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Author Topic: Tony's Standard Rant #1: Roleplay/Game Duality  (Read 15497 times)
TonyLB
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« on: April 05, 2005, 06:02:25 AM »

This rant brought to you courtesy of discussion in this thread.


There is a misconception that's become a pet peeve of mine, and that I want to debunk:  The idea that "playing a role" and "playing a game" are ever separate parts of playing a roleplaying game.  They aren't.  They are two different ways of viewing the same underlying activity.  And now, let's talk about physics.

By the turn of the 20th century, the evidence was spectacularly strong that light was a wave.  Light does all manner of things that you can't explain by treating it as a particle (interference patterns, for a start).  Then somebody conducted an experiment and demonstrated the photoelectric effect.  The thing is, you can't explain the photoelectric effect by discussing light as a wave.  But it makes perfect sense if you imagine that light is a particle.

So what does that mean?  To a layman it means "Light is sometimes a wave and sometimes a particle, and you explain some things with one tool and some with another, but never with both."  To a physicist it means "Light is neither a wave nor a particle.  It is something else we don't (yet) have words for.  But it is something that 99.999% of the time exhibits properties that can be adequately understood using either a wave model or a particle model.  Both models are flawed, but for the huge majority of cases either one is good enough, so we're not throwing them away until we have something equally simple that works 100%."

My take on RPGs mimics this closely:  "Roleplaying games are neither roleplaying nor games.  They are something else that we don't (yet) have words for.  But it is something that most of the time can be adequately understood using either a roleplaying model or a game model.  Both models are flawed, but for the huge majority of cases either one is good enough, so we're not throwing them away until we have something equally simple that works 100%."

Hence the title of this rant:  Roleplay/Game Duality.  You're doing something you have no good words for... so you put the best model you can manage to slap together onto it, and then you perceive it through that lens.  But your lens is not privileged.  You are not doing anything that someone using another lens cannot or will not do, if they are pursuing the same agenda.  You are playing an RPG.  Roleplaying and Gaming, separately, are just mental tools to help you get your head around that.

And yes, by "roleplaying" I mean "telling a story" here too.  I'm talking about everything where you contribute your choices and your aesthetic to the SIS.  Call it make-believe, creative fiction, whatever.  For the purpose of this rant, I'm calling it roleplay, because that's the way that I've heard it brought up as a concern most frequently.

"You," a man will say, with a sneer in his voice, "are not roleplaying.  You are simply going through the motions of real roleplaying, in order to abuse the game system.  You are, dare I say it, a... rollplayer!"  Cue scandalized gasps from the onlookers.  Ladies swoon.  Smelling-salts are deployed.  A slap with an empty glove, a call for satisfaction, pistols at dawn.

Feh.  They're both doing exactly the same thing.  They're just looking at it so differently that they can't recognize the similarities.  Let's parse some examples:

Quote
"I could kill this dragon right now, with an arrow of dragon-slaying.  But I can probably catch it later if I try with the sword and fail, and I'll get a +20% XP bonus for tracking it down.  Sword it is!"

Quote
"I could patch up things with Megumi, if I said the right thing right now.  But I can probably fix the romance later, even if I say this wonderfully unfortunate thing right now, and it's a much more dramatic story that way.  Stupid faux-pas it is!"


Those are exactly the same thought processes.  "I can do A for reward X in keeping with my agenda.  Or I can do B for reward X+N.  B it is!"  Saying that one is gaming, and one is roleplaying... well that's true.  Because they're both gaming, and they're both roleplaying.  Let's do some more charged examples:

Quote
"I could kill this dragon right now, with the arrow of dragon-slaying.  But I can also let it go, because I have doubts about whether slaying it is the right thing to do, and that makes for a much more dramatic story.  Pangs of conscience it is!"

Quote
"I could show respect for the King's guard.  But I can also attack them, and get a pile of XP, and maybe a pair of their nice shiny Boots of Swift Response will be in my size.  Sociopathic attack it is!"


There is no difference between any of these examples.  They are all doing exactly the same thing.  Yes, the munchkin who attacks the King's guard for XP is doing the same thing as the real-roleplayer who lets the dragon get away because his conscience commands him.  They're choosing a path among options given them by the rules of their game (including the unwritten ones) to accomplish their agenda.

"But I have perceived this difference!" I hear you cry.  Of course you have!  There isn't a theoretical difference, but there is a huge practical difference in many games.  That difference is maintained and increased by many roleplaying systems.  Each new game system, each new gaming group, bring subtly different mental tools to the table.  If you want to look at the Real Stuff of RPG through the lens of Gaming then your view is informed by what game-mechanics are on hand, and what social dynamics you can manipulate.  If you want to look at the Real Stuff through the lens of Roleplaying then your view is informed by what game-setting and genre are on hand, and what aesthetic sensibilities you can manipulate.

Sometimes the mental tools so thoroughly distort the actual underlying RPG experience that they create two incompatible sets of options.  If you look at an RPG situation through the Roleplaying lens you see options A, B and C.  Options D and E aren't viable within that mental toolset.  Then if you look at the same situation through the Gaming lens you see options C, D and E.  Options A and B aren't viable within that mental toolset.  If you're lucky and good, you can consistently choose Option C, and please both models.  This gives rise to the mistaken impression that "The system doesn't matter, because a good GM can make any system work."  Yeah, and a good potter can throw a vase from clay filled with shards of glass, but that doesn't make it a smart way to work.  More often, when your mental tools are in conflict you'll end up bopping between options A and E, B and D, pleasing every model part of the time and no model all of the time.  

This is what reinforces the RPG equivalent to the physics-layman's view of duality: "Roleplaying games are sometimes games and sometimes roleplaying.  You do some parts of the activity by playing a role, and some parts by playing a game but you never do both at once."  Now let's say you subscribe to this... ahem... misconception.  You will strive to pigeonhole your experience into categories.  So playing rival factions against each other, while cleverly pushing your own diplomatic agenda... that can't be playing a game, because it's so clearly playing a role.  Likewise, rolling the dice and formulating strategy in the climactic battle between your hero and his archnemesis... that can't be playing a role, because it's so clearly playing a game.

Most of all, if you believe that roleplaying and gaming are opposites, you will never accept that game-mechanics can help you roleplay, and roleplaying can help you work the game mechanics.  Happily, many Forge-inspired games take a much more productive tack.  In layman's terms, they present game-mechanics that are meant to facilitate roleplay and roleplaying situations that support a particular type of mechanical tactic.  When you say that to somebody trapped in the "either/or" delusion above, they get a strange look.  "I know all those words," they seem to be thinking, "but I cannot parse a sentence that uses them in that way."

But even that layman's description is flawed.  From the viewpoint of Roleplay/Game Duality, what these systems do is to help bring the two dual viewpoints more closely into harmony.  They make clearer lenses.  When you use a Roleplaying model you will see viable choices A, B and C.  And when you use a Gaming model you will see viable choices A, B and C.  If the Gaming model also provokes you to think about choice D then when you look at choice D through the Roleplaying model you will discover that it is viable there too.  If the Roleplaying model provokes you to think about choice E then choice E will make sense in the Gaming model as well.

Ultimately, these systems let you put the models aside moment by moment.  When you can flip seamlessly from one viewpoint to another, without having to change anything about what you're doing in the game, it makes it clearer and clearer how they're actually just representations of the same thing.  You stop thinking about what you see through the distorting lens of Roleplay-only, or Game-only, and perceive more clearly the actual Real Stuff that's happening.
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Jasper
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« Reply #1 on: April 05, 2005, 07:03:10 AM »

Nice rant, Tony.  The light analogy is especially useful, and I'll definitely be using it on some friends (who I've been having this, ahem, discussion with for many years).

I'm not sure about Forge (or similar) games functioning as a clearer lens though.  That implies that other games are blurrier lenses, because they don't merge the two kinds of thinking (and the choices that come with that)...but we've also concluded that there is no real dichotomy, which would seem to suggest that there aren't really two separate ways of acting -- just ways to justify/conceive that act.  Am I missing some part of the argument?
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Jasper McChesney
Primeval Games Press
Vaxalon
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« Reply #2 on: April 05, 2005, 07:41:07 AM »

I'm not so sure about this.

People do things in roleplaying games that are not handled by mechanics.  People do things in roleplaying games that are penalized by mechanics.

Player: "I draw my sword and attack the palace guard!"

DM: "This isn't 2e anymore, Joe, you won't get any XP for picking fights at random."

Player: "I don't care, he looked at me funny.  I'm fourteenth level, what are they going to do?"

DM: ::sigh:: "Okay, well, you've got surprise... roll initiative..."

The DM thinks, "Why is he doing this?  It's neither in keeping with his agenda... he's a PALADIN for Pete's sake... nor is he getting a reward... what the foul?"

Roleplaying games are an exercise that is, at its heart, nearly completely imaginary.  We use paper to keep records because our memories aren't good enough to do it on our own, and we use dice because we like the unexpected, but there are games that can be played with no physical representation whatsoever that are still roleplaying games.

When I as a gamemaster, say, "Joe takes fifteen points of damage" I fail to understand what the roleplaying aspect of that is.  What is there, besides raw mechanics?

When I as gamemaster say, "The bartender says, 'What'll you have?'  He glares at you balefully with his one eye, as if to dare you to order anything weaker than Dwarven distilled spirits." there's NO mechanical context present.  Where is the 'game' in color?

Now before you start trying to tell me that it IS there... stop.  That's not what I'm asking for, that's not what I'm talking about.

Roleplaying is a thought-based activity, correct?  Memory, imagination, communication... hold onto that for a moment.

Anything that I am not aware of in my conscious mind DOES NOT EXIST in my conscious mind.  You can tell me that I am having a particular thought, if you like, and your thought-model for what is going on in my mind may require that I be having it... but if I'm not having it, I'm not having it, no matter what your model says.

At its core, your rant seems to devolve into semantics, redefining what "game" and "roleplaying" mean in the context of a roleplaying game.  Putting peanut butter on one slice, and jelly on the other, does in fact, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but it doesn't make the peanut butter into jelly.
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TonyLB
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« Reply #3 on: April 05, 2005, 08:10:40 AM »

Jasper:  No, you've got it exactly.  Two different ways of justifying and conceiving of actions.  If the models are so divergent that it is hard to conceive of actions in one that can be justified in another then you get into a state where you can only use either of them by assuring that everyone is in agreement on which is being used.  So, for example:  "We'll roll dice for combat, but just roleplay for conversations."


Fred:  Uh... if you don't want an answer to the question, why did you ask it?  In fact, if you don't want to hear anything back from me, why bother posting at all?
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Vaxalon
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« Reply #4 on: April 05, 2005, 08:23:37 AM »

My post isn't asking a question, it's a response to your rant.

"I disagree, and here's why."

I enjoined you from telling me that I don't, in fact, disagree, not that you shouldn't respond at all.

Edit: One of the problems I have with Capes, is that the roleplaying can be entirely driven out of it.  You could remove all of the power descriptions, narration, etc. and be left with a game that was entirely playable.  It's easy... TOO easy, to get caught up in the mechanics, and lose sight of the fact that stuff needs to be justified and narrated.  If the narration part and the mechanics is all equal, then that shouldn't matter... but it does.  This is what leads me to understand that there IS a real difference, a real dichotomy.
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"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
                                     --Vincent Baker
TonyLB
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« Reply #5 on: April 05, 2005, 09:03:35 AM »

Okay, you disagree.  That's nice.

I like your point about games with no props and no dice, however, because it brings up an issue that I didn't raise.

Freeform games, where there is no rules system, no mechanics, nothing but people socially interacting, are still roleplaying games.  The Gaming-only model is perfectly serviceable in such cases:  the rules of the game are the social interactions of the people involved.

Honestly, once you view such things as a game, and take some serious time to figure out what the rules are, it becomes almost criminally easy to do anything you want.  People are so easy to beat when they don't realize what game they're playing.
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Jasper
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« Reply #6 on: April 05, 2005, 09:06:53 AM »

Okay, Tony, good to know.  And maybe you won't mind me jumping in here either:

Quote from: Vaxalon
When I as a gamemaster, say, "Joe takes fifteen points of damage" I fail to understand what the roleplaying aspect of that is. What is there, besides raw mechanics?


You seem to be forgetting the lumpley principle. Crunchy mechanics, and method-acting-based ideas of what "feels right" (for instance) are both just part of system.

The rule saying "Joe take 15 damage" gets turned into a part of the system, and then goes on to change the SIS.  Lacking that written rule,  Joe's player could stagger around acting hurt, pretending to be Joe, and it could change the SIS in exactly the same way.  Where's the difference? Surely the fact that one version comes from a written source, and is more mathematically quantified, shouldn't matter.
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Jasper McChesney
Primeval Games Press
Vaxalon
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« Reply #7 on: April 05, 2005, 09:13:12 AM »

Quote from: Tony
Freeform games, where there is no rules system, no mechanics, nothing but people socially interacting, are still roleplaying games. The Gaming-only model is perfectly serviceable in such cases: the rules of the game are the social interactions of the people involved.


I suppose that fits in with the "Games People Play" school of interpersonal relationships.  Sometimes, interactions ARE described in terms of "games"... but I don't think those are games in the same sense of the word.  There are games one is conscious of playing, and ones you are not conscious of.  "Game" in that sense is used as a metaphor.

I don't count freeform roleplaying as a roleplaying game.

When I talk about games that can be played without the use of paper, dice, etc. I'm not talking about freeform roleplaying.  In college we played something called "Fateroller" that was so rules-light that we could play it without referring to paper character sheets, and used a simple diceless resource mechanic to determine contributions.  We played it in little five-minute dribs and drabs whenever we encountered each other in passing.  Come to think of it, it was GMless, too... I should see if I can reconstruct the rules for that.

It seems to me that by your definition, Tony, ANY game is a roleplaying game, and I don't think that's the case.  It may even be that the Lumpley principle implies that all games are roleplaying games, or even that all human interaction is a roleplaying game.  I'm not willing to stretch the definition that far.  There has to be something that separates Capes from Chess from the Boardroom.
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"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
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TonyLB
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« Reply #8 on: April 05, 2005, 09:17:55 AM »

Quote from: Vaxalon
"Game" in that sense is used as a metaphor.

Yes.  That's exactly what I'm talking about.  "Game" in the sense you're talking about it (as referring to RPGs) is also used as a metaphor.  That's what I've been saying.  Are we clear now?
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Vaxalon
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« Reply #9 on: April 05, 2005, 09:32:36 AM »

No, the word "game" in the context of roleplaying games is NOT used as a metaphor.  It's used in the same sense as, say, a gambling game, or a "train" game, or a strategy game.  Poker is as much like chess as Capes is like chess.  They all have an essential 'gameness' to them that interpersonal interactions do not, even though interpersonal interactions can be analyzed with a game metaphor.
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"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
                                     --Vincent Baker
Shreyas Sampat
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« Reply #10 on: April 05, 2005, 09:37:20 AM »

Quote from: Vaxalon
They all have an essential 'gameness' to them that interpersonal interactions do not, even though interpersonal interactions can be analyzed with a game metaphor.
I think, for this discussion to continue productively, you have to define what you feel is "gameness" in a clear and rigorous manner; it seems obvious to me that you and Tony are talking past each other because of differing conceptins of terms, and simply asserting, "You're wrong," "No, you are!" isn't really going to move the thread forward.
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Doug Ruff
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« Reply #11 on: April 05, 2005, 09:39:02 AM »

So, if I'm reading this right (always a dangerous assumption!) then:

Roleplaying games are about roleplaying (group contributions to a Shared Imagined Space) and gaming (which means that there are rules and strategies involved). If you take either of these elements out, you no longer have a roleplaying game.

Good roleplaying games make sure that each element supports the other (which can mean removing as much as possible of one element, while still retaining functionality as a roleplaying game*)

Now this seems a bit, well... obvious to me. Which means that either this rant isn't aimed at me, or I have willfully misinterpreted you...again. Which one is it this time?

* I think this is where a lot of Fred's disagreement is coming from - it's possible to make a roleplaying game so rules-light, or roleplay-light for that matter, that it's hard to see where borders are. This is usually the point where we start diagreeing about definitions, though.

PS I don't think I'm going to be able to get anything into this thread without crossposting someone, so apologies, I'm just going to jump right in!
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Vaxalon
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« Reply #12 on: April 05, 2005, 09:52:05 AM »

Doug: Exactly!

In order for it to be a roleplaying GAME, rather than just roleplaying, there have to be FORMAL rules that the players are adhering to.  If there aren't any, then it's freeform roleplaying, and not a game.  Social rules are not formal rules.  The existence of a social contract is not enough to qualify roleplaying as a roleplaying game.  There's a social contract in poker, for example.  "We don't deal from the bottom of the deck.  We don't try to look at each other's hands.  We don't play with marked cards."  If a social contract and interaction were all that was required to make a roleplaying game, then poker would be a roleplaying game, and it clearly isn't.

In order for it to be a ROLEPLAYING game, then there has to be an element of narration, even if it's not the focus of the game, or else it becomes some other kind of game.  Go watch some folks playing the DnD miniatures game.  It uses a combat ruleset that is basically cut-down DND rules; you could easily use them for a roleplaying game just as easily as for the strategy game.  The difference is that there's no aspect of narration to it.

In short:

In order to be a roleplaying game, three things must be true:

1> There must be a formal ruleset.  It does not need to be lengthy, and it doesn't need to be written, but it must be formal and it must be agreed to by the participants.

2> There must be an element of narration that is a recognized PART of the game.  For those of you who ascribe to it, this would be the "shared imagined space".

3> The two elements of the game must mutually interact with each other.  If you're playing DnD miniatures, and as your Aasimar Paladin moves forward, you say, "Telgar the Pure marches forward, sword in hand!" that's not a roleplaying game.  Your declaration is not part of the game, it's ancillary, and as such is just a play-by-play tacked onto the miniatures game; the fact that you moved your miniature forward twelve inches is part of the game; the narration is not.

By the way: This is where I feel Capes is weak.
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"In our game the other night, Joshua's character came in as an improvised thing, but he was crap so he only contributed a d4!"
                                     --Vincent Baker
TonyLB
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« Reply #13 on: April 05, 2005, 09:53:25 AM »

Doug:  Roleplaying games are not about roleplaying.  Roleplaying games are not about games.
Quote from: TonyLB
Roleplaying games are neither roleplaying nor games. They are something else that we don't (yet) have words for. But it is something that most of the time can be adequately understood using either a roleplaying model or a game model. Both models are flawed, but for the huge majority of cases either one is good enough, so we're not throwing them away until we have something equally simple that works 100%

You clearly weren't wilfull in your misinterpretation, but yes I think you misinterpreted.  Your phrasing seems to imply that you think that roleplaying and gaming are two great tastes that taste great together.  Is that what you were saying?

What I'm saying is that it's like the 'difference' between the flying target watched by a duck-hunter and the research datum watched by an ornithologist... which is to say no difference at all.  Same duck.  The only difference is where you come at it from mentally.
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Doug Ruff
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« Reply #14 on: April 05, 2005, 10:17:46 AM »

Quote from: TonyLB
Your phrasing seems to imply that you think that roleplaying and gaming are two great tastes that taste great together.  Is that what you were saying?


Try 'binary weapon' instead. You know, two harmless chemicals, put them together and BOOM!

As Fred says, I think it is possible for "roleplaying" and "games" to exist separately from "roleplaying games".

But that doesn't mean that a "roleplaying" game is just a game with roleplaying chucked in (or the other way around.)

It is definitely about both of these things, but it's not the same as these things.

So, yeah, it's the same duck alright. But neither the duck-hunter nor the ornithologist fully understand the duck, do they?

With this in mind, is there really any difference between what the three of us are saying?

(Apart from the bit about where Capes is weak in this area. Fred, I think that Capes is strong in exactly this area! the rules tell you exactly what you can and cannot do to drive the story forwards; driving the story forwards in interesting ways also gives you a mechanical reward*)

* The fact that I can still talk in this way after reading Tony's rant is probably a more significant difference in opinion than any of the above!
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