Now, role-playing does not just mean using an accent or creating a complicated character back story, although I love doing those things. Role-playing means giving the player agency and choice over their character’s destiny.
Recently, in a less-than-sober discussion on The Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast, The Angry GM and I got into a debate about metagaming vs. role-playing. Now Angry is a great gamer and a stand-up guy, but he seems to think that player agency isn’t important in RPGs and that players should only make the choices that he deems to be correct. Evidently, regardless of role-playing or character development, a player should always make the choices based on what action is optimized by the mechanics of the game. Personally, I think that defeats the purpose of an RPG. If I wanted to play a game where there was one specific correct answer, I’d play a video game. Or maybe Trivial Pursuit.
RPG has a G in It
It’s good to see that Angry has a basic grasp of spelling, and I agree that the game aspect of RPGs is very important. It’s the game mechanics that quantify what happens so that players are able to work together with a shared understanding of the game world. I do not advocate ignoring the rules in favor of role-playing, but I don’t believe that the game mechanics should dictate a player’s actions. Is flanking a logical mechanic? Yes. Does that mean that my warrior should drop everything in the heat of battle to make sure she is flanking one of multiple attackers, even if it means turning her back to other foes and abandoning NPC party members to their fates? That’s when role-playing kicks in and player agency really starts to matter.
These are the beautiful moments that inspire us to play RPGs because THERE AREN’T WRONG ANSWERS. These are the moments that mimic actual life the most because there is no way to predict the outcome from our choices. Is flanking the best tactical choice? Maybe. But maybe if we let the elementals get too close together they combine into a giant elemental and kill us all. Or if I let that NPC die the party will be branded as criminals or be unable to complete our quest. And, maybe Angry is right and the party and NPCs will all die because there was no flanking. Or maybe we will all survive in spite of not flanking and feel like total bad asses.
THAT is the magic of RPGs. The G is DESIGNED to allow multiple outcomes.
Fictional Characters are not Real People
“So the “real people” argument is bulls$&%. Characters in games are not real people. They are fictional. Their actions have to make more sense. But that doesn’t discount the “stupid decision” possibility. After all, the hardened warrior can get drunk before the big battle because his brother was killed by a cartoon character and then f$&% up the battle. Fine. Sure.” – Angry GM
Angry is trying to have it both ways here. It’s ok to make bad tactical choices in favor of role-playing as long as it passes his personal Bechdel Test of in-character actions. He is saying that my character choosing not to disengage an attacking opponent to dash across a battle to attack another enemy, just to get a flanking bonus, is bad role-playing because my fighter would know about the tactical (ie. game mechanic) benefit of such an action. My guess is that he hasn’t listened to our actual play podcast, otherwise he would know that my character doesn’t care about her own life and fights to regain the honor she lost when her children were murdered, so fighting alone against a foe would be a natural choice for her. He might also know that the orcs in our game would find it incredibly shameful to not be able to handle one elemental on their own and might even take offense if my character ran over to help them, implying they couldn’t handle it themselves. Also, ALL THE ORCS in our party stayed to fight when the situation seemed hopeless and were ready to die in battle because that is how orcs behave in the world we have created.
I guess a character being an alcoholic (the example he gave in his article) is reason enough to toss out the mechanical advantages and still be a “good” player, but the character history and racial culture that we have created as a collaborative group of role-players isn’t enough justification for our actions.
Our characters are only as real as we make them. If we let the game mechanics drive all of their actions, then we guarantee that they stay as two dimensional as the character sheets they are printed on.
The Difference between a Choice and a Calculation
“A choice occurs when a character has several, exclusive options and those options are put into conflict…But most of the “sub-optimal choices” that players defend…are usually choices about tactics in combat.” – Angry GM
You seriously don’t think that a person’s options and desires aren’t put into conflict in battle? Wanting to survive, wanting glory, wanting to accomplish the mission, wanting to protect those around them, wanting to see loved ones again… there are too many desires to count on a battlefield and most of them conflict with each other. These factors influence what a character might deem the best choice in a given moment.
I am not a tactician (although teaching Kindergarten probably counts as a form of combat experience) but I know enough of war to know that the choices aren’t always as clear as when we are looking down at a battle map. If I revert to my Omnipotent self every time there is a combat, gazing down from my third-person view of the whole battlefield, aren’t I defeating the point of playing a role-playing game? At that point, I should just save a lot of time and effort and go play RISK?
Stay Together and Work Together
“As a GM, my job is to create challenges that are challenging but winnable and then let the party succeed or fail against them on their own merits… You know what f$&%s that up? When someone decides suddenly and arbitrarily that for this challenge and this challenge only, they are going to behave like a lobotomized lemur.” – Angry GM
So, Angry likes to play tabletop RPGs as long as the players do exactly what he wants them to do. How dare his players make choices on their own that might ruin his fun? DON’T THEY KNOW WHO HE IS?!?!
But seriously, shouldn’t each gaming group get to decide for themselves what they find acceptable? Shouldn’t it be up to our GM if he gets pissed at our tactical choices? After the orc combat that Angry is so fixated on, none of my group was pissed about not using game mechanics to the utmost. Our GM wasn’t frustrated. We felt totally bad ass because we beat a hard combat, upheld our character’s honor, progressed our story, and HAD A GREAT TIME.
At the Happy Jack’s RPG podcast, we use the term “collaborative storytelling” to describe tabletop RPGs. It is the most accurate term that I’ve come across to really capture the essence of RPGs. In some ways, Angry is right. A PC trying to lose in combat is unacceptable and can really mess up the day of the other players if they aren’t prepared for it. My advice is to follow the lead of your gaming group. If you play with a group of heavy role-players, don’t be the min-maxing douchebag who starts killing things when the party is talking their way out of combat. If you play with a mechanics and combat-focused group, don’t be the drama queen Thespian who has their mage always attack with a sword because he likes that it’s shiny. Both scenarios are frustrating for your fellow players and simply aren’t cool.
Focus on the collaboration. Compromise with your fellow adventurers so that everyone can have a good time. That is, after all, the whole point of games, right?
Please note: Angry may be my current arch-nemesis, but I greatly enjoy his rants and fully intend to buy him a drink on the day we meet in person. We disagree on a few issues, but that is half the fun of the internet, right? You should follow him @TheAngryGM or read his rants on madadventurers.com or theangrygm.com.