Rob Bohl started an interesting thread about encountering players for whom "roleplaying" was an undesirable impediment to the process of playing roleplaying games. The thread (and my comments in it) didn't get the attention I think it deserved, so I'm blogging about it here.
This is largely a semantic issue, which usually means it's boring and pointless, but I thought it was a good opportunity to expand on a thought that had been percolating in the back of my mind for a while.
I think that "roleplaying", in the sense that the gamer Rob is talking about means it, is best described as a set of techniques. An (incomplete) list of these techniques would look something like this:
- Saying aloud what your character says
- Thinking about and describing "what your character would do"
- Having your character interact socially with other characters in the fiction
- Describing non-essential information about what your character does
Defining what a roleplaying game is is a notoriously difficult subject, because, I think, there's no clear consensus on which techniques are essential to defining a game as such. For example, there are a large number of techniques that are employed in "traditional" RPGs but not in some newer games, leading some people to lable those new games "not RPGs". Some of these techniques include:
- Each player controlling one in-game "piece"
- Increasing in-game effectiveness
- Mechanics for simulating violence
- A "GM" or similar
So are there any techniques that are essential to something being an RPG or not? The best I can come up with is the idea of a shared imagined space.
"Shared Imagined Space" is the idea that the players all contribute to a shared understanding of what is happening in a fictional space. In short, it's players describing fictional stuff about what's happening in the game, and the other players all agreeing that yes, that is happening.
But Shared Imagined Space itself doesn't make an RPG, right? Otherwise you could describe stuff happening in your game of Monopoly, like "oh, the hat and the iron are getting married" or whatever, and make it an RPG. Some people play a lot of games like this (especially games like "Bang!" and "Lunch Money"), but I don't think that makes them RPGs.
Or maybe it does. I don't know, but it doesn't sit easy with me, mostly because I hate playing games like this.
So another way to think about it, that gets around that problem, is to define RPGs by the use of the technique of Shared Imagined Space with impact on the mechanics of the game.
In other words, you describe stuff, and what you describe has an impact on how the rules of the game work. Purely based on judgements about the fictional content of the game, you make decisions about how to impliment the rules of the game.
That's a pretty controversial definition though. It excludes some indie favourites like "Contenders", and nearly excludes "My Life With Master", and I would argue (based on my previous post) that it comes close to excluding D&D4E as well.
So it's close, but not quite right. It's floating around in there though. It's something about how the Shared Imagined Space impacts on the game, or on the decisions that the players make.
In the end though, I don't think it's a very useful thing to have a definition of what is, or is not, an RPG. I think it's more useful to look at the whole list of techniques I described above, and look at a game as having more or less "RPG qualities". That's a useful definition I think, because it frees up thinking about designing and playing games. There is no technique that is "essential" to an RPG, and there is no technique that is forbidden. Not all RPGs use the same techniques, and when you play an RPG, it is useful to be aware of the techniques it supports.