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Many moons ago I got into a debate with a friend about whether Advanced Dungeons and Dragons’ 4th Edition combat rules really necessitated the complete retreat given to them in 5th edition, or whether Wizards of the Coast could have simply revised and patched the rules to make things snappier. One of my friend’s major points (among many) was that the combat in 4th edition lasted far too long- entire gaming sessions could be spent on the encounter with his group, and the new rules allowed for such things to be wrapped up rather quickly. I acknowledged the truth of his argument, having played several times with his group, but protested that other games with similar combat systems (thinking miniature games here) were able to resolve their own combat quickly without sacrificing the tabletop game element I’d enjoyed so much from 4th Edition. “But Tim,” I paraphrase my friend saying, “Dungeons and Dragons isn’t a miniatures game, it’s a ROLEPLAYING game.”
This comment set me back quite a bit. I’d never considered what I’d done within the combat system of 4th Edition to be anything less than roleplaying, albeit within the constraints of a large number of rules. I’d also never really thought of tabletop roleplaying games and tabletop gaming to be so different as to dismiss any cross-pollination within their rules. After all, aren’t games nothing more than systems of rules anyways? Let alone that Dungeons and Dragons, when first released, “billed itself as a wargame” and “[did] not include the construction ‘role-playing,’ which had its own prior history of employment”*; in short, even the progenitor of what we consider tabletop Roleplaying games did not, at first, consider itself to be so.
But my friend is not without merit. The reprinted copy of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition explained roleplaying games as being from “a category all their own that doesn’t overlap any other categories.” Another roleplaying game, Theatrix, only opted to include rules in order to satisfy what was treated as an arbitrary requirement to be called a “game.” And I do believe one would be hard pressed to really argue that there are no differences between tabletop roleplaying games and tabletop board games. The purpose of Role-playing, according to the small selection of books I sampled, does not sound very similar to any board games I have ever played. Theatrix calls roleplaying games “interactive, improvisational theater,” 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu refers to roleplaying as creating a “communal fantasy,” and Dog Eat Dog (which can be read about HERE true believers!) opines that roleplaying is “a little like improvisational theatre.” ADnD 2nd Edition offers, perhaps, the most elegant description of the difference:
“Another major difference between role-playing games and other games is the ultimate goal. Everyone assumes that a game must have a beginning and an end and that the end comes when someone wins. That doesn’t apply to role-playing because no one “wins” in a role-playing game. The point of playing is not to win but to have fun and to socialize.” – ADnD 2nd Edition 2013 Reprinting pg. 11
At the same time, though, I found even that description to be a bit wanting. I know plenty of games which constitute “roleplaying” through which a winner could be surmised. For example, I wouldn’t consider it a stretch to consider “The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen” to be a roleplaying game, especially since Boardgamegeek validates it, but Munchausen very clearly has a beginning and an end and someone wins. “Kagematsu” is an even more explicit roleplaying game, and it also has an end point with a declared winner. Is it, perhaps, that in those games Roleplaying is something in their mechanics rather than the genre to which they belong? Is that question even meaningful when talking about games, or are mechanics and genre essentially synonyms that describe the same thing?
Uninformed navel gazing aside, this is definitely a question that has caught my attention for the last few weeks, and so I would like to continue exploring it in future editorials. I simply find it fascinating to wonder where the boundaries of roleplaying games might end- if they do. Steve Jackson (the game designer) famously called Monopoly “pure roleplaying,” but does roleplaying a capitalist tycoon necessarily make the Monopoly a roleplaying game? If not, why? Are MegaGames roleplaying games, like LARPs without the foam? Hell, while we’re at it- if LARPing is Roleplaying, what do we make of historical reenactors?
Obviously this is a huge question that I will in no way be able to answer completely, but it is a question I am interested in investigating nonetheless. If you are interested in joining me, feel free to offer your own rhetorical questions in the comments! We’re very rhetorical question friendly here, as you can see…
Interested in seeing Tim and Seth play a roleplaying game while supporting a Children’s Hospital? Watch our 24 hour Stream of “Dogs in the Vineyard” (to be broken up with periodic boardgames, because we’re not insane)! Once again, we hope you enjoy the content we produce. If you do, please consider a small donation towards our Extra Life Charity Page- really, that’s the entire reason this site and our content exists- to help support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. We will be streaming our 24 hour marathon gaming session starting this Saturday, October 25th at 5:00 PM EST. The Streaming Site can be found at http://www.twitch.tv/aozain. 100% of ALL donations (no matter which team member you sponsor) go to support Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, Michigan.
* Jon Peterson, “Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games” – No page numbers because I bought a digital copy of the book, but the first quote is the first sentence in 3.2.1 and the second quote is in the Introduction, 2.75% of the way through the book.