Critical Insight – What IS a Role Playing Game?

A little while ago I had a discussion with co-editor Trisha about some future projects for this site, and the topic of Role Playing Games came up, as it so often does with me.
This discussion made me think about how a person defines a role playing game – is it role playing first, or a game first? And which one is more “right” (so to speak)?

Of course the matter comes down to personal taste, so why even have a debate about that, but you may surprised to know that there are people who feel very adamantly about one side or the other.

Alright, I’m going to break it down for you.

A role playing GAME is something that has set goals to achieve, you role play your character, but dice rolling figures heavily into whether you do or do not succeed at what you do. This may seem like bullshit when you have a character concept of an awesome thief, and you have high dexterity, or a diplomat with a high charisma score, and you roll a natural 1 and fail at what you should have succeeded in doing, but there’s always a risk of failing in life, and in a game failure is always an option, and needs to be overcome (rolling doubles 3 times lands you in jail, and then you have to roll doubles to get out, or pay the fine).

Of course, for a person who doesn’t want pesky dice rolls to get in the way of their character, there are ROLE PLAYING games, which vary in how little the dice are used from never to maybe once in a while, if you feel like it.
The benefit to these games is that your thief will be able to sneak as long as you think quickly enough. These games tend to be very story oriented, and, quite frankly, I’m not a fan.

Here’s the thing – dice-lite and diceless role playing games are essentially LARPing for lazy people (and I’m not putting down LARPing, but that column will come later). You are in character for the most part, interacting by telling them what your character does. The only real difference between that and LARPing is actually performing your actions.

If you read Adrienne’s review of  Don’t Rest Your Head you’ll notice that that was a very dice-lite game, the idea being that rolling dice is supposed to be significant: a matter of life and death, a huge baddy on the way, etc… not a roll to see if you pick a random lock or sneak past someone or some thing inconsequential.

As someone who play-tested Don’t You Fucking Fall Asleep, I can say that I did not like it as much as I think I should have, and I will tell you the moment when I realized when and why I love using dice in my games.

While I and the other player were running from monsters, we borrowed a hummer and drove through some of them. Instinctively the GM told me, sitting in the passenger seat, to roll perception, but stopped herself because of the type of game it is. She stopped herself, while I really really wanted that perception check.

Why? Because the rolls add an amount of suspense to the game – do I or don’t I see the horrible monster? Will I be able to talk my way out of a situation or will we have to fight? Can I steal that item or will I get caught and tossed in jail?

That is the beauty of dice, the reason they exist – they add a game to the game. They add multiple paths and require both the player and GM to think on their feet.

Also, many of the diceless RPers I’ve met have tended to let their games be very self-indulgent – a platform for telling their story as opposed to playing a game.

I will end with saying that neither form is better than the other. But I suggest diceless RPers look into LARPing, and let us dice-lovers enjoy the role playing GAME.

Posted on September 6, 2010 at 17:31 by Jillian Pullara · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: ,