Defining Your Game

August 14, 2011

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.

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21 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 […]

  21. Response Blog #2: Reading Reflection | patakygn on September 5, 2014 at 11:37 am

    […] with the four definitions for RPG that were required reading and can be found: here, here, here, and here.  I will synthesize these definitions to create a more encompassing, and I feel more […]

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