HoP Idol: The Von Show
And now for something completely different! If you’d rather read, you’ll find my original script (which is… mostly accurate) beyond the video.
A few years back, I used to play Warmachine with a chap called Mike. Mike is what they call a natural disputant, and so am I, with the result that we had many… full and frank exchanges of views. One of the views Mike exchanged with me is the notion that nobody’s ever produced a satisfactory definition of roleplaying. This isn’t mine. This is a brief exploration of the things that make roleplaying so hard to define or describe or explain, an excuse for the industry if you will, and it’s also the first instalment in a run of discourses on roleplaying games with which I hope to clutter the House of Paincakes’ front page in the weeks to come.
Most definitions of roleplaying reach straight for the similes, which is all well and good, but… well, if I say someone’s like a bull in a china shop, I’m not suggesting that they’re incongrously hairy and stenchful, nor that they should be served with peppercorn sauce and a small bourbon; the only quality of theirs I’m actually highlighting is that they are likely to destroy things if left unattended, and that’s by no means a full and accurate introduction to their habits and character.
The simile serves to highlight one stark and simple point of comparison between two things, excluding by implication the whole glorious and unvarnished thing to which another thing is being compared. So definitions based on similes don’t work, unless they’re so extensively qualified with “it’s like this but not”’s that they cease to be either stark or simple and thus fail as similes, or if there are so many of them that they work at cross purposes and… well, we’re basically five blind men and an elephant.
Five blind men bump into an elephant, feel around to see what they’ve walked into, and argue about what it is, not realising that each of them has hold of a different part and none of them considering that these five separate things might be connected. They come up with some very good descriptions which, while entirely logical, spectacularly fail to describe the elephant, and describing roleplaying through similes is a bit like that.
I think part of the problem’s that roleplaying games themselves are somewhat schizoid – the point at which three quite different kinds of ‘roleplaying’ come together and exert tensions on each other, like three boisterous kittens playing in the same ball of wool.
On the one hand you have the oldest definition, the assumption of a character that’s not your own. Kids playing make-believe. Mock job interviews. Psychologists have been using this one for years as a kind of catharsis, a way to explore a person’s feelings without making them personal or to encourage people to take different persepectives on their state of affairs. This is the essentially performative kind of roleplaying, where the role is ‘your character as a real, rounded person’ and the playing is ‘pretending to be them’. I tend to call it ‘theatrical roleplaying’.
On the other hand, you have the tactical roleplaying, rooted in the practice of defining rules and systems for play. The earliest roleplaying games of the sort we know and love had mechanics which developed out of tabletop wargaming, and they’ve stamped their origins on the genre. This means surviving a combat encounter is not entirely dissimilar to winning a wargame, with all the usual perils of builds, redundancy, efficiency, situational viability, use of surroundings, target priority and so on and so forth. Different games boil down tactical roles in different ways – Infamous of the Cobblestone Chaos blog staked out the tactical roles (fighty guy, shooty guy, knowledge guy, skills guy) in the Dungeon Crawler a while back, while most MMORPGs opt for the big three of tank, healer and damage dealer. Playing your tactical role, in essence, means using the rules available to you in the manner most advantageous to the party.
On the extra hand, which is incidentally the sort of egregious mutation I’d keep to myself in these dark and paranoid times, there’s the narrative or generic role. Again, this is drawn from the earliest roleplaying games, this time from the literature that they were embedded in and derived from, the conventions of high fantasy, sword and sorcery, science fiction, space opera, urban gothic melodrama… whatever. Roleplaying games are rooted in storytelling traditions and storytelling traditions impose expectations on plots and characters. There’s a way the story feels right, a way it’s ‘supposed to go’, and when one player has their character behave in a way that contradicts the assumed and deeply-held expectations of others, particularly of gamesmasters, things feel subtly… wrong. It’s one thing for an author to experiment with generic conventions, as the only expectations involved in most reading experiences are theirs and the readers; in a roleplaying group you probably have four or five or six sets of expectations and nobody’s are necessarily more Authorised and Authoritarian than anyone else’s.
You may disagree with that, if you have a particular view of the GamesMaster’s role and responsibility and rights, and that view is to my mind a symptom of the problem we encounter when we try to explain what roleplaying is. The GM is an authority, an arbiter, an auteur; but the GM is also another person, another interpreter, another player, with some unique responsibilities but with no more right to expect their shared assumptions about the game in hand to be ‘right’, for their understanding of story and genre to be the valid one, than any of the other people around the table.
So that’s what roleplaying is; three things which don’t always co-exist as well as they should, and more than the sum of those three parts. Like the five blind men and the elephant, you can describe the theatrics, the tactics or the narrative… ics… as beautifully and in as much detail as you like and you’ll still be excluding some part of the whole, the actual experience of playing the game and striking a balance between those things and the unspoken fourth pillar, the things beyond the confines of the game that nevertheless influence the experience of playing it. That’s assuming you even think there is a whole. Nine-tenths of the nerd drama in roleplaying occurs when someone decides that one aspect of the game is obviously the whole of it… like the elephant’s leg, or tail, or trunk, without the elephant.
I hope all this has been informative. I’ve done my best to explain why it’s impossible to entirely explain how this roleplaying thing works. The rest is up to you. This blog network thing, this HoP Idol thing… the point is to foster some dialogue, some interaction, some sharing of ideas. So I’m going to ask you to look down there – not literally down there, nothing of interest to you lies down there, I mean in the comments box – and find something to ask or suggest next. That’s what I want to do with this slot. I want to talk roleplaying with you people, but I want to talk with you rather than at you, and that’s why I need you to get involved and talk to me. And vote for me, obviously, so that I actually get to do it, but that goes without saying, right?