How to roleplay – the oral tradition

I was thinking about my own early introduction to the tabletop RPG –  I learned and played with guys who were already into it.  They learned from guys who were already into it.  I’ve never played with anybody who learned how to do it from the “How To Roleplay” section in the front of the book.

I’ve read dozens of these sections, and all the usual metaphors – cops and robbers with rules etc.  But I’d already grokked it by the time I was reading them because I’d had it explained to me and demonstrated during actual play – I came by my intuitive knowledge of roleplaying  by receiving it from more experienced players.  The lore of roleplaying passed down, from geek to geek, stretching all the way back to the Founding Fantasists.  I’m not saying that nobody bootstrapped themselves into a full-functioning tabletop player by only reading the ‘How To’ section, I’m just saying I never met that guy, and never met anybody who’s met that guy.  Every player I know learned how to do it from friends, older brothers, uncles, or – for the lucky second-generation geeks – from parents.

I’ve written a few of these ‘how-to’ sections myself, and they always feel like boilerplate hash I’m obligated to put at the beginning, and I tend to write them (and the rest of my games) with the assumption that the people reading them will already have the essential mindset down – they’ll already know what roleplaying is and how it feels to do it.  That they’re already ‘one of us’.

But a recent project has really got me considering making the ‘how-to’ aspect of the game genuinely useful.

How to make a game which serves as a gateway for total newbs who have no conceptual framework for the ‘playing pretend with rules’ thing, for the shared storytelling, the improv acting, the immersion in character, the exploration of the shared imaginary world via the avatar of my guy.  Yet, also not making a game which is irritatingly basic and obvious for gamers already in the fold.  How to make a game that gently eases new players into roleplaying without any pressure, yet allows experienced gamers to enjoy it with whatever level of commitment to the experience they’re used to making?

This suggests a game which can be played on different levels, with the most basic mechanically-intensive one being essentially roleplaying-free.  A board game or low-crunch wargame as a possible model.  Enough fiddly bits, collectibles, and strategy to encourage commitment and investment of time.   A sense of ownership over your playing pieces (all the things your guy is made from).  A sense of continuity, as you use the same playing pieces (your guy) from session to session.   A board which is mostly imaginary, but has some presence on the table.   Basically, an engaging game with some depth and personalization – build your guy, name him, track changes to his fortunes and stats.

Then, the ‘role’ layer stacked on top of this, and linked to it – strategic advantage down in the ‘game’ level for adding some improvisational color to your guy’s actions – speaking in character, adding descriptions to actions, engaging in the scenarios by providing motivations for your guy to be involved or to take certain actions instead of others.

Then, the ‘story’ layer which provides the tactical scenario for play (goals, prizes, challenges, threats etc) and can be elaborated upon to create a narrative context for the game-resolved actions and the role-played embellishments.

The gentle trick would be designing the game in such a way that players would come to roleplaying without even realizing what they were doing – the roleplaying zeitgeist emerging spontaneously from their experience of play, at a pace set by their inclination to delve into (or take advantage of) the ‘role’ and ‘story’ layers, with naray a “how to roleplay” section to be found anywhere in the game.

And having conceptualized this stuff, and knowing my own biases (and all the things I take for granted about how to roleplay) can I write that game?


4 thoughts on “How to roleplay – the oral tradition”

  1. *raises hand*

    I’m that guy. I totally taught myself how to roleplay from the Moldvay Basic D&D set. And then mostly from reading Dragon magazine. I taught my brother how to play, but it couldn’t keep his interest. So, I mostly played by myself. I didn’t play with more experienced players until college, by which point I considered myself a fairly experienced gamer myself.

    As for your hypothetical ruleset, I do think it can be written. They call it “the D&D 4e Starter Set.” At its most basic level, it’s a board game/war game. You then layer on quests and descriptions to expand it. After you get comfortable with it, you can add full-fledged role-playing.

    I’m not saying that’s the perfect solution. But, it does fit the description you offered to a T.

  2. I knew I’d get a “ahem,” comment on this one – I’m glad Those Guys are out there.

    I don’t know if it would have clicked for me without getting the scoop from my friends. I’d bought a couple books (Champions was not the game to start with, sans context). I probably would have dropped it and gone back to my NES or something.

    The stealth intro game would be even more stealthy than D&D 4E (which is D&D right there on the cover, with all that implies to newbs). I’m imagining a game that non-geeks might pick up through another niche or semi-niche interest. While chewing on this idea I pulled from my ass a supernatural romance game (yes, I made notes) intended to tap the current enthusiasm for the sparklevamps and their imitators. Add some collectible elements to build market, but not to much. Bella Sarah if you had shirtless beefcake instead of ponies. Ah shit, you can have ponies too if you want. For the beefcake to ride.

    I’ll save that madness for another post.

  3. I’m totally that guy too. Started with Choose Your Own Adventure as a wee lad, migrated to Lone Wolf pretty quickly, convinced my parents to order me a copy of *shudder* Heroes Unlimited Revised after seeing an ad in… Boy’s Life Magazine, I want to say. Or maybe a comic book. Received it, and was very confused by the lack of “If you wish to blast Dr. Sinister with your Imposso-Beams, turn to page 92,” but thought the whole thing sounded neat anyways. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to AD&D 2E in middle school, and on from there. But I learned what a roleplaying game was from Heroes Unlimited Revised.

    Really, it’s a wonder I turned out as all right as I did.

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