RPG theory is as old as RPGs themselves—it just wasn’t initially recognized as a distinct area of inquiry. Rather, implicit theorizing was an integral component of early roleplaying. And the basic question that still confronts RPG theory was, back in the day, a fundamental issue at the core of RPGs themselves: how should we play this type of game?
Glenn Blacow was the first to systematically address the divide in the roleplaying community with his four categories of gamers, and ever since, RPG theorists have proposed alternative models of the same conundrum. None have successfully reconciled the divide because, I think, it’s an unresolvable issue.
At the risk of being overly reductive—but at the benefit of keeping this post from straying way too far into the contextual weeds—the basic issue is this: do roleplayers cleave to the mechanics in order to maximize our competitive advantage? Or do we pursue things like narrative conflict and character development, which exist outside the formal game system itself?
Although D&D is considered the first RPG (and thus the first to present these possibilities), the line is murky. D&D was initially marketed as a wargame because 1) that was the tradition it emerged from and 2) that was the genre it most closely resembled. However, prior to D&D, other wargames used a similar model wherein players develop character(s) beyond the mechanics and/or, rather than controlling groups of faceless minions, control an individual and pursue some narrative agenda.
As Jon Peterson points out in The Elusive Shift, roleplaying games truly emerged the first time a wargamer, rather than acting to gain the greatest competitive advantage, instead decided, “My character wouldn’t do that.”
Therein lies the essence of the roleplayer’s dilemma.
Long before RPG theory, game theory emerged in the 1940s and remained popular during the Cold War as a way of modeling decision-making in conflict situations: each “player” must decide on a course of action, but they possess imperfect knowledge of the action the other player is simultaneously taking.
Players are assumed to make rational decisions wherein they either cooperate with or betray each other. Cooperation usually leads to a mutually agreeable outcome but does not provide maximal personal gain; betrayal, on the other hand, can provide maximal benefit at the competitor’s expense—assuming the competitor chooses to cooperate without realizing that the other party is betraying them. When both players choose to betray one another, they both reap the least possible gain for themselves.
In this context, rational is rooted in ratio: a quantitative relation. Rational players in a quid-pro-quo game seek to ensure that the highest possible number is on their side of the equation while minimizing the value on the other side. In this way, they can realize the greatest possible gains and mitigate those of their competitor.
An Example: The Great D&D Heist
Imagine you’re a thief who’s stolen an unopened copy of the original 1974 D&D boxed set. An unscrupulous collector named Skinny Fingers has agreed to purchase it at full value. The exchange will be a dead drop—you will leave the goods at a certain location, and your buyer will simultaneously leave payment at a different location. Then you will both proceed to collect what’s due.
If you choose to cooperate with Skinny Fingers, each side gets what they want, and the score will be 1:1. But if you betray Skinny Fingers, you can double your gains and come out ahead—you’ll get the money and an opportunity to quickly sell to another buyer, putting you at 2:0.
|Skinny Fingers cooperates||Skinny Fingers betrays|
But Skinny Fingers may have the same plan—collect the set and stiff you on the payment, leaving the score at 0:2. And if you both decide to betray each other, neither of you gets what you want; you’re stuck with a hot item and a reputation for betrayal, and Skinny Fingers has a stack of cash that has no value in the context of his collection. You’re both at 0:0.
Inherent in game theory are certain dilemmas—situations that admit no rational decision.
A game like Tic-Tac-Toe presents no dilemmas. There are clear means of either achieving victory or ending the game in a draw, thereby avoiding a loss despite not winning. But your Skinny Fingers situation is a dilemma.
The most rational decision is to betray Skinny Fingers and walk away with the game and the money—right? But Skinny Fingers will surely come to the same conclusion. In both cases, maximum gain requires betraying a cooperative player. But if betrayal is most logical and both sides betray the other, then no one will get what they want. And since both sides are rational players, they both must come to the same conclusion: the best course of action is cooperation, since the other side will also come to the same conclusion. But in that case—knowing the other will cooperate—the most logical course of action is betrayal.
The chain of reasoning circles back on itself ad infinitum. You have no way of knowing which choice Skinny Fingers will make, and so you have no definitive way of making the most profitable decision.
The Roleplayer’s Dilemma
The roleplayer’s dilemma is the necessary choice between rational and irrational choices. As soon as character and motivation become concerns in games, players have to decide which holds greater value: competitive advantage within the rules or emotional satisfaction within the imaginary world.
But remember, irrational in this sense isn’t negative. In fact, players behave irrationally on a regular basis. Some players, rather than playing to for personal advantage, will play to punish their opponent, incurring whatever expense necessary along the way. They’re gaining something they want but at the cost of something else that would also benefit them.
The same is true of choosing between playing the mechanical game, strictly speaking, and playing the character as a persona with depth beyond the formal rules. Although those interests can coincide, one choice will often exclude certain possibilities and gains offered by the other.
If players were strictly roleplayers or rollplayers, with no overlap between the categories, then there would be no dilemma. However, play styles are not mutually exclusive. No matter the explanatory model used to characterize them, players will almost always blend different interests and goals, and so they will be forced to make choices between the irreconcilable options.
The Game Designer’s Dilemma
The roleplayer’s dilemma is also the game designer’s dilemma. No matter the model they use to analyze play styles and devise satisfying games, designers will necessarily weight their systems one way or another. This obviously presents problems for making marketable products and for selecting purchases from a roster of options. The more a player’s preferred style fits the game, the more they’ll cooperate with the designer’s vision; the less it fits, the more the player will feel betrayed.
Ultimately, neither designers nor players can have it both ways—but that’s not a bad thing. Instead, that tension has been, and continues to be, a compelling source of diversity and innovation in the hobby. Far from being an irresolvable problem, the dilemma is what makes RPGs such a rich and compelling activity that always keeps us coming back for more.
The dilemmas described here are reskinnings of the notorious prisoner’s dilemma. If you’d like to learn more about it and game theory, I recommend William Poundstone’s fun and readable introduction Prisoner’s Dilemma. For more on the intertwined origins of TTRPGs and RPG theory, Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift cannot be beat.
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For partygoers who want to kill some time and themselves
A summary & discussion of my paper about RPGs and art