Why do we Roleplay?

15 Sep

A key purpose for this blog is to document how I go about preparing and running a roleplaying campaign. Right now I’m prepping for a Vampire the Requiem campaign. I started thinking of how to use it as a case study to discuss some broader considerations, it occurred to me that I’ve never gone back to the most foundational questions. As Games Masters, reviewing how we run a roleplaying game is key to improving our craft, the question ‘What did/didn’t work?’ is sure to cross our minds in the days following a session. But how often do we go back to first principles examine why we roleplay?

CampfireFirst principles: Why Roleplay?

As we become increasingly time poor with greater recreational options at our disposal, the choice to gather around and sit down for a few hours can seem like a fool’s errand. There’s everyone’s schedule to be negotiated, competing social/family interests and the always-daunting prospect of an unfinished or even worse drawn out campaign that overstays its welcome.

But the perks are so much more compelling. Sharing in a story with friends harkens back to a more primal form of entertainment. Lighting candles to evoke a mood in for a session alludes to our ancestors gathering around the campfire. A narrative told through performance and narration is creative and empowering, our escapism not defined by the limitations of pixels, budgets and technology. Finally, the very word roleplay spells out the joys to be found in having fun without determining a winner, where all participants reap the rewards.

Guiding Propositions

There could be any number of answers to the question raised by this question ‘why roleplay?’ These responses are useful as guiding propositions for the entire campaign. Of course they may change but in making these initial assumptions we are appealing to the core reasons we roleplay.

In preparation for the campaign I am planning I have decided on two answers:

1) We roleplay to enjoy good stories, not game systems.

Story over rules: Don’t want to get bogged down into a prolonged fistfight with a minor NPC? Have them knocked out on the first successful hit. A player does a great job of their character bluffing their way into the speakeasy? Don’t bother with the Persuade Roll, let them get in.

Story over ‘realism’: No need to count how many shots are fired from that SIG Sauer, say the clip lasts three rounds before a reload is required, it makes for more immediate drama. Realistically the character would take a month to heal that broken leg, but it would be more interesting if they were able to visit the madman in his cell. Fine. Give them a walking stick and a few negative modifiers.

2) We roleplay because we like to be challenged and excited.

This is why we have dice: If a character were to succeed at every challenge, the game would get pretty boring. Dice help to add in a random factor. When it adds to the drama have the player make a roll. Conversely, if it’s going to reduce the excitement by having the character potentially fail, don’t ask for a die roll.

Rules systems add solidity to the games world: None of the above is to down play the significance of the rules system at place in the games we play. Knowing exactly what is being risked when a character tries to jump between rooftops, and how the rules will represent this, add to the drama of a session. When she falls we know that there will be consequences. We even have a sense of how likely she is to succeed before she jumps be she an Olympic gymnast or an asthmatic librarian.

parkour jumpThere’s probably a lot more that could be added to and refined about these propositions. However, for the moment they provide a few touchstones when developing and running my new campaign. When we start playing, they’ll help to prioritise directions to follow during play and provide a framework for my decisions. Of course I’ll be sure to post about it as I go.

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4 Responses to “Why do we Roleplay?”

  1. Jason Badower October 2, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    I can’t help but wonder if there are stages to the question of why we roleplay.

    At the start I believe it’s the attraction of the communal, evolving story that you’re creating together. Like a tv show that you write, act and direct and finally watch with friends.

    And then there’s the inevitable drive to achieve supreme power. And you strive for that power because you believe that power gives you greater control over the world in which you play in. And the storyteller/game master is trying to create a series of stages worthy of your action sequences.

    But then you realize that power is just an illusion given to you by the rest of the group and the storyteller/game master. And you realize that the real moments that people remember aren’t just great dice rolls and clever tactics, but rather unique and powerful moments of characterization and choice – of role playing.

    I believe that ultimately you’re trying to bring the most fascinating and intriguing character to the table in an effort to create great roleplaying moments that everyone remembers.

    And the storyteller is trying to create great scenes and npcs that challenge your character’s goals, personality and the relationships with the other characters in order to help create as many great roleplaying moments as possible every session.

    So I would posit that knowing where your players are at on this evolutionary ladder is essential to writing a successful game for them.

  2. Pagrin October 2, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    I agree with Jason’s comment to a large degree, but I’d also like to add the element of emotional age, and also question the theory of a reduced system for some of those age groups.
    Let me explain.
    I feel the original posting is true for people like myself aged 40+ who have games for some many years. However I don’t feel this would have been the case for me aged 12 starting out in my first few games.
    As a middle aged man I have come to know myself and grow comfortable with me and my surroundings. This in turn allows me to easily step away from myself to play a character or stage complex emotional states while understanding it’s a game. My tears are not real, my fixations are only until the end of the session.
    At age 12 this was not the case. My social skills were limited. I still have a lot to learn about myself. as such did I want to emote darker feeling during a game. No. I wanted to collect treasure and stand up the victor after a battle.
    At that stage of my development the system was a lot more important, because it gave me the frame work to play and debate element with other players and GMs. the concept of not rolling for something was beyond me, because it couldn’t be defined to me.

    My point over all is that while we Role play to tell stories, it is important to note what stories appeal to what people. Some people don’t like fiction but will watch a documentary for hours. By the same token, some players are more about the states and dice roll than who gets rescued and who doesn’t.

  3. Raven October 6, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    For the story to have choices, even moral dilemmas, and consequences that cut to the heart of both the character and its player is, I think, a sign of high story art.

    Witness the climax of Beyond the Mountains of Madness, when the adventurers finally understand just what it is the Elder Things are actually doing, and must decide whether to oppose or assist it, given the dreadful cost.

    I myself want the NPCs even in a video game, when the player has chosen to sacrifice them for himself, to turn and face him, screaming “You’ve betrayed us!” — it might mildly discourage such sociopathic tendencies from growing….

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