The Limits of Designing for Role-Playing.

I think this may surprise people, but the thing that had actually set me on the “warpath” of the Blinders, so to speak, of people saying their games are about and using advice to get there instead of rules, was RPGs. That is to say, it was games where the goal was to role-play, it was games where not only people role-played, but that was the declared goal.

I remember looking at some discussions, and I realized, Dungeons and Dragons is not an RPG, or at least, it’s not in the design, but “merely” in the play. I say “merely”, because perhaps that’s all there is. I looked at D&D, and I looked at the rules, and I saw nothing there that would make me roleplay. I saw very little there that even rewarded me for roleplaying, and quite surprisingly there wasn’t even much advice geared towards getting the players to roleplay and flesh out their characters’ personalities and history.

Perhaps it’s not very surprising, as aside from the Hero Builder’s Guide (which cost money for very little), most people seem to “know” what D&D is about, and are initiated into it by friends or know what to pick up. So they didn’t need to add it, because they knew that people will be told what they need to know.
Of course, they may have also realized there was very little else they could do, because you can’t do much to design RPGs.

 If I were to discuss the ontology of a “Game”, I’d say a game does not exist when it is not played. A box of Dominion or Settlers of Cattan contains the system and the physical components needed, but it doesn’t contain a “game of ___”, that game only springs into existence when people sit around and engage in the activity.
This I think is also true for roleplaying, but I mean it in a slightly different form: There are no role-playing in the rules, there’s no role-playing procedure (yes, when you are training for your job and such, let’s stay focused), but the role-playing game? It only exists, there is only role-playing when the players engage in that activity, when they play a role.

This seems like a rehash of what was said about games, but there’s a difference. The difference is that there is no game if you don’t play the game, but you can play an “RPG” by playing the game and not role-playing. For there to exist an “RPG” rather than “rpG” (where only one aspect really exists), the players need to make an actual choice, the choice to role-play. This is not something the designer can do, this is not something the designer can even assure. This is up to the players.

Though a “Story” is very much the same, I do not think humans can avoid creating (“telling?” one), so I think most designers should content themselves not with trying to ensure that people would role-play while playing their games, but to allow for games where role-playing is an easy option that is not over-eclipsed by other concerns.

 You can help by having stories that the players can relate to, that they can place themselves in, you can give them entities that have personas, who are theirs to control, and with whom they can identify, or even identify the characters as their medium of affecting the world/story. Basically, provide sockets for the players to plug into. People mention “Immersion”, and immersion is a tool, or rather, a state, where some of this is achieved. But even if people think from the an “actor” point of view (not Forge theory usage), of “I“, that it’s them who react, it’d be enough.

The other side is that you need to avoid making something that has nothing to do with portraying a role as much more interesting and rewarding to the players. If you take an exciting game and add role-playing to it, people might shove the role-playing aside just in order to get to the “good bits”. And if story and role-playing is not entirely dispensable, but is the vehicle to get from one mechanical exchange to another, then it’d be stripped down and zipped right along, because the goal of the mechanical exchange is where the focus lays*.

The reason I think it may work better within LARPs is because it gives you a visceral grounding. Even if you keep feeling uncomfortable because you feel the vast distance between yourself and your character (and perhaps suffer from fear of performance), you can’t help but be the one who is acting, be the one who is acted towards by others. You almost can’t help thinking from a first person (actor?) stance, “What am I going to do?” And of course, people tend to give LARPs looser systems, probably for lack of comfortable mechanical tools to make use of (dice, cards, charts).

I think all of this should be liberating to game designers. Once you make sure that players have ample opportunities to plug into certain sockets in the game, and once you make sure it can be an engaging and interesting activity even within this game, you’re good. You don’t need to make sure that everyone will role-play, you needn’t make sure that role-playing is the natural outcome of playing your game. You can’t, and only the players can. Heck, even when it’s the “Natural Outcome”, how much of it comes because the players pick it up expecting that they’ll role-play there, if because it was marketed as such (and/)or because previous editions of the game were like that? Just like Dungeons and Dragons.

Also, that’s why I focus on “Story-Games”. Basically all role-playing games are Story-Games, but Story-Games can be good, can be emotional, without being RPGs.

* This happens when you take a meaty 500 page book and try to fit it into a 90 minute movie, sometimes. You cover all the plot-points, but that’s all they are, merely points you hop along, rather than a story with impact. But maybe that’s just me.

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7 comments on “The Limits of Designing for Role-Playing.

  1. misuba says:

    “I think this may surprise people, but the thing that had actually set me on the “warpath” of the Blinders, so to speak, of people saying their games are about and using advice to get there instead of rules, was RPGs.”

    I think there’s a chunk missing out of this sentence… can you clarify?

  2. Guy Shalev says:

    Hm, I thought the following sentence lead there, but it still needs unpacking, so sure.

    I’m historically annoyed by games where results are not had because that’s where the game, or the rules, lead. I am annoyed by people using advice to supplement their rules, not when the advice truly does, but when the game’s feel, the type of story that is told, is had only because the advice was there.

    In such games, you could almost take out the rules, keep the advice, and you’ll have the same sort of game. That’s lazy design.

    The proposed “solution” I suggested was one of a method, playtest the game and present the document in such a way that you know that the type of game that springs forth results from the ruleset, not the advice, the culture, that it springs from. I called these “Blinders”, like a double-blind testing.

    As for “Was RPGs”, as I explained later, I think that the act of Role-Playing, it’s often not there. Sure, it was all within what is historically referred to as “RPGs”, but the mere title, the description, the supposedly core activity? That hallowed core, it’s hollowed. It stems from our culture, because where are the rules that say anything about role-play or truly promote it? Where?

  3. Callan says:

    U return!

    To me the issue is that the games were (and often still are) procedurally broken – when do you introduce monsters, if ever? Where do players start? Can they buy gear? What can they buy?

    People treated making up this stuff as roleplay – and given the hulking absences of it procedurally it kinda was there in all the ways procedure for it were absent. It’s like a book with the last chapter torn out – either great fodder for imagination (or bloody stupid and crap).

    So that idea of roleplay was there.

    Story? Different creature entirely. I’d agree it’s a choice – it can happen without trying/choosing to, but as Ron puts it, on the monkeys might fly out of my butt principle.

    Anyway, I might not be adding much. Nice post!

  4. Callan says:

    “The idea of roleplay was there if you call that roleplay”
    Just to make myself clearer

  5. Guy says:

    Hey Callan, it’s nice to see someone appreciates me being here ;)

    I expect to make another couple of posts the next week or two. I sometimes have entries in my head, and then don’t post them, or I post my ideas over on Story-Games and then wonder why to bother also posting them here… well, there’s also the “issue” of the more blog posts I write, the more issues that also need to be addressed, because the topic is not concluded and is missing otherwise, but they do not fit into a single post. Of course, it’s only a problem for me :D

    BTW, I’ve emailed you a link to some RPG Theory articles on my personal LiveJournal, if anyone else who is not a creep or family member is interested, send me an email using the “Contact Me” link at the top of the sidebar on the right.

    As for your post, games are procedurally broken, and they seem to be getting better. I think this was truly the greatest thing about DitV’s city creation and the nature of the genre (we know how the party rides in, etc.), tackling and giving concrete and discrete steps in the procedures.

    However, I don’t think that that is where the role-playing came from. It definitely required role-playing, especially to justify and explain the plot-holes, or to try and coax more information out of the setting/GM. I think that role-playing in those games can be ever present, but there’s never a procedural requirement or even call for it. Even if the procedures are not broken, so long they do not call for/include role-playing, it is all added.

    Hm. I actually think story may not be choice. I think we always have story after the fact, in a way. Well, we choose whether to look for it, but if we look for it, I think we can almost always construct one.

    P.S. This image/clicking my name here will lead to Geekorner, the media review blog I keep.

  6. Callan says:

    Yeah, well story after the fact isn’t story now. :) If by story your refering to story now – it’s a different animal as I said.

    In terms of roleplaying to fill in procedural gaps, I think alot of people take it that it is mechanically reinforced because OMG if you don’t do roleplay to fill in the gaps, the game session collapses! And since that’s THERE in the design, or so they say, then roleplay is there in the design!

    I think that’s BS myself – it’s not there in the design, it’s just broken procedure/incomplete design.

    But I thought I’d describe what some people think roleplay revolves around and how they think it really is i the design, simply for academic sake.

    It’s nice to see you back! It doesn’t hurt to just cut and paste your posts from story games. Personally I don’t go there anymore because to me people only seemed to be interested in questioning a scant handful of their basic assumptions about roleplay if you agreed with and enthusiastically supported the vast majority of their other assumptions.

  7. Callan says:

    Oh, I can’t seem to post on livejournal (the posting redirect goes nowhere). Might be my comp so I’ll try again latter. But here’s what I was going to post on the ‘story now is false’ entry

    Story now has always struck me, in terms of being really anal in terms of measuring time, not appeared in accounts to be now, but perhaps a few minutes after things were fleshed out. There is a slight lag in gameplay – it’s not perfectly now.

    But this is alot more ‘now’ than making up a story several hours after the game ends, or especially a couple of weeks after.

    But I wouldn’t say story now is passive at all – stories involve self reflection to some degree. Passivity would mean no self reflection. I’d call it sim, since being passive would practically be dreaming (when you dream you don’t self reflect on the story that’s happening in your head – your completely passive in that regard)

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