Roll the Bones: Is Role-Playing Dying in RPGs?By: talonkane posted at Apr 29, 2010 9:35 am
If you are reading this, you are probably wondering who I am and why would you want to read what I wrote. My name is Bernard and I love tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) and live action role-playing games (LARPs). I have played and ran RPGs and LARPs for 26 years. I am a published contributing author in two RPG books Relics and Rituals and Denizens of Darkness. And when I was asked if I wanted to blog about RPGs and LARPs, I said “Absolutely!” I hope to provide you with some insight to RPGs and LARPs, reviews of current games, and gaming advice that you will hopefully find useful. With that said, let’s begin shall we?
If you are a tabletop role-player, answer these three questions:
What is your character’s favorite hobby?
What is your character’s mother’s name?
Where did your character grow up?
Were you able to answer any of those questions? If you answered “No”, then ask yourself, “Why couldn’t I answer them?” I think it is because role-playing is not stressed as heavily in games as they should be. If you think about your character, you probably think about your character’s attributes, the cool items or weapons he or she has, or even the spells or powers your character can use. I don’t believe players think about the character’s history and background as is intended in role-playing. In fact, I think that role-playing in tabletop games dying.
According to Dictionary.com, one definition of a role-playing game is “A game in which players assume the roles of characters and act out fantastical adventures, the outcomes of which are partially determined by chance, as by the roll of dice.” This is a very accurate definition that we should examine in two parts. First, players assume the roles of characters. This means you, as a player, will be creating a person who you control during the game. You decide what that person, when they do it, and how they do it, all during the game. When the player assumes the role of that character, how much effort is put into that role? Does the player simply decide they are Frank the Barbarian and that’s it? Or do they breathe life into Frank and give him a detailed history, hair color, defining scars or tattoos on his body? The ability to play out someone other than ourselves makes it intriguing to many players. Who wouldn’t want to be someone other than themselves for a day, or at least in a role-playing game, a few hours?
Second, the outcomes are partially determined by chance by the roll of dice. This is the very staple of role-playing games. Everything crucial your character wishes to do is subject to chance. When he needs to disarm the bomb that is attached to a major city bridge, there is the chance he could fail. When Frank the Barbarian is nearly beaten and goes to make that last ditch blow against the giant spider, he could fail. It is that chance that makes it exciting to play role-playing games. Your actions determined by the roll of a simple die that could indicate brilliant success or failure.
When you consider these two factors – the ability to play someone else and the ability to determine your fate by chance – which one do most players find more important? I say the ability to determine your fate by chance. Your average role-player can tell you tons of things about what their character can do, but rarely will they tell you who their character is. Role-playing games have become more focused on the mechanics of the game than on encouraging players to role-play. And I will say the largest offender is by far the most popular role-playing game: Dungeons and Dragons. If you’re yelling at the screen saying “That’s not true!” go back to my three questions and ask them about your last Dungeons and Dragons character. I will say most of you can’t answer them.
Dungeons and Dragons (also known as D&D) is a game where the player takes on a role in a fantasy world to go on dangerous adventures in search of treasure. This isn’t always the case, but it is probably true 99% of the time. Over D&D’s lifespan, the various writers have provided some wonderful worlds and adventures for players to explore. They gave us Greyhawk, The Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Eberron, the list goes on and on. These locations were provided for characters to develop and role-play their characters. The earlier editions of the game helped players develop their characters into unique individuals.
In 1st Edition we saw new classes with books like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures. In 2nd Edition, we saw the “Complete” series that gave characters different perspectives of playing the same class. For example, The Complete Ranger’s Handbook offered characters various sub-classes of Rangers so no two Rangers in a party had to be identical. But, did this encourage players to role-play? No. These books strictly helped the players provide unique ways to make their characters mechanically different.
D&D strayed away from role-playing even more with 3rd Edition and 3.5. The rule sets were completely re-worked so D&D became more of a combat miniatures game instead of a role-playing game. 3.5 was released to fix the mechanical issues that were found in 3rd Edition. How is a player supposed to feel encouraged to role-play when they are constantly focused about range increments, blast radiuses, and whether or not the orc by the tree is under partial cover?
4th Edition made it even worse. Wizards of the Coast decided to pull in the popularity of powers in the MMO games (like World of Warcraft) and place them into Dungeons and Dragons. To me, this discouraged role-playing even more. Skills were dropped or lumped in with other skills making the options smaller. Classes were dropped or combined with others to provide fewer options. And players became more concerned with when they could use their next power or ability over whether they could talk to the guard and get some information out of him. MMOs aren’t geared towards role-playing, they are geared towards combat. So when 4th Edition came out with their version of a tabletop MMO, they were blatantly saying “Role-playing does not matter anymore.”
If we are to keep role-playing within our RPGs, who takes up the cause to bring role-playing back into the games? I believe it takes the effort of all the people necessary to play an RPG: the game publishers, the players, and the Game Master.
Game publishers should make an effort to remind players what RPGs are all about. I have seen some games that put paragraphs on “What is a Role-Playing Game?” in the first chapter of their book. I commend them for trying, but that isn’t enough. By the time the player gets to Chapter 6 on combat, they forgot everything that was written on role-playing. Game publishers should make an effort to include role-playing as part of the mechanics of their game. For example, Pulsar Games Blood of Heroes gave the characters extra points to create their character if they provided their GM a background on their character. Whether or not they received the points was subject to the GM’s decision if the background was worthy enough. This is helping to encourage role-playing. They were telling the player if they defined their character more, they would receive a bonus to make them better.
Crafty Games’ Spycraft 2nd Edition and Fantasycraft took another approach. They gave players backgrounds (Spycraft) and talents and specialties (Fantasycraft) to help develop their character. It gave players an idea of how their character came to be, while provided them unique abilities or additions to their statistics. If I created a Fantasycraft character who had a specialty of Archer, I know my character uses a bow and arrow well. Though it doesn’t prompt the player to determine why the character uses a bow and arrow well, I think the nudge is pointing players in the right direction.
Of course, the players themselves have to make an effort at role-playing during the game. When they create their characters, players need to make that character “real”. Don’t just give him a name to go along with his stats; build out the character. Give that character skin tone, hair and eye color, specific height and weight, and other distinguishing traits (mustache? beard? eye patch?). Develop the languages your character speaks and his education level. Is your character very scholarly? If so, where did they become educated? If they are a skilled warrior, where did they learn to fight? Give your character a detailed history as well. Where were they born, who are their parents and siblings, what pets do they or did they have? Every detail that you can provide to that character makes them more “real” to play.
And then there is the tough part: play the character. During the game, you need to act out that role. Change your voice slightly when speaking as your character, give yourself different body mannerisms while acting out your character, and give your character trademark dialogue. One of my favorite characters in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game was a high school wrestler from Texas who called himself Bull. Every time he got into a fight, he would go in screaming “Boo-ya!” with a Texan drawl. As much as the other players hated this, I knew they and the Game Master appreciated it because I was putting in that extra effort to role-play him.
Finally, Game Masters have the toughest part in keeping role-playing alive. They need to be the one to enforce it. When a player says to you “I go speak to the guard”, have them act it out. Describe what the guard looks like and what they are doing and make that player speak to your NPC guard. Game Masters not only need to enforce role-playing with the players, they need to enforce it with themselves. They have a menagerie of characters waiting to be met and interacted with, and each one should be different than the other. It takes a lot of effort for a Game Master to play these roles, but in doing so, you encourage your players to role-play as well.
Although I think role-playing is becoming less and less prevalent in RPGs, I still think there is hope to make it a major focus again. But, it starts with you – you who are playing and running games. Make role-playing an active part of your games. The next time you create a new character make who the character is more important than what the character does.
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