In Search of the Definition of Role-Playing
What’s a System to Do?
So, we’ve defined RP and laid out a spectrum. The question is what a game system can do for RP. Can a game system do anything? Can a system encourage strong RP? Discourage it? Must it remain neutral? The answer, which is probably obvious by this point, is that a system can do a lot.
We’ve defined RP as the act of visualizing, projecting, and deciding and defined strong RP as resolving internal conflicts. Let’s look at each part of those.
Visualizing: Anything a system does to help the players imagine the situation and think about it as a real – or at least possible – situation is an aid to role-play. A game system that provides a strong, consistent setting makes the world and the situation easier to imagine. Logical, consistent rules that allow the players to understand how things in the world work are also included, so that players can figure out the likely outcomes of their character’s actions. Visual aids like pictures, maps, miniatures help in many situations because, again, they help the players assess the situation. I know these things are traditionally viewed as creativity killers, but, once again, RP is not necessarily about creativity. Creative can be a useful skill to aid RP, but they are two different things.
Its important to note that some of these things can be a double-edged sword. In general, a token with the word “innkeeper” written on it is better than a nice, painted miniature of an orc that the DM says is actually a halfling innkeeper. If your game aids require a lot translation, they actually do more harm than good.
Its also important to note that I am not talking about maps, visuals, and tokens or miniatures just for combat. If the party is negotiating in an alley with no chance of a fight, a good map and some tokens or miniatures can be a big help in visualizing. This is especially true because each of the participants needs to get most of the details the same. Every time a player has to revise an imagined scene to include a detail someone else brought into it suddenly, that requires and adjustment and tugs the player out of the RP for a moment.
Projecting: Anything a system does to help the players understand their characters and how their characters relate to and interact with the world is an aid to RP. Strong, easily identifiable character archetypes and canonical details are a definite aid to RP. But even something as simple as a blank on the character sheet for personality traits, motives, or goals is an aid to RP. In addition, anything the game system does that allows a character’s personality traits to have an impact on their actions is a big help. Bonuses and penalties derived from particular personality traits or edges and advantages that key off of personality traits are a definite aid. If nothing else, they create incentives to use the character’s personality as a guide to making decisions. They also remind players of the character’s personalities.
Once again, it should be noted that creativity and RP are different things. Some of these things can be seen to actually constrain freedom and creativity, and that is true, but that doesn’t change the fact that they help the player understand the character and make decisions based on the character’s personality rather than their own. And, it is also true that some people have a much easier time understanding characters they, themselves have created. So we can say that, although strong archetypes and canon are an aid to role-play, so is freedom to create. This is much more subjective. But some players have a great deal of difficulty creating strong characters from whole cloth and need story threads to help them get into it.
And I should also point out that there is nothing about pregenerated characters or randomly generated characters that precludes role-playing. It is just as possible to role-play a character you did not make yourself as it is to role-play one you did. You may prefer one way or the other, or find one way easier than the other, but that is personal taste and does not speak to how role-playing works or what it is.
Deciding: Assuming that the player is visualizing and projecting, deciding will follow naturally. The best thing a game system can do to encourage RP in terms of the decision is to provide incentives for making good RP decisions. This goes back to creating mechanical incentives for following the character’s personality. Beyond that, the system can help slide RP toward the strong end of the spectrum by ensuring that decisions have consequences – good and bad – to help set up conflicts. If each decision has an opportunity cost (that is, a character has to give up something to make a choice), the likelihood of strong RP increases. Again, logical and consistent rules that allow players to assess the probably outcomes of their decisions help here. Finally, freedom of decision is very important.
Now, these are just general ways in which a system might encourage RP. And obviously, a system can discourage RP by impeding any of these. Wild, difficult to imagine settings and arbitrary and nonsensical rules make it difficult for players to visualize the world and assess their decisions. Mechanical bonuses or penalties that lead to optimal decisions and metagaming definitely get in the way. Constraints on decisions that don’t follow logically from the visualized world definitely get in the way. That is to say, its okay that the characters can’t walk through walls. But saying they can’t walk across a field just because the game doesn’t want them to gets in the way.