Tuesday, 2 September 2008

RPG's For New People 1: What is a Roleplaying game?

With the prospect of a brand new player joining our 4E campaign from this weekend, I thought I'd take this opportunity to start a series I've been wanting to do for a while, which is RPG's For New People. This isn't anything new; you could Google the same thing and get a million hits. But I'm hoping that by writing about the topic, I just might learn a thing or two myself. So, to start, the big question: what the hell is a "roleplaying" game?

A roleplaying game (RPG) is one where you create an imaginary character, usually a hero of some kind, and control that character -- known in D&D terms as a player character (PC) -- in a virtual/imaginary world envisioned and run by a referee known as the 'Dungeon Master' (DM). Between you, the DM, and the other people playing the game, you all contribute to a shared, imaginary story which evolves from the actions of all of your player characters, and the actions of the characters represented by the DM.

These days, us roleplayers are in the luxurious position of being able to fall back on games like World of Warcraft as a starting point for describing RPG's. In WoW and similar games, you build your character, deciding his race, his class, his gender, and how he looks, and with the click of a button he gets dropped into the middle of a huge, virtual world in which you're free to roam and do battle with evil as you see fit. Of course, in WoW and its ilk, you're restricted by the game's framework as to what you can do, either directly (you can't walk through walls, because the game engine detects when you collide with the world geometry and forbids it) or indirectly (you can't fly unless you meet the prerequisites for a flying mount). In the larger sense, your free will is heavily curtailed. You can't buy a present for Thrall in the hopes of making peace... at least, not unless a quest is written specifically allowing you to do that. You can't marry, get a home, settle down and have kids. You can't rise through the ranks of the Alliance and become King of Stormwind. You can't demolish Ironforge, or raise an army to free Gnomeregan.

In a table-top roleplaying game like D&D, no such restrictions exist. Because the action plays out in a shared imaginary space, you're essentially free to do what you like. You have something in the wings which is spectacularly more clever and flexible than a computer CPU: you have the squishy grey matter of a human being. Your DM can listen to what you want to do, filter your actions through the game-world she is running for you, and narrate the outcome. You can literally do anything you want, because you have a DM who can decide upon, and then tell you about the consequences.

This is cool, but it isn't a game. Roleplaying in and of itself is fun for about the three seconds it takes for the novelty to wear off. Where it really comes into its own is context. Talking to an imaginary King is one thing... but what about if you were negotiating for your life? What if you were trying to persuade him that his brother wasn't dead, but had raised an army and was about to attack? What if you were subtly probing him for evidence that he wasn't the King at all, but an imposter? As soon as roleplaying has a goal, and as soon as there are consequences for your actions in this imaginary world, then roleplaying starts to take on a life of its own.

It's entirely possible for a roleplaying game to consist of nothing but, well, roleplaying. Those games are interesting, but they rely on intimate trust between the players and their DM, an inherent assumption of fairness and equanimity on her part. Because this is difficult to achieve, even among friends, roleplaying games need a well-defined conflict resolution system which doesn't rely on the whim of the DM.

For example, one of the players in a game of D&D decides that his character Jim will punch the shuckster who just conned him out of a gold piece in the face. The DM rules that the scoundrel dodges out of the way and makes a break for it. Then one of the player's friends says his character Bob will grab the rogue as he slips past, preventing his escape, and the DM rules that he grabs the guy's collar and trips him up. Unfortunately the slippery fiend ducks under Bob's legs, over the bar, and out the back door before anyone can catch hold of him again. Jim and Bob set off in pursuit, pushing through people in the street as the villain desperately tries to lose them in the crowd.

How is the DM making these judgements? This example sums up the problem of conflict resolution in an RPG. We need a system that is consistent, fair, and fun to use. That my friends, is where dice come in.

The vast majority of RPG's have a conflict resolution system involving the clatter of different-shaped dice across the table. Want to know if your sword hits? Want to know how much you destroy with your fireball? Roll it up. In D&D, you roll a 20-sided die (d20) to determine success or failure, and other dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12) to determine effect. Not only does this mean that everyone around the table (including the DM) is operating on the same rules framework, but it also introduces a strong element of luck and uncertainty into the proceedings. Players can improve their odds of success, either by their actions during the game (enchanting their sword, for example, to make it more powerful) or by their decisions when building their character (choosing an appropriate class, wearing appropriate armour, etc.). The actual rules for determining whether you succeed vary game to game, but in D&D, you roll your d20, add whatever 'bonuses' you can get out of the rules (for example, you might add +2 to your roll because your PC is strong or well-trained), compare this value against some target value known as the Difficulty Class (DC), and if your final total is equal to or greater than the DC, you succeed in whatever you were trying to accomplish.

None of this relies on the whim of the DM, and is completely open and fair. The dice may roll well, or they may roll poorly, but once you've done everything you can to maximise your chances of success, you have no choice but to let them fall where they may.

Combat, which is probably at least half of a traditional game of D&D, has a complex set of rules and options resulting in something akin to a table-top wargame. However, non-combat scenes also rely on the same rules framework. Roll a d20. Add modifiers. High is good. In RPG terms, this is known as a unified mechanic.

Outside of combat, some DM's rely heavily on dice, and some DM's rely more heavily on the roleplaying of their players to determine success. Thinking back to the example of trying to persuade the King of his brother's treason, a mechanically-oriented DM may simply ask the most charismatic player to roll his Diplomacy skill, perhaps helped by his friends, while the DM decides on a DC appropriate to the difficulty of the situation and what kinds of challenges these characters can reasonably be expected to overcome. A more roleplaying-focused DM may eschew dice altogether, falling back on a fully acted-out scene of persuasion and innuendo, reliant entirely on the ability of his players to put themselves in that situation and, well, roleplay it out. You want to persuade the King of his brother's duplicity? I'll be the King. Persuade me.

The reality is that the vast majority of games fall somewhere between those two extremes. Neither style is right or wrong, but some players prefer one way over the other. A popular criticism of the roleplaying method is that we roll dice to represent our characters' ability to swing a sword, so why are we ourselves expected to be eloquent and persuasive when it comes time for our characters to be so? On the flip side, we must bear in mind that this is, after all, a roleplaying game. At the table, we can't play out massive sword fights with fireballs and lightning bolts whizzing past our ears, but we can, and some would say should, play out verbal encounters, immersing ourselves in the role through our body language and choice of word. Most roleplayers would agree that, over the years, the more you play, the more natural assuming the role becomes.

Next time, jargon busting!

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