15 October 2014

Thoughts while reading “Chess is not an RPG”

After watching the conversation between John and Zak and putting down my thoughts about it, I decided to read John’s article that started that conversation. Here are my thoughts as I read it.

Because the focus of an RPG is to tell stories.

I am not convinced that is the case.

The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, is a game you cannot successfully play without roleplaying. If you try it, you get… well, you actually violate the basic tenant of the game: to make yourself scared through your character’s choices.

I’m not convinced that a game can require role-playing. I haven’t played Call of Cthulhu. (And even if I had, I wouldn’t have played it trying to not role-play.) So I may admittedly be missing something here.

And the goal of those games is to win. Roleplaying, in the end, sabotages the goal of the game.

I think the lack of winning is an important distinction. It’s what puts RPGs in the same category as something like SimCity. Which is perhaps more toy than game. (Although whether there is winning in RPGs is an often fought argument of its own.)

roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

If that is a role-playing game, I don’t want to play. I don’t want to codify my character’s motivations to the extent that they can be rewarded. I don’t want to “further the plot of the story”. That would suck all the fun out of the game for me.

Because if the most important part of your game is balancing the damage, rate-of-fire, range modifiers, damage dice, ablative armor, dodge modifiers and speed factors, you aren’t playing a roleplaying game. You’re playing a board game.

For me, I think that’s true. Not because it is about telling a story. Rather it is because, for me, a role-playing game is about playing the hand you’re dealt. Like how the Fantastic Four has to figure out how to deal with Galactus even though he makes their powers moot.

As a GM, your job is to help the players tell the stories of their characters.

My job as referee has three parts:

  • To determine what obstacles are between the PCs and their goals
  • To figure out what forces exist in the world that might intersect with the PCs and what the goals of those forces are
  • Make rulings to resolve the actions the PCs attempt

Are those the same as “help the players tell the stories of their characters”? Maybe?

What matters is spotlight.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a referee trying to ensure each PC gets spotlight time, but I’m not convinced that is their an obligation. I think it is OK if players are sometimes required to earn the spotlight. And I enjoy playing supporting characters who seldom get the spotlight.

Maybe “earn” is not the right word. As referee, perhaps I ought to ensure that each player gets a chance to take the spotlight, but it is up to them to take it.

The reason roleplaying games are a unique art form is because they are the only literary genre where we walk in the hero’s shoes. We are not following the hero, we are not watching her from afar, we are not being told the story. As Robin Laws now famously said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.”

This touches on something I don’t like about some role-playing games. Making authorial choices is not making choices in-character.

And what exactly does speed factor have to do with this? Or ablative armor? Or rate of fire?

These are things that my character makes decisions about. Which tools to use in a given situation. These things provide some of the in-character decisions for me to make. They aren’t required (there are other decisions I could be making), but they are perfectly valid sorts of choices to be making.

You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

Sure, but that’s because role-playing isn’t being charismatic.

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