Every so often I’m told that a particular game system enhances role-playing, or that it is more role-playing friendly. However it’s my opinion that the “Game” part of “Role-playing Game” is actually in most cases is something that generally limits the “Role-playing” part, not enhances it. Since D&D is most popular, I hear that about editions of D&D, but this phenomenon and discussion is something that has come up in one form or another in every game I’ve ever played. In this article I will attempt to explain what role-play is, identify the best case scenario for role-playing, why role-playing is traded in exchange for the game, and give some examples of how game systems limit role-playing potential and how they’re largely divorced from the minutia these discussions usually delve into.
So to begin, what is role-playing? Well when in doubt, grab your dictionary. Here’s how the Random House dictionary defines role-playing.
1. to assume the attitudes, actions, and discourse of (another), esp. in a make-believe situation in an effort to understand a differing point of view or social interaction: Management trainees were given a chance to role-play labor negotiators.
2. to experiment with or experience (a situation or viewpoint) by playing a role: trainees role-playing management positions.
- verb (used without object)
3. to engage in role-playing.
A pretty basic definition. So what situation is ideal for role-playing? Free-form role-playing. Now some of you reading this may have dabbled in this before and some of you haven’t. Free-form is just what it sounds like, it’s completely free and there are no rules attached to it. About the only kind of restriction on what can be role-played is any kind of theme that might be in place to provide a setting. Other than that players can create characters with of any type or background or ability that they can possibly imagine. It’s an ideal scenario for role-playing in that pretty much whatever any player wants to roleplay is allowed.
However as anyone who has dabbled in free-form will tell you there can be some problems with this setup. The fact that anything is allowed can be a double-edged sword. You have to work and flow with concepts that may be strange, and if there is any conflict between players, well, you can just forget it. Without anyone in a position to arbitrate and no way to make judgments about what is and isn’t acceptable the entire thing will almost always devolve into a power-gaming mess unless all the players are on the same wavelength. And that’s the crux of the problem. Unless you have a group you can really trust for this, or an experienced group that knows how to work their way around this, then it doesn’t really work so well. All it takes is one guy not in sync to knock down the house of cards.
That’s where the “Game” part of “Role-playing Game” comes in. When you play a Role-playing Game you’re trading some of the freedom of free-form for some rules that decide how strong your character can be, what they can do, and a system to resolve conflicting actions as a kind of neutral arbiter. This is the reason combat is often a big section of any game system, as it’s a large conflict often in need of strict management. You no longer have infinite options, but everyone’s options are limited equally. If the game-system won’t support your character concept or won’t let you have an ability you’d like to play then your ability to role-play that is eliminated.
Now some games choose to take a very light-handed approach to the game system, like Amber or Fudge, and some have a pretty heavy-hand like D&D or Warhammer. None of these approaches is wrong. The game system is written with a particular tone or common activities being the focus of the game, and so it is written to facilitate these things and to anticipate the conflicts one will see there. D&D expects a focus on exploring sites, fighting monsters, feats of skill, etc. so it has a lot of rules to govern this, where as a system like BESM expects more focus on character abilities and social events with quick bursts of conflict, and so it focuses on these elements. What particular system you decide to use largely depends on the sort of activity you would like to be doing in your game, and then using a game system to supports that.
However in all these cases it’s not the minutia of how the game handles something, like if it uses magic points, spells per day, per encounter, etc, or which dice are role and how they’re compared to a stat that limits your roleplay, but if the system will even let you do something in the first place. If you can do the action at all, then generally the game mechanics side of it doesn’t really matter. The player describes the action, embellishes it, describes it, does whatever the game-system demands he do in exchange, and either it succeeds or fails. It doesn’t really matter how the game mechanics of casting a fireball or a lightning bolt work so long as you can cast one in the first place.
This means that really what determines what is going to be better for role-playing for a particular character is what set of restrictions they are willing to accept on their role-playing in exchange for the benefits the game system itself provides. If a player finds the way a particular set of restrictions on their ability to roleplay are set they’ll enjoy that system better, but it doesn’t make any system better for everyone. Just remember, role-playing lives in the fluff, not the crunch, and when comparing game systems we should be talking about how game systems restrict role-playing more or less in different areas, rather than saying certain game systems promote role-playing.