I’ve made it a point to argue that acting is not necessary in order to play a role-playing game. This is fundamentally because role-playing is defined as “the acting out of the part of a particular person or character,” and, in the context of an RPG, that role ~ the person or character ~ is loosely defined on purpose. The player acts the part of a dwarven fighter or an elven mage, to be sure, but the only requirement to be successful is knowing enough of the rules that the player can contribute in a meaningful way to the advancement of his party’s goals. Knowing your character ~ his personality, beliefs, desires, motivations, affiliations, relationships, what-have-you ~ is not necessary to play the game.
But of course we do these things with our characters. It’s part of our tendency to identify with inhuman things on a human level. It makes us feel good and it’s often the first thing we go to when we’re talking about how awesome our characters are. And so the community has latched onto this as an a priori or foundational principle of the game.
This is not the natural process of the game but an artificial paradigm meant to explain something we have observed without asking where it came from.
Do I want to get into my character’s head? Yes. Do I want to immerse myself fully in the experience of the game? Of course. Do I want to make my fellow players believe that I am Ballarick the Mighty, Breaker of Chains and Slayer of Dragons? You bet you’re fucking ass I do!
Why? Why do I identify so closely with this construct, this creation, this work of art? And how can I get my fellow players to connect with my creation? What can I do to improve the immersive experience for all of us?
I’m going to divert from this path for a moment ~ I’m not sure that it’ll all come together in the end, and if it doesn’t I apologize for wasting your time ~ but I think there’s another angle we should address first.
Which is more important? Knowing the rules of the game or playing my character? Which is easier to accomplish? Knowing the steps of combat and the inputs of the battlefield, or knowing my character’s thoughts and the inputs of this fictional world?
When there’s a fight ~ a dramatic physical confrontation, I can keep track of things because there’s a map, tokens that represent my allies and my enemies, and a character sheet with all the combat-related details I need (which accounts for nearly 90% of everything I know about my character). When someone makes a mistake in combat, we can backtrack through the numbers and the rounds to identify where the mistake took place. Did I forget to add the bard’s war chant bonus? Or did I miscalculate how long it would take me to advance on my enemy? We can demonstrate where the error happened and we can correct for it, if necessary.
When there’s an argument ~ a dramatic interactive confrontation ~ or a negotiation, a ploy, a con, etc. ~ there are no physical aids. I don’t have a visual for the NPC I’m talking to. The DM can provide me a picture but that’s a static image; it does not convey the character’s changing emotional state as I talk to him. It’s harder to identify when someone makes a mistake in the acting process; and when we do see a mistake, it becomes a muddied issue, where the DM has to make a judgment call without the hard facts of combat to provide justification to her decision.
Let’s look at this as a process flow:
(Forgive the formatting marks; I’m not sure how to get rid of them…)
The goal in a battle is to achieve one of these outputs. (There are likely more specific goals, of course; this is a generalization on purpose.) The inputs listed are critical to understand the situation, in order to make good decisions that will contribute to the goal. In other words, the players cannot expect to be successful of they don’t understand their position on the battlefield. This is one of the primary reasons (years ago) I decided to always include a map during a fight ~ this “theater of the mind” bullshit only serves to confuse players. (Even when I ran story-telling games, I preferred to have some physical reference for positioning.)
Now consider a similar high-level look at the inputs/outputs in a social conflict (i.e. a role-playing situation):
How are you going to communicate that information to the players? In a fight, the numbers are all there. The map is clearly laid out. If need be, you can literally tell the players how many hit points each combatant has. There’s very little in the way of obstructed information, meaning players are in a position of control over the battlefield. This is not the case with social conflicts. The players cannot see their opponent and so cannot gauge, in the moment, the exact effect of making a particular argument. They can’t see the moment of realization flash through an opponent’s eyes. They can’t feel their adversary tense up when a critical piece of information slips through. They don’t know the comfort that having allies brings to a tense situation because the only bodies they are aware of ~ in the very real physical sense ~ are the other players and the DM. All other persons are simply not real; and, unlike with a combat situation, there are no numbers assigned that help solidify these ephemeral constructs in the players’ minds.
This is a massive challenge for the DM to overcome. And players contribute to the effort because everyone at the table wants to get into the game, to become immersed in the fantasy, to pretend and feel that the scene is real.
How do we accomplish this? Because it is possible ~ players and DMs do it every day ~ and some efforts are more successful than others, suggesting that there is some combination of techniques and processes that are better than others at solving the problem.
Of course my position ~ demonstrated by a close examination of how the game functions in practice ~ is that you start with creating a character according to the mechanical rules of the game; you sit at the table and run through an adventure with your party; and then you concern yourself with identifying and understanding how your character thinks and acts.
But what comes after that?