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Sass & Sorcery

Dirty Hippie Gamer Musing: "What Is Roleplaying?" and Gaming Styles

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I sat down this morning to read through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness for a pseudoreview retrospective, made it past the table of contents easily and with no offenses taken at the authorial tone ... and then came to the first real page, where Erick Wujcik proceeded to annoy me as a reader. (To be fair, there's more than likely some Kevin Siembieda in those initial paragraphs, as some of the content is - typical for Palladium products - reproduced verbatim in the other game lines. But, Wujcik is the man who brought us Amber Diceless ...) The description of what makes for "good" roleplaying vs. "not good" roleplaying, specifically with regards to randomly generated characters, grated against my style sensibilities in such a manner as to cause me to put aside my intended task for a while and rant. Fortunately, you folks are spared the lunacy and instead I wrote this musing.

(Apologies in advance for the sheer wordiness. It's paper-writing time in school and I'm apparently stuck in academic essayist mode. Though I'm not sure if failing to properly cite sources is a blessing or a curse here ...)

What does any of this mean, you ask. Well, there's this thread over on, "The standard 'What is a role-playing game' section of the book", that's been buzzing around the back of my mind for a bit of time - tl;dr version: the thread topic is a question of whether that specific section of a gaming book is really needed. It's assumed that, by now, most of the folks purchasing RPG products are roleplayers and thus a section detailing what they already know and do is wasted space. The off-chance that the reader *is* a new player is the one saving grace of the section. Quite a few of the posters in that thread said they skip those sections of new games outright. If we're being honest, for first (and up to fourth) reads of a new game, so do I. This morning's encounter with TMNT made me think this is a mistake.

Can this section of a game actually give us information about the game, that otherwise would be un- or under-stated? I pulled a few books off my shelf to compare and contrast. These books are The Dresden Files RPG; Vampire: the Masquerade, both second edition and revised; and Shadowrun, third and fourth editions. Reading each of the sections, paying attention to the word choices, I came up with a hypothesis - those oft-overlooked sections actually provide great information to the assumed/intended play style of the game in question. To illustrate this, let's look at the language of each game, and try to glean its intent.

First up, the instigating observation: TMNT. The section breaks down a scene into its component parts - the physical scene (props and decorations), the setting (NPCs and conflict), and the character (a PC). Most of this stuff is GM-driven, barring in-character involvement from the other players. What stands out to me is the implicit value placed on immersion as a goal. "You are not in the [example] room," it says, "but there is somebody in the room whose eyes you see through." It's weak evidence, sure, but the rest of the text is sparse as to how to actually go about the process of roleplaying.

(Naturally, there is more evidence in the other sections. This little musing is specifically focusing on the definitional aspect of RPGs and what, if any, play styles emerge from their definitions. With the other games, the sections are well-written, in that they more or less explicitly state their intended styles. Palladium games that I own all have that short, insufficient blurb, which doesn't communicate intent very well.

For TMNT, there's a section immediately before our topic, where the author sets a rather adversarial GM-Player relationship. The GM section, curiously, is the only place I noticed where developing and portraying a personality is explicitly stated as a player's responsibility. Which is frickin' weird to me. Something concerning players should be addressed to players directly, and not filtered through the GM. But I'm crazy in wanting clarity of intent in communication :P)

We'll look at the definitional sections in Vampire next. The second edition book is, as one would expect from White Wolf, defining roleplaying (and by extension, playing a roleplaying game) as play-acting. This assumption carries over into the description of Vampire players: "You must be both an actor and a player. As an actor, you speak for your character and act out whatever you wish your character to do or say. Whatever you say, your character says, unless you are specifically asking a question of the Storyteller or are describing your actions." It also evokes method acting, as a means for characterization: "You must reach deep inside yourself to find enough that is real and true to produce a complete character." By these snippets, and the full passages containing them, Vampire's second edition is an acting exercise with dice, by design; other styles aren't given much consideration.

Revised Vampire gives a similar, yet slightly altered approach to its style. The game is still largely play-acting: "Each player takes the role of a character [...] and engages in a form of improvisational theatre, saying what the vampire would say and describing what the vampire would do. Most of this process is freeform[.]" This edition explicitly calls out the role of rules and dice, however, in a manner second edition didn't quite manage: "Whenever rules and story conflict, the story wins. Use the rules only as much -- or preferably as little -- as you need to tell thrilling stories of terror, action and romance." The phrasing here states a relationship to the rules that basically says you shouldn't be looking to the rules to give you much guidance or structure, in regards to how to play.

(There's a whole separate rant about using rules, and specifically the Golden Rule or Rule 0, whichever you prefer. I might even get around to writing it someday. Shockingly enough, I'm not a fan :P)

Next, Shadowrun 3/4E. On reading them, both have the same material for us. By its own definition, "a roleplaying game is part improvisational theater, part storytelling and part board game." So we have our play-acting and storytelling core, like in White Wolf's games, but the relationship to the rules is quite different. Whereas Vampire ideally references the rules as little as possible, Shadowrun brings it to the forefront: "The game system comes into play when characters seek to use their skills or otherwise do something that requires a test to see whether or not they succeed." This phrasing suggests that the *game* portion of 'roleplaying game' is fairly important, which is a pretty big style statement.

Finally, we get to The Dresden Files RPG. Like all the others, the definitional section is right in the beginning (barring Vampire and Shadowrun having in-setting fiction to set the tone). And, like the others, I think we can see its ethos in how it defines itself. The act of roleplaying isn't set as theatrics or play-acting, and players aren't expected to actually *be* their characters. "As a player, you get to say what your character says, describe what your character does, and make decisions for that character." The phrasing here is rather interesting. Unlike Vampire second edition, what you say isn't assumed to be in-character (though it could be); the player can, if they choose, merely describe what the character says and how they say it, without having to speak as the character. And, unlike the play-acting of both Vampire and Shadowrun editions or the implied immersion of TMNT, the player isn't making decisions *as* the character, but they are making decisions *for* the character. Dresden also makes the case for rules usage, and how the system is supposed to be integral to play: "You use the game's rules to help you decide how a particular event turns out[.]" That the 'event' is unspecified suggests that it's anything that happens within the emergent narrative, whether it's a physical, mental or social context.

(In full disclosure, I've always gamed in the Dresden model. Sometimes I do in-character dialogue, sometimes it's a short summary of intent and method. But roleplaying has never been synonymous with play-acting. I don't value immersion as something I want to happen during play. And holy heck, do I want the rules to *mean* something, and not just be background for when play-acting won't resolve an issue. I do likes me some game portion of 'roleplaying game.')

So there it is, a rough hypothesis based on a somewhat emotionally-charged observation. Does this analysis have merit? Or am I reading too much into so little of a section? Actually, I can answer that second question right now: probably :P There's the whole rest of a given book to gain insight into intent and assumption. Though, the definition might be an indicator as to the authorial tone. I'd be curious to hear what you folks think, about these games and games not mentioned.

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  1. templeorder's Avatar
    The real problem comes in defining the "role-playing" extent for a game. "Role-playing" is so broad a term that its more important to define it in the context of the game approach and style. For one game its about immersing yourselves in combat and "winning" loot, treasure, and gaining levels to measure "progress". In others, its the core of the experience and the gaming aspect is about story telling. Most systems can be used in both ways, but are more suited to one or the others. In some cases, its something together different or some hybrid. What really makes it almost insignificant is the GM (and/or full group) that customizes the rules and turns it into something to suit their own needs. People pick different settings and rule sets to accomplish what they want in terms of the experience they expect - then tweak it till out comes "their" version of "role-playing". I DO think its important for a system or setting to position itself in the approach that best suits it just so the group has an expectation of what it may take to harness it to their needs.
  2. Sascha's Avatar
    I'm not sure it's so much a definitional problem, outside of the bit where the concept of roleplaying style is completely ignored. Though, the essays in some of White Wolf's 2E-run books are pretty funny, what with the badwrongfun accusations. (And, by "funny," that should read "sad and depressing.")

    But yeah, basically that's my position, too.