As I’ve mentioned here before, my first love in hobby gaming is definitely roleplaying games (RPG’s). Starting from the time I was 9 years old, I and my friends would regularly occupy our minds with all sorts of fantastical worlds and dramatic happenings as we played through a long and varied series of RPG’s. And even now, given the adequate time, appropriate gaming partners, and available mental bandwidth, a good roleplaying session will satisfy me in ways that even the best, deepest, and most immersive boardgames can’t begin to touch.
And it is out of that deep and abiding love and passion and history for and with RPG’s that I cry out in frustration when I hear people say things like, “The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is practically an RPG.” Because you know what, the freaking Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is not a freaking RPG! It’s a freaking card game, potentially even a very good one, but from what I’ve read, there’s no actual roleplaying involved anywhere in the actual rules of the actual game.
Now, I’m certainly not trying to pick on the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game specifically, because it’s not its fault that people make this false claim. And it’s also certainly not alone, since I’ve heard the same basic thing said about many other decidedly non-roleplaying games like Mansions of Madness, Descent, Battlestar Galactica, Arkham Horror, and lots of other stuff. And way before that, the real root of this whole problem stems from the complete bastardization of the term “RPG” by the videogame industry.
Because when people say things like this about a boardgame, what they usually mean is that it may include concepts or elements like character stats, role specialization, character experience and advancement, hit points/ablative damage, skills and abilities, immersive theme (especially involving fantasy, sci-fi, or horror), tactical combat, polyhedral dice, long-term/campaign play, having a Dungeon Master/Keeper/moderator-like person, and/or some measure of storytelling.
But the thing is, while many actual RPG’s also include these same exact elements, these devices and mechanics are not what make them roleplaying games. Instead, they are merely the mechanics, structures, trappings, and/or thematic choices made to give a framework to and support the actual roleplaying that happens in these games.
So what then actually defines roleplaying? Here are some of things that I think are more or less essential:
• Collaborative, not competitive – while there can certainly be some challenge and occasional competitive elements in RPG’s, at its core, roleplaying is a shared storytelling experience between all the players around the table.
• Assuming a Role – to roleplay, you have to assume a role. The player both makes choices to define what that role is (e.g. character creation) and then to show how that role would act (i.e. acting “in character”). This can be done through a number of different stances, such as 1st-person dialog, 3rd person narration of action, or even 1st person improvisational acting.
• Freedom of choice – whether it makes sense or not, is in character or not, supports the story or not, players should have the freedom to make pretty much any choice that there character could make in “real life”. Whether it’s improvisation in combat, going off in a different direction than the GM planned, or making an unexpected argument when debating with an NPC, true roleplaying is not scripted.
• Agency – and circling back around to the first bullet point, the thing that makes an RPG collaborative is that the choices made by the players shape and influence the story which unfolds during the game
And just to jump into a related side rant, it also irritated the snot out of me back when D&D 4th edition came out and people kept saying stupid things like, “it’s practically a boardgame.” Now, I don’t even like 4th edition very much, but I’ll still totally support the fact that it’s an RPG. Sure, it’s got a very clearly defined tactical combat system, but so did 3rd edition D&D and a lot of other RPG’s before it. Could you play 4th edition as solely a tactical combat game? Yes, but then you’re not really playing D&D; you’re just playing out the combat system of 4E D&D. If you’re really playing the whole game, then the combat (and every other mechanical system in it) are solely in service to the roleplaying that you’re doing and the story that you’re collaboratively telling.
But again, this is just a symptom of people being distracted by the trappings of an RPG rather than really understanding what roleplaying itself truly is.
One other thing that complicates this whole shebang, though, is that a lot of people’s experience with tabletop RPG’s actually isn’t all that different from what some of these boardgames and videogames can offer them. I don’t know if this comes from the influence of videogames showing people what they’re “supposed” to do in an RPG, or if there are just a lot of DM’s/GM’s out there without a lot of imagination or flexibility. And while I certainly don’t want to tell you that you’re doing it wrong when you play an RPG like that (especially if you’re having fun with it), but I will tell you that there can be so much more when you get your campaign off the rails and start working with your GM to tell the story.
So to wrap up, let me make one last point. By their very nature, boardgames aren’t really capable of supporting a true roleplaying experience. So rather than try to beat a square peg into a round hole, stop expecting boardgames to satisfy your desire for roleplaying. Instead, let boardgames be what they are and do the things they do well.
And stop irritating me by mixing up the two.
Oh yeah, and get off my lawn.
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