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The Douchey DM » Misc » To Be or I AM – the role within role-playing

To Be or I AM – the role within role-playing

It may be because I singularly promote RPGs as a way to make friends that longtime role-players often asked me: How does playing a role-playing game aid in making friends more than in any other activity? The simple answer is within the specific capability of RPGs to recruit and reflect the player group within it. A role-playing game is a game without any set moves just one set goal: to survive. There is no finish line, no end game, and no control of the board to monopolize. There are only challenges to overcome and challenges for players to agree to undertake.

RPGs are very free-form – something all the talk about system balance tends to conveniently overlook. The leader of the game, a neutral player who creates the challenges for the players in secret, describes what a player can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. He describes this data for a player to analyze and interpret. Players respond to this game leader and build upon the challenges by adding to the information they share at the table. Do they act together? Do they double-cross one another? Do they play with passion? Are they helpful in a scrum? Do they withhold data only they know? These are player decisions.

Note, I wrote player; not player character as in “my imaginary friend ate all the cookies before supper, mom, but I am full.”

Player decisions can all be blamed on playing a character-type much in the way an actor/writer/director claims artistic license and personal distance. On the face of it, this is a valid way to play the game but it is by no means the sole style or highly recommended style on some Maslow gamer pyramid. Play style is strictly a choice that remains, always, within the players’ realm of conscious decision. Rules exist to present a framework for understanding the risk in a game situation not to limit player interaction or imagination, unlike in a tactical war game of chess or a competitive sport like football. Players determine the playbook (another pet topic of mine).

So “playing a character” can be a persona through which a player’s conscious decisions can be interpreted through a mask. And through the interaction within the game, players will get acquainted with one other. Playing an ELF, for example, is mediated through the player’s interpretation of an ELF. The character cannot be assumed without the media of the amateur tabletop actor (making a distinction in magnification between trained actors and the average player). No matter what the excuse for player actions, the player cannot claim to be ELF his or her self. Same as playing a THEIF or a MAGIC USER does not transform a player into a cat burglar or a magician. What is clearly on display is the player’s interpretation or even wish fulfillment of what is ELVEN or a THIEF or a MAGIC USER.

And that player’s interpretation of character says allot about himself too. Unlike party games like Analyze Me! or Scruples, the questions of a person’s character are indirect and more observed rather than narrated. What would you do in a given situation is a hypothetical question in those games whereas in role-playing there are risks the rules make clear about given situations the player must work themselves through. It is not a question of “if” in role-playing but an observation of “how.”

The most exciting part of the game, and the most revealing of its players, is how every player chooses to overcome their own limitations and disadvantages, usually reflected by the rules’ calculation of risk. In Dungeons and Dragons, players have six statistics that reflect risk. Other games have a similar base ability function, which interacts with the mathematics of risk. These are random rolls that we call character generation. In D&D, these base abilities have a numeric average in the range of 3 – 18. The higher the number, the better the odds for the player: the lower the risk to the character.

So if a player plays a character with a base ability of 6 “Strength,” or base ability of 18, how he or she chooses to play his or her character will reflect the player’s own choices. These base statistics can reflect things in our real world experience. To prove a point, I will list a few vivid examples of real world low-roll challenges that attest to “character” from which you may extrapolate their opposite: learning difficulties, naivety, clumsiness, poor health, poor leadership and physical weakness. These do not dictate how a person chooses to play their character. That choice, that reflection of character, never leaves the person. On the one hand, a player’s abstract reasoning supporting a physical weakling fighter can be a compelling story at a table of fellow travelers but the risk of unmitigated failure for the individual is greater. There is an implied collaborative success within this player’s choice. The player will not survive by himself. On the other hand, risk being an element of every game, a player may choose to limit their exposure to risk by choosing to play a fighter only IF the ability score is high and the character is physically strong. This implies a specialized choice that reflects upon the player not upon his or her fictitious avatar that awaits the player to fill it with personality. Questions can form from these choices that can be answered through simple observation of mirrors in play such as, “Is a munchkin an insecure person in real life?”

Is one way to play better than the other? That’s not the point. The point is how the player chooses what his or her character chooses to become is based on the player’s meta-game knowledge of his or her character’s strengths and weakness; that this is a window through which the player may be observed undisturbed. As a mirror, RPGs are a kind of layman’s Rorschach test to promote understanding between players – even if they play far out races. Maybe especially if they choose to play someone so far removed from themselves on paper.

The game does not limit any player’s ability to display courage, cowardice, perseverance, impatience, team spirit, or individuality through their character. The player is the one, not the system, bringing all that interaction with them based on the foundation of their own attitudes, values and personal experience, which creates their understanding of themselves and others around the table.

And that is how you get to know someone by interacting with them for an hour rather than having a direct conversation with them – to paraphrase Socrates.

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12 Responses to "To Be or I AM – the role within role-playing"

  1. LughNo Gravatar says:

    I will agree that gaming is a good way to meet people. However, I feel that I need to quibble with a few of your specific points.

    First, I don’t believe that gaming is superior to other activities in any way. You can tell a great deal about a person by how they function in a team sport. By how they handle themselves in a campsite. By engaging in any art form. They are all filters of our personalities, and those who are familiar with the activity in question are adept at reading the filter.

    I’m also not convinced that gaming is even a particularly good filter. When you game, you deliberately take on a persona that is not your own. If I don’t know you, it is difficult to tell where your chosen persona ends and your actual personality begins. How much are you just projecting your own desires and values? How much are you choosing to play something that is not your own personality? How many of these choices are part of a pattern for you? If I only meet you over a few games, it’s hard to tell where these lines are. It’s true that, once I see your over-arching patterns, I can tell far more about you than I could tell from watching you dance. But, that requires, ultimately, getting to know you. You are begging the question at that point.

    1. Arashi No MouiNo Gravatar says:

      I’d much rather work with someone at a convention doing set-up or tear down to get to know them then game with them. I’m reminded of a story a friend told me where, in college, one guy in her group obviously disliked her after gaming with her – and it turned out that because she’d played a kender in a one shot that he thought the PC’s personality was her personality, and worked off that assumption for a year or two of occasional contact.

      That being said, watch enough someone take on enough roles over time and what they choose to portray and you will get to know them, and what they value and don’t value; however, to make that assumption off one character might be a bit hasty.

  2. JP ChapleauNo Gravatar says:

    I’m thinking about it and well I am not getting the point you are clearly trying to make…
    That said nothing you say is wrong in itself… I would like to see a stronger point… Or maybe I’m the one who is just confused…

  3. Matt ForbeckNo Gravatar says:

    Good points all around. I’d say it applies to most players, although I’ve run across some for whom getting into a constructed role and playing it to the hilt is the real reason they’re there. That tells you, though, that they value acting over the other parts of the game, though, and I suppose that reveals something about them too.

  4. Rhetorical GamerNo Gravatar says:

    I see your point, and it is well taken. I think many players, no matter what they say, have elements of their own personality in every character they play. It seems unavoidable. That said, I’m not sure that playing a character against “type” for you as a player really is central to the original post’s point… which I’m taking to mean that whatever choices you make as a player – during character creation or in play – will be in in some way reflective of you as a player. And I tend to agree.

    I think one question I would bring up would involve stepping beyond D&D with this analysis. What about games that do impose personality traits, etc. through the form of advantages and disadvantages (Such as GURPS)? Because games like this allow for manipulation of the “mechanics of risk” via the trade-off of more points to build your character in exchange for assuming the burden of mechanics that limit character actions.

    Another question would be, does the way someone plays their character really stem from the rolled stats? I can’t tell you the number of players I know who have used INT or CHA as a dump stat but then don’t play their characters as particularly unintelligent or unlikeable. This obviously reflects something about the player — but not because they are playing their character but rather because they are not… just another thought that occurs to me.

  5. KaitoujulietNo Gravatar says:

    Congrats on your first blog post! If I understand your point correctly, you’re saying that what sort of character a player chooses to play is less revealing than how the player chooses to approach that character.

    I’m curious whether the flavor of D&D you play involves random rolling of stats. It kind of sounds like it might, when you talk about players who will only play a fighter if they have a high enough STR score. Though I have no data to back this up, I get the feeling this is relatively rare among D&D players these days, with the possible exception of dedicated OSR proponents.

  6. KaitoujulietNo Gravatar says:

    Regarding “players who use INT or CHA as a dump stat but then don’t play their characters as particularly unintelligent or unlikeable,” I have some sympathy for the players, depending on the system. Sometimes systems aren’t very consistent about what those stats actually mean. As a case in point, I’m currently running a Star Wars Saga Edition game for my group. Overall, I like the system very much, but I think they dropped the ball on the function of the INT stat: its mechanical meaning simply doesn’t match its fluff/roleplaying meaning. Mechanically, it only affects the number of languages and trained skills you can learn, and some classes–such as the Jedi!–don’t have a lot of skills available to them. So there’s no mechanical incentive whatsoever for a Jedi to have a high INT score, especially since they really need to have several other scores high for mechanical reasons–but then the book suggests that a character with low intelligence “mispronounces and misuses words, has trouble following directions, or fails to get the joke.” Which really is not appropriate for a Jedi at all. So the system has really undercut itself there; something has to go, and I’d much rather *not* have a game full of stupid Jedi who just happen to do cool Force tricks!

  7. Richard GreenNo Gravatar says:

    I started playing rpgs in 4th grade and have continued with one game or another for over 3 decades now. We moved around alot when I was young, so gaming was the quickest route to meeting people in new towns. Fortunately, while there was the hysteria that followed a couple of well blown-out-of-proportion incidents among alleged players during the 70s (and a really bad Tom Hanks made for tv movie), everyone generally seemed to welcome role-playing. Most of the parents I knew back then and today see it has harmlees fun and certainly a way to keep their kids or at least the neighbor kids from running around getting into trouble… the ocassional tavern brawl and goblin slaying aside. We also looked at it in different circles as a different method of team building (10 years of restaurant management really beats team building into ones head after a while). I’ve played with groups of varying ages and backgrounds in 3 states and a half dozen towns along the way and the one thing that remains constant is group of people who simply want to have a good time… and keep on having one.
    I actually went through a bit of dry spell after moving to TN in 1999 and most of my “game time” was spent in contemplation and personal research of gaming in general as I had no groups locally and no time to look. Job searches and being a single dad at that time left me little time for active gaming. As with so many thing in the last decade or so, when the economy had its issues a few years I started back to school after a bit of a hiatus. I wound up being on of the founding members of the community college gaming club on campus and found myself playing at least once a week again… with real people again! As a side note, I am obliged to say (because I make myself point it out at every opportunity) that campus D&D Club was and continues to be largest and most active organization on the campus. As a group, when looking for an adivsor for the group on campus, we pointed out the team building aspects, out of the box thinking generally used (since we are not allowed to use a “fireball spell” in polite society today), unique methods of leadership building and a great way for usually shy people to be able to open up in front of others. For a while, my oldest son played with an early Vol State group of mine. That wouldn’t seem odd in and of itself, except that he’s autistic. While some of the social interaction may not have had the impact it would under other circumstances, he enjoyed playing that summer and he was welcomed by the group at large as an equal among equals. If nothing else resonates, make it that. Gamers, table-top gamers in particular accept all comers and that is unique in my opinion. Playing games online can be frought with its own hazzards… but table top gaming puts you face to face with those you are actually playing the game with and is a level of interaction of absent today.
    It was when preparing to leave Vol State in fact that the idea for my own RPG company came into being. It was because of the interaction I had with so many players and people during those couple of years that caused every thing to fall into place.

  8. […] is RA Whipple’s excellent article on friendships and […]

  9. R. A. Whipple (@RA_Whipple)No Gravatar says:

    This is something I forgot about – I watched many years ago – but it informs my argument of illustrating a sandbox improvisation, granted through the veil of a “persona” but a persona of one’s own choosing rather than as an interpretion of a character written by someone else in the theatre according to Constantin Stanisławski’s Method Acting. The player applies the mechanics of the threatre to him or herself rather than to a part written for him or her. From 2:09 onwards:

  10. R. A. Whipple (@RA_Whipple)No Gravatar says:

    An image off The Internet reminds me of an Oscar Wilde quote that goes:
    “A man is least himself when he talks in his own person but give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” It seems apropos to this post so I am sticking the link to the image here (assuming the link will work, of course).

  11. R. A. Whipple (@RA_Whipple)No Gravatar says:

    “Imagination and reality are always interconnected.”

    —Matt Rosenblum,, Fostering Creativity and Connection

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