Realms of role playing
Let”™s start pushing the pendulum the other way
by Gary Gygax Â©1985 E. Gary Gygax. All rights reserved.
There was a long period of time when
action, rather than role playing, was the
major focus of gaming, and this was especially
true with respect to tournament scenarios
at conventions. Thus, an AD&DÂ®
game scenario would typically stress combat
with monsters to achieve the goal set before
the characters. Now, the pendulum has
swung the other way Â— much emphasis is
being placed on how well the player takes
on the role of his or her character. Personification
and acting are replacing action of the
more direct and forceful type Â— be it sword
swinging, spell casting, or anything else.
Before this trend goes too far, it is time to
consider what the typical role-playing game
is all about.
First, it is important to remember that
(Â‘role-playingÂ” is a modifier of the noun
Â“game.Â” We are dealing with a game which
is based on role playing, but it is first and
foremost a game. Games are not plays,
although role-playing games should have
some of the theatre included in their play.
To put undue stress upon mere role-playing
places the cart before the horse. Role playing
is a necessary part of the game, but it is
by no means the whole of the matter.
Role playing is similar to, but not the
same as, role assumption. The latter term is
generally used to identify the individualÂ’s
acceptance of a part which he or she could
actually perform. While a child might play
the role of a parent, an adult would assume
that role when dealing with his or her children.
This distinction is important in the
context of gaming because of the stress now
being placed upon role playing. Too much
emphasis in this direction tends to make
playing out an adventure more of a children
Â’s Â“letÂ’s pretendÂ” activity than an
action-packed game which involves all sorts
of fun, including the playing of a role but
other fun aspects as well.
A role-playing game should be such that
players begin the personification portion as
role play, and then as they progress the
activity should evolve into something akin
to role assumption. This does away with
stilted attempts to act the part of some
character. In place of this, players should
try to become that person they are imagining
during the course of the game, and
conduct the actions of their characters accordingly.
A spy, for example, speaks in one
way to his superiors, in another way when
he converses with his equals, and in yet an
entirely different way when he is attempting
to penetrate an enemy installation and is
impersonating a plumber, perhaps. Imple-
8 OCTOBER 1985
mented in this fashion, the concept becomes
one of roles within roles.
This applies to all role-playing games, of
course. Straining to play a role is certainly
contrary to the purpose of the game. The
actual reason for gaming is fun, not instruction
in theatrics or training in the thespian
art. Role playing is certainly a necessary
and desirable part of the whole game, but it
is a part. Challenge, excitement, suspense,
and questing are other portions equally
necessary to a game of this nature.
Problem solving is the typical challenge
in a role-playing game. Whether it is discovering
a murderer, finding a magic
sword, or seeking to expose a gang of criminals,
this element is an integral part of such
interactive gaming. And Â‘note that problem
solving, in this context, has to do with a
problem to be solved by the character, not a
problem (such as Â“How do I role-play this
situation?Â”) to be solved by the player.
Combat, survival amidst threatening
conditions, or stalking an opponent are
typical means of adding excitement and
suspense into the whole. These are actionoriented
portions of the game activity which
call for little role playing but a fair amount
of role assumption. The magic-user character
(and thus, the player of that character)
must know his or her spells and how to
utilize them efficiently. The explorer must
know outdoor craft. Whatever the situation,
setting, or character being played, skill Â—
not theatrics Â— is what is called for here.
Having a goal, understanding it, and
the hands of the game master and the players.
If a particular group desires to stress
acting, or combat, or problem solving, or
any other singular feature of the whole, that
is strictly up to the individuals concerned.
How they enjoy gaming, and what constitutes
fun, is theirs alone to decide.
This last point extends not only to players
but to products as well. A particular game
might be designed to stress one aspect over
others. Role playing can be the major
thrust, or action and combat, or any of the
other elements. Similarly, the underlying
game might offer one or another while its
accessories and scenarios develop some
different aspects. Most games and support
material are general and offer a reasonably
But is this true for competition situations
as well? In contrast to a long period when
such tournaments tended to feature hackand-
slash, shoot-Â‘em-up, and blast-Â‘em-out
situations, there is now a trend toward
cal side of gaming. This
except the theatritendency
itself to a lesser extent in some
support materials, it must be noted. The
reaction is not altogether unwarranted, for
many particpants seem to have been ignoring
role playing completely, or nearly so,
their games. Instead, it is usual for such
games to stress direct, usually violent,
remaining steadfast in its completion are
likewise necessary to role-playing games.
This questing, if you will, again has little or
nothing to do with role playing in the acting
sense. It is closer to role assumption and is a
measure of gaming ability and skill.
Role-playing games are different from
other games in that they allow participants
to create a game persona, develop this
character, and enhance his or her skills and
abilities. While some considerable amount
of acting is most beneficial to play, this is by
no means the sole objective or purpose. The
fun of such gaming includes all the other
elements mentioned, plus the interactive
relationships which develop between the
various characters of the players participating.
In the well-balanced game, role playing
should quickly become role assumption,
which then again leads to character role
playing Â— roles within roles!
Not every game of this sort must be
action. This is a true detriment to fully
appreciating the scope of role-playing
games; as with most things, one extreme is
just as undesirable as the other.
The current vogue of placing seemingly
undue importance on the role-playing portion
of the game is simply meant to inform
and educate participants about a very important
segment of what differentiates these
games from other types of games. It is to be
hoped that the needed training thus afforded
will enable game participants to go
beyond role playing of their characters and
enter into role assumption instead. Once it
is understood that role playing is a vital
ingredient of the game, and players understand
how to actually accomplish it, the
undue attention can be discarded.
Balanced games are certainly the most
enjoyable sort for the great majority of
players. A meal does not consist of but one
thing Â— if it is to be an enjoyable one. By
the same token, a role-playing game must
have all the ingredients which allow it to be
varied and enjoyable. Playing and assumption
of roles, interpersonal dealings, action,
completely balanced with regard to all of
these aspects. Such a decision is entirely in
problem solving, excitement, suspense, and
questing are all important to make the
whole. The portions can be mixed in different
amounts, but each should have a degree
of existence within the scope of the whole.
It is common for scenarios to identify the
level of experience and skill recommended
for those utilizing the material they provide.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to also
identify any particular stress the scenario
places upon a certain aspect of the game
activity Â— role-playing, action, problem
solving, or any other.
Tournament scenarios and competitions
might also benefit by such identification.
Prospective entrants would then be able to
determine which aspect they favor, or possibly
need to learn more of, before they entered
the event. Participants who find their
enjoyment lies in one area or another would
thus be able to select events optimal for
their tastes and avoid those which they
might find less fun Â— making the competition
experience more enjoyable for everyone
who does take part. Is the player who has
difficulty personifying a well-understood
character any different from an excellent
thespian who misplays the game otherwise?
By being able to identify the focus of a
scenario, not only would players be informed,
but they would also be given the
opportunity to round out their abilities in
weak areas if they chose to do so.
Play of the game is the thing. Play includes
development of the character and
personification thereof, role assumption and
role playing, and the rest. After all, fantasy
in whatever form is integral. Whether fighting
a dragon, piloting a starship, or shooting
it out with evil enemy agents, the action
imagined during the game is what really
makes it fun. The pendulum did need to
move a bit to balance things, but it must
not go too far, or the realms of role playing
will become small and constricted instead of
being Â— as they should be Â— as broad and
varied as the imagination.