Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Roleplaying Myth Number 1 - Roleplaying = Acting

One of the controversies that rages between RPG enthusiasts of various stripes is the awarding of bonuses (usually experience points or whatever the equivalent method of advancement is in that particular game) for 'good roleplaying'. On one side there are the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists, who see it as the GM's job to reward good play and, in particular, good roleplaying (since that is the purpose of the Game). Arrayed against them are the Limp Wristed Pseudointellectual Pansies, who argue that, hang on, just because somebody isn't great in the amateur dramatics department or suffers from a crippling lack of social skills, they shouldn't be penalised or discriminated against for their 'bad role playing' (which should be read: bad acting/lack of confidence).

These days the views of the Limp Wristed Pseudointellectual Pansies tend to win out over those of the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists, and role playing XP awards no longer seem to be de riguer. But I think both sides are really arguing over the wrong thing: the Limp Wristed Pseudointellctual Pansies seem to believe that the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists are too deferential to the GM and too into "acting", while the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists see the Limp Wristed Pseudointellectual Pansies as a gang of weak-willed, callow quislings without backbone and a pathological fear of competition. Neither of those is actually the case.

Let me make one thing clear, first of all: I don't see role playing as amateur dramatics. As a player or GM you'll never find me "doing a voice", delivering tedious tortured monologues, or otherwise inflicting my akting skillz on the other players. When all's said and done role playing games are games, not theatre, and if I wanted to humiliate myself and irritate others I'd play a LARP.

But it is indisputable that role playing games involve playing a role. It's right there in the title. So what does 'playing a role' mean, if it isn't amateur dramatics?

What it means, quite obviously, is taking on the persona of somebody who isn't you, and behaving in the way in which they would behave in a given situation. That doesn't involve pretending to be them. It merely involves taking the decisions, in-game, that they as the character would take - not what you as the player think is best. This could mean doing stupid or irresponsible things if the character has low Wisdom or Intelligence, running away from a fight if you've established that they are a coward, or doing something callous if you've established that they're a sociopath. That is what good role playing is, in my opinion: playing the character as a character, not as a mere cypher or mouthpiece for you as a player. Acting skills are irrelevant; it's about the characterisation.

And there is nothing wrong with the GM awarding experience points for players who are doing this well. It isn't about rewarding good actors or those who are socially confident - it's about rewarding people who play the game the best, i.e. those who play their roles in a consistent and believable way.


  1. I can't at the moment recall ever gaming with anybody who conceived of xp awards for acting. Among the various crowds I've gamed with, "good roleplaying" has pretty much always been the same as pretending that the character has motivations separate from (and possibly at times opposed to) the motivations of the player, and "bad roleplaying" has always been treating the character as a tool to get what you want from the game. As near as I can recall this was the agreed upon standard for what constitutes good roleplaying even among the power-gamers and munchkins who had no interest at all in having roleplaying in the game, so it's kind of interesting to hear about controversies raging among groups who had a completely different conception of what roleplaying meant.

  2. I'm fine with giving out XP for a particularly interesting bit of speaking or the like (good acting) as long as you're also giving out XP for other characterizations. My usual DM had each of us create a list of goals, both short term and long, and then update them each session. When we made significant progress towards a goal that was personal, but not group (or if we succeeded in making a group goal a personal one somehow) we got XP. If it was done in a way that took a significant amount of work, or hurt us in a metagame sense, we'd often get a bit of a bonus.

  3. I'm interested - as you want to avoid acting and 'doing voices' at all costs, as a DM do you objectify your NPCs, referring to them in the third person, or do you speak their words in your own voice? I tend to speak as them, sometimes even using voices (I admit it). Is that horribly embarrassing? The thing is, I don't see myself anywhere in this 'raging debate' between the 'Patronising Overbearing Paternalists' and the (ahem) 'Limp-Wristed Pseudointellectual Pansies'

  4. jamused: The interesting thing about roleplaying is that it's still very balkanised, even with the advent of the internet - how different groups play varies a great deal, and since there isn't a huge amount of crossover between groups there isn't much in the way of standardisation. I've had DMs who gave out XP for what essentially boiled down to good acting - or, let's say, confident acting (not necessarily good!).

    lorechaser: Character goals are something I often use too - they work very well, not just as a means of granting XP but for the game in general. Where I agree with the Limp Wristed Psuedointellectual Pansies is that some people are naturally more confident and better at public speaking, and it seems unfair that they should benefit at the expense of the shy. As you say, there needs to be something to balance that.

    Viriconium: I often speak the words - just using my own voice, but there are also times when I objectify NPCs. Depends on the situation. But I find it incredibly embarrassing to "do a voice".

  5. Thou hast insultethed me and all my kith! Hold, good sirrah, and prepare for a mighty drubbing!!!

  6. You may have saved me years of terminal embarrassment, noisms. For years I have thought that I would be short-changing my groups if I did not treat them to my splendid affected voices. You have also given me a clue as to why my groups often look at me in stony silence after a particularly dazzling NPC 'display'.

  7. Viriconium: Hey, if you have the acting talent, don't be afraid of flaunting it!

  8. Yeah, I do funny voices for NPCs all the time. It seems to amuse the players, and helps them tell which NPC is talking..

  9. Man, just do the funny voices already, noism. Nobody's going to make fun of you.

  10. I've been in games on almost every angle of the voice thing.

    1. Bad acting. Bad acting is bad. It destroys the game and the speakers credibility.

    2. Good acting. Well done, NPC (and PC) voices give a lot of depth and information, and help you take an interest in NPCs. Notice I said "well done".

    3. No acting. I laughed out loud when a guy said "I give a rousing speech".

    4. Needs... something. Too many NPCs with no way to identify which was speaking. One NPC-overloaded game was so bad I made the DM finger puppets out of paper, to hold up over the screen whenever a particular NPC was talking. It just made him angry.

  11. Fitzerman: I'm not worried about them laughing at me, I'm worried about them wanting to strangle me. ;)

    tim h: Having too many similar-sounding NPCs can be far too confusing. Luckily the sort of games I play are very PC-centric. I like to see the party interact amongst themselves. So I'll rarely have more than one or two NPCs at a given time.

    Maybe instead of finger puppets the DM could keep switching hats, a la Tommy Cooper.

  12. You probably don't have this problem, but in the US there's the "Monty Python 'Non-British-British Accent'" effect. Every third gamer I played with in High School was convinced that a) their PC needed a 'British accent' and b) the proper way to perform said accent was to raise their voice two octaves. And that was it. Talking in a high voice, usually slowly, was considered "British" to their ears.

    I believe that the Knights Who Say Nih were to blame.

    THAT was obnoxious.

  13. For my taste, you're still putting the emphasis too much on "acting" in the theatrical sense, simply downplaying some techniques. Your focus is on a literary superstructure imposed on the game. I'm okay with adding such embellishments, but see problems when priorities are inverted.

    Believe it or not, role-playing as you've described it does not depend on adding such a house rule. On the contrary: if you really find it necessary, then you may want to examine why. There's a hubris in dismissing long-proven ways without understanding them.

  14. Dwayanu: On the contrary: if you really find it necessary, then you may want to examine why.

    Well, it's because that's what's most rewarding in my experience for the players and DM, and what the game seems to me to be fundamentally 'about' (rather than collecting treasure or killing things, both of which are tired and dull without some form of emotional investment - which comes from playing a Character).

  15. Good on you for doing what works best in your experience! Taking on "the controversies" as a pundit is a trickier business, though.

    At least Madonna's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was not under the name of Ted Nugent! Wizards' "4th Edition" is just the most prominent attempt to redefine "D&D" based on despising what D&D actually was -- and to us "old-school" types, still is. It's a touchy subject, and my reference to hubris really applies to those willfully ignorant interlopers who imagine themselves to be preaching the One True Way. Some of them might do well to shake off the brainwashing of brand-name loyalty and just go play Vampire: The Masquerade or whatever.

    All aspects of role-playing tend in my experience to develop naturally and to an appropriate (to the expressed intent of the designer) degree when the game is played as just as it was meant to be played. The primary thing from that perspective is to create situations eliciting actual psychological responses from the players: real mysteries, risks, and wonders. The human instinct to make stories of events develops a persona's character in response to the "biography" built in the course of play -- just as real personalities are shaped by (and shape in turn) the lives they lead.

  16. Imagine someone claiming that Chess is "improved" by turning it into Parcheesi, Backgammon or Monopoly. Normal people would consider that obviously absurd! There may be virtues in our hobby's appeal to the eccentric ... but a surfeit of common sense is not among them.

  17. Dwayanu: Well, broadly speaking I agree with you. The thing is that D&D is a brand and not a game, and that's just the world in which we live. There's little use crying over spilt milk in that regard.