, of course, just some things that I find disappointing and they don’t stop me playing 4e and enjoying it. I focus on these nitpicks when I’m reading the internet, not when I’m writing and running adventures.

    Also, mmm, gravy.

  11. Ensign Expendable on August 31, 2011 at 12:29 am

    It’s just occurred to me re-reading my last comment that the binary Trained/Not Trained way of doing things in 4e is more akin to the non-weapon proficiencies of 2e. It’s just that instead of nobody taking ‘Fishing’, you simply can’t take it.

    D&D 4e: More ‘Old School’ than you think.

  12. The Brennon on September 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful response ensign… it feels good to finally start commenting on some of these blogs, and being a part of these discussions. I’ve spent many a year playing DnD but have only just started actively participating in the online community. I guess you could say that you guys sorta just took my blog comment cherry!

  13. The Roles We Play: Role-Playing | Rhinec on September 8, 2011 at 11:09 am

    [...] some, role-playing games are intimidating because of the role-play aspect.  The Angry DM did a fantastic job of addressing “What is Role-Playing” on his blog, so I’m going to steal his definition and start from [...]

  14. 4E Adjustments « Jack's Toolbox on June 14, 2012 at 9:24 am

    [...] lot of this is based off of comments made on Dissociated Mechanics, Defining Your Game, and the Dual Faces of Healing, probably some other sources and influences as well.  Right now I [...]

  15. [...] recently read a rather long post by The Angry DM discussing the question “what is Role Playing?”  Angry got a bit irritated by stock phrases like “role playing means different things [...]

  16. [...] of his actions (leading to a new situation and further decisions).  This is the heart of role-playing, and all the other bits (rules, dice, acting, etc) facilitate that [...]

  17. Good Ol' Hank on August 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    As a long-time role-player (expressive acting type that hates playing a printed statistics simulator), I appreciate this article because my character experience hinges on making other people know my character better than their own. I agree that people put too much emphasis on the dice getting in the way, I mean nobody complains that UFC isn’t fighting because they wear gloves, it’s just the rules. It’s important to point out that dice can cause trouble (tell the truth and roll a bluff check some time, best way to get a guard to think you’re actually there for maintenance), but that the GM is just as responsible for giving opportunities and choices as the players are for making them (I hate railroad campaigns).

    I have one small, but very pertinent, retort. Even the min-maxing munchkins that are unstoppably attracted to the now video-game-esque D&D system (not a bad thing) would consider themselves role-playing. And, in the end, I can learn just as much about them as grinding system optimization as they can from me about “Yes, it matters if your character would talk to first.” As long as there is more than one person role-playing, there will be more than one definition.

    Great article.

  18. [...] look at how shine a bright spotlight on on Step 2. Because Step 2, as I noted in another article (Defining Your Game), is really what puts the RP in RPG. It is actually pretty much the definition of role-playing. [...]

  19. Grunt's Ghosts on April 27, 2013 at 8:35 am

    I won’t say that 4E kills role playing but it does hinder it in combat. Unlike in 3.5 (which is the only other edition I played) where you really are given a basic attack, feat attacks, spells, and it pretty open to interruption, 4E’s combat system with its At-Wills, Encounters, and Dailies really make it feel like a paper and pencil video game. While you can RP your actions, most groups I’ve been in other than Play by Post games, get to the point of just saying “I use Cleave on that Goblin” and call it a day. It helps streamline the combat for new TTRPGer but I feel like it hurts them when they try out other RP-Heavy systems like nWoD or Eclipse Phase.

  20. […] develop when it is not obvious what will happen next. Or put as an even more extreme statement, when you touch your dice, you stop role-playing. You don’t have to agree with such a bold statement, but there’s still something to […]

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