Thursday, 4 February 2010

I'm introducing: Roleplaying games

Roleplaying is a collaborative hobby where four, five-something friends meet up regularly and play a roleplaying game for an evening, doing a one-night thing or picking up where they left their story the last time. It is a wholly verbal hobby, a kind of storytelling.

So what is these games all about? Well, there is a huge span of just what roleplaying games can be in terms of setting, theme and structure, but there are three components that are common to all roleplaying games:

1) It's a game
2) It's a platform for acting and immersing in a made up world
3) It's a collaborative storytelling

These three components have always been there, and players can switch between playing, acting and storytelling as they wish, and different players are attracted to different aspects of the hobby. I'm going to use these three components to sum up the history of roleplaying games, the simplified version:

Roleplaying started with the game Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s, which was kind of an offshoot of a wargame - But instead of two players pitting miniature armies against each other on a battlefield table, a bunch of players teamed up, each controling a single miniature, trying together to overcome the obstacles that a referee set up for you. (That is, kill his monster miniatures)

At some point, someone realised that, hey, you could do whatever you wish to with these characters. The focus was moved from playing with miniatures trying to win a challenge, to playing a character placed in the context of a made up world. You figured out a personality and history for your character, and decided how sie should realistically act in a given situation, and then acted that out verbally. Instead of dungeons full of monsters, the settings became made-up worlds; historical, fantasy, future, or mirroring our present day.

The referee became a storyteller that prepared a story for the players to explore with their characters, and characters of hir own for the players to interact with. 

Instead of the win/lose rules of a game, the rules would either be very complex to simulate the laws of nature, or very simple and non-intrusive to leave room for immersion in the world. The main purpose of these rules where to realistically determine whether a given characters action would succed or fail, adding together the character's skill and an element of chance. (Roll a dice and add your skill number. Good enough? You succeed)

This is the playstyle that would dominate roleplaying games from the 80s to the 00s, and for a long time this game-immersion-story divsion was not seen as important, but rather if you prefered for "rules light" or "rules heavy" games.

In the 00s there was a movement towards analysis of roleplaying and player dynamics, which resulted in a new design philosophy emerged where story took the front seat, the indie roleplaying games.
The story of the immersion playstyle of the 80s and 90s was often rather static, with the referee (or gamemaster) having planned the story out in advance and the rules in many ways actually serving the purpose of stopping the players from messing it up too much. (Oh, you wan't to seduce him? You'll have to roll a Seduction test, then! - Which is a textbook case of blocking in impro theatre)

The indie movement made the story about the characters rather than have them explore it, placed a great emphasis on story elements such as theme and premise, made storytelling more improvised and collaborative - Often the referee is done away with completely, and all players participate as equals.

The rules became guidelines for a particular style of drama rather than realistic success/failure laws of nature - You bought a game to tell this particular kind of story (that could be exported to different settings) rather than to explore a particular setting (in which you could play any kind of story)

In Scandinavia, there has also been a parallell development towards story called freeform or jeepform, pre-written scenarios built on a different structure than rules.

Summing up
I'd like to once more point out that all of these three components have always been present in some form in basically all roleplaying, even though the focus of them have shifted over time. For instance Dungeons and Dragons, which reached edition four last year, which has been a step back towards pure game, but more inspired and less clunky... Me and four friends play it regularly, but in addition to the game elements, we do lots and lots of immersion and storytelling in our playstyle.

It is probably pretty obvious to everyone at this point what my preferred kind of game is, and what I consider to be the humanist sort of game: The story games. Story games are more improvised, there's less authority and more focus on communication between players - There is simply a much greater interest in human, personal issues and themes, and a much greater trust in the other players creativity, providing tools for them to use rather than subjecting them to a fixed world.

On a side note, it is a little interesting that the third force in both psychology and roleplaying games would be the humanistic one. In the end, the humanistic therapy sort of altered psychotherapy as a whole, merging with other kinds of therapy rather than becoming a separate tradition, and I can see hints of the same thing happening with roleplaying games and the indie wave.

In a way, I think the indie games personal involvement of players and their characters is a vital part of what a story really is. A story is in the end about humans and humanity, a story must be meaningful and thus relate to the participants personally, because meaning is personal.

(I'll explore this in a future post)

When I bring up roleplaying on this blog, I will probably often be critical and harsh on general roleplaying design... But that's okay - I've grown up with this hobby, written for it, played it. I love it, and it's really for your own good, darnit!

Seriously though, roleplaying just doesn't have the history and research of psychology and theatre. Most roleplaying designers have "real jobs" on the side, writing games out of inspiration and love rather than to make a living, and the analysis and theory building of roleplaying games is a rather new one. There aren't any Rogers or Johnstones in roleplaying, though there are a whole bunch of very inspiring and bright people analysing and working with their hobby, so we all have a chance to critically examine and participate in forming the theory body of roleplaying games, which I'm doing here.

I suppose you could say that I'm very much exploring impro and psychology, relating it to my own life, while I already have the relation to and knowledge of roleplaying. What I'm exploring in roleplaying is rather how the hobby links with psychology and impro, and just what this means.

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