Sunday, September 05, 2010

Role Play vs Roll Play

For several weeks (or has it been months?) now I've been watching a web series called “I Hit It With My Axe.” It follows the adventures of a group of friends playing a hybrid-home brew style of D&D (I think they blend a bit of 1st edition AD&D with some 2nd edition and 3rd edition elements). Oh, did I mention that this group of friends is made up mostly of porn stars and strippers? The whole concept began with a blog by their DM, Zak Smith (aka Zak Sabbath), called “Playing D&D With Porn Stars”. But I digress. What I love about watching this series is how the storyline of their D&D game keeps unfolding or going in different directions. Zak's pretty awesome at coming up with different personalities and voices for the various NPC characters. For the most part the girls do role play their characters, but like a lot of groups I've been involved with, the action gets more descriptive than actually acted out – e.g., “Umm, I tell the mayor about what we saw in the cave he asked us to check out” rather than “Mr. Mayor, we investigated the cave and, alas, found no signs of the goblins there, however we did manage to find evidence that they may have moved on to the east...” You get the idea. But again, lots of gaming groups get like that. Long session, it's going on 2 a.m., everyone's tired. Yeah, you get to a point where you just want to get to a good stopping point for that session and call it night. But even if you're just describing you actions, in some way you're still contributing to the narrative and the concept that a role playing game is about a group of people essentially group writing a story together and the social interaction than it is about winning or losing a game.

Now, here's the thing. It seems to me that some of the more modern RPGs have lost touch the concept of role playing. They've become more about moving miniatures around a grid and rolling dice (what I call Roll Playing). It started, frankly, with D&D 3.0/3.5. When I first started playing AD&D, miniatures were just a tool for helping show where everyone was standing, in case there were traps or when combat broke out. With the advent of the 3rd and 4th editions of Dungeons & Dragons, there are specific rules for using the miniatures that pretty much make it so you have to use them anytime combat happens, basically turning the game from role playing to just another board game. This is another part of why I love watching IHIWMA; although they use miniatures, there's no grid on their table. The mini's are just there for reference and visualization. My own group finally gave up on D&D and the “d20 System” and went back to using the Palladium system (Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game and Rifts) because we were getting weary of having to use minis all the time. And the dice? Well, saying “I hit with my axe” and actually hitting it with your axe are two different things now aren't they? There has to be some way of determining if a character's announced and intended action is successful or not, and dice are really the only way to accomplish that (along with other mechanics that determine what those dice rolls really mean, but I'm not going to get into all of that here). However, the main focus of a role playing game should be role playing and storytelling. When it becomes to much about the dice rolls, then really it's just become another table top wargame with miniatures and models.

Don't get me wrong. At some point all RPG systems have weaknesses and flaws, most notably in their combat and skills systems. I just feel that the developers of D&D have lost the vision of true role playing, and turned the game into a set of mechanics to mimic online games like World of Warcraft. And truthfully, I can't blame them. They had to do something to compete with all the big computer RPGs (which aren't really RPGs frankly, because nobody actually ever role plays in those games). But, in my not so humble opinion, if you're going to say your playing a role playing game, then freakin' role play. Yes, you will have to roll dice at some point, but when the game becomes more about the dice and the position of your miniatures than the characters being portrayed by the players, it's really ceased to be a role playing game, and become just a roll playing game.

~ JC
NOTE: There are dozens of role playing games and systems out there. I realize I only referenced D&D and briefly mentioned two of Palladium Books' games, but let's be honest – D&D is the most recognizable name out there when it comes to RPGs. So please, no snide or smart-assed commentary on how other games work, interact, etc. (honest, and polite discussion and sharing of ideas, however is OK). And yes, I do realize there are some RPG systems that don't use dice at all. Frankly, I think that concept is a bit ridiculous – how else are you to resolve random encounters/actions be it combat or simply whether or not you succeed or fail at a particular action if not by dice rolls? Simple narrative stacks the deck to much in favor of everything being a success with no consequence of failure. But, that's possibly another topic for another blog sometime.

Basic Gamer Glossary (in case you were confused by my abbreviations up top)
  • DM – Dungeon Master: responsible for playing NPC characters, writing adventures the players act out their characters in, and also to be a referee/judge of the rules. The term Dungeon Master specifically refers to the referee in D&D. Other game systems simply refer to this person as the Game Master (GM) or Storyteller.
  • NPC – Non-Player Character : basically, any character not controlled/played by a player, but rather by the DM that the players' characters interact with.
  • D&D/AD&D – D&D has long since been the colloquialism used by players of Dungeons & Dragons in all its various forms and editions. In the earlier days of the game there was a basic version of the game simply called Dungeons & Dragons, and a more complex version called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. When the 3rd edition was released, the “Advanced” part was dropped from the title. Sometimes you will see gamer blogs and chat boards distinguish older versions of the game as either AD&D 1e, or AD&D 2e from the 3rd and 4th editions, which may be referenced as D&D 3.0/3.5 (or D&D 3e) and D&D 4e.
  • RPG – Role Playing Game. Some online games, such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, D&D Online, etc. are known as a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game or MMORPG. While some of these games feature what are known as “Role Playing Servers” for those that wish to act out their characters, most of the time the concept of actually role playing in these types of games is totally lost and so, in my opinion, calling them a RPG is a bit of a misnomer.

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