Series Info...#21: Dirty Words, Part 6: Roleplaying

by Travis S. Casey
November 16, 2001

I can hear someone out there saying, "What? Why is roleplaying a dirty word!" Well... there are roleplayers, and there are roleplayers. To put it another way, there are people who are out there roleplaying and having a good time doing it, and there are some people who are in-your-face, "if thou wilt not use Olde English, thou art not a roleplayer" types. Where does this distinction come from? Well, I think it comes from different ideas about what "roleplaying" really means. I've defined what I consider to be "roleplaying" back in my first article on "Building Blocks", but since it's been a while, here's a quick recap:

Roleplaying is making decisions in-character — that is, on the basis of "what would my character do in this situation" instead of something like "what's going to work best under this set of rules" or "what's most likely to get me treasure".

While that's my definition of roleplaying, though, it's definitely not the only definition. A lot of people favor a more external definition of roleplaying, something more like this:

Roleplaying is acting in-character — that is, having your character do things that your character reasonably would do, on the basis of his/her beliefs, values, etc.

This definition is external because it focuses on what characters do.

My own definition is at the level of decisions — which means that, under it, even not doing anything can be roleplaying, if the decision to not do anything was made on an in-character basis.

There are actually two ways to look at this second definition, depending on how you define "acting". We can take it to mean "doing an action", or we can take it to mean "performing a role" (i.e., in the sense of acting in a movie or on stage). If we take the first definition, then roleplaying can occur in third person, and at a fairly high level of abstraction — e.g., if Mary is my character, I could say, "Mary curses", and be roleplaying under that interpretation. Under the second interpretation, though, I would have to act out the cursing in order for it to really be roleplaying.

(Under my own definition, both of these are roleplaying — the roleplaying lies in the decision that Mary is going to curse out Tom. Indeed, under my definition, I as a player could decide that Mary is mentally cursing out Tom, and that would also be roleplaying, even though no one knows that Mary is doing it!)

Note that with all of these definitions, it's possible to roleplay by yourself — there's no need to have other players around for any of these (although the acting part of the third one can only be really appreciated by other people, you can act in isolation). Some people, however, insist that roleplaying can only happen when there are other people to roleplay with. A definition for them might be:

Roleplaying is interacting with others in-character.

This is a lot like the previous definition, except for the change from acting to interacting, and the addition of "with others". You can have the same split here as above, although there's not as good a word to hinge it on; some would say that "Mary curses Tom out" is roleplaying, while others would say that it's only roleplaying if Mary's player acts out the cursing out of Tom.

There's a second split that can happen at this level, though — namely, the nature of the "others" that can be interacted with for roleplaying. Does a computer-controlled NPC count as an "other"? Some say yes, some say no. Thus, if Mary is cursing Tom out, whether or not that's roleplaying, according to some, depends on whether Tom is an NPC.

For a further bit of complication, some, particularly those who like the "acting as movie or stage-acting" type of definition, take a middle ground on this position — roleplaying has to be observed in order to be roleplaying, but it need not be directed at a character. Thus, if Tom is a computer-controlled NPC, Mary cursing Tom out by herself in a locked room is not roleplaying, but Mary cursing Tom out in front of another player is roleplaying. (If you're saying, "Huh?" at this point, be of good cheer — that sort of thinking does that to me too. However, I have encountered people who maintained that you have to have an audience of some sort to roleplay.)

I think that's about as far as we can go with definitions, but there is another dimension to consider: namely, the mixture of in-character and out-of-character things. Some insist that in order for roleplaying to really happen, IC and OOC things need to be separated. This makes a good degree of sense, as it can be hard to roleplay well when everyone around you is talking about things your character shouldn't know about, but there are a few people who take it to an extreme. There are also different levels of emphasis on the "acting as in movie/stage" idea. There are some people who... shall we say, overdo it a bit.

Unfortunately, it's easy for those who are new to the idea of roleplaying to form their impression of what roleplaying is from the few people running around who take it to a somewhat ridiculous extreme. This leads to people defining themselves as not being roleplayers, without really stopping to think about what that means. We all roleplay to some extent in these games, whether we realize it or not. As Robert Plamondon wrote in his wonderful book, Through Dungeons Deep, "It has been suggested that characterization is a waste of time; gamers should 'just play themselves.' While this might work for some people most have to face an unpleasant fact: in real life they wouldn't fight a Balrog for all the mithril in Moria."

Playing someone who's not like yourself can be a great experience; you get to do things you'd never really do and say things you'd never really say. All people are complicated inside; there are facets of all of us that we never really reveal. Roleplaying in games can be a fun way to let a different part of yourself show for a while. So if you haven't ever really tried to play a character different from yourself, give it a shot. And if you already are a roleplayer, think about the different definitions of roleplaying from above — if someone's deciding what their character will do in-character, isn't that really the core of it? Not everyone can be a good actor, but we can all try to put someone else's shoes on for a while.

Next time, I'll be hitting the last in the series of "dirty words". See you in fourteen!

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