Recently I saw a comment on Questing Beast’s video review of Witchburner, which made me quite sad.
“Over the course of about ten sessions, this game sucked all of the joy out of that initial burst of creative energy and made her [the GM] doubt her ability to run a game. after reading through the book myself, I had to come to the conclusion that I don’t think this would be an easy or fun game to run straight for a GM of any experience.”—Anonymous
I doubt anyone writes a roleplaying book to suck joy and confidence out of people. I certainly don’t.
In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not the book itself that leaves people dissatisfied, but a mindset that is quite common:
“a … game to run straight.”
I’ve seen people argue for roleplaying “rules as written” (RAW) and for running adventures “as written.”
I think this is impossible.
Not in the sense of “a hard thing to do” or “something I am not capable, but others are capable of”. No, I mean impossible quite literally.
The nature of roleplaying means that any roleplaying product is incomplete “as written”.
I guess the confusion happens because roleplaying is usually seen and sold as “roleplaying games”. It fits close to board games.
But the two are very different.
Board games are closed: players have a goal (defined by the rules) and procedures (defined by the rules) to achieve that goal. A good board game has clear rules that are easy to follow. A player can win a board game by mastering the rules and using the procedures better than other players. A player who does not follow the rules is a cheater or a bad player.
Roleplaying is open: players choose a goal (sometimes suggested by a playbook) and can use procedures (sometimes defined by the rules) to achieve that goal. Or they can just talk and invent other procedures. A good roleplaying experience can be had entirely without games, defined procedures, or rules. A player can’t win at roleplaying unless having a good time with friends is “winning”. A player doesn’t become a better roleplayer by mastering the rules and using the game procedures better than other players. Often this makes them annoying to other players (a “rules lawyer”). A player who does not follow the rules is not necessarily a cheater (the rules may be irrelevant) or a bad player.
Parts Of A Roleplay
Although rpgs include the word “games”, roleplaying is more like [collaborative] theatre or a poetry session. Board games are games, but roleplaying can happen without games.
What do I mean?
To illustrate, I’ll try and break the act of roleplaying into pieces. This isn’t some kind of global theory—it’s just how I think of roleplay.
The session: a discrete time when a group of people are roleplaying versus doing other stuff, like work or sleep or playing backgammon.
The table: the shared experience of one group of roleplayers playing one or more sessions together. A metaphor.
- The players: folks getting together to invent stuff, play roles in a shared imaginary setting, and improvise what their roles do.
- The roles: the imaginary characters, forces, factions or what have you played by the players.
- The setting: a shared imaginary world in which the roleplay happens. May be based on a published work, a novel, a game setting, or an adventure module.
- The rules: agreed-upon shared procedures for playing. May include games. May include chance or randomness. May be based on a published rule book.
- The story(ies): reveals itself at the end of a session. It grows from the players’ decisions and their consequences. A story can be very different from any one player’s plan or plot for how a session will unfold.
These parts of roleplay are mostly without games.
One can imagine it as improv theatre that uses a game, a roll of the dice perhaps, to determine which character wins a sword duel. The dice are necessary: if the actors had a real fight, only someone trained in sword-fighting could ever win, which would be boring.
Games only intrude into roleplaying when fate or chance is needed to reveal the story.
Game Books As Play Scripts
All roleplaying books are to a roleplaying session a little bit like what a script is to a play.
Reading a Shakespeare play might be enjoyable, but it’s very different from seeing one performed, much less performing in one. And every performance of a play needs interpretation: parts and deliveries fitted to the actors, tone and emphasis adjusted to the audience, costumes and scenes prepared to enthral here and now. And, during the performance, the players are best when they read the room and play to the audience.
Reading a roleplaying adventure module is similar, but the players are both performers and audience (and need less practice). The players preparing a session interpret a module: fit roles and characters to the players, adjust themes to suit mood and tastes, cut scenes that won’t work, and—again—read the room and play to the audience.
Just like a script, neither a rule book nor an adventure module is a game or roleplaying by itself. The roleplaying is the living activity, the performance. Games are incidental for moving the play forwards.
A roleplaying book tries to anticipate how a session or sessions will work. It provides scenes, events, obstacles, choices, dilemmas, characters, and so on. A good roleplaying book will try to provide more tools for the players to cover more eventualities.
But, every roleplaying book is limited in three ways:
First, it is a product of its time and place and author. Every time a different group of players uses it, they are translating it to their own circumstances. This means the book changes unpredictably every time it is brought to a table.
Second, it is limited in how much information it can store and transmit. Each book leaves out things on purpose. This is a decision by the people making it. They can try to guess what will be helpful, but they never have perfect knowledge.
Finally, it is limited by the nature of roleplaying as an art form. Every player at a table can push and pull a session in unexpected directions. The way a session moves will surprise even other players. The author of a roleplaying book has no hope of guessing where every session or any session will go.
I know there’s some division. Some people enjoy structured roleplaying sessions that are a lot like board games. Others enjoy very fluid sessions, which are a lot like a writer’s room. Yet others want a preplanned storyline, like playing a screenplay.
I didn’t write this post to say that one is better than the other. Each is a tool—a playstyle that can be deployed for different effects at the table.
The Unwritten Blessing
The open nature of roleplaying is a liberation for playful imagination.
No roleplaying product needs to be used “just so” as written for every participant to have a good time.
A player running the material does not have to memorize all the material and all the rules. By adapting and improvising, they make the game unique to their table, more creative, and closer to their players.
A role player does not have to stick precisely to a character or storyline. They create unique characters with unpredictable story arcs and shared experiences that belong just to them and their table by adapting and improvising.
A writer or game designer does not need to write a perfectly plotted module or a rule system where every rule locks into a flawless structure. Providing a toybox of procedures, guides, rules, moods, ideas, story seeds, characters, complications, scenes, and events gives the players a sandbox in which they can play to their hearts’ content and create stories no one author could dream of.
Never As Written
Hence my call to all roleplayers. Embrace the NAW.
Writers and designers should accept that they cannot provide a total roleplaying experience.
Players should accept that every rulebook and adventure module is a skeleton that they must animate and make their own at their table.
The meat and motion of roleplaying emerge over and again with each session and cannot be predicted or bottled with inks and papers.
Finally, for anyone running or playing any of my settings or adventures: I’m just a person who puts words and pictures and toys together on a page. I’m no omniscient sage with a secret plan that can reveal a perfect roleplay. None of my works is perfect. None should be run as written.
There is no perfection, only the roleplaying that comes to life with every session when some friends sit down to imagine they were someone else, somewhere else, embarking on some quest with ends unknown. Players that fit their roleplaying to themselves will have a kind of perfection.
Merry Games, y’all
Communication Post Script
And one last injunction: if a roleplaying session is not enjoyable, the players should stop playing and discuss why. Should an event be retconned? Should the rules and modules be changed? Are the players exhausted and would prefer some simpler fare, like Ticket to Ride?
Roleplaying is a language game, and language is often about communication. And sometimes, some games or plays just don’t work for some people at a particular time. And that’s perfectly ok. It’s ok to say when something doesn’t work for a person: that’s how folks figure out what works. After all, any time a group of friends do something together, they’re balancing and compromising and finding common ground, and that’s the joy (and often annoyance) of the human condition.
Clarification Post Script
Some feedback I received suggested that I was lowering the bar for adventure design with this post. This could not be further from the truth, but – in a tragic way, this misunderstanding of my intent illustrates my point:
Every written text, on its journey from author to medium to reader, suffers information loss. Roleplaying, as a performance style of play, inevitably suffers more information loss than a book or a board game because it has more layers of interpretation between the designer and the eventual play experience.
There is an inevitable gap between idea, intent, and execution. Every rpg product is thus necessarily incomplete and doomed to failure. It can still be good. It should be good.
A buyer and a player have a right to expect a good product. But – every rp product will fail at some point: there will be edge cases, gaps, openings. And these are necessary to the structure of roleplaying.
That’s my point.
It’s like books. The best book possible will still end with things unsaid. And it will, of course, end. The failure is part of the necessity of its existence.
The ideal roleplaying adventure will be written in such a way that it is easy to pick up and play with minimal preparation. It will be enjoyable today and the sixty years later. It will work out of the box. It will have a wide audience. It will be memorable, and fun, and bring friends closer together.
But, even this adventure will still have gaps and failings. It will be impossible to run as written. Words will change. Ideas will fall out of fashion. Jokes will not work anymore. Styles of play will change. The cultural context will be different.
Players will inevitably be exhausted by the gaps in the adventure. Because players are different. They will come with different concepts. A writer does not start a novel by explaining how gravity works, but someday a reader on a space station may be confused by many novels of Old Earth.
An adventure will assume a certain play style and leave “obvious” things out – because to repeat obvious things is boring. leave some things out. Then, people from a different play tradition will have problems.
A 20 year old player from Virginia and a 40 year old player from Slovakia and a 60 year old player from Travancore will inevitably read the same text differently at the same time. And parts of it will fail unpredictably.
Ideally, a roleplaying product will address as many issues and leave as few gaps as possible. But, this is a matter of practice, experience, and fit. Unfortunately, the solutions to this issue—of inevitable rpg failure—do not scale. They are at the levels of individuals and tables.
I hope to address some possible solutions in a future post. Roughly, a writer learns from their mistakes and does better in later products (my personal hope as a game designer), a player learns from their experiences and chooses materials that suit their tastes, and a table (and especially the player running a session) figures out what and how to adapt.
But that’s another topic and a future post.
-L. // Fri Nov 5 17:09 //
Thank you, heroes,for the cookies.
of the stratometaship