Where Is This Going? I Don’t Know

Posted on Tuesday 31 January 2006

I had been meaning to post a This I Believe… concerning the whole prima donna actor as role-player thing for awhile now, but the fire just wasn’t there. Well it is now thanks to the Onion’s AV Club interview with Stephen Colbert of the excellent Colbert Report (the T is silent mutherfuckers). In it he talks about his role-playing experience which I repost for you here:

AVC: You were into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, were you not?

SC: Yeah, I really was. I started playing in seventh grade, 1977. And I played incessantly, ’til probably 1981—four years.

AVC: What’s the appeal?

SC: It’s a fantasy role-playing game. If you’re familiar with the works of Tolkien or Stephen R. Donaldson or Poul Anderson or any of the guys who wrote really good fantasy stuff, those worlds stood up. It’s an opportunity to assume a persona. Who really wants to be themselves when they’re teenagers? And you get to be heroic and have adventures. And it’s an incredibly fun game. They have arcane rules and complex societies and they’re open-ended and limitless, kind of like life. For somebody who eventually became an actor, it was interesting to have done that for so many years, because acting is role-playing. You assume a character, and you have to stay in them over years, and you create histories, and you apply your powers. It’s good improvisation with agreed rules before you go in.

I’m struck by two lines within one paragraph (which I emphasized for you). One I totally agree with them, but one points me to a phenomenom that drives me batty. Like crazy go nuts fucking batty. The kind of teeth grinding looney that is going ot leave me with nubs for molars in like ten years. It is the whole acting/role-playing dicotomy thing (I think that is the right word).

See he says acting is role-playing, which is right. Acting is the taking on of a role, which you portray to an audience of some sort. Role-playing games are not however, a form of acting. Not even close. Saying they are is like saying an tomatoe and an orange are the same cause they both are fruit. If that was true I would like fucking tomatoe juice when it is not in a Bloody Mary (which is the only form which tomatoe juice should be drank).

Yes, there are elements of acting involved in role-playing. I personally use shit I learned in college when I did a little acting. Things like visual and auditory marks. They are useful tools, particularly if you are a [insert alternate term for GM of your choice here]. However that shit ain’t acting. It is fucking around with friends and having a good time, not an Arthur Miller play.

But why does this vex me so? Cause the whole Role-playing versus roll-playing versus any game that has mechanical support for non-combat actions argument always devolves into some prima donna bullshit about the spirit of the character and other such nonsense. Yes it is fun to immerse yourself into a character. No doubt. I enjoy it. But it does not preclude you from having rules to govern non-combat conflicts. In fact it is needed more.

I mean tell me, how many of you have had to sit there while some asshole in the group role-played through buying shit or had to listen to someone’s long winded soliloquy while the rest of the group had to sit and watch. See, when a game has rules to govern this shit, it doesn’t stop it from happening. All it does is constrain that bullshit so everyone at the table can have fun, including the poor bastard who is tongue tied but likes the idea of playing the snarky diplomat.

I mean how is his ass supposed to play the character he made? Particularly when he is going up against that prima donna fucker who was in drama club in high school? With shit like a Duel of Wits is how, cause otherwise he is fucked. This is why we need those rules. So EVERYONE at the table can have a good time. Those who want to immerse can (cause fuck you mechanics don’t break that shit up). Those who are more interested in story can be (cause mechanics make this possible). And those who want to get ahead in the game world can too (cause god damn it, it is all about mechanics). A none of this happens at the expense of anyone elses fun.

You want to play actor, asshole? Go join fucking summer stock. This I Believe…

20 Comments for 'Where Is This Going? I Don’t Know'

    January 31, 2006 | 12:58 pm

    Yeah, I dislike resolving stuff via “acting it out” because really it’s just GM fiat with a lot of frosting.

    Now, what I think would be cool for the acting types would be a fortune-at-beginning kind of thing where first we figure out that my character betrays you, and then we act out the scene with that in mind, and any other parameters we set beforehand. That way if you’re an awesome actor, you can’t use your powers for evil.

    January 31, 2006 | 2:26 pm

    Keith wrote:
    With shit like a Duel of Wits is how, cause otherwise he is fucked. This is why we need those rules. So EVERYONE at the table can have a good time. Those who want to immerse can (cause fuck you mechanics don’t break that shit up). Those who are more interested in story can be (cause mechanics make this possible).

    While I understand your preference, any statement which starts with what RPGs “need” is wrong. RPGs don’t need dice, they don’t need a GM, they don’t need written rules, or anything else. You’re implying here that there is a one true approach which will make everyone who could possibly play happy — and frankly that’s crap.

    If I’m designing or running a game, I don’t have to make it fun for any possible person. I’m going to design to make a specific set of people happy, and if there are people who don’t like that then they should play another game. For example, there may be someone who don’t like Riddle of Steel because he wants to play a kick-ass fighter but can’t handle the involved combat system. This doesn’t mean that TRoS is broken — it means that it is not the right game for that player. Similarly, there’s no moral imperative that a tongue-tied guy needs to be able to successfully play a glib diplomat.

    As far as mixing in mechanics — fuck you, many mechanics do break that shit up. Look, I’ve played both dice-heavy narration-only games and larps with full make-up and costumes. I can go back and forth — but there is a noticeable difference, and I respect someone who prefers one as well as someone who prefers the other. (To Matt — This needn’t be GM fiat. “Acting it out” is resolution decided by the player who is controlling that character. There may or may not be a GM. In many larps, most or all such decisions will be made by players.)

    January 31, 2006 | 2:53 pm

    John Kim: Similarly, there’s no moral imperative that a tongue-tied guy needs to be able to successfully play a glib diplomat.
    If we say we want a group of people interested in the same premise to be able to sit down and address it at the gaming table, and one is - for the sake of argument - a classically trained British actor, and another is a misanthropic pseudo-Polack of dubious education and moral fibre, then we are obligated to see that I don’t always thrash Keith in a ’social’ conflict.

    January 31, 2006 | 3:54 pm

    Whether it’s obligated depends on players’ desires and the social contract. We’re obligated to make sure that Keith has input and can address premise, but we’re not obligated to make sure he has equal chances as all other players in social conflict. I don’t see how the latter makes sense. Even if we use a purely mechanical system, that doesn’t ensure that you can’t thrash Keith — since you could dump all your points into social stats.

    At least in principle, I (and others) have fun even when the PCs are unequal in particular fields. For example, I’ve had fun being the lower-class thug while someone else is the upper-class socialite with all the connections. Edwards would always “thrash” Grimmond in any social arena, yet the game was still fun and meaningful to me.

    Speaking personally for myself, I’m willing to accept that other players have different skills than me — and it is reasonable for them to use such skills in the game. For example, if another player is a better tactical thinker, then I don’t feel like we have to make sure that no tactical thought can have any effect. It may be fun for me to see his tactics, and I’d want to see them rewarded as well. It seems like an onerous limitation to make sure that no player skill shows through in the results of play. I like to allow for role-reversal, but sometimes it’s fun to let players show off their skills and shine.

    January 31, 2006 | 4:13 pm

    >Colbert Report (the T is silent mutherfuckers)

    Colbert Repor?

    January 31, 2006 | 4:45 pm

    For example, if another player is a better tactical thinker, then I don’t feel like we have to make sure that no tactical thought can have any effect. It may be fun for me to see his tactics, and I’d want to see them rewarded as well.

    If I’m playing Savage Worlds, then I’d accept and encourage tactics. If I’m playing The Mountain Witch, I’d be like shut up with the tactical crap already.

    If I’m playing GURPS or Unisystem… well, I wouldn’t be playing either except maybe if I was drunk or somehow tricked into signing something in blood.

    January 31, 2006 | 4:52 pm


    They actually do pronounce it “Colber Repor” — it’s a satirical show :)

    - Christian

    January 31, 2006 | 5:02 pm

    Matt wrote:
    If I’m playing Savage Worlds, then I’d accept and encourage tactics. If I’m playing The Mountain Witch, I’d be like shut up with the tactical crap already.

    Right. That’s what I’m saying — it depends on the game. If I’m playing in Savage Worlds, then I expect that acting isn’t going a part. On the other hand, if I’m playing Olle Jonsson’s The Upgrade or Neel Krishnaswami’s The Court of the Empress, then I expect that acting will play a part.

    January 31, 2006 | 5:08 pm

    This ties in to my recent thoughts on “Alpha roleplayers”

    You probably know the guy (or gal). Socially adept. “good Roleplayer”. Organiser. Gets people enthused about games. They can be creative at the drop of a hat. Get things moving. Drives a game and keeps it interesting. GMs a fair bit. Nice guy. Easy to get on with.

    Until you play with him and take a step back.

    Then you realise that they dictate. Hugely. In subtle ways. They impinge on the other guys fun, cos they’re good at everything. When it comes to “roleplay it out” they are king.

    The rules need to be there to protect everybody else from their dictates.

    The paradox is that the hobby can’t survive without Alpha Roleplayers, but actual play can suffer from them.

    I know. I am that guy.


    January 31, 2006 | 7:23 pm

    To both Matts, I say YES.

    This summarises my problem with “Floaty” play- its all dependent on who can work the social system of the group, whether that’s GM Fiat, or subtle nudges that put them in control- either way it doesn’t guarantee a fair chance at input by everyone.

    To Matt Machell-

    It seems like the social ability to organize and facilitate play requires the same skills that ultimately come out during “floaty” play, where the Alpha player also can apply leverage to control the game.

    The other thought is, that sometimes Alpha players develop because of situations where there is a lack of ability to push the group forward- for example, when the party can’t figure out to go left or right, usually someone steps up to engineer group cohesion and keep play moving forward. It’s not hard to figure out that after enough times of this, you’d grow into being the Alpha Player just so you can get 20 minutes of fun out of your 4 hours instead of none at all.


    January 31, 2006 | 8:11 pm

    Hm, how are you defining “floaty” play? Do you mean play without clear written rules and/or agreement? If so, I agree. A lot of fuzzy rules means that control goes to the person who is willing and able to toe the line of the social contract the most. Hence, the beef that I have with fuzzy rules like “Make up whatever trait you like” — and then frowning on a player who chooses a trait like “Lucky” which he can use everytime.

    However, I think you’re mixing up “acting out” and “unclear rules”. The rule of “Player X decides on all attempted actions by Character Y” is actually a very clear, hard rule. Some examples:
    1) Shared play-by-post fiction is non-acted-out, shared narration — but still rely on unclear social rules.
    2) A game like Olle Jonsson’s “The Upgrade” or Neel’s “Court of the Empress” use clear rules which are 100% acted out.

    The problem of dominant alpha player isn’t unique to either unclear rules or acting out characters. Hard rules don’t eliminate the possibility of dominance — they just expose how dominance happens. I’ve seen many hard-rules games where a single player takes over the game by knowledge and mastery of the rules.

    January 31, 2006 | 10:08 pm

    Matt Machell — I wrote Nine Worlds to make that guy — er, you — shut up.

    January 31, 2006 | 11:01 pm

    Hi John,

    The difference is whether the game is explicit about what needs to be mastered in order to get input. Your #1 example, and games where the mechanics can be suspended at anytime by GM fiat, both tend to get players who focus on non-crucial elements (realism, fidelity to setting, mechanics) when the real play input comes from being able to game the group at the table, or at least the GM. #2 games, on the other hand, make it very clear that this is the source of success without hiding it.

    The “floatiness” comes from not knowing how to engage input either because the rules text lacks it, or because the group has drifted away from (any) formal input structure.

    February 1, 2006 | 12:10 am

    I agree that boring assholes are bad. I, uh, don’t really think this has anything to do with acting. Players who won’t:

    * use and abide by the resolution mechanics
    * give space to the other players
    * work out of character to maximize fun for everybody

    aren’t being actors, they’re just being dicks — because actors that don’t do these things are bad actors who aren’t fun to be in shows with.

    (Actors have a resolution mechanic too. It’s called authorial fiat. An actor who can’t accept that his social group may decide on a way that things happen that doesn’t involve how well he’s playing his character or how badass his character is is just not a very good actor.)


    February 1, 2006 | 7:19 am

    I love me some good resolution mechanics. Well said, Keith.

    February 2, 2006 | 2:18 pm

    When it comes to “hard rules” vs. “roleplay it out” there is a huge shift in power. We have redistributed power, when we do things like move social arguments over to Duel of Wits.

    For most of us this is a good thing, as either we hated THAT GUY or hated ourselves being THAT GUY. However, there is something else to look at here: most of us are good at using rules in a similar way to how THAT GUY is good at using social aspects. Which, logically, means that…

    Yep. You got it. Because not everyone is equally good at using rules sets in order to drive or enforce their will in game, there will be people that will use Duels of Wits better than others and will use that to get their way in game more often than others.

    Some games, like Nine Worlds, are (usually) simple enough to minimize this. In Nine Worlds, for example, there is fairly little tactical play at the basic level (though once you get to green belt level and move from tactics to strategy the way you use points becomes very important in determining your effectiveness over the campaign term). But any game in which there is a degree of competition or step on up you will get an increasing ability for those who know the rules to dominate the game. For example, Burning Wheel in both Duel of Wits and Fight! is frequently cited as being so good because there is a degree to which the winner is influenced by PLAYER skill vs. PLAYER skill at figuring out what tactics the other guy is going to use.

    Now, I know there are a lot of good arguments for why we like the rules push better than the social push. If it is in the rules then it is out in the open and everyone can approach it openly, while things in the purely social sphere are often hidden, conflicted, and assumed and so cannot be approached so directly. The basis on rules strengths rather than social strengths shifts the game around to allow for different people to take on different roles in ways they might not be able to normally (i.e. my tongue-tied brother being able to play the Charisma monster), thus widening the scope of what they can use to address premise. However, there is another hand to all of these arguments – as those who could address things socially may not be good enough with the rules to address them there, and it is possible to build a social level that is open and healthy (becoming lumpley principle system) and which because of the degree of communication and maturity required to set it up actually makes the group more tightly bound because they had to work it out together rather than “front loading” something given to them by someone none of them have ever met.

    So we have redistributed the power, and done so in a way we like. That, however, does not mean that we have made all things equal. We’ve just change who can push and how. Lets be honest about the power dynamics going on behind the scenes.

    February 2, 2006 | 3:35 pm

    Been lapse in my responding to the comments here, so here is one big post to cover everyone from Matt up to Brand…

    Matt - Fortune at the beginning is likely a great aproach for the actor types. Conflict is resolved fairly, and they get to get their jones on. I dig…

    John - Fuck your anything that has need regarding RPGs is wrong statement. That itself is an ass-backwards statement. RPGs need rules. RPGs need Players. RPGs need a way to resolve conflicts, like I said. If it doesn’t have those things it ain’t RPGs.

    As to designing/running a game for folks, I was not talking about games should be designed to be all things. I was saying games should be designed so everyone can play and have fun, not just the actor fucks. Example is my BW group. Neil is a tactics guy and I am a bit of an actor/story guy. We both can get our jones on cause the game allows for Neil to be just as effective in an argument as I am, and I still get to be witty.

    As to the mixing mechanics shit, sure many mechanics break shit up. I probably should have said mechanics don’t have to break shit up. I didn’t, cause in my experience I have yet to see it break the immersion factor.

    Acting it out isn’t fair or equal resolution, which is what an RPG needs. We are talking about people, and some are better at shit than others. When we start excluding our friends cause they are tongue tied, we are being assholes. Designing a game that does this is just being the same kind of asshole as a designer.

    John (again) - We have to stop meeting like this. My wife is going to think something is up. Yes PCs can and will be unequal. We are NOT talking about PCs. We are talking about Players and their ability (by the mechanics available to them) to address the premise, which they can’t do if it is all about fucking who can make the audience laugh or cry. You own example about dumping stats into social skillz is what I am talking about. If I am a tongue tied fucker, I can do that if I want to play Cassanova.

    It isn’t about excluding player skillz man. It is about not letting those skillz overshadow the other folks at the table.

    Matt Machell - Right on man. I’ve long held that game tables are akin to pack minded predators, with an Alpha on down to Omega. The idea is to keep Alpha fucker from gnawing on the necks of everyone else…

    Chris - I think solid mechanics that put Players on even footing can help to mitigate this floaty play you speak of. I think it still falls onto the social contract, which in many cases involves the GM being the Alpha, being aware of it, and using that knowledge for good instead of evil.

    William - Welcome and all that shit. You’re a new face. I’m speaking about the actor bullshit and how it relates to roll vs. role bullshit argument about mechanics. Almost every discussion that I have had with folks who think mechanics are bad fall on the whole, “we must R.O.L.E. play,” which I think is crap.

    I agree with your three points totally. I am just calling those fuckers actors.

    Brand - As Alexander likes to point out, I am a man of dubious education, so I going to try and reply to you stuff on power as best I know how…

    Social mechanics do not preclude those who are not tactic-minded from being effective in addressing premise. I am that guy when it comes to mechanics. I am terrible at BW fighting, which is why I gravitate to the Duel of Wits stuff. Why? Cause it is a frame work for what I would be doing anyway, and now it gives me not only mechanical weight for my bullshit and a satisfying way or resolving said bullshit, but it also gives me the opportunity to try using that bullshit in losing situations.

    A prime example is when I lost a Duel of Wits with a smuggler we where looking for passage from. If the GM just said no to me after playing out the scene I would be pissed off with the results. However, I lost in the argument, which had me scramble for a great walk away fuck you line and led to me telling the tale of a dastardly pirate everywhere I went. Without that mechanical push, we wouldn’t have had the memorable scene, and I wouldn’t have been forced to use my creative muscles.

    I have no idea if I answered/replied to everyone’s points. If I didn’t call me on that shit guys…

    February 2, 2006 | 4:28 pm

    I just lost a long response. Damn internet.


    You’re onto the same page I’m on, but we aren’t quite looking in the same direction yet. What I am saying doesn’t have to do with you — you can find ways to be happy without having the same ability to push the game. That’s cool. Of course, its also almost word for word something I’ve heard those who like the acting/social game say about not being as good of an actor.

    When you say that “explicit rules give everyone the chance to address premise” — this is partly true. It does do so, but it doesn’t let everyone do so equally. Also, lack of such rules doesn’t mean everyone cannot address premise, it just means they have to find different mechanisms to do so.

    In either case some people will have more power than others, because they are better at using the system at hand (be it mechanics or social based). One does not make everyone equal, and the other does not make everyone unequal. Power gets distributed either way, and the ability to use the system decides how that power gets distributed. If you’re better at using Duel of Wits, or just more comfortable doing it, you will have more ability to do your thing (win or lose the actual duel) than the person who feels out of control and on the spot every time they step up.

    We (and I mean that, as I feel I am on the same side as you in the issue) feel comfortable and more equal with the explicit mechanical rules. Others do not. At that point it becomes almost a paradigmatic split, which I’m talking about over on Yud’s dice.

    So to try to boil this all down to something almost comprehensible: we need to focus our talk in terms of “better for supporting this type of play in this way with these sorts of people” – because blanket statements hide the actual human dynamics of what makes systems work and not work in specific situations. For you, me, Matt, Mat, Ron, and a whole lot else, the explicit mechanics work, and the acting doesn’t. For others, however, the acting does.

    So the question then becomes: why, how, when, who, what, where….

    February 3, 2006 | 11:51 am

    On the Acting = Roleplaying thing, you gotta remember that the omnibus of things that make up “Acting” is far broader than “Dude on camera saying lines.” Especially when you’re talking about somebody with a strong writer/actor background like Stephen Colbert, who is a Second City alumnus — when he says “acting” he is talking about a set of activities that is, indeed, very similar to roleplaying. Is acting in the school play like roleplaying, what with memorizing lines and trying to look cool in your costume? Hell no. But stand-up improv? Lots closer.

    February 8, 2006 | 2:29 pm

    i’m always late to the party. i figured i would let the dogs fight it out and then slide in and pick off the carrion bones.

    keith - i’m not sure why capital A “Actors” really feel like they have much in common with roleplaying. of course there are elements of similarity. a lot of games make reference to roleplay being like “improv acting.” but it’s not. the form is different and the methods for resolving scenes are different.

    i know a lot of the “Actors” i used to play games with either figured out that gaming can involve performance but that it’s not acting, or now refuse to play any game that encroaches on their ability to be theatrical.

    many of my friends balk at social conflict resolution mechanics, and often other rules that impact their free-form performance. honestly, i try not to play with them too much because we have different definitions of what’s fun.

    at the same time, the reward mechanics of certain games or gaming environments can reward the best “performance” at the table (i recall our dreamation game of Mortal Coil where the “bonus tokens” went to those who were the most entertaining). i’m not sure if that encourages or discourages the “Actors” into the false perception that gaming is about acting.

    i recognize that a lot of Rennaisance-Faire rejects like Alexander “I Know Orlando Bloom” Newman role-play because they can’t get real acting jobs.
    he’s also one of those folks who are good “Actors” and also good roleplayers - they know that the game isn’t about their performance, and know when to tune it down. they recognize that the dice are going to hit the table and make what they just acted out ~matter~ in a mechanical way.

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