30 July, 2009
Zubon over at Kill Ten Rats wrote a little post about what “RPG” really means. Of course, what’s really happening is another lament that role-playing just doesn’t happen in games called “RPGs”:
An interesting thought, so let’s take a look at role-playing in games that use that term to describe themselves.
Of course, this debate is nothing new. Back in the olden days of Usenet, I remember one person saying that computer “RPGs” should instead be called “KTATTS” games. In most of them you were merely going out and murdering things with the hopes of gaining power to able to fight meaner things.
Roles of paper
Many times people look back at paper RPGs as a source of “true role-playing”. The thing that most people overlook is that there were few rules in these books for real role-playing. Most of the rules were set up to resolve conflicts so they didn’t devolve into the old “I shot you first! No, I shot you first!” arguments we had when playing as kids. The primary vehicle for a lot of situations was combat, so most of the rules focused on that; this is also a nod to the wargaming roots of the early role-playing systems.
Despite this, there was still role-playing. You could just focus on the stats and attributes, damage and hit points. The game could be played as a strict mathematical exercise. But, for many players, the fun was in breathing the spark of life into the collection of numbers. It’s not just a Dwarf Fighter/Cleric, I’m Rainlin Goldcrier, Dwarven Vindicator who throws himself into battle in a god-inspired frenzy!
A lot of the flavor of these games was in the imagination of the people playing it. Mechanically, I rolled a 19 and hit the monster, rolling 6 points of damage with my long sword and reducing the monster’s hit points to non-positive value. I might choose to describe that as: I slashed my weapon hard across the orc’s head, causing him to collapse into a heap on the ground. In non-combat situations, it was all about interacting with each other. I might get into some friendly banter with a fellow adventurer, or I might haggle hard on the price of a new suit of armor with an NPC store owner.
Interestingly enough, the inclusion of mechanics to handle some non-combat situations actually detracted from this interaction. Instead of haggling with the DM, I rolled a few dice to see how well my haggling skill worked against the NPC. More dice rolling, less interaction. But, it still took other people to interact and play a role.
That’s how I role alone
Even when we get to single-player RPGs, you can still have a bit of role-playing. One common form in older games is naming of characters. I often like to name my characters after my friends or my cats (or if there are a lot of characters, both). Daniel is always the Lawful Good type, after my friend Dan who is a stand-up guy, for example. The characters instantly have personality and therefore roles to play, even if its a “personal story” to me. Since humans are excellent pattern matching machines, I often notice when the characters fulfill their roles. When Daniel takes a particularly nasty blow that could have killed another party member, I think of him as stepping in front of the blow that was aimed at the other person, even if that was just a random number result instead of his specific action.
What’s interesting is that as games try to define more roles for a character, it becomes more restrictive. Maybe the role I want to play wasn’t defined by the developers. Or, maybe what the developers consider “noble” is different than what I do for my character. It can actually be jarring to hear my stoic fighter grunting in pain because the developers wanted to add voice to the game. So, defining more roles doesn’t necessarily add to role-playing.
Role with your friends
Now we get to online games. In a way, we go back to the days of paper RPGs. In fact, some people have said in the past that this is experience is what MMOs should aspire toward.
The problem when you get a large group of people together is having them find a common purpose. In this case, trying to define “what is role-playing” is a tough challenge. One person might think it involves using a lot of “thee” and “thou” in your speech. Another person thinks it’s not talking about last night’s sports event. Another person might think it’s pretending to be an elf in a game that has no elves. Putting all three of these people together seems to be a recipe for disaster.
One solution proposed a while ago was the concept of “functional role-playing”. In other words, the person playing the fighter was playing the role of the protector, even if it is a 13-year old kid who thinks l33t-sp33k (or worse, 133+-$|>33|<) is just awesome. This may make the game function, but it's not satisfying for true role-players.
The role of the term “RPG”
The problem is that the term has grown to mean one sort of game play. As Zubon noted in his post on KTR, other games have co-opted this term to add more game-play to their games. A game with “RPG elements” means that you’ll spend points to upgrade your character. This is a way to allow players to develop a character over time, and perhaps compensate for a lack of skill they have. Tired of not being able to aim very well? Take the “aim” skill and the game helps you out a bit. Now you can get headshots like a pro!
But, it’s a bit of an abuse of the term “RPG” if all it really includes is some character advancement. Can I really play a role if the character is already established (and even named!), if my choices are pre-determined (or even meaningless), or if there is nobody else to interact with? Probably not. But, the core mechanic is still there. And “RPG elements” takes less ink than “character advancement”.
For me, an “RPG” is a game where I can take a role in the world through a character (or even multiple characters). The game might focus on combat, but I want to be able to define my own personality (or personalities) for my character(s) and let them develop in and affect the world. Even a typical dungeon delve can be an opportunity for me to add some personal spice to the characters and be an RPG. Note that not everyone who plays the game has to role-play for a game to be an RPG.
What role-playing requires
So, looking back, what does role-playing require in games?
Imagination This is the important bit. If you have little imagination, you won’t be able to role-play well because you won’t be able to put yourself in the situation. This is especially important if you’re playing a game without others.
Freedom I think the more rules you try to apply to the game, the less freedom you have and the less important role-playing becomes. As I said, the addition of a “haggling” skill can turn a role into a roll. (A good system will allow the role to modify or even supersede the roll, though.) The more you try to codify things in the game, the less freedom you have. You don’t need rules to play a roll, even if you need some rules to resolve conflicts.
Agreement If you’re going to play with other people, you need to agree what role-playing is. For some people, it’s not taking the game too seriously and cracking a few in-jokes. That’s fine, but it’s going to make someone who wants to really immerse him- or herself in a character unhappy. When playing single-player RPGs, I only had to agree with myself. (That’s harder that it should be perhaps.)
So, what do you think? What does role-playing require? Do you agree with me, or do you have your own measurements?