The Essence of RPGs (2): Rule-play
The Essence of RPGs

The Essence of RPGs (3): Role-play

DrownarmorIn 1998, I produced one of my final tabletop role-playing game designs with my friend and colleague Rob Briggs, who had also worked on my first published tabletop games, Avatar and Outlands. My work in this space was always motivated by trying out something different that could build upon the successes of other games. Avatar tried to overcome the problem of player knowledge in RPG worlds (since they often had thousands of pages of details that needed to be read) by asking players to co-operate in a world building game to co-create their setting. Outlands attempted to merge science fiction settings into a hodge-podge world in the same manner as Dungeons & Dragons had done with fantasy, and remains one of my favourite designs. Shifter made play from the absurdity of time travel when you can endlessly repeat and modify your previous actions. In Contract, Rob and I tried to boil down the essence of our role-playing into the simplest possible system, and what that meant was creating a character sheet that served as a contract between the games master and the player, establishing who the player was vouching to be in the fictional world of the game.

In the previous part, I described how the ontological complexity of Dungeons & Dragons lead to engaging ‘rule-play’ that was rooted in the infinite variability of the character sheet. In this final part, all that remains is to show how the character sheet was also the locus of the other lineage descending from the tabletop role-playing game – namely role-play. The essential point here is the one that was central to Contract – that the character sheet serves as an agreement as to who the player is undertaking to be in the fictional world of the game. To commit to role-play was to follow that character wherever it led, even – or especially! – to their death. The choices you made as a role-player were not about agency as it is usually construed in videogames, but about being someone else and choosing what they would choose. It was about play-acting and empathy more than about power fantasies and free choice.

From the earliest days of the tabletop role-playing game, there were two main camps for how the story-play would operate, two different sets of player practices for role-play neither of which was specified by the game itself. The first, and the one I was involved in right from the start, could be called dramatic role-play, a form that takes its influence from storytelling and mythology – the kind of psychological patterns identified by Joseph Campbell as the heroic monomyth (or ‘hero’s journey’). This branch of the RPG story leads from the fantasy novels of the mid-twentieth century (that inspired D&D) directly to the sci-fi and fantasy novels of the end of that century and the start of the next. Authors such as Cory Doctorow, China Miéville, Walter Jon Williams, and of course George R.R. Martin were all dedicated role-players who crafted their narrative skills at the gaming table. 

In dramatic role-play, the focus of interest is how characters inter-relate to one another, and as a result those of us engaged in dramatic role-play very quickly realised that the dice were a liability more than they were an asset. We learned to fudge dice roles for dramatic effect, and never regretted it. Characters in our games still died, but they died as a consequence of their actions, not as a result of mere random chance. In the 1990s, many tabletop systems began to emphasise these player practices explicitly in their designs, a lineage exemplified by Erick Wujcik's Amber Diceless Roleplaying (1991), which dispensed with dice entirely, and Jonathan Tweet’s Everway (1995), which replaced dice with a highly visual Fortune Deck (an example of which is pictured above).

The parallel set of player practices to dramatic role-play are what nowadays is often misleadingly termed ‘Old School role-play’. This name is an attempt to claim legitimacy from the sheer age of the practice, but this approach is not any older than dramatic role-play, having the same historical root – Dungeons & Dragons. That said, given that drama is as old as civilization, the practices of dramatic role-play could be traced back to the ancient Greeks at the very least, especially if we take seriously Roger Caillois’ suggestion that theatre (as one form of his mimicry) should be considered a key example of human play.

What characterises Old School role-play isn’t drama but harshness, and I propose to term it brutal role-play. In these player practices, the dice are as sacred as in Caillois’ games of chance and fate (alea) and therefore players are honour-bound to accept their outcome, no matter how terrible. (This would give the ‘Old School’ players an unbeatable comeback to my previous comment about theatre, since no human game is older than dice!) Since all tabletop role-playing games are shockingly inadequate simulations of reality, playing ‘Old School’ generally means accepting a risk of death disproportionately higher than in everyday life. This also means that brutal role-play can be highly effective at simulating the psychological paranoia invoked by violent encounter. No Old School role-player enters into battle unprepared!

When these player practices crossed over into videogames, they developed in both predictable and unexpected ways. Dungeons & Dragons immediately spawned rule-play imitations such as dnd (1974-5) on the PLATO educational computer system. The popularity of these early dungeon crawl games was such that pioneers in computer role-playing games were not always tabletop role-players, since some of them simply picked up their practices from digital simplifications. Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold don’t even mention role-playing games when talking about the origins of Rogue (1980), although they did name-check Adventure (1976-7), which is a direct descendant from D&D.

Rogue, like many of the early computer RPGs, inherits brutal role-play but without the role-play, thus creating a kind of brutal rule-play that today goes by the term permadeath. This concept, however, is a player practice originating with tabletop role-playing games, within which a dead character was dead forever. Before role-playing games, no fictional game world lasted long enough for permadeath to make any sense. Dungeons & Dragons, however, was effectively a persistent world – and one in which fatality has a very permanent meaning, at least until the later introduction of resurrection spells for characters who had reached a certain level within the game. Frankly, even after these rules additions returning from the dead was exceedingly rare, requiring a level 16 Cleric in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (at the time, a very high level indeed – probably taking well over a year of playing every week to attain). In all my years of playing D&D, no character ever returned from the dead. Extra lives were an invention of the arcade.

ShenmueDCboxThe split into the Western RPG and Japanese RPG lineage, although initially connected and in both cases rooted in D&D, produced a division into the Western-style player practices that were essentially rule-play (brutal or otherwise) and a Japanese-style that was more narratively focussed. But despite the greater emphasis on character and story in the Japanese lineage, role-play was not a part of their player practices in any meaningful sense. The Japanese planners (i.e. game designers) were not tabletop role-players, and did not import player practices from face-to-face play in any example I have been able to locate. Curiously, however, the Japanese traditions did culminate in one of the most significant examples of videogame role-play, namely Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue (1999). Inspired by 1980s Japanese computer RPGs, Suzuki set out to create a rich fictional world in which the player was  asked to play a specific character, Ryo Hazuki. Players enjoyment of Shenmue was largely down to their openness to the player practices of dramatic role-play, which Western games seldom if ever encouraged by design.

This does not mean that the Western RPG lineage did not foster role-play: on the contrary, it was widespread but primarily as a player practice. The focus on agency lead to rule-play by design, and it supported role-play only when the player was willing to bring that element in through their own play. This took an interesting turn with the creation from 1978 of MUD1 by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle. The player practices of tabletop role-playing games rapidly spread online in these text-based fictional worlds, which included a mix of both role-play and rule-play. The latter was epitomized by the LP MUDs and DikuMUDs, from which EverQuest (1999) and World of Warcraft (2004) directly descended, adding little more than graphical and technical polish. Simultaneously, role-play was happening in just about all kinds of MUDs but only when specific players knew (and valued) the relevant player practices. Personally, I found it was more common with the various MUSEs in circulation in the 1990s. (I spent many years in TrekMUSE playing as a Romulan ambassador who later became an officiator of marriages, and never once fired a gun).

What can be seen clearly in these examples is the point I made at the beginning of this serial: an artefactual reading of a game is always an incomplete reading. When it comes to role-playing games, whether tabletop or computer, the options for both rule-play and role-play are very often supported by the very same game, with the possibilities being exploited by different players in unique ways according to the player practices that they have previously encountered and enjoyed. Players who learned to role-play at the tabletop often brought their practices into their digital play, continuing to focus on dramatic story telling and characters. Those that did not were rarely if ever encouraged to role-play by any videogame, despite Bethesda’s mission statement to bring as much of the tabletop RPG experience into videogames as was technically possible. In this regard, the authentic experience of tabletop role-play has mostly appeared in videogames through artistic motivations unconnected with the tabletop: I have suggested in reference to one of Tale of Tales artgames that “there is more of the authentic experience of role-play in Bientôt L'été’s flaws than in all of Bethesda’s perfections.” So too their massively multiplayer screensaver The Endless Forest, which inspired thatgamecompany’s Journey – both examples of digital games that deliver role-play despite having only tangential lineage connections with tabletop RPGs.

The essence of role-playing games lies in their connectivity, via their player practices, to tabletop role-playing games, and thus to Dungeons & Dragons, the origin of the form, and the most influential game of all time. These player practices can be understood as forming two broad and diverse lineages – networks of related games and their interconnected ways of playing. Firstly, that of the rule-play of complex ontologies, epitomized by the agency-focus of the Western computer RPG lineage that branches from it. Secondly, that of the role-play of dramatic story telling, epitomized by contemporary tabletop role-playing games like Ben Lehman's Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North (2005) or Thoughtful Games’ Montsegur 1244 (2009). These latter practices appear in videogames by design just occasionally, although they are always being manifesting in a vast variety of games as a result of players who have learned the player practices of role-play from the tabletop. This indeed is what has always motivated me as a player: as much as I enjoy rule-play, and as much as I take pleasure in designing systems that support it, my own play is always far more influenced by the player practices I learned at the tabletop. Anyone whose life has been swept away in this wondrous inheritance, as mine has been, knows that we cannot pretend that videogames are somehow isolated from the tabletop that helped bring them to life: digital gaming is as much descended from the dice of the role-player as from the joystick of the arcade.

With thanks to David Calvo for suggestions as to the most interesting recent examples of role-play practices, and to everyone who ever played or designed a tabletop RPG with me over the years.


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