Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What is Roleplaying?

Remember when every RPG had a little section at the beginning entitled "What is Roleplaying?" or something similar? Do you remember all those examples of play most RPGs also included, the ones that gave you a play-like outline of a typical roleplaying session, usually right before something really bad went down and the characters were about to suffer mightily? I certainly remember them and I recently found myself thinking about them a lot.

As I finish up the revision of Thousand Suns, I've noticed that I didn't include either of these things. Sure, I talk about "roleplaying" and I often make little digressions into the philosophy behind, say, random rolls and the like, but there's no specific section where I address the question of what roleplaying is for the benefit of a newcomer. Likewise, there's no example of play to give an idea to said newcomer of what it's like to actually play a tabletop RPG.

Partly, I didn't include these sections, because, honestly, after three decades in this hobby, I don't need this stuff explained to me. Many contemporary RPGs still include such these sections but I rarely read them and, when I do, they don't offer me any insights that encourage me to make it a regular practice. There's something else at work, too. On some level, I've come to accept without question that tabletop roleplaying isn't an expanding hobby and certainly not one that anyone comes into blind. If you get into tabletop RPGs nowadays, odds are you already know what they are -- at least, that's my unthinking assumption.

But is that really the case? I don't know and I'm not sure anyone does. Likewise, I'm not sure anyone knows if a "What is roleplaying?" section or an example of play serves any useful purpose beyond checking off a box on the "what every RPG rulebook needs to include" list. Of course, as I said, I'm a jaded, long-time gamer and my contact with kids at the age I was when I entered the hobby is limited to my children's friends, so I don't necessarily have a representative sample on which to draw any conclusions about what a RPG should or should not include. All I know for sure is that many RPGs do include these sections, though they almost always seem halfhearted and pro forma and, when they're not, as in the case of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, I find them cloying and wasteful of space.

Yet I find myself second-guessing myself and wondering if maybe the fact that so many of us find these sections useless is a symptom of a wider problem within the hobby. Then, I dismiss such thoughts, because I remember well that, even in the heyday of such sections, I rarely read them and even more rarely did I find them helpful. I learned to roleplay from other people who were already doing it rather than by reading a book and I still think, in the heart of hearts, that that's the best (only?) way to do so. Is it, though? Again, I have no idea and so I go back and forth on this topic in my head, never knowing whether to trust my gut, which tells me no one, not even newbies cares about those sections, or whether maybe guys like Raggi are on to something RPGs need to make a better effort to explain what they are to newcomers, for many of whom a tabletop RPG is a bizarre concept.


  1. Personally, I found the example of play in OSRIC helpful and interesting when I was starting to get into the OSR. I actually started running Old School games before I played with anyone else that was running Old School games, so having examples to read about was one of the resources that the online OSR community gave me that I'm really thankful for.

  2. I definitely found it to be the case that I needed to introduce the basic flow of play to my new players--even ones who had heard of D&D but had no idea what it actually was.

    One, in particular, was 25 before he ever touched the game, needed a serious primer in what it was all about, and is one of the more serious converts. Once he got the basics down, he was clamoring for more game constantly! So I would say, there is a place for a well-written intro to roleplaying.

    That being said, it might just be that we're at the point where most new players are introduced to the game(s) by friends and not by a random purchase for curiosity's sake.

  3. That's not as easy as it seems. In the last few years I have had to introduce the game to people who had never played, the latest a married couple who had tried to start with 4e Basic Set, and failed miserably. It took the borrowing of my Mentzer Red Box, plus a sample session, to finally make them understand what roleplaying is about. To date, all of the people to which I have borrowed my Mentzer Red Box have grasped the game and liked it.
    In my experience, if you are going to publish something which you hope may appeal to a general audience, I believe at least an extended example of play is fundamental, so I applaud the effort by James Raggi.

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  5. I personally never looked at these before I played, and when I started playing, I would read the examples and realize they had nothing in common with the way we gamed anyway. I remember reading a description of play and laughing at the idea of a "party caller" (didn't everyone just shout out their actions after initiative was rolled???)

  6. I find the "What is Roleplaying" sections to usually be formulaic and feel like they're there to fill up space.

    An example of play on the other hand, is something I *used* to dismiss... but now I think they're important. Since there are so many ways to approach RPG type games an example of play shows you how this specific game was designed to be played. I find people's "Actual Play" reports (aka stories I'm writing about our game session) to be of very limited use, but hearing genuine recordings of "Actual Play" can be very interesting.

    So I can do with a very streamlined "What is Roleplaying" section, but a bit more space (eg. a page) devoted to an example of play.

  7. Speaking for myself, I found the example of play in the AD&D 2nd edition PHB (yes, boo, hiss etc.) a helpful example of what conversation around the table is like.
    When I was invited to join the D&D group in junior high, I had no real idea of what it was, the DM handed me that book and had me read that section. It really helped me to get what was going on when we sat down later to play.

  8. In many ways, the “What is Role-Playing” section was really “How does this game differ from the games you’ve already played”. That is, there is no board, no restriction of set actions to choose from, etc.

    I renamed mine from “What is role-playing” to “What is this game?” Even within our subculture there are further subcultures that might not understand each other. Is it reasonable to say “my character wouldn’t do that?” and when? What’s the balance between using the character’s skills and using the player’s skills to accomplish a task?

    There are a lot of things that vary from game to game, and which can cause unnecessary confusion if not discussed early on.

  9. I think a different sort of approach may be called for. For instance, breaking-up the "example" and writing several very short ones, placed in relevant sections of the text. I think it would do a dandy job of explicating specific points of play. And wouldn't be so boring.

    Similar in some respects to the approach Matt Finch took in his Primer. A good example of a good "example of play." (Sorry, I couldn't resist that.)

  10. "On some level, I've come to accept without question that tabletop roleplaying isn't an expanding hobby and certainly not one that anyone comes into blind. If you get into tabletop RPGs nowadays, odds are you already know what they are -- at least, that's my unthinking assumption"

    I agree.

    I would love to see what percentage of RPG consumers (free or not) today have never played an RPG before. My guess is it would be very low for something like 4E (miniscule if you count WoW as an RPG), extremely low for something like Pathfinder, and non existent for ANY other RPG product. You might buy a 4E RPG product off the shelf if you have played WoW other than that, no way, it's over for new comers. Video game RPGs are where the uninitiated go now. Some of them may bleed off into tabletop but not many.

    I started RPGing around '82 and I'm probably a "newcomer" on a blog like this. I sometimes meet gamers that started with 3.0 in 2000 but I can't recall ever meeting anyone that started RPGs after 3.0. Now I've met gamers that have come back to RPGs after a hiatus but I can't say I've met a significant number of new gamers since I was in high school.

    As far as the "sample play session" write ups go, I read them and think they are amusing, but trying to describe what it is like to play an RPG in a rulebook is like trying to describe what reading a novel is like in a novel. It's going to come off as either very boring or very alien. It really is something you just have to see (to believe ;)).

  11. I always thought of these sections as some strange kind of literature that one read for enjoyment, ie for no 'use' what-so-ever but the sheer enjoyment of actually reading the words on the page. Far more interesting than the 300 pages of charts which followed, except of course where these charts and tables were broken up by small examples of play. Just call me weird.

  12. I think these sections would have a point IF they explained role-playing in terms that its audience would be likely to understand ie mostly with reference to computer games. Anyone who's played a first-person shooter knows how 'having a character' and 'powering up' works, and comparing it to improvised drama is likely to make them more confused.

  13. I stopped reading the "What Is Roleplaying?" sections early on, but I always enjoy a good example of play. Like Stuart said, those sections often as not serve as a sort of preface informing you of the game's intended slant (the single PC death in the 1e DMG vs. the TPK in LotFP, for example).

    I learned to roleplay from other people who were already doing it rather than by reading a book...

    That may hold true in your experience, but I was one of those poor shlubs who had to teach myself first, then get my friends to play. Having examples of play in the 2e PH or the Call of Cthulhu core rules was invaluable for not just showing me how the mechanics worked, but how a GM might address the group and how players interact with each other, their characters, the setting, and the GM.

    Thanks to CRPGs, I don't think most people need the "What Is Roleplaying?" section anymore, but I do wish more games had examples of play in them still.

  14. I happen to have a pretty strong opinion about all this. Here it is:

    1. Roleplaying is NOT a strange, esoteric or difficult thing. Roleplaying is easy and natural.
    2. Most "What is roleplaying" sections I've read over the years were confusing, self-contradictory, too broad, obfuscating or divorced from the actual experience of play.
    3. If you're writing a book for beginners, write *instructions on how to play the game*. Monopoly, Risk or Pictionary don't have a "what is a boardgame" section, videogames don't have a "what is a videogame tutorial". They teach you how to play the game. Show the player how to play, that's all.

    Play is a natural, instinctive thing. Roleplaying is a form of that. Kids do it all the time and they don't need explanations or anyone to teach them! What we need (especially for beginners) are explanations of rules and honest procedures, advice and examples of how it happens at the table for this particular game - playing one RPG requires a different mindset than another (the skills of a good Paranoia GM, say, are not the same skills of a good 4E DM). But that's all just my opinion.

    As an aside: I agree that it's not an expanding hobby and I agree that it's never going to be "big" (again?), because it's very niche and that's a good thing. But if you look at stuff people like NerdNYC or Tavis Allison are doing, I think it can't be denied that they're introducing lots and lots of new people to gaming. I think things are happening and it's cool. I guess the bottom line is: let's not ignore non-gamers, but "what is roleplaying" sections aren't going to help anyone, least of all beginners - the hobby grows through a) gaming and b) community, not texts. Texts can just do their best to try and make people better gamers.

  15. I think the most valuable part of the "What is role-playing" section of any book is to provide an idea of how the GM expects exchanges to transpire. You can basically give people a sample of what you think is normal player-GM interaction and even help set the tone for your game.

  16. I'll chime in that I usually glaze over during the "What is this Game" section... but I usually really like the play examples, particularly if they continue them (with the same players) throughout the rules. They not only humanize what can become a blurry set of numbers, but give light guidance into how the rules should be used in service of the game and let us a little more into the mind of the designer as we see how it thinks we should be playing its game.

  17. For some strange reason, I usually enjoy reading examples of play. One thing I noticed even then was the prevalence of a "caller," something I almost never encountered in our local groups. Perhaps we were all naturally too Chaotic. :)

  18. The first "D&D" book I had access to was D&D book with the wizard and the fighter attacking a Dragon that came in the 'basic' set box (Holmes). But none of us learned D&D by reading the book --- we all learned it by sitting down to play and being told, "Okay, roll 3d6 and total for your strength, intelligence, wisdom, etc." The DM (who had played before with a different group) gave us advice (i.e.: buy armor and weapons if you are a fighter... it is dark in the dungeon so you will want torches, etc.) but we pretty much understood how the game was "supposed" to work simply because the 'roleplaying' part wasn't so much pretending to be someone else like an actor, it was just putting yourself in someone else's shoes tot he extent that you had to make decisions about what the character would do with the information you had available. It was like one of those 'Lifeboat' exercises except we were just enjoying the fantasy instead of learning something about difficult moral choices.

    I still think that is the best way to learn to play... and although we learned a lot of the 'rules' incorrectly, we figured out what the point of the game was pretty quickly all on our own.

  19. I think text about “what is roleplaying” is still important. I think examples of play are twice as important.

    But, I think they should be separate. Like Traveller Book Zero. Or LotFP’s tutorial booklet. Or (to some extent) the D&D Basic Sets. Or the GURPS for Dummies book.

    And not every game needs them. Many (most?) games just aren’t that appropriate as introductory games. (Although a good group can make any game a good introductory game, but that’s out of the hands of the author/designer/developer.)

  20. Even to this day, I absolutely adore the example of play in the AD&D 2e PHB. It succeeded enormously at showing what a real game session looks like.

  21. I'm greatly in favor of you, as the author, following your gut instinct. If you're not excited about writing a section like that, then skip it. Your energy and passion is better used on other stuff. (Same goes for me & others.)

    Here's some brainstorming for creative alternatives -- (1) Link or suggest to other books, websites, or blogs that you think have quality "what is roleplaying" essays. (2) Write one up separately for your blog. (3) Audio-record an actual play session and put it online as a podcast. (4) Look at how short the OD&D "Preparation for the Campaign" is (Vol-1, p. 5).

  22. "(3) Audio-record an actual play session and put it online as a podcast."

    Please don't. I have yet to hear a podcasted D&D session that wasn't some level of embarrassing (from mildly to excruciatingly). Sorry to say but our little hobby does not lend itself to being spectated, at all, to put it mildly.

  23. I started the hobby in about 1999 when I was in middle school. Before then, I had played MUDs, the great-granddaddy of the modern day MMO. I had heard the name Dungeons and Dragons before, but as I lived in the Bible Belt, all I knew about it was SATAN - AVOID AT PERIL TO SOUL.
    The example of play in the ADnD 2e handbook (the two fighters, the cleric, and the wererats) left a big impression on me. One of the characters was somewhat cowardly, the cleric I think, and one fighter was very cautious, one bold.
    Point being, it showed a play style where a character was a person first, and a list of skills and stats second. That is something that has always stuck with me.

  24. I think an example of play section is a good idea in an RPG, but a tutorial is just overkill.

  25. I really enjoy examples of play and think they are useful both as an introduction to RPGs for newbies as well as suggesting the tone and kind of gameplay to be expected from that particular RPG.

  26. I've always been fond of the Call of Cthulhu example of play -- the one with the missing brain and the Deep One gangster -- but that's probably more to do with nostalgia and general affection for Cthulhu than anything else.

    Still, I can't remember the details of any other such example, so it had to be doing something right!

  27. Will no one spare a thought for poor Black Dougal, whose sudden demise (from a failed saving throw vs. a poison needle trap) in the Moldvay Basic "example of play" brought home to this then-novice player and aspiring DM the intrinsic inevitability of Player Character death and the stark ruthlessness of the dice?

  28. I actually had a gravesite for Black Dougal in my campaign with the epitaph "By the pricking of my thumb..."

    Sadly, no one ever figured out who he was.

  29. While "What is Role-playing?" is probably a waste of space, I think examples of play can be great. Especially if a game is trying for a different feel. Something like Fate or Dogs in the Vineyard is easier to grasp when you can see how the author envisions it played.

  30. > On some level, I've come to accept without question that tabletop roleplaying isn't an expanding hobby and certainly not one that anyone comes into blind.

    Is it not possible that one reason why tabletop roleplaying isn't an expanding hobby is that the whole concept of what it actually /is/ has become restricted and cliched by the 500lb ("fantasy") gorilla that is D&D of whatever version?

    > If you get into tabletop RPGs nowadays, odds are you already know what they are -- at least, that's my unthinking assumption.

    Strange, then, that when I asked people to define what a roleplaying game *is not* there was general confusion.
    (Care to define what one *is*?)

    Giving examples of expected play certainly can help up to a point, but again there's that old "caller" example cited from OD&D. The game "as published" isn't necessarily the same as the game "as played" - or "as it could be played" (which is where OD&D really hit the jackpot).

  31. I still think that is the best way to learn to play... and although we learned a lot of the 'rules' incorrectly, we figured out what the point of the game was pretty quickly all on our own.

    This is my feeling, too, but I do wonder how viable it is anymore. Back in the day, it seemed like every teenager in America was playing RPGs, so there was a ready source of mentors for newcomers to the hobby. That's no longer the case.

  32. I find there are two types of "what is roleplaying." The first is an honest attempt to introduce people' the other is an attempt to force a certain philosophy of play on people. I don't think the first is necessary,* and I find the second to be very annoying. On any regard I rarely read them these days, and the games that started me on the hobby really didn't have them.

    That being said, I quite like designer notes (provided they come at the end of the book), to give an idea of what the designer's philosophy was. Also good for seeing whether they succeeded or not.

    [* I will make an exception for licensed media properties, which also tend to be bought by non-gamers. Even then most people know what rpgs are.**]

    [** That being said, I did like The Laundry RPG approach to the problem which tackled it with excellent human, and made an excellent point in producing a "if you are familiar with computer rpgs" section about the differences between the two mediums. Now, when you mention epg in most places, people think of computer rpgs first, D&D type fames second.]

  33. Hey James. Here's my little disseration on the subject: Enjoy.

  34. I do like examples of play and find them informative and useful.

    I've never paid attention to the "what is role playing" sections. I knew what it was before I owned my first game.

  35. Add me to the list of players who never had a mentor. My friends and I got into gaming together. We'd heard about it but none of us knew anyone who played. We got our parents to buy us D&D and dove in on our own.

  36. The vast majority of these sections are overlong and don't give the tyro any idea what roleplaying is.

    I've always felt one of the best ways to explain it was like playing cops and robbers, except with rules to alleviate the "you're dead, no I'm not!" problems. Simple, to the point, and then the game can go on to introduce and define the various terms and put it all together in a way the reader can understand easily.

    Nowadays, you could almost tap players of World of Warcraft and Oblivion and they would have a handle on some of the basics. As much as CRPGs are not tabletop RPGs, they have stats and character customization, so it's a short hop between the two. Then, when they've rolled up a character and start playing is when you can highlight the differences and see how much deeper immersion there can be in a tabletop RPG.

  37. The thing is that games like Thousand Suns are the type of game that you might not think need a "What is Roleplaying?" or example of play sections -- due to their smaller print runs and less "mainstream" appeal -- but this is exactly the wrong line of thought.

    Thousand Suns is a game that also has the potential to appeal to an underdeveloped market -- the SF fan. TS's excellent "Transmissions" products are ideal for bringing the SF aficionado into the role playing game hobby. Many SF readers have never read a single role playing game product, or seen a game played. These people need these sections -- at least when they are well done.

    As your ability to increase the variety of "Transmissions" titles increases, so does your chance of coming into contact with these overlooked gamers. Let's say you were able -- by some miracle -- to make a "Transmissions from The Culture" supplement. If the book included new short fiction set in The Culture, it would have value as a product for brick and mortar book stores and would be an opportunity to expand the marketplace.

    One of the biggest problems with the modern gaming market is that we seem perfectly happy to keep segmenting a shrinking pie, rather than growing the pie.

    Thousand Suns and Colonial Gothic deserve bigger audiences, they don't have themes that compete with a lot of other games, and they are easy to learn.

  38. Well, back when I got my 2e AD&D books, the only thing close to an RPG that I had played int he past was Hero Quest, which wasn't really role playing, it was a board game. The text in the beginning of the Player's Handbook really did introduce me to what role playing games are, and how they are different from other types of games. It was confusing at first, and it did help when later on we met others who played, but I think I would have been completely lost without that section to explain it to me in that time (1991).

  39. At the London D&D Meetup I meet a lot of new players who have played computer 'rpgs', often 10 or 15 years ago, but never played a tabletop rpg. Some kind of introductory text is definitely beneficial to these people. I'd particularly appreciate a summary of the differences between tabletop games & computer games, eg:

    1. Group activity - the GM can only run one group at a time.
    2. No reloads - no 'save game'.
    3. In character play is fundamental to most RPGs, unlike computer games.