I recently read a rather long post by The Angry DM discussing the question “what is Role Playing?” Angry got a bit irritated by stock phrases like “role playing means different things to different people” and the notion that role playing and dice are mutually exclusive (or at least at odds with each other). Angry notes that long before Gygax and Crew created their spin-off of Chainmail “role playing” was an actual term with actual meaning.
Angry goes through several pages of discussion (and I think it’s all good stuff), but his thoughts basically boil down to a few key points.
- Role Playing is the process of envisioning a situation, putting yourself into the place of one of the characters, and then making a decision on what that character would do. If you’re imagining a scene and deciding what your character would do, you’re role playing.
- All the other bits that we associate with role playing, including speaking in character and describing actions, are good aids for role playing, but they’re really just presentation. They help the other players understand the new situation that comes about once your character has acted, but they aren’t necessary to role playing as such. Someone who narrates rather than monologues is role playing just as much as anyone else.
- There are two classes of role playing — ‘weak’ role playing, where the decision you make would be made the same way and for the same reasons regardless of what character you’re portraying (buying an item at $30 instead of $60); and ‘strong’ role playing, where the decision you make is heavily based on the personality of the character you’re portraying, and often involves resolving an internal conflict (wanting two mutually exclusive things, or not wanting either of two options).
- “Weak” and “strong” are not meant to signify “bad” and “good” roleplaying, it’s just a matter of how dependent on the character your choices are. Angry notes that in some cases, such as combat, weak role playing can be very appropriate, as people trained for high stress situations fall into predictable routines.
- Angry also notes that this doesn’t preclude combat from having strong role play opportunities — the Elf Fighter who engages the Orc opponent, heedless of his party or other considerations, because he has an intense hatred for Orcs, is making a strong role playing decision.
This whole discussion struck a chord with me because (as with many posts I read relating to our hobby) it gave me words for considerations that I didn’t have before. It would often bother me when, having asked my players what their character’s attitude or opinion on a thing was, they would respond with “why should I have to know that?” or “why should I decide that now?” or “I just want to develop my character through play.” I’ll acknowledge that developing characters in play is valid (and honestly expected), but I can now say why the lack of a clear understanding of my player’s characters bothers me: I yearn for strong role play, where characters are presented with difficult choices to make and internal conflicts to resolve. That is exceedingly difficult to achieve as a GM if I can’t get a view on what my player characters care about, or fear, or whatever.
I don’t have a good fix to the issue (I still desire answers and my players still resist providing them) but at least I know what’s going on and can begin to address it constructively.