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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