I was listening to the Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast season 4 episode 16 and the talk about the email from Gammonstark. In particular the topic of players not responding to plot hooks and not role playing but rather roll playing. First off let me say that I come from the dim and distant antiquity of gaming when computers were a novelty and an expensive one at that. So to say that I am an old school gamer is not at all a stretch. That said, this topic is not new. We have been weighing the merits of role vs roll playing since the early days, and I expect we will as long as there are people playing role playing games in any form.
I want to take a moment to talk about role playing and what that means to me as a gamer. To have any meaningful discussion we need to be working with common terms so here is my working definition of role playing.
Dictionary.com defines “roleplay” as, “To assume the attitudes, actions, and discourse of (another) especially in a make-believe situation in an effort to understand a differing point of view or social interaction.”
When one role plays one takes on the nature and person of a fictional (presumably) character in a fictional (presumably) setting and situation. One makes choices and takes action based on what the character would do not necessarily based on what would be most optimal. This precludes the notion of “winning”. If the players in a role playing game are having fun then they’re winning whether the characters involved are winning or not.
What does that mean JiB? If a character is described as being brave, rash and impulsive it strikes me that they might be inclined to rush into combat rather than take a considered strategic approach to combat or that they would necessarily be inclined to run away. Would they NEVER run away? Not at all, even the foolhardy can see that charging a hundred orcs on their own is probably tantamount to suicide. Would they NEVER make a strategic decision? Not at all, though they might be inclined to come to that decision after having it pointed out to them that it’s better. Would they be inclined to think that they can stand up to 10 orcs on their own? Very possibly.
In a good role playing game, as in life, few things are absolute. If one is truly playing the role of their character they should endeavor to put the nature of the character before their nature as a player, and before more practical considerations such as what makes the most sense in terms of the game. Does that mean that practical considerations should be ignored? Certainly not, but I do think that playing the role of the character should take precedence over playing the roll of the game.
So what sorts of things get in the way?
Before I even start on this let me say that I am not saying one is good and the other bad, they’re just different. I of course have a preference, but that’s my preference it is no more or less valid than a preference held by anyone else. For starters lets look at the differences between a table top rpg, and a computer based mmo. Computers are stupid. They can’t help it, they’re machines. Machines that really only do two things. They count, and they remember. Everything else is an illusion (created by a person like me). The reason I bring this up is that in an mmo regardless of how pretty it is it is only capable of doing what the programmer told it to do. This is the fundamental difference between a table top game and a computer game always has been and always will be. With that thought in mind, let us explore some of the differences from a game play standpoint.
Table top games are more fluid. A human GM can adjust the game based on the players, based on the game as it’s happening, based on whatever. Computers do not have that capability. A computer game will always be precisely what it was programmed to do.
Computer games are going to emphasize the mechanical aspect of the game, the crunch if you prefer. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just different.
Table top games rely on the imagination of the player and the GM to fill in the little fiddly bits around the edges. Computer games fill in those bits at least as far as they’re able based on the programming and data that they are given. That reliance on the imagination of the players is both a boon and a limitation to tabletop games depending on how imaginative the players and GM are and how in tune with one another they are.
Computers are not going to err in the application of a rule (within the limits of their programming), which can happen with humans.
All of which leads me to an assertion. MMO’s are not role playing games. MMO’s are adventure games which happen to have other people involved in them at the same time. Certainly it is possible to role play in the context of an MMO but that is something that occurs outside the construct of the game rules. It has been said with a certain amount of accuracy that the crunch is the game and the role play sets the context for the game. For my purposes as a gamer I like to weave the two together but I can certainly see the logic behind this premise.
WotC has, with the D&D 4th ed. Game, divorced the role play from the rules set which follows along with this line of thinking. The game rules do not cover or deal with role playing aspects of play. Which in turn supports another assertion, that WotC is migrating the D&D rule set towards a more MMO style of play. In a very real sense playing 4th edition is very much a case of role play role play role play miniatures based tactical combat game role play role play role play. One could excise the role play all together and get the same result if not the same game experience. Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent is entirely a matter of what sort of gaming experience an individual player is trying to achieve.
So how does this impact “institutional” games?
First off JiB, what the heck is an “institutional” game. This is a term I use to describe games and scenarios that are designed to be used in, for example, RPGA network play where the goal is to give every player the same game experience. Waitaminute! Does that sound familiar? Let me say it again, “where the goal is to give every player the same game experience.” Oh wait, that’s what mmo’s do, give every player the same game experience. Because of this objective, RPGA network modules, and Pathfinder Society scenarios have a strong similarity to mmo’s in that they promote single path logic where only the path that the designer of the game envisioned is the correct one, and they do not promote role playing. Rather they lean towards tactical combat and puzzle solving situations. Are they fun to play? Sure they are. Are they role playing? Based on the working definition we started with I have to say that no they are not role playing.
Ok so how does this affect players and game play?
It’s really more a matter of matching a style of game to a style of player. Just let me repeat one more time, I’m not saying that one or the other is good or bad, only that they are different. By extension how a player is going to react to either is going to depend on their experience, their preferences, their understanding and their abilities. My wife is a consummate role player. She knows every last item in her character’s inventory, but she knows only so much about the crunch of the game as she absolutely has to to function. The crunch and the mechanics of the tactical combat don’t interest her in the slightest. On the other hand my youngest son is Mr. Crunch. He kind of hangs out being quiet and staying with the party until there’s something to fight or something that relates to the skills of his character and then he comes to life. Both are very good and lots of fun to game with. But as the GM it’s my responsibility to understand what each of them is looking for in the game and do my best to give it to them.
There in, as they say, lies the rub. If the game (or the GM) is going one way, and the players are going another, or want to go another, it is going to produce strife and the game is not going to be enjoyable for pretty much anyone involved. This is the sort of situation that Gammonstark’s email highlighted to me. It sounds like well intentioned though they are the players and the GM are trying to go in different directions, or perhaps the GM is trying to get the players to go in a direction they’re not comfortable with.