I’ve been thinking about roleplaying recently. Specifically, the definition of it. I still feel like there’s room for a better definition, and if there isn’t, this might help you know where I’m coming from at least.
Don’t confuse rare moments of ecstasy with happiness. If you’re not unhappy, you’re happy
I believe roleplaying is about much much more than any of the usual elements that get bandied around. It’s more than immersion, or being in your character, or speaking in a funny voice, or wearing a hat, or diplomacy, or improvisation, or talking, or not-having-a-combat, or narration or any of those things in isolation. These are all just ways of roleplaying, and they tend to exclude activities that I believe absolutely are roleplaying. For instance, combats, character generation, levelling up, game prep, chatting post game.
You see, I think that roleplaying is analogous to interest, or engagement in the activity taking place. Put simply, if you playing in a roleplaying game, and you’re interested, you’re roleplaying. It comes and goes (or more accurately, ebbs and flows) over the session, and not everyone will be in the same place at the same time.
Bear with me.
You see, I really like combats in my gaming, and it’s drives me to distraction when I’m told that I’m not roleplaying when I’m rolling dice and dealing damage. These aren’t just casual dismissals either, these are strongly held beliefs that because there’s less chatter, or improvisation, or too many rules, or whatever, that combat is where the roleplaying takes a nosedive. But that’s simply not what it feels like for me. Let’s look at some gaming that I’m not personally fond of; horror. I almost never feel scared, and even if I did I wouldn’t like it. It’s just not my cup of tea. However, horror games are usually held up as good examples of games that put the roleplay front and centre. To which I say yes, if your definition of roleplay is purely chat, immersion and improvisation.
Remember the general election? For the first time we in the UK had televised debates. One of the very cool things about that was the Worm.
The idea was that a small sample of voters were given handsets on which they could register approval/disapproval/neutrality in real time while watcching the debates. This was translated into a graph, shown on the bottom of the screen, that peaked and fell with the sample groups opinion.
Ever wondered what this would look like with an RPG session? The players would register their ‘enjoyment’ of the session as it went along. The GM counts as a player of course. This data could be used in loads of ways, but for me, I’d want to see which parts of the game, microsliced, got the most interest and engagement from the players. Those parts, and in fact anything above the neutral line, I call good gaming. In fact, I call it roleplaying.
Here’s a (made up) graph of the way I see the average Call of Cthulhu game.
The CoC game starts well, I’m intrigued by my character and ready for good times. In fact, I say that first flush is true of most games. In CoC I find my attention wavering fairly quickly, but in short order we get a mission or an objective to get the blood going. Then there’s a long slow decline until each ‘reveal’ in the scenario gives me a little jolt. Overall it’s ok, with peaks of ‘quite cool’ and long periods of, for me, tedium.
Here’s how I see my weekly D&D sessions.
There’s the same ‘first flush’ where we do the whole ‘previously…’ thing. Then there’s periods of exploration, followed by the call to roll intitiative, a slight combat hangover where numbers are adjusted, and then the cycle begins again. The key is, because I really enjoy all those elements, the graph stays above the median. The plateaus last longer than Cthulhu, and the experience remains consistent throughout.
Your graphs will be very different of course.
Which brings me back to my point. Roleplaying encompasses everyones predilections. If you’re engaged, you’re roleplaying, no matter what it is that is engaging you at that precise moment.