Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Redefinition of Roleplaying

So, I watched this D&D movie thing a couple days ago and thought a lot about what the term "roleplaying" actually means within the context of gaming. Just within the confines of the sorta-documentary format short film it's obvious that roleplaying has changed scope through the years.

Initially it was fantasy wargaming, or whatever the hell you want to call it. A boardgame much like the numerous other games that existed, but within the confines of a specific genre, namely swords and sorcery. I know that there's much dispute behind the original intent of D&D, but after doing "research" for my finely produced clone (release date indeterminate), it's fairly obvious taking a role did not mean bad amateur acting. As time progressed, rpgs moved into the realm of pseudo-performance art, LARPs and all sorts of other crap that seem to undermine the original intent. I suppose these are legitimate expressions of playing a game, but to be perfectly honest I wish they weren't associated with rpgs. This is probably the same way grognards felt about being associated with all the D&D upstarts, and most likely why a new term was invented. Unfortunately, the new playing styles aren't dissociated with the older ones, and instead passed off as "better", by a lot of people. The OSR movement (whatever you want to call it) essentially is the rediscovery of the original rpg gaming style, but really, it IS the rpg gaming style. In toto. If anything, the newer games aren't rpgs, they're something else. Instead of redefining the term roleplaying game, another word needs to be used.

I reread what I just wrote and decided it's nearly impossible to decide where to draw the lines on what games to include/exclude from the conversation. A game like Amber, while extremely dissimilar from D&D, at least mechanically, is still what I'd call an rpg. Burning Wheel, I don't feel the same way. There are others who'd disagree completely. The main consideration, I think, is intent. The intent of D&D is to create a character who gains power and survives within the confines of a gaming world. My Life With Master seems to be an exercise in creating a story. In the first case, the game itself is played, and the story is whatever we talk about when it's over. In the second case, the game is played under the assumption that the characters are part of an interactive novel, creating the story as they proceed. Surely a D&D game can have similar elements, as any system can be used for storytelling. But the primary goal is to see how long the characters can live before their demise (or retirement), the finality of the game. Perhaps they have more immediate goals, as is the case of a one-shot or specific adventure, but if they live, they won. The storytelling games don't have the same intent, instead focused on how good the story is. It's a collaborative effort between the gamemaster and players.

So, should we separate rpgs into genres, or simply redefine more modernized rpgs with a different name? Storytelling games, stgs? One of the main issues I see with more enlightened gamers is the absurd notion that computer rpgs aren't roleplaying. When I was a kid, Bard's Tale was very much an rpg in every sense of the word. Now it is seen as a poor excuse for computerized D&D, and valueless as a true rpg. Bard's Tale isn't an stg, but it's an rpg for sure. Perhaps a simple split and renaming would help for cases like this. My main problem isn't the appropriation of the term rpg by storytelling systems (they're natural outgrowths so have every right to use it), but instead the conceit that storytelling is the evolution in rpgs and thus better. I guess I really wouldn't care if there were a new phrase as long as the storyteller people would step the fuck off and stop acting superior. If you're having fun, you're succeeding at playing a game. Magic might be a "better" card game than poker, using their logic, but poker is much more fun. I don't see poker players defending their game from Magic players, so why do any of the OSR guys feel like they need to promote D&D-like games in a similar manner? The focus on differences, instead of the inherent enjoyment a particular game provides, is in fact the problem. So either rename the new crap or accept it as a similar, yet different, form of rpg and leave it at that.


  1. One distinction I find helpful is E.G.G.'s "role-playing" vs. "role assumption," found in Role-Playing Mastery, for one place.

  2. I think that 'new fangled' games are more about creating a consensus narrative while 'classic' games are more about exploiting a fictional environment.

    I'm not sure a 'new name' would help.

    No one has to explain what poker is, so there is no need to 'defend' it from something that is obviously not poker. The OSR guys want to differentiate 'old school' from 'new school' because the distinction between them is not explicit.

  3. In the first case, the game itself is played, and the story is whatever we talk about when it's over.

  4. I wonder which was the first game to discuss speaking in character and assuming a more detailed role beyond tactical decisions and resource management?
    Much of the acting in early rpg's could have come from players trying to describe how the characters were talking during encounters so the DM could judge reaction rolls.
    I mean once new players realized that the game did not have the limitations of a board game and was mainly played with the imagination, it's not that much of a stretch to expect them to slip into "let's pretend" mode and start hamming it up.