Monday, July 11, 2011

WTF is "roll-playing"?

Message boards, the breeding ground for contempt. I've seen the term "roll-playing" crop up in the past, on usenet especially, and frequently on message boards, but had sort of forgotten about it until recently when I saw the term thrown around as an insult on good old Apparently, roleplaying is when a player assumes the role of a character within the confines of a gaming environment. Roll-playing, on the other hand, is akin to playing Monopoly, rolling dice to determine actions. I'm not so sure I completely understand the difference, as they sound like the same thing to me. Okay, of course I understand the implication here: if you use funny voices and actually decide to DO what your character would do (not what you'd personally do), then you are roleplaying. If you roll dice to determine the best course of action then you're just rolling dice and are not as sophisticated. No sir. Go back to playing wargames, you hack.

Let's revist history a bit...back in ye olden dayes, roleplaying was called fantasy wargaming, with good reason, as it was a direct outgrowth of minatures rules. Everyone knows this. Roleplaying was simply controlling your individual character/gaming piece as opposed to whole armies or abstract battle units. But even then, there's really not much of a distinction. When you play Civilization, sure, you're not making decisions for each citizen in your empire, but you're still acting as an overlord; an overlord who wants to expand his realm and conquer other nations. Even the most incompetent kings in history wanted the best for their kingdoms, no matter how awful they were at achieving that goal. So, a crappy Civ player is a bad king and a competent one a good king, and they're both playing roles. Right? To use another example, when playing Starfleet Battles, each player controls a starship. What is the "role" of the controller? A lot of people put themselves into the captain's seat, using their best Kirkian tactics to emerge victorious. Some people feel that they're Starfleet Command, dictating orders from the confines of a well-defended starbase. In any event, a role is still played, even if there are no rules to spell out the capabilites of the individual captains or admirals. Does this mean Monopoly has a roleplaying element? Of course it does: you're pretending to be a real estate mogul in Atlantic City. The boot or dog or car are abstract representations of your travels through the streets, and the board itself an even more abstract representation of plots zoned for housing, railroads or businesses. If there is no "roleplaying" involved, why do games of Monopoly become so personal? It's just fake money, right? Certainly doesn't seem like that due to the way players treat every bill in their possession.

Roleplaying games are simply a codification of rules to enable players to actively participate in the trials and tribulations of individual saps as opposed to the higher, more abstract approach provided by wargames, boardgames, etc. Roll-playing is a nonsense phrase invented to make shitty amateur theatre rejects feel better about their bad acting. If I roll dice to see if I hit an orc, how is this any different than rolling dice to see if my dumb argument convinces the guard to let me go? In the latter case, there may not be any social mechanics in a particular game, so we must "act out" the argument. If you want to cut a deal with a player during a session of Monopoly, there aren't any rules for that, either, so you better be convincing. There isn't any difference, really. I'd go so far as to say the primary difference between roleplaying games and conventional wargames is simply scope. Wargames and boardgames have a limited, well-defined scope, with rigid rules. Roleplaying games are much broader in scope, and have less rules to allow for this. These are features, not limitations, of both approaches. As you try to model more of "reality", rules must become less and less limiting, lest they inhibt the ability of the playing pieces to act. If I want my tank commander to escape from the burning hulk during a session of ASL, and there aren't any rules to allow this, sorry, he is burned to a crisp. We could make up a rule on-the-fly, and decide as a group of players to accept it, that the commander can escape with a 1/6 chance, becoming a crappy infantry unit armed with a .45. I imagine that's exactly how roleplaying came about, because eventually the player of that lone tank commander might want to see just how far he could get, possibly escaping back home. What happened to him? Did he resume his job in the steel mill after the war? That's still part of the game, but it's not ASL anymore. We've entered into roleplaying, even though we'll probably roll dice to see if his wife cheated on him while he was in Africa or how many kids he has.

As I consider the differening styles of gaming available, it's not hard to see that they all have a common root, an escape from reality. Whether we pretend to be individual fighters killing orcs or moving giant robots around in Battletech, all these games offer us the ability to do things we wouldn't normally be able to do in real life. Calling games that use dice to decide actions "roll-playing" is idiotic simply because those actions could just as easily be decided ad hoc. Wargames use dice to inject a bit of uncertainty, and thus so too do roleplaying games. Not rolling dice doesn't make the funny voices any better, nor gives more validity to the choices made for a particular playing piece.


  1. > Let's revist history a bit...back in ye olden dayes, roleplaying was called fantasy wargaming, with good reason, as it was a direct outgrowth of minatures rules. Everyone knows this.

    "Fantasy wargaming" != "roleplaying"
    Even Gary knew that. ;)

    > Roll-playing, on the other hand, is akin to playing Monopoly, rolling dice to determine actions.

    More that "roll playing" (as a derogatory phrase) is relying "excessively" on the dice to determine the outcomes of actions - especially where that is to the detriment of "role playing".
    When a poorly armed thief encounters the city guards, do you primarily focus solely on a) letting the player make a convincing spiel, b) a simple roll of the dice against charisma. Or some point in between; with a modifier for how good the player's blagging is, perhaps?

    If there's confusion between "role playing" and "roll playing" perhaps that's in part due to the over-simplistic, combat-heavy focus of D&D and many other systems? :)

    > Wargames and boardgames have a limited, well-defined scope, with rigid rules. Roleplaying games are much broader in scope, and have less rules to allow for this.

    I know what y'mean but there are less rules does not necessarily mean greater freedom of action!

  2. Define "excessively". Some people would do a, some b, in the example you provided. Which one is better? How is a roll against charisma any different than a roll against dexterity to see if you can shoot an arrow effectively?

  3. I think the term is used to mean different things at different times or at least be different people.
    But I think the main sense is like the following (which more or less occured at my table last week).
    Player: Can I convince [another PC who was charmed by a satyr] that the goat-men are not our friends?
    DM: Go ahead and try.
    Player: What do I roll?
    DM: No, say what your character says to [the other PC].
    Player: Can't I just roll under my Charisma or something?
    Eventually he acted it out, and the other PC got to make another saving throw, adding the first player's CHA bonus. But only because he said some reasonablish stuff.

    To me that's different than an attack roll, although I guess you could design a game where combat is all description-based. But IMO D&D has fully developed combat rules so you can use them to quickly resolve what would be sort of boring to describe after a few fights; and the social stuff has little or no mechanical apparatus beyonf reaction rolls because it is supposed to be fun to act out your PC. I guess if everyone at the table wanted to just roll for everything we could switch to a later edition which has more such buttons to push, but I and most of the other players would rather be involved in PC-NPC interactions in a more meaningful way.

    Now, if I had made the player act it out and no matter what he said the same rolls would be made with the same mods...well, that's another thing altogether.

    Regarding A & B above, I don't tihnk either is inhernetly better, and prefer a game where it is some of each. But I prefer B for routine stuff, with A in the more tense/climatic moments. You sohuldn't have ot act out the whole tihng to get a bartender to serve you or give you a rumor, but to bribe the harem guard to rescue the princess, you better do more than just roll. Although in things where chance *seems* like a bigger deal (shooting at a target say) the die roll can provide all the tension you need.

  4. I'd say the difference would come if the Player insisted on rolling against their charisma, even if the DM didn't give them the option (or outright said they wouldn't allow it.) In my experience Roll playing is used appropriately when players stick religiously to the rules and stats, and refuse to think outside the box.

    The term seems to be the antonym of out-gaming, or free forming where the players try to completely throw the character sheet and rules out and use their imagination alone. both can be fun if everyone is on board, but if not they can kill a game quickly.

  5. Charisma was brought up by me, then referenced twice. Why is "force of personality" any different in-game than something like Strength? I've never heard a compelling argument beyond, "It's fun to act that shit out sometimes," which is certainly the best argument possible, but from a mechanical view it really isn't any different.

    Not being obtuse: why are things like charisma treated differently than dex or strength? Of course I do the same thing, but I haven't quite figured out why.

  6. Good question. Not sure either. I am going with the "it's funner this way" and also the whole "vicarious participant" school of RPGing.

    Also the norm is to say what yuor PC says in first person much of the time anyway in my game. "I'm Thonar" not "My character says his name is Thonar", most of the time, anyway.

    But I do still use reaction rolls and whatnot too.

  7. "Shitty amateur theatre rejects"...I like that. Those who sneeringly use the phrase "roll-playing" remind of me of musicians who look at people playing Guitar Hero and go, "Pfaaw! Look at those losers playing their stupid little music 'game'. They should play a real guitar instead of their pitiful 'game!'"

    Really, I think the people who want to "become" their characters...that is, pretend to be them and act as them, are playing the wrong game. It sounds like to me that they'd be happier partaking in LAPRS, not an RPG. At no point should "acting ability" or "desire to act" be a requirement for playing an RPG.