Over at Traverse Fantasy, Marcia B. recently wrote about the enduring but hidden-in-plain-sight practice of rulebooks leading with the system’s universal resolution procedure (sometimes called conflict resolution mechanic or another combination of those key terms). This tactic focuses attention on the system’s mechanics and obfuscates the play structure they’re embedded in: developing a narrative.
“It’s become a cliche at this point,” she writes, gesturing to this approach’s widespread adoption in games indie and mainstream alike. A major conclusion is that this tactic emphasizes the game’s mechanical functions over the larger activity that unifies those functions into a coherent whole.
To be fair, the difference in focus is a fundamental schism (mechanical wargaming vs. collaborative storytelling) that divided initial adopters and to this day causes much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the RPG community at large. But introducing a game with its core mechanic appears to have become implicitly accepted practice in many cases.
Marcia’s post describes a rhetorical tactic that emphasizes formal gameplay without situating it in its larger narrative process, a practice inherited from D&D. My post is going to look at a related topic: the extent to which RPGs actually incentivize roleplaying, and how treating roleplaying as an ad-hoc activity (in roleplaying games) is also inherent in and likely inherited from the dragon game.
This isn’t an exhaustive survey, just a sketch. There are plenty of examples on both sides, but I’m going to focus on ones that I know particularly well and use them to illustrate this argument.
The Birth of Roleplaying from the Spirit of Wargaming
In The Elusive Shift, Jon Peterson describes the initial emergence of roleplaying as distinct from wargaming via the game Western Gunfight: players identified with and inhabited a single character rather than controlling a group of units. Playing the character, not winning the battle, became the focus, and that marked a transition from traditional, competitive wargaming to the nascent roleplaying game. The most obvious difference is the possibility, even desirability, of taking a competitively disadvantageous action because it fits the subjective goal of playing the character.
Roleplaying games offer the capacity to play a singular character—but to what extent do they facilitate, motivate, and reward that activity better than, say, a board game? This genre’s titular focal point is often left to its own devices. Many RPGS provide pretext for players to indulge in the intrinsic pleasure of roleplay but don’t always support or incentivize it in a meaningful way (in Salen and Zimmerman’s sense of meaningful play, a game formally reacting to player input).
XP & Character in AD&D
For an example, looks look back to 1978’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In AD&D, PCs advance by earning XP. The DMG gives specific guidelines for awarding XP for killing monsters and claiming treasure, and it notes that GMs will have to make subjective calls when awarding XP for overcoming obstacles like traps. It does not mention awarding XP for roleplaying. (Marcia tells me that 0D&D likewise doesn’t mention roleplaying as an occasion for earning experience—likely due to the fact that the game itself didn’t yet realize it was an RPG and no longer a traditional wargame.)
In this situation, it’s tempting to fall into the old fluff/crunch dichotomy and say that roleplaying is effectively fluff that doesn’t interact with the mechanical crunch. However, roleplaying can support to the overarching goals of slaying and looting—a selfless fighter throwing themselves at a horde of goblins, buying the party enough time to retreat and regroup, contributes to the main goals of killing monsters, getting treasure, and living to level up.
But roleplaying in this dynamic becomes extraneous support for the formal mechanics of adventuring and progression; covering the party’s retreat is still a strategic choice even if it does fit with the character concept. Roleplaying itself isn’t directly encouraged or supported—the game just grants an opportunity for indulging in roleplaying’s own intrinsic pleasure.
Similarly and unsurprisingly, AD&D’s PHB doesn’t give players any significant support for establishing and developing character. The generic alignments categorize behavior at large and provide only a very general basis for crafting a character with genuine depth. (James Maliszewski has a brief but interesting history of alignment’s murkiness over at Grognardia.) Beyond alignment, the only other character advice is to establish a family background. Then the GM drops the character into the game with no guaranteed motivation beyond “kill monsters, get treasure.”
Players will have to look elsewhere for examples and instruction on creating and building three-dimensional characters. And if they put forward that effort, the game doesn’t even gesture toward rewarding them for doing so.
Roleplaying in Board Games
The situation in AD&D is analogous to playing characters in board games. The games typically provide no incentive to act in character, and choosing between subjectively in-character actions and strategically informed and effective maneuvers that advance the player toward winning … well, it usually isn’t much of a choice at all.
Let’s look at another example: Stonemaier Games’ Scythe, a 4X game with many different routes to victory. Players control a single faction’s workers, infrastructure, military, and its leader—an individual character with animal companion. The game materials provide background sketches that includes the characters’ motivations and the personal conflicts they’re trying to overcome.
In practice, at least in my experience, players choose faction and industry mats based on aesthetics and how well the asymmetric structure fits their play style and strategies. (Granted, the pre-established mechanical opportunities, as well as the optional resolutions during encounters, definitely contribute a certain “character” to the faction.) The named characters themselves become icons of heroic stature who spearhead the faction’s march to military, economic, or popular victory.
But in theory, a player could just as easily roleplay one of these characters and probably do so more easily and more compellingly than when using AD&D’s generic alignment and pretense of character background. But like AD&D, Scythe doesn’t reward character roleplaying; it isn’t formally incorporated into the mechanics or procedures because it’s not a manifest part of the gameplay intention. Roleplaying could theoretically contribute to victory in a game of Scythe when luck and strategy align, but it won’t win the game on its own.
Character Depth in Forbidden Lands
By the time of 3.5e, D&D at least acknowledges roleplaying can be rewarded with XP, but it simply instructs GMs to do mete it out entirely ad hoc. Pathfinder is silent on the matter, as is 5e. (Both games do offer the possibility of story-based XP awards and advancement, but this seems more oriented on following the GM’s predefined plot, which isn’t necessarily tied to character growth and development.) These editions and their variant keep gainful reward as primarily a matter of overcoming mechanical challenges with plot as an amorphous side dish.
Forbidden Lands was my first encounter with explicit rules that reward character roleplay. It formally awards XP for exploration and treasure as well as actions that affect the overall situations at specific adventure sites and in the Ravenlands as a whole—and, at the singular level, for character moments like invoking pride and suffering from a dark secret.
Characters choose a pride and a dark secret at character creation, but both can and probably will change through play. Pride allows you to add a d12 to a failed roll related to that pride, significantly upping your chance of success, but if you still fail, your pride is shattered and you choose a new one at the end of the session. Dark secrets don’t have an analogous mechanical function; they serve just as a story and roleplay hook, but when brought into the game, they earn XP just like pride does.
Besides earning XP for advancement, pride and a dark secret create a stronger, more tangible basis for character than alignment. They set the character up for narrative success by giving them a focal point and an emotionally charged conflict.
These aspects contribute to two crucial components of a multidimensional character. The first is a concrete, tangible goal they’re striving for, and the second is a flawed self-concept and/or worldview that causes them to behave in ways that perpetuate conflict, which in turn prevents them from easily accomplishing their goal. This internally driven back-and-forth movement toward and away from accomplishment creates tension that ultimately leads to a more satisfying experience in fiction, film, and roleplay.
For an example, let’s look at my druid, Tinnúviel. Tinnú’s pride is “I can master death and damnation.” It provides immediate motivation in small scenarios—protecting her party, fighting demons, putting undead to rest—but it also establishes the groundwork for an emergent large-scale goal: waging war on the invasive Rust church.
Tinnú’s dark secret is “You can take the half-elf out of the apocalypse cult…”, alluding to her former life as an assassin in a cult dedicated to eradicating all humans in the Ravenlands. Her fight against the Rust Brothers puts her at risk of backsliding into instinctual, prejudicial violence she’s striven to put behind her.
Tinnú’s character arc, and her true depth, will ultimately be decided not by overcoming the Rust Brothers but by overcoming her own deep-seated ideological flaws that motivate her struggle. Finding that interplay and developing the backstory and character has been my most engrossing and inspiring roleplaying experience.
Forbidden Lands gave me tools that laid the groundwork for the character rather than relegating her to an amorphous alignment box that restricts more than facilitates roleplay, and furthermore, they provide a defined basis for rewarding in-character decisions with XP. That XP lets me buy and upgrade skills and talents, building the character’s mechanical aspect along the lines projected by the three-dimensional concept.
As I said above, Forbidden Lands isn’t the only game that formally facilitates character depth and rewards roleplaying—it’s just the one I’m most familiar with. By the same token, D&D isn’t the only game that fails to formally support players in developing deeper characters and conflicts.
RPGs of the latter type still have one foot firmly planted in wargaming and only dip a toe into roleplaying; they provide occasion for it but don’t formally incentivize and incorporate it. To steal Marcia’s sentiment, it’s a cliché at this point, and one that we often overlook or uncritically discount. But when implemented well, it creates strong opportunities to create real character depth, leading to more enjoyable roleplay, and it encourages players to embrace adversity related to that depth rather than the adversity of just fighting another goblin and taking its treasure.
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