• What is Role-Playing Exactly?

    by  • April 18, 2012 • Essays • 5 Comments

    When I was in junior high in the small agricultural town of Gustine, CA, I ran across Basic D&D and Advanced D&D kits in our local Coast to Coast hardware store.  Being the only child of a strict Portuguese mother, I certainly wasn’t allowed to play with boys, the only ones who played D&D in Gustine.  So I spent my time looking at the pictures.  I imagined  myself as those characters and acting as those characters.  Nothing about their points or powers mattered to me, just the backgrounds and personalities I made up.  I was a voracious reader and I loved make-believe when I was younger.  This seemed like a way that one could still play make-believe while still “growing up.”

    I remember watching Mazes and Monsters with Tom Hanks and this only emphasized what I thought D&D was all about.  I don’t know how many people remember that movie, but it’s basically about a “Mazes and Monsters” player that gets so caught up in the make-believe of his RPG that he loses his mind.  While perhaps this movie was meant as a cautionary tale, I thought that was cool!  I wanted to have that kind of experience of really feeling like I was in another world (excluding the killing someone part!).  I wanted to escape.

    I went to a woman’s college and there was a D&D group there.  I wanted to join, but by then I was in the mode of “well, it’s too late for me.”  I was starting to get a sense of the cliqueness that RPG groups can be accused of.  I only knew the very basics so I just watched from the periphery.  But I’ll never forget the day they came down into the dining hall in their outfits.  It was an unusual special event in which they were going on a quest and had decided to dress up.  One woman was completely transformed and people in the dining hall literally had their mouths hanging open.  I know I did.  And seeing them in these “roles” only emphasized the acting and the make-believe part of the game.

    Decades later, I started playing tabletop D&D with my husband when he was invited to join an all-male group.  When I started playing, I assumed everyone thought as I did.  Role-playing was like acting or a game of make-believe.  I learned that was not the case at all.  There were different viewpoints and different playing styles.

    I wanted to see people act.  Most of the time we spent in combat.  The GM didn’t like drama.  He liked quests.  Get this.  You’re done?  Then go get this.  Done?  Fight this.  Then this.  Now, this.  I’ll never forget every time it was time to “roll for initiative” I felt this silent groan as players leaned over to get their miniatures in line.  Is that what they really wanted or was that simply what was comfortable?  I don’t know.  Whenever I “acted out” my character, I always felt met with a bemused silence which made me feel like a silly female.  So, I ended up throwing Eldritch Blast after Eldritch Blast and playing with the cats.

    At one point, everyone did write a character background, but the GM chose not to pursue them.  The only time there was any energy in the group was when a guest DM stepped in and had everyone make a moral choice.  DRAMA!  Even the dice rollers got into it!  But then the regular GM stepped back in and we all forgot that we’d released an evil god and a member of the party killed another.  Time to get the shiny thing again and all was forgotten.  Then the Tomb of Horrors came out.  That’s when we left.

    I know I’m behind the curve by stating the obvious.  Most people have already been down this road and have found their comfort level of playing.  But I’m still discovering.

    So far, I’ve identified three basic types of role-players, maybe more, and certainly combinations.  These are my short-hand versions of what I discovered.  Like I said, certainly no surprise to anyone who’s been playing a long time.

    1. The Power Player.  Stats are IT!  You do what you can to maximize your character’s power, whether it be through a class or points system.  You play your character only in terms in the damage it can do.  These types of players are not into the background and drama tends to make them uncomfortable or seems like a waste of time.  What’s the next monster to kill?  What’s the next quest?  What’s the next magical object I need to get?  Some would say this is NOT role-playing, but in a sense it is still role-playing because you are certainly not that character and you certainly don’t have its characteristics.  This is also the kind of role-player that you find in computer gaming.  It’s primarily inventory, powers, statistics, rules (they know every one!) and dice-rolling.
    2. The In-Between Player.  This is the player that has both stats and a background.  They work very hard to create a character with powers, family, history etc.  They try to make the kinds of choices such a character would make in real life.  But they don’t actually act it out.  Whether it be from reticence or disinterest, they are role-playing another character but acting essentially as themselves.  Dramatic situations are interesting, but they won’t necessary go John Gielgud on everyone.  Is this role-playing?  Of course it still is.  But role-playing light and mellow.
    3. The Actors.  Then there are the Actors.  The Drama is IT!  Not only do they have characters with backgrounds, histories, families, powers, friends, enemies, pets, favorite songs, movies, etc., but they bring it out in their play.  Sometimes they even use accents and dress in costume.  Needless to say this usually comes out in LARP more often than in tabletop, but it often happens in tabletop too.  Of course, the actors are often the ones who don’t necessarily pay attention to the rules and they aren’t always the best decision-makers in terms of strategy.  Not because of inability, but usually disinterest.  This can drive others crazy as they can sometimes milk any situation for all the emotion it’s worth!  Like me, a born actress (albeit a terrible one!)

    I fall into the Actors classification….at least when I have the energy to do so.  I certainly don’t do it very well, but it seems as though if I don’t do that, then I’m really just playing a board game, not an RPG.  At least not the way I imagined an RPG in Gustine, CA.




    I was always interested in D&D from the time I found Basic and AD&D at my local hardware store while in junior high. I bought both and found out that only boys played and I wasn't allowed to play with boys :-(. At the age of 38, I joined a group with my husband and played tabletop for 2 years. Now we LARP together in World of Darkness games. We are also working on some Call of Cthulu, Mouseguard and Savage Worlds tabletop games. I'm probably the odd person out having come to the hobby so late in life compared to others. My special love is plot, character development, interaction, and DRAMA!! In real life, I'm a tax auditor and an animal shelter volunteer.

    5 Responses to What is Role-Playing Exactly?

    1. avatar
      April 18, 2012 at 18:03

      In my group, we’re pretty balanced gender-wise. The men trend toward type 1, while the women trend toward type 2 or 3. The DMs are male, so whenever us gals begin to “act out” our character types (this takes the form of side-banter and chops-busting), we get reeled back in to “focus” by the DMs. I’d really like to have one of us gals take over DMing or do a new campaign altogether (DnD 3.5), but none of us really has the time and/or inclination to dedicate to it. I haven’t really asked the other gals how they feel about it, because in the end we are all together and do have fun, but it is a bit frustrating to me.

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      • avatar
        April 19, 2012 at 00:12

        If you’re ever in NYC, I’ll run you something juicy and dramatic!

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    2. avatar
      April 18, 2012 at 23:15

      I find story-driven games much more interesting than stat-driven ones. That’s the major draw of D&D for me.

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    3. avatar
      April 19, 2012 at 09:38

      This is a great article, and yeah, those are pretty much the same gamer archetypes that I’ve seen too. In my current gaming group there are strong examples of all three of the types you’ve identified. Which occasionally leads to problems. Or at least communication disconnects.

      When we started our group, the first game we played together was D&D 4th Edition. The guy who GM’d the game leans strongly towards the Power Player end of the scale. Just like the author’s experiences, our campaign was very much a linear “quest” – Go here! Fight this monster! Solve this puzze and get this clue! No go back and give the clue to this NPC! Go get this other thing now! It got pretty boring for me fairly quickly, and again just like the author, the phrase “Roll for initiative!” was my signal to start tuning out. The game lasted for about a year and a half of real time, and by the end it had become more of an obligation than a source of enjoyment for me.

      I’m very much an Actor, though I think stats are still somewhat important, and I don’t go so far as to dress up. I like the numbers on my character sheet to reflect the reality of who my character is, instead of the other way around. I’m the guy who makes “ineffective” characters because “there’s no fictional reason my character has the skills or abilities you’re suggesting”. It can get frustrating playing with the Power Player at times. Especially when I GM and his character just kind of stands there waiting for the plot to fall from the sky into his lap.

      Luckily the In-Between Player can usually mediate conflicts. When the Power Player GMs I have someone to role play with, and when I GM the Power Player has someone to kind of push him along. I really do wish that we had a female gamer in our group though.

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    4. avatar
      April 22, 2012 at 11:30

      Hmm, so crunch players, crunchy flavour players, and flavour players. Back in the old days when I roleplayed, I was number two. Enjoyed creating a colourful character, but too inhibited to play them all that well. You must have had a really misanthropic GM if he pulled out the Tomb of Horrors. I believe it’s actually an evil artifact that harvests rage and tears from hapless player characters to nourish the dark gods.

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