In my last post, I talked a lot about what roleplaying is, and – surprise! – it wasn’t just one thing! That is part of the beauty of roleplaying, it’s full of options. What are these options?
Well, first, we have the three qualities talked about before:
Roleplaying, Storytelling, Mechanics. To keep in line with the existing literature on Gaming Theory, I have slightly renamed the categories I used in the previous post. I have renamed ‘Mechanics’ as ‘Competition’ (it goes by ‘gaming’ in GNS Theory, but I find that to be a bit ambiguous of a term); it essentially refers to how much of the experience of the game is rooted in competition. Storytelling will be referred to as ‘Narrative’, and Roleplaying will be expanded slightly to ‘Simulation’. Simulation refers to how much of the setting goes to recreating system-internal realism. Note that this realism does NOT have to be actual realism. For example, many unrealistic things happen in Star Wars, but there is an assumed set of rules which governs things like lightsabers. Any given game will have a balance of the three, like so:
To elaborate slightly on gaming, at the very basics, there is an inherent distinction between players and GMs; the players play their characters, while the GM plays the rest of the world. However, the relationship between the players and the GM can vary, both in orientation and in relative power. On the orientation front, you can have a very antagonistic GM/player relationship, in which case the players are trying BEAT the GM’s challenges, and the GM is trying to thwart the Players’ attempts, or you can have a cooperative campaign, where the GM’s role is more of a moderating one, to handle disputes between players. On the power front, you can have a very GM-driven campaign, where the GM has most of the power in controlling what happens in the game, or you can have a very player-driven campaign, where the GM is more there to help flesh out and moderate what happens, as opposed to dictating it. Note that while these things seem similar, they are quite different. You could, for example, have a very cooperative campaign, where the GM’s role is to moderate the players’ interactions, and yet the GM’s actions can still be very heavy-handed. On the other hand, you could have an antagonistic campaign, where the GM is trying to thwart the players, but the players goals allow them to control what the campaign is about. So there are two ways that a game can have heavy elements of competition, GM vs Player, and Player vs Player.
Ultimately, competitiveness is not about roleplaying, but it sets the stage for roleplaying. How much the game is about winning or competitiveness can determine how roleplaying is oriented, but it itself is not a force of roleplaying; those two forces are Simulation and Narrative.
Simulation is about internal consistency. To an extent, it is the logical extension of roleplaying to everything the GM controls. Much as psychology will dictate a character’s actions — “my character would(n’t) do that” is a perfectly reasonable sentence to utter — other sciences (or rules of magic) will dictate a universe’s responses — “you can’t do that! that’s not how lightsabers work!”. This sums up simulationism; it is the extension of logical continuity, both of the universe and of characters.
Narrative remains simple: it is the act of telling a story. But don’t confuse this for plot. Narrative is basically the ‘cool’ factor of a game: a cool story, a cool catch-phrase, a cool concept. When John McClane says ‘Yippeekiyay, motherfucker’, instead of just declaring his action, he’s practicing narrative by breathing life into the story.
So Roleplaying is split between these two ideas. The first half is in establishing consistency of actions (simulation). The second half is in making actions memorable (narrative).
Flight simulation games tend to lack narrative/gaming elements, and as such, are not RPGS. Chess has no simulation or narrative and is purely gaming-based, and is also not an RPG. Writing a book is purely narrative, and is also not an RPG. An RPG will always fall somewhere in the interior of the circle. Obviously, there is some vagueness as to how MUCH narrative/simulation/gaming you need for a game to qualify as an RPG, but we’ll leave this issue aside to independent judgement. However, I argue that a game must have all three elements to properly qualify as an RPG.
Let’s look at what some of these games look like, starting with the extreme ends.
One type is the Epic Narrative (GM-driven), often told by the Wannabe Author (a GM who is really just running the campaign because writing and publishing a book seems too scary). In this campaign, everything takes a back-seat to Narrative, and the GM has a huge plot set up in advance. Webcomics like DM of the Rings and Darths & Droids firmly show what this sort of campaign looks like, by re-imagining Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as RPGs (as movies, they are clearly plot-driven). Mechanics and characters are generated as necessary, and the players are railroaded into one specific plot.
Another type is the Heroes’ Quest (player-driven). In this campaign, the storytelling is key, but the GM may not necessarily have a huge plot set up. Instead, the players determine how the campaign plays out. A pretty good example of this is Apocalypse World; while the GM establishes a lot of obstacles, but the campaign is still ultimately about plot (just that the plot is created very collaboratively).
Personally, while I understand the appeal of the GM-driven storytelling adventure, as a GM, I favor giving the players what they want, so I tend to lean towards player-driven campaigns.
D&D is the typical example of a gaming-oriented RPG; the ‘goal’ in D&D is to always be ‘better’, kill stronger monsters, get better loot, and level up into better characters.
However, don’t mistake rules-heavy systems for necessarily being gaming-oriented. Rules heaviness can often hint at a simulationist bent; the more specific the rules are, they better they simulate whatever it is that’s being simulated. As well, rules can be designed in a way that is largely narrative. Dogs in the Vineyard has a mechanics system which is largely oriented at narrative/cinematic properties; the rules are structured in such a way that narration fuels the game.
So while it may seem reasonable to think about rules as inherently gaming-oriented, all rules do is resolve disputes; they can do that with an attention to gaming the system, representing the game’s internal system of reality, or motivating narrative.
Finally, it’s important to note the ways in which these priorities can conflict.
Narrative and competition can easily come into conflict: if narrative is about making the best story, but gaming is about gaining upper-hands, the two can conflict. Sometimes, losing in the short-term makes for a better story long-term — hence the three-act story model! — and sometimes something can be REALLY cool without being the best way to do something. This can be a hard pill for a competition-oriented gamer.
Narrative and simulation can also easily conflict: how do you weigh realism vs the coolness of narrative? Are John McClane’s actions in the Die Hard movies realistic? Probably not. He sustains enough damage to kill a man 5 times over, and walks away with barely a limp and superficial wounds. But narratively? Die Hard is COOL.
Finally, simulation and gaming come easily into conflict. Sometimes, what’s reasonable isn’t what’s balanced. Sure, a party of Jedi probably beats most conflicts much better than a party with one Jedi, a smuggler, and a nobleman. And so you have to draw lines between ability to be competitive and realistic simulations, or everybody will only play Jedi.
So in looking at a game, you have a lot of considerations:
- Is it more about narrative flow, roleplaying/simulation, or progressing/winning?
- Is the GM out to get the players, or is he working with them?
- Is the GM relatively powerful, or does he have not much more power than the players?
Me? I prefer games that are largely about narrative flow, with a GM who, while he has slightly more power than players, is largely there to resolve disputes and provide nudges in an interesting direction as need be. Essentially, in my optimal RPG, the players are collaboratively telling a story, and the GM is mediating, while occasionally helping them out (since they have the cognitive load of roleplaying a character, which can make helping narrative along more stressful). For this, I prefer systems like Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalpyse World; I’ll talk about what I think these systems do so well in a future post.