Thursday, April 05, 2012

[DnDNext] What Makes a Rpg a "Role Playing Game"

Some of the early criticisms of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons was that the game over-emphasized miniatures play, it felt too much like a board game, it plays like a MMORPG, and skill challenges don't work.  While these criticisms might seem distinct from one another, they all share one quality.  Each of these criticisms has as a component that the critics felt that 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons had focused almost solely on the combat aspects of the game, and had forsaken the improvisational, acting, and role assuming, parts of the game that are the reasons that games like D&D are called role playing games in the first place.

I won't go into the legitimacy of these complaints, as they are highly contested matters of opinion where there are persuasive arguments on both sides.  I will say that I think that 4th edition is possibly the best fantasy tactical game I have ever played.  I will also say that the indie game influence skill challenges system is difficult to implement, but can create some of the most rewarding actual "role playing" experiences one can have in a game.

That said, what I really want to ask in this post -- ask you that is -- is what makes a role playing game a "role playing game?"  The hope is that someone at Wizards will read this discussion and bring some of the ideas to their playtest tables in house.  I'll provide a little context, but I hope that you will provide some opinions.

Back in what James Maliszewski would call "The Golden Age" of role playing games, Steve Jackson wrote an essay for the second issue of gaming magazine Different Worlds.  The essay was for a semi-regular column in DW entitled "My Life and Roleplaying" in which DW covered the lives of many people in the hobby.  In that essay, Steve Jackson points out that "most people reading [his essay] probably cut their gaming teeth on a role-playing game, years and years ago."  Given that Jackson was writing these words in 1979, this might seem a shocking statement to most gamers, and I do believe it was meant to be provocative.  Jackson followed this disarming statement with an even more controversial one, "The most popular board game ever developed in the US is pure role playing.  Yes...Monopoly.  Consider:  Each player takes on the role of a cheerfully rapacious real-estate tycoon, wheeling and dealing until he alone commands the board."

Jackson goes on to say that his own OGRE game is a role-playing game as well, a fact that he didn't realize for quite some time but true never the less by what he had come to consider a useful definition of a role playing game.  His definitions was:  A role-playing game is one that invites its players to take on a personality different from their own.

The key term for Jackson was the word "invites."  Rpgs don't require players to take on a different personality, but they do offer the opportunity.  Jackson was taken aback by the number of players who told him how much they like "being" the OGRE, and that was when he realized he had made a role playing game.

What also amazed him was how many people playing role-playing games don't ever take the time to play a role.  As he described it:

It is a shame that so many of their fans don't really bother with role-playing at all.
That, I'm afraid, was the first thing that impressed me about D&D -- and it's still true today, with that and almost every similar game.  Role-playing goes right out the window.  Every player is being himself, often in the most obnoxious fashion.  Whether he's swinging a sword or a wand, every adventure is the same.  Zap, slash, kill, loot.  What did we find?  Whoops, a random monster.  A million hit points.  Zap, slash, kill.  A million experience point.  Babble, babble, 27th level Brouhaha with a Ring of Instant Permanent Total Monster Charming.  *yawn*
 Jackson is quick to point out that not all role playing sessions are played this way, but that every game has players who play this way.  It was his goal to write the rules of The Fantasy Trip to disincentivize that kind of play and to encourage actual role playing.

I think that 4th edition encourages role playing in some ways, but also discourages it in others.  There is no rich IP in the initial rules of 4e, so the players are left to imagine only a world of stats and powers.  Heck, even the way that powers are presented -- effectively as Magic: The Gathering cards -- fails to support role playing aspects of the game.  There is little advice, in the Player's Handbook, regarding creating a collaborative story and there are seemingly no rewards for them -- only rewards for hitting "plot points."  What about rewards for entertaining play?  Interestingly, the Organized Play rules -- for Encounters -- include benefits for a "moment of greatness" a feature that can encourage actual roleplaying in addition to tactical innovation.  With no rich backdrop, and detailed rules for combat, what is the player to think the game plays like?

Even when the DMG for 4e, and even more so the DMG 2, provide some great tools for fostering "role" playing -- the fact is that the Player's Handbook doesn't.  I think this is what led many players to think that 4e de-emphasized role playing in favor of tactical combat.  Was it true?  Not necessarily, but it seemed true.

But in order to write rule books that foster role playing, it is necessary to come to a useful definition -- or many useful examples -- of what role playing is.  This is where you come in.  If you were writing for DnDNext, how would you describe role playing?  What examples would you use?  If you were to bring in the very "Indie" skill challenge system -- it's straight out of Burning Wheel -- how would you describe it?



Philo Pharynx said...

This is a good concept to think about. I've always said that roleplaying is not something that can be housed in a book. That's the part that the players need to bring to the game. I've even seen "rules that encourage roleplaying" be subverted. "I'm going to donate to the church because it will satisfy my piety trait and I'll get a plot point." What's more, this isn't something that it's easy to describe. For some people, a whole book of advice won't work. In other cases, a person grasps it without any prompting at all. Because of this, I'm split on how much a game should have in it. Perhaps they could have a link to some of the good resources on the web so people can figure out what works for them.

Stick said...

Actually 4th edition has to be rewarded to kicking me towards indie games in search for more role-playing and less monster-blasting.

I think that (aside for the obvious notion that role-playing means... playing a role, or acting somehow as a different person), to enjoy a funny RPG session you need a model that allows you to reflect in rules what you could consider important in real life.

I mean... PRETEND you are a swordsman in a gritty world; would you really slash monsters on a daily basis? When should you stop to enjoy your well-deserved treasure (it seems no monster can live far from a treasure, in D&D)? How about your character to be rewarded by a feud, a title or simply gratitude or glory?
What about personal agendas, repent, inner growth? What about having doubts about religion, philosophy and credos?
What about illness, traumas (both in flesh and in spirit), personal fears or phobias?

I think role-playing while gaming is having the will to create a world full of colors and details.
Imagine you narrating your adventures to a non-gamer friend. Are them exciting? Are them worth listening? Can them concur with a good novel?

The game system is a great part of this, but it's not all. The "gaming/narrative contract" between players, or a common creative agenda are important parts... but for sure a game system should not put in the way. The good thing with 3rd edition was that it was kind of a mess, but it was not strongly opinionated about what's interesting to players. 4th edition advices on role-playing seems like a "after slaying the big boss, take some moment to pat your shoulders, then back to work!". This is so restricting...

Thanks for your article! :)