“Role” vs. “Roll” playing – Weighing the Balance
I don’t know if they do it anymore, but back in the days before the internet, people used to put up posters with little tear-tabs in their local gaming store saying things like “GM willing to run Traveller, Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition or Champions – Emphasis on Role Playing and Character Development.” Presumably that was meant to imply that the standard sop walking around playing RPG’s was all crunch and into smashing things, killing important NPC’s, and generally making the line between monsters and PC’s thinner and grayer.
I was one of those guys (the sign guys, not the smash guys). Guys who would roll their eyes at the way people treated the game like series of carefully designed murders, despite having come from a fairly hack and slash origin in my gaming upbringing. And honestly, there wasn’t much to the games back then. D&D had attributes and non-weapon proficiencies, but if all you did was stab stuff, there wasn’t much to differentiate one fighter from another. You really were only getting like 20% out of the game if you were just killing orcs and not playing a character.
Some games, like GURPs and HERO rewarded you for taking on disadvantages, but those were exceptions to the general rule. If you didn’t role-play and do it with gusto, you were basically missing out on the point, and just tossing randomizers and getting feedback with numerical plusses and minuses.
However, with the d20 system coming out in early 2000, suddenly there was this magnificent technical aspect to combat that was tactical, relevant, and combined the importance of role-play with the importance of mechanical mastery of the game. Games were literally won by inches, flanking maneuvers, and so on. Plus, a character could be built to have a very unique skill set, coupled with feats that make one rogue very different than most others. Pathfinder has built on this tradition, and still plays that way. But notably, people deficient at the “Roll” part of the game started to catch as much crap as those who used to ignore the “Role” part.
So what’s the balance? I found my perspective change a few years ago when I played a few games with a fellow who had designed a game where there was no possibility of failure. A game where the narrative was the driving factor and a failure on F.U.D.G.E dice (showing only plusses, minuses or blanks) resulted in complications, but never a failure. The idea intrigued me, seeming to be the distillation of everything I thought important in an RPG. His game was 99% role-playing and 1% technical ‘roll’ play. However, after playing a few games, I realized that something was missing…. Something I never really thought was part of the game that I loved:
Total abject TPK failure was something I longed for. The mechanics, I started to realize, gave me restrictions that forced me to narrow my focus and restrain my potential in ways that made things interesting. And the grit of combat mechanics created limits which structured the way I played the game into more meaningful transactions. Not just data being exchanged, but actual tactics. Meaningful choices in mechanics inspired by the color of character.
So where’s the balance? We’ve been playing our way through a couple higher level campaigns, and sometimes these combats can slow to a frustrating grind. On the other hand, sometimes the unique and random situations that arise from those combats create really memorable events that advance the story. Everyone values a different aspect of that experience, and there are certainly lots of games out there that give a different balance of the “roll’ versus the “role”. Finding the one you like is a matter of trying different games with different people. Somewhere, there’s a perfect balance for you, depending on your taste. The only problem you might discover is finding a group of people like you that can meet to play that favorite game.
Maybe those tear-tabs weren’t such a bad idea after all.