In my some 42 years in the hobby I have yet to see any one publish a role playing game. I’ve seen a lot of games published that said they were for role playing, and some even included some advice on role playing, but not one where the reason for playing the game was to play a role. Heck, I rather doubt many who read this have any idea just what role playing is. So being older, smarter, and creative I now present what I think on the matter.
Role playing is where you play a role. That is, you either present yourself as you are not, or as you aren’t always. We play roles all the time; office worker, doctor, bus driver, all are parts we assume as part of our lives. What do you do in a role playing game? You play a role. At least one, though it’s rather likely that during play you actually assume a number of roles depending on who or what you’re interacting with.
But when you’re talking about games you do need to remember that you are talking about winning and losing. Even when you’re all on the same side you’re still talking about winning and losing.
“But if everybody is on the same side,” I can hear you ask, “Who is on the other side?”
It’s more a matter of “what?”, and that what is the game. You’re playing against the rules, the mechanics if you will, and those are set up to make it hard to you to achieve your goals whatever they are.
Though in the case of an RPG—role playing game—it’s not so much a matter of mechanics as it is a matter of social interaction. In short the GM needs to make a judgement as to who in his opinion did the best job of playing his role. The other players can help. Heck, if the game had an audience that audience can judge. But role playing is not really something you can handle mechanically.
And one thing we always need to be aware of, bias. We’re all biased. We all have our preferences and our animosities. We’re human, it’s what we do. Playing an RPG is a type of performance art and we all have our preferences. And keep in mind that what a boy of 14 prefers is not always going to be what a woman of 79 wants. Doesn’t mean they can play in the same game, but how they play and what they expect out of it are going to be rather different.
So how do we design an RPG?
I have but the vaguest idea. But I do know that one thing you can do is to make sure that prospective players have some idea of what role playing is about, and to present a few role playing exercises within the context of the game. Such as, say, the behavior expected of a Wizard or Paladin in the various situations he may find himself in. Just think of some of what you go through on a daily basis, and put in an elf, or dwarf, or goblin in place of a human being.
And above all, as the GM let your players be flexible in how they handle matters. That tarrasque doesn’t have to deliberately stomp on people, he could do it entirely by accident. Dealing with such a creature becomes less a desperate attempt to defeat him and more a less desperate attempt to get people out of the way of his stroll. Heck, one thing you could try is to let an Animal Friendship work on him so the caster can lead him away from where he might hurt people and damage property. It is after all how a French priest handled the original tarrasque back in the day.
Now you don’t have to make it a role playing game, but why restrain yourself? As a species we socialize, it’s what we do. And thanks to language we can socialize better than any other animal. with the possible exception of whales. Don’t require participation, encourage it, and should your players decide they’d rather negotiate with the Dread Lord of the Noisome Dark, let them. Maybe his lordship just needs to get his windows cleaned and his castle aired out.
You get right down to it, there are better ways to play an RPG. Expand your horizons, try something new, it aint gonna kill you. You may wish you were dead, but it won’t kill you.