There has been some discussion recently about what it means to play a role in an RPG. Is it just making decisions about a unit like in a war game, or does it involve trying to get inside the head of an imaginary character? My general take is that it can be either depending on the player, but that the weight of that role playing is in setting interaction and the notoriety that a character builds up within the game.
A character’s personality is created based on what they actually do. It’s all well and good to write “coward” on the sheet, but if the character tends to charge into battle, then the actual personality of that character is foolhardy or impetuous, not cowardly, and this arises out of actual play.
Through their actions, characters create a reputation. This is also part of their personality, and will affect social interactions. Charisma can help a bit (that is the modification to the reaction roll), but if you are Mao Zedong or Steve Jobs or Genghis Khan your actions speak louder than your charisma.
Basically, this is another way of rephrasing the novelist’s dictum of show, don’t tell or the aphorism that actions speak louder than words. You don’t need to speak in a funny voice or make up backstory motivations to play in character, you need to engage with the setting and show how your character is. If this means occasionally acting against the incentive system of the game, it is exactly that counteraction that gives the role playing weight (just like altruism is not actually altruism if you are paid for it).
Aside: whenever I publish something here, I usually also share it on Google Plus. This post is a slightly edited version of a comment on the G+ thread associated with my recent post on 5E energy drain (you will need to be in my G+ circles to see the G+ thread). At the time of this writing, that G+ thread has 124 comments, in comparison to the six on my blogger post. This shows the level of interaction about RPGs going on over at Google Plus right now, and how the social networking model decreases the friction of interaction.
Good points well made. And I think your aside could well be a whole blog post on the nature of interaction with RPG content online. I notice it myself that I get more comments in other areas than I do on the blog page. Weird…
It is funny like that, isn’t it? I definitely find that G+ is the place for conversation.
My thought on this is that you should largely let the players dictate this. The attraction of an RPG is that there is a lot of interesting stuff that happens in-character, which can have an effect on the game without going to rules. I’m not crazy about reducing it to just miniatures gaming with a single miniature. That reduces the value and interest of the game too much for me.
I agree that the best role-playing arises from the DM presenting the player with the effects that the character’s actions have on the setting, and the player responding to that with further actions, and so on. When a player starts a character with a backstory and personality that are more than basic and tries to act it out, that tends to stifle collaboration, and the background is usually a cliche anyway.
The idea that the character is a wargame unit seems primitive to me — computer RPGs reduce it to that, and although the games tasks are engaging there’s something missing. Likewise, there’s something missing in a “pure” role-playing game without mechanics problems to solve and combat risks to take.
Surely the balance is just a matter of matching players’ and DMs’ tastes? I think that was true in the old days too, and I don’t see the hack-and-loot side of it as part of the definition of “Old School.”