My thoughts on roleplaying are influenced by my interest in impro theatre and client-centered therapy. Here, I intend to make a general model of roleplaying, and in the next post follow up the general with the specific, going into detail of "creative roleplaying", a style of play I am particulary interested in exploring.
In this model, I view roleplaying as movement, a process that is happening in the here and now of a group. Also note that one of my key concepts, flow, is said to require great experience - So perhaps my model is only accurate in capturing the process of experienced roleplayers?
In any case, In this post I make four statements on roleplaying in general:
1) Roleplaying is a group process
As a tradition, roleplaying games have been written as simulations. The books contain rules and the setting that together describe a world and its set of laws, and you are offered to bring your character to life within this world and experience it through that character.
But I believe that the act of roleplaying is not primarily a simulation, but a group process, an interplay between players. This is an aspect of roleplaying that just cannot be ignored, but historically it has been grossly neglected in the writing of roleplaying games. How often does a roleplaying book concern itself with how to take care of the other player's creativity, or how to settle on a social contract together? Oftentimes, writing roleplaying games seems to be lacking the assumptions that some people are actually going to play this. Perhaps the worst example of this is the following rules which where present in all (?) of roleplaying games released by the leading swedish roleplaying publisher in the 80s-90s:
1) The GM is always right
2) If, for some reason, the GM would not be right, see rule 1)
This is denying the interplay in roleplaying.
2) The ultimate goal of roleplaying is flow
Flow is the sensation of losing oneself in an activity, to be completely immersed and absorbed in concentration. All of your cognitive (thought) resources are in the game, so you don't have to consider what to do next - You just do it. You go with the flow, so to speak.
In my introduction to roleplaying I mentioned three aspects of roleplaying: Game, immersion and story. I believe flow can be achieved in all three.
I have experienced flow sensations in story-focused games when going on a creative spree with my fellow storytellers. To immerse completely in your character is the equivalent of immersive play. I haven't encountered flow in game-focused roleplaying, but since the sensation of flow is common to most task-oriented human activity it should definitively be possible when trying to best an in-game challenge, such as tactically mastering a combat scene.
Now, achieving this flow state should be understood as exactly an ultimate goal. Casual roleplaying can have the goal of meeting and relaxing with friends, but I believe that working with the assumptions that leads towards flow also work towards easier achieve casual roleplaying. Working towards flow is making the game smoother, simply put.
It might also be prudent to point out that constant flow is not necessarily a good goal for roleplaying - In most stories, we switch tempo between energy-filled intense scenes, and refreshing and slow ones. In any case, I wish to make the point that a good game is one that moves forward, one that has energy.
3) Blocks are counterflow
So the game needs to go somewhere. It needs to move forward to be interesting and captivating, and anything that breaks this energy is counter to flow and enjoyment of the game. As these elements are blocking the game, let's call them "blocks". They are the phenomena that block the games movement, disrupts and distracts players when they are in the game.
Imagine that you know what do next in the game, you have a vision (I'll return to this) in your head, you just need to verbalise it to bring it into our shared imagined world. If you're interrupted in that process, you have been blocked. Your movement loses its momentum, and thus the game loses momentum.
What counts as blocks depends on what you're concentrated on, of course. A player immersing in hir character and the fantasy world is blocked by out of character-discussions between players, or the game master breaking out the rulebook.
A player focused on creating story is blocked and disrupted if elements that run counter to the storys established mood is introduced.
Most everyone is blocked by long discussions on how to interpret game rules during game time.
4) You need to share the same expectations on the game
When doing roleplaying, I believe that shared expectations on the game is the very foundation without which rewarding interplay between the players are impossible. The greater extent of shared expectations, the better the game works.
Expectations can be social expectations, such as "We all show up at Daniel's place at six o'clock" and "We don't make fun of each other's characters". Let's call these the social contract.
They can also be expectations on the game world, such as "My character is a real upstanding hero, I expect others to view that way too" or "I expect those vines would be a perfect to climb that wall". Let's call this vision, how we see the game world.
We can use expectations to construct three levels of how well the game is going. I will use a graphical representation of the interactions between four light-beige coloured people around a gaming table. Pardon the eurocentricity. :)
4.1) The expectations aren't shared
If this is the case, you have a problem. If the players have different ideas of how to conduct themselves, what goes for this group, which mood is appropriate in the game, and how events should resolve in the game ("I hit you, you're dead!" "No I'm not, you missed!" to quote a classic line from children's play) you get frustration and conflict among the players.
Players might resort to try to enforce their vision on the others rather than working collaboratively. "Okay, your character is making mine look bad, but I expect him to look cool, so I'll have to kill your character" or development along such lines is one way of reaching your personal vision by force. This means constant blocking of each other.
4.2) The expectations are shared
If this is the case, the vision of the game in each players head are matching. When you verbalise your vision, it doesn't block anyone elses vision, but rather works in concert with them, creating a shared, sustained fantasy. The game gathers momentum and it goes somewhere.
Without blocking, the players can get into the flow together so to speak, and their visions are not only matching anymore, they become a communal vision shared by all, almost tangible. The players can scoop story ideas, in-character lines, et cetera from this shared vision without hesitation, just creating and creating together. Each contributition builds on the previous, moves the game forward and energizes the other players.
This should be understood as a continuum. There are always some amout of blocks appearing in all games, and a flow or sensations of flow can be achieved without being completely immersed in the game.
You can draw a parallell to my model of mental health, at the bottom we have defensive-aggressive, in the middle communal and at the top creative. When roleplaying, just as when living our life, we need a sense of security. A sense that my contributions works, that they are worth something, that they won't be blocked, and that I won't have to justify myself.
No matter your creative agenda (Game, immersion, story), roleplaying is a group process. As a player and a game designer, you have a responsiblity to take care of other players creative input - Probably most relevant to immersion and simulation games, where it is easy to hide behind in-game logic. "But that's what my character would do!"
Games should be designed for clarity above all things, as confusion will lead to blocks of the game. Clarity builds a sense of security of which the players can work creatively from.
Games should be designed to provide energy to the group, not to drain energy.