Thursday, August 15, 2013

Why Are We Marginalizing Our Own Role-Playing Games?


Why Are We Marginalizing Our Own Role-Playing Games?
by Tobie Abad

Back in the 80s, I used to have to hide my passion for gaming.    The 700 Club was still at the heights of its campaign against role-playing games and I still (and no, not fondly) recall how many people really looked at me as if I were practicing some kind of demon worship every weekend.  There were even a few books of mine that felt the "cleansing flames" as well-meaning members of my family opted to burn some of my books in a misguided attempt to save my soul.

Today, gaming is less the target of religious groups but sadly more the target of misunderstand, misinformation and internal discrimination.  You have video games which have role-playing game-like elements being touted as role-playing games.  You have purists who believe that there is only one "true" way to play a certain role-playing game. And worst of all, you have gamers who insist that certain role-playing games which challenge long accepted notions of gaming are NOT role-playing games and are given instead all these other labels as if such discrimination was necessary.   I sometimes wonder if things were better when Christian Groups were all at arms to attack gamers, because at least back then, we were all united in trying to show our love for our hobby, that attacking each other was the last thing we would do.

What's wrong with us nowadays?  Why should computer games with role-playing game elements like Diablo and many MMOs be called role-playing games when you're not even portraying a "role" but you're just playing a character and repetitively doing certain tasks to get powers and equipment, only to face more things and repeat the cycle?   Where's the freedom of exploring the role you've been given?  Where's the development of a narrative which is clearly influenced by the player's actions?   I've learned to accept that such computer games can be referred to as crpgs (Computer Role-playing Games) or even jrpgs (Japanese Role-playing games) since they've earned recognition as a genre of gaming.  But I don't see how they are a role-playing game at all when the closest thing to them being one is the fact you don't play yourself.

But then neither is acting, or cosplaying, but neither are a role-playing game.

Earning experience points, having a leveling up skill tree, or choosing character types and classes do not make a game a role-playing game.  They are just games with elements of popular role-playing game systems.  It seems to be insulting to the hobby to say that just adding some system to another game or having a few similarities already makes it a role-playing game.   Role-playing games are not the dice and math and points that exist in its systems.  Those are just ingredients that make many simulationist and dramatic games function better.  I don't even want to get into that time one friend mentioned, "It has a character sheet, so it HAS to be a role-playing game."  That's like saying golf is a baseball game since it has a ball which you hit with a stick.

On a similar note, other table top role-playing games which throw away the need for an incremental leveling system, or throw away the need for crunchy skill trees and the like, but still allow a person to embrace the role of a character and explore that character's personality and see the repercussions of their actions and decisions should still be recognized as a role-playing game.  I don't get why fantastic games like Fiasco and Our Last Best Hope have to be segregated as "Story Games" rather than role-playing games when they are simply role-playing games that pay more attention to characters and shared story creation than they do to levels, experience gathering and multiple systems to determine hits, misses, and health bars.  I heard some people insist the distinction is merely for purposes of labels and setting expectations ("so that does seeking to play games, earn experience points and get cool shit don't get disappointed to learn Fiasco ain't about any of that") but hey guess what, role-playing games as a hobby can have many facets and genres already.  

It is a stupid as saying Speculative Fiction should be distinct from Fiction.  Fiction is about non-real settings or stories.  It has many subgenres such as Fantasy, Science Fiction and the like.  There's no need to call fictional what if stories something different, when that's already what Fiction is.

Many supposed Story Games out there are still role-playing games minus the crunch and tables (and in some cases the need for a Game Master and even dice) but are role-playing games nonetheless because they are social games where players portray a role other than themselves and build a story with fellow players.   You can simply distinguish them as narrative or tactical role-playing games.  Or maybe even as dramatic and action role-playing games.  But to insist they aren't role-playing games per se?  That's just idiotic and unnecessary.

Given the rich landscape of gaming that exists, whether or computers, on table-top, or even as physical activities, role-playing games have truly evolved from their Chainmail roots that were deeply still engrained with their War gaming elements.   The big twist back when it all started was less about "what stats should this unit have" and was more about "What if I wanted to explore more the specific character?"  And now, we have so many ways to explore the story and lives of "the specific character".  We have games for every genre, games in so many languages, games where we become the greatest of heroes, the darkest of villains, the gods and the creations, the experiments and the failures, we have games that allows us to be everything from sentient animals, to aliens, to disembodied spirits, and even victims of a telepathic cockroach.  We have games where polyhedral dice are used, where six-sided dice determine results merely by their color, where playing cards and tarot cards and personalized cards become randomizing agents or story guides, or where the use of specific key words and verbal tags become systems which determine who wins in the battle, the debate, the seduction, or the choice.  We have games where the players challenge the game master, or work with him to forge a story, or where everyone plays the game master at some point, or everyone shapes the world around a single player, or where no game master was ever needed in the first place.  We have games where players even embrace the roles of multiple characters, or portray stories in multiple time lines, and everything else in between.

We have such a vibrant and bountiful selection of role-playing games to indulge in - each with systems that favor tactical or narrative, drama or style, realism or fantasy, that challenge or encourage or even at times do both in the same instance.  

We live in such a wonderful point in gaming life.
Why do we have to marginalize our hobby and label other games in so many less unifying ways?
I wish more people just learned to embrace the joys of role-playing games and focus on exploring and sharing them with their friends.
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