Thursday, October 27, 2011

Are You Playing a Game, or a Role?

I’ve read several blog posts recently about character generation in RPGs that discuss the virtues and failings of various rules systems and/or generations of rules systems. There are some enthusiastic discussions in the comments with great insights and ideas.

-C, talking about the problem with rules over at Hack & Slash said:

Comprehensive robust rule sets lead players to think that the only performable actions are ones that the rules cover. Play ceases to become about 'what can I think of to get myself out of this situation' and instead becomes about 'did I place my points correctly at character creation or level up'.

My experiences running weekly sessions at my FLGS confirm this observation. Players are more likely to look at their character sheets to determine what they can and cannot do, than to propose an action to the GM, and react to the result.

Further development of this discussion in related blog posts puts the blame on the character generation system itself. The requirements of abbreviated chargen systems are contrasted with those of other (usually more modern) systems:

The first [character generation method] has a new player rolling dice in seconds, and a complete character in about 5 minutes, and then playing, using their own life experiences and skill for success.

What I find myself disagreeing with is the idea that the character generation systems, or the rule systems, are the primary fault. At what point did players adopt the tendency to self-limit their actions in the game based on their character stats? Is this a result of the modern idea of character builds, or do players self limit for some other reason? It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

Playing from the character sheet, and describing actions in terms of game mechanics, can lessen the sense of immersion in the game. It becomes less a role-playing game, and more of a cards/dice/miniatures board game ruled by strategies and tactics designed to maximize performance within the context of those rules. As Runeslinger said in a recent blog post:

a few players – particularly those with a disproportionate amount of experience in “the one true game” – tended to make and announce rolls rather than describe intentions and actions. In Call of Cthulhu this would manifest as an interruption of a setting description with the announcement of “I roll Spot Hidden and get a… *dice clatter* 24,” or “My character has a Track of 25%… who has a higher Track score?”

But, are such examples of play the result of the rules or the players? In Runeslinger’sThe Skill of Immersion” post I linked above, he outlines several methods that players and GMs can use to move away from this metagame level of play. These are play skills that can be encouraged, and practiced at the table. Play skills that, like characters leveling up that some systems include, are the result of experience. Time and experimentation are the keys.

As a GM, when my players drop a foe I often ask them to describe the killing blow. “What happens to the goblin when your Orb of Force hits it?” or, “You swing your axe at the bloodied Beholder, what happens when it connects?” When they tell me, “I want to use Intimidate on him.” I ask, “What do you say and/or do that might be considered intimidating?” Players want to imagine successful actions, and to perform tasks in heroic ways. If it serves the story, I let them perform tasks free of game-mechanical interference, using what Phil, the Chatty DM promoted: The Rule of Cool.

If it serves the story, you don’t need to rely on game mechanics to resolve it. Weaning players from over-reliance on game mechanics can help get their heads up from the character sheet, and focused on the players and action around them. While it is true that extensive rules will tend to encourage usage of the same, role-playing games are still about stories, characters, and the people who play them.

On the chargen front, what this translates to is the idea that there are no “bad” character builds, or character concepts. Players and GMs should focus on developing characters through the run of play. This gets players into the game more quickly, and encourages them to experiment with options they might not otherwise try.


  1. Good post today! What you describe is something I definitely try to do. Although I'll be honest when I have a lack of energy shit devolves into, "You hit it with your axe.." Blah blah blah. And that is a fault of mine.

    I do try to get the players involved and I think that, as you stated, the whole thing is a "chicken-and-egg conundrum". I think there are so many faucets of what has caused this shift it's hard to just point your finger at one specific point.

  2. One point I would make that helps for me is, don't get out the figurines unless they are are really needed. I realize they can be important from a combat point of view. But, if used all the time they take me out of the character and make me feel like I'm playing a board or miniatures game.

    The other thing I will say is that it is hard. I find it hard. I have to force myself to get into the role. So for me, it's important that I feel comfortable with the people I'm playing with.

    I suppose that's not very profound. But, RPG's are fundamentally a social game. If I want sheer mechanics, I'll play a computer game. It is, like you said, the shared stories, the shared imagination that make the magic happen.

    Both players and DM's have responsibilities for the world. And I say that as a player who sometimes needs to be reminded of that. Next time a player does something too "mechanical", tell them "OK, you see level x monster with 120 hit points come around the corner" :-).


  3. Thanks for your comments!

    @wrathofzombie: It's not going to be perfect every time. But that's how we get better at anything, by repetition. If you consider the players in your gaming group(s), and you have a sense that something is missing from the experience, then I'd consider engaging in some of Runeslinger's immersion techniques. Supporting players in these attempts is key.

    Many players nowadays come to the table with a lot of CRPG experience. They're used to playing that game-mechanical part of the game. Some of them expect and like that some tabletop RPGs have game mechanics similar to those of CRPGs. I'm not advocating marginalizing these players, but rather engaging them in some new models of play.

    @mrbarkey: My personal infatuation with minis in the game comes from playing with army men and LEGOs in my backyard. My friends and I would spin elaborate tales of the battles and adventures that our toys were having. So, while for you minis are a symbol of a board game mentality, for me they're an extension of the free-form imagining that I'm hoping to encourage at my game table. Just a different perspective on their significance.

  4. I think the first issue for me is what does one mean by “role-playing.” When I was a little girl and found Basic D&D and AD&D at the hardware store (I have no idea what they were doing there), I made my mom buy them and I would spend hours just looking at the pictures and the descriptions, not the rules. When I started role-playing a few years ago, I thought we’d be playing a role, almost acting in fact. That didn’t happen and that frustrated me to no end. I realize that was no one’s fault though. It was that I had a different definition of “role-play” than others and it took me many months to finally realize that.

    I think that one cannot isolate individual and group psychology from any game. But I’ll try to avoid that. I think there are generally three kinds of players….those that play their character sheet because that IS role-playing to them. They are pretending to be powerful wizards or fighters, fighting dragons, whatever. This is not what they really are in reality. So, to them, they are playing a role, much like you are playing a role in console games. You’re not really you in those games, you’re someone else measuring your power in weaponry or spells instead of personality and character. For these players, emotion is not to enter this…that is either weak, weird or scary. Players showing emotion and drama are also harder for a GM to control no? So I know there are GMs who would prefer that kind of role-play as well.

    Then there are those who “role play” by using their character sheets and trying to incorporate the history and motivations of their characters into their play, but they are kind of still playing themselves. They just play themselves as lawyers in one game, street fighters in another, gnomes in another etc. But that is role-playing to them. They just don’t change their personality, but they do everything else.

    Then there are the ROLE-PLAYERS that equate this with acting. Those are the one who really get into character and they play things out. You don’t have to weep wildly, but this is involving a bit more emotion and dare I say the dirty word….DRAMA ( a word that has been so misused and abused I think.) These are the community theater wannabes that don’t have time to actually be actors. This takes a tough and confident GM to manage this crowd. You’ve got to be able to step back and let things play out, knowing your players well enough to stop things if they get out of line. You may not be able to control what they do and you better know how to improv.

    Of course, the worst is when you get a group of all three types. Because to each individual, what they are doing is all role-playing. Isn’t it a question of simply finding the kind of group or player that match one’s own definition of role-playing instead of the chicken and the egg conundrum? You can't change people who don't want to change or whose personality is simply not suited.

  5. I should add that there was one and a half wonderful sessions that stick out in my first years of play that fulfilled what I thought role-playing was supposed to be. And those sessions were actually run by you Keith. Everyone was so energized and playing outside their character sheet. You set that up very well.

  6. @anna: Thanks for the insightful comment and the compliment. I think your three types of role players are brilliant, and capture a broad spectrum of RPG players.

    You're right to say that it is a challenge for a GM to run a game that caters to such diverse approaches. Group chemistry and expectations are such important parts of a successful campaign.

    I know that any campaign I run will not reach all of the player types every session. I try to vary the content of sessions in order to cater to different play styles. The point I was trying to convey is that, while the GM may work to involve players, I think that there are things that the players could do to broaden their participation in the game (and thus contribute to everyone's enjoyment.)

    For those who are engaged by game mechanics in particular, I would encourage them to accept some sub-optimal character builds, and explore what that means for their character in play.

    Perhaps there are avenues for those who prefer the DRAMA of it all to express their enthusiasms in the context of the battles and explorations that other players enjoy?

  7. I totally agree with you, Keith. Players need to take responsibility as well for their enjoyment of the game. They need to broaden because they may be missing out on something by staying in their safe box. But sometimes players also show very little tolerance for other players styles. That's another hard thing. How do you get people to enjoy themselves and be patient/gracious enough to allow others their moments of enjoyment too. Especially if it's different.

    Unfortunately, I can't help but think of the GM as the host of the party. When the party fails, who gets blamed? The host.

    I'm thinking about this now that I'm trying to be a GM-in-training. I hope you continue to poke at these issues. They are really challenging and fascinating. Thanks for all your hard work!

  8. Nice post! (and not just because you quoted me~)

    For me,

    "...On the chargen front, what this translates to is the idea that there are no “bad” character builds, or character concepts. Players and GMs should focus on developing characters through the run of play. "

    this quote hits on an extremely important truth. While I believe that there are choices which do not mesh with the game, the campaign, the group, or what-have-you - if those kinds of choices are avoided then a good tale will not only be able to successfully incorporate characters of divergent ability levels, outlooks, etc. but these differences will themselves contribute to the quality and tone of the tale.

  9. @runeslinger: Thanks for commenting. I think it's important for players to recognize their part in the game and the world. As Anna mentioned, it's easy to blame the host, but so much of what I do as a GM is fueled by my players' creativity and enthusiasm.