… but I’d rather be roleplaying

11 July, 2009 at 12:24 pm (roleplaying)

In which I explain what sorts of heavily rules-bound play I find generally boring or not worth my time, and why it is so. If you find philosophical investigation boring, skip to the next heading.

But first a few words about roleplaying, as a term. There is roleplaying as a hobby and an activity (and roleplaying games as a small subset of it). Pretending to be someone else, or maybe steering the actions of a fictional character in a fictional world. This is very much the same thing that computer “roleplaying” games are about. Some game being a roleplaying games is a cultural thing: If players think of something as a roleplaying games, than it is. 4e is clearly a roleplaying game, for example. So are the strangest of indie games (but not Universalis). This way of understanding roleplaying is not meaningful when having a conversation with roleplayers or about roleplaying games, because it provides no insight, makes no divisions.

There’s another way roleplaying is talked about. Roleplaying, in this other sense, is something that can be part of playing roleplaying games, but does not need to be. It is often (falsely) contrasted with rollplaying (now I’m feeling dirty), hacking and slashing or perhaps ruleplaying. The common thread seems to be that these are shorthands for activities that happen in games that are not roleplaying games. These distinctions have the potential to be meaningful, as they do separate distinct phenomena, in their crude and unhelpful manner.

This brings us to the culture of discourse among roleplayers. Roleplayers have their jargon, as doubtless do other hobbyists. Many terms have pretty clear meanings, but some are overloaded (that is, have too many distinct meanings) and pretty much unusable. Story and roleplaying are fine examples of this. I won’t talk about story, at least this time. About roleplaying I will.

Roleplaying can mean dialogue spoken in character, immersion (deep or not), random quirks, inter-party banter, dramatic angst, acting, not rolling dice or plenty of other things. People don’t bother defining what they are talking about when they say roleplaying, maybe because they think it is obvious (it is not), or because they don’t know. I doubt most people have the inclination of thinking carefully what words mean, unless prodded to do so. The situation is even more complicated because roleplaying as a word has positive connotations; almost everyone likes to think that they roleplay a lot, as opposed to merely being some foul and barbaric rollplayers.

I want to communicate about roleplaying games; especially about how and why people play, and how they can get better at it. Hence, I need to know what people mean when they say roleplaying. For this reason I try to define what roleplaying is, at least to some extent, when the word gets randomly tossed around. Of course, I like to define it in a way that suits me: Roleplaying (in the narrow sense) is revealing character through play. Revealing to yourself or to others, and revealing character’s personality particularly; beliefs, issues, problems. In play, not when buying a profession (baker) skill in character generation. Your definition may, and is likely to, vary.

… but I had a point to this post, too

A few times in the recent past I’ve used the phrase “but I’d rather be roleplaying”. Usually the context is something like “do you like board games/movies/D&D?” Yes, they are okay, but I’d rather be roleplaying.

As inconsistent as this is of me, I don’t really mean roleplaying in either of the ways outlined above when uttering this phrase. Rather, I mean roleplaying as imagining interesting events and improvising what happens next. I think. Something like that. The fiction is what matters, but creating it is the actual heart of roleplaying, to me. So: The storytelling is what matters.

It is clear that movies and board games do not allow me to meaningfully participate in shared storytelling. In case of board games, the story we might build around the game does not matter, as rules are what matters and what is manipulated.

Railroaded games do not allow meaningful fiction creation, either, as the outcome and the important parts are fixed. Details may vary. This, of course, depends on the degree of railroading, but I am talking of the extreme case here.

Traditional combat systems are an edge case: They create fiction and often allow meaningful input, but they are utterly slow and they often limit the inputs and outputs that get used, even if there is room for more exotic actions. Once miniatures in modern D&D hit the table, interesting fiction does not often happen. There’s just a series of “I swing (or use Utterly Awesome Anime Power), you hit with maybe some description (or Conditions of Great Awesomity are placed on characters that also move around a bit and some enemies take damage), they swing, miss, you swing, …”. Maybe there’s an interesting visual effect every now and then, unless overshadowed by Anime Powerz, but could we get on with the shared storytelling and interacting in the fiction and all the interesting stuff already? Please? Burning Wheel has some of the same problems, but it does tend to create more interesting fiction; it would take lots of practice to make the extended resolution systems fast enough, though.

I feel I am again getting closer and closer to what I actually enjoy in roleplaying; this time, thanks to Jukka Särkijärvi’s Pathfinder game (which was fun enough, but I would rather have been roleplaying). At the moment, I would characterise my sources of enjoyment in roleplaying as follows (I’m pretty sure I’m missing something important still, but this is a work in progress.)

  • Fiction I enjoy, which includes swords and sorcery, strange metaphysics, fantasy and scifi that are pretty realistic (by which I mean “close to real world in what is possible” and also internally consistent) but have clearly distinct and separate supernatural or alien parts.
  • Structured social interaction with my friends and with interesting people. (All my friends are interesting people. The converse is not true.)
  • Shared creation of fiction, which I talked about above. Shared, because everyone can and will add things and nobody has done the creation before play.


  1. seaofstarsrpg said,

    Interesting discussion, roleplaying is indeed harder to define than it at first appears. I will be interested to see how your definition evolves.

    I will ponder and see if I can find anything useful to add.

  2. M Harnish said,

    Amen. I struggle with this too. I’m currently in a M&M game in which I love my character but 90% of the session time is making rolls and fighting bad guys in a very mechanical way which is not what I like about my character or the game: The part I like is the interaction with my character’s brother (we’re like chalk & cheese) and the media – I gave a killer interview on Larry King Live! I wish the game sessions were devoted to more of that and less to mechanically determining the outcome of battles. :o( Alas, I am in the minority in terms of my opinion of the M&M rule system or how the game should run….

    As for my own games, I try to focus on the stuff that makes the story cool and choose games in which the mechanics augment those rather than define them.

  3. Federico said,

    Apparently the so called pointless part of your post was the one that resonated the most with me. In particular because most of my friends are firmly seated in the camp of roleplaying games.

    I can say that I really enjoy strategy and tactical games (Arkham Horror, for instance, is a favourite in my group) but as you very well put it: I’d rather be roleplaying.

    To find a definition for this suits not only the further development of structural analysis of the hobby but is also a debt that every gamer should take seriously: defining what you enjoy in order to seek it out.


    • Tommi said,

      The pointlessness might not have been entirely serious.

  4. d7 said,

    I’ve yet to use the Fight! mechanics in Burning Wheel, but I anticipate things being very slow the first few times. Something that I gained from re-reading that section, though, is that it was actually meant to have unlimited inputs. The list of codified combat actions isn’t exhaustive, just what has been most commonly attempted and thus has been codified.

    However, like much of what makes BW a great system, it mentions that in a scant sentence or two in the preamble for that section. When I do eventually use the extended combat mechanics, I’m going to try to play up the flexibility that players have in what they choose to do rather than show them the list of actions up-front. I think that might be less overwhelming for them as well. Doing that, though, I’m going to have to think about how to get them to think in the short time scale appropriate to that subsystem.

    • Tommi said,

      That would certainly be worth trying. It might even work well. Have you tried anything similar with duel of wits?

      • d7 said,

        I haven’t tried that with DoW yet. (We haven’t had a stable enough group to get a good, continuing game of Burning Wheel going yet.) So far my players have been unfamiliar enough with social “combat” mechanics that the codification has been a boon rather than a hindrance, so I don’t think I would experiment with freeform actions in DoW until we were really familiar with the system.

        Given a group familiar enough with the system, though, it would be interesting to see what players would try outside the existing Duel of Wits actions.

  5. oberonthefool said,

    I suggest Don’t Rest Your Head. Not only are all conflicts resolved with a single, simple roll that requires little to no handling time, but the results of each roll contribute directly back into the fiction. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s consistent; and it delivers like a sledgehammer to the kneecaps.

    • Tommi said,

      I do appreciate my kneecaps, but might check DRYH if there is a nice opportunity. My tastes in gaming tend to be a bit more traditional than that, so I won’t be buying it without playing.

  6. Roolipelaamisen syvin olemus « Mythopoeia said,

    […] kaiken, mitä tästä aiheesta aion sanoa, ehti Tommi Brander jo blogata. Toistan siis hänen ajatuksiaan omin sanoin (ja päädyn kukaties olemaan sävyn verran eri […]

  7. Callan said,

    I think the lightsaber fights in the star wars movies are interesting. But when first viewing it, you don’t really know if Luke will get cut in half, and even on following views your reminded of that original tension.

    While in roleplay, the combat system is usually rigged to produce a predictable result. No wonder no meaningful fiction occurs.

    • Tommi said,

      Right on. It is a consequence of wanting to make a game with lots of combats and characters that survive. Also, combats with no meaningful outcome but death or escape of some side.

      Basically, combats as a goal in and of themselves.

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