Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Difference Between Roleplaying Games and Just Playing Make Believe

Before we get started with this week's flavor post I'd like to draw my readers' attentions to a few new additions. I've re-arranged the Pages links on this blog, with the three most prominent sections along the top, and the rest in a column on the side. Also, as you can see, Improved Initiative now has a character conversion section! I'll be putting links to all of the Avengers and Gotham Knights builds I completed before Yahoo! Voices died, and I should begin work on a Game of Thrones series soon, so stay tuned!

What the hell is this wearable awesome?
What's that, you ask? Well, true to my word I'm creating new gear for Improved Initiative and the sister blog The Literary Mercenary. The above tee shirt is available right here if you want to let any and all potential aggressors beware that you were an adventurer before you hung up your staff to become a barkeep.

Now then, without further ado, I'd like to address something...

This, in fact.
Just stare at this image for a few moments and take it all in. Ignoring the sheer irony of someone who is clearly mad enough about a focus on combat to reach for a weapon, I'd like to talk about the sentiment represented here.

What You Think You're Seeing

Let's start with the obvious. The key part of roleplaying games is roleplaying; the whole point of sitting down with a bunch of funny shaped dice and a character sheet is so that you can pretend for a few hours that you and your friends are people from another world, engaged in doing things as far away from your daily grind as humanly possible. We in the literary field refer to this as escapism.

Okay, everyone else calls it that too.
Different players want different kinds of escapism. Players who have to spend all day playing by the rules of society and solving problems with their heads might enjoy a few hours spent as a hulking brute who does whatever he likes, or as a skulldugerous thug who takes what he wants. Someone who has to deal with the boring realities of the mundane world might look forward to spending time as a graduate of an arcane academy, or a net diver who can literally jack into another world.

I could go on for days, but the point is that we all want to be someone else for a little while. That's one of the fun things about roleplaying.

What You're Not Seeing

Let's all be honest with each other for a moment; even if there was little to no combat in a game there would still be some variety of mechanics involved. Instead of a huge attack pool players would focus on social skills like intimidate to socially cow opponents, or diplomacy to slip unseen through societal currents. Rogues would scale castle walls and sneak unseen through the bowels of a fortress, and spies would disguise themselves as servants or minor celebrities to infiltrate places of note. Instead of fireballs and lightning bolts wizards would charm opponents to make them open the doors to their strongholds, and sorceresses would beguile the weak-willed to make said mortals do their bidding.

Some of you are reading this right now and you're thinking Yes! That would be awesome! No more huge tanks stomping around just killing everything with greatswords! I could enjoy a game that's different, and fun, and which has all of the things I'm not getting right now. For those who were thinking that, yes I can read your minds. Also, I hate to break this to you, but the same frustrations you have right now would be present because it really isn't about combat.

It's about the rules.

Reading Between The Lines

No gamer has ever said, "You know that thing my character is really good at? Yeah, let's not do that any more."

Except this guy. George is hardcore with a die in his hand.
The point is that anyone can roleplay, and roleplay can happen at any time. You know those five day journeys you're taking in game? Why not narrate some of that? Talk about what your characters do in the morning to prepare for the day, and what they do at night when the watches are set. Have conversations while you all mount up and ride out to get to know one another a little bit better.

Also, try injecting a little bit of character into the heat of combat. Battle cries, shouted commands, last words of a character who thinks he's going to die, or the fevered whispers as dire forces are summoned to smite one's enemies. Describe how the barbarian steps in front of the sorcerer to take a hit for him because she's grown to respect the spellcaster over their journeys, or how the bard's song changes from one of glory to one of vengeance when he sees a lover struck down in front of him.

Combat is prime time for roleplay. So is sitting around at the corner table at the inn, or keeping watch during the night. You can roleplay while divvying up a dragon horde, and you can roleplay while you're recuperating from wounds after a mighty battle. If a player wants more roleplay in the game all he or she has to do is start the ball rolling. The more roleplay you introduce, the more back-and-forth you're going to get between the characters.

There's only one reason to shout that there's too much combat in your game; because your character isn't good at it.

But I Can't Do Anything!

Now we come to the heart of the matter. Combat is a part of roleplaying games because it's a part of stories. Whether it's an ancient warrior crushing his foes with a mace, a noble knight charging the dragon with his lance, a special agent sent in to take out a political target, or two empires at war in outer space, combat happens. What's more, history has shown that it is impossible to take violence off the table as a solution to a problem. Even if you can manage to create a peaceful society there is always a Mongol horde or a fleet of Conquistadors just over the horizon ready to sweep down and wreck red ruin.

It may be possible to create a game that is supposed to have little to no combat in it. Combat is always a possibility, though.

Now, if you want to play a character who is not combat capable then I say props to you. Whether you're a diplomat, a specialized trap smith, or a healer with a vow of non-violence, if you know combat isn't your thing then there's nothing wrong with that provided you know what your skill set is and that it's going to come into play during your campaign regularly enough to make your character a necessity. You might also want to check out this list of useful alchemical items and this break down of Aid Another just to make sure you know all your options when you do eventually have to roll initiative.

If on the other hand you're frustrated because every time you try to participate in combat the only thing you succeed in doing is getting your character knocked into negative hit points, then you might want to re-examine your build.

Oh, So I Need to Min-Max My Character to Have Fun, Huh?

I hate how sarcastic italics can get when I let them out of the box.

I cannot count the number of players who have gotten offended when I've suggested that if they want their characters to be more effective in certain situations then they should take this feat, or focus on that skill. Almost every person has answered with something like, "I'm not going to power game just to have fun."

I agree, you shouldn't sacrifice good roleplay and a great character concept to play a soulless pile of numbers who may as well be an animated suit of armor. With that said though, if you don't back up your concept with rules then you're never going to be able to do what you want.

And you'll never have sweet statues built after your heroic death.
Let's use an example, shall we? Let's say that you have a wizard who's an officer in the city watch that specializes in investigating magic-related crimes. You give him all of the appropriate spellcraft skill to be able to identify spells and their residues, and to understand magic items. You give him knowledge of the arcane so that he understands the function of spells and what they can do. You even give him heal so he can examine wounds and bodies to make sense of what might have happened to victims.

You know what he can't do? Intimidate suspects. Or follow a trail. Or grapple hired muscle. He doesn't have any special knowledge of the local city and the important personas that dwell in it, and he wouldn't know a noble from a gnoll when it came time to make an arrest.

Know why he can't do that? Because that's not what he was built to do.

Your Character Isn't Special

The difference between roleplaying games and just playing make believe is the rules. The rules of the game create a framework that all players have access to, and which all players can use to build their concepts. The rules are what stop players from saying things like, "well my character's pretty, so you do what she says," or "well he's big and scary, so you're going to back down from him," because if a player wants to take an action that results in a conflict then there are methods in place to resolve that.

If you want your character to do something, whether it's bull rushing a goblin into a glass furnace or hacking through the computer security on the local vampire prince's personal computer, you can't just say you did it and move on. No matter how cool the image in your head of slipping past the werewolf's paw and planting your dagger in its eye is, you can't do it if your numbers aren't up to snuff.

We all love our characters, and we all want to see them succeed. We want to see them become great heroes (or great villains, I don't judge), and it's irritating when we feel they've been denied the chance to shine. Whether it's because of heavily armored enemies, damage reduction, a dungeon that's nothing but traps, or having to bamboozle guards with wit instead of steel characters who are not mechanically designed to function in a certain way have a much smaller chance of success. That's the only thing that keeps the game fair; you have access to the same rules and the same options as every other player.

Mechanics without story is boring, no argument. But story without mechanics is ineffective.

You need both if you want to get through the game.

As always, thanks for stopping in at Improved Initiative. If you want to follow my updates then submit your email address in the box on your right hand side, or follow me on Tumblr or Facebook. If you want to help support this page then check out the other tee shirt designs by clicking the link on your right, leaving a donation by clicking the "Bribe the DM" button over on the right as well, or by stopping in at my Patreon page and becoming a patron today!

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post, and I really do agree on most of your points, even though I would never agree with the post in the entirety. Your arguments are true and up to the point.

    Any rules defence is in my point of view (somewhat narrow-minded always-focus-on-fun) - evil. Yes, evil. The difference between make believe games and roleplay is not the rules, except in their most narrow sense. It's the mechanic to solve disputes.
    The classic example in cops n robbers - I shot you! Nah you didn't! Yah I did! Did not! Did too! - that's what it's supposed to solve. Nothing else.

    Classes? Splats? Skills? Feats? Ways to customise your character? Frameworks to which all the player have access to? Those are not the rules in the meaning of the player, but in the meaning of the company which sells them.

    Still, the average game master or player, fears to change that. Thus any propagating of this side of the argument, without *significant* focus on the other side - propagates evil and destruction of roleplay.

    Cheers, good article!