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role-playing-gamesI was reminded in the weekend of the hoary old argument of roll playing versus role playing when I joined a Pathfinder session. This reared its ugly head in the 80’s when it was noticed that some folk like to talk about things using actual language, and other folk like to interact with and manipulate a set of mechanisms reducing reality to a set of algorithms (and dice).

Here’s a nice definition:

Role Playing

The ability to play a particular role of a game. This is often done by taking up the persona of a character.

Roll Playing

The ability to play and manage the rules from a game perspective. Often this is done through learning rules, rolling dice, and anything else the game requires of its players.

It is fruitless to even approach the idea of what is better, because there is no answer. They are simply different forms of behaviour, molded by personal experience and tempered by preference and social confidence.

For me, I have little interest in rules for a game, except where they promote or hinder the ability to tell a story consistent with the theme. When playing an RPG I choose clothes, weapons and (if I must) skills and attributes for a character that I think makes an interesting character to act. To me, rules are merely the entrance barrier to be allowed to tell a story in that setting.

But I do appreciate for other people that talking about an encounter may seem like a waste of time. For them, any time not spent utilising the algorithm to collect tangible results (kills, coins, prestige) is just dead space. While I can see this point of view, it’s not where I sit.

There are plenty of other blog posts about this topic, but what most seem to imagine is that a pen & paper RPG involves a character and a GM role. What if, as I so have so often enjoyed, the session has no GM in a traditional sense? It has no character that is defined in any way because there is a shifting cast? What if there is no scenario about which success could be judged? No money to collect, no recording on a sheet of paper results that can be crowed about? What if the triumph in the session is not about guiding an identified imaginary character through a maze of someone else’s design to uncover defined (or even on the fly created) results?

What if you are all ‘playing’ dynasties ranging over a thousand years of history? What if you are finding out about a specific secret operation that involves many people and you swap about between them, or manipulate them like pawns as if you are un-named KGB and CIA puppet masters?

How is success manifested in these ‘games’ if you cannot roll a dice and add & subtract factors and decide who ‘won’?

Roleplaying is a broad religion. I think the distinction between roll and role exposed one of the very first factional splits. And I think now the rift that appears between story and game is the next. My sons play PS3. They play roleplaying games. But to me this is a game rather than a story because you cannot interact with any human agency to negotiate an outcome. There is just an algorithm that you must learn. However when I watch them play I can see it hits all the bases of conventional pen and paper roleplaying games. I’m even tempted to give Skyrim and Metro a go.

The reduction in freedom you get from a traditional pen & paper character and scenario based roleplaying game is compensated for by the security of a predictable framework. Just thinking about it I find the idea relaxing. Except when being GM, of course, because then it’s all on you to design the environment for everyone else. But a story is not like this. A story requires everyone to put in, to put themselves out there to contribute. A story around the camp fire has people taking turns to entertain each other, to transport each other to another-when. No one wins in a story-telling session and no one loses. Characters come and go, die or prosper, and their specific triumphs or trials are not really the point of the exercise. As a story teller you come away feeling enriched, regardless.

And there is my distinction: a game that is hosted versus a story that is shared. This is the current divide. The first one is increasingly catered for by computer games and I see the traditional RPG market as running a rearguard action here. Mind you, traditional board games are seeing a resurgence as people remember the fun that can be had a round a real table with real people.  The second is around story telling; that is something that no system can simulate.

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