Monday, January 20, 2014

My Response to Fairman Roger's Dev Notes 9 - What is a Roleplaying Game?

What is roleplaying?

The question came up today after reading the blog post Dev Notes 9 - What is a Roleplaying Game? by Fairman Rogers.

There's the snippy bits in the books, trying to break down the "practice" of Roleplaying to those who might not be familiar with the past time. Most of these are blah, but sometimes they reveal the designer/writer's deeper beliefs about roleplaying beyond practice.

Then there's the more abstract answer that has created flamewars and brought down forums as players of roleplaying fight over "What is roleplaying?" For many rpg players, this becomes a a question of how one approaches and plays rps. A rpg style.

I remember the heady early days of the Forge, one of the first forums on actual rpg design. I remember the discussions of the GNS (Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist) Theory by Ron Edwards. It was a real attempt to bring an academic approach to rpgs. When joining those discussions back in the day, I always felt like everyone agreed it was a usual theory but spent most of the time going back and forth on the semantic meaning of the each category. The definitions never seemed to match the everyday connotation of the words - welcome to academia.

I walked away from the Forge with two things:
1) "System Matters"
2) that there was a social contract at the table, usually unspoken, and by being aware of what everyone at the table wanted out of their gaming experience resulted in better gaming

I do see that first theory of gaming styles as narrow now. I think that there are numerous styles out there, and there is nuance in styles. Each player is a compensation rather then merely one style. But I'll get back to play style and how I see it in a bit.

As the Forge went through its flamewars, the Story Games forum emerged to help foster a specific rpg design perspective for a specific style of gaming. Story Games embraced "System Matters" where the rpg system themselves really supported the genre of the rpg in play. But life was changing fast for me, and I never delved back into rpg design forums like I did with the Forge.

As most of this was happening during the recent turn of the century, I saw the d20 emergence and then the following OSR as a large reaction to all the above. At the same time, the OSR has incorporated a lot of the "new school" systems of rpgs while maintaining that "old school" flavor. Interesting that.

I never did get the "BadWrongFun" phenomena surrounding the "What is roleplaying?" For every player that says rpgs are an artform, there is a player who retorts that rpgs are just for fun. How does calling something an art form make it not fun? And yet there is also nothing wrong with not wanting to think deeply about roleplaying, and just play for fun.

I see getting upset of someone's preferred style of play, and wanting to think about it or not, similar to two players getting upset over one wanting to play a supers game and the other medieval fantasy.

All these thoughts came to me after reading Roger's post. He asserts that:
"A roleplaying game is an interactive, participatory artistic experience, similar to                      ."Let's break that down.
  1. A roleplaying game is interactive in that it requires input and feedback. 
  2. A roleplaying game is participatory in that the "audience" is involved in the act of creation. (Many people bandy about the term "collaborative," but that sometimes becomes a sticking point as some people see certain roleplaying experiences as insufficiently collaborative. "Participatory" covers all levels of player involvement.)
  3. A roleplaying game is an artistic experience. Yes it is. I am firm in this assertion. It is an act of imaginative creation of a non-practical aesthetic product. It's an art. Deal with it.
  4. A roleplaying game is similar to                      . The blank is there on purpose. What goes in it? Well, here's where it gets tricky...

It's tricky Rogers says, because the blank represents the art form in which you believe roleplaying most closely resembles. And I really like this approach. I agree with all his assertions about interaction, participation, and being an art. It might not (yet?) be a thesis about academic categorization of play styles. But I do think it is a useful rubric to get to the heart of the question about play styles - and how being aware of one's play style preferences helps the social contract at the game table..

For me, my answer is "A roleplaying game is an interactive, participatory artistic experience, similar to TV shows." Let me break that down for you.

I was in theater back in the day. I love acting. I'm a writer. I love writing. I see both art forms as elements to roleplaying. But roleplaying is episodic, like TV shows, in a way theater and movies isn't. You can write episodes, but writing doesn't cover the full engagement of acting for me. I would describe roleplaying as similar to TV shows because both are episodic but can engage in epic story arcs, where the director and writers are also the primary actors done as improve. Part of my answer is heavily colored by believing that my GMing and story pacing has improved once I started to try and structure each game session around a TV episode.

What do you think of Roger's rubric, and how do you answer it?
How do you answer the question "what is roleplaying"?


misuba said...

I hold definitions of RPGs to a couple of standards: the necessary-and-sufficient test, and the newbie test.

Rogers' take fails necessary-and-sufficient: its elements are all necessary for a thing to be a roleplaying game, but a thing that satisfies them all is not necessarily one. Apples to Apples, group sex and the Hokey Pokey might all possibly fit this definition... which is an interesting and possibly cool way to look at RPGs, but not actually helpful to the discussion in the ways you need a definition to be.

And Rogers' definition utterly fails the newbie test: if you really just plain don't know what RPGs are, hearing that definition is not going to help you. "So, we're showing up on Wednesday night to... be on TV? What?"

And yes, I have a horse in the race:

misuba said...

My bad, that was first-name-Roger, not last-name-Rogers. :-(

ES said...

Nope. Fairman Rogers. First name Fairman, last name Rogers. (My steampunk persona, based on an actual historical figure.)