Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The great and terrible

In my post last week I had touched upon several things, subjects that I promised would talk about further. The problem is that to write about all of them in depth would be an undertaking of epic proportions, so instead of tackling this systematically I'll just zoom in on whatever grabs me at a given moment. I believe what I write about is largely a matter of tacit knowledge anyway, so it can often be conveyed only by writing around it, not directly about it.

I decided that this will be a series of thematic posts - who knows how many - that you will find grouped together under the label "behind the curtain".


Prologue (before we really begin)
There are few words so widely discussed in our hobby yet at the same time as ill-defined as roleplaying. I proposed some time ago that (outside the context of an established group!*) the phrase "Let's roleplay." bears as little information to the recipient as "Let's play cards.", possibly less. For cards there's at least poker, blackjack, go fish, Pokemon or even Jungle Speed. Likewise, roleplaying is not a game, it's not a specific thing you do. Objectively, roleplaying is a medium through which we achieve different ends.

*(When you say "let's roleplay" in an established, coherent group, it usually has more meaning, roughly translating to "this thing we do". Between groups, this understanding can fall to almost zero.)

Countless examples of "What is roleplaying?" sections have graced game manuals throughout history, often contradicting themselves and almost certainly each other. When sensible they usually describe the play for the game at hand, not an overarching activity, quickly falling into bizzare claims when trying to encompass all RPG activity. (Granted, this can be seen as a feature, I'd rather not impose judgements of value.)

Historically, groups (and individuals) have often used roleplaying as a medium to achieve a single, common end. As a consequence, they have come to associate the medium with the end itself: they had come to regard their activity as "true roleplaying". Various binary oppositions had been elaborated (such as: "role play vs. roll play") to distinguish between us and them, to draw the line between this thing we do, and that thing they do. (The identity politics I mentioned in passing in the previous post.) Thing is, all these distinctions are false, because none of them have the primacy to claim any special position.

Observing other groups, playing under a different GM or introducing new players often results in complete bafflement or conflict ("How is that fun?", "How can anyone play that way?", "He's a complete [insert gamer jargon for a type of behavior intended to indicate that the player is 'doing it wrong'].").

I have seen this a billion times in various discussions on the internet and within my own group as well. Almost invariably I can trace the source of these confusions to the players using roleplaying as a medium for different, conflicting ends.

So, that Pathfinder game I mentioned in my previous post. It was full of combat, with lots of strategising and dice rolling. Did we make powerful drama? No. Did we act out fantasies through our characters? Nope. Was it roleplaying? You bet your ass it was. Was it roll-play instead of role play? Please...

And then...
I could go on but I think the above is a lot to digest, so I'd rather leave it in a smaller, digestible chunk and bring in the next course when that's settled.

Next time: what kind of ends does D&D hold up to, and possibly how various ends relate to and differ from each other.
Also coming up: techniques and tricks used and how they fit (my good-bad distinction from the previous post).

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