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Defining Your Game

August 14, 2011

In Search of the Definition of Role-Playing

You know what pisses me off? I know what you’re thinking: everything. And yes, that’s true. But it was a rhetorical question as a lead in to a point. So just go ahead and say “I don’t know, Angry DM, what pisses you off?” And then I can say “people who say ‘I had a great D&D session last night; no one touched a die. We just role-played the whole time.'” Why? Because it proves those people don’t know what the hell role-playing is, despite the fact that they claim to love it. We can also add the phrase “role-playing scene” and anyone who insists that “role-playing means different things to different people” to the list of phrases that grind my gears.

That last phrase drives me particularly batty. Lots of words mean different things to different people, but that’s usually because those different people don’t actually know what a given word means. Or they don’t like the definition so they just made up their own. The problem is that the compound word “role-playing” is actually a word. Its a thing. Dave and Gary didn’t invent it. They just incorporated it into their war game like mixing peanut butter and chocolate.

A problem arises when everyone has their own definition for a word. It makes conversation impossible. Especially when its one of those words that everyone is convinced doesn’t have a fixed definition. Look, if I ask you to put my shirt in the washing machine with your laundry, that should be pretty straightforward. But if I am using shirt to mean “shirt” and you are using shirt to mean “domesticated feline,” we are going to end up with a very angry domesticated feline and a lot of cuts of scratches. Also, my shirt will still be dirty.

So, we have all these conversations going on about whether D&D 4E allows role-playing, doesn’t have any role-playing, makes role-playing impossible, or whether it even counts as a role-playing game; but they are all useless because we’re all talking about different things. And role-playing has become a bit like pornography: we don’t actually try to define it but we assume we know it when we see it. If you are using role-playing as a synonym for “creativity” or “free-form unscripted acting” or “the talky-talky parts of the game,” you can’t talk to someone else who ascribes it some other meaning.

And in the middle of it all, here I am, the poor little ole Angry DM. I desperately want to talk about role-playing in 4E and offer some ideas about how DMs can bring more of it into the game. And how they can work within the system or modify it to bring even more RP into the game. But I’ve got to deal with all of this other crap instead, about how “role-playing is whatever you want” and “the system has nothing to say about role-playing” and “a group can bring as much role-playing into the game as they want.”

A sickeningly friendly, cheerful fellow blogger, Jenny, recently wrote an article about how her players aren’t really embracing the role-playing aspects of D&D 4E and putting forth the theory that the system is getting in the way. You can check her article out at and follow her on Twitter. She’s @VanityGames.

Now, I’m not writing a direct response or counter-argument to Jenny’s article. I’m trying to lay some groundwork so that I can start to discuss how to design adventures, encounters, and skill challenges with a stronger focus on RP. But, in laying that groundwork, I’m going to be buzzing around her points enough that its worth taking a few detours to try and answer a few of her questions.

So, let’s do it. Let’s talk about role-playing. Let’s try to define it, solidly, and figure out where it happens in role-playing games and, specifically, in 4E. Now, you might not like what I have to say. You might want to disagree. You might want to hold on to your own, personal definition of role-playing. And that’s just fine. I’m an American, so I support your right to proudly cling to being wrong like a dog proudly rolling in its own mess. But if you want to have that debate with me, just be warned that my responses will be neither polite nor information.

Defining Role-Playing

Role-playing means to play a role. Done.

Okay, maybe that’s not so useful. Let’s try this again.

We can go check the dictionary definition, but its actually pretty much the same as “playing a role” when you break it down. So, that’s not going to help.

Role-playing is about changing your behavior, adopting different behavior, in a given situation or about exploring your own behavior in a hypothetical situation. For example, if you’ve ever read a news story about someone trapped in a terrible situation and tried to imagine how you might react to that situation, you were technically role-playing. You were putting yourself in an imaginary situation and trying to figure out how you would behave. If you’ve ever played out a scenario in your head about asking your boss for a raise and tried to imagine how the boss would react, you were role-playing.

In a nutshell, role-playing is about assuming a hypothetical situation and trying to decide how you (or another character) would behave in that situation. Yes, it can also be about being in an actual situation and changing your behavior, but that definition doesn’t apply to what we do around the table. We’re talking about the same sort of role-playing used in education, therapy, and improvisational acting; not social role-playing.

Now, its pretty clear that this is exactly what we do in an RPG. Its pretty much the definition of an RPG. You are presented with a situation and you (the player) decide how your character reacts to the situation. The action is resolved, creating a new situation, and then you start over. The point is that almost all RP occurs inside the heads of the various players. The act of visualizing the situation, understanding the character, and deciding on an appropriate course of acting is 90% of role-playing. The remaining 10% is about presenting that decision to the other participants. And honestly, if you want to get meta about it, that last 10% is more about helping others role-play than about your own RP.

The more vividly you present your character’s actions, the easier it becomes for the DM to resolve your character’s actions and the easier it becomes for other participants to visualize the new situation. After all, your character is part of the situation the other players have to react to.

Most importantly, it doesn’t matter how you present your decisions to the group. You might speak in the first person, describe in the third person, you might adopt a specific voice or pose, or you might just narrate like a book. You might be brief or overly verbose. None of that actually matters in terms of whether you are role-playing or not. The act of visualizing the scene and getting inside the character’s head to reach a decision; that’s what RP is. After all, as I’ve already said, you can RP entirely inside your own head. So, for completeness, we will classify all of the presentation techniques as “acting.”

Just keep that in mind for now: RP means imagining a hypothetical situation, projecting yourself into the mind of your character, and deciding on a course of action.

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