All the way back in 2012 I published the Yaruki Zero book, and considering what it is, it’s sold surprisingly well. I’ve been working on the eventual follow-up, but I was increasingly finding that I wanted to write RPG design stuff without it being stuck in quite so personal of a format. That led me to start on a new book called Tools for Dreaming, my attempt at distilling everything I know about RPG design and publishing (so far). Right now the manuscript is about 46k words, but I feel like it could wind up being a good deal longer before it’s really complete. It has a lot to do with trying to expand the scope of what the medium is capable of (and is emphatically not about sweeping away what came before), and while it touches on a lot of the same territory as prior attempts at RPG theory, I’m mainly concerned with making fun and interesting games.
There are some parts of the book I need to figure out how to write, and some that I’m sure I’m going to need help with, but I wanted to start generally sharing it and getting the process moving, so this is the first of a series of excerpts from the work in progress that I’m going to be posting. The first chapter after a rather lengthy introduction is titled “What is an RPG?”, and it’s an attempt to break down the definition of the word and what RPGs entail, which turns out to be a lot messier than you might think. Today I’m sharing the section of that chapter on role-playing.
Role-playing is one of the most fundamental and interesting things about role-playing games, and I think it’s worth taking a little time to discuss it in depth. Role-playing is where a person takes on a specific role and acts it out on the fly, with no script. There are many different types and styles of role-playing, and while we gamers tend to think of it in terms of portraying a fictional character, there certainly are role-playing activities that ask you portray yourself or someone else in the room in a particular situation. Therapists will sometimes use psychodrama and other forms of role-play to help people work through problems, language students role-play everyday situations to practice their skills, and people role-play themselves to practice things like job interviews.
However, even if we strictly stay within the realm of tabletop games, there’s still a lot of variety. What we call “role-playing” is something of an umbrella term for a number of different mental and emotional processes. Different people role-play differently, and the same person can shift between different approaches to role-playing, even within the same game. I’m a little wary of jargon and categories, but I’m going to try to outline what I see as the major forms of role-play people employ in RPGs.
Many people role-play by immersion, and for them a character is like a second self they slip into for a while. This kind of role-play uses our human capacity for empathy. Empathy is a process by which you use your own experiences to create a mental image of someone else’s emotional state. This is likely an important aspect of how people function as social animals, and is one of a number of prosocial instincts in both humans and other species. Some people are more naturally empathic than others, and a portion of other people’s differing experiences will be more of an abstraction to you. Even so, empathy is a basic part of being human. Therapeutic role-playing uses this capacity to foster a cathartic release and greater empathy with others, while RPGs use it to let us vicariously experience some of a fictional character’s emotional state. Instead of putting yourself in your significant other’s shoes to better understand their point of view, you put yourself in your character’s shoes to enjoy seeing and interacting with the world as they do. While it’s not the only way to role-play, it’s where traditional RPGs excel, and where many people find the fundamental appeal of playing an RPG. It does have some drawbacks though, most notably that it can be emotionally taxing at times.
Others use a more calculating, performative approach. This is more like improv theater, where even if you outwardly portray a consistent character, your mental state is focused on creating a particular performance. RPGs are for smaller groups of people than improv shows, so it’s a bit different from playing to an audience in a theater, and I suspect that performative role-playing in a tabletop RPG is a bit more geared toward one’s own enjoyment. Regardless, it shifts the priority from the character’s mental state and objectives to presenting a particular outward performance of the character. It’s a less emotionally engaged way to role-play, but it makes it easier to separate what you want the character to be like from your character’s own desires. People are more likely to use this form of role-playing when they’re trying to portray a well-established character.
Still others are most comfortable when acting more like an author. In this mode, you control your character from above, ready to step outside of them to steer the overall story in whatever direction you think is best. It’s another step removed from immersive role-playing, but players are free to concentrate on making the best story they can. There are a number of independent games that specifically foster this style of role-playing, particularly when they have mechanics that require players to make decisions and give creative input from a vantage point outside of the character. It’s a very different way to play an RPG, but it can create really fun, unique experiences.
Because RPGs are also games with mechanical, board game-like rules, players also sometimes role-play less as a portrayal of a character and more in terms of playing a game, even if they do so in a way that’s consistent with their character’s abilities and personality. RPGs often ask players to make decisions based on practical and mechanical matters, especially when it comes to combat. In this mode the character becomes more of a playing piece, and the mechanical distinctions that the game provides the character are more important than the character’s personality and emotional life. This is the mode that’s the most difficult to rightfully call “role-playing,” but it’s also an important part of many of the most popular RPGs. Games like D&D can provide lots of interesting things for players to do in this space, and learning to skillfully wield the mechanical aspects of a character is a genuine part of the fun of playing such games. This mode doesn’t necessarily have to be about hard mechanical matters either. Players who are debating who gets what treasure or trying to formulate a plan can wind up speaking as themselves rather than their characters, even if the “game” they’re playing is made up of words and concepts instead of numbers.
All of these fall under the umbrella of role-playing to some degree. Some games work better with particular approaches, and people are often more comfortable with some approaches than others, but what people actually do at the game table is fluid. It’s good to be aware of how your game might pull people towards particular approaches, but it’s not necessary to force players to stick to one single mode of role-playing. The thing to be wary of is asking players to do too many of these things at once, especially when they have opposed motivations. RPGs that ask players to act more as storytellers tend to suffer when they also encourage players to heavily identify with their characters, because what’s good for the story can often conflict with what a character wants for themselves. Likewise, if you have rules that pull players into more of a board game mode, you can’t expect nearly as much in the way of conventional role-playing out of them while those rules are in play.
Also, it’s been my experience that as a group, beginners don’t inherently gravitate towards any one style of role-play. People who cut their teeth on traditional RPGs sometimes assume that immersive role-playing is the most natural, but I’ve found that a significant portion of first-time role-players naturally think they have power over the story around their character, such that teaching them to play a traditional RPG is a process of getting them to pull back and only control what their character is attempting to do.
 Not a scientific definition, just my attempt to explain the concept as I understand it.
 Hence the kinda dumb and overused thing of calling it “roll-playing.”