The Seven-Sided Die

"Who needs rules for roleplaying?" = Missing the Point

Posted Saturday February 04, 2012 at 10:56 PM

You might have heard this rhetorical question in a thread about competing D&D editions or on a post about some new indie game – I've certainly heard it many times on the front lines of the edition wars. With the open playtest for "D&D Next" coming and the verbal wrestling the fanbase will be doing over how to do it "right", I'm sure we'll be hearing it even more often.

The question, "who needs rules to tell them how to roleplay?" is intended to shut down the opposition. It says that they other side is being ridiculous for wanting mechanics for every damned thing that you do, at best. At worst, it says that these people clearly can't roleplay their way out of a paper bag if they need rules for how to do it.

Like most fronts in edition wars, though, it's really a statement of not understanding the position of the other side.

Rules are tools

Nobody questions what movement grid rules are good for, or why it could be useful for a game to assign different weapons different damage ratings. A movement grid takes the guesswork out of determining where every character is. The point is not to know where everyone is standing, never mind the absurd "to teach players how walking around works." The point is to make position simple and intuitive so that everyone can save their thinking, strategising, and teamwork on what everyone is going to do about where the characters are standing.

Rules are tools for streamlining a process that is fundamentally a complicated human social and mental process: a bunch of people sitting around trying to simultaneously agree on what happens in their shared imagination while each trying to coordinate their efforts and trying to play their "best", whatever that means for the part of the game at hand.

Streamlining your roleplay

Rules for roleplaying are just such tools. If you've played and enjoyed such games then you can probably see where I'm going with this. For the benefit of those who haven't and have found themselves asking the question in the title: Games that have rules for roleplaying don't tell you how to play any more than a movement grid tells you how to walk. What they do is streamline certain sticking points about playing a role so that you can get on with the interesting parts of playing a role.

A movement grid streamlines play by prevent everyone from slowing down the round with questions like, "Wait, where is that orc standing? Does it have cover? What do you mean it sees me?! I said I was crouched behind the rubble. What, the rubble was in the other room? Can we rewind? 'Cause I would have cast a spell before the fight in that case…"

Similarly, a roleplaying rule streamlines away confusion and argument over certain details[1]_ about how fictional characters interact with each other..

An example

I'll use an example from Fate, since I'm reading the Dresden Files RPG right now. Compels in Fate prevent a social interaction between characters from devolving into an extended meta-game inter-player argument like: "I totally just insulted your god! Why is your priest just ignoring that? Dammit… C'mon, listen: I'm trying to distract you with an argument so our friends can sneak into the shop! It'll be a fun bit of trouble and you can go all vengeful cleric on us when you find out?"

In Fate, the Compel mechanics lets you suggest a course of action to the player controlling another character (including the GM) that's consistent with the nature of the character (as already detailed in sentences called Aspects). The suggestion is backed up with the offer of a Fate point—if the player accepts, that's what their character does and they get the Fate point for themselves. Fate points can be used for various things, including buying a reroll or backing up your own Compels later, so the suggestion has mechanical appeal for the target player even while they have the option to refuse.

Compels, then, are a tool: they give players of Fate a standard process for talking about different opinions of what a character "would really do" in a given situation.

Instead of the awkward negotiation in the previous above, this happens:

Priest player: (To the GM) What? I think I would notice my companions sneaking into the shop. They can't be up to any good. Can I roll Alterness to notice and do something about that?

Con artist player: Hold up there! I see you've got a character Aspect that says, "Any excuse to lecture on the greatness of Kermil". My guy casually slights Kermil as maybe not being so great. I'll back that up with a Fate point and make it a Compel to Inaction. How about you argue with me instead of making that Alertness roll?

Priest player: Hmm. They're going to get us in trouble again! Then again, I really need the Fate point after spending so many on getting past the gate guards, especially if we're going to have to leave town in a hurry… Okay, fine, my ranty priest takes the easy bait and totally misses the mischief our friends are starting…

Cutting to the chase

Rules about roleplaying aren't about how to roleplay, they're about cutting to the chase. They don't replace how you play your character with a bunch of mechanical "if this then that" rules, but rather replace the messy conversations players have whenever there's disagreement about what should happen next. They are just as much a practical tool for eliding the boring parts of Make Believe as to-hit rules are. Even improv theatre – a more free-form kind of pure roleplaying than nearly every roleplaying game in existence – has "rules" that are really tools and communication tricks for getting everyone moving forward together when the performance might otherwise drag to a halt while the audience watches.

So next time someone wonders, honestly or otherwise, how anyone could possibly need rules for how to roleplay, remember that they're asking the wrong question. Nobody needs rules for how to roleplay. Rules that stimulate the players' imaginations and take play in unexpected directions, while smoothing over the usual conversational hitches that come up between creative people, can increase the drama of a game no matter how good at roleplaying the group already is.

[1]Different games streamline different details, naturally.

Comments (2)


Sunday February 05, 2012 at 02:58 AM

Agree. Good points; I'd further observe that in the example you gave, since the priest's player selected that "Any Excuse to Lecture..." Aspect for his character that he's obviously interested in having roleplaying scenes in which he gets to hold forth on Kermil.

The other player is therefore providing the priest player a wide-open door for some serious in-character speechifying at that point, which is a pure role-playing opportunity -- facilitated entirely by the Compel mechanics -- that possibly wouldn't have happened organically without them. In this situation everybody wins, both the game-y mechanics-users and the talky roleplaying types.


Monday February 06, 2012 at 07:08 AM

Yes! That's just the sort of gentle nudge that "roleplaying mechanics" can give to players who are already keen to get into character development moments. It channels the groups' attention to the player's already-established intention to play the character a certain way – but doesn't force, just reminds.