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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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